Here is an itinerary that will allow you to go thru all the must-visit cities in Central Europe.
We spent 9 intense days in Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, all located in central Europe and which together form the Visegrád group. For the sake of speed (or laziness!), I will summarize in this single article our entire visit to Central Europe. These countries have the shared characteristic of having been part of the Eastern bloc and placed under the control of the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War, until its collapse in the late 90s. It has therefore only been just under 30 years since the market economy was established in these countries. And understandably we could sense that time hasn’t yet completely healed the legacy of the old Soviet regime. Our passage through these countries, which have influenced modern history so profoundly, moved us. I’ll share some of my impressions below, which by definition are subjective. Please don’t misjudge any generalizations in my comments.
The Must-Visit Cities in Central Europe
We arrived in Bratislava from Vienna, Austria. The journey took us less than an hour, as it seems these two capitals are the closest in the world. Crossing the border from Austria to Slovakia is like crossing the border from Ontario to Quebec: the steering wheel starts to vibrate and the shock absorbers get to work. On certain parts of the flat road we even felt like we were on a roller coaster. It makes you question whether there is a correlation between the existence of socialist politics and the poor state of the roads. OK, bad joke aside, this was the first experience of poverty that we’ve come across since we started our trip around the world … except in France.
From the road to Bratislava, we could see tall, grey apartment blocks and cement monuments and other structures depicting soviet propaganda. We literally felt like we were in Rocky IV, when Balbao goes to Russia to confront Drago. You get the idea.
After emerging from the underground parking at the centre of Bratislava, we made our way to the centre of town and we were surprised to find very few people on the streets! Apart from three main roads into the centre of town and the road leading to Bratislava castle, the rest of the city centre was very quiet and easy to visit. Bratislava is not necessarily considered as a top tourist destination, but in the height of summer, we’d expected to come across more foreigners. We saw a group of Chinese tourists, but that was about it.
We thought Bratislava was charming. The city centre is beautiful and clean, and the restaurants are extremely affordable. We spent a very pleasant afternoon there, far from the hubbub that we’ve become used to in other European cities during the summer.
We then went to Budapest in Hungary for the night, but Bratislava was not our sole experience of Slovakia. When travelling to Poland from Budapest, we had to cross the country from South to North : a journey which took us almost 6 hours. We had the option to traverse the country when returning to Austria via Czech Republic : we could’ve done it in 6 ½ hours but we would have had to cover an extra 200km. Oh yes, the Slovakian highway infrastructure is still largely undeveloped, with only 4 motorways in the whole country. We therefore had the pleasure of driving the sinuous, winding country roads, and seeing many different towns and villages.
Our “very subjective” impression was that the towns were very industrialized, but agriculture and trading was not yet very developed outside urban areas. We often asked ourselves what people do to survive in these rural areas, where all the houses sadly resembled the grey-cement apartment blocks we saw in Bratislava, but adapted for the countryside. I don’t want to imagine how people lived during the communist era.
The North of Slovakia is however magnificent with its dense forests and mountainous terrain, and seemed wealthier than the south of the country, probably due to its proximity to Poland.
Budapest is a seductive and fascinating city. Historically influential, rich in culture and heritage, it is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Known as “the pearl of the Danube”, the city offers an exceptional panoramic view from the hills of the west bank of the Danube.
We arrived in Budapest after having visited Bratislava. Now we can claim to have set foot in three capital cities in a single day, as we had departed from Vienna earlier that morning. Like in Slovakia, we had the opportunity to explore the countryside and suburbs leading up to capital. And again like in Slovakia, we were able to see traces of the communist past, but to a lesser extent than in Slovakia. While walking through some suburbs of Budapest, Jessica pointed out to me that it felt like being in Mexico, seeing all the rustic and degraded buildings. I also told her that there were also some similarities with Montreal, specifically due to the amount of potholes in the road.
We rented an Airbnb in a suburb of Budapest for 3 nights and as the public transport was not easily accessible, we decided to take the car into town, where it was easy to find parking.
Of the 4 countries, Poland is our favorite. When crossing the border from Slovakia to Poland, we noticed a huge difference. The gloomy concrete box-houses had disappeared. They were replaced by large wooden chalets with 3 floors, separated by dozens of metres, with gardens and flowering balconies. It all seemed more beautiful and well organised. Having no expectations at all regarding Poland, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of development of this country.
When we briefly passed through Poland from Germany to refuel the car before returning to Berlin, we were very surprised to find ‘makeshift markets’ on the Polish side of the border which indicated that the Germans go to Poland to stock up on cigarettes, alcohol and fuel. How ironic considering that German’s western neighbors cross into Germany to get food and fuel!
Life in Poland is remarkably cheap. As proof, we only paid 40,00 EUR (46.88 USD) per night for this luxury apartment in the centre of the capital, Krakow, which is one of the best places we’ve stayed in until now.
Did you know that there are more than 1000 sites listed as World Heritage sites by UNESCO? Did you also know that only 12 sites were registered at the first council meeting in 1978? Among these 12, two are found in Poland : the historic town centre of Krakow and the salt mines of Wieliczka. We visited both and were captivated by their their charm. Our time in Poland definitely made us want to come back discover more!
I visited Auschwitz concentration camp alone, Jessica preferred to stay at the apartment with the kids. I showed her one photo when I returned, and she had tears in her eyes and didn’t want to see the other photos. There are two camps to visit. Auschwitz 1, the main camp, is now an open-air museum with exhibition rooms in the converted barracks. Auschwitz 2, or Birkenau, is a concentration and extermination camp which has been left untouched and is most impressive as it is ENORMOUS: 2,5km x 2km.
I believe it is crucial to know and remember our history in order to have a concrete view on the world that surrounds us, and therefore to elect the best leaders for our country. People forget the past and history has been repeated dozens of times since 1945, and is still being repeated today, with total impunity and without anyone lifting a finger, least of all our politicians who are complicit in these atrocities. Man is so made that he does not learn from his mistakes.
We were won over by the Czech Republic. Of the 4 countries, the Czech Republic seems to be the best equipped for the future. It’s a rich country, culturally speaking, and knows how to use its assets to attract tourists and develop more rapidly than its neighbours in the East.
We stayed in Brno for the night on our way from Krakow to Prague. We had no previous expectations about the town but we left it having spent many memorable moments there. Brno is the second largest city in the Czech Republic after Prague. The famous Napoleonic battle of Austerlitz took place just a few kilometres east of Brno.
I have to admit that our hotel was largely responsible for our enthusiasm! Our status with Marriott allowed us to stay in one of the most beautiful suites in the Courtyard Marriott Brno, which we reserved using our points. As it was only ranked as a Category 2 hotel, out of a possible 9 categories, I definitely wasn’t expecting extreme luxury. So it was a pleasant surprise when we set foot in the huge, chic lobby and discovered that a beautiful suite awaited us on the 15th floor. I’ll leave it to you to discover more.
I’m heartbroken to say that I left Prague with slight bitterness. Have you ever had great expectations about a place, and upon visiting it felt like asking, “is this it?” That’s what happened to us in Prague. Don’t get me wrong; Prague is by all means an extraordinary city with fabulous architecture. However, as I’d heard so many good things about the city, I expected to be in ecstasy, and I was disappointed to find things not as I’d imagined them. I have to say the hordes of tourists on every square centimetre of the street did not help. There were so many that we were literally trampled on several occasions! Not ideal when you’re trying to take photos! I did, however, still manage to take a few pictures without too many people.
Karlovy Vary (or Carlsbad) is a spa town famous for its hot water springs ( up to 72° C ) and for its hot water river. It’s a superbly beautiful and rich city with an incredible density of 4 and 5-star hotels. It really is an exceptional destination.
For a better preparation
The 9 days we spent in central Europe can be broken down in the following way:
- ½ day in Bratislava (Slovakia)
- 2 ½ days in Budapest (Hungary)
- 2 days in Krakow (Poland)
- ½ day in the concentration camps of Auschwitz (Poland)
- ½ day in the salt mines of Wieliczka (Poland)
- ½ day in Brno (Czech Republic)
- 2 days in Prague (Czech Republic)
- ½ day in Karlovy Vary (Czech Republic)
The car we used to get around was the Opel Corsa that we rented in Berlin.
When we had the opportunity, we took public transport, like here in Prague.
Fun times for kids
The kids had two favourite pastimes: lounging for hours in the hotel swimming pools and exploring Lego shops – they each have their own Lego passport which they can have stamped in every official Lego store that we visit. As it was around their birthdays, we spent hours in Lego shops contemplating Lego constructions, like in Hamleys in Prague. I loved seeing their eyes marvel at the life-size figurines of super-heroes and the mega-ultra-super-cool Lego installations, which must have required thousands of hours of patience! The Lego exhibition in Prague covered over 1000 m2.
A common dish found in all 4 countries was goulash, which is prepared differently according to the region, and which we greatly enjoyed.
In Slovakia there is also Bryndzové Halušky (do you really think I typed that?! No, I simply copied and pasted)!
Le trdelnik, in Prague, was a real favourite among tourists.
With the cost of living at approximately 60% that of France, these 4 countries were among the most affordable that we’ve visited on our world trip.
Apart from in Slovakia where the currency is the Euro, we had to convert our Euros into local money in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. The foreign exchange bureaus in these countries are so crude that exchange fees were minimal, and so it wasn’t worth us withdrawing money from an ATM.
Seeing as we had rented the car to travel to Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, I calculated our expenses as a proportion of our time spent in Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic (9 days).
I thought it would be useful to convert all our expenses into Euros to make bookkeeping easier. In the end, the real cost of our stay in Central Europe for our family of 4 amounted to:
- 1.147,00 EUR (1,344.17 USD)
- 127,44 EUR (149.35 USD) per day
- 31,86 EUR (37.34 USD) per person per day.
In detail :
|Expense Category||Amount Spent|
|Accomodation||348,00 EUR / 407.82 USD|
|Transport (including gas, toll, parking)||368,00 EUR / 431.26 USD|
|Eating out||234,00 EUR / 274.22 USD|
|Groceries||93,00 EUR / 108.99 USD|
|Activities||104,00 EUR / 121.88 USD|
|Total||1.147,00 EUR / 1,344.17 USD|
In a nutshell
|Dates||2018-08-02 to 2018-08-11|
|Number of days||9|
|Inbound||From Vienna, Austria by car|
|Outbound||To Dresden, Germany by car|
|Mode of transport||Rental car|
|Distance travelled (car & foot)||1634 km|
|Number of photos taken||3500 (388 per day)|
|Currency||Slovakia : the Euro (1.00 USD)
Hungary : the Florint (1.00 USD = 304,62 HUF)
Poland: the Zloty (1.00 USD = 3,93 PLN)
Czech Republic : the Koruna (1.00 USD = 21.68 CZK)
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