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Over approximately 10 days, we drove through parts of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and touched south-western Poland for one sole purpose – to visit the camps at Auschwitz.
The Czech Republic and Hungary have quite a few stunners to satisfy a 10, 15 or 20 day itinerary, and in the sections below, there are suggestions on adjacencies that you can cover if you have more time, and better weather.
The map shows the route we took – landing in Prague, driving south to the Austrian border, and then continuing east towards Budapest. From Budapest, we ventured north into Slovakia, headed further east to Poland before completing the loop towards Prague.
Option 1 – Less time (O1): If you have fewer days, or would like to give more time to some of the bigger cities, you can fly into Prague and fly out of Budapest, though check with car rental agencies for cross-country deposit fees which may run steep (not a problem if you are taking the train).
Option 2 – Less time (O2): Another option for either fewer days or spending time at the big cities is to skip Poland (Auschwitz) entirely and drive back from Bratislava to Prague, skipping the possibly steep rental fees. Shown as O3 in the map.
Option 3 – More time (O3): You can add parts of Austria if you had 2 days or more. Starting with the camps at Mauthausen (especially if you want to skip the driving to Poland), the grand Abbey at Melk and of course, Vienna (if you have 3+ days to add).
Option 4 – More time (O4): Other places shown as Orange markers on the map (e.g., Bokod or Visegrad in Hungary, Krakow in Poland, or Cesky Sternberk and other castles in Czech) can be added to the itinerary to round out more time.
As with most of north/central Europe, the best time to visit is in the shoulders of Spring and Fall (May-early June, late September-October).
The peak of summer is packed with tourists, expensive, sells out fast, and hot as an oven, especially late June through early September.
The peak of late December is similarly expensive, sells out fast, cold, and packed (though only in the big cities, because of the Christmas markets – the countryside and smaller towns are just spectacularly quaint and serene, with a little bit of Christmas cheer thrown in). The temperatures are bearable – they start becoming extreme early January and run through end of Feb.
As with every place we visit, we drove. Driving allows you to see the country more intimately, and in our opinion, is the most convenient, comfortable, intimate and safe way to travel as a family. No stress of getting ready on time to catch a train, no complications around whether baggage will fit, or packing oh-so tightly every day as you train travel from one place to another wasting precious hours going to and from the station, and complete freedom on where to go, how late to stay back, and when to stop.
We rented a car in Prague (automatic, mid-size) and did the loop back. We did not drive in Prague (and suggest the same for you), choosing to see the city after returning the car first and then spending time in Prague car-free. Driving within Budapest was no different than driving in a medium-large city in the US (e.g., San Diego). Even so, we decided to mostly park the car at our hotel for the 3 days in Budapest and take cabs for convenience.
Tip (2018 info): There is Uber in Prague and it is the only way to travel. Watch out for local cab drivers. There is no Uber in Budapest but cabs are plentiful and reasonable.
Here is a rough outline of our visit, with further details in the following blog posts. If you want a detailed map of every day, with every nook, corner, alleyway, monument, restaurant outlined on the map, please ping us, and we will email you a .kml that you can open up and explore in Google Maps.
We landed in Prague late-afternoon, picked up our car and headed straight to Hrad (Castle) Karlstejn – a 45 minute drive from the airport. We decided to just view it from the outside, given our time constraints. The town is a fine place to visit and view this famous castle, but the one viewpoint that is absolutely gorgeous and a local secret is at these coordinates.
Park at the end of the road shown as the Orange dot. There is no parking lot, the road just ends. You will feel you have reached nothing. Then take the slightly inclined mud trail from this point (to your left, if you followed the road) till you reach the meadow shown by the marker. Its a 5-8 minute walk and the view is worth millions.
After visiting Karlstejn, we drove straight towards Ceske Budejovice – the birthplace of the famous beer Budweiser. You can choose to take a factory tour, but given the time crunch, we just saw the factory from outside and decided to have the local brew (Budweiser Budvar – only available in this town) at a local restaurant. The restaurant, Pansky Senk, was quaint, intriguing, had excellent local food and ambience, was built in the 13th century AD, and is highly recommended. Our hotel, Clarion Congress, was a typical modern American-style hotel – clean, with the standard amenities, with nothing to complain about and nothing to rave about either.
A quick tour of the Hluboka Castle in the morning, then a drive down to the fairy-tale town of Cesky Krumlov where you can spend your afternoon and have dinner too if you choose. The view of the bend in River Vltava from the top of the castle is to die for – and could also be literal, as the fall from those ramparts could be precipitous if you are not careful in your selfies.
After Krumlov, we drove into Austria and stayed midway at Tulln, towards our journey into Hungary. Diamond City Hotel at Tulln was gorgeous, though one has many options on the outskirts of Vienna to choose from.
Option 4 additions to this part of the trip include –
- Mauthausen Concentration Camp: If you plan on skipping Auschwitz, Mauthausen is another very sombre place to visit and walk through the atrocities of that era. Just like Auschwitz, this is very very difficult to handle emotionally.
- Melk Benedictine Abbey: A massive abbey on the banks of a fat and lazy Danube is picturesque personified.
- Vienna: This is a 2+ day detour and a topic in of itself.
Driving into Hungary from Austria, you pass miles of open farmland before taking a detour towards Bokod. The road quality takes an immediate hit compared to Austria especially on the backroads of Hungary, but its still sparsely populated and an easy drive.
The town of Bokod is about 50 miles west of Budapest, and has more than two miles of cabins and cottages suspended on stilts over Lake Bokodi. The lake, despite the frigid Hungarian winters, rarely freezes over because the heated waters from the nearby thermal power plant are shed directly into this lake.
The location of these houses is pretty remote and not easily marked. Looking at the surroundings on Google Maps, you will find an unpaved road encircling the lake, which you should take and park wherever you can. A short 2-3 minute walk will get you to the lakeshore and the spectacular views.
After spending hours near this lake, we headed into majestic Budapest and parked our car at our hotel, the Millenium Court by Marriott. A little dated, the hotel had 3 plusses – a decent parking lot, a location right next to the Danube promenade (if you get the Intercontinental, that should be your first choice), and a very large suite with 2 bedrooms. Plus, there was a KFC right across the street creating unbridled joy in our kids.
Day 4, Day 5:
For the next 2.5 days, we walked around Budapest. It’s a glorious city to walk around in, especially if the weather is good (summer evenings, winter days). A few highlights and must-sees in our personal order of preference –
- A tour of the opulent Hungarian Parliament Building is a must.
- The Fisherman’s Bastion – which one tends to visit again and again in every shade of daylight, evening and night.
- Szechenyi or Gellert or Rudas Thermal Baths: Hot springs are incredibly common in Hungary. Early industrialists wanted to dig for oil everywhere and ended up with thermal baths all over (no oil). Szechenyi or Gellert are very Hungarian in architecture and built in the early 20th century, while Rudas was built during the Ottoman times in 1550.
- A monument of Shoes on Danube commemorating Jewish Holocaust
- The Szabo Ervin Library a fascinating and grand old library that is simply a pleasure to be in, reader or not.
- The Labyrinth under Buda Castle
- Vajdahunyad Castle
- Memento Park where all the statues from Hungary’s Communist era have been placed.
- Istvántelek Train Yard
Budapest also offers one of the best night lifes and restaurant scene in Eastern Europe (or is it all Central Europe now).
- Bar Scene: One of the bar concepts unique to Budapest is a Ruin Pub. Head over to Szimpla Kert if you have time for just one pub visit, and you must make time and visit this one. For Sale pub, Instant and Grandio are 3 others worth peeking into.
- Cafes: The cafe scene in Budapest is also unbeatable, with a visit to one of the grand cafes – New York Cafe (the grandest), Cafe Gerbeaud, and Central Cafe – being a must on any traveler’s list.
- Ruszwurm cafe near the Fisherman’s Bastion is a baroque coffee house that has operated since 1827. Elizabeth (Sissi), Austrian Empress and Queen of Hungary (1837-1898) sent couriers to this bakery to get cakes for her breakfast. The Hungarian Linzer biscuit (two slices of shortcake glued together with apricot jam) was created here.
- The Great Market Hall: For a summary of complete Hungarian cuisine, handicrafts, cheese, sausages, paprika, and a whole lot more, visit this grand market smack in the middle of the city, beside the Danube. Goulash and Lavash are must trys, and spending dollars on a Hungarian doll is money well spent.
Driving up north towards Slovakia, we made a quick stop at Esztergom, the capital of the Hungarian Empire from the 10th to the 13th century, with its loft cathedral perched majestically high above the Danube.
Driving through picturesque Hungarian towns and vast rolling meadows, we reached Bratislava by late afternoon and headed straight to the castle. After a quick tour of the castle and we crossed over the Danube to the bottom of the Novy Most (New Bridge) to capture views of the old town and the famed UFO Restaurant.
Our hotel, the Radisson Blu Carlton was luxurious and well located, with a breakfast to die for. A little pricey, this was part of the birthday celebrations for our daughter who turned 13.
Day 6 evening and Day 7 morning was spent walking around the quaint old town of Bratislava. The bar scene continues to be excellent here as well, with KGB being a must visit.
For dinner, we ended up at the excellent Dolnozemska Krcma in the old town, while our daughter’s birthday lunch was undoubtedly celebrated in the fascinating and unique UFO Restaurant, which shook and vibrated every time a large bus crossed the bridge, providing extreme excitement to us residents of the earthquake-prone San Francisco Bay Area.
After the lunch celebrations, we drove non-stop towards Katowice for the night, to head out to Auschwitz early morning.
Tip: There is now a ticketing and reservation system in place, so please remember to book online much in advance, as the tickets disappear quite quickly.
After an emotionally draining day, we drove back to Brno for the night. Unknown to us, the father of genetics, Gregor Mendel, was a monk at a monastery in Brno, who couldn’t clear a Biology exam for 3 straight attempts at Vienna University but ended up establishing the ground rules of modern genetics.
On our way back to Prague from Brno, we did a quick stop at the creepy and fascinating Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora. Known as “the Bone Church,” it displays some of the world’s more macabre art (a grand bone chandelier composed of almost every bone in a human body, bone chalices, bone candelabras, bone pyramids, a bone family crest and skull candle holders.
Reaching Prague, we dropped the car at the airport, and headed into town towards our hotel, U Zlateho Stromu, an old hotel with a ton of character, and steps for knee strengthening, but a hopscotch-and-jump away from the Charles Bridge – an important consideration for early morning photography. The hotel was also just a few minutes from the Old Town Square and the famous clock tower, so all in all a good bet.
Day 8, 9:
The next few days were spent walking around Prague. Prague is a wonderful walking city, and most sights are within the hour long walk (if done nonstop) from the Old Town Square to the top of the Prague Castle, also known as Coronation Way.
Here were some of our highlights –
- Library of the Strahov Monastery, and the Strahov cafe (garden below the cafe) for a sweeping view of the entire city.
- From here, you could make your way down to the Castle and down the steps towards Charles Bridge. You would be challenged to not stop every minute or so along this way and pick up your camera.
- The Mala Strana and Novi Svet regions of the city.
- Views of, from, on and around the Bridge –
- The view from behind the Bohemian Restaurant
- The view beside Santa Maria Boat Wharf (hundred of swans)
- Kafka Museum and the wharf beside it
- The Lennon Wall – a wall full of sixties Peace and Love graffitti and John Lennon artwork.
- The Old Town Square, Clock Tower and just wandering around and getting lost
- A drive up to the Prague Metronome for a panorama of the entire city and it’s cascading set of bridges
- Night program (black light) or concert – some say these are very touristy and a trap, so we decided to skip
- Idiom Installation – a Tower of Books – at the Prague Municipal Library
There are a host of tea houses, restaurants and cafes to visit –
- Cafe Imperial: The most well-known, and it is conjectured that Lenin might have bootstrapped the Revolution here
- Café Montmartre: Founded in 1911, Czech and German writers like Max Brod, Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hašek frequented this place
- Cafe Louvre: Einstein was a common patron here during his professorship in Prague
- Cafe Slavia: Vaclav Havel used to visit quite a bit
Food is generally a bit touristy in the old town and castle areas, but one restaurant we loved in particular was the 10th century U Zlate Hrusky, whose manager had a chilling tale to accompany our lunch as thunder and lightning rolled in sheets of rainfall outside the restaurant windows.
Day 10: Flight back home