In the second half of the 19th century, the world saw the formation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that encompassed as many as eleven different national groups and ruled the area from 1867 until 1918, the end of World War I. The different nationals in the region were fierce in maintaining their identities and eventually formed separate countries again. However, for Prague, Budapest, and Vienna the influence of their time spent as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire formed lasting cultural connections.
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Planning Our Trip
My husband and I spend a lot of time planning our trips and use many resources. To keep track of all the different parts of our travels, I like to use TripIt. This planning app works for me, but my husband likes paper.
My DH creates a one-page itinerary that we keep in several places. For example, one copy goes into “the binder of all things” related to the trip. This binder has copies of all travel tickets, hotel confirmations, tour confirmations, maps if necessary, etc. The binder is usually about one-inch thick, and as we go, he eliminates the pages we no longer need.
Other copies of the itinerary, get laminated in both full page and half size. We place these copies in our luggage in the hopes that if the bag is lost on a plane or train, someone will try to reach out and get our stuff back to us.
Why we still use paper
Having our plans both on paper and in digital format comes in handy. There are times when you may not have an internet connection, or your mobile device is out of juice. Not to mention the time in Frankfurt when we had no paper boarding pass and to catch our flight home, Security would only accept the printed receipt and copies of our tickets to allow us through.
Below is the MS Word template for the itinerary my husband creates for all of our trips. Feel free to download a copy and modify it for your needs.
River Cruise or Rail Trip?
Central Europe is special and unique connected by its rivers for ease of trade (most notably the Danube) and economies. Many people visiting this region will do so on a river cruise, and this is a lovely way to travel.
However, we choose to tour Prague, Budapest, and Vienna by land using the efficient train services available through Europe. We booked a Eurail train pass that allowed for three days of travel within one month. Eurail partners with all the major train carriers in 31 countries in Europe, making this a very efficient way to move around the continent.
While we always try to be economical in our packing, for this trip we focus on packing light. We will be hauling our luggage along city streets from hotels to train stations and back again. The less we bring, the lighter the load.
I have two carry-ons a regular 21 inch and a smaller under-seat roll aboard. Using packing cubes makes it easy to keep my bag organized and condensed. My two bags hook together for smooth rolling on and off planes and trains and all types of pavement (concrete, cobblestones, asphalt, etc.)
My husband has the same 21-inch carry-on and his large backpack. His backpack probably carries as much if not more than my smaller bag. But I am not a fan of backpacks and have never chosen to go that route
Cultural Connections – Prague
We fly to Prague via London. Since we live on the West Coast, all our European flights are long. With the connection through Heathrow, travel time from portal to portal is about 18 hours. These long-haul flights combined with a nine-hour time change leave us pretty wiped out on arrival day. So we are always thrilled when we finally hit the hotel and can shower and rest up.
Ventana Hotel – Wow!
I found the Ventana Hotel, which is in the center of the City just off the main square, through a search on venere.com (this site is now part of the eponymous Hotels.com). The Ventana is a delightful old world hotel. Our room turned out to be one of the hotel’s “Old Town Square Suites.” These suites each have a sitting room, bedroom, and lovely en suite bath.
Our suite was on the 2nd floor, and the sitting room sported a small balcony. This façade of the hotel overlooks the Old Town Square. On one of the afternoon, I watched a marching band in full regalia parade through the square right past the hotel. I could envision myself as royalty standing on the balcony, waving to the masses gathered in the square.
Usually, when we get this good of a room, we end up leaving the next day and don’t have the opportunity to enjoy the space and amenities. This time we were thrilled to be in place for the next four nights!
Day 1: We Start Outside of Prague at Pilsner Urquell Brewery in Pilzen
We start our visit to the Czech Republic by heading to the town of Pilzen about 45 miles west of Prague to visit Pilsner Urquell, the home of the first “pilsner” lager. Pilsner Urquell has been brewing the same recipe from this location since 1842. Because my husband has “industry connections,” we get a private tour of this lovely site, including the underground tunnels.
Pilsner Urquell Brewery
The tour starts by walking the grounds from the new brewery to the old. We get a short lesson on how to brew beer, including where they grow their hops. For me, a person who really knows nothing about beer, it was good to learn exactly what hops are and why they are in beer. Just in case you are like me and have always wondered, hops are the flower of the hop plant “Humulus lupulus.” Hops are added to the brew as a flavoring agent (they add the bitter, citrus, floral, and fruity notes to your beer) and a stabilizer.
We walk through the new brewing area with its beautiful machinery, and then we head down into the tunnels where the beer is placed in barrels to ferment. As we walk deeper into the tunnels, the air cools considerably. When we get towards the end of the tunnels, we are greeted by one of the senior brewmasters who treats us to a glass of the nearly finished (not yet pasteurized) pilsner. Delicious!
Our tour of Pilsner Urquell was gratis as my husband is an “industry partner.” Tours of the Brewery are offered to the public every day in six different languages. Price per person is currently CZK 250 (about $11 US).
Day 2: A Three-Hour Walk Around Prague
The next morning we wake early, enjoy another lovely breakfast at the hotel and head out to the Square to meet up with our guide for a three-hour walking tour of Prague. The Naked Tour Guide provides several different walking tours in Prague. These folks do awesome, small group tours, with never more than eight people on tour.
We chose the Explore Prague Historical Tour, which starts in the Square and circles around the City, hitting many of the well-known and influential historical sites. The Astronomical Clock, the Medieval City Walls, Wenceslaus Square, Jewish Town and Letna Park (great view of the City from there) were among our stops.
Imogen is from the US and just finishing up her masters in international studies at the local university. She is very engaging and knowledgeable about Prague. I spend so much time listening to Imogen; I often forget to take photos. But the third picture below kind of sums up the city. The building on the right all original from 1190; and the building on the left 1890. This place has been around for a while.
Imogen takes the time to get to know each of the couples in the group and give suggestions on their coming travels. I’d highly advise giving these guys a try when you visit Prague.
Tour costs with Nake Tour Guides start at CZK 600 (about $27 US) per person. Our tour (Historical Prague) was CZK900 (about $40) per person.
After the tour
Heading back into the Town Square area, we pass the Church of St. Salvator at the foot of the Charles Bridge. Outside the church is a billboard advertising a recital of Haydn’s Requiem that evening. We decided on the spot this will be our evening’s entertainment. With that decision, we head back to our hotel. Still, a bit jet-lagged we want to get a quick nap in before we headed out for dinner and the concert that evening.
We decide to eat at one of the many restaurants in the square on the way to the concert. I am looking for a schnitzel. I love schnitzel, and nearly every restaurant here has this on the menu. Schnitzel is a typical dish in this region made with pork or chicken, or the most famous, veal. Tonight my schnitzel is chicken. My husband discovered “hot wine” earlier in the day, and with the chill in the air is quick to order this again with his goulash. Our dinner is very traditional for the region and one we will likely sample again in Budapest and Vienna.
Classical Music in a Classical Setting
We arrive at St. Salvator just shortly before the concert begins. The church is beautiful inside, and the musicians are warming up. Warming up must be hard for them as I realize there is no heat in the church.
We sit on a wooden church pew, bundled up from the cold, and enjoy the performance. Haydn’s Requiem is a classic and beautiful piece, but we are glad when the concert is over so we can head home to our warm hotel room.
Day 3: Prague Castle
Prague is generally a pretty easy town to get around. However, you truly begin to understand why castles are always built on the highest ground around when you walk up to the castle. On the day we went to the castle, we logged nearly 7.5 miles walking. I know because we wear one of those wrist devices that measures all you do. Most of that walking was up hills, up steps, up whatever they could make you walk up. The only good thing about going up is that eventually, you get to go down.
Prague Castle is grand. Inside the walls are the many residences and of course, the church. We tour the large halls, see the crown jewels, and finally the Cathedral of St. Vitus.
After the Cathedral, we take a quick stroll through the Armory. Here there is a fantastic display of medieval weaponry and torture devices!
My husband takes a minute to test his skill with the crossbow, and then we begin our trek down from the castle, enjoying the beautiful views in all directions.
You can “tour” the Castle grounds for free! However, you can purchase a ticket in advance (on-line) for around $20 US. This ticket allows you to skip the lines and visit many of the highlights in the Castle complex. You can find this on TripAdvisor.
Last Evening in Prague
This evening we dine at a traditional Czech restaurant. Dinner is delicious. I have roast beef entrée that includes a side of an enormous dumpling (about the size of a baseball). After dinner, we take our final walk through the old town of Prague, enjoying the sights and sounds, including an amazing street concert, a gentleman playing glasses!
Tomorrow we leave for Budapest, a seven-hour train ride. If you want to follow along, check out Part 2.