Zagreb – Croatia’s Charming Capital

Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city, is often overshadowed by its stunning Dalmatian coast with the likes of Split, Hvar, Korcula, and Dubrovnik. I’m a good case in point as I have been to Croatia on two occasions and did not spend any more time in Zagreb than it took to change planes.

The trip down from Budapest via train was about six hours. The train certainly offered better leg room than a bus and it was easier to get up and down but the wi-fi was glacially slow with regular drops in service and the fact that there was a dining car was greatly diminished by the fact that the server in it obviously did not want to be working there. He was even slower than the internet connection.

On arrival into Zagreb, I found the tram network to be very simple. Budapest was a bit intimidating because there were buses and trams and a Metro system – so many options. But, smaller Zagreb has just a few lines and one of the main stops is just outside the train station. But, it is also a very easy city to walk as the distances are not that great.

Zagreb's Tram Network was easy to navigate

Zagreb’s Tram Network was easy to navigate

 

For me, tram line 2, which I caught right outside the station, deposited me almost directly in front of my hotel, the DoubleTree by Hilton. For 30,000 HHonors points a night, I got a very nice room, a great staff, and a wonderful restaurant. From the hotel, I could simply take the #2 tram back to the train station (it also has a stop in between for the Bus station) and connect to one of about three different lines to the main square in Zagreb.

Jelacic Square - the Heart of Old Town

Jelacic Square – the Heart of Old Town

 

I did not have real high expectations for Zagreb and it far exceeded the low bar. I like Zagreb. It is compact but with lots of eating options and a strong street market and cafe culture. There are a few sights to see – not that many, really – but just as enjoyable to do some strolling around the Old Town and stopping in at the Zagreb Cathedral. A day and half is about the right amount of time barring any specific reason to be in Zagreb. 

 

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Budapest – Beauty on the Danube

Budapest is a city that has been getting a lot of coverage in the travel press recently and I’ve heard good things about it from some of my friends who do a lot of international travel, so I was anxious to get the chance to check it out for myself and scheduled a little more time there than my other destinations.

The Royal Palace at Night

The Royal Palace at Night

 

Logistics

From Bratislava, the trip on the bus was only about 2.5 hours and only cost 7 euros. I again booked through Student Agency other RegioJet bus service with Wi-Fi, personal entertainment centers, and en route beverage service. On the previous bus trips, the termination of the line was at a bus station. In the case of arrival in Budapest, we basically got dropped off on the side of the street. I had not really planned my journey to the hotel, so I needed to figure it out. There was a tram stop right where we got off but, based on a quick internet check, the journey was a bit complicated with a connection and some walking between stations.

I was not really up to the challenge so I decided to have my first international Uber experience. I’ve only done Uber one previous time and still getting used to it but it worked like a charm every time I used it in Budapest. And, the prices were very low.

For my hotel, I stayed at the Hilton Budapest City hotel for 66,000 HHonors points. The location is not directly in city center but was within reasonable walking distance of major attractions and the Danube. It also sits next to a major railway station and tram stop. The room was a typical, nice room and the Executive Lounge served a nice selection of food and drink for the nightly happy hour at 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.

The Sights of Budapest

On Friday night, I decided to visit the original “ruins bar” that started a trend that continues today. The trend started around 2001 when abandoned and derelict properties were turned into what we would call dive bars. The original ruin bar, Szimpla Kert, moved around several times until finding its current home in 2004 in the Jewish Quarter of the city. As one can imagine, it was lively scene on a Friday night with large beers for about $2.50 each. A little more wandering around took me by the night time facades of the Opera House, St. Stephen’s Basilica, and through the nearby park where 100’s of locals were gathered to share some drinks on the lawn and relax.

 

On Saturday, I spent the first part of the day on foot exploring the city. What a gorgeous place! It must rank as one of the prettiest cities I have ever visited. When you arrive downtown by the Danube, you can see the royal palace and Castle district perched on the opposite hills, see the citadel looking down on the city, and see the spires of Parliament and various churches dotted along the river and hillsides.

The Chain Bridge across the Danube River

The Chain Bridge across the Danube River

 

After walking across the Chain Bridge, a site unto itself, I was faced with the question of whether to walk the stairs up the hill to the royal palace or take the funicular. I went with option 3 – a sightseeing bus tour. I don’t often do these types of tours but they are a good way to cover a lot of ground and learn a bit more about the city than I would glean from simply walking around. I went with the BigBus tour and was very happy with it. The audio was well done – that is not always the case (think the Bateux Mouches tours on the Seine) – and also included night tours, river cruises, and walking tours, none of which I actually availed myself to on this trip.

 

For three hours I rode the complete loop of Budapest while only stopping to get off for about 20 minutes at the Citadel. Note to any readers who do the same and think it might be a good place to buy a sausage from the food stand: don’t do it. It was awful. I mean really awful. Not edible. So, other than my bad culinary experience that the BigBus company has no ownership of, it was a great way to see the sights.

I wrapped my night up by finding a pub to watch the Copa del Rey final between my team – Barcelona – and Sevilla. Finally, after extra time, Barca clinched yet another trophy helping to cement the claim to best team in history of club football.

While I was very happy with my Uber experience in Budapest, I felt I could not leave without interacting with their massive public transportation system. From the hotel, a tram ride and the a change to the Metro got me to Keleti train station for 300 florints ($1.07 USD).

As you can probably tell, I loved Budapest. I look forward to coming back in the future and spending a few more days here getting to know it a little better.

 

Bratislava – Capital City of Slovakia

Using one of my new favorite modes of transport – Student Agency RegioBus – I was in Bratislava from Prague for just 10 Euros and 4.5 hours of travel time. Bratislava is a city of about 500,000 located on the Danube River between Vienna and Budapest, as the river flows. In fact, some use it as a base for travel in the region given its central location.

The bus terminal in Bratislava – Mlynské Nivy – has a tram stop right next to it with the line I needed to get to my hotel. The ticket only costs .70 euros and can be purchased by machine, in some locations, or at a Tabac booth. The hotel for this stop was a DoubleTree by Hilton and, like Vienna, not in city center. Rather, it was more in a business district and, on a Friday evening and early Saturday, was a pretty subdued area. However, it was one of the best values of my trip at only 10,000 HHonors points for a night. The hotel itself was nice and I was upgraded to a two room suite, so even better.

A tram ride into city center does not take that long once you figure out the line and stop. I did miss my stop on the way in and had to get off, walk a couple of hundred yards, and take another bus to city center. The city center itself is rather small but nice. Pedestrianized in many places, it was very active on a Friday night. Unfortunately, as is the case in many European capitals, it was rather heavy on large groups of young men – I’m talking 6-12 guys together – who are already completely pissed by 9:00 p.m. I walked around for a bit, had some dinner, and caught the bus back to the hotel around 10:30 as the bus/tram schedule becomes significantly reduced after 11:00 p.m.

No doubt, riding public transport in a foreign country can be confusing..

No doubt, riding public transport in a foreign country can be confusing..

 

On Saturday, I did something I rarely do – I hired a tour guide/driver for a couple of hours to show me around town before depositing me at the bus terminal. I’m really glad I did as my guide, “George,” was a pleasant young man who has started his own business after learning English while working for a limousine service for four years. I would highly recommend his services and his website is at http://www.slovakiatrips.com. He was proud of Slovakia and willing to answer any questions I had about the country, their history, their relationship with Europe and with Russia, etc.

In the course of just under two hours, we were able a lot of ground. We started with the Slavin war memorial which honors the 6,000 plus Soviet soldiers who died in the process of liberating Bratislava from the Germans in 1945. The view from the top was wonderful and it was interesting to see the steps of the memorial stacked with floral arrangements even though there was no special holiday at the time such as Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day or the such.

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava, Slovakia

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava, Slovakia

 

We then stopped at the castle (hrad) that has been a fortified position overlooking the Danube since around 3500 BC. Yes, that’s right – over 5,000 years ago. This, of course, is due to the importance of control of the major rivers from a military and commercial perspective. The castle itself is nothing special. Certainly not as grand as you will find in many other cities, but does offer fine views over St. Martin’s church, the Old Town, and the Danube.

Bratislava Hrad

Bratislava Hrad

 

We did a little driving around with George pointing out important buildings, embassies, Parliament, and such before a brief stop in the Presidential Palace gardens that are open to the public. Slovakia has been an independent country in its current formation since 1993 with the dissolution of the Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia.

We finished our tour with a quick visit to Old Town’s pedestrianized streets. One of the key stops was St. Martin’s Cathedral which was the coronation church of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1563 to 1830. The revered – I’m not sure why – Maria Theresa had her coronation in this church.

Bratislava Opera House

Bratislava Opera House

 

So, what did I think about my 24 hours in Bratislava? I think it was probably the right amount of time. If I were to go back, I think I would plan to hike to Devin Castle, maybe do a boat trip over to Vienna and back, and get out into the countryside as I had a few different Slovaks tell me that the outdoors are an important part of their culture.

Prague – A Short Visit to an Old Favorite

It has been about 13 or 14 years since I first visited Prague. In the early 2000’s, it was a somewhat exotic destination having emerged from behind the Iron Curtain with a reputation for one of the best-preserved city centers in Europe. On a business trip to England, I made time for a long weekend to wander around Prague and found it to live up to its reputation, even if there still was some evidence of lingering attitudes from the Communist era especially when dealing with service workers. But, I was anxious to see how it has changed while here for a couple of days of business meetings.

The Prague Castle from across the river by the Charles Bridge

The Prague Castle from across the river by the Charles Bridge

 

From Vienna, I caught a RegioJet bus that took about 4.5 hours to Prague for a cost of 15 euros. Upon arrival, I was fortunate that the bus station was at the Florenc station that allowed a direct Metro connection to where I needed to be for my business meetings. For a discounted price of 24 Czech Korunas – approximately $1 USDI was across town and out to a business park area in the suburbs.

After the conclusion of our meetings, we found our hotel located just five minutes walk from Old Town and, luckily for me, only 2 minutes walk from the bus station where I would be departing on the conclusion of my trip. The Hotel AXA was built in the 1930’s and updated in the past ten years. While not necessarily a location I would pick again, it was in a great location, with decent art deco style furnishings, and only 72 Euros per night including breakfast. I had a street side room and it was bit noisy so I would recommend requesting a room on the back side of the hotel.

Hotel AXA, Prague

Hotel AXA, Prague

 

For business dinner, we went to Kolkovna Celnice, a well reviewed establishment with a classical Czech menu. It was an outstanding meal accompanied with Pilsner Urquell beer and it was heaving with people having a good time.

The next day, after the conclusion of meetings, a colleague and I had a couple of beers and snack foods at another local bar and, once again, the was lots of energy and vibrancy in the place. At least, until the US scored a second goal to beat the Czech team in the ice hockey match that was being closely watched.

I only had a couple of hours that night to walk around Old Town. The astrological clock, the Charles Bridge, wandering the pedestrianized streets, and taking in the architecture. Perhaps I am projecting my own impressions based on too little exposure but it certainly felt much different than my trip so many years ago. It felt more vibrant, more crowded, and more optimistic. With an economy that is doing extremely well and unemployment that is extremely low, there are more dining, entertainment, and shopping options. Despite the low unemployment rates, the attitudes and efficiency of service workers was vastly better than on my earlier trip.

Old Town, Prague

Old Town, Prague

 

If I have a chance in the upcoming years, I think I will put Prague on my list to come back to again and spend some time in this charming, but now modern city.

RegioJet/Student Agency – Not Your Daddy’s Bus

I’m using buses quite a few times on my travels through Eastern Europe, so I thought I would go ahead and post about the experience as its own post since so few people in the U.S. are ever on a bus after they get out of school. Additionally, I think there are probably some impressions of bus travel based off sensational photos that one occasionally sees out of developing countries with people sitting on top of the bus, hanging on to its side, laying on the hood, and doing everything possible to cram 200 people into a bus designed for 60.

The bus line I’m using is RegioJet which is booked through an organization called Student Agency. Despite its name, it is not just for young kids on backpack tours of Europe. Instead, it is a reliable, well-appointed service that runs on time and offers great value.

The best option for my trip from Prague to Bratislava

The best option for my trip from Prague to Bratislava

 

The seats are very comfortable, if a tad cramped in regards to width and leg room. Individual entertainment screens at each seat offer internet access, movies, TV, music, and games. In addition, there is wi-fi available on the bus and all of this is included in the tariff. There are complimentary hot beverages and snacks and cold beverages available for purchase. Here is what the interior looks like..

Individual video entertainment screens

Individual video entertainment screens

A comfortable bucket seat with leather trim

A comfortable bucket seat with leather trim

 

And, for an idea of costs, my trip from Vienna to Prague – about 4.5 hours – cost 15 euros. My trip from Prague to Bratislava was even less – 10 euros – for a 4.5 hour trip. And, so far, the stations have been very close to my hotels. Needless to say, I think this is a great option for getting around this part of the world.

Vienna – A Day in Austria

After my quick visit to Zurich, a short one hour flight on Niki Airlines brought me to Vienna, Austria. Niki is a low-cost airline based in Vienna and associated with Air Berlin. On arrival to Vienna, I caught the airline bus to Stadion Center for 8 euros and that left me with a short walk to my hotel, the Hilton Vienna Danube.

As the name strongly suggests, it sits directly on the Danube but is not directly in the city center. The U2 train line from Stadion Center was an easy connection but not so convenient that you are going to pop back and forth between the hotel and city center like you would if staying closer. One way fares on the underground are 2.20 euros and a 24 hour pass is only 7.70.

The hotel itself was very nice with good size rooms, a very helpful staff, and a nice executive lounge. Both breakfast and dinner can be accomplished in the lounge for no additional costs and with a wide variety of food to select from plus free adult  beverages from 6:00 until 8:30 p.m. I was able to utilize one of my favorite HHonors redemptions – cash plus points – so the room was only 16,000 points a night plus 60 euros.

After a good night’s rest, I ventured into the city center by taking the underground to Karlplatz which is where the Opera house is located and a good starting point for a walk through the historic areas. Vienna is quite beautiful from an architecture perspective and there are grand buildings everywhere you turn. But, Vienna is quite spread out and it took me most of the day to cover most of it.

I started with a visit to the Albertina Museum that is an impressive building in its own right and houses the Hapsburg apartments from when the building was Duke Albert’s residence. They have a world-renowned print collection but my interest was in two exhibits. Their permanent collection features a nice collection of paintings from the impressionist period up through Picasso. The collection is not so much deep as it is broad and the museum does a great job of walking the viewer through the progression of art movements in this time period.

The second collection was a temporary exhibit of Anselm Kiefer’s wood cut prints. I don’t always get Kiefer, but he is one of the most important artists of this time period. Very interested in German history and culture, these prints featured the Rhine, the Ring mythology, and famous figures from German history.

After satisfying my need to feel cultured, I spent the rest of the day walking around town – Kartner Strasse, St. Stephens church, the Mozart House, the Rauthaus, parliament, Hofburg palace, and various other buildings and statues. I also stopped for lunch at the “original” Leberkas spot in Vienna near the Opera. This is an authentic Austrian food that is basically a something like a bologna sausage or a pressed meat like Spam served on a hard roll. It was good.

That was enough walking for the day. In retrospect, I might have purchased a 24 hour pass for the underground to make quicker connections between the various sites, especially if I wanted to spend more time in museums or visit Schonbrunn Palace. Between all the walking and a bit of jet lag, I was in bed by 9:00 p.m. to get ready for an early morning departure to Prague.

A Few Hours in Zurich

With a 4.5 hour layover in Zurich, I decided to dash into the city and take a look around on an early Monday morning. A round-trip ticket on the train costs 13.20 Swiss Francs and is only about a ten minute ride to the city center.

Upon exiting the station, one can stroll right down the Bahnhofstrasse which is one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world. In fact, Zurich has recently been named the most expensive city in the world. At 9:30 on Monday morning, nothing was open and the streets were empty so I got no sense of the hustle and bustle this place must have later in the day or in the evening.

Side street off Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich.

Side street off Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich.

 

But, it is an easy stroll down to Lake Zurich where one can take a boat tour of the lake if you have enough time – they run about 90 minutes. Like Bahnhofstrasse, the lake area was pretty deserted except from some joggers and bikers getting in their exercise with the Swiss Alps in view in the far distance.

Lake Zurich on an overcast Monday morning

Lake Zurich on an overcast Monday morning

 

Coming back up to the train station a couple of streets over to the East brings you back up through Old Town. All in all, not particularly incredible but glad to get a quick glance at the area and have time to buy some famous Swiss chocolate.