BUDAPEST OR PRAGUE- WHICH CITY IS BETTER; WHICH ONE SHOULD YOU VISIT?
As I was planning my trip to central Europe, I had a lot of questions about both Budapest and Prague. One of my friends kept telling me that she so wants to see Prague, as it is one of the prettiest cities in the world. I’m kind of done seeing west European cities (no offense meant, but some of them are overrated; they sure do a good job when it comes to marketing 🙂 ).
Googling both cities and reading all that I could on the internet gave me a fair idea about what to expect and what to see, but it’s obviously not the real experience as it’s the interactions with the people of a city that plays an important role in how you perceive that city.
My first interaction with a gentleman from Budapest (the gentleman who runs a private taxi service) was one of the finest; he was polite, professional, helpful and kind. His name is Csaba (“s” is silent; so you pronounce it as “Chaba”). Let me know if you’re interested in getting a private taxi at very competitive prices for long distances in this region; I’ll share his details. He drove us from Vienna to Budapest, and he shared details about the history, culture and present politics of Hungary with me. Now, it’s these kind of honest conversations with the locals that will give the real feel of a city or country. I felt as if I’ll like Budapest more than Prague; although I still kept an open mind, and I decided to explore both cities before making that final decision.
I’ll share my thoughts and experiences with you and let you decide for yourself. Like a lot of things in life, a lot boils down to personal likes and dislikes; sometimes they might be right; however, it’s good to question them on and off in life and use our cognitive brain as emotions are just emotions; emotions are fleeting in nature 🙂
Enough of my philosophical thoughts, let’s start with the similarities between Budapest and Prague-
River and Famous Bridges:
So, the river and famous bridge in Budapest are Danube and Chain Bridge; the ones in Prague are Vltava river and Charles Bridge. Although Danube is much wider, Charles bridge is longer than Chain bridge.
Charles bridge is a pedestrian bridge, whereas Chain bridge has side-walks. Charles bridge is one of the prettiest and oldest bridges in the world, with Gothic statues looking down at you; nevertheless, it is too crowded to soak up this beauty; you will be either pushed to move because of other tourists or heckled by vendors. Please know that this is the case throughout the day; should the officials introduce a fees for people to walk on this bridge so that they reduce the burden on it?
World war II devastated Budapest. One of the things that withstood the bombings of world war II were the two lion heads on each of the abutments of Chain bridge; they look majestic and tell you about the grandeur of the original bridge that was built in 1849. Both bridges offer a spectacular view of both the castle district side and old town (for Prague) or Pest side (for Budapest). Make sure you make pit-stops to enjoy the beauty of both sides. There are several other not-so-famous bridges in both cities that you can discover.
Conclusion: I liked both the bridges, although Charles bridge was too crowded 🙂
If you keep the map of both cities in front of you, castle districts will be on the left side of the river in both cases. As both castle districts are on an elevation, you get a great view of river Vltava, Danube, bridges and the other side of the city.
Castle district is huge in Prague; it includes the Rampart garden, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague castle, old Royal Palace, Mathias gate, St. George Basilica and the Golden lane. You can spend days just discovering this area; a few kilometers south of this area, you can go up to Strahov monastery and Petrin tower to know more about their history and to get a breathtaking view of the city.
The castle district in Budapest is not as elaborate as the one in Prague, but it has its own uniqueness. I was mesmerized by the view of the Parliament, Chain bridge and St. Stephen’s cathedral from here. You can discover the Fisherman’s Bastion, Mathias church, Royal palace and the national library in Budapest’s castle district. If you have time, drive up to the photo point to get a different view of Danube, bridges and historical buildings.
Conclusion: Both castle districts are unique in their own way; the one in Prague is bigger.
Transport system of trams, metros and buses is excellent in both cities. Take tram # 2 in Budapest and tram # 7 in Prague to get a scenic view of city and castle districts; they both run parallel to the Danube and Vltava river. Most of the landmarks are within walking distance in both places, but some of them can be far off in Budapest, such as Heroes’ Square.
I’ve read that tickets are slightly expensive in Budapest, as compared to most European cities. I could not buy tickets that were valid for half an hour from the grocery or souvenir stores in Prague, although Prague transport department boasts that these are easily available everywhere. You can buy tickets on the trains, trams or buses in Prague by using a contactless card; though, chip and pin and swipe cards don’t work. There are taxi unions in both cities, and they have exorbitantly high prices, even for short distances; avoid taking them at any cost. You can get an Uber in Prague (that was my way of commuting), but not in Budapest. Hop-on hop-off bus services are quite good in Budapest.
Conclusion: Again, both cities fare well on this point.
Beautiful Churches, squares and parks:
You’ll find beautiful, Gothic and grand churches in both cities, for instance St. Vitus cathedral, church of our lady, St. George’s basilica, St. Nicholas church etc., in Prague and Matthias church, St. Stephen’s basilica, St. Michael’s church etc., in Budapest.
There is a huge square in old town area near Tyn church in Prague (top-right picture above) and you can spend hours near and around heroes’ square (bottom-left picture below) in Budapest. There are other squares in both cities that will excite your senses. A lot of the squares in Prague were over-crowded though.
Another interesting thing about both these cities is that you’ll find thought-provoking and beautiful statues and small parks all around the city; they inject a sense of ingenuity and a breath of fresh air; these parks can be essential points of relaxation. Have a look at some of them in both cities that intrigued me.
Conclusion: there are ample number of places to explore in both cities as per your liking.
Both cities had a sizable Jewish population before World War II. There are quite a few synagogues, cemeteries and museums. Both places have some interesting sculptures in this area, such as the weeping willow tree in Budapest and the Franz Kafka statue (top-center picture above) in Prague.
Conclusion: You can learn about Jewish history in Europe in both these cities.
Cost of Living:
You will be pleasantly surprised that its quite economical to stay in both these cities. Although it was difficult to get a place in Mala Strana area in Prague, it was quite easy to get an apartment facing the Chain bridge in Budapest. Certain parts of both cities can be quite noisy. So, make sure you do your research when it comes to choosing a place to stay. It obviously depends on your budget too.
Conclusion: Both cities are quite livable as per your taste.
Local and International food:
It was easy to get both local and international cuisines in both the cities. Although we didn’t try a lot of local food, it was easy to get vegetarian food, including Indian food, in both cities.
Conclusion: On Google maps, feed information about the kind of food you’re interested in, and it will give you the choices.
Now let’s talk about a few differences that might help you figure out which city you’d like to go to or spend more time in:
The people: You might have guessed this one- my interactions with the locals, right from interacting with Csaba, were memorable in Budapest. Junior Csaba (another gentleman from the same private taxi company), who drove us from Budapest to Prague, was an equally polite, professional and helpful gentleman. I found people in Budapest more relaxed, helpful and looking forward to conversations with tourists. Apart from Hungarians, I met a lot of refugees in Budapest; they were from Afghanistan, Tunisia, Algeria etc. They were mostly selling the hop-on hop-off tickets or working in restaurants. The Afghani and Tunisian treated me like their sister as I spoke to them in my broken Afghani (he spoke good Hindi; thanks Bollywood) and Arabic. What I’ve noticed about not-so-rich people (pardon me for the lack of right words to describe them) in almost any country is that if you treat them with respect, they will go out of their way to help you. Have you experienced anything similar?
Now, please know that I met some great people in Prague too. People in both cities are friendly to tourists; you see, tourism is a big business for both these cities. The Uber drivers we interacted with in Prague were locals and quite professional. There is a huge Vietnamese population in Prague; they mostly run the small grocery and souvenir shops and are not very helpful. Language might have been a barrier for first generation Vietnamese who settled here, but I found that the second generation Vietnamese are not very friendly or supportive either. We went to Kampa park on our last day in Prague; I had a great time running and playing with my 5 year old nephew there. As a younger kid had tried to push my nephew, his mother came over to apologize; this was a pleasant surprise and got all of us talking. That lady’s husband joined the conversation, and we discovered that he had lived in India for 2 years. He used to take a lot of tourists to India from Europe and Asia, mostly on spiritual journeys. We had some interesting conversations, while 5- 6 kids played around us.
Conclusion: You will find all kinds of people in every city/ country. Don’t stereotype people just because you had some good or bad experiences in a particular place. Take all kinds of interactions in your stride; learn from them, and cherish the ones that changed you or at least made you think differently 🙂
Beer or Wine or Both & More:
Although Budapest has no active vineyards, it is a great place to try out some Hungarian wines. Palinka, a fruit flavored brandy that is extremely high in alcohol content, is another famous alcoholic beverage from Hungary. If you are a beer drinker like my brother, you’ll love Prague. You can get some good homemade beer in Strahov monastery (monks used to make beer here; cool, isn’t it? 😉 ).
Conclusion: It depends on your personal taste; I’ll prefer Budapest for this any day.
Number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
World Heritage sites in Budapest are banks of Danube, Buda Castle Quarter and Andrassy Avenue. Historic center of Prague is a UNESCO’s world heritage site; it includes the old town, lesser town and new town.
Conclusion: Although Budapest has more individual World Heritage sites, the historic center of Prague is quite a spread-out place.
Sure there are a few things that are unique to each city.
Something else that is unique to Budapest are its thermal baths. People since Roman times have been coming to these baths to relax and treat their skin and bone diseases for centuries. No wonder, Ottomans made sure that these thermal baths were running during their rein too. There are around 15 thermal baths that you can choose from and have a tranquil time; most of them are quite commercial though.
Another exclusive thing about Budapest is its opulent cafes and ruin bars; you can relish your coffee or any other drink. I was mesmerized by the beauty and magnificence of Hungarian Parliament building; it is one of the biggest parliament buildings in the world. You can take a guided tour of the parliament almost throughout the year; English sessions are in big demand, and they get sold out very quickly. Make sure you book them at least 4- 5 days in advance.
An astounding piece of art and science is the astronomical clock in Prague. When the clock strikes the hour, 12 apostles that peep out of the windows have an amazing story to tell; check out the skeleton shaking his head and hand on the right-hand side of the circular dial. It is one of the oldest clocks in the world that is still operating and was first built in 1410.
A remnant of the Velvet revolution were the paintings on the Lennon wall in Prague. You see, you can be an American, South Korean or Czech- we human beings long for freedom; this wall was a precursor in bringing communism down in Czech Republic.
Feel free to get in touch for any insight, and I’ll be happy to share details and personal thoughts.