Written by James Dunford Wood
A trip to see central Europe can be done in many ways, but two itineraries stand out - east from Vienna to Prague and Budapest in a kind of triangle, or a trip west from Vienna to Munich and Salzburg - or perhaps two rather than three of any of these cities.
It depends of course on how much time you have - if only a week, two cities would be enough.The eastern itinerary is the most truly 'central', and you could start in any one of the three cities - Prague is often the cheapest since its a major hub for budget airlines. Prague's a great city for walking, cafe action and relaxing - its highlights of Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, St Vitus Cathedral, the National Museum and Wenceslas Square are well known, but if you're a fan of jazz you'll find a great range of jazz clubs and bars to while away the evening in, as well as loads of other musical venues. The archtiecture of the city, too, is unique in its diversity, as the city survived WW2 relatively unscathed.
For staying, there are some wonderful boutique townhouse hotels in the castle district, as well as plenty of cheaper hostels for the backpacker. See Emily's Three Days in Prague for more ideas.
Budapest, by contrast, is a scruffier city, less done up for the tourists, but a great place to tune into the romantic and colourful culture of the Hungarians. Where Prague is stately and sometimes dour, Budapest is chaotic and full of life and colour. A highlight here is a Danube cruise by night with dinner - but choose your boat carefully, as these trips are heavily touristed.
The best way to travel between these cities, and on to Vienna, is by car, stopping in towns and villages along the way and seing how the landscape and villages alter as you go. But equally well you can book trains - Prague is a full days' drive - 8 hours driving time - from Budapest, while Prague to Budapest by train is just under seven hours. Bupapest to Vienna driving time is about three hours, and slightly less by train.
It's a good idea to leave Vienna to last on this trip, as in some ways its the highlight - though many will disagree and prefer Prague. As the former capital of a grand empire of over 80 million people it once ruled over both Prague and Budapest, and today it feels rather of an outsized capital city for a relatively small country. The buildings here are magnificent - the Opera, the Parliament, the Hofburg, Schonbrunn Palace and the palaces on the Ring - above all its a city of culture - palaces and art history (in the magnificent Kunsthistorische museum and the new museums of the Museums quarter), where Prague is more a city of fun, and Budpest perhaps of romance.
Outside of culture in Vienna, take a trip out to one of the heuriger inns for an evening of wine and song in traditional Austrian style.If you can afford it in Vienna - especially at the end of your trip, stay in one of the grand hotels like the Sacher or the Imperial. If the prices frighten you, however, there are plenty of townhouse hotels with large traditional rooms, high ceilings and reasonable prices - as well as a clutch of cutting edge design hotels.