A Taste of Eastern Europe: The Vienna Loop - Page 3

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Chain Bridge
Buda or Pest? Pick a Side: Budapest's Chain Bridge, straddling the Danube  (PhotoDisc)
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Day 6: Bratislava
Less stuffy than Vienna and far less touristy than Prague, Bratislava is one of Eastern Europe's most spirited capitals—and best-kept secrets. One could cruise across the historic center in about 15 minutes, but there are plenty of sights along the way, and, unlike Prague's lines of souvenir shops, the streets are packed with cafes and restaurants filled with university students. See some of the city's castles, like the 18th-century Primate's Palace, which hosts a museum with exquisite 17th-century tapestries, and Devin Castle, which has traces of 7,000-year-old settlements and overlooks the Danube and Morava rivers. Post-perambulation, stop for a coffee at Cafe Verne on Bratislava's main square, where yammering artists, students, and hipsters offer diverting entertainment. If you have an extra day, arrange a tour of the wineries near Bratislava.

Day 7: Bratislava to Budapest (125 Miles)
The two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Hungarian capital of Budapest is anything but boring as you follow the Danube through fertile farmland. Stop to stretch your legs in Gya's storybook cobblestone lanes. Later, stop for some open-air R&R at the Danube Bend, an area north of Budapest of small villages, parks, and forests. After drifting through Szentendre, Esztergom, and Vac, take off into the Pilis hills for horseback riding and hiking, before turning south toward Budapest.

Days 8-9: Budapest
A little grittier than its prim Western neighbors, Budapest is a mix of old and new and east and west, from chic bars, cafes, and discos to grand Austro-Hungarian boulevards and buildings. The city itself was once two cities—the hilly residential Buda and the flat, more industrial Pest, both straddling the same curve in the Danube River—but they merged in 1873, linked by the Chain Bridge. Over a century of unity has melded the two sides of the river into a striking, cosmopolitan city, something like the Manhattan of Central Europe. Start your exploration by heading to the Buda side and ascending to the artsy 'hood of Castle Hill for a stunning overview of the metropolis, and then gape at nearby Matthias Church's dramatic Gothic tower, followed by a tour of the Parliament building, with its ornate gilded interior. Sick of stuffy European paintings and churches? Tour the labyrinthine caves under Buda or head to the minimalist Ludwig Museum (+36.1.555.3444; www.ludwigmuseum.hu), which has an impressive collection of contemporary Hungarian art.

Day 10: Budapest to Vienna (155 Miles)
West of Budapest lies Lake Balaton, Hungary's holiday-happy answer to our Florida and Caribbean. If you can, tack on an extra day to car camp in one of the resort towns on the lake's northern shores, or stop for an afternoon on the way back to Vienna. Explore the hamlets along the shore; sample wines in Badacsony and Badacsonytomaj on the toes of Badacsony Mountain; hike hilly, forested Tihany Peninsula, with its pretty Benedictine Abbey; or windsurf and sail on the lake before returning to Vienna, about 130 miles northwest, to do anything you missed the first time around—that or just find yourself a cafe to wile away the hours before you have to return to reality.

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