Prague and Vienna trip report Nov. 07

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Dec 11th, 2007, 07:19 PM
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Prague and Vienna trip report Nov. 07

Iím back from a fantastic trip to Prague and Vienna from Nov. 16-26. Since I received lots of help from other Fodorites, I hope I can give some useful information to someone else. Rather than recite a diary of my trip, I thought Iíd simply share some practical information, and list some of the things I especially enjoyed.

Background:
Iím a late twenties male traveling solo from the US, interested in everything, but especially cultural history, music, and just exploring the streets of a city. Iím not as focused as some travelers on art museums, food (although I like to get a good taste of local food and drink) and Iím vehemently opposed to shopping any more than necessary. I spent a month in and around Germany with a group during college, but this is my first solo trip to Europe. Being young and somewhat masochistic, I donít mind walking excessive amounts, climbing towers, skipping meals to allow for more touring during daylight hours, etc.

Clothing:
Most of the clothing I brought I wore on the plane. I wanted to be prepared for very cold weather and rain, so I dressed in layers. My best investment was one of those micro fiber, moisture wicking long-sleeve athletic shirts. I wore this 24/7 as an undershirt and it could easily be washed in the sink and air dried. It really helps with warmth and keeps you dry when youíre exerting yourself climbing stairs or chasing down a bus. On top of that I wore a cotton long-sleeve shirt, a zippered fleece when necessary, and a winter coat (inside pockets were really useful for what few valuables I carried). I only needed the fleece layer once when I was doing more standing around than walking on an especially cold day. In case of rain, I brought a water-proof jacket with hood which was big enough to fit over the winter coat. I also brought one button shirt to wear to concerts, etc. (something wrinkle free would be ideal). I had one primary pair of pants Ė Columbia grey/brownish khaki type pants. My thinking was that if it was raining hard, they wouldnít be as uncomfortable as jeans would be if soaked, and they would dry quicker. Also, just formal enough that I didnít feel like I was being disrespectful in concert halls. I also brought jogging pants, which didnít take up much space, to be worn if I expected lots of rain on a particular day. Wore one pair of waterproof walking shoes from L.L. Bean, and of course a stocking/toboggan hat and gloves. Despite occasional sub-freezing weather, I was comfortable the whole trip, and although it hardly rained at all, I was glad I was prepared.

Language:
I only spent 7 hrs in Copenhagen, so didnít learn much more than hello, please, thank you.
Fortunately, I knew enough German from high school and college to get around alright in Vienna, but many would speak English to me once my horrendous grammar and accent pegged me as an American rather than a German tourist, of which there were many.
Spending 6 days in Prague, I really wanted to learn some words in Czech. Although most places a typical tourist goes would have staff that know English, I like to explore random parts of town. Tour books often give you some phrases that they think you should know, but I think itís hard to remember full sentences and phrases when you donít understand the individual words, so I feel itís more effective to try to learn some basic words that can get the point across (and maybe a few phrases that you know you will use). A few words that arenít emphasized in guidebooks but that you will likely hear or need to say in any major foreign city are: this, that, there, I, you, stop (as in ďnext stopĒ that you will hear on the metro/tram), excuse me, smoking or non-smoking, passport, ticket, map, how much/what does this cost. Of course, the best plan is to be familiar with trains, train stations, airports, trams and metro, and the directions to where youíre staying so you arenít forced to rely on help for any of the critical things. However, if you really have trouble learning/speaking languages, donít worry, you really can get around Prague and Vienna with English if you need to.

Transportation:
I flew Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) from Washington Dulles to Prague, with what turned into a 7 hour layover in Copenhagen. I bought my plane tickets through Travelocity 2 months before I left, and during that time my flight from Copenhagen to Prague changed twice, resulting in the long layover. Of course, I was thrilled because this meant I would have time to leave the airport and explore the city. But my point is, make sure you check your flight status frequently. I had to check a small piece of luggage. Carryon requirements for SAS are 23x40x55cm, which is small by North American airline standards. Not sure how strict they are about the size, but if itís too big they will make you go back and check it or will take it and ďcheck it for youĒ which I think means ďput on any random plane to any random city and see if he can track it downĒ.
At the CPH airport I tried to get a 24 hour metro pass, but they guy behind the counter apparently only pretended to understand English and gave me a single trip 3-zone ticket instead (I should have realized it was a lower price than I expected). A nice guy waiting for the metro helped me figure out that the ticket was indeed a single trip that I could use within an hour. Not a big deal, on my return trip to the airport I used a machine that took a credit card and had an option to select English Language on the screen.
I was lucky enough to be staying with friends in Prague who met me at the airport and helped me get a 7-day bus/tram/metro pass at the main terminal. This was definitely the best way to go since I didnít have to mess with getting individual tickets for each ride. If you get this pass, or a single ticket, you need to get it stamped the first time you use it in one of the little yellow machines you will find inside the bus or tram, or at the entrance to the metro station near the escalator. These are randomly, but very rarely, checked. Trams were great to use. They are fairly quick, but stop at every stop. Note that for most trams you need to press a button on or near the door for it to open. The metro is also easy to use. Get a good map that has an overlay of tram and metro routes so you can easily see where to go. Make sure you remember the name of the final stop on the route in the direction you are going so you know which train to board. Vienna worked much the same way, but the names of the stops are easier to pronounce.
Iím a hayseed from the Midwest, so I was very unfamiliar with train tickets, especially when theyíre in Czech. For those who are easily confused, note that your seat reservation (if you have one) will tell you your train (Czech:Vlak/German:Zug), car (Vuz/Wagen) and seat number (Misto/Sitzplatz). If a seat reservation is not required and you donít have one, sit in any seat within your class of seating.

Maps:
I liked to have one big, detailed map with all the metro/tram lines covering a wide area to look at in the morning and night to plan for the next day. To carry with me during the day, I like the little square folding (Pocket-Pilot) maps. For Prague, the best map I found was by a company called ďBorchĒ and was water repellant and showed all the metro and tram lines including where all the stops were. I bought it at Barnes & Noble. However, Borch map of Vienna wasnít as useful because it didnít have an overlay of the metro lines. The Streetwise Vienna map was very useful for the city center area.

Money:
Itís a good idea to take some time to get familiar with foreign coins early on so that you donít have to take a long time sorting through them when making a purchase. Coins are used much more in Denmark, Czech Republic, and Austria than in the US. I also was a bit surprised at how many museums and restaurants in Prague and Vienna did not accept credit cards, compared to the US. Make sure you have enough cash each day. As others mentioned on this site, ATMs are probably the best place to get money. They are located at most if not all metro stations, airports and throughout the major tourist areas of the city. All the ATMs I used in Prague and Vienna had an option on the screen to select English. You can exchange money at the metro stations too, but I opted for the places in the airports, and at Sudbahnhof in Vienna. The exchange desk at Sudbahnhof wouldnít exchange any of my Czech change, only bills. I could, however, exchange my Euro coins for dollars at the Copenhagen airport.

What I saw:
So I really saw a lot of stuff. In Prague especially, it would take all day to name everything I saw, and it would be very much like reading from a travel guide book, so Iíll focus on what was especially good or not worth seeing.

COPENHAGEN
I got off at the Christianshavn metro stop because I wanted to see the southern bank of the island. The nearby Vor Frelsers Kirke was an interesting find with its spiral spire. There was a walking path along the bank with almost noone on it at 7:30am on that Saturday. This led to the entrance of Freetown Christiania. I walked over the bridge and made my way to Nyhavn to look around the canal and take some shots, then walked down Strøget, the pedestrian mall, to the Radhus. I had gotten incorrect information about Tivoli gardens, thinking the Christmas display would open at 10, but alas opening time was 11, so I scrapped that idea. I walked up the Rundetårn to get an excellent view of the city. Unfortunately, none of my pictures came out great because it was so cloudy, which I hear is typical about 10 months out of the year. In person, though, it was beautiful to see. I finished my tour with an interesting 1 hour boat tour run by DFDS that started at Nyhavn and took us through the canals. It was cold sitting out on the deck, but if youíre not concerned about picture quality, most of the boat was covered with glass and was plenty warm.

PRAGUE
Awesome, awesome city. There is no part of the city that isnít fascinating to walk through. I spent some time simply walking along the river in Male Strana, New Town and in Letna park, which all offer excellent views.
Petrin Tower on Petrin Hill has a great view of the city, but is only open on weekends during the winter. Worth a trip up while in Mala Strana. Strahov Monastery is close by. It doesnít have many rooms open to the public, but you can see two beautiful old libraries and some very old books on display which were interesting. If youíre a John Lennon fan you may be interested to see the graffiti on the wall dedicated to him at Velkopreborske Square. One especially interesting museum I saw was the Museum of Ethnology, officially part of the National Museum but held in the Kinsky Summer House Musaion on the south end of Petrin Hill. I got the impression that very few tourists go through here, and few people there seemed to be able to speak English. They first tried to tell me I must have the wrong place, but after some difficult communication we determined that it was indeed the place I was looking for. Most of the displays only have Czech descriptions, but there are some signs with English. The museum isnít huge, but has a descent collection of clothing, costumes and everyday tools used at various times in the region. If youíre into cultural history, you will find it very interesting.
The castle area has many interesting places to see. Loreto convent is amazing, and St. Nicholas Church is a very conspicuous building along the skyline. Since this is a hilly area of town, there are a lot of great views along the streets. Nerudova street if very touristy but has lots of great restaurants. U Certa, at the east end of Nerudova, was recommended to me and it was excellent and very reasonably priced. The castle complex itself is interesting to walk through, with St. Vitus Cathedral towering over everything. It was free to get inside the complex and the cathedral. I didnít feel a tour was necessary, but it may be interesting. If youíre feeling up to a challenge, climb up the 300 or so spiral stairs to the top of the tower. The view at the top is incredible on a clear day.
Charles Bridge and Old Town were packed with tourists, even in mid-November, but this doesnít detract too much from the sights. Thereís a tower on the Old Town side of the bridge with a staircase taking you to another vantage point providing some great views.
Vysehrad castle was a nice break from the throngs of tourists and it also has some great views over the river. I didnít see the art galleries within the castle complex.
Zizkov was nice to walk through, but would probably be an area to skip if short on time. The television tower is very strange, but probably not worth the time to get there or the money to go up it since there are so many other places in the city with a great view.

VIENNA
I decided to spend a couple days in Vienna at the end of my vacation. I took a train from Praha Holsovice train station to Sudbahnhof in Vienna. I checked into the Wombat ďLoungeĒ hostel near Westbahnhof. The hostel was very clean and looked new. There were only 4 beds in the room I was in, and each person had a locker operated by a magnetic card. You also needed the card to get into the door at the top of the stairs, as well as the room itself, so I felt that it was very safe. They had sheets available at no extra cost. For 3 nights it only cost me about $80. The metro station is very close by. I highly recommend it for solo travelers or youthful couples willing to give up a bit of privacy to save a few hundred bucks vs. a hotel.
Friday night I took in a concert at the Musikverein. I had good seats in the middle and the sound quality from there was incredible. There are signs saying that cameras arenít allowed, but there were a number of people openly taking pictures from the back before the concert, and no one seemed to mind, as long as flash wasnít used.
I toured all around city center on Saturday. Stephansdom is certainly worth seeing inside and out. The top section of the tower was gated off, either because they were working on it or because itís always closed to the public. I saw that there was scaffolding covering part of one of the towers. There was a gift shop before the gate from which you could look out the windows for an amazing view. The Votivkirche is also undergoing renovation. The treasury at Hofburg palace was pretty interesting. It has a huge collection of royal garments, jewelry, and other ornamental objects. The library at the palace was also amazing to see. Since I knew I wouldnít have nearly enough time to devote to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, I decided to go through the art galleries at Belvadere Palace. This was interesting for me, but I am far from being an art critic so I canít give you a meaningful review of the gallery.
Sunday I toured Schonbrunn. Iíd say that if you can only do one palace, and you arenít set on seeing the art galleries in Belvadere or the Treasury or horses at Hofburg, this would be the one to go to. The building is enormous and the rooms were fascinating to see. Also, if you walk south of the palace through the grounds up the hill to the Gloriette, you get a great view of the palace and the city. I also visited Zentralfriedhof, the cemetery that holds the grave of Beethoven and Schubert. I was lucky to find a few people taking pictures of the graves, because itís a huge cemetery and I had no idea where these graves were. I canít really describe how to find these two graves, but Iíd recommend researching this if you want to see them. To get to the site take the U3 to the last stop going southeast Ė Simmering. Then hop the 6 or 71 tram and go south until Zentralfriedhof.
There were Christmas markets at various places around the city. These were really nice places to walk around seeing artwork for sale and lots of options for great food and hot punch.

I really enjoyed the trip, and would definitely see Prague again. Now I need to save up for my next Europe trip!
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Dec 11th, 2007, 08:12 PM
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Dec 11th, 2007, 09:56 PM
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Thanks for posting your thoughts. I'm planning a trip to Prague and Vienna, so all the practical information here has been especially useful to me.
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Dec 12th, 2007, 05:19 AM
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Hope you have a great trip Sharon. I'd be happy to talk about any specifics I didn't cover in the report.
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Dec 12th, 2007, 05:13 PM
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swell report spatzle. Thanks for all the work you put into it.
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Dec 12th, 2007, 07:05 PM
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thanks for taking the time! You've packed a lot of useful info into your report. It sounds like you really did have a good trip.
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Dec 14th, 2007, 06:47 PM
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Mrs. jd and I will be going to Prague in June '08. We found your report to be very useful, with good practical suggestions for us. Thank you for the information.

Do you have any impressions about food or drink to share? We are just beginning to plan, and I only have vague ideas about the dining there. Was there anything you particularly liked or didn't like? Any other restaurants worth mentioning (besides U Certa)?
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Dec 17th, 2007, 08:37 AM
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thanks for the report
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Dec 29th, 2007, 08:08 AM
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Thanks for the comments all, glad you can use the info.
jd: Hopefully I can be of some help with food, but admittedly I'm not much of a food critic, and I only ended up eating at restaurants a few times since I was staying with friends who cooked for me Also, I feel kind of silly sitting at a table by myself at a restaurant so I would usually opt for some quick food at a stand or pick up some fruit in a market and keep walking.
I will say that having grown up in the rural midwest, the "traditional" Czech food really didn't seem very strange at all. You'll see many restaurants advertising a traditional Czech meal consisting of roast pork, bread dumplings (basically a big loaf of bread dough boiled then sliced, I think) and sourkraut or raw, sliced cabbage. There were lots of restaurants that looked good all along Nerudova St. in Mala Strana, just south of the castle. You may want to avoid eating lunch in places that place pretty waitresses at the door who try to draw in tourists for lunch by starting conversations with them in English. This was the case in one place I stopped at in Mala Strana. I think it was called "Coffee Blue Bar" along Na Kampe just south of the Charles Bridge. The food seemed fine to me, but I'm guessing that the need to advertise in this way might indicate that their prices or food quality arenít the best. This meal was around $17 including beer. I've read that it's not customary to tip, other than simply round up, although I still think it's nice to do, and some places will automatically add a 10% service charge onto the bill. Also note that some places will add a "cover charge" onto the bill as well which in my one experience was about $1.50.
I had dinner at another place in Mala Strana along Ujezd, a bit south of Hellichova, called "Downtown Cafe". This was more of a lounge/bar type place but they had great food and the atmosphere was pretty low key and not too smokey in the early evening when I was there. This was the only restaurant I ate at that accepted credit cards.
Czech beer has developed a good reputation worldwide, but most of the labels served there cannot be purchased anywhere else so you should try some out if you like beer. Pilsner Urquel is common in the US, and Budvar is sold here as Czechvar, so you might want to check out some others. I had a Velkopopovický Kozel that I thought was really good. Most restaurants will have a sign out front saying what kind of beer they sell. Unlike in the US, this usually is the ONLY kind of beer they sell, so don't expect to choose from a beer list when you get inside. There are some exceptions. I think Wencelsas square would be a good place to find a variety of beers. Since it was cold while I was there, hot drinks were popular. People were selling hot wine (heated red wine with a few spices added) along Mala Strana and Old Town. Also, grog was popular (rum diluted with hot water). When I asked for grog once the poor lady behind the counter couldn't understand me at all, I think mostly because I forgot to roll the "r". She finally figured it out, but I was surprised that what seems like a small speaking error can really confuse a Czech speaker.
I'm sure you'll find lots of great places to eat and will love your trip to Prague.
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