Berlin, Prague, Vienna: Far from the beaten European path
For my two-month tour of Europe with my siblings, I had really wanted to go Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. Travelers may not gravitate toward these places as much as they do the more well-known ones such as Spain and France, but we decided to add Berlin, Prague and Vienna to our itinerary, and we are glad we did.
After a few weeks in the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands, exploring this part of Europe was quite an adventure especially with the language barriers and cultural eye openers.
After London, Paris and Amsterdam, Berlin came as a shock to us when it came to commuting. Although there are trams everywhere, Berlin is a sprawling city with an alphabet that we didn’t understand. Our untrained eyes and minds could not remember most of the stations and street names. It’s best to come prepared with a map.
We chose Prenzlauer Berg as our home base for the two full days we had to explore the city. It’s considered central, but quieter than Berlin Mitte. It’s a pretty neighborhood with a lot of bars and cafes and trendy independent boutiques.
We first headed over to Mitte, where most of the museums and tourist attractions are.
First up was the Berlin Wall’s East Side Gallery, a 1.3-kilometer portion of the wall that is kept as a memorial to freedom and features the works of over 100 international artists.
One can easily spend a a few hours here, and end the walk at Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known border between the old East and West Berlin and a symbol of the Cold War.
From there one can make one’s way back to the Berlin Wall and reward oneself with the most popular Berlin street food: Currywurst.
This local favorite is basically a fried pork sausage doused with curry ketchup and served with french fries and mayo. It makes a great, albeit junky, snack. One should not forget to ask for a German Beer to wash it down.
One can then walk across the Spree to Kreuzberg, a trendy area known for its different international cuisines, owing to the large immigrant population. Though a bit run down, it has a lot of character and history.
We also visited the DDR museum, which is devoted to the history of the former German Democratic Republic. This interactive museum shows the social history of the former East Germany.
If you are a fan of street art, you will find Berlin graffiti heaven. One can spend an entire day admiring the art on the public walls. Everywhere one looks there is either a beautifully crafted piece or just a quick spray-painted scribble. One can even go a step farther and join a street art tour and workshop via alternativeberlin.com, where one is taught the basics of street art and go home with one’s own art piece.
One can also spend a day on Museum Island, which houses five of Berlin’s most important museums, including the one that exhibits the bust of Nefertiti.
On a Sunday, one can also visit the flea market at Prenzlauer Berg’s Mauer Park, and bring home a few vintage finds.
Whatever one decides to do in Berlin, one must do as the locals do—rent a bicycle. Not only will one get to know the city better, one will also be able to work out a bit.
After Berlin, we took a train to Prague. We made sure to get off at Prague Hlvani Nadrazi (Central) Station and not the one before, where our tickets said we were supposed to disembark.
Our initial Prague experience was with a taxi driver that scammed us into paying twice the amount to get to our hostel. Although one should not judge an entire city by one bad experience, it sure does pay to be on the alert for unscrupulous characters.
We booked a room in a sweet little hostel called Miss Sophie’s, about a 10-minute walk to Old Town, which is where one really hangs out in Prague.
We were thinking of going two hours out to Kutna Hora to see the famous and eery Bone Church, but if one is under time limit like we were, it’s best to explore the city instead. It’s small enough for one to explore in just a day, and everything one wants to see is within Old Town.
Don’t expect much from Czech cuisine. The few traditional restaurants we went to were a bit of a disappointment and in fact, we enjoyed the local street food more.
One of my favorites was Trdelnik, bread cooked around a cylinder over hot coals and dusted with sugar, cinnamon and nuts. It’s a great snack you can have while walking around the city. It will definitely satisfy a Pinoy’s craving for sweet afternoon snack.
Another delicious, but quite heavy, snack is fried cheese sandwiches, consisting of a thick slab of smoked cheese that is grilled and placed in a roll.
Also available at Wenceslas Square and Old Town are sausage sandwiches and roast pork, both hearty enough to be considered a meal, allowing one to eat on the go.
If one is into bar hopping, Prague has bars dedicated to the infamous spirit, Absinthe, and although it is said that the ones manufactured and sold over there are no longer authentic, it may be worth one’s while to duck into a watering hole for a few drinks.
One main attraction that is not to be missed is the Prague Castle, where one can spend an entire morning or afternoon exploring the largest ancient castle in the world dating back to the 9th century.
From Wenceslas Square, one can walk up the hill to the castle in only 20 minutes. One must not forget to take lots of photos at sunrise or sunset while walking along Charles Bridge, but one must keep a watchful eye on one’s things as pickpockets infest the high-tourist area.
If one can deal with another uphill climb, one should visit the Prague metronome, a giant lookout on top of a hill that boasts spectacular views of the entire city. Behind it is a skate park that is always filled with skateboarders from all over the world.
The Old Jewish Cemetery is also worth a visit. At first glance, there are over 10,000 tombstones visible to the public, but what some don’t know is that the graves are actually buried under other graves and there are probably over a hundred thousand in all!
One should spend the rest of one’s time in Old Town watching the buskers and admiring the oldest working astronomical clock through the hourly show.
The biggest and most pleasant surprise of this leg of our trip was Vienna.
First of all, Vienna is beautiful. It’s a very historic and picturesque city. But it’s also very modern and urban.
On our first afternoon, we strolled down the Donaukanal or the Danube Canal. Lined with restaurants and bars, it gets very busy here in the summer, as the locals sit under the sun and enjoy the cool breeze of the water over a few drinks.
It’s lined with lovely street art and there is a distinct “city” vibe in this area. One should grab a bite or a beer here before walking about 10 minutes to the city center where one can admire St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which has been around since the 1100’s.
Even if you don’t go to church or aren’t Catholic, this structure can be appreciated solely from an aesthetic point of view. A perfect example of how it blends the old and the new seamlessly—this almost 900-year-old church is surrounded with modern comforts such as cafes and high-street shops.
From here, one can take the 15-minute walk to Museumsquartier, which houses large museums such as the Leopold and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as exhibition spaces. It’s nice to hang out in the courtyard on a summer evening, where one will see tourists and locals sitting on the ground with a bottle of wine, or where one can have a drink from a nearby bar.
One must not miss visiting Naschmarkt, Vienna’s biggest food market and home to everything, from traditional Viennese fare to international cuisine. The restaurants and food stalls are open throughout the week, except Sunday. If you happen to be in Vienna on a Saturday, the food stalls are joined by a large flea market that sells everything, from vintage vinyls to clothes and bric-a-brac.
On a weekend, the Rathaus, or Town Hall, also stages free concerts at certain times of the year, and one can spend the afternoon sitting in the park after grabbing a drink and some food from one of the many stalls.
My favorite street food in Vienna was Kaiser Krainer, or cheese-filled sausage served with bread and mustard. I would have eaten it every mday if there wasn’t apfelstrudel and sacher torte to be had as well!