Part 2: Bratislava!

If you were with me for part one then you’ll know I was sad to be leaving Budapest. It was an incredible city and one I want to return to but it was only part 1 of a mini Eurotrip discovering four European cities back in 2014.
I couldn’t stay sad for long because soon enough I was using the last of my Hungarian Forints to buy a train ticket to Slovakia.

So what did I really know about Slovakia? Absolutely nothing. I knew Ljubljana was nice and that it had some beautiful lakes and scenery.. wait, wait, wait. That’s Slovenia not Slovakia!

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Slovakia’s famous blue church

Alright, so I didn’t personally get confused –  football goes a long way to broadening my geographical knowledge but they’re both two small European countries and a lot of people genuinely do confuse them. It’s not a great start for Slovakian tourism, is it? “Oops, wrong country”.

You’d think that would be the worst of the struggle that Slovakia has but alas, it isn’t. At least in scenario one you’re stealing some of Slovenia’s tourists too, right?
The bigger issue is that some of Slovakia’s fame is unwanted fame – so the chances are if you have heard of Bratislava/Slovakia it’s probably negative.

It’s a sad reflection on the influence of Western culture. You see what the Western world can do for tourism in places like Croatia for instance – an influx of tourists all wanting to walk the streets of Game of Thrones’ “Kings Landing”. Croatian tourism has soared because of it!

However if you’re a small country like Slovakia, Slovenia or Croatia how much do you need that Western influence to be a positive portrayal rather than a negative one?

“Wait, is it Slovakia or Slovenia with the lakes?”
“Slovenia. Slovakia is the one where Hostel was filmed”
“Isn’t that the horror film where they torture tourists?”
“Yeah, do you want to go?”
“Let’s go to Slovenia instead shall we?”

Bratislava found fame in the two American films ‘Eurotrip’ and ‘Hostel’. Eurotrip depicted it as a miserable hellhole and whilst I haven’t seen the latter I’ve heard enough about it to know the damaging reputation it has had on Slovakia. Unsurprisingly Slovakian tourism nosedived following the release of Hostel in particular. No apologies for the horror pun but tortured tourists doesn’t scream “come to Slovakia”.
In contrast Hostel was a huge success and went on to release follow-up films.

There was a huge backlash to the film, it caused a lot of offence in Slovakia for the way the country had been portrayed. Not to be deterred the Slovakian tourist agency invited director, Eli Roth, to visit Bratislava / Slovakia to show how nice it was. A show of hospitality which was snubbed by the director.

It makes me sad that the influence of the West can have such huge repercussions for smaller countries reliant on tourism so I’ve since awarded myself the title of “unofficial ambassador for Slovakia”. It’s an opportunity to balance the scales a little in Slovakia’s favour.

“So Mr Ambassador, what was Bratislava really like?”

Well let me start with the obvious, I’m writing this post (or am I?) so I escaped Bratislava torture-free. Success! So at the bare minimum, if I convince you of nothing else I can put that myth to bed – no torture!

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Welcome to Slovakia, Mr Ambassador!

You’ve had the background so now back to my trip..

I hopped on a train to Bratislava, well Prague actually, so my first task of the day was to stay awake and get off in the right city! If you know me well you’ll know I have a bad habit of falling asleep on trains so that was easier said than done. Not that waking up in Prague would have been disastrous but Bratislava was the intended destination for my train journey.

It was a nice train too – small-confined compartments that, if you’ve seen the films, reminded me of Harry Potter (without the dementors). I shared my compartment with a couple of guys but it was a nice bit of privacy and made it feel more like a first-class experience. I could have easily dozed off. I’d love more trains like that in the UK, particularly given the train fares accompanying any journey here.

I admired the scenery plus importantly stayed awake and was soon arriving in to Bratislava. As I entered the train station a huge banner reading “Welcome to Slovakia” greeted me. Despite all of the negative things that I’d heard prior to my trip it was an encouraging start to my time in the city.
Shortly after I was arriving at my hostel, that’s right – I braved a hostel stay in Bratislava!

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They lure you in with friendly greetings before they torture you!

Still to this day the hostel remains one of my favourites that I’ve stayed at. It was in a good location, had a friendly vibe to it, decent sized dorm rooms and was nicely decorated. The bar area was somewhere easy to socialise and all in all I’d thoroughly recommend staying at the Blues Hostel if you’re ever in Slovakia. Apparently they have live music on occasions too!
The receptionist checking me in was super friendly and offered a few recommendations for a first-time visitor which I appreciated.

I’d arrived a little later than I would have liked so quickly dropped off my things and made my way in to the old town to have a quick look around. In reality I was mostly interested in finding somewhere to get some dinner and soon found a restaurant that appealed. Despite being the end of October and being a rather chilly day I still found myself sat outside, it just adds to that European experience right?
With a parasol over my head and outside heaters it wasn’t actually too cold and I enjoyed a nice dinner.

The downside to being the end of October is that it gets dark quite early, I’d had a small glimpse of Bratislava but I hadn’t had enough time to familiarise myself with where things were. Rather than get lost in the dark I decided I’d just head back to my hostel and perhaps find some company to enjoy the evening with.

I got chatting to some guy from Argentina at the hostel bar and we shared a couple of beers together before some woman came over and asked if we were joining the pub crawl. It was a bit of a no-brainer for me, I was definitely up for meeting some new people and experiencing Bratislava’s nightlife in the process.
The Argentinian was less keen and I had little luck persuading him so we had one more drink together and then went our separate ways.

The host signalled it was time to go and off we went in search of bar number one. There were only 3 of us from our hostel but I was assured there’d be others joining us at the first bar (there was).
The bonus to being so few of us initially was I quickly got introduced to the other pair, two Finnish girls traveling together. My grandmother was Finnish which has always given me an interest in the country so I instantly perked up at discovering where they were from. I was grateful for Finnish company and a chance to hear more about life in Finland.

At the first bar we joined up with a decent sized group containing Americans, Canadians, Australians and fellow Europeans. Many drinks and many bars followed before winding up at our final destination – a nightclub where we were then left to party for as long as we liked.
I wasn’t planning on being out late and it wasn’t long before I knew I’d had too much to drink and I sensibly called it a night.

Let me start by saying this was my first official pub crawl, of course I’d gone bar-hopping before with friends and stuff but it had always been self-guided pub crawls. In this instance I was a little naïve and I just followed the tour guide throughout the night without paying much attention to where we were going and suddenly wound up at our final stop without having any real idea of where we were or how to get back to my hostel.

No big deal. I jumped in a cab and got myself to bed, right? I’d love to say that’s what happened but in spite of having no idea where I was, drunken Jason knew better. I hadn’t been in Bratislava long enough to familiarise myself with the city but off I went on foot anyway trusting my sense of direction – I figured I had a rough idea of the direction we’d come from and I’d recognise something sooner or later.

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Now in my memory it wasn’t long before I was walking alongside what felt like a motorway in the middle of nowhere. For clarity let me add Bratislava is a really small city and I can’t have walked that far – to back up that logic I flagged down a taxi pretty quickly so I wasn’t that far from civilisation but for dramatic effect we’ll go with how I remember it.

It was pissing down with rain, I was drunk and the further I walked the more hope that seemed to drain out of me. Eventually I admitted defeat and I managed to flag down a taxi driving by. I have some sympathy with the taxi driver who found himself picking up a drunk, drenched and lost little Englishman who couldn’t speak the language – no doubt slurring my words in telling him where to take me to.

I say some sympathy because whilst I was living up to every stereotype that Europeans have of the English, I’ve no doubt he saw an opportunity too. I was 95% soaked because of the downpour and the only bit of dryness left seemingly had “MUG” printed on my forehead.
Having had a little doze in the back of the taxi (I’m a sleepy drunk) I was soon waking up just outside of my hostel with a taxi driver demanding payment.

I can’t remember what the taxi fare was but he could have charged me anything and I’d have been none the wiser. I didn’t give it much thought in the moment but I’m certain he overcharged me for that taxi fare – to top it off I know I left a tip too at the inconvenience of picking up a stranded drunk. I woke up the next morning with my wallet feeling much lighter than I would have liked! Oops!

On the plus side I’d had a really good night, Bratislava’s nightlife hadn’t disappointed and I didn’t wake up feeling particularly rough so I was up at a decent time to go and properly explore Bratislava.

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The weather was still miserable but I made my first stop of the day a walking tour of the city. I’d been a little disappointed with my tour guide in Budapest and this couldn’t have been more of a contrast. It’s one of the better tours I’ve been on and the guide was really knowledgeable / passionate about the city whilst adding a dash of humour along the way. I got talking to one of the other guests on the tour which was an added bonus and helped me enjoy it a little more.

The tour covered most of the old town with the only real absentee the castle. Unsurprisingly I made that my next stop, it’s not a typical castle in appearance I suppose but it easily stands out and is so recognisable. Even better, you can walk around a lot of the castle grounds for free so it’s a must visit on any trip to the city. It’s said you can see Austria from the castle grounds, probably on a clearer day than the one I was there for but I’m not sure how you’d know where the border is anyway as the Danube river effortlessly flows from one country to the next.

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Bratislava castle

I had a walk by the city walls and then popped my head in to a nearby cathedral to temporarily escape the rain. After a little look around I headed back in to the rain and had a further wander through the city. I did so with my Bratislava-tinted glasses on.

Parts of the old town are really pretty and some of the architecture is stunning but I can’t pretend the city is as easy on the eye as its, perhaps, more illustrious neighbours. However there was something about Bratislava that I couldn’t help but admire. Maybe Budapest was more pleasing to look at but there was an authenticity about Bratislava.

It had this European charm about it that I found irresistible but more importantly I felt like it was a city that every day Slovakians lived in. The people were really friendly and there was a homely feel to the city. There are areas that look a little rundown but there wasn’t ever a moment that I felt unsafe in Bratislava and if anything it just endeared the city to me more. There was no pretence about Bratislava, it wasn’t trying to be anything other than itself and it meant the personality of the city shone through. There was no catering to tourists here that you find in other big cities.

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No doubt busier in the summer!

After wandering for a while my thoughts turned towards food and then having a couple of beers in a bar before calling it a night. I wanted to get to Vienna for a reasonable time the next day so it wasn’t a late one (I was sensible this time).

I left Bratislava the next morning pondering if I’d ever go back. It’s a small city and I’ve probably seen much of what there is to see, there’s little reason for me to return and yet there’s a part of me drawn to returning to Slovakia’s capital.

Don’t be mistaken, it’s not the greatest city in the world but it’s one I’d thoroughly recommend not overlooking if you’re visiting that part of Europe. Budapest and Vienna are great, I hear the same of Prague too but Slovakia might just surprise you! Personally I loved it and I hope our paths cross again.

For now though it was time to leave and head onwards to Vienna!

Stay tuned for part 3!

Jason

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Part 1: Budapest – a hidden treasure?

In my last post ( Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Salzburg – why? ) I spoke about my decision-making in planning a mini Eurotrip for October 2014. It was an adventure that would see me visit three countries and four cities over ten days – starting in Budapest!

Honestly, I didn’t really know what to expect from Budapest. I think if I was going for the first time now it’d be less of a struggle but at the time it didn’t seem like anyone was talking about this destination. I was a bit of a novice traveler at the time so maybe I was just looking in the wrong places but Budapest and Hungary were both a bit of an unknown for me.

I didn’t know anyone who had visited and I had never learned anything about Hungary in school so I went there just hoping for the best. In some respects I’m quite thankful I went there blissfully unaware – within a couple of hours I was mesmerised by Budapest and I think it helped with it coming as a surprise rather than the feeling of “I’ve seen this on Instagram 1,000 times already” that I have when visiting some places now.

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Stunning on both sides of the Danube!

I don’t know what the catalyst for change was. Shortly after I booked my trip George Ezra released his hit ‘Budapest’. Without boosting his ego too much (George blatantly reads my blog, right?) I can’t help but feel that it put a little spotlight on Budapest. Alternatively perhaps people were just waiting for the seal of approval from myself before visiting. Whatever the reason (probably not the latter), Budapest appears to be a much more popular destination than it was when I visited in 2014.

Anyway, back to my trip. It’s October 2014 and I’m counting down the days until my adventure begins. My first bit of excitement came when I was exchanging currencies. I picked up Euros for Slovakia and Austria but I also had to get some Hungarian Forints for the trip. I think the exchange rate at the time was around £1 to 300-350 forints which left me walking away with thousands in my wallet and feeling rather rich.

Soon enough I was flying out to sunny Budapest and leaving the miserable English weather behind. I arrived in to Budapest around lunchtime on Saturday and went on the hunt for my hostel – that took some finding. I don’t know why but I never seem to find hostels too easily and I must walk past them several times as they blend in to the other buildings around them. Bizarre.

With three days to explore I didn’t really want to waste any time so I dropped off my things and started to wander towards the river Danube. It was only a short walk from where I was staying and seemed a good place to start my exploration of Budapest. My first impression of Budapest was one of disbelief, I’d been blown away by the beauty of the city and I couldn’t understand how I’d got here without knowing how stunning it is.

With the blue skies and beautiful scenery Budapest had won me over instantly! I continued my walk alongside the Danube, admiring everything in all directions and then I stumbled upon the Hungarian Parliament building for the first time. Wow! I’d seen photos of it online but photos don’t really do it justice. It’s my favourite piece of architecture I’ve seen anywhere and, even with my London bias, it is much more impressive than our own Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

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Budapest Parliament. Photos don’t do it justice!

I don’t know how much time I spent admiring the parliament building, it doesn’t matter what angle you’re seeing it from it isn’t any less impressive. As afternoon quickly turned to evening I decided I should find somewhere for dinner and somewhere to entertain myself for the evening. It was at that point I realised how cheap Budapest is. I’ve always been good at numbers but I was left second guessing myself if I’d calculated the exchange rate correctly – “that must be wrong” I thought as I came to the conclusion that a beer, dinner and a tip was still ridiculously cheap.
After a couple of drinks I called it a night and had a relaxed first evening in Budapest, keen to get off to an early start the next day.

I started my day off with a “free” walking tour, I find that these are a great way to familiarise yourself with a city and you usually learn a few things along the way. For instance I quickly learned that one side of the city was called “Buda” and the other side of the river called “Pest” and between them they formed one city called, that’s right, Budapest! Who knew?

I wasn’t overly impressed with the specific tour-guide but overall it was a good tour, covered a few of the sights and gave me a better understanding of the history of the city. It also offered me a little inspiration for other things to see in the city that weren’t covered on the tour. The tour began on the Pest side of the river but it finished off in Buda, I was staying in Pest so hadn’t ventured to this side of the river yet so it was quite convenient to explore a little more over here.

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Views of Pest from Buda!

Buda is on much higher ground so offers great views overlooking the river and the Pest side of the city – in particular the parliament building which is perhaps best viewed from the Buda half of the city.
After a little wandering I made my way back over to Pest in time to catch a tour which explored the Jewish district a little more. I was fascinated to learn how involved Hungary were in the rise of the Nazi regime around World War 2 – a history, much like Germany, that they’re not proud of but don’t shy away from re-telling.

The tour was really interesting, not just telling the history of the Jewish district but also showing it off in a modern climate. You’ll find the largest Synagogue in Europe here but also plenty of street art, restaurants and bars making it one of the livelier (and cheapest) parts of the city to enjoy an evening.

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Exploring the Jewish district!

Following the tour I found some dinner in a nearby restaurant and then headed back to my hostel for a little downtime before deciding what to do with my Sunday evening.
I was sharing a 4 bed dorm in my hostel and on my return I found a fully occupied room. The other 3 guys coming from Scotland, Switzerland and Pakistan. We quickly established we were all in the same boat – traveling solo around Europe and up for a night out with new friends.

Budapest is famous for its ruin bars and it wasn’t long before we were heading out in search of the city’s most famous – Szimpla Kert. Words don’t really do it justice as to how unique it is but it’s a must visit and you can find some photos of it here: Szimpla Kert

From the outside you’d never know what was awaiting inside in what is one of the quirkier bars you’re likely to visit. It attracts both tourists and locals alike, perhaps more the former as it’s one of the highest rated bars in the world. Tripadvisor had it rated as the 3rd best bar worldwide at the time of my visit I believe. It’s definitely worth a visit and if you don’t fancy the crowds in the evening they do host a farmers market during the day on a Sunday too.
After a few beers and a few shots we called it a night and went in search of a kebab house on the way back to our hostel. It was a great night and a highlight of my time in Budapest.

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Entrance to the Szechenyi baths!

I’d ticked off a ruin bar on my Budapest bucketlist, the other thing the city is famous for are its baths/spas which was on my list for Monday. I’m not a spa type person but “when in Rome..”

The Szechenyi baths are Budapest’s biggest and most famous and perhaps the one you’re going to see recommended most – they even have a bath party on Saturday nights during the peak season. However it’s worth noting there are several in Budapest and if you want to escape the crowds you’ve got other options too. I chose the second route and found one on the Buda side of the city. If you’re in to that sort of thing they’re probably well worth a visit but I found the experience a little underwhelming and made use of the pool more than anything.

It did however set the tone for the rest of my day. I felt fairly relaxed and in the end I decided rather than rush around trying to do a million things in a day to just enjoy the city at my own pace. By this point I knew I’d be coming back to Budapest some day and I didn’t want to spoil my experience by rushing around when it could wait for future visits.

After a little breather I went and found a lunch spot near my hostel and had the most amazing goulash – not something I’d normally eat but I was in the mood for something a little more traditionally Hungarian and it was a really good decision – probably my best meal in Budapest!
The rest of the day was just spent wandering before settling down in a bar for a few drinks.

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Vadjahunyad Castle

I woke up on Tuesday morning a little down-hearted. I didn’t want to say goodbye to Budapest yet and there was definitely a part of me tempted to change my plans to stay a little longer. However I knew an extra night in Budapest meant a night less somewhere else and I didn’t want to miss out elsewhere. I made my way to the train station suffering a bit of the holiday-blues at the realisation that I was leaving.

Then it dawned on me. Yes, I was leaving but not to go home. I was leaving Budapest behind and heading onwards to part 2 of the adventure. I still had 3 cities to explore, why was I moping about?

I used up the last of my forints to book a train to Bratislava and then grabbed a beer until it was time to leave.
I took my seat in a small enclosed carriage on the train and said farewell to Budapest, however the adventure wasn’t over. I was off to Bratislava!

More on that soon!

Jason

Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Salzburg – why?

In my last post I spoke about my plans for a 30 day trip to the USA this summer.  Planning a multi-location trip takes a lot more work than a one-stop holiday and that’s certainly true with the US where there is an endless number of places to visit. Planning this trip has given me so much to think about to make it work, fortunately it’s not my first multi-destination trip and that takes us on to my next batch of posts!

My last destination post focused on my trip to Berlin! in August 2014. A couple of months later I was jetting off again! Back in October 2014 I embarked on my biggest adventure yet. Alright, it’s perhaps debatable as you could say Sydney was a bigger adventure but that was just one location to plan for. This trip would see me visit four cities across three countries in 10 days! A mini-European tour featuring Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Salzburg!

My next few posts will be dedicated to those four destinations so stay turned but first let me explain why these particular places as they’re perhaps surprising choices. I mean, does anyone really go to Bratislava?
“Haven’t you seen the films?!”

Spoiler: Bratislava is lovely. Go now!

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Bratislava castle – so recognisable!

Anyway, to explain why we have to start at the end of the trip! You might recall from my Lisbon (Mar 2014) and Barmouth (Apr 2014) posts that I was in a “long” distance relationship which was slowly coming to its conclusion.
Long distance relationships are tough, I seemed to spend half of my time traveling back and forth on trains (and bus replacements!) between Peterborough and Birmingham and at times it was a little draining.

It would have been easy to be put off of the idea of long distance after that experience but instead I went the opposite way and continued a cycle of falling for women further and further from home. I don’t think I limit myself to a “type” but you see movies and such glamourise the “girl next door” whereas my dating history is more like “girl 20,000 miles away”.

“Where are you from?”
“Peterborough”
“Bleurgh.. how about you?”
“Mars!”
“You’re fantastic, I’ll fall in love with you!”

It’s not that simplistic. I don’t do it purposely of course but nevertheless my dating history makes for comical reading. Things didn’t work out with Jasmine (Birmingham) and I’ve since become close to Nicole (Germany), Mella (Georgia, USA) and currently Haleigh (Washington State). Each subsequent relationship has resulted in me falling harder and typically being further away from home. Birmingham suddenly doesn’t seem so far away! Haha!

Anyway there’s a little background for you, now back to the story. Leading up to Berlin I was a little resigned to the fact that I felt something for Nicole, we’d been talking pretty much daily for a few weeks and we’d become pretty close in that time.

Berlin was probably the last trip I had where I was “off the grid”, no contact with anyone back home or in the South of Germany. If I’d had any doubts about long distance with a woman in Germany, spending 2-3 days of not talking quickly made it clear how I felt.  There was no guarantee it was mutual or, even if it was, that long-distance was a good idea but I couldn’t keep my feelings to myself any longer and had to say something! Fortunately the feelings were mutual.

Talk quickly developed in to actually meeting up and spending a little time together to see if the spark between us worked as well in person.
One of the things we had particularly bonded over was our taste in music which meant we talked about possibly going to a gig together. We kept our eyes peeled for any bands touring and soon found a band touring Europe that we both liked.

We browsed through the tour dates and Salzburg (Austria) stood out as one of the best options. It was a weekend gig which suited both of our schedules perfectly and it meant that we both got a little adventure out of the country!

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Beautiful Salzburg!

So that covers why I went to Salzburg! Why did it end up being a multi-city trip and why these particular destinations?

I was excited for a weekend together in a country I’d yet to visit, however I also had a decent bit of annual time left to use at work and we were approaching the end of the year so I had to use it up pretty soon!
Whilst Nicole’s schedule was less flexible there was nothing stopping me exploring solo for a little longer before winding up in Salzburg, so that’s what I did and I extended my trip a week!

I booked a one way flight home from Salzburg and just had to figure out where I was going to start and how I was going to get to Salzburg.
I knew Salzburg was somewhere near Germany and in Austria but as it was somewhere I hadn’t been to I couldn’t really visualise exactly where it was in Europe. I figured once I knew where Salzburg was that I could then narrow down my starting points.

The problem with Salzburg in particular is it seems to be, smack, bang, in the middle of Europe. Take Amsterdam for instance – unless you fly you can only attack it from Belgium or Germany which helps the planning process if that’s where you want to end up. As I looked at Salzburg on a map I realised there were places I would happily visit North, South, East and West of the city – having one location on the itinerary was of little help.

It also didn’t help that, at the time, I hadn’t seen an awful lot of Europe. As far as mainland Europe was concerned I’d only really been to Köln, Brussels, Bruges and Lisbon which were all too far away to have been realistic starting points on a 9/10 day Eurotrip anyway. It was back to the drawing board.

As I planned out the various routes, costs and attractiveness to each place I kept leaning towards Budapest – I feel like in the four years since I visited that Budapest has boomed but at the time it wasn’t somewhere I’d seen much of, nor did I knew anyone who had been. Nevertheless I stuck a pin in Budapest and had my starting point.

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Overlooking the Danube River in Budapest

Budapest to Salzburg! That cut down the possible routes and I figured I’d have to travel through most of Austria to get to Salzburg so one obvious destination that sprung out was Vienna. All that was left to decide was whether I keep it at a 3 city trip or 4. If four, would it be between Budapest and Vienna or between Vienna and Salzburg.

Costs played a part, Austria was expensive so squeezing in a third Austrian city was going to make it a much more expensive trip. Between Budapest and Vienna was another small country (Slovakia) and another capital city, Bratislava.

Bratislava is often overlooked in favour of its illustrious neighbours Vienna, Budapest and Prague. I’d only heard bad things about Bratislava which is sad and I imagine can only be from people who’ve never actually visited. It did put a little doubt in my mind but what swayed me was the fact that it was super cheap! Two nights in Bratislava plus an extra train journey still worked out to be cheaper than a night in Vienna so I gambled and slotted it in to the itinerary.

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Vienna!

This was my final itinerary and thoughts if you were considering doing similar.

3 nights in Budapest – not long enough. I would recommend 5 days.
2 nights in Bratislava – just right. Doable as a day trip if you’re traveling onwards but I would personally recommend staying overnight. I loved Bratislava’s charm and it has a good nightlife too.
1 night in Vienna – impossible. You can’t do Vienna in a day. A city I’ll have to return to.
3 nights in Salzburg – good weekend trip. I would personally recommend 2 nights.

Personally I have no regrets, as much as I would have liked an extra night in Budapest/Vienna I wouldn’t have wanted to sacrifice a night elsewhere.

Anyway, that is how my October 2014 trip came together. In my next four posts I will be going in to much more depth about experience in all four cities and my quest for love!

Stay tuned!

Jason