Budapest and Prague
Historic cities witness a cultural rebirth

The great cities of Central Europe shine with an elegance burnished by time. True, you may stumble over grim vestiges of the past in Prague and Budapest, harsh evidence of the Communist era. But just strolling through rejuvenated districts amid centuries of splendid architecture, or sitting in cafés bordering vibrant squares, you feel exhilarated by a proud sense of cultural rebirth. So different, yet so similar, both cities exude an historical aura that resonates a chord in the souls of all visitors. Whether or not your ancestors ever trod their cobbled streets, fled political strife, or perished during the Holocaust, you can't help but feel an immersion or mixed emotions. Take time to drink in the atmosphere of both cities and you'll taste the joyous rush of the café and culture scene - an apt antidote to the poignant testimonies to the past.

Prague is pure romance, with layer upon layer of beauty. Lucky the tourist who sees the "City of a Thousand Spires" rise glorious in sunshine from a drizzly fog. It is a thrilling ritual to walk the 14th century Karluv Most (Charles Bridge), lined with medieval sculptures, across the Vltava River from the Old Town to Mala Strana (New Town). Explore Prague on both sides of the river. In Mala Strana, the baroque Wallenstein Palace complex houses St. Vitus Cathedral, a marvel Gothic architecture, its façade sparkling with millions of tiny ceramic chips. As you absorb the embellished architecture in Celetna ulice (Old Town Square), you pass romantically entwined couples lingering at cafes and at the foot of Tower Clock, waiting for the procession of 12 apostles to exit every hour. For all of Prague's ancient splendor, don't miss the "new" 20th century areas: the broad boulevard of edifices leading to Wenceslas Square and the formidable National Museum. Just across the road is the Prague Opera, one of Europe's most exquisite concert halls, with gilded interior and brilliant frescoes. Prague resounds with music from classical to jazz to live dance and puppet theatre (best is Don Giovanni). Visit the 19th-century Rudolfinum, home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and site of the Prague Spring Music Festival. The National Theatre, home of opera and ballet, is an icon of Czech pride where ceiling frescoes depict mythology. The Laterna Magika - where Vaclav Havel directed the 1989 Velvet Revolution that cut the ties of Communism - features cutting-edge multimedia performances. Prague has seen a remarkable revival in its Jewish Heritage considering the Nazi onslaught on Kristallnacht, November 9,1938. The best way to explore Joseefov (Jewish Town) and the displays of the Jewish Museum (scattered about a dozen historic synagogues) is to buy an all-inclusive ticket in the 13th century Old New Synagogue (circa 1270, the oldest Gothic building in Prague) and follow the free map.

Budapest flanks both banks of the winding Danube River, with flat Pest on one side joined to hilly Buda on the other with picturesque bridges. High on the crest of Buda, the Varahegy Castle District holds court with a series of medieval castles. Here are the Royal Castle, the Hungarian National Gallery, the 13th century Gothic Matthias Church, and an exotic clutch of towers linked by a parapet dubbed "the Fishermen's Bastion" that gives superb views of the Danube and the ornate Gothic spires of the Parliament in Pest. Much of Budapest's historic grandeur is inconspicuous, hidden beneath a crust of communist-era grime. But venture indoors, and you will find ornamental interiors resplendent with gilt-edged frescoes of winged angels and mythical souls. Don't miss the Parliament, the Opera House, the National Museum of Fine Arts and the Hungarian National Museum, which borders Heroe's Square, a site that is familiar from television broadcasts. Follow the waterfront from the Parliament to the Chain Bridge to the Vaci utca, a lively pedestrianized street lined with shops and cafes. It leads to a lovely square where the 19th Century Gerbaud's is internationally acclaimed for its Hungarian cake and fragrant tea. Pest's Jewish sites center around the 1859 Moorish-style Dohany utca Synagogue, Europe's largest active synagogue survived as concentration camp for Jews en route to Auschwitz. Nearby stand poignant monuments to Raoul Wallenburg (the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Budapest Jews) and Swiss Consul Charles Lutz (who set up "protected" houses and issued identity papers). A wing of the synagogue - within the home of Zionist pioneer Theodore Herzl - houses the Jewish Museum.

The weather is best from late spring to early fall. Winters can be bitter.
Both countries offer accommodations from simple to sublime.
Research websites (;,
but book through a reliable travel agent.
Shopping is good for handicrafts, glass and crystal.
Unfortunately, petty criminals run rampant in Central Europe.
So be alert. Wear a concealed money belt.
Leave precious possessions behind.



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