CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE BY TRAIN: How to plan your itinerary

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It’s very easy and convenient to travel around Central and Eastern Europe by train. The distances are generally not very big and the trains are good and run on time.

Itinerary planning:

We visited Munich, Prague, Brno, Vienna and Budapest. All of them were easy to reach and had good connections.

Another alternative would be to head towards Poland instead, or start out in Romania.

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Booking tickets:

As ever, Seat 61 had all the best tips for booking everything online. The booking process in the various sites was easy and tickets very cheap – the key thing for international trips from Germany is to buy the ticket from the website of the other country you’re visiting: for instance, tickets for the same train from Munich to Prague were much more expensive on Bahn.de than via the Czech website.

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Roadworks:

A few weeks before our trip, I got an email informing of changes to train times and taking a bus replacement for one of the legs of our trip. The email was in Czech, but other than that things went as planned and we didn’t have any issues.

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On the trains:

All the trains we took were punctual, well-equipped and generally very good. Express trains usually had a good cafe on board and served a good range of snacks and drinks.

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COOL BARS AND STREET ART: Yet another break in Budapest

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This was my fourth time in Budapest and the city never disappoints!

After dropping our bags in our flat, we headed out for a late lunch. The area around Lizst Ferenc Ter has lots of cools places, but we stopped at Menza, an old favourite (lunch for three including drinks and tip for 12000 HUF).

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We then explored the area around Andrassy Utca and Kiraly Utca, stopping at the Opera House and checking out the many cool bars around before heading back to our flat for the evening.

In the morning we visited the Central Market Hall. There you can buy local produce, souvenirs and paprika in all its forms. It’s a great place to visit and to stock up if you’re self-catering.

We then took the bus to the other side of the river to explore the area around Buda Castle and the citadel for a bit, although it was cold and a bit rainy.

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We had lunch at the beautiful Mazel Tov (lunch for four including drinks and tip for 12000 HUF). They serve lots of yummy Middle Eastern food with plenty of veggie options.

In the evening we stopped at Szimpla, the most famous of Budapest’s ruin bars for a drink (drinks for four for 3500 HUF) before going home to cook the food we’d bought at the market earlier in the day.

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Thermal baths are very popular in Budapest, and as usual we headed to Szechenyi. This is a massive complex of indoor and outdoor thermal pools, and a nice way of spending a few relaxing hours (weekend day ticket for 5000 HUF).

For lunch we visited Porto di Pest, a nice but a bit expensive place in Liszt Ferenc Ter (lunch for four including drinks and tip for 20000 HUF).

After stopping at our flat for a bit, we met my local friend for drinks and ended the night at Kuplung, which served nice but dodgy cocktails (two drinks for 1200 HUF).

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Our last full day in Budapest was nice and sunny, so we walked to the Shoes on the Danube Bank, a memorial to victims of World War II. We then walked all the way back to Jonas, a craft brewery with nice views over the river (four beers for 3000 HUF).

To finish the trip in style, we had an early dinner at Pomo D’Oro, an upscale Italian restaurant serving delicious pasta and yummy desserts (meal for three including drinks and tip for 24000 HUF).

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Go: We took the train from Vienna (takes about 2h30), but there are plenty of flights from London. Budapest is also a great option for the end of an Eastern Europe trip as it has good connections with the whole region.
  • Stay: We stayed at this fancy place in Kiraly Utca, which was both a great place and the perfect location. Budapest has lots of good accommodation options, so it’s easy to find a good alternative.
  • Money: Budapest is very cheap and even upscale places are affordable in comparison to London prices. Exchange places are easily available and generally the rates are very good as there’s lots of competition.

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COOL RESTAURANTS AND STREET ART: A quick stop in Brno

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We took the train from Prague to Brno. It is the second city in the Czech Republic and has become quite popular recently. As we only had the afternoon to explore, we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed off.

Our first stop was Soul Bistro, a cool cafe and restaurant serving delicious food with plenty of veggie options (lunch for three including drinks and tip for 600 CZK).

We then headed to the Old Town centre and checked out the sights. We climbed the tower at the Old Town Hall (tickets for 70 CZK per person) to get great views over the city centre.

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From there we checked out the Cabbage Market (the main town square) and Peter and Paul Cathedral. After wandering around in the rain a bit more, we stopped for a quick drink at the cute Jedna Basen (drinks for three for 127 CZK including tip). Then it was time to head back to the hotel and pack up again.

Brno is not as beautiful as Prague, but it is an interesting city. There’s a good amount of street art and lots of cool bars and restaurants. It is also definitely cheaper than Prague and much less touristy, so the appeal are the local places which feel more authentic and just nice places to go rather than traditional Czech places.

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Go: Brno is best visited as part of a trip around the region (I wouldn’t stay more than one day). From both Prague and Vienna you can take regular trains which take less than three hours and cost less than 15€.
  • Stay: We stayed at Efi Hotel (we paid 76€ for three people), which was located just off the city centre but was nice, spacious and cheap. They offered a free glass of wine on arrival and free taxi rides to the centre and back. Breakfast was also included.

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GREAT VIEWS AND VEGGIE FOOD: A day in Tallinn

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We took the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn for the day. After exploring the Old Town for a bit, we stopped for lunch at V, a vegan restaurant that was ideally located in the city centre and had the best food (lunch for two including drinks and tip for 30€).

Our next stop was St Olaf’s church – you can climb up the tower to get amazing views over the centre and the bay. Tickets cost only 2€ per person, so it’s definitely worth a go.

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We continued exploring the city centre, finding the Orthodox cathedral and another viewing point nearby. We stopped for a drink at Bogapott, then explored some more of the little corners and alleyways of the Old Town (which is a Unesco Heritage site).

We stopped at the Holy Spirit church, went across St Catherine’s passage and then climbed up Hellemann tower and walls (tickets cost 3€ per person). We then headed to Cafe Inspiration for some more yummy vegan food (a light dinner for two including drinks and tip for 26€) before getting back on the ferry to Helsinki.

Tallinn is definitely worth a visit – what a picturesque place!

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Getting there: Helsinki and Tallinn are very close, so you can take one of the many ferries available.  We chose Linda Line which seemed to have the fastest options (1h30 on the way there and about two hours on the way back). Prices can go up, so it’s best to book in advance (we paid about 40€ return per person). We left Helsinki on the 10am ferry and took the 8pm service on the way back, which gave us plenty of time to explore.
  • Money: Tallinn is very cheap as compared to nearby Helsinki. Drinks at the Old Town for about 3-4€.

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2015 TRAVELLING: The year in review

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Another year, another fourteen trips!

  • In January we were pleasantly surprised by sunny days in Lisbon – perfect for sipping green wine.
  • In February we spent Valentine’s Day in beautiful Paris.
  • In March I took the most amazing photos in Rome – I can’t believe it took me over 10 years to go back!
  • In April we spent a few days in a lovely flat at the heart of Vienna – and had a quick stop in Bratislava.
  • I also visited my friend in Edinburgh and discovered a few new great places for a pint.
  • In May I battled the crowds to visit the amazing ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
  • Later in the month we went back to Venice for another amazing Biennale – and stayed in the best Airbnb ever!

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  • In June we discovered Lithuania is great for craft beers.
  • In July my friend got married in Toronto – and off we went for our Transatlantic adventure of the year!
  • Also in July we visited Warsaw and Krakow – Poland is so nice and so cool!
  • In August I went back to Berlin to get my annual fix of their amazing brunches.
  • In September we crossed Transylvania by train – from Romania to Hungary with many stops along the way!
  • In November we were greeted like kings in Turkey – from Pamukkale to Ephesus and Istanbul.
  • In December we had cheap tapas and wine with friends in Madrid.

What a wonderful year – I can’t wait to see what 2016 has to offer!

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GRAND MOSQUES AND ANCIENT PALACES: One day in Istanbul

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We knew one day wouldn’t be enough to see Istanbul properly, so we got up early to cover as much ground as possible.

Our first stop was Topikapi Palace (tickets cost 30TL per person). This is an impressive palace where you get a good understanding of the life of sultans. The Harem is amazing (tickets cost an extra 15TL), with room after room decorated with intricate patterns from floor to ceiling. You need a few hours to go through everything.

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This is also a great place to get views over the Bosphorus.

We then walked to Hagia Sophia, a monumental display of both Christian and Muslim faith. Tickets cost 30TL. Right across is the famous Blue Mosque. There are set times for tourists to visit, so we only managed to see it from the outside.

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In the afternoon we visited the Grand Bazaar. This is a great place to buy presents: there are lots of options for ceramic tiles, lamps, jewellery and much more.

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Prices were really cheap, and you can get discounts by bargaining a bit. This was a much more manageable experience than the souks in Marrakesh – most things had prices on them and shopkeepers were friendly but not pushy.

This was all we had time for in one day – I will definitely come back for more!

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Food:

Turkish food is great for vegetarians. There are lots of meze options (stuffed vine leaves, hummus, salads, etc) and many places offered some kind of vegetable stew as a main dish. The local pizza (pide) was really yummy.

In Istanbul there are lots of little cafes where you can choose a selection of small dishes from a buffet. These are a good and cheap alternative for lunch. Baklavas, ice cream and Turkish delights shops are everywhere, with impressive displays of delicious sweets.

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Go: Turkish Airlines have the cheapest flights from London. The flight takes a little under 4h. There are two airports in Istanbul – we used Sabiha Gokcen which was on the Asian side of the city and a bit tricky to get to, so Ataturk airport would be a better alternative.
  • Stay: We stayed at Basileus Hotel in Sultanahmet. This was a good hotel but there are plenty of options around. Sultanahmet is definitely the best area to stay, as you are within walking distance from many local highlights. It’s also near tram and metro stops.

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