10 Reasons You Should Travel Central Europe in the Winter

  1. No lines.

    Except for one 10 minute wait to get into a palace in Vienna, we waltzed freely into every tourist trap or treasure with little to no wasted time!

  2. The epic pre-walking tour bundle.

    There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a medieval knight than spending half-an-hour layering pants, sweaters, scarves and mittens (yes, I even layer my mittens) before heading to the nearest castle.

  3. No strangers in my pictures.

    In the winter you can actually snap shots of iconic castles, famous graffitied walls, and beautiful bridges without Wanda World Traveler or Sandy Snap-Happy messing up your perfect shot.

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    Usually a busy garden outside the Bavarian State Chancellery…not in February

  4. Cheap accommodations.

    Who visits northern Hungary in January? Only the bravest souls. So Airbnb hosts and hostels have to pay their guests to stay. We found a beautiful quiet room in the centre of Budapest (surrounded by more restaurants and bars than we could count) for €15 a night–that’s a quarter of the summer price! What a steal.

  5. Hot drinks.

    If you are traveling Europe in the winter, you will not get to choose when to take sightseeing breaks. No, you will be forced to seek refuge at your body’s discretion. The good news is there are more hot alcoholic drink options than you can count. My favourite, so far, is rum and Early Grey tea. I kid you not, the cup was so hot I had to set it on the floor for a bit while carrying it to my table.

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    One of the many cappuccinos that keep my travel companion alive

  6. Historical empathy.

    Ever wondered what it feels like to be a medieval peasant? Take a three hour walking tour in minus fifteen degrees and helplessly watch as sleet begins to fall from the sky.

  7. Window seat views.

    Nothing is so beautiful as a snow capped Slovakian mountain or an ice crusted German forest, especially when they can be experienced from the warmth and comfort of a bus or train. Summer tourists may find public transport or travel days inconvenient, but winter travellers know how to count their blessings.

  8. Extended Christmas.

    In Poland, Christmas cheer stretches on into January. So if you haven’t had enough of Christmas carols and evergreen boughs you will find plenty of both in most town squares and some restaurants.

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  9. Ice skating and sledding.

    Choose an iconic building and then instead of paying the entrance fee, go skating or sledding in front of it!Here are just a few of the winter fun locations we noticed or experienced:

    Skating:
    Warsaw, Poland – Palace of Art and Science and old town square both have picture perfect rinks.
    Krakow – Galeria Krakowska near the old town.
    Prague – Any one of these eight great options.

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    Skating rink in Old Town Warsaw

    Sledding:
    Kassel, Germany – Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel (Here I speak from experience)
    Slovakia – A short walk off of almost any roadway in the beautiful High Tatras mountains

  10. Ego boost.

    Pat yourself on the back, you could be laying on a beach in Thailand, trying to surf in Australia, or tasting exotic food in India, but instead you are carrying a feather light backpack (since you are wearing every piece of your clothing) and wondering if these castle grounds would be prettier in the summer. You have chosen the road less travelled (at least this time of year) and for that you should be proud! Locals will smile and thank-you for gracing them with your off-season presence. Every restaurant server will forgive your inability to speak their language (due to your incessant shivering). Congratulations, you have earned yourself a travel badge…now get yourself to Istanbul.fullsizeoutput_2cd

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Lost in Prague

January 4-6

“Do you think it’s time to leave Europe?”
I said it without a hint of a smile and I certainly wasn’t joking.

To understand how we got to this point at about 12:30pm on a Monday, you need to understand the events of the previous three days or so. Somewhere in Vienna I picked up one of those standard seasonal colds. You know how it goes: uncontrollable sneezing, a throat full of glass shards, and the primal urge to turn every flimsy paper within arms reach into a snot bomb. It’s not like I’ve never had a cold before, but this one was particularly bad because I spent the first two days in a stubborn state of denial. Partly because I didn’t want to spend any precious Vienna moments napping, but also because Jakob had been sick no less than 4 times in the last month and I had begun to tie a significant portion of my identity to being indestructible.

When I finally admitted that I had a cold several important decisions had to be made. In lieu of lotion tissues, I had to turn one of my two scarves into a temporary hanky. I know it sounds gross, but I had already lost the first five layers of my nose to the cruelties of European toilet paper while in the denial days. Travel has taught me that a good scarf can be almost anything: a pillow, a towel, an eye mask for sleeping, a picnic blanket, a cover for bra-less days, why not a snot dookie? (fyi: that’s a dutch word for a cloth/rag NOT a poop).

The second decision I had to make was when to take a nap. For most adults it works something like this:
“Am I tired?”
“Am I supposed to be somewhere right now?”
“Is there a reasonable place for me to lay/recline?”
If the answers to those questions are “Yes,” “No,” “Yes” in that order then, GOOD NEWS, it’s nap time!

For me it’s a bit more complicated:
“Have I accomplished what I set out to do today?”
“Am I too hungry to sleep?”
“Is there some insignificant thing going on that I am unreasonably afraid of missing out on?”
The possible questions continue…

Finally, Jakob took control of the situation, “you have five and a half months to see Europe, calm down and take a freaking nap.”

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A piece of art that I could be looking at instead of napping

So by the time we arrived in Prague (February 5th, aka day three of the Vienna cold), my number one concern was no longer sightseeing but rather making sure I had enough toilet paper and lip chap in my pockets at all times. Also hydration. That was the other main concern. In fact, when the absolutely loveable and undeniably persuasive staff at our hostel announced the start of a drinking game, I was eager to join, as long as I could drink water. We made quick friends around that table: American, Mexican, English, German, Spanish, Brazilian, and of course Canadian. By the end of the game, I was thoroughly hydrated and ready for bed, while Jakob (who had not been drinking water) was eager to continue the party with his new found travel besties.
“Ya you should go out babe, have fun!”
Jaws dropped around the table. “Your wife is the coolest.” “If only all girlfriends were like her.”
I laughed. Little did they know that I couldn’t be happier to know that I was going to get a full 12 hours of sleep while Jakob had all of his extrovert needs taken care of…that’s a sweet deal in the world of introvert-extrovert marriages.

As I was drifting off to sleep to the sound of the bar-going crowd gathering outside on the street these thoughts crossed my mind:
“Jakob’s cell phone probably isn’t fully charged.”
“He probably hasn’t looked at a map of the city.”
“Does he even know the hostel’s address?”
I shrugged off the anxious thoughts and drifted off to sleep.

At 5 am I woke up to see my husband fast asleep one bunk bed over. I breathed a sigh of relied and returned to blissful cold-fighting sleep. The next morning I got the real story and like a good historian I didn’t settle for just one source.

Jakob’s account:  he left the bar at about 2 am. After waiting FOREVER for the rest of the group he decided to set off on his own using directions on his phone. When his phone died he spent 45 minutes negotiating with various taxi drivers and traipsing around the unfamiliar city, until he found one place he recognized: the train station.

Alexis: “He got lost!!! I put the instructions in his phone! How could he have gotten lost!?!”

Matt: “He got lost!!! I told him to just wait 5 minutes and by the time I got outside all I could see was an orange sweater bobbing off in the distance. He was too far to catch so we went for burritos.”

Zach (night receptionist): Ya I was watching the camera and saw him show up like half an hour after everyone else. Couldn’t figure it out, I heard he left first.”

I couldn’t help but feel a little bit satisfied knowing that Jakob really is lost without me.

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Ok I kind of don’t blame him for getting lost…Medieval streets aren’t really designed for easy navigation

But it turns out the worst wasn’t quite over. The next day we were a delightful cocktail of hung-over and tired mixed with head cold and frustration. Each decision: join walking tour or walk on our own, stop for hot drinks or eat the snack we packed, take a left or take a right, was fraught with our combined inability to communicate and think.

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Even in our grumpy state we didn’t forget to admire Prague’s gorgeous medieval streets

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Gotta love a good town square.

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This is the oldest functioning astronomical clock in the world! It was installed in 1410 and the art and science of it are completely mind blowing. The clock shows the position of the sun in the sky, the phases of the moon, tracks 3 different time telling systems, indicates the astrological signs, and countless other amazing details. It is rated the second most over rated tourist attraction in Europe, but I would disagree.

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The iconic Charles Bridge, with a view of castle hill. To give you an idea of our level of tourist enthusiasm on this day you should know that we only walked about a quarter of the way across before giving up and turning back *face palm*

Not long after telling Jakob that he was “being impossible” and after he told me that “he couldn’t feel anything.” We collapsed into chairs at a hipster café. I told him that I didn’t care what he wanted, “I am ordering you a coffee…something strong.” As he downed the weirdest double espresso of his life I got busy problem solving.

After a short discussion about the issues: “Every day is the same…tours, old stuff…strangers, strange cities…cold, so cold…where is the sun? When is the last time we saw the sun?” The words came out of my mouth: “Do you think it’s time to leave Europe?”

We sat in that low moment for a few minutes, shook our heads and laughed.

Who are we kidding? I love old stuff, and Jakob, these cities aren’t just old they’re alive and full of people, interesting people! We are having a great time and we can’t let one bad night derail it all. We found one thing we could agree on: the trip wasn’t a write off, but the day was. So we headed back to the hostel where we napped and read books until all our friends from the night before showed up. As we sat down for a family-style dinner together I felt the worst of my cold receding. I still wasn’t sure if the sun would finally come out tomorrow or not, but I was sure of two things:

  1. I was about to make some very good friends in Prague
  2. I had the best friend I could ask for right beside me already

The Vienna Pass: Love it or Leave it?

Almost every major European city has some sort of visitor pass scheme. Half the time these passes are worth every penny, and the other half of the time they give you minor discounts to an array of sub par museums and one free fanny pack stuffed with useless coupons. So if you’re a budget traveler who also likes to pack a lot of sightseeing into each day, the most difficult part of any trip is figuring out whether or not to buy your destination’s golden ticket to tourist bliss. Well, I am happy to report that the Vienna Pass is one visitor pass that is well worth the price. Here’s how to make the best use of it.

img_0313My husband and I visited during the first week of February, not exactly the most scenic time to visit Vienna, but at least we got a 10% winter discount on our Vienna cards. We bought the 3 day pass for 80€ (regular: 89€). The Vienna Pass is a relatively new tourist card that offers free entrance to over 60 major Viennese attractions, be sure not to confuse it with its forbearer, the Vienna Card, which is a 72 hour unlimited metro pass with some minor discounts to attractions (for 21.90€ it is certainly not the best deal in the city.) For a quick summary of what the Vienna Pass can do for you check out: http://www.visitingvienna.com/sights/vienna-pass-review/. For a more personalized experience-based review of the Vienna Pass continue reading…

Our Itinerary:

First of all, you should know that my husband and I couldn’t be more different in our sightseeing interests—He is a car salesman, with a love for photography, music, and anything adrenaline inducing and I am a historian, with a keen interest in anything royal or renaissance. So finding sights that keep us both captivated can be like making grilled cheese out of waffles and cream cheese…not easy, but probably do able.

Day 1: Museum Blitz

10:00 – Pick-up Vienna Card from office at Karlsplatz metro station. It was a bit tricky to find because it is actually underground in the station and we definitely wasted some time wandering around the Opera area trying to dodge costumed dudes selling over priced concert tickets.

10:30 – Time Travel Vienna (regular price: 19.50€). The show covered 2000 years of Viennese history using a 5D theatre and several historical reenactments. There were cheesey moments for sure, but it was a fun and super entertaining way to get some context for the city’s history.

11:45 – Albertina (regular price: 14€). This museum has a bit of everything including: twenty-one authentically restored 18th century state rooms, an impressive collection of art from Monet-Picasso (I am no art historian, but even I could understand that the exhibit showed the progression of styles from Impressionism to Cubism, or something like that. Also soooo many iconic works!), and a bizarre exhibit of film stills (photos taken during the production of iconic films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

1:30 – Lunch on the balcony overlooking a square where we heckled people for paying 8€ for a wiener while we munched on our delicious packed lunch of gouda, prosciutto-like-meat, and crackers.

2:00 – Haus der Musik (regular price: 13€). I have never seen a more interactive museum. There was a room that mimicked the sounds and sensations of being in a womb (eerie), an orchestra conducting simulator (at which Jakob was a master), a piano staircase, and endless stations with digitized sound and hearing games. There was also a series of expertly curated rooms dedicated to each of Austria’s big-name composers (made my classical-music loving husband happy and we didn’t have to go to each of the composers residences scattered through out the city).

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Jakob kicking some conducting butt

4:00 – Break time!!

7:00 – Vienna Museum of Modern Art (regular price: 11€). After getting a glimpse of some modern art at the Albertina, I was intrigued. We loved making fun of some of the more pretentious stuff and pondering some of the more social activist type stuff. We found the Július Koller exhibit especially interesting. It started with a massive room of ping pong tables (yes of course we played a game). Nothing feels quite so rebellious as smacking a little white ball back and forth while a bunch of serious-looking people dressed in all black stand around pensively.

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We take modern art very seriously

Day 2: Palaces and Panda Bears

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Pretty ponies!!

10:00 – Spanish Riding School morning exercise (regular 15€). Unfortunately, since we visited during the off season, we didn’t get to see the stunning Lipizzaner horses in one of their choreographed performances, but we did get to watch a training session. I love horses, but the training was honestly pretty boring. This is the first thing we did in Vienna that seemed a bit overrated, and certainly over priced. But since we got in for free with our Vienna passes we had no qualms about slipping out the back door early.

11:30 – Scholoss Schönbrunn (regular 16.40€). Austria’s top tourist attraction is big yellow palace. Definitely grab the free audio guide, it had a pretty good balance between fun facts and real historical information. This Habsburg palace has some similarities to Versailles: freaking long line to get in, overly ornate interior, and the best part is the animals in the back. Yes this Palace has it’s own zoo!

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Gotta love some snowy gardens

12:30 – Lunch and snow ball fight in the garden.

1:00 – Struddle Show (regular 6€). What’s not to like? An unbelievably adorable and talented chef teaches you how to make Austrian pastries while you munch on free samples? Yes please!

2:00 – Schönbrunn Zoo (regular 18.50€). We showed up thinking: We are adults, how cool can a zoo be? An hour later we couldn’t decide whether we loved the polar bears, penguins, or elephants more…until Jakob saw the cheetahs, then he was all like “Cheetahs are my favourite, cuz I’m fast, I’m like a cheetah!” Alright babe, do you see a beer belly on any of those cats? Even if you’ve been to plenty of zoos, the Schönbrunn Zoo has a unique vibe since it claims the title of “World’s Oldest Zoo” and dates back to 1540.

6:00 – The best stew of my life at Schöne Perle! I will now ALWAYS put avocado on stew/chilli.

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I NEVER take food pictures. This life-changing stew was an irresistible exception

Day 3 – River Ride and Riesenrad

11:00 – Danube River cruise (regular 22.50€). Ok this is a recommended DO NOT DO. There was little to see along the 1.5 hour cruise and the route doubled back on its self so we had a second chance to double check…yup still nothing to see. The highlights were endless kilometers of graffiti and an architecturally creative waste incineration plant. PLEASE spend your previous Vienna Pass time on one of the other sixty attractions.

1:00 – Madame Tussaud’s (regular 20.50€). This was our first wax museum experience, so I can’t compare it, but we had a great time taking photos with Karl Marx, Johnny Depp, and Julie Andrews. So if that’s your sort of thing, definitely check it out!

2:30 – There’s certainly time here to visit another attraction…but the sudden onset of Vienna spring weather meant that I was stuck with a bad cough and the sniffles and needed a nap…so we whipped back to our hostel for a siesta before the evening activities.

6:00 – Wiener Riesenrad (aka Vienna Giant Ferris Wheel, regular 9.50€). A scenic way to end a great 72 hours of sightseeing. Some of the carriages are set up for dinners, so if you’re lucky like us, you may even witness a proposal!

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There you have it! That’s how we did 165.90€ worth of activities (for better or for worse) for only 80€! To summarize, here’s a few quick Dos and Don’ts of thrifty touring:

Dos:

  • Do pack lunches. No one wants to waste precious daylight searching for an interesting yet affordable place to eat lunch. The pass will take you to the city’s more touristy areas, that means you’ll have to sell your first born if you want someone to make you a sandwich.
  • Do wake up around 8 am. Most sites in Vienna open pretty early, especially Austria’s #1 tourist destination the Schönbrunn palace which opens at 8:30 am!! An early start time means you’ll avoid the long mid-day lines full of hung over 18 year-olds.
  • Do buy a 24, 48 or 72 hour transit pass AT a metro kiosk, NOT WITH the Vienna Pass office. These passes are between 40-70 euro cents cheaper if you buy them from the metro kiosk. The Vienna Pass office must round up the price when they sell them so that they can get a little cut out of the deal. Every penny counts in a city as pricy as Vienna!
    • Disclaimer: Do your math. The transit passes cost 7.60 € (24-hour pass), 13.30€ (48-hour pass), and 16.50€ (72-hour pass). A single ride on Vienna transit (metro, trams, busses) costs 2.20€ so it’s definitely more cost effective the longer you’re staying. Also if you will be staying between Monday-Sunday of a week then the 16.20€ week pass (attn: it’s not a 7 day pass, it is for a calendar week) may be your best bet. See for yourself: http://homepage.univie.ac.at/horst.prillinger/ubahn/english/fares.html.

Don’ts:

  • Don’t use the HOP ON HOP OFF busses. The Vienna pass comes with free access to these tour busses, but they are slow and inefficient. Why sit in traffic when you can whip around underneath Vienna’s bustling streets for only a few extra Euros? Also keep in mind that using the HOP ON HOP OFF busses takes some planning since there are six different tour lines, and the places you want to visit may not all be on the same line.
  • Don’t visit the remote attractions. As much as I was tempted to check out the winery-monastery to the north or some of the baroque palaces to the south, these excursions would have required bus travel and taken a sizeable chunk out of each day. If you’re using a tourist pass, every moment counts, and you can always get more bang for your buck in the city center than in the outskirts. If these are a must see, consider buying a pass that covers one less day of your stay and visit these locations at a relaxed pace on your own dime, rather than on the Vienna pass.
  • Don’t forget to relax and enjoy yourself. Rushing around to make the most of your Vienna Pass will leave you exhausted and hating everything Baroque. Even after taking an afternoon off, we still felt like the pass was well worth our time and money. Happy sightseeing!img_0279