First Time Travel in Europe Part I: Berlin, Budapest, and Prague
An Insight to Living Like A Local in Eastern Europe
By Lizi Woolgar, Bristol University
Going travelling for the first time can seem pretty daunting. After all, it’s often the first time you’ll be going abroad for longer than a week or two, the fear of carrying a massive ugly backpack and, first and foremost, the cost. Whether you’re a Uni/College student, A-Level school leaver, or just want some well-earned time out, this is perfect, affordable answer for you.
Travelling around Europe on an interrail pass allows flexible travel on a budget. You can select the desired pass according to the amount of travel days needed, and can literally just fill in where you go as you do. If you plan to visit Croatia but decide on Slovenia instead – with this pass – it really does not matter! However, be sure to fill in the pass PROPERLY to avoid being fined twice before 6am on your first day of movement, as I learnt the hard way.
Sure, you can flick through a travel guide and be told to do this and that, but I want to pass on some pearls of wisdom you can really only get from first hand travelling. I visited Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Krakow and Amsterdam – all of which I can thoroughly recommend – but I’m going to focus on my fav 3 for the purpose of this article.
Where to stay?
BeBop Youth Hostel, just round the corner from the Metro station and the main tram line. After hauling our backpacks up – let’s just say – a generous portion of stairs, we reached the welcoming arms of the BeBop staff. A homely atmosphere with retro vibes, we settled in immediately. The cosy set-up of living quarters means you’ll have literally no choice but to fall into friendships, a great plus if you’re as socially awkward as me. The hostel provides dinner once or twice a week and breakfast daily, all for a modest price.
What to do?
- Familiarise yourself immediately with the trams. Budapest has expansive, somewhat unnerving roads for a first time traveller, so I would recommend really working out where you’re going before wandering into these death-trap highways. My friend and I failed to get our bearings upon arrival, resulting in a rather unfortunate 3am post-clubbing tram-navigating disaster.
- Visit Margaret Island. The island is undoubtedly one of the most tranquil, relaxing places I have ever visited. It’s not that it’s free from tourists – far from it – but there seems to be an unspoken understanding of respect for the surrounding area. With a majestic water fountain that plays almost eerie accompanying music and a strict ‘no cars’ rule, I genuinely felt like I had left Budapest and entered a sim-like alternative universe!
- Try the lemonade. No, seriously. If you take a trip to see the beautiful Buda Castle (on hired bikes, of course), ask anyone where you can get glasses of lemonade the size of your face and head in that direction! With an array of delicious flavours at a reasonable price, you have GOT to experience this pint of heaven.
- Start the night at Szimpla bar. Dragged here on our first night by some well-travelled French girls, we returned every evening to take in the atmosphere. As the oldest ruin pub in Budapest, the quirky and eclectic decoration here immerses you in the culture; a great way to meet others in the night or daytime.
- Budapest thermal baths. Although I was begrudgingly marched here on very little sleep, I was so glad to have visited after. The thermal baths of Budapest are a great way to soothe those aching travellers’ limbs and just take a time out. With some open late into the evening, staying to watch the sunset and the floodlit baths is something everyone should experience.
Travelling tip: Be careful with cash machines. Let your bank know before you go abroad, as the first time I tried to draw out cash, my card was spontaneously eaten. Stressful at the best of times, the language barrier meant retrieving my card was Mission Impossible 5.
What to do?
- Hire bikes! Genuinely cycle everywhere. Literally all of the roads – even the scary ones – have an allocated bike lane. I’ve never felt safer on a road and you’ll be able to pack in so many more sights in a day.
- Berlin Wall. Cliché, but you’ve got to see it. Follow the river to find the section of the wall that EVERYONE takes photos of, boasting an impressive 106 paintings. But also take a trip to the short remnant of the wall incorporated as a memorial centre, where the official destruction of the wall began, near Checkpoint Charlie (also worth a visit!)
- Don’t be offended if you’re turned away from a club. It’s not cause you’re ugly, too casual (I got in looking overtly tramp-like) or too irritating, it’s simply isn’t your lucky day. The clubs in Berlin work on a ‘I like the look of you therefore you may enter’ basis. Ways to get around this are joining a bar crawl as they will take you to the easiest clubs to get into, or befriend Germans and keep your mouth shut, as you will be questioned in the queue.
- Holocaust memorial. Berlin is seething with history and – as much as I’ve resisted history lessons since GCSE – I came back quite the knowledge sponge. Give your ignorant self a lesson and visit the statuesque memorial museum; it’s a haunting yet highly educational experience.
- The MJ Balcony. Remember those photos of MJ gleefully dangling his child over his balcony? Oh yes, it’s in Berlin. Admire the infamous Adlon Kempinski Hotel whilst you visit the neighbouring Brandburg Gate.
Travelling tip: If you’re planning to take a night train, probably don’t. You will be thrust into a carriage with a number of foreign strangers, where the language barrier in window closed Vs. window open will result in a terrifying sleep of night sweats and lacking oxygen.
Where to stay?
We stayed at the Madhouse Hostel, which I can certainly recommend. The staff were young, welcoming and provided daily entertainment. Although not as mad as the name suggests, the TV chill out room with an endless DVD collection was very much welcomed towards the end of our travels.
What to do?
- Eat some weird Czech food. I wasn’t man enough to try it, but my friend was, and apparently it’s pretty decent. Go for a strange pastry-garlic-pizza or the odd savoury twizzles which also come with sausages inside, if you so wish… (#vom)
- Visit the ‘Disney’ castle. Grab some (surprisingly comfortable and cheap) rent bikes and make your way to the picturesque castle. I’ll be honest, architecture doesn’t normally do it for me, but boy, they gots some good buildings over there. Cycle back down via Gold Lane and admire the quaint buildings.
- See the Charles Bridge. Connecting the Old and New towns, this bridge epitomised the character of Prague for me. An impressive site in itself, the bridge is home to countless stalls of paraphernalia and paintings. Just find the cheerful quartet band performing, sit back, and take it all in.
- Old Town Square. With origins in the 12th Century, the square marks the central hub of Prague. With an authentic feel, brought to life by local musicians, sights to see include the Old Town Hall Tower & Astronomical Clock, which can be climbed to dizzying heights and terrifyingly brilliant views.
Travelling tip: There is a lift. Take it.
Hopefully, that’s given you a little insight to living like a local in Eastern Europe. It’s a great way to travel for the first time as there are many cultural similarities, the atmosphere is generally safe and it really can be done cheaply. Overall, the most important things to know are:
- Always go for small hostels, you will meet fellow travellers much more easily and feel less like you are invading the space of others. Also, you will not sleep in larger hostels!
- Eastern European travel attendants are not as lenient as British ones; do not underestimate their eagerness to fine you.
- Take a towel – not all hostels provide them.
- Book each hostel a few days in advance when you are at the location before there. You’ll be informed by people along the way who have already visited that city, so just wait and book where is recommended. Don’t book all the hostels before you’ve even left the country – trust me – your plans will change!
- Understand how trams work before you go or you’re a gonner.