I’m grouping a few places together for the simple reason they are so similar. We visited Vienna [Austria], Budapest [Hungary], and Bratislava [Slovakia] over the course of the last month before and after our tour of the Balkans. The Habsburg’s and the Astro-Hungarian Empire left quite the mark on central Europe. The Habsburg’s were the dominate monarch of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in central Europe for some time until World War One. For the most part, the cities have similar features in similar architecture. There are differences:
* Vienna is different because they have HUGE palaces. While it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Austrians took the lead so the grand and insanely opulent palaces were in Vienna. We visited the Imperial Treasury filled with jewelry, crows, art, and other very valuable items and it was awesome!
* Budapest was the seat of the Hungarian royalty but didn’t see a lot of activity or construction until the late 1800s to the early 1900s. So Budapest is kind of “new”. The Ottomans had conquered Budapest at one point and the Turkish bath culture stayed long after the Ottomans left. Hungary has had poor luck being an independent nation: as the Hungarians explain it, they wanted help from Austria to kick the Ottomans out and the Austrians graciously obliged. Unfortunately for the Hungarians, the Austrians chose to stay after they kicked the Ottomans out. After much turmoil, the Hungarian royalty tried to get equal footing with the Austrian royalty and that is why it took until the late 1800s for Budapest to be built up.
* Bratislava is tiny, super small, but still has all the marks of an important city. While Bratislava is in present day Slovakia, it was a VERY important city in the Hungarian Empire and many coronations for Hungarian royalty happened in the city. The castle in the city was super hard to conquer and even successfully stood against the Mongols and Napoleon.
I made a remark to a tour guide in Bratislava that Prague, Vienna, Budapest, and Bratislava are so similar. She replied, “Oh, but they are so different!” Well, sure, different, I guess. I can tell the cities and their culture’s apart as easily as I can guess which country an Asian person is from. So… I have no idea.
All joking aside, the biggest difference we felt was in our pocketbook. Bratislava and Budapest were relatively inexpensive. Food, lodging, and entertainment was all pretty cheap. Vienna, being in Austria and being part of “western Europe” for some time, was substantially more expensive in all regards. Besides money, there was another major difference I could tell: Vienna was packed full of tour groups and was loud, Bratislava was nearly empty, Budapest was super easy to get around and it wasn’t overrun by tourists. I actually wondered if Bratislava was “closed” but found out that it was open but not many people make the journey to Bratislava. It is a lot of fun to wander around the old streets and buildings in peace and quiet!
There is a hangover from communism. There are a lot of buildings around built in the communist block style but there’s also the mentality that lingers. Capitalism brought a very uneven change in people’s everyday life – some people’s lives changed for the very good and a lot of people’s lives changed for the worse. Employment was mandated under communism and there were generous benefits, like three weeks of vacation for everyone. The public infrastructure and housing are now very expensive and out of reach for many, many people. One person explained it as “back when we had communism, it used to cost the equivalent of one loaf of bread to go from my home village to Budapest by train. Now it costs 36”. The housing prices in Budapest are expensive for the locals, and from what I gathered, are similar to what the real estate prices would be in a mid-sized US city where a “good” wage for Budapest starts around $10,000 per year – well below the US minimum wage! Out in the countryside, the wages drop off and the unemployment rates skyrocket to 40%+. Slovakia suffers much the same problems. Even though it’s been over a generation since communism ended these countries are still trying to make capitalism work.
Fun fact, completely unrelated to our travel and it was something we learned outside of our travel: the Habsburg’s were one of the most, if not the most, inbred monarchy ever. Emperor Fernand I was pretty messed up from the inbreeding and one of the only recorded things of him vocalizing was “I am the Emperor, and I want dumplings!”
Overall, we thought the cities were fun to visit. It was nice to get our fill on Habsburg history :).
Enjoy the photos :).