Travel

Insider's secrets to Budapest, Prague

Tom Dirlis, 36, is a writer raised in Toronto who has been living in Europe for the past 12 years. Nine of those years were mostly spent in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, with side trips to Budapest, Hungary. He is the author of the just-out “Moon Handbook: Prague & Budapest.”

Q. Money's tight this summer. Are Prague and Budapest becoming expensive?

They're getting there. Since joining the European Union in '04, what we've seen is an increase in prices all around, though salaries stayed the same. In general, Budapest is slightly cheaper than Prague, and both are certainly cheaper than London, Paris or other Western European cities.

If you're staying there, the cost of lodging is nowhere near as low as it was just three years ago, though hotels are constantly under construction, especially in Budapest. Dinner prices are also going up. Pretty much everything costs more – they've sort of adopted the Western capitalist model and are taking it as far as it can go. With the development of tourism, the things that come with it include Western-style prices.

Q. What's the least you can get away with paying for a week in either town?

If you're checking out museums and operas and going with just a backpack, you can do it cheaply: about $500. That's if you're careful, stay in a hostel, have a few drinks and eat on the cheap. Budapest is slightly cheaper, but prices in both cities could quickly become the same.

Q. What's the best deal in Prague?

The parks are all free, thank God. The castle is a good deal. Also, if you're a fan of classical music or opera, see a pretty impressive production of the great works. The same is true in Budapest. A couple tickets to the opera will probably cost you about $100.

Q. How would you compare the nightlife in these cities?

Prague has the better night life: The bars stay open a little later and beer is cheaper than bottled water. Also, Prague is very compact, and the bars and clubs are all over the place. Budapest is a bigger city, and the nightlife is more refined. Budapest has better clubs – crazier than Prague's.

In both cities, you'll find everything from dives to clubs. For clubs in Prague, check out the Roxy or Radost FX. They're your basic clubs with different themed nights – techno to hip-hop to funk.

In Budapest, take advantage of outdoor cafes and bars; Prague doesn't have as many, and Budapest is good for that. Summers are also nicer in Budapest, weather-wise. Szimpla Kert is one place; Cha Cha Cha is another that's good for the outdoor sort of effect.

Q. What kind of music do they play at these outdoor places?

Anything you can think of. Many have theme nights. These aren't subdued affairs: People party hearty.

Szimpla is part of Hungarian pop culture – a “ruin” bar or club that's haphazardly furnished with cheap tables and chairs from garage sales or whatever. They're scattered about outside. The look is very makeshift.

Cha Cha Cha is more an outdoor dance-club terrace place, with more of a meat market vibe. Both places are a lot of fun, and popular with residents, tourists and students.

Q. Is weather in Prague different from Budapest's?

Not really. Winters are kind of mild; summer highs are 25 to 33 Celsius (77-91 Fahrenheit). Budapest has more consistently sunny weather in summer. It's actually similar to Toronto's, in a way.

Q. Good food?

Tons. You can always find good deals. But Czech cuisine may not appeal to many. Are you a vegetarian? If so, you're out of luck. The traditional Czech meal is pork or chicken with what they call dumplings – these heavy, breaded things. It's very heavy fare, and they always put some kind of universal brown sauce on it. It's not spicy, it's just brown.

Hungarians are different. They have a spicier pallette and love their paprika. You can pretty much walk around and look in my book – there's any number of mom-and-pop places. Everything from eateries to fine dining. You can find any cuisine you want in either Prague or Budapest.

Q. The best Hungarian food in Budapest?

I have no one favorite. But if you're interested in food from all over Europe – Croatian, Mediterranean, you name it – go to the Marquis de Salade. Another good place for Hungarian is Bel Canto.

Q. Two cities in adjoining countries. Is it easy crossing the border?

It wasn't bad until recently. But now there's a new rule for non-EU residents that affects tourist visas of those with North American passports. It used to be that if you overstayed, no one would complain. Now, if you want to stay later, you have to stay under the radar. There are tons of expats, especially in Prague, who now have to do this.

Neither the Czechs nor Hungarians are happy about this, but they have to adhere to it. You'll hear many Czechs saying these EU rules are just another brand of communism.

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