Food, Coffee, and People

Although Soviet-style architecture was as imaginative as right angles and gray paint, the historic city centers of Prague, Budapest, and Warsaw are as pretty as they were when they were imperial capitals. Warsaw's historic core had been entirely rebuilt after World War II, while Prague and Budapest are finishing up restorations and rebuilding projects put on hold or lingering since the 1920s and 1930s. Each city rests on a scenic river and spreads out around a castle... you'll find them easy to navigate on foot and, in doing so, will get yourself oriented rather quickly.

After you've built up an appetite, you'll generally find food that you expect to find in Eastern Europe -- hearty dishes cooked with lots of spices, meats, and potatoes. Fresh fish isn't as common as it is in places like Spain or western France, but it's there. Vegetarian dishes are very common, especially in Budapest. Budapest also has a plethora of international meal items and recipes. Look for restaurants with locals in them, usually found a little ways off of the main streets and squares. Try the local dishes and of course the local wines and beer.

Café culture in Eastern Europe is the granddaddy of "em all. The café au laits, espressos, and koffies of places further west would not be as delicious, prepared as well, or nearly as common without the trade routes that ran through southern and Eastern Europe or the imperial coffee klatch that was the Ottoman Empire. That is, this is where you get the real stuff. Expect darker, richer roasts, but the same variations on the theme, using varying conditions of milk and cream and shots of sugar and flavoring here and there. For you leaf lovers out there, the selection of teas in most places will amaze you. Don't forget to pick up some exotic blends to carry home.

Although you may find more language barriers here than in other parts of Europe, the irony is that you'll find it easier to talk to locals and make friends. Many of the people you'll encounter knew nothing of life before the totalitarian regimes that occupied their governments for half a century. Although it's been more than a decade after the fall of Communism, so many residents of Eastern Europe are still experiencing things that they either never knew about, or barely remember. One of those things is the arrival, en masse, of Western tourists.

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The Littlest Traveller

In Prague, take the little ones on the funicular ride to the top of Petrin Hill. Once there, explore the mini Eiffel Tower and the walk-through mirror maze. One of the most beautiful parks in Hungary is in the center of Budapest, called Margaret Island. Pools, thermal baths, and tours are available (the outdoor swimming pool only in warmer months), as are horse-drawn carriage rides around the car-free island.

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European Eastern0Europe0Travel0Guide

· First Things First
· Where to Stay
· Getting Around

· Getting Around Eastern Europe
· Around Eastern Europe
· Food, Coffee, and People
· The Littlest Travelers

First Things First

Once virtually off limits to Western tourists, places such as Prague, Budapest, and Warsaw have come alive again, opening the doors that were once welded shut. All three nations have welcomed and embraced their newly-found tourist economies.

Most of Eastern Europe is still a great travel bargain, so pack a few extra bags for the goodies you'll want to carry home with you! The currency in the Czech Republic is the koruna, in Hungary the forint, and in Poland the zloty. Prices below are expressed in U.S. dollars for convenience; check the rate of exchange prior to arrival in Europe.

German and Russian are the non-native languages most common in Prague, Budapest, and Warsaw. Locating someone who speaks English, even a little, is much more likely to be found in the larger cities. Although more people are learning English and other Western languages, you'll need to know the basics in Czech, Hungarian, and Polish. Some phrase books are geared toward visitors to Eastern Europe and may have all three, along with German and Russian, in one handy volume.

Where to Stay

Tourist facilities vary greatly in most of Eastern Europe. Choose hotels and other facilities close to the major city centers. If you're traveling to more than one destination in Eastern Europe, consider a hotel near the main rail stations, which offer tourist offices, ATMs, and even restaurants.

But don't be afraid to experience one of the many local, family-run pensions or inns in the cities and countryside. It is also more common in Eastern Europe to rent a room in someone's private home. This is standard practice and can be not only a bargain but also quite an experience. It is safe to trust tourist offices at airports, train stations, and in the city centers, but don't always trust the locals that are soliciting business directly from tourists. You may pay a little more to go through the tourist office, but you'll have peace of mind.

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Getting to Your Hotel

...In Prague
Prague's airport is served by one government-authorized taxi company, called FIX, for trips from the airport to the city center. From the train station, you may use any taxi company or public transport, which is so swift and inexpensive you'll feel guilty for not paying more.

...In Budapest
LRI Airport Shuttle (minivan) is your best bet. It's a great buy and most employees speak English. It might take a little longer, but they'll drive you directly to your hotel from the airport. From the rail station, and from anywhere else in the city, it's easy and inexpensive to use a taxi. If you don't have time to call ahead, then hail only a taxi marked with the name of the taxi company. Gypsy, well, here they say rogue, taxi drivers are everywhere and are normally safe but can sometimes overcharge and take you out of your way.

...In Warsaw
The airport is connected to the city center by bus #175. The ticket prices vary, but they're not expensive. From the airport or once downtown, you can hop in a taxi as well. You may be overcharged, so be careful, but even with overcharging, you'll feel like you got a bargain.

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...In Prague
Prague's metro, bus, and tram system is a breeze to use. Pick up a map and a book of tickets at a kiosk or at the metro stop ticket machines. Like elsewhere in Eastern Europe, taxis can be a little shady, but if you call ahead, and use a reputable company, you'll get a nice ride at a great price. Check with your hotel staff for names and numbers of the best companies.

...In Budapest
Maps for the bus, subway, and streetcar system are everywhere. Pick one up on arrival at the airport or rail station or get one at your hotel's front desk. The public transport is clean, safe, and cheap, but for the most part it stops running pretty early. Many locals will use taxis after hours or for out-of-the-way destinations, but don't use unmarked taxis. Call ahead or hail a cab that displays the name of the company it's a part of. Ask at your hotel for names and numbers of the best companies.

...In Warsaw
Warsaw's public transportation network operates on a grid. Many lines run in straight lines perpendicular to connecting lines. You'll probably have to transfer between points. Buy books of tickets from kiosks, especially those closest to the subway entrances and bus stops. Taxis can be hailed on the street or called for in advance by dialing 919, which is normally a pay call. How's your Polish?

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Around TOWN

It's hard to pick out just a few places to see and things to do. You could spend months or even years exploring this region, but we'll assume that you're doing the three "biggies" and perhaps some nearby attractions.

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