On one side we have the bang, clang, clank, and clatter of central Europe. The perennial papa of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Apologies to Berlin (and who the hell even remembers Kraków?), because tourists unabashedly call our first contender the Iron Curtain’s Capital City. He has the Old Town, the river, the castle, the 2000-year history, the blessings of gods, kings, and 10 million travelers per year. Give it up for The Golden City, The Symphony of Stone, the European Pearl, Mother Urbium, and Rome of the North: Prague!
And boy are you in for a fight tonight, folks.
On the other side we have the scrappy welterweight climbing her way through the central European ranks with enough moxy to make it seem downright easy. What this fighter lacks in size, history, and culture, she makes up for in sheer beauty and an inimitable entrepreneurial spirit. She hails from ruin bar country, trained in the way of the ancient Magyar warrior, and kept the Nazis at bay for over two months in one of the most lauded defense efforts in the history of Europe. Go wild for this natural born killer, the freshly minted sportscar to old man Prague’s motorized wheelchair, the city that finally made the east and west kiss and make up, the Capital of Freedom, the Heart of Europe, and the Danubian Gift: Budapest!
Prepare yourselves. Mere hours apart by train and almost always visited back-to-back by many a weary traveler, Prague and Budapest are the twin cities of central Europe. As Kraków, Berlin, and Vienna inevitably fall to the wayside, travelers every year are left with the great rivalry of the riverlands. This is Central Europe’s Chi Town v NYC, Starks v Lannisters, Black Mamba v Bill, Batman v Joker, and freshmen v first-year math requirement all rolled up into one massive international collision.
Prague, Budapest, on the count of three, get ready to jangle, jar, wrangle, jatter, and feud, because only one of you walks away from this fight. THREE… TWO… ONE!
We’re starting with the most important one, folks. Here’s the cheese: Prague and Budapest have almost identical downtown centers. Look it up on Google maps if you don’t believe me. Both are divided by massive rivers with the touristy downtown center right on the east bank and two adjacent hills on the west bank. In both Prague and Budapest, the Prague and Buda Castles sit on the northernmost hill while the city’s central outdoor attraction is planted squarely on the southernmost hill. Furthermore, as you go north, south, and east from the downtown center, both cities leave tourists behind and quickly become a whole lot more residential and local-oriented. But here’s the catch: While the cities are laid out almost identically, Budapest is much smaller and can be covered pretty well in 5-10 days of relentless walking. On the other hand, Prague is massive. I’m not confident a month of relentless walking would suffice in helping the traveler learn all of the city’s primary districts. And since in seven weeks I have met only four people who spent more than eight days in either city and the average length of stay is two or three days, we’re going to gear this battle to the average traveler and declare Budapest the winner here.
Round 1 Victor: Budapest. The concentrated nature of Budapest’s layout makes it possible for even shorter trips to get a solid experience of local life while still hitting most of the big attractions. This just isn’t feasible in Prague.
Unsurprisingly, a theme is going to quickly emerge in this fight. Prague has the big name landmarks and the Austro-Hungarian history to back up the names. While Budapest also has its fair share of history, it was almost entirely destroyed during WWII. Budapest is very much a marriage of the old and the new, the perfect encapsulation of a modernizing city trying to stay true to its roots.
Because of this modernization, Budapest’s best landmarks tend to be the more modern areas of the city, or older areas that have been modernized to some extent. To give you some context, Budapest really only has two churches worth seeing, one small castle, one thermal bath, and one historic market, and they all have been modernized — good restaurants, squares, and shopping abound throughout the areas around these landmarks. You’re never just going to look at a thing, you’re going to be a part of its environment.
Prague follows the more traditional approach to landmarks. Very few of Prague’s landmarks have enjoyable environments. You’re either fighting off hordes of tourists or just looking at a really old thing. Prague has countless churches, the castle is massive and extremely touristy and Disneylandish, and all of the squares are more tourist attractions than authentic environments supported by locals that tourists can take part in.
Lastly, if we’re counting architecture as a “landmark,” Budapest takes the cake. Every person I’ve talked to who’s been to both agrees that Prague has more pretty architecture, but that Budapest is the much prettier city. And given the identical structure, this really stands out. Budapest is always beautiful, Prague goes back and forth.
Round 2 Victor: Budapest. While Prague brings the better punch to this bout, the experience of Budapest’s landmarks is always fun and exciting, whereas Prague’s landmarks just get weary, busy, and boring quite quickly.
Okay, I’ll be honest: this isn’t much of a fight. Budapest has a touristy opera house… and that’s about it. The best culture you get in Budapest is the spontaneous local locations—from late night local-only restaurants with live jazz and silent movies to hidden beer gardens—but these are rare and you have to get real lucky (or read Let’s Go, wink, wink) to find them.
Prague, on the other hand, kills the culture department. The city is packed to the brim with traditional theaters, opera houses, black light theaters, experimental theaters, experimental art galleries, dance houses, fringe cinemas, etc… The amount of artistic culture available to any tourist is frankly overwhelming. Furthermore, when you do manage to escape the touristy part of Prague and venture to the surrounding residential areas, they tend to be much more rewarding than Budapest’s local areas. But more on that later.
Round 3 Victor: Prague. There’s really no contest here. It’s a KO.
Like Structure, this is one bout that would probably change if tourists spent longer than three days in both cities. Basically, Budapest goes the NYC route and has one massive major park that is really, really incredible and is worthy of an entire day’s exploration. Prague has over ten parks in the downtown area, but they are all smaller parks that are either crowded with tourists and taken over by popsicle stands or empty and lifeless. Prague’s best parks are far from the downtown center and full of locals, but their distance from downtown means that no tourist ever makes her way there to experience all that Prague’s outdoor options have to offer. Whereas, every tourist that goes to Budapest at least spends a few hours in City Park—it’s a requirement. And even better, City Park is large enough that locals and tourists have their own areas, and some of the best beer gardens and sites in the city are the hidden local haunts within City Park.
Round 4 Victor: Budapest. City Park is amazing. Prague is too spread out. Perhaps things would be different if people had time to explore. (Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that Prague is only two hours from some of the best hiking in Central Europe, but travelers who are only in Prague for a few days don’t have enough time to spend a daytrip in Bohemian Switzerland).
Not gonna spend too much time here, it’s the same argument as Culture. Budapest has a solid four memorable museums, Prague has over 30.
Round 5 Victor: Prague. KO.
For its size, Prague’s nightlife is frankly disappointing. It has no shortage of clubs, but very few of them are ever creative and try to be more than just grungy old nightclubs. Even the most locally-sourced clubs are mostly duds—they’re either empty during the summer or just not that exciting. Prague’s nightlife is at its best when it’s providing chill environments and live music — only in this area does it really succeed. Most of the establishments that do live music well, however, are hidden and local-oriented, so your average tourist has no idea they exist.
On the other hand, Budapest’s ruin bars are a revelation. I’m not a person who enjoys clubbing. It has been my least favorite part of this job. However, Budapest’s ruin bars are insane, eclectic combinations of modern art museum, bar, movie theater, inner-city ruin, and dance club. They are stunning in their triumphant creativity, young vibe, and sheer beauty. That said, during the summer season you’re not going to find a single local at one of the ruin bars.
Round 6 Victor: Budapest. KO.
This is very difficult for me. Personally, I like Budapest’s food a lot more than Prague’s. I also prefer Hungarian food to Czech food, and Budapest offers a lot more genre variety: you have Jewish cuisine, vietnamese, Thai, American, and whole swaths of the city are vegan-only.
Prague’s food-scene is undoubtedly less varied and a whole lot harder to navigate. Within the city center you’ll mostly only find Italian or Czech, and most of that isn’t all that great. Prague’s vegetarian and vegan options, while better than Budapest’s, are much more spread out and far from the city center. Prague does have a few great Thai and Indonesian places, but again, they’re spread out and distant. The perk there is that most of Prague’s best eats are outside of the city center and seeking them out forces tourists to escape the Old Town trap. Also, it’s just true that Prague attracts more high-profile chefs than Budapest, and while it has less Michelin stars, it does have more high-browed, lauded restaurants.
Putting my personal biases aside, I’d say Prague has objectively better food options, but Budapest’s options are more varied and more accessible to the tourist of 2-3 days.
Round 7 Victor: We’re gonna call this a tie. It’s subjective and difficult and I don’t feel like I can pick.
What I mean by “Authenticity” is how “lived in” the city feels and how easy these areas of the city are to access. I’m talking about those late night live jazz cafés with locals pouring out of the windows, those restaurants without English menus, the niche movie theaters and parks where all you hear is the indistinct chatter of Czech or Hungarian, the neighborhoods where you can find high school athletes jogging up and down stairs training for the summer and where delivery men talk with people on the street. These are my favorite parts of a city. Simply walking around the local areas of a city is my favorite thing to do in a foreign country, and I feel it is the most rewarding—in some almost taboo voyeuristic pleasure, the traveler can observe, learn from, and feel a part of local culture at its most raw. She can earn new perspectives, new knowledge about a foreign way of life, and just enjoy living in a different world for a little while.
I’ll try and make this simple. Budapest has many (what I would call) authentic spots within the downtown center. Just because there are tourists doesn’t mean the locals flee, they just camouflage themselves and hide in the midst of everything.
In the end, I loved Budapest so much because there was always this feeling that the next random corner you turned you’d find some majestic little bookstore full of locals and magical dusty tomes.
And as long as you forgot Google maps and just let yourself wander around, most of the time you did find that bookstore. Even the 2-3-day tourist gets a sense of this: the Budapest Beer Festival was happening while I was there, and even though the festival was 90% locals, many of the people in my hostel managed to go for an hour or so and it was their favorite event in the city.
Verdict: Budapest’s local life is hidden within the downtown, and while sometimes hard to find, it’s always extremely rewarding and accessible.
Prague is very much the opposite.
Let me remind you again that Prague is huge. Yesterday I was eating breakfast in a quaint residential section of the city and met another traveler who had been in Prague for 28 days. He told me he was confident he could stay for another 28 and still not get to know the entire city. Prague’s authentic local areas are virtually never ending: they spiral out into the countryside for miles. All of them are immensely personal, incredibly intimate, and inexplicably satisfying.
I hated Prague for two days. Many of the people in my hostel leave the city saying it feels too “narrow,” “suffocating,” and “claustrophobic.” These are all real words I’ve heard people use. SPOILER ALERT: They’re describing the tourist-infested Old Town they were never able to leave. After two days, I left the Old Town (just like every local ever) and began to explore outside of the downtown center—and my opinion of the city changed immediately.
Prague is my all-time favorite city. But that’s only because I was here for 12 days and walked over 130 miles through eight of the city’s primary residential areas. Prague is just like Budapest, but there’s so much more authentic local life to discover… except it’s harder to get to and impossible to cover comprehensively, which makes this the perfect city for a summer-long vacation. Most tourists never leave the Old Town or the Prague Castle area simply because they don’t have the time. And they end up hating the city or being antagonistically indifferent. And honestly, they’re justified. Prague’s beauty lies far from the tourists’ treaded path.
Round 8 Victor: Budapest. Budapest is just so much better suited for a shorter trip.
You’ll notice that all but two of Budapest’s victories are conditional on the traveler’s trip being less than 10 days. Unfortunately, this is just the nature of the conflict.
I will say all day long that Prague is the better city, but it requires a longer trip to appreciate fully. But in the interest of people’s time, money, and bowing to popular trends, Budapest is the better city to travel to, as even a three day trip can be immensely rewarding (but a 5-8 day trip is recommended!).
TL;DR: Spending 2-3 days in the city of your choice? Pick Budapest. You couldn’t do better. Looking for a longer 10-20 day trip? Prague is the one for you.
Any reasonable person would say bringing six books on a seven week backpacking trip through Hungary, Poland, and Czechia is just asking for a heavier backpack. Fortunately, Luke is a not-very-reasonable person. *clears throat pretentiously* He’d like you to know that six books on hand are the minimum necessary for literary inspiration — He plans on starting the Next Great American novel during his time overseas. (Send apologies to his lower back around week four). When not actively being overambitious about his future career as a *mumbles incoherently*, Luke overcommitts himself to theater, journalism, and debate. Readers should expect Luke’s journey to feature constant references to Shakespeare and David Foster Wallace, an obsession with the cardinal directions, existential angst due to the lack of Thai food in central Europe, and a perfectly European (non)-platonic love for biking. Luke will return to Harvard in the fall as a much more tan (read: sunburnt) sophomore concentrating in Social Studies and Philosophy.