Budapest or Prague? Now there’s a tough decision to make for a city break. Both are such historic cities, on grand rivers, with castles — even if, admittedly, not necessarily fairy tale-looking — and plenty to see and do. I really enjoy visiting both cities, each for their own reasons, because each has their very specific characteristics and experiences which you can only enjoy in that city.
That said, there are eerily many similarities between these two cities, from the castle complexes to each being split into two distinct parts of the city by rivers, to both having funiculars, great architecture, and renowned fame for their spectacular bridges.
I will list here the differences as I have experienced them and leave you to make the call as to which city you’d prefer visiting. But honestly? They should both be on your to-do list; in which case, you just have to decide which one to visit first. Much easier.
1. Location, Location, Location
Budapest is the capital of Hungary, a city bisected by the grand old river Danube, turning Budapest quite literally into the cities of Buda, on the west bank, and Pest, on the east bank. Although, Budapest was in fact initially formed by the merging of three cities — Buda, Pest, and Óbuda — which is now a district lying to the northeast of the city. The city is one of superlatives, being home to the second oldest metro, just after London, but the oldest on continental Europe. It has Europe’s largest synagogue, and, with its natural production of 70 million liters of thermal water per day, it is the thermal spring capital of the world.
Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic, now often called Czechia, and is bisected by the river Vltava. Nicknamed the “City of a Hundred Spires,” it is the historical capital of the Bohemian region. With the old town and new town on the right bank of the river Vltava, the so-called “Lesser Town” and the Castle District lie on the left bank, and you can cross the fabulous Charles Bridge to explore both sides.
2. Size And Getting Around
Despite being reasonably similar in population, with Budapest at roughly 1.8 million inhabitants vs. Prague’s 1.2 million, Budapest feels, and is, a lot more sprawling than Prague. While in Budapest, at times you feel the need to hop on a bus or indeed the historic metro. Prague feels eminently more walkable with its attractions closer together.
But, with both cities having two distinct sides to them, a city tour to get an idea of each place’s location, in relation to where you are staying, is always a good idea. While in Prague, a fun city tour comes courtesy of some stunning classic cars taking you through the tight medieval lanes, while in Budapest, you might as well see the main views from a waterbus right on the Danube.
3. The Weather
There is no truly significant difference in weather between Budapest and Prague, but Prague tends to be, on average, around 6 degrees Fahrenheit colder with rainfall around 1 inch less than Budapest, which lies some 280 miles farther southeast. More significantly, there are some 86 less hours of sunshine in Prague than in Budapest. Both cities enjoy the same climate zone and, being right in the center of the continent, display distinct seasons with warm-to-hot summers, cold winters, and temperatures going below -25 degrees Fahrenheit.
Personally, I am a winter person and love nothing more than wrapping up warm before exploring a city on foot, so I can only recommend visiting both cities in winter. This also gives you an excuse to try the fabulously decadent hot chocolate in Budapest’s Four Seasons Hotel, Gresham Palace. For slightly warmer weather, spring and fall are really the best times to visit, as summers can be very warm and get terribly crowded with European families during the school breaks in July and August.
4. Attractions To See
When it comes to sightseeing, Prague probably nudges somewhat ahead of Budapest because of its compactness and the number of attractions you can find within easy walking distance of each other.
5. Eat, Drink, And Be Merry
For foodies, it is Budapest that wins this category every time, but if you are a beer connoisseur, or are traveling with one, it has to be Prague for its sheer history of Czech beer. That said, Budapest prides itself on its craft beer and also on its annual wine festival. When it comes to food, I must admit that I am still dreaming of Budapest’s fantastic Great Market Hall dating to 1897, with its tall roof, and vast space filled with fresh produce, long and short salamis hanging down everywhere, and aromatic goulash stalls. Short of moving in there, you can take a tour that includes lunch. While I ate well in Prague, in Budapest, I feasted. Be it the warming stews, or the decadent cakes at the old-fashioned Café Gerbeaud, or even the ice cream, which seems to be a national treat.
That said, one of the best meals I have ever had was in Prague, at Kampa Park, a fabulous location with a terrace by the Vltava and the picturesque Charles Bridge.
6. Unique Things To Do
Each city has its quirky and truly unique attractions and experiences, and they are so different from each other that there is no comparison possible. Budapest’s must-do experience is a visit to the thermal baths. The Gellert Baths, for example, are not just beautiful, but also unusual in that the indoor pools are very cold, and in the outdoor pools, people play chess on tables set in the pools themselves. Visitors are a mix of locals and tourists of old and young, dressed and not so much — in the showers at least. It’s certainly a memorable experience.
In Prague, you must search out the artworks of David Czerny, whose quirky sculptures and installations can be spotted across the city, from the upside-down horse inside the Lucerna Palace passage off Wenceslas Square, to the babies crawling up the Television Tower, and the shimmering, moving head of Franz Kafka. There are self-guided tours that take you to the most important pieces.
Budapest invites you to spend some time on the Danube, with various cruises and trips available for moorings alongside the river. In Prague, you can immerse yourself not in water, but beer. A beer spa offers you tubs of warm beer to sit in, reportedly good to draw out toxins and allow the enzymes and vitamins in the brewer’s yeast to do you good. All the while drinking a beer, it’s an inside-out spa treatment.
7. Day Trips
Both cities are surrounded by fabulous central eastern European countryside well worth exploring. One of the best day trips from Budapest is probably Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe and one of the cleanest, as its entire body of water is naturally replaced every 2 years. Accessible by train from Budapest, allowing you to take in the views along the way, it is a popular bathing spot in the summer.
From Prague, a must-see attraction is the eerie but fascinating Sedlec Ossuary, a church full of bones, putting the Paris Catacombs (nearly) to shame. This is especially interesting if you are traveling with grandkids, as they will dine out on that story forever more.
8. Places To Stay
Often, with city breaks, it is where you stay that can make or break a trip. Both cities have an array of accommodations, from hostels to swanky luxury hotels, but it is the locations that are important.
In Budapest, no doubt the Danube and its numerous sculptures, incredible views, and sparkling bridges are the main draw, so why not stay nearby and get that view from your room? The Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, with its aforementioned superb hot chocolate, is a prime location alongside the river and offers pure luxury — plus views across to Buda and Castle Hill. For views from Buda across to Pest, with its magnificent parliament building, try the Hilton for affordable comfort and easy walks to attractions such as the Fisherman’s Bastion.
In Prague, it’s all about the old town and staying right across from the amazing Astronomical Clock in the Grand Hotel, which in fact made it onto my list of favorite rooms with a view from around the world. On the other side of the river, in the historic Mala Strana district, with its cobbled streets and proximity to Prague Castle, lies the luxury bolthole of the Mandarin Oriental, which is steps away from everywhere, yet utterly secluded and quiet.