Memories really do fade quickly. Or maybe just the ones that weren’t that important to remember. I visited Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna over three months ago, but I must’ve been having way too much fun this last quarter of college to have bothered to document those experiences. By now, all that’s left is how my expectations for each city differed from the actual thing. That disconnect may actually be 68% of the joy of traveling.
Expectation: Artsy, modern, great for history buffs, unfriendly to tourists, intimidating
Reality: Maybe I’m just used to “intimidating cities” because I’m a Chicago-girl, but I found Berlin to be the most American-like city that I visited in Europe. The architecture was glassy and sharp. The graffiti was edgy and reminded me of Pilsen street art. The food was so refreshingly affordable after a week in London and Paris (and had actual flavor!)
Currywurst and fries!
The most impressive thing about Berlin was hands-down, the way the city marks its history. Topography of Terror and the Holocaust Memorial were both extremely well designed, informative, and grappled with the politics of national memory.
Expectation: Free four hour stop over on the train from Germany to Czech Republic. Therefore no expectations.
Reality: The bombing of Dresden would have been considered a crime against humanity had the Allies lost the war. The city left the charred markings untouched on the buildings in memory of that event. I found out that the Dresden Academy of Art is a pretty big deal. The city is a weird juxtaposition of High Renaissance complexes and gleaming new shopping centers.
Prague, Czech Republic
Expectation: My good friend’s girlfriend lives near Prague Castle. They filmed the Bachelorette here and it looked absolutely stunning. Milan Kundera’s city/country.
Still from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, featuring the Prague Spring.
Reality: Prague and Paris are now tied in my heart. Though I could never taint my experience of Prague by aspiring to work there. No, Prague is a city in which to slow down, marvel, and share with a loved one. I’ve only ever had one other intense emotional reaction to a city before, and that was in 2013 when I walked along the Seine for the first time in Paris. This time, I took a midnight stroll from my hostel near Prague Castle, over the Charles Bridge, and into Old Town Square. That moment when the city widened before my eyes as I crossed the river, spotlit towers and an expansive sky framed by the Bridge’s stoic stone statues – I think I teared up.
A courtyard in Prague Castle. Romanesque to Renaissance to Empire style- a living architecture textbook.
The cafes are also magnificent. The Czech tradition of fostering the world’s most beloved writers still prospers – and I bet those cafes have something to do with it. Czech food also is the best tasting in all of Europe in my opinion! It’s rich and tender and flavorful and filled with spices. Ahhh I fell in love with the roast ducks and potato dumplings and the nutella-filled spa wafers.
Cafe Louvre, where Einstein and Kafka were patrons.
Many people’s number one complaint about Prague is that it’s too touristy, but my reaction was the complete opposite. Yes, the tourists swarm to the city, but the city’s hallmark cafes, streetcars, parks – they are all also well used by the locals. Perhaps it’s just a little hard to imagine how such a storybook place can still exist and function in the modern world. I did benefit greatly from having a local friend show me around. Any city is infinitely more well appreciated when the experience is shared with a great friend and/or someone who can show you the “real” parts of the place.
- Beer is cheaper than water at $0.68/liter (and it’s good Czech beer).
- Cannabis paraphernalia is abundant
- Strip-club industry is on the rise.
- Europe’s premier bachelor party destination for the reasons cited above
- Surprisingly large population of Vietnamese immigrants
Expectation: Cultural capital for the performing arts, intellectual hot bed (at least historically), home of the largest collection of Egon Schiele’s works.
Reality: Kind of racist, stuffy, and elitist. The Egon Schiele Museum was bomb though. My favorite part of Vienna was the museum’s exhibition at the time that explored Schiele’s romantic relationship with his muse, Wally. It was the most personal depiction of an artist and his works that I’ve ever seen, and thus also my favorite. Read more about their relationship here.
I know I sound kind of salty about Vienna but, I still had a grand old time because I was staying with my good friend. One of those friends with whom you can carry four hour long conversations and feel energized at the end instead of drained. Oh, despite the snootiness, Vienna really does have the best coffee in Europe. That melange…
All in all, Central Europe shouldn’t be skipped over! In fact, it should be a prime destination. It’s so affordable, so well preserved, and really quite different from Western Europe. I was kinda broke so I took the buses a lot, but if you get a chance, take the trains! You will be treated to a view of twisting rivers snaking through forested valleys and dotted with colorful homes. Leisurely train rides through Europe must have been modeled on the ones going through Central Europe. That dining car and its frothy cappucinos are just quintessential European Backpacking Perfection.