Adventure On The Open Road: Charmaine Lagman's Breathtaking European Road Trip
There’s an old rumor that claims that Prague is so beautiful, Hitler spared the city during the Second World War. Whether or not that’s true, Prague is definitely one of the most gorgeous cities in Europe and quite possibly the world. “Prague has an overflowing, impressive amount of culture within its relatively small size, and enticing Baroque and Gothic architecture,” Lagman shared.
Prague is the capital and most well known city of the Czech Republic. Czech summers are mild, with afternoons that are warm but still pleasant. Lagman recommends spending around three to four days in Prague in order to get to know the city. Instead of a walking tour, Lagman took a car around the city — but it wasn’t just any car. “It’s best to soak up the atmosphere of Prague while on its ancient streets, so we did our beautiful sightseeing tour in a convertible vintage jalopy,” she revealed.
“The Old Town Square is one of the most incredibly beautiful and charming squares in Europe, with its small complex of medieval buildings. It didn’t look real; ?I felt like I was in Universal Studios! This is perfect for historians, art lovers, and foodies. In this place you will discover something old, something new, and something incredible all in one,” Lagman said. “When you walk south of the Old Town, you’ll pass a small grouping of elegant houses, which make up the Little Square. I took some time to appreciate the multicolored pastel residences lining the route.”
One of the most famous landmarks in Prague is the Astronomical Clock, a medieval clock in the Old Town Hall of the Old Town Square. It is intricate and beautiful. There are statues of Catholic saints on both sides of the clock, an hourly clockwork show, and the astronomical dial represents the position of the sun and moon and displays astronomical details. The clock is highly cared for and protected due to the local legend that if it is neglected, or something bad happens to it, Prague will suffer.
Another must-see is the historic Charles Bridge or the stone bridge that crosses the Vltava River. “It’s a magnificent gothic bridge featuring stone arches, watch towers, and baroque statues with several saints. This connects Prague’s Old Town and the Castle district. Charles Bridge is very crowded in the daytime but nice in the evening. At one end of the bridge is the Prague Castle. When it is lit up the place is so romantic and is a perfect place for a kiss!” Lagman shared.
Lagman was eager to try out the food?in Prague. “I normally make a list of what restaurants to go to, based on recommendations, but I also like to discover some new places — from top restaurants to hole-in- the-wall places. I don’t limit myself. For me, traveling is about being one with the locals.” She recommends trying out the various food stands spread across the Old Town Square. “The ham stands have Prague ham (Pražská šunka) which is well-known for its succulent flavor. The ham is brine-cured, smoked and boneless. It is grilled over an open fire at stands,” Lagman said.
“There were also a few mulled wine stands as well (these are more popular during Christmas time than summer) so I was able to sample the wine and it was so good! It is a mixture of red wine, citrus fruits, ?and spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and vanilla. Instead of lemons or oranges, the Czech variety of mulled wine often uses apples, which gives this hot drink a special flavor. Then there are the trdelník (spit cake) stands — this traditional pastry originated in Hungary and is made from dough that is wrapped around a wooden or metal stick, then roasted over an open fire and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. It is very popular in Prague and you must try this with your ham!”
Vienna, the city of music
The next destination for Lagman and her husband was Vienna. “This place is perfect for family trips. I wish I could go back with my family and experience the Grand City of Vienna, the culture capital of Europe!” Lagman enthused. With only two days in Vienna, the couple tried to see as much as they could.
First on their list was St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna. “This cathedral oozes opulence with its Romanesque and Gothic design. It has an intricately decorated main roof with hundreds of colored tiles,” Lagman said. They also visited the massive Baroque-style Schönbrunn Palace, once the summer residence of the Habsburg rulers, particularly the Empress Sisi. “This is one of the most important landmarks in Vienna and the whole of Austria. The gardens surrounding the palace are equally beautiful and wandering around is a pure pleasure!”
While in Vienna, you’ll surely pass the Ringstrasse, a circular route around the historic Inner Town district of the city. “The road takes you past most of the impressive historical buildings in Vienna. It’s around four kilometers long and well-planned out. Along the way you’ll see the State Opera House, the Hofburg, the Austrian Parliament, the City Hall, and the Museum of Fine Arts. You can take the Ring tram if you don’t want to walk, or travel in style via the many horse-drawn carriages. The horses stink during summer, though!”
Another palace that travelers must visit is the Hofburg, the former imperial palace of the Habsburgs. Now, it is the official residence and workplace of the Austrian President. “It is very well-kept, beautiful place made up of different buildings and gardens. Guides are also available. One of the nicest parts I saw was the Sisi Museum. You can admire the rooms and the silver collection housed there. It takes at least one full day to see most of the area. Unfortunately, I only spent a short time there and had to run, skipping many parts.”
The highlight of Vienna for Lagman was the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper). “Wolfgang Amadeus and Richard Strauss both performed here. It is indisputably one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world! It is my dream to watch an opera here, and this November that dream will become a reality,” Lagman shared excitedly. “I will definitely take my musician kids here someday, especially my youngest daughter, Anya, who is majoring in music at USC.”
Budapest, the Pearl of the Danube
The final city for their road trip was Budapest, the capital of Hungary. “Budapest is an extremely picturesque and beautiful city that is best experienced by walking across the Chain Bridge (Széchenyi Lánchíd), day or by night. For me, Budapest by night is when the city is at its finest and most romantic,” Lagman said. “It also has a distinctively youthful atmosphere and a pulsating nightlife, much to my surprise.”
The central area of the city is along the Danube river and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has the most gorgeous sights on both the Buda and Pest sides. “The Danube Promenade is a favorite among locals and tourists. Here, you can take a stroll along the embankment in?order to appreciate the Hungarian capital’s marvelous architecture. It is home to several historic monuments, markers, landmarks, leisure, and entertainment restaurants and bars,” Lagman said. The promenade also has the Danube Bank Memorial — the Shoes on the Danube Bank — on the Pest side. It was created to honor the Jews killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during the Second World War.
The famous St. Stephen’s Basilica is, in Lagman’s words, “an utterly beautiful neo-classical church with similarities to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Since it is a holy site, visitors are asked to keep their knees and shoulders covered when inside. It is even more impressive inside. I took time to pray first and light candles for special intentions, all the while awed by the grandeur of this most important church in Hungary. The basilica is also known for hosting organ concerts. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to attend one when I was there. If you have time, make sure to check out their schedule for the organ concerts as I heard that it’s a must to experience attending one when you visit this wonderful city.”
Lagman also visited the Buda Castle, which she described as vast and sprawling. “It has original medieval structures from several different eras and there are important examples of Gothic architecture to be seen, including the castle chapel and a hall that has particularly fine rib vaults. The castle and its complex are open to the public for an admission fee. Inside, you’ll find the Hungarian National Library and the Hungarian National Museum. The palace complex is also home to some of the finest gardens in Central Europe.”
She and Mike took some time to try the local cuisine, of course. She explained that goulash, Hungary’s national dish, is served as a stew in most parts of the world but the authentic gulyás is actually a thin broth made from chunks of beef cooked with onions, paprika, tomatoes, and pepper. “We fell in love with this dish so we hoarded goulash mix that could last us a year or more!”
Another thing to try are chimney cakes. “These sweet treats are made from long strips of sugary dough wrapped around cone- shaped spits that are brushed with butter and roasted over charcoal. They are similar to donuts, but grilled and on a stick. Also, Kolbasz sausage is a big deal in Hungary. They include sausages in all their dishes, from breakfast to lunch to dinner. It is best to have this at the Budapest Central Market!”
Lagman did some shopping at Budapest’s Central Market Hall (or Great Market Hall), the biggest and oldest of all the markets in the country, with hundreds of traders gathered under its intricate vaulted ceiling. There, you can sample tasty national delicacies at the ground floor food stands, and shop for fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, charcuterie, and wines at the farmers market-style stalls. On the mezzanine, visitors can discover a variety of arts and crafts, Hungarian trinkets, and souvenirs. According to Lagman, “I was able to find crystal stemware that is ten times cheaper than in the retail shops, and some great leather products, like gloves and bags. I totally enjoyed this market!”
The author Victoria Erickson once wrote, “Road trips are the equivalent of human wings.” In just a few days, Lagman and her husband experienced the best of Central Europe during their road trip, their hearts and minds going on a breathtaking flight. Hopefully their experience inspires other travelers to take to the road as well.
Best Places to Visit
- Buda Castle ?
- Danube Promenade ?
- St. Stephen’s Basilica ?
- Széchenyi Chain Bridge ?
- Charles Bridge ?
- Old Town Square and ?Little Square ?
- Prague Astronomical ?Clock (Prague Orloj) ?
- The Hofburg ?
- Schönbrunn Palace ?
- St. Stephen’s Cathedral ?
- The Ring Road (Ringstrasse) ?
- Vienna State Opera ?(Wiener Staatsoper) ?
Best Places to Eat
1. New York Café. This is known as the most beautiful café in the world. I had their popular coffee with chili (literally a slice of chili on top) and it was, oh so good! This café used to be favored by the literary elites and artists of Budapest at the turn of the 20th century. New York Café exceeded my expectations, and I think it should be on every traveler’s list of places to go to.
2. Gelarto Rosa. It’s easy to spot this gelato place because of the long line in front of it, near St. Stephen’s Basilica,? in Szent István Square. Their well-known gelato is delicious and shaped like a rose. It’s? the perfect on-the-go treat!
3. Tigris Restaurant. This Michelin restaurant serves traditional Hungarian food and is just a few steps away from the Chain Bridge. Dining here is an experience and shouldn’t be rushed. The elegant atmosphere and excellent service captivated our hearts. We had their duck, foie gras, and veal.
4. Kollázs Brasserie & Bar. A fine dining restaurant and cocktail bar with a prime view? of Castle Hill. The interior is furnished in a tasteful neo-?art deco style, complete with marble, dark wood, and brass finishes. This became our favorite places to end the night, either with dinner or by a nightcap.
1. Kalina Anežka. Awesome Michelin restaurant in the Old Town area. The service was impeccable and warm. We heaped praises on the chef because of the perfection in every dish, and we even met the famous chef himself, Chef Mirek Kalina, who let us visit the kitchen and introduced us to everyone there. It was a delightful experience.
2. Restaurace Mincovna. This is located right on the ?Old Town Square and is hard? to miss. You will see gigantic beer tanks hanging from the ceiling. The ambience is very chic and cozy. The typical Czech dishes served here are based?on duck, smoked trout, baked sausages, foie gras, and so on.
3. Lokál Dlouhááá. If you’re looking to experience some really tasty and totally authentic Czech-style cooking during your visit to the capital, look no further than Lokál. We had our first beerfest here. I am not a fan of beer, but to my surprise, this place got me hooked. I tried several types and it was an unforgettable beerfest experience for me.
1. Café Central. Small but iconic. The pastry selection is abundant and all the selections are delicious. I had their famous Vienna sausage, which looks so different from what we have in cans. I also had their typical Viennese dish, wiener schnitzel, with matching rich Viennese coffee. It was an experience!
2. Dstrikt Steakhouse. Modern Viennese farm-to-?table cuisine. We enjoyed our charcoal grilled steak, French oysters, and Bavarian prawns. You can even choose between 12 different steak knives, each one telling its own story. During summer, there’s a beautiful Schanigarten (Austro-Bavarian term referring to tables and chairs set up on the sidewalk?in front of eating and drinking places) alongside the famous Ring Boulevard where you can watch Viennese life unfold while enjoying culinary delicacies.
3. Onyx Bar. Luxury rooftop bar directly opposite St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The glass facade offers a direct? view of St. Stephen’s, which gleams in breathtaking light at night. It is very difficult to get a reservation (you need to reserve weeks or months in advance) but we were lucky to get a table one night. The Onyx Bar also changes into a pulsating hotspot of Vienna nightlife.
Best Places to Stay
Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, Budapest. This is the hotel of choice in Budapest! Staying here is like being part of the city’s history. The hotel embodies historic grandeur and youthful exuberance. It combines luxury and history, and has a panoramic view of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, the Buda Castle and the Fisherman’s Bastion.
Prague. One of the hotels near or around the Old Town Square.
The Ritz-Carlton, Vienna. It is the best hotel in Vienna. It’s located in the iconic Ring Boulevard, the cultural heart of the city. It’s perfect for a short stay and close to all the main tourist and historic structures.
This article was originally published in Metro Society Vol. 16 Issue 5.
Photographs by Jinggo Montenejo
Makeup by Gela Laurel
Hair by Francis Guintu