Central Europe Itinerary: 7 days in Prague, Vienna and Budapest

Central Europe Itinerary: 7 days in Prague, Vienna and Budapest

From imperial palaces with opulent gardens and fountains to hilltop fortresses overlooking the Danube River, Central Europe is steeped in heritage and culture. But with so many grand cities and postcard-perfect towns to explore, it can be hard to know where to start. This 7-day Central Europe itinerary shows you how to spend one week in Prague, Vienna and Budapest, three storied capitals filled with grand cathedrals, cobbled streets, and concert halls that still echo with the tunes of Mozart and Beethoven.

The majority of your trip will be devoted to the landmarks in these famous locales, perfect for a first visit to the region, but read closely for some hidden gems and day-trip ideas if you need a break from the crowds.

The itinerary begins in Prague and ends in Budapest, but remember, none of these cities are incredibly far from the others, so if you need to move things around a bit, you can. I did this trip Prague to Budapest to Vienna because I needed to end near the latter’s airport for my flight out.

Keep reading for how to explore Prague, Vienna and Budapest!

7 Day Central Europe Itinerary in Prague, Vienna and Budapest

Day 1 — Prague

On your first day in Czechia, you’ll discover the Old Town area and visit the Prague Castle. You can easily do this in a self-guided way, but free walking tours are available if you want some commentary and an inside look from a local. There are lots of buildings and towers to climb for scenic views in Prague, so you’ll have to pick and choose your favorites with just a couple of days here.

Start the day at the Prasna Brana (or Powder Tower), a Gothic city gate that serves as an entry point to the Old Town and the beginning of the royal route that kings would walk on their way to coronations at the Prague Castle. For a small fee, you can ascend the spiral staircase to a viewing gallery, but at least make a quick stop here to admire the statues of royals, saints and angels with golden wings that adorn the walls.

Grab a potato cake or pastry for breakfast from the Farmers’ Market a block north of Prasna Brana on the new side of town. It’s open weekdays and stalls here sell everything from souvenirs to freshly grilled meats. As a bonus, the big mall behind it has free and clean toilets!

Just a few blocks toward the river from the Powder Tower, Old Town Square is a hub of activity throughout the day, filled with sidewalk dining, souvenir shops, bubble artists and rows of stunning, colorful buildings with ornate facades. One of the oldest astronomical clocks in the world is located here on the Old Town Hall, which is open for tours and has a tower you can climb for views of the square. Make sure you snap some photos of the Gothic-style Church of Our Lady Before Tin, with its dramatic soaring spires, and St. Nicholas Church, which has an elaborate Baroque interior featuring a stunning chandelier.

The Jewish Quarter nearby is within the Old Town district. The original neighborhood was mostly demolished and remodeled at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, but you can visit a handful of historic synagogues still standing. The Jewish Museum in Prague sells a combo ticket to 5 of them, along with the Old Jewish Cemetery.

Follow the winding stone streets toward the Danube River for your next stop, the Charles Bridge. Built during the 14th and 15th centuries, the stone structure buzzes with activity throughout the day, when tourists come to snap photos of the Baroque statues of saints (including one that people line up to touch for good luck) and vendors set up booths selling postcards and paintings. Towers and gates sit on either side of the bridge, one leading to Old Town and the other two to the Lesser Town (one of these dates to the 12th century). You can, of course, climb a couple of them for a view. Stick around to watch the sunset over the water before heading back to the square for an alfresco dinner.

Day 2 — Prague

Today you’ll hang out on the west side of the Vltava River exploring Prague’s castle and mini Eiffel Tower, both of which have stunning vistas overlooking the city from their hilltop vantage points.

Pull yourself out of bed before sunrise to pay a quick (and less crowded) early morning visit to Charles Bridge before crossing over to the Lesser Town on the west bank. If you follow the Certovka canal here for a block or so, you’ll soon stumble upon the Lennon Wall, a graffiti-covered surface that was used as a means of peaceful protest against Communism in the 80s and for other forms of activism and art after. In 2014, an anonymous group of students painted it white as a sort of blank slate for the next generation, but it’s back to full colorful glory now. Lately, it’s most used for throwing up the peace sign for an Instagram shot.

Next up is the Petrin Lookout Tower. Though much smaller, the structure was inspired by and built just a couple of years after the Eiffel Tower, and since it stands on a hill, the top is at about the same elevation. You can hike or ride a funicular to reach the base, and 299 steps lead to the top (lifts are only for accessibility purposes). From the viewing platform, you can see for miles.

On this side of the Vltava, you’ll also find the Prague Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded more than 1,000 years ago, and a Guinness World Records holder for being the “largest ancient castle in the world.” Entry to the grounds is free, but you’ll have to purchase a ticket to see interiors. Inside the huge St. Vitus Cathedral here, you can witness the coronation site of kings and queens and burial ground of saints, while the Great South Tower is the place to climb for views (after 280 steps). For free city vistas, walk down to the South Gardens, from where you can see both the Charles Bridge and Petrin Tower.

Though the historic buildings shut down before evening, the castle complex stays open until 10 p.m., so you can linger on the hill to watch the sunset. Alternatively, reverse today’s itinerary to end at Petrin, which also stays open until 10 p.m. in summer.

Day 3 — Cesky Krumlov or Bratislava (Day Trip Option)

This flex day is perfect for a day trip to either Cesky Krumlov, a fairytale town 2 hours outside Prague, or Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital an hour from Vienna. If you want to shave a little time from another city, you might be able to squeeze both in, at least for a quick visit to their castles.

A popular day trip from Prague, the Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov is known for its castle and charming small-town vibes. While it can certainly be visited as an excursion from the bigger city, staying overnight here is a much more relaxing experience, with the bonus of fewer crowds in the evening and early morning outside the heavy visiting hours.

The top attraction here is the Cesky Krumlov Castle, where you can stroll the hilltop gardens and grounds or buy tickets to tour interiors halls and climb the Castle Tower for sweeping views of the town on a U-shaped bend of the Vltava River. Down below and across a bridge, the stone-paved Town Square is ringed by pastel-tinted facades housing restaurants while surrounding blocks are full of souvenir shops.

Almost close enough to be part of the Vienna metro, the city of Bratislava is Slovakia’s capital, located across and a little ways down the Danube River from its neighbor. Like Cesky Krumlov to Prague, this can be seen as a day trip from Vienna or placed on either end of your stay (it can also be on the way to Budapest if you want to spend the night and avoid backtracking to Vienna).

Bratislava Castle here sits hilltop and is hard to miss thanks to its stark white exterior. A fortress has occupied the locale for centuries, but war damage and fire left it all but a ruin until rebuilding work began in the mid-1900s. Today, you can walk around the grounds and wander inside to see museum exhibits. Save some time for the Old Town below, home to the 13th-century St. Martin’s Cathedral, the bubble-gum pink Primatial Palace turned music hall, and Michael’s Gate, a leftover entryway from the 1300s with views from the top. The Presidential Palace and its gardens and fountains also is nearby.

Day 4 — Vienna

The Innere Stadt district of Vienna is the city’s central old town and the perfect place to begin your sightseeing in this Austrian capital, with tons of churches to photograph, museums to explore, and shopping streets to meander.

Come to St. Stephen’s Cathedral first thing in the day to enjoy a peaceful ambiance, since by noon the square here fills with tourists snapping photos of the dramatic spires of the medieval landmark. The church opens at 6 a.m. (7 a.m. on Sundays), but audio guides and tours aren’t available until mid-morning. Entrance is free, but you’ll have to pay to access certain areas, like the catacombs, treasury and towers.

Just a couple blocks away, St. Peter’s Catholic Church may be slightly less overwhelming from the outside, but the interior of the green-domed structure is jaw-dropping — filled to the brim with gilded and ornate Baroque art and designs. The acoustics in here are spectacular, too, so check the bulletin board outside to see if you can catch a concert.  

Pause at Michaelerplatz square to check out the ruins of a Roman wall before walking into the courtyard of the Hofburg, a Habsburg-era palace and official quarters of the Austrian president. If you want to wander inside, the elegantly adorned Imperial Apartments welcome the public, while a number of museums on site display collections of silver, ballgowns and armory. The west side of the complex is a world of green, full of parks and rose gardens, with benches and little cafes for alfresco refreshments.

If you’re visiting around the holidays, you’ll definitely want to pop by Rathausplatz, where a festive Christkindlmarkt and ice-skating rink fill the public square in front of the neo-Gothic city hall. Throughout the year, the park hosts other festivals and fairs, too.

If you have any extra time, use it to tour the neighboring Austrian Parliament Building from the 1800s or head to the Museums Quarter, where palatial-looking structures are equally impressive to the treasures they hold. The Natural History Museum, Kunsthistorisches Museum (art history), Mumok (modern art) and others have late hours once a week

Day 5 — Vienna

More palaces are on the docket today, so pick your favorite to tour inside or just admire the impressive gardens and fountains on the grounds. Allow at least a couple of hours for the final attraction, the most popular in the city.

Grab a coffee and pastry for breakfast while you stroll along the Naschmarkt, perusing stalls of fresh veggies, cheeses and spices. The food market here dates to the 16th-century but today’s version includes some clothing vendors and small restaurants, too.

You’ll want to stop for photos at Karlskirche before your first palace visit of the day. A fountain in front reflects the carved columns and pale green dome and cupola of the 18th-century cathedral, while the platform inside allows you to admire ceiling frescoes up close.  

At Belvedere, a pair of palaces gaze upon each other across acres of verdant gardens filled with fountains and mythical sculptures. Both the Oberes Belvedere (Upper) and Unteres Belvedere (Lower) contain art collections and rotating exhibits, and you can choose to visit just one or the both with a combo ticket. Be sure to pass beyond the central garden to the other side of the Upper Belvedere, where a huge reflection pool mirrors the Baroque palace. The gardens and grounds don’t require a ticket.

A favorite with tourists, Schonbrunn Palace once served as an imperial recreation ground and summer residence, with roots to the 1500s. Today, the grand, creamy-yellow building opens a few dozen of its more than 1,000 rooms to the public for tours with an audio-guide. Outside, most of the grounds are free to roam, with more than a half-mile of parkland in each direction dotted with fountains, monuments and perfectly-manicured hedges and trees. The open Great Parterre fronts the south side of the palace and leads to a hill with the 1770s Neptune Fountain at its base and huge Gloriette structure from the same period atop. Sweeping views from the hillside here look over the symmetrical gardens, palace and city skyline beyond, the perfect spot to watch the sunset at the end of the day.

After soaking up all the imperial vibes today, why not sign off with a show at one of the city’s many performance venues. Historic theaters like the Vienna State Opera and Musikverein (for the philharmonic orchestra) frequently host concerts, as do some of the grand cathedrals.  

Day 6 — Budapest

Since the Danube River divides Hungary’s capital city into the two parts, we’ll split our time between the sides, starting with the ancient, hilly Buda on the west bank. Your Buda day should include time to explore two different districts — Castle Hill and Gellert Hill, with more time for the first.

One of the most popular sites in the city, Castle Hill encompasses both the palace complex and the neighboring Castle District, an old town with cobbled streets, picturesque squares and historic churches. A funicular from the 1800s makes runs up the hill if you don’t want to walk.

Start your morning at the Fisherman’s Bastion here, as the site will be overrun with tourists midday. The picturesque terrace of neo-Romanesque and neo-Gothic design is known for its white, pointy turrets that give off fairy-tale vibes. The view looks east, so if you’re up early enough, you’ll get a spectacular sunrise show over the river behind the Hungarian Parliament Building on the opposite bank.

Next door, you can visit the treasury and climb up the bell tower of Matthias Church with a ticket. Built in the 15th century, the Gothic-style structure’s unique roof is made of colored tiles. Coronations used to be held here, and the church now hosts concerts and masses.

Buda Castle has occupied the hill for nearly 800 years, but the current Baroque palace complex dates to the 1700s. You can check out the interior by visiting one of the cultural attractions housed inside — the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum occupy wings of the palace. Castle gardens wind down the hill toward the river.

Finding your way up Gellert Hill can be a bit of a maze, with paths, stairways and roads zig-zagging from multiple entry points leading to the top. Start on the south side across the street from the Gellert thermal baths for a quick diversion to the Gellert Hill Cave church, where a chapel is tucked inside the rocks.

Continuing up, you’ll pass playgrounds and viewpoints looking over the Danube as you wind your way up to the Citadella, a fortress built in response to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. The towering Liberty Statue here, standing high on a pedestal holding a palm leaf, commemorates those who lost their lives for the freedom and prosperity of the country. Outside the walls, vendors sell paprika, painted eggs and postcards from little market huts.

Day 7 — Budapest

Pest on the east side of the river is known for its nightlife but there’s tons to do here in the daytime, too. So much, in fact, that you’ll need to pick and choose a bit if you’re packing it into one day as this itinerary requires.

If shopping is a priority, start at Central Market Hall, which opens early in the morning. The huge, neo-Gothic structure was built at the end of the 1800s and has three floors of fresh produce, spices, cheeses, baked goods, souvenirs and more. Adjacent Vaci Street is a pedestrian-friendly shopping zone, with lots of sidewalk cafes, too.

Pay a quick visit to St. Stephen’s Basilica to see the domed ceiling and lavish, marbled interior before setting off on a walking tour down Andrassy Avenue. About a mile-and-a-half long, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed route runs from the city center to City Park and is packed with cultural sites — the neoclassical Hungarian State Opera, the old Thalia Szinhaz and Budapesti Operettszinhaz theaters, and museums displaying everything from East Asian Art to mini versions of Hungarian Landmarks.

You could spend a whole day exploring all the attractions at City Park. In addition to the walking and biking paths and a lake that turns into a skating rink in winter, the huge space hosts museums dedicated to contemporary and fine arts, agriculture, and transportation. Be sure to pause at the entry for Heroes Square and the Millennium Memorial, built at the end of 1800s to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of the Hungarian state. If you have a couple of hours to spare, take a soak in the warm waters of Széchenyi Thermal Bath in the park, too. Budapest is known for its thermal spas, and this one is particularly popular, with 21 indoor and outdoor pools, sauna and steam rooms, and massage services.

A stroll along the river on the Danube Promenade is perfect for early evening, when you can watch the sunset behind the Buda hills. Start at the Hungarian Parliament Building (which you can tour earlier in the day) and walk south to find the Shoes on the Danube monument, a heartbreaking tribute to the Hungarian Jews who were shot along the banks of the river during World War II. Further down, you’ll see the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, the first permanent link built between the two sides in the 1840s.

Nighttime Danube River cruises depart from this area as well, with options for basic tours or rides with multi-course dinners. Either way you’ll get to see the buildings along the banks and the bridges all lit up.  

8 Travel Tools I Use to Plan My Trips

8 Travel Tools I Use to Plan My Trips