Prague or Budapest – which to visit?

prague-or-budapest-which-to-visit

Last year we spent 3 months in Prague, this year we’ve spent 2 months in Budapest. I think we’ve come to know and appreciate both cities. But as Eastern Europe’s most popular cities, people always ask “Which of the two should I visit?

This post compares all the similarities, differences and things that are unique to Prague and Budapest. By the time you’ve finished reading it you’ll most likely have figured out which city to visit.

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Similarities between Prague and Budapest. Which wins out?

There are many similarities between Prague and Budapest. Both cities are situated (and are split) by famous rivers, both have castle districts, famous bridges, outstanding churches and beautiful squares.
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Let’s compare them head to head:

1) River Views

Prague or Budapest - rivers

Prague has the Vltava River, Budapest the Danube. The Danube is much wider. In both cities, the Castle District lies on one side while the other side was historically where most of the city’s inhabitants lived. Visually, which city’s river is more appealing? Arguments can be made for both. In Prague, the narrower river between the Old Town and Lesser Town makes the scene more appealing – stand on either side and you’ll see a skyline of domes,spires, monuments and towers. Fantastic views. In Budapest the views are less attractive: the Pest side has tram lines and boats docked along the shore, along with a mix of old and modern (some not so attractive) buildings. The Buda side has a large embankment on the side of the river. Not as visually appealing. I will say this though: Budapest at night has some of the most beautiful views you’ll see anywhere. The lights transform the city.

Winner: Prague. There’s just more of a ‘Wow’ factor along the Vlatava in Prague than there is over the Danube in Budapest.

 

2) Castle Districts

Castle District, Prague

Castle District, Budapest

Prague has the largest Castle District in the world. Highlights include St. Vitus Cathedral, the Rampart Gardens, the Castle Gates, the Golden Lane. All very beautiful and everywhere you go you have great views of the Vltava river and the Old Town. Budapest has Mathias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion, the Royal Palace (containing the excellent National Gallery). Great views over the Danube, especially over Parliament from Fisherman’s bastion.

Winner: Prague. I almost went with Budapest but then I remembered just how spectacular Prague’s Castle District is as a whole. There’s just much more to see. And although Fisherman’s Bastion has great views and the Royal Palace is beautiful, Prague’s St. Vitus outshines Mathias Church.  You can walk up to the Strahov Monastery and enjoy the fabulous views from there and even continue on to the Petrin tower. The whole district is view after view, full of gardens and parks. Also, just walking up through Prague’s Lesser Town to get up to the Castle District is fabulous. Lower Buda doesn’t compare in that respect.

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3) Famous Bridges

Prague or Budapest - Bridges

Prague has the Charles Bridge, Budapest has the Chain Bridge. The other categories above might have been tight, but this one isn’t. The walk along the Charles Bridge is among the most spectacular walks anywhere (do it early before the tourist hordes).

Winner. Prague. Easy.

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4) Beautiful Squares

Prague Squares

budapest squares

Prague has some incredible squares including one of Europe’s most beautiful: the Old Town Square. A huge square with the Tyn Church on one side and the Old Town Hall Tower on the other, it is the most beautiful square in either city. Budapest on the other hand, has Kossuth Lajos Square (in front of the Parliament building) and Heroes Square next to City Park. They are huge, open squares. You can see from the photos above that the styles are very different. It’s like comparing apples to oranges.

Winner: Prague (again, sorry). I had to go with Prague because of the Old Town Square. No kidding, it’s like stepping into a Disney movie full of colourful gingerbread houses. There’s a reason it is consistently listed among the most beautiful squares in Europe. Again though it’s a really tight decision.

 

5) Transport

transport in Budapest and Prague

Both Prague and Budapest have fantastic transport systems of metros, trams and buses. I personally love trams and a great experience in both cities is hopping on a tram and seeing the world go by. In Prague tram line 17 and in Budapest tram line 2 run parallel to both city’s rivers and offer some of the best views. Video on Budapest’s tram #2 here.

Winner: Draw. Both have excellent transport systems and once you’ve figured out the lines you’ll be sailing.

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There are many other similarities between Prague and Budapest that even out. Both cities have fantastic statues everywhere. They both have a Communism museum (Budapest’s is better than Prague’s – but we weren’t big fans of either). Both are known for naughty nightlife (but Prague more so), and both have Thai Massage houses everywhere you look (which I never quite understood).

 

 

Differences between Prague and Budapest

 

6) Drinking

beer in Prague vs wine in Budapest

Prague is known for great, inexpensive beer. If you’re a beer drinker you’ll love Prague (tip: go to the Strahov Monastery Brewery for home made beer). Budapest is known for wine and you’ll find wine bars everywhere (DaVino is a great wine bar). So really what wins out depends on your taste. One thing though – you’ll always find Czech beer in Budapest bars. They seem to be the favorite beer on tap.

Winner: Budapest. Beer is great, but nothing beats good wine. And in Budapest you can drink both.

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 7) Overall beauty of the city

beauty, prague vs Budapest

Here is something everyone visiting Prague and Budapest should know. Both cities have equal amounts of beauty, but Prague’s beauty is more concentrated. In Budapest it is more spread out. In Prague everything from the Old Town and Lesser Town, all the way up to the Castle District, is gorgeous. You’ll see beautiful buildings everywhere, churches, statues, and always a spire or a tower. It’s a large area but the beauty is concentrated. You won’t find one ugly building. But step outside the Old Town into the newer town and you’ll see the unattractive buildings that mark every city. In Budapest everything, including tourist sites of interest, are more spread out and interspersed with buildings old and new, some quite unattractive. Budapest is grittier, poorer, and less manicured than Prague. You’ll see the same beauty but you’ll have to look for it a bit harder.

Winner: Prague, just because of the sheer concentration of beauty.

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8) Crowds

crowds prague and budapest

Both photos above are of Prague. Look at the number of people on the Charles Bridge. I’ve mentioned the concentration of beauty in Prague – the problem with that are the sheer number of tourists walking exactly the same route. It basically starts at the Powder Gate, goes down to the Old Town Square, continues to the Charles Bridge and across to the Lesser Town and up the hill to the Castle District. It can be crazy and maddening. You won’t see the same concentration of crowds in Budapest just because of the way the city is spread out. The largest numbers you’ll see will usually be at Fisherman’s Bastion and on touristy Vaci street.

Winner: Budapest, because of the lack of crowds.

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9) Friendliness of locals

locals, Prague versus Budapest

We didn’t find locals in Prague very friendly. I examined that in this post. They’re generally a little detached and grumpy (although we did make a few friends). Budapest was very different – we found much people much more engaging. The level of English among younger people is very good, something you don’t see in Prague. We met a lot of really nice people in Budapest that we already miss. (The man next to the taxi above was our Airbnb host, Lazslo. Sweetest guy and I couldn’t recommend his apartment more).

Winner: Budapest. Easy.

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 10) International flavour, food and the general feel of the city

food, prague versus budapest

Although you can find almost anything in Prague, it doesn’t measure up to Budapest in terms of international flavour. Sure you can find Irish pubs, fish and chip restaurants, even a few Indian restaurants – but mostly you’ll see the usual Czech fare of sausages and other different forms of pork. If you’re vegetarian you might find yourself stuck with fried cheese. Prague feels Czech (and I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that :) ). Budapest feels international and cosmopolitan. There’s more of an ethnic mix in the people. You’ll find anything food wise: Turkish kebab restaurants are on almost every block, you’ll find sushi, Indian food and lots of other international cuisine. Within 2 minutes walk from our apartment we had a gym and a yoga studio. Budapest is young, cool, hip & happening.

Winner: Budapest. In many ways Lissette said that it reminded her of New York.

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Things unique to each city

 

11) Budapest – Thermal Baths

Thermal baths in Prague

Budapest is the city of Thermal Baths. There are 15 in the city open to the public, some dating back to Ottoman times. Water temperatures generally range from 34 – 42C. We made it to the Széchenyi, Rudas, and Gellert baths on this trip (Rudas was our favorite). We loved Budapest’s thermal baths and the city wins points for this unique characteristic.

Point to Budapest for Thermal Baths.

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12) Prague – Towers

towers of prague

I’m a tower freak. The first thing I look for in a city is for a tower to climb. Prague has lots of fabulous towers with fantastic views. I did a whole post about them here. The only comparison in Budapest is the dome of St. Stephen’s church. No comparison to Prague.

Point to Prague for Towers.

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13) Budapest – Cafés and Ruin Bars

cafes and ruin bars in budapest

Prague has some nice coffee houses, but no city has coffee houses that match the ones in Budapest (I did a whole post on them here). As far as ruin bars go, they’re unique to Budapest. You could have a whole vacation doing nothing but exploring ruin bars (a post on ruin bars here). Overall, Budapest is a great place to sit down with a coffee or beer.

Point to Budapest for its cafés and ruin bars.

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14) City with more ‘must see’ sites.

This is the tie breaker because if you tally up the scores above you’ll see that I’ve got 6 points for Prague, 6 for Budapest, and 1 draw.

I’ve covered in passing most of the Top sites in Prague: the Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, and the Castle District. This Top 3 are not only the top sights in Prague but also among the top sites in all of Europe. In Budapest I’ve mentioned the Royal Palace, Fisherman’s Bastion, Heroes Square and the Chain Bridge. And I have a photo up there from Gellert Hill. But one city has a few more additional ‘must see’ sites.

sites in Budapest

Budapest has the Parliament building (the largest building in Hungary), St. Stephen’s Basilica (a beautiful church – the views from the dome are the best in Budapest), and the Great Synagogue (the 2nd largest in the world).

Point to Budapest for being the city that has more ‘must see’ sites.

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Therefore, according to my very subjective criteria, Budapest squeezes out a win over Prague by 7-6.
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Does it mean I prefer Budapest to Prague?  No. Actually Lissette and I have had arguments about our favorite of these two cities. Prague just impresses me more. Budapest may have more sites of interest but the overall beauty of all of the Old Town and Lesser Town in Prague is incredible. Prague is a fairy tale city and if you go by ‘things to see’ the quality beats out the quantity in Budapest. I remember writing our feelings after our first month in Budapest. We honestly felt underwhelmed because we were comparing it to Prague. It felt dirty and there were too many bums on the street. But it’s funny how quickly perceptions change: we met locals we really got to like and started exploring more cultural things like cafés, ruin bars, thermal baths and wine bars. Budapest is fun and I slowly got to really like (maybe not love) the city. Lissette on the other hand will tell you that she much prefers Budapest to Prague: it reminds her of New York. In Budapest she can walk around and she won’t get funny looks (as she sometimes does in Prague). The city is multi-cultural and cosmopolitan. And decadent. A few more months here and she says she would always be out drinking and smoking. And she’d probably get a tattoo. It’s that kind of city.

So even we can’t agree.
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So, my recommendation?

If you have to choose:

Go to Prague if you only have a few days and want to see one of the most beautiful cities anywhere. You can’t beat Prague’s highlights. See my list of 50 Things to Do in Prague.

Go To Budapest if you have a little more time and want to spend time doing cultural stuff (as well as sightseeing). Budapest is really a fun place and nothing beats drinking in ruin bars or soaking in thermal baths. What to see and do (and what to skip).

But, if you can, visit both cities. They’re both fantastic and only 7 hours away from each other by train.

 

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Prague or Budapest? What’s you favorite city?

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Comments

  1. I love the detailed comparison! I breezed through Prague in one day during my first trip to Europe 15 years ago…and I’ve wanted to go back ever since! We feel in love with Budapest during our two week stay and – even though my visit to Prague was a fly-by – I agree with the points you’ve made about the two. Still, can’t wait to get back to Prague someday ;)
    Sarah (Jetsetting Fools) recently posted…Motovun: An Istrian Day Trip, Part 3My Profile

  2. Prague wins beers but overall looks like Budapest. Czech people are normally pretty cold. Look at the tennis players – robots.

  3. It was interesting to see how many times Prague won in your list. I have been to Prague only, never visited Budapest. I usually dislike overcrowded cities like Paris or London, but I just fell in love with Prague. The little streets, colorful building, fairy tale-like atmosphere. I loved the overall “coziness”. Comparing to Prague, cities like Paris, Vienna, London, Belgrade seem to be cold and more “official” for me. And I love the red roofs in Prague. The only drawback would be the crowds… But I got up early in the morning and saw the Charles Bridge without tourist at the sunrise – what a view! Have you been to other places similar to Prague – like Krakow or Bratislava?

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      You’re right – Prague won many of ‘tourist highlights’ points, Budapest won the cultural points. What you say about the ‘coziness’ of Prague is exactly right. I love Prague and as mentioned I think it’s actually my favorite of the two for a visit.

  4. I’ve always thought it odd that millions of tourists pay thousands of dollars to fly half way around the world to look at bridges, buildings and colorful roofs but that’s where the mainstream market is. A lot of people must be closet architects.

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Oh, you’re very right Tom. I have a pretty big following on Pinterest – and it’s very predictable: bridges, nice buildings, islands. Florence, Santorini, Rome, Prague…that’s what people like.
      But I can understand it because we also want to see beauty in the world. We’ve had this conversation before: do you go somewhere because of the beauty of a place or because of culture and getting to know people. Most people have the unfortunate reality of working all the time and having a couple of weeks holiday. They want to see the prettiest places in the world during the time they have off. We used to travel the same way and we would probably do the same if we had only a couple of weeks to see something.
      You’re an expat so you’re looking for something different and I understand that as well. We’ve realized while travelling that the places we want to come back to are most likely not the most touristy places, the reason being that the touristy places can be pretty cold to the traveller. Oversaturated.
      So I understand where you are coming from but I also totally get what the majority is looking for. And honestly, some places like Prague are so beautiful that you can’t help but wanted to go back despite other factors…
      Always appreciate your input Tom :)

  5. Age demographics plays a role. At 50yo the inner architect seems to emerge. Not too many 20 somethings are choosing a bridge over a bar.

  6. Fantastic comparison Frank. Your photo’s alone make me yearn to be in Prague. It’s at the top of my list. When is the next flight out lol. Budapest was just a city of interest. Now I’m really interested to see for myself which I prefer. Both seem to offer a lot. I’ll be sure to stay a fair amount of time.
    Paula recently posted…Quebec City: A City My Feelings Are Neutral OnMy Profile

  7. Now, l am more curious to visit Prague. After 2 visits to Budapest, l can’t imagine liking anyplace more , but your pictures make Prague look so inviting. We have to squeeze it In soon. I’m so glad that Budapest grew on you, and really glad that Spanky loves it. Yeah..we could totally live there too. I still see it at some point :-) . Great post..have to keep this handy for when we eventually make it :-) .
    Kemkem recently posted…Cop Car – Fab Friday Find FilmMy Profile

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Its funny, we weren’t that impressed with Budapest in the beginning. It really grew on us. We have friends there now and we actually miss them.
      Prague is more superficial but so impressive. We were there twice last year and look forward to seeing it again.
      Different but both wonderful cities.

  8. Great analysis. We just visited both and Budapest wins hands down because the restaurants and bars are non-smoking whereas in Prague it almost seems like smoking is required. That makes a huge difference for us.

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Interesting, I never noticed that they smoke in bars and restaurants in Prague. Maybe because we were there in the summer and we were always sitting outside? Hmmm.
      But yes, we are in Romania right now where everyone smokes, all the time. Its worse than any place we’ve every been. So I totally get it, we hate that as well.

    • Ajai Lamba says:

      Thanks. Very informative in the most practical aspects for a tourist. Beautifully explained. Both appear to be must visit places.

  9. We have been to Prague, but have always wanted to visit Budapest as well. Those thermal baths looks amazing!
    Jenny recently posted…How to Manage Airbnb Remotely (and Travel With the Profits)My Profile

  10. this is a city rumble :P
    I immediately thought ‘Budapest’ when I saw the title. you can find yourself on your own there, in Prague the crowds, as mentioned by your goodself, are just too much for me. But I’ve always desired the quiet life…..
    Andrew recently posted…Travel Itineraries – USA Part ThreeMy Profile

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Ha! I thought of you because I know you love to do those city rumbles (which I always love). But in this case I’ve had the post in mind since before we arrived in Budapest for the simple reason being that everyone asks “should I go to Prague or Budapest?”.
      But you know what? Maybe I’ll start doing city rumbles too :)

  11. Interesting analysis. I agree with you on many points, but we had the opposite experience regarding the friendliness of the locals. We thought most of the people in Prague were happy and friendly. We had a lot of run-ins with grumpy people in Budapest, especially at the thermal baths. If I had to choose, I would give the edge to Prague just because I enjoyed it a bit more, felt more of a connection to it. Nothing against Budapest though. And you’re right, the night views along the river are hard to beat!
    Rhonda recently posted…How to Spend a 10-hour Layover in San FranciscoMy Profile

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Thanks Rhonda! Oh well, they say that experiences are personal. But for us, after 3 months in Prague and 2 in Budapest, there was no comparison in the locals. Much friendlier in Budapest.
      But like you I really loved Prague…
      It’s a tough one, so many similarities yet also very different.

      • Czechia is my beloved destination and Prague is on the top. Difficult to compare medieval city (Prague) and city, which grew up in 19th century (Budapest). From architectonic point of view Prague is much more interesting, because of its unique gothic and baroque face, mysterious lanes and melancholic atmosphere, which I love. Budapest is a little bit puffy with overdimensioned buildings (Parliament and many more) in some “eclectic” architectonic style, logically looking more interanational and openminded. In Czechia you can visit many amazing places and nice landscapes, not only Prague, but in Hungary only a few. Hungarians are more temperament people, Czechs look reserved, but it is only a peel. Czech and Hungarian girls are both pretty, however both nations have their own “types” (if I can judge as a girl :-). I prefer place with specific nature and in that direction is Prague no.1. If you enjoy entertainment you will prefer Budapest, if you like atmosphere you will love Prague :-)

        • Frank (bbqboy) says:

          Thanks for input Marja! I tend to agree (mostly) with you ;)

        • Marja, do you know why the Hungarian Parliament is that big? Do you know how big was Hungary when it was built?

          • Frank (bbqboy) says:

            Oh yes, as part of the Austro Hungarian empire. But we saw the one in Vienna which was quite smaller – they didn’t have to make the one in Budapest so incredibly huge, I think it was more about making a statement then about practicality. Incredible building.

          • At the time it was built Hungary was more than three times bigger than today (not the Austro-Hungarian empire, only Hungary). Those territories were taken after loosing World War l. And in the late 19th – early 20th century Budapest was really booming, so they wanted to build something impressive indeed.

  12. I actually loved Budapest more than Prague. I actually expected Prague to blow me away. It’s undeniably pretty and have more sites to explore than Budapest, but I think Prague is overrun with tourism and has kinda lost a bit of its magic. Budapest’s strength relied mainly on the Hungarian Parliament Building, Buda Castle and the amazing view from Fisherman’s Bastion—but these three were so strong they just left a huge impression on me. But hey, we can agree to disagree. Prague is still a gorgeous city, after all. =)
    Andrew Darwitan recently posted…31 Days, 11 Countries, 43 Cities: How to Travel Europe for S$4.8K / €3KMy Profile

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for your opinion!
      We just recently spent another month in Prague and I have to say that it still impresses me more than Budapest. It is, in my opinion, an incredible city.
      But I totally agree with the number of tourists – we spent March there and even then it was packed.
      Frank (bbqboy) recently posted…Lady, can you please shut the F*ck up?My Profile

  13. I’m on my first solo trip as a woman over 50. I just spent 5 days in Prague, and while I loved the sites and felt safe by myself, I hated the massive crowds. It totally spoiled it for me. That, and the lousy food. Beautiful, but I won’t go back. Two days in Vienna, and suggest if you go to visit that you take out a second mortgage before you go – totally hated everything about Vienna. I’m now in Budapest and every time I look up, I am simply amazed! Yes, it’s gritty, but the beauty is everywhere. So glad I’m spending a few weeks here, and am wishing I could live here permanently!

  14. Hi!

    I live in Budapest and I really agree with everything you wrote about it, It’s fair and correct. We just spent 4 days in Prague this summer and really liked that city. I think the best decision is to visit both of them. :)

    Cheers,
    Balázs

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Thanks so much Balazs! I wrote this post after our visit to Budapest last summer – but we came back in February to see the city in winter and loved it again. Then we went straight to Prague for the month of March and also loved it again. Love both cities, both for different reasons.

  15. Well I live in Budapest and I have lived my entire life in Budapest… :-) And it’s interesting to see how other people rate my city. I’ve been to Prague only once. I think my city – especially the downtown – has a real city atmosphere (20% of the people of Hungary live here…) whilst Prague’s center reminds me of a smaller town. But beautiful town… I’ve been there with my mother and I made her walk a lot because I didn’t want to miss anything. Poor mom.
    If you come to Budapest, you can find some really old roman ruins here in Northern-Buda and the European continent’s oldest underground (still in service) from 1896. Make some friends on the internet and you can get to places where not all tourists can go.

  16. Zsofia Berenyi says:

    Sorry I cannot agree on the River and the Bridges point.
    I think always even comparing with Wienna or even Paris, that the majesty as the Danube has in Budapest has no comparison in Europe. And the Charles Bridge, let it be wonderful how it is, is always covered with hordes of tourists and there is no other interesting bridge in Prague. Meanwhile in Budapest, Margaret bridge is equally beautiful, and you can have the most stunning view of the city from there, with the Parliament, Castle hill and Gellért hill all in picture frame. You have the lady-bridge, Elizabeth, with the white elegance it has. And also have the Liberty Bridge that was frequented by locals and tourist equally this year, sitting on the Bridge and having a drink while watching sunset. Liberty bridge was even closed for cars this summer, hosting salsa night, and even a yoga class on the Bridge. How could you beat that with one Charles Bridge which is always crowded?

  17. Thank you :-)

  18. nice piece on the two cities.
    prague is very studied in its approach to tourism.
    the czechs figured out 30 years ago that the only reason for the city’s existence, was english speaking visitors.
    most people in the service trades, have functional english.
    it is pretty in a disney kind of designed way.
    the chances of running into czechs in central prague doing work a-day stuff–slim.
    like stepping into a formal living room, with furniture covered in plastic.
    budapest is like walking into a friend’s house, redolent of cigarette smoke, broken dishes, the television blasting.
    real, not contrived.
    budapest is really where east, west, south & north met in terms of cuisine.
    it is cheap, varied, to eat well.
    young people, in service, want to become more proficient at english.
    anyone over forty grew up in a near stalinist mentality; english was not be learned, and are now resentful.
    architecturally, budapest by far.
    a great mix of all sorts of styles, all over the city.
    beats paris hands down.
    anyone who waxes on about czech/hungarian beers–they are all weak, watery, and exist through being cheap.
    prague for two days as a tourist, and check that off of your list.
    budapest.
    two weeks there, and learn a neighborhood, and the city.
    and the rivers?
    c’mon.
    one is the danube, and the other some unspellible name.
    the charles bridge is like a street fair in manhattan–every 100 yards, you get a repeat of what you saw before.
    i split five months a year between the two.

Thanks for reading! Feedback is always appreciated!

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