Less than 500 miles separate three of central Europe’s most popular and evocative destination cities, each laden with centuries of history and layers of charm, and each now the capital of its own historically significant and distinctive country: Vienna (Austria), Prague (Czech Republic) and Berlin (Germany). Each is well worth four or five days and its own trip, but ambitious travelers can string all three together fairly easily by train, bus or rental car for a truly capital triple play.
From the late 1200s until the end of World War I, Vienna was the center and capital city of the increasingly vast (and wealthy) Habsburg Empire. The modern city came into being with the demolition of the medieval city walls in the mid-1850s, allowing for a civic building boom in the grand Historicist style along the wide, new, semicircular Ringstrasse. Significantly damaged during World War II, Vienna was restored to its fin-de-siècle grandeur in the 1950s. With its hereditary devotion to the arts, especially music (think Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss), gracious living and cafe culture, Vienna is arguably Europe’s most refined metropolis.
Pictured: A horse-drawn carriage on Heldenplatz Square in front of the Hofburg in Vienna.
MAJOR ATTRACTIONS The Hofburg, the vast and imposing imperial court of the Habsburgs with its opulent state rooms, residential suites and over-the-top Treasury; Schönbrunn (pictured), their equally opulent suburban summer palace and gardens; art museums, including the expansive Museum of the History of Art, more contemporary-oriented Albertina, and Leopold Museum (Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt); Gothic St. Stephen’s Church and Vienna’s now commercial medieval center; and the houses of two famous Viennese icons, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Sigmund Freud.
CULTURAL OPPORTUNITIES Attend a performance at the State Opera House (pictured); take in one of dozens of daily classical musical concerts at secondary venues; observe morning training or a weekend performance of the prancing Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School.
R&R Take a ride on the giant 1897 Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park; take a daytime or evening cruise along the Danube River; enjoy java and strudel at a traditional coffeehouse (or Sacher torte at the upscale Sacher Café); tuck into a giant Wiener schnitzel at a neighborhood Wirtshaus; or drink in the atmosphere and fruit of local vines at a suburban Heuriger (wine tavern).
Before passing into the industrious hands of the Austrian Habsburgs in 1526, hill-engirded Prague served as the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia and the home of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor from 1355 to 1378), who built and spent lavishly here. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918, Prague became the capital of the new composite nation of Czechoslovakia. Occupied but not damaged by the Nazis in the Second World War, it fell under Russian Communist domination afterward, achieving autonomy in 1989, only to split in two in 1993. Largely unchanged architecturally since the 1700s, it doesn’t get any more Old World charming than the “City of a Hundred Spires.”
Pictured: The Vltava River.
MAJOR ATTRACTIONS Prague Castle, including towering St. Vitus Cathedral, the old Royal Palace and picturesque Golden Lane all perched atop a hill on the west bank of the Vltava river; the statuary-lined pedestrian Charles Bridge (pictured); Sternberg Palace, home of the National Gallery; quintessentially medieval Old Town Square with its Old Town Hall and astronomical clock and towering fairy-tale Church of Our Lady before Tyn; Josefov (Jewish Quarter) featuring Europe’s oldest active synagogue; and 19th century commercial New Town.
CULTURAL OPPORTUNITIES Attend a professional orchestral performance at the Rudolfinum, National Theater, Municipal House or Dvorak Museum, or any number of smaller nightly concerts at landmark churches or synagogues; enjoy suspended animation at the National Marionette Theater.
R&R Stroll the scenic Charles Bridge, especially at sunset; enjoy original Czech pilsner at a traditional beer hall or garden; indulge in a trdelnik (doughnut cone) from a street vendor; take a boat ride on the Vltava River; climb (or ride the funicular) to the top of Petrin Hill and then to the top of the Petrin Lookout Tower, which was inspired by Paris’ Eiffel Tower.
Pictured: Visitors to the Czech capital can get a look into the interior of the miniature houses on Golden Lane, inside the fortification walls of Prague Castle.
Before German unification in 1871, low-lying and low-slung Berlin was the capital of the militaristic Kingdom of Prussia, ruled most famously and effectively by Frederick the Great from 1740 to 1786. Under Bismarck and two Kaisers, both named Wilhelm, it became the new nation’s capital and its commercial, cultural and hedonistic center before being commandeered by the Nazis in 1933. Largely destroyed in World War II, Berlin was stripped of its capital city status and divided politically by the victorious Allies, a division that became even starker with the construction of the notorious Berlin Wall in 1961. In 1991, Berlin — now without the wall — was restored as capital of a united Germany, with formerly Communist East Berlin once again its heart and soul.
Pictured: The Berlin skyline over the Spree River.
CULTURAL ATTRACTIONS Museum Island, especially the Pergamon, the German History Museum and Neues Museum, home of the bust of Nefertiti; the ornate Protestant Berliner Dom; the Gemaldegalerie art museum of European masterpieces; Brandenburg Gate (pictured); and the sumptuous Baroque palaces (Sanssouci and the Neues Palais) of Frederick the Great in nearby Potsdam.
MAJOR ATTRACTIONS The restored Reichstag (parliament) with its climbable glass cupola; dramatic ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church; Checkpoint Charlie (reconstruction and adjacent museum); open air Topography of Terror exhibit on the site of Gestapo headquarters; the moving Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (pictured); and the Berlin Wall Memorial.
R&R Cruise the Spree River in a sightseeing boat; rent a bicycle and ride through the Tiergarten; stroll the now trendy Unter den Linden; ogle the wares at Fassbender & Rausch, the world’s largest chocolate shop; gaze out over the city from atop the Fernsehturm (TV Tower); sample bulette and currywurst at any number of street stands; and, naturlich, soak up suds at a typical biergarten.