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Discover the Next Prague

Three Cities Are in the Running

Budapest, Hungary
Budapest's local-style Széchenyi Baths.

First, it was Prague. Then, it was Kraków. With hordes of adventurous tourists seeking the “next Prague,” three very different destinations are rising to the occasion: Budapest, Ljubljana, and Dubrovnik.

Immersion in Budapest

Budapest, the capital of Hungary, straddles the Danube River just downstream from Vienna. Bustling with more than two million people, this metropolis is the de facto capital of Eastern Europe. Let go of the clichés—goulash isn’t what you think it is, and the “Gypsy” dancers are actually Hungarians. Immerse yourself in this hive of humanity, boasting tasty cuisine, dramatic urban vistas, and a special Hungarian spice. Greet your new Budapest friends with a robust, “Jó napot kívánok!”...or settle for the easier “Szia!” (SEE-yah).

Explore the city’s many creaky and offbeat museums, covering everything from the postal service to local composer Franz Liszt. (Study ahead at www.budapestinfo.hu to choose your favorites.) Tour the sumptuous Opera House—with decor as lavish as any in Europe, plus world-class opera for as little as $2 (www.opera.hu). Stroll the sprawling City Park, home to a reconstructed Transylvanian castle, an Art Nouveau zoo, a mini-amusement park, and a fun-loving spa pavilion (the Széchenyi Baths, described below). Ride the delightfully rickety vintage subway to the Danube, wander the promenade, and glide along the river on a $20 twilight cruise (www.legenda.hu).

All of the above attractions, plus public transportation and a lot more, are free or discounted with the Budapest Card. At about $12 per day, this card can be a good deal for busy sightseers.

The Cold War was just the most recent chapter in Budapest’s long history as a crossroads of eastern European cultures. After being settled by the Central Asian Magyars more than a thousand years ago, Budapest has absorbed a whole hemisphere’s worth of cultures: Hungarians, Germans, Slavs, Roma (Gypsies), and Jews, with a dash of Turkish paprika.

To taste some of these varied flavors, make your way through the Great Market Hall. Sample paprika (hot—csípős, or sweet—édes) and bite into a lángos—a savory deep-fried doughnut spread with cheese, garlic, and sour cream. Order goulash (gulyás leves) in its homeland... and be surprised when it turns out to be a spicy, thin soup instead of the thick stew you were expecting.

The only “must-do” activity in Budapest is to soak with the locals in one of the many thermal baths. The best and most accessible are the local-style Széchenyi Baths and the touristy Gellért Baths (for information on either, see www.spasbudapest.com). Just relax and enjoy some Hungarian good living. Magyars of all shapes and sizes stuff themselves into tiny swimsuits and strut their stuff. Tourists float blissfully in the warm water. Intellectuals and Speedo-clad elder statesmen stand in chest-high water around chessboards and ponder their next moves. This is Budapest at its best.

Relaxation in Ljubljana

After Slovenia peacefully seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, Ljubljana (lyoob-lyee-AH-nah) became one of Europe’s newest and smallest capital cities. With a lazy old town clustered around a castle-topped mountain, Ljubljana is often likened to Salzburg. It’s an apt comparison—but only if you inject a healthy dose of breezy Adriatic culture, add a Slavic accent, and replace Mozart with local architect Jože Plečnik.

Ljubljana feels much smaller than its population of 289,000. Fashion boutiques and cafés jockey for control of the old town, while the leafy riverside promenade crawls with stylishly dressed students sipping coffee and polishing their near-perfect English. Laid-back Ljubljana is the kind of place where crumbling buildings seem elegantly atmospheric instead of shoddy.

Vivid architecture—adorned with spires, domes, and zigzag lines—is a local forte. After a destructive 1895 earthquake, Ljubljana was rebuilt in classy Art Nouveau. A generation later, homegrown architect and urban planner Jože Plečnik bathed Ljubljana in his simple, eye-pleasing style, which mixes modern and classical influences.

Ljubljana also features some good, low-impact sightseeing. Take a walking tour (or hire your own local guide at bargain prices) to hear some of the quaint stories of this plucky town and nation. Amble through the people-filled Tivoli Park and visit the Contemporary History Museum, which traces Slovenia’s tumultuous 20th century (occupied by Austria, then united with Yugoslavia...and now independent). Hike or take a tourist train up to the castle above the old town for sweeping views over the city and to the nearby Alps. From here, it’s just an hour’s drive to Austria.

But let’s be honest: Ljubljana isn’t for sightseeing—it’s for aimless strolling, people-watching, and sipping coffee. Sitting at one of the many delightful cafés that line the Ljubljanica River, shaded by willow trees and tickled by a breeze as you sip your bela kava (“white coffee”—espresso with milk), you’ll feel pretty smart for visiting this often-overlooked destination.

Slovenia's capital city, Ljubljana
Slovenia's capital city, Ljubljana.

Dubrovnik: A Living Fairy tale

Sunny beaches, succulent seafood, and a taste of la dolce vita...in Eastern Europe? Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is Eastern Europe’s Riviera. And the best Dalmatian destination is Dubrovnik—a living fairy tale that shouldn’t be missed. With an epic history, breezy Mediterranean culture, and one of Eastern Europe’s best old towns, Dubrovnik is like Venice without the canals.

Many tourists were scared off after Croatia’s recent war with Yugoslavia. While the rest of Croatia’s coastline was virtually untouched by the war, the Yugoslav National Army laid siege to Dubrovnik for eight long months. In the years since, Dubrovnik has repaired itself with remarkable speed and confidence. Today the city feels perfectly safe, and the only visible signs of the war are some new bright-orange roof tiles. The tourists are most decidedly back—in droves.

Part of the fun in visiting Dubrovnik is taking advantage of the city’s many sobe—rooms in private homes. Especially considering the excessively high prices of Dubrovnik’s resort hotels, sobe are an excellent value. Like British B&Bs, Croatian sobe offer double the cultural intimacy at half the price. You’ll be approached by entrepreneurial locals seeking houseguests as you step off your boat or bus, but I like to wander a pleasant neighborhood (like the quiet cove just outside the old town’s Pile Gate) looking for sobe signs. Or, for a fee, a travel agent can help you find a room.

Fresh, delicious seafood is another Dubrovnik joy. Around every corner is a characteristic, family-run eatery with sun-bathed outdoor seating. For starters, let a startlingly delicious sardine—carefully marinated in a generations-old family recipe—slowly melt in your mouth. Then savor a bite of grilled squid or air-dried Dalmatian ham (pršut).

The traffic-free old town is bisected by the main promenade, the Stradun. Within the old town walls are a gaggle of surprisingly interesting sights: a pharmacy that’s been open for business since the Middle Ages, a pair of tranquil convents surrounded by painting galleries, Europe’s second-oldest synagogue, art-packed churches and mansions, and museums devoted to the local folk life and seafaring culture. Just offshore is Lokrum Island, famous for its nude beaches. And you’re only a couple of hours (by car, public bus, or guided tour) from other attractions in the former Yugoslavia, including Montenegro’s striking Bay of Kotor (south) and Bosnia-Herzegovina’s thought-provoking Mostar (northeast).

The highlight of any day in Dubrovnik is strolling the scenic mile around the top of the old town’s city walls ($5 to enter) with a sea of red roofs on one side, and the actual sea on the other.

Dubrovnik's well-preserved old town
Dubrovnik's well-preserved old town.

For more on these destinations—including suggestions for enjoying Budapest’s baths, Ljubljana’s best cafés, and Dubrovnik’s most inviting sobe—see Rick Steves’ Best of Eastern Europe.

Cameron Hewitt contributed to this article

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