Sailing on the Danube, Days 6 & 7: Vienna & Budapest

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Cathedral of St. Stephen in Vienna.

I meant to wrap up these Viking River Cruises blog-style entries during the time I was actually sailing on the Danube, but with the last two days spent in Vienna and Budapest, and with only minimal downtime, I put away the iPhone (well, sort of) and focused on exploring these fabulous cities—both so striking with their architectural marvels, yet so very different. Where Vienna is stately and elegant, Budapest offers up a more frenzied ambiance, where construction is nonstop from the castle grounds to main streets. In Vienna, the Imperial area simply leaves you awe-struck with its beauty, while what impresses the most in Budapest is viewing both sides from the best seat in the house, the Danube River.

But before I start chit-chatting about our day exploring Vienna—and boy was it hot (some parts of the city hit 110F)—I wanted to mention something about the onboard dining, because you might be wondering if it’s really teenager-friendly and I must admit it very much is so. There are plenty of options, including beef, chicken, fish and several desserts to choose from; there are also fun appetizers to nibble on and if teenagers want to be adventurous, they can sample some of the regional specialties. My daughter went for the meat on most days, but did try hummus, spaghetti and pesto and had lots of chocolate ice cream, of course (as if we didn’t have enough while visiting the smaller towns on the route).

Back to our quick day in Vienna….As we walked through one of the world’s most livable cities, my daughter mentioned on more than one occasion how a city could possibly be so beautiful, and how funny how residents just walked through these streets as if nothing. “Why would anyone visit Miami with a hometown like this at their feet?” she asked. “The beaches,” I noted, but truth be told, I wondered the same thing myself…. In fact, I hope to return to Vienna with the whole family very soon, and that’s one thing about traveling with a family on a river cruise—they can get a taste of certain towns and cities, and they can plan from there which places most interested them and then come back to you, the travel agent, and book a week-long stay in Vienna, for example (which is what I hope to do!). But I digress….

Yes, it was hot, unbearably hot, but this on our first-ever visit to Vienna was not something that was going to deter us—there was architecture to gawk at, art masterpieces to view, coffee to sip and divine chocolates to buy (tell clients to take a detour to Hotel Sacher to buy those world-famous Sacher-Tortes). Because the Danube is located in what program director Alex mentioned was the outskirts of the city (it’s actually only a 10-minute walk to the nearest underground station, but in the heat it can seem a bit longer), my daughter and I decided to hitch a ride with the included tour that would take us along the Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard that encircles the medieval city center, and we simply went off on our own once the tour bus arrived in the center of town. Off we went to the Kunst Historisches Museum Vienna (the Fine Arts Museum), which I had planned as a first stop so we could take in a few masterpieces. Vienna, if you know it well, offers an array of museums—there’s even the Museums Quartier—and it would take more than a day to truly take in all their magnificence, so before the trip, I selected this one museum to visit and within it, chose a few galleries only. We explored the Egyptian and Near Eastern Collection, the Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities and the gallery that holds Bruegel’s works, including “The Tower of Babel.” I hate checking things off the bucket list, so to speak, but if you’ve got just one day in a city like Vienna, you definitely have to make a short list of must-visits. After that we made our way to one of the more Bohemian coffee houses in the city, as suggested by the program director, and wandered through the city’s historic center with its baroque castles and gardens.

Of course, a day visit in Vienna must include a peek at the Cathedral of St. Stephen, built between 1263 and 1511, a stroll around the streets that surround the cathedral and definitely slipping into the shops (for some air conditioned bliss in our case). We would’ve walked even more, but the heat was beating down on us, so we actually grabbed the underground back to the ship an hour before it departed. I thought we hadn’t done enough, but when we told Alex everything we had done, he couldn’t believe it, especially because of the heat.

That night, during dinner we sailed through Slovakia, but even more interesting from a parent’s point of view, my daughter was asked by one of the passengers what her favorite part of the trip had been, and she responded without hesitation, that she enjoyed listening to the other passengers. She mentioned that she preferred that all the passengers were of the older generation because people her own age didn’t have anything interesting to say and they were too judgmental.

And off we went to Budapest, which, truth be told, was the destination I had most been looking forward to visit so I’m glad that was the last hurrah, so to speak. We sailed into this Hungarian city in the morning, and wow, what a beauty—the Buda side is set in a landscape of rolling hills that drops off steeply toward the river, while the Pest side occupies a flat expanse. There’s just something so magical about it, especially if you are viewing both sides from the river. The architecture astounds, the energy leaves you breathless…. It was hot, though, so it was a good thing the ship, which was anchored on the Pest side, was right smack in the middle of all this magnificence. My daughter and I opted not to take the included tour, and just dove right into all the sizzling adventures the city promised on our own. We walked and walked and walked though the Pest side, along Vaci utca, which is a pedestrian street that leads to a grand indoor market where all sorts of things are sold—from local food to gorgeous handmade embroideries. We stopped every few feet to marvel at the architecture of some of the buildings, one more beautiful than the next.

View of Budapest from the River.
View of Budapest from the river.

Because it was so hot, we went back to the ship for an afternoon respite and then got the energy to walk across one of the bridges, the Chain Bridge—dazzling—and made our way to the Budapest Castle Hill funicular, which on its way up offers a grand bird’s-eye view of all of this city’s treasures. We did stop for lunch on the castle grounds, how divine, and then paraded on to Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion. Most of the restaurants up on the Castle do not accept credit cards, so tell clients they’ll need to get some forints for the road. The best part of this excursion was sitting with my daughter at one of the vantage points and just soaking it all in—not just Budapest, but the entire river cruise experience. Tell clients with teenagers that it’s an experience they will cherish because their teenagers will bloom in an unexpected way.

My daughter insisted we dine on board the ship, and much to my surprise many of the other passengers had opted for the same thing. She wanted to say bye to her newfound friends, and then after dinner we walked some more through the city…hoping for just one more day of this dreamlike journey.

So, in conclusion, after my experience with my 13-year-old daughter, I highly recommend you look into expanding your river cruising client list, although, of course, keeping in mind, not every family is a suitable client…here, baby boomers rule, and that’s a good thing, in my daughter’s opinion.

To read more about the trip, see Sailing on the Danube with Viking River Cruises & My 13-year-old daughter, Sailing on the Danube, Days 3 & 4, and Sailing on the Danube, Day 5: Melk & A Taste of Vienna. For a photo diary of the experience, see Eye on the World: Germany, Vienna & Budapest.