Going Our Way: Touring Eastern European cities

By K.C. Summers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Who: Nina Schichor, 29, and Joshua Shakin, 30, of Washington

Where: Eastern Europe

Why: Urban adventure

When: One week for Josh, three weeks for Nina, in late summer/early fall

Budget: $8,000-$10,000

"We like walking or biking tours, local cuisine, cooking classes, farmers markets, museums and history."

Poor Josh Shakin. His wife, Nina Schichor, has three weeks of vacation, while he gets precisely one-third that amount. So the District couple will spend seven days vacationing in Eastern Europe this summer, and then it's back to work for him, leaving Nina to continue on with a friend who'll join her for the next two weeks.

This is tough, because we don't want to leave Josh shortchanged during his week abroad, but we also don't want to violate Going Our Way's main tenet of travel: Don't over-schedule. This itinerary is a compromise, packing a lot into the first week (ideally, I'd add a couple of days in each major city), then building in some downtime as the days progress. It incorporates the couple's wish list of cities and countries, plus one or two more places that weren't on their radar but that I think they'll love. Or at least Nina will. Josh will just have to come back.

A note about getting around: Josh and Nina want to travel between cities by train. You can purchase tickets in advance in the United States through Rail Europe (http://www.raileurope.com), but in most cases, it's much cheaper to buy them right in the train station.

Days 1-2: Berlin. Power through your jet lag and hit a few high spots -- the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Kurfuerstendamm, the museums -- but save time for one of the city's faux beaches, with deck chairs, sand, music, bars and other fun stuff (good list at http://www.visitberlin.de), or take a Nazi Germany/Third Reich bike tour (http://www.berlincitytours.com; about $25 per person). For club and cabaret info in this hippest of hip cities, check Time Out's guide at http://www.timeout.com/berlin. Lodging option: Hotel-Pension Bregenz, just off the Ku'damm (http://www.hotelbregenz-berlin.de; from $114 per night double with bath).

Days 3-4: Take the train to Prague (about 4 1/2 hours, $75 per person one way) and start wandering through Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square, Charles Bridge and the Jewish Quarter. Consider seeing it all by bike: Prague Experience, for example (011-44-1689-898-500, http://www.pragueexperience.com), charges $24 per person for a 2 1/2 -hour guided tour that includes bike, helmet and insurance. If you can build in more time here, consider taking a day trip to the UNESCO town of Cesky Krumlov. Lodging option: Arcadia Residence, near Old Town Square (http://www.arcadiaresidence.com; from $127 per night double).

Days 5-6: Take the train to Vienna (4 1/2 hours, $43 per person), ensconce yourself in a cafe and practice saying "mit schlag" ("with whipped cream"). Then visit as many highlights as you can fit in: the Hofburg palace, the State Opera, St. Stephen's Cathedral. Frommer's has good self-guided walking tours at http://www.frommers.com/destinations/vienna/0068010008.html. Lodging option: Hotel Goldener Baer, near a subway stop (http://www.goldbearhotel.com; $122 per night double).

Days 7-8: I'm getting exhausted just typing this, but if you want to notch one more city into your travel belt, take the train to Budapest (about three hours, $50). Lots to see and do in this fun, lively town, from Castle Hill to cruising the Danube to the ornate tombs of Kerepesi Cemetery. Try a thermal bath; the tourism office has a good list at http://www.budapestinfo.hu/en. Lodging option: B&B Bellevue, with a view of the Danube (http://www.bellevuebudapest.com; about $76 per night double).

Days 9-13: See ya, Josh. We're off to Croatia. Nina, you and your new travel buddy should take the train to Zagreb (six hours, about $70), one of Europe's underrated capitals. Short-term apartments run about $50 per person per night (http://www.only-apartments.com). Spend a day visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park, a UNESCO site known for its cascading waterfalls (a 2 1/2 -hour bus ride from Zagreb, $13). Then fly from Zagreb to Dubrovnik (about $330 round trip per person) and take a couple of days to explore the gorgeous walled city. Splurgey lodging option in Dubrovnik, but so worth it: Stari Grad, right within the walled city (http://www.hotelstarigrad.com; $184 per night double for stays of less than three days). Consider ferrying over to one of the Dalmatian Coast islands for a day or two of R&R (http://www.jadrolinija.hr for a schedule and prices). Then fly back to Zagreb.

Days 14-17: Take the train from Zagreb to Ljubljana, Slovenia (two hours, about $25). You're going to love this place. Slovenia's elegant, inviting capital is a great base for excursions to famous Lake Bled and the UNESCO-designated Skocjan Caves. It's also got a ton of public markets, most notably the lovely Central Market, which follows the sweep of the Ljubljanica River. After stocking up on such Slovenian delicacies as Karst prosciutto and horse pâté (!), move on to the antiques and flea markets. Lodging option: Antiq Hotel, in Old Town (http://www.antiqhotel.si; from $97 per night double).

Days 17-20: Fly to Krakow (about $325) for a peek at Poland. With its medieval architecture and lively air, the city is much more appealing than Warsaw as a base, and the surrounding countryside has lots of hiking and biking trails. Day trips: Wieliczka Salt Mine (about 30 minutes from the center city; transportation and tour about $50) and the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp memorials (one hour; transportation and tours about $30). Lodging option: the Ester Hotel, near the Old Synagogue (http://www.hotel-ester.krakow.pl/en; $105 per night double on Expedia.com).

Day 21: Return home.

Cost: International airfare will run about $2,400 for two (as always, sign up for sale alerts from such sites as SmarterTravel.com and Yapta.com, but don't hold your breath). Intercity transportation: about $1,500. Lodging: about $2,100. Total: about $6,000, leaving plenty for food, admissions and incidentals.

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

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