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Off the Leash in Central Europe

I was about to fly to Berlin for a trip across Central Europe when my relationship fell apart. Losing my significant other was tough, and losing my traveling companion — and being stuck with her non-refundable plane ticket — wasn’t much better.

Salvation came in the form of Mary, an old friend now living on the West Coast. The only problem was that all my meticulous planning was now useless, as the romantic vibe obviously fell by the wayside. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We decided that the only plan would be that there were no plans, and the only rule: no rules.

That decision marked the beginning of an epic adventure. Read on for some ideas and inspiration should you find yourself seeking similar thrills in Berlin, Prague, Vienna, or Budapest, and see just how easy it is to rip up the rule book and make it up as you go along.

Day 1-5

We made a friend here right away — Ted, a handsome solo traveler who took pity on us when our train from the airport was down. In fact, we met quite a few friends here, new and old, and the universal recommendation was to take Berlin by bike. Our two-wheeled tour hugged the lazy, verdant Maybach river for some time, sampling Turkish delicacies and fabrics in the open-air market and ultimately terminating in the middle of the massive Tiergarten Park. We plopped down for a sunset picnic there, and that’s Berlin: a ramble, a sprawl, a steady clip, a cobbled-together conversation over cobblestones, a surprise friend who doesn’t mind tagging along with out-of-towners.

Ted really delivered on the hidden-gem front, spiriting us atop a mall and parking garage complex to Klunkerkranich, an improbably large rooftop bar. It’s not so hidden anymore, truth be told, but we’d never have found it otherwise. This place just kept on giving: excellent pilsners, a wall of birdhouses, multi-level platforms for a selection of invigorating views. Yes, we took part in the trend/ritual of polishing off a bottle of Schilkin peppermint schnapps. Don’t ask, just enjoy, we were told. Prost!

If you go: We’ve talked about East Berlin in these pages before — but there’s life on the west side as well. Das Stue keeps things appropriately grand on the site of the former Danish embassy, anchored by the Michelin-starred molecular approach at Paco Pérez’s Cinco. Nearby, Sir Savigny fastidiously maintains its elegant historical roots in the company of its neighborhood’s renowned shops and restaurants.

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Day 6-10

My kind of city, through and through, mostly on account of the magnetic old-world architecture, largely undamaged by the wars. There are a few sights you absolutely can’t miss, and it’s no wonder we eventually found ourselves touring the castle district. I had to be torn away from the autographed Beethoven manuscripts of his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in the Lobkowicz Palace — coincidentally, and just as enjoyably, there’s a roomful of royal dog portraits that had us in stitches. For a more humbling painterly moment, nothing beat the extraordinary juxtaposition of gilt iconography and masterpieces of Dutch realism in the Sternberg Palace. At one point both of us collapsed out of sheer, delirious visual overload on the lawn of the Sternberg gardens.

In keeping with the not-so-hidden theme, I concede that it’s not exactly hard to find the Vltava River. Don’t just find it, though; do yourself the favor of spending an entire late-summer evening on a paddle boat. Here’s the recipe: use the mooring rope to secure a bottle or two of wine to cool in the river, bring a portable speaker to pump some Django Reinhardt (or, to keep it Czech, the Baroque master Zelenka), stop off for a snack and a breather on one of the islands. I may have shed a few tears. Then we climbed — you climb a lot in Prague — up the hill on the other side of the river, found a bucolic glen that suited our purposes, and set about artmaking: Mary to devise a ballet routine, myself to write her a poem. This specific moment kickstarted the healing process for both of us, we later agreed. Lucky, silly, sappy, call it what you will.

If you go: You’ll want to be near the river, naturally, to take advantage of the views and the numerous bridges. Well aware of its Old Town surrounding, BoHo Prague Hotel injects gorgeous visual contrast with sleek contemporary digs. Meanwhile, Buddha-Bar Hotel Prague lives up to its name with trademark mod-Oriental interiors and reliably on-point nightlife.

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Day 11-16

So if Prague’s a castle, Vienna’s a cake. You want ornamental façades and manicured landscaping and haute-monumental urban planning, you got it. We let my old friend Jackie, now a local, take the lead, blinking hard at the beauty, strolling as if we belonged, drinking the inner city in. The Pestsäule (Plague Column) absolutely knocked us over: here’s the High Baroque in one vertiginous, filigreed, dramatically gestured sculpture, a 17th-century work of thanksgiving in the wake of the 1679 plague epidemic. As if that weren’t grandiose enough, we then made our way to the Kunsthistoriches Museum for a primer on Habsburg arms and armor. The cake motif extended even to the elaborate and heraldic musket collection, every centimeter of their design a visual orgy in wrought silver, enamel, and mother-of-pearl.

Vienna’s also about the wholesome pleasures of fine coffee (perhaps less wholesome if adulterated) and bracing, woodsy walks. Adhering yet again to our hidden-but-not theme, the gem here was the Gloriette at the zenith of the Schönbrunn Palace grounds. It’s a spectacular pavilion of sorts, the neoclassical cake of cakes in exquisitely dressed masonry, pillars, and enormous arched windows. Surrounded, why not, by topiary and flowerbeds of surpassing expertise, including an honest-to-goodness hedge maze. No better spot for a morning pick-me-up, I assure you. Just ask Emperor Franz Joseph I, who used to breakfast here.

If you go: Having a gorgeous spot to sleep off all the gorgeousness is key in Vienna. Grand Ferdinand Wien certainly fits that bill, flawlessly blending mid-century glamour and a vibrant rooftop scene right on the Ringstrasse. Grätzlhotel puts up stiff competition, mitigating a slightly peripheral location with wildly inventive design by the Urbanauts team on the site(s) of a series of former artisanal shopfronts.

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Day 17-21

Around Hungarian’s innate remoteness from English, though, which we learned the hard way. Win some, lose some, we made ourselves understood. Point is, what they say is true: the thermal baths are the real deal. Our choice was Lukács, partially because it obligated us to walk some ways and take the city in en route. Many of us Americans are missing the refreshing (and often medicinal) ritual cleanliness the baths offer, an indiscriminate and equalizing civic practice combining the best of an exercise routine, a spa retreat, and a therapy session. Plus, you know, it can’t all be goulash.

The now-iconic ruin bars in District VII were a constant attraction, each an amalgam of provocative artwork, shabby-chic furnishing, and stupid-cheap drinks on the site of a derelict lot or abandoned building. The basic exploratory urge behind this entire trip found excellent purchase here; roaming from room to room, reveling in the unabashedly bizarre approach to having a good time, we clinked glasses and smiled to ourselves. Hidden, not so much, but a great place to hide oneself and come to terms with the slight dissociation, the delicious absence of an anchor, that comes with immersion in a completely foreign logic. Back across the ocean we went, already plotting our next journey.

If you go: Take advantage of the Buda half’s charming elevation and direct access to national treasures, if you want our advice; a quick tram drops you off right in the middle of the action if you so desire. Baltazár Budapest is its own zany opus, matching unflagging eclecticism with public spaces designed for memory-making. A smidge more sedate, and exceedingly comfortable, Pest-Buda Hotel holds down the hill with outstanding authentic cuisine and a warm, retro-chic aesthetic.

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— Peter Longofono

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