A No Fly Christmas Itinerary – 4 countries in 9 days

Christmas seems such a long time ago and this post about our Christmas holiday is long overdue. For the last few years, we have gone on an annual pre-Christmas holiday, enjoying some of the best Christmas markets Europe has to offer. This is the latest in a long line of adventures (see my previous posts on Prague, Helsinki, Tallinn), but it is special for several reasons: It covered 4 countries – the most I have covered in a single trip anywhere, as well as being a no fly holiday – we took trains all the way. In this post, I will take you through the itinerary and highlights of our trip.

Day 1: Birmingham to Vienna via Cologne

There were several options for us to get from Birmingham to Vienna, and we took the option of going via Cologne on the Nightjet sleeper train as I wanted to try the deluxe sleeper compartment with shower and toilet.

It took 3 trains to get from Birmingham to Cologne:

  • 0720 Train from Birmingham International to London Euston
  • 1058 Eurostar train from London St Pancras International to Brussels-Midi
  • 1425 Train from Brussels midi to Cologne Hbf.

We booked tickets with Loco2.

1610: Arrived in Cologne, where we had a 5 hour break till our sleeper train to Vienna. We spent the time exploring the famous Cologne Cathedral, the Christmas Market and having dinner in a traditional beer hall. Being the penultimate Saturday before Christmas, the Cologne Christmas market was extremely busy.

Inside Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Christmas Market

2120: We boarded the Nightjet sleeper train to Vienna. (We booked tickets with the Austrian rail booking site, OBB). This is where we were in for a severe disappointment. As it was cold (-3 degrees Celsius) the water on the deluxe train carriage had frozen. This meant that the shower and toilet in our sleeper compartment were not working. They did have some nice amenities on offer (hand towels, slippers, ear plugs, water, snacks and sparkling wine) which made up a little for the lack of shower and bathroom.

Day 2: Vienna

1100: Arrived in Vienna. We were due to arrive in Vienna by 0840, but the train was delayed by over 2 hours due to engineering works

Tip: If I was to repeat the trip, I would not choose the Vienna to Cologne sleeper. Lack of shower facilities aside, it took a very long time to get there. In hindsight, I think a better option would be to leave London very early in the day, and travel to Vienna via Frankfurt, arriving in the evening (More details here). However, this does mean spending an extra night in London, unless you happen to live there.

We spent the rest of the day enjoying the Leopold museum in Vienna and the Christmas markets.

Vienna Christmas Lights
Christmas Market near Vienna Town Hall

In the evening, we attended a performance by the Vienna Royal Orchestra, playing some of the best known classics by Mozart and Strauss. Some of the pieces were accompanied by singers and/or ballet dancers. Ticket costs vary from about 30 to 60 Euros (depending on the seats). However, a note of caution here: The tickets sellers (who are normally around Museum Quarter) do convey a feeling of it being more grand than it actually is. This is a show put on specially for tourists. The orchestra is 10 pieces (but does have all the main elements, piano, strings, wind and brass and percussion instruments). The concert hall is in the Akademisches Gymnasium building with no tiered seating. However, the performances were excellent and the musicians, singers and dancers were talented. We enjoyed the performance and considered it good value for money, but if you turned up expecting something on par with the Vienna State Opera, you would be disappointed.

Musical Performance by the Vienna Royal Orchestra

After the performance, we had time for a late night coffee and cake at Cafe Schwarzenberg, located on the ring road not far from the concert hall. The cafe dates back to the 19th Century and the interiors have changed little since then. We also learnt that the Schwarzenberg is unusual compare to other Viennese cafes as it was frequented by entrepreneurs and financiers, as opposed to musicians and artists.

Tip: Where to Stay – We stayed at the Steinberger Hotel Herrenhof in Vienna. This is in a great location and very central. The rooms are comfortable and the hotel does a nice breakfast. It is also right next to a metro station.

Day 3: Vienna

1000: Today, we spent most of the day on the Big Bus Vienna City Tour. We tried the red route first, which starts at the opera house and covers the old town first and crosses the Danube to see the Vienna International Centre (locally known as UNO city), which is home one of the four official UN headquarters.

UNO city from across the Danube
Sights from the tourbus
Sights from the tourbus

1230: Lunch at Cafe Mozart. This cafe was made famous by the film the Third Man and dates back to 1794. There was a sizeable queue to get in, but the quick and efficient service meant that we didn’t have to wait for long.

Treats at Cafe Mozart

1430: After lunch, we got on the Big Bus blue route, with a stop at Schobrunn Palace to explore the Christmas market there.

Schonbrunn Palace Christmas Market

Day 4: Vienna to Budapest via Bratislava

1030: Today, were were heading to Budapest, but we took a detour to Bratislava. The Slovakian Capital is only an hour by train from Vienna, so it seemed a shame to miss it. In the summer, you can make this trip by boat along the Danube, but in the winter, the boat service is not available.

1230: The centre of Bratislava is short walk from the train station.
In comparison to it’s neighbours such as Prague, Vienna and Budapest, Bratislava is smaller and feels somewhat run down. However, the centre of twon is cosy and has a good Christmas market.

We had time to enjoy the Christmas market and a traditional Slovakian lunch, before getting on the train to Budapest.

Day 5: Budapest

We spent the morning on the City Sightseeing Budapest tour bus. Compared to Big Bus Vienna, the the city sightseeing tour Budapest was a big disappointment. The top deck on many of the busses was not covered, which meant that you had to endure the bitter cold if you wanted to sit at the top. Downstairs on the bus was no better, as there was no heating. To make matters worse, the Audio Guide was out synch with the sights. All in all, not a good experience.

Tip: If you are visiting Vienna and then Budapest, buy the Big Bus combined ticket for Vienna and Budapest. This is cheaper than buying separate tickets in two cities. The combined ticket gives you 2 day tickets, night tour, as well as river cruise in both cities. From what we could see, Big Bus was much better than City Sight seeing tour bus, in both cities.

The Chain Bridge in Budapest

We spent the afternoon exploring Buda castle and Christmas markets.

Matthias Church, near Buda Castle
View of Pest, from Buda castle
More coffee and cakes
Christmas Market around St. Stephen’s Basilica

Day 6: Budapest

1000: Exploring the Hero Square and surrounding park in Pest. The park is home to the famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths. Budapest is famous for its Thermal baths and there are many scattered around the city. Széchenyi Thermal Baths is the largest of its kind in Europe and dates back to 1913.

Hero Square
Széchenyi Thermal Baths

We also explored the Vajdahunyad Castle and the surrounding Christmas market. The Castle was 1896 for the Hungarian Millennial Exhibition which celebrated the 1,000 years of Hungary since the Hungarian Conquest. The castle was designed to feature replicas of several landmark buildings from different parts the Kingdom of Hungary, including the famous Hunyad Castle in Transylvania.

Vajdahunyad Castle

In the evening, we enjoyed a Wine Tasting Casino Cruise on the Danube. In you are wondering what this is, it is a 3 hour cruise on the river Danube taking in the major sights such as Parliament and Buda castle. You get to blind-taste 7 wines, and “bet” on the colour, type and year of wine on a specially made roulette table. (You are given chips to play with, so there is no risk of losing any money). There is also live music and Hungarian folk singing and dancing. All in all it was an excellent experience, the food, wine and the service was great and the entertainment excellent, what what stood out for me was the riverside attractions, in the evening lights.

Wine Casino
Hungarian Folk Singing and Dancing – including balancing Wine on the head!
Hungarian Parliament at night

Day 7: Budapest and night train to Zurich

Today we had some time to explore the Hungarian Parliament in daylight and the Shoes by the Danube monument.

Hungarian Parliament during the day
Shoes by the Danube

We spent the afternoon further exploring the Christmas Markets and stocking up on Christmas presents.

In the evening, we boarded the night train from Budapest to Zurich. The train was very similar to many other sleeper trains we have taken. It was a two berth cabin, with a washbasin and mirror inside the compartment. There was plenty of space for luggage. There was water and snacks provided – we had to search for these for a bit, as they were inside a mirrors cabinet above the sink.

Day 8: Day Trip to Lichtenstein

0840: Arrived at Zurich Hbf. We dropped our luggage at Hotel Schweizerhof and headed to Vaduz for our day trip to Lichtenstein. I’m going to write a separate post about this, so I won’t go into the details here.

Day 9: Zurich to Home

0630: Heading home, it was an early start from Zurich. We took the train to Gare du Nord, and boarded the Euro Star to London. Despite a 2 hour delay on the Euro Star, we were still able to get back home on time.

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