Torn between the magic of two beautiful cities, each boasting a Christmas market in an unforgetable festive setting? Well, now you don’t need to choose, because an amazingly cheap train whisks you between Prague and Vienna – giving you the change to shop, sightsee and enjoy both – in the same day if you choose.
These traditional big hitters on the Christmas market scene are now linked by two new sister hotels from Almanac – already big in Barcelona – and a four-hour train ride through beautiful Czech and Austrian countryside that will set you back the princely sum of €14. And you couldn’t even buy a takeaway sandwich to take on board with you for that (not that you’d want to when there’s a dinky little restaurant car serving up proper hot lunches on plates and everything on board).
We start in Prague, the fairytale capital of the Czech Republic, where the forest of palace, castle and church spires looks like something out of a Disney movie (though obviously, it’s the opposite: these are the inspiration for those Disney movies).
Little cobbled streets rattle with retro trams and the castle on the hill and the area around it are so beautiful they’ve been slapped with a Unesco World Heritage order (a good thing!).
The River Vltava provides a perfect Sunday walk – especially now you can visit Prague Eyes, an arty little stretch of waterside arches turned into cafés and restaurants for some of that famous Czech beer. You can even do a beer pilgrimage if your love is strong.
Our hotel is the Almanac X Alcron Prague, just off Wenceslas Square (you’ve heard of Good King Wenceslas who last looked out on the feast of Stephen. It’s a Christmas classic) and it’s a delicious modern upgrade of a famous 1930s hotel that has hosted everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Winston Churchill.
So you have the history and the art deco staircase and the funny little bar where they can shake up a fantastic martini right on the spot and then you have rooms that are chic and modern and mirrored and sexy. And the Old Town and its markets is a hop and a skip away.
And when you’ve done your Prague – whether it’s medieval squares and designer boutiques or funky new food destinations such as the Manifesto Market, a collection of outdoor food stalls around a little paddling pool that takes off in the summer – you just walk to the station and head off to city number two.
Take your own bottle of wine, make sure you reserve a seat because it gets busy, then sit back and relax.
Vienna is just as beautiful as Prague but in a totally different way. Where Prague is quaint and pretty, Vienna is grand and handsome. We’re staying at Almanac Palais Vienna, right on the Parkring, one of the smartest addresses in Europe, just across from the park where the famous golden statue of Strauss is.
On a more lavish scale than Almanac X Alcron Prague, this is the grandest of private palaces made into Vienna’s hottest hotel with a huge basement spa and Vienna’s biggest indoor pool, rooms that are stylish, almost 1970s-inspired, and a big-name restaurant called Donnersmarkt, where the decor and the gastronomy battle it out to be the most talked-about feature.
With a huge mural, colours that are pretty and funky, and food that is modern and inventive (they did us a special vegan tasting menu, which was pretty much the best we’d ever had), it’s a magnet for tourists and locals alike, so make sure of your reservation.
And outside, you’re in the thick of it, with Vienna’s greatest hits all within walking distance: the palace, opera house, cathedral, town hall, art museums – both classic and modern (we especially loved the turn-of-the-century Secession Building with its dome of golden leaves), a natural history museum that looks like Versailles palace, a parliament building that could have been shipped in from ancient Greece (only this is bigger!)… just street after street of grandeur everywhere you look.
The only thing you might need transport for is the Belvedere, one of Europe’s grandest art museums – two Baroque mansions facing each other – with the best collection of local artists Klimt and Schiele (you’ll know them when you see them) in the world.
And of course there’s the Christkindlmarkt on Rathausplatz in front of the gorgeous town hall, perhaps Vienna’s most popular Christmas market with a huge tree at its centre, while the Schönbrunn market in the palace grounds is next-level in terms of elegance and just a short walk away. And if you’ve had your fill ofglühwein, don’t forget Vienna’s famous coffee houses and all that delicious Sacher torte.
Yes, it may be greedy to take in two of Europe’s loveliest cities in one trip but it’s Christmas and with a bargainous train fare like that – and your connected hotel situation – you’d be silly not to.
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