Bratislava, Slovakia Krakow KRK personal reflections Poland Slovakia trip reports Vienna VIE

Make the best out of sh**ty cold dark weather

Bratislava. The name simply sounds foreign and Eastern European to my American ears. The number of times I have had to describe the geographic location for my December trip to Vienna, Austria and from there to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, indicates the general lack of map awareness with my friends and family. Bratislava, Slovakia and Vienna, Austria are only separated by 40 miles of road, train tracks and a stretch of the Danube River.

Wien Train Station

Vienna, Austria Hauptbahnhof train station.

Danube Vienna train

Danube River, Vienna bridge crossing on train.

Hrad view-2

Danube River seen from Bratislava Castle.

I spent two weeks in Slovakia and Austria in September 2016. The photos above are from my summer green tour of the countries.

Central European Winter 

Next week will reveal the darker side of European seasons to me when I return to Austria and Slovakia. I am looking to make the best out of the shitty cold weather with inexpensive dining, drinking and shopping in Bratislava, Slovakia and Krakow, Poland. Temperatures are currently forecast to be 20s and low 30s.

I’ll probably be sharing lots of gray sky photos during my winter travels.

My $492.66 round trip American Airlines open-jaw ticket from Salzburg, Austria to San Francisco and back to Vienna, Austria is coming up on the date for my return flight to Europe. I’ll try to make best use of the First Class lounges in LAX and LHR during my final trip as an AAdvantage Executive Platinum flyer. Does not look like I will see that elite level again with AAdvantage. That is one of the reasons I have been writing a lot lately about ways to earn cheap British Airways Executive Club elite. 2017 as AAdvantage Platinum will likely be my last year of elite membership with a U.S. based major alliance carrier, as long as they remain revenue-based.

Take the Best out of the sh**ty cold weather

Helsinki, Finland has been making the news lately in travel media for a banner seen at Helsinki Airport.

Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November.

Except you, you badass. Welcome.

That expression kind of sums up my anticipation for this December European winter experience in Vienna with an overland journey to Bratislava and Krakow, Poland, then a flight to Stockholm for SAS back to San Francisco.

After 14 hours sun in New Zealand last month from 6:00 am – 8:00pm, I’ll be trading in December’s 10 hours of daylight along the California coast for 6 to 8 hours in central and northern Europe with sunset each day between 3:30 and 4pm in the four countries I will visit.

Cheap Beer is My Holiday Self-Gift

Slovakia and Poland stand out to me as tourist destinations with the cheapest pubs, restaurants and shopping I have seen in Europe. They also have a reasonably accessible English speaking service sector and decent infrastructure for transportation. While Vienna may be considered the most livable city on the planet, Bratislava is one of the most affordable European cities for a tourist.

Saris Beer

Saris 0.5 liter beer = 16.9 oz. at 0.80 EUR = 84 cents USD in Slovakian pub.

Informational signs at tourist sites in Slovakia and Poland are most commonly posted in the national language and English. There are loads of diacritical marks on the letters indicating pronunciation, but no letters we don’t see in the English alphabet.

I am a monolingual American traveler. I don’t mind a bit of mime performance to get my meaning across to non-English speakers and I know a few words in several languages, but I need English to really communicate most effectively.

The number one question I get about travel in this region of Central Europe is how widely is English spoken? English is commonly spoken in Bratislava and Krakow. Even in the rural parts of Slovakia I did not struggle to communicate. Grocery store clerks is where I most frequently run into communication issues.

An educated young Slovakian man I spoke with in English at length on a train ride from Poprad to Bratislava last September told me Italy was the country he had the most difficulty traveling around due to so few people he encountered who spoke English.

Russian language is seen at some major tourist attractions in Slovakia and Poland, but most of the Russian I saw while traveling through these two countries was present on World War II monuments.

Russian War monument Poprad

Russian World War II Memorial, Poprad, Slovakia

Poprad WWII Memorial

Poprad, Slovakia

SLovakia Google Maps

Slovakia – Google maps

Prague, Czech Republic is probably the most familiar city for American tourism in the past 25 years from the former Soviet Bloc nations who gained independence after 1989.

Czechoslovakia was a nation state from October 1918 to January 1, 1993. The original nation formation was a breakaway republic from the former Austro-Hungarian empire, a dominant power of European politics and culture for centuries. The creation of Czechoslovakia came at the end of World War I when the defeated Austro-Hungarian empire of the Habsburg Monarchy dissolved. Slovakia was incorporated into Czechoslovakia.

The Velvet Revolution of Nov-Dec 1989 saw Czechoslovakia break from the U.S.S.R. (Russia). Three years later Slovakia and the Czech Republic peacefully separated into independent nations January 1, 1993 in what is called the ‘Velvet Divorce’.

Villa Tugendhat-4

Villa Tugendhat, Brno, Czech Republic is a UNESCO heritage site home (low rise white house in photo center) where the Velvet Divorce was finalized in a signing ceremony on Aug 26, 1992.

Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Prague have some shared cultural history via the Habsburg Monarchy. The Habsburgs ruled Austria from 1279. Neighboring Kingdom of Hungary had its own rulers since the country Christianized in 1000 under Stephen I. Hungary peaked in the 15th century, but the Ottoman invasion of Hungary led to the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 where the Hungarian King was killed and dynastic claims passed to the Habsburg Monarchy. While the Ottomans occupied the capital Buda, the Habsburg forces repelled Ottoman sieges of Pressburg (Bratislava) and Vienna on the Danube River. The Kingdom of Hungary became part of the Habsburg Empire from 1526 to 1918. Pressburg (Bratislava) was the capital of Hungary from 1538 to 1784.

St. Martin's Cathedral-2

St. Martin’s Cathedral, Bratislava (1452) was the coronation church for the Kingdom of Hungary 1563-1830.

Everything looked so green and beautiful in mid-September when I walked the streets of Bratislava and spent ten days in sunshine across Slovakia.

Krakow, Poland was amazing in July 2016.

Krakow main square

Krakow Main SquareRynek Główny.

I commonly hear from locals in many places where I travel outside of summer months that I should return in summer to see the place in the best weather. But I don’t limit my travel to only the best weather months. I know Bratislava and Krakow are amazing places to hang out in green parks and by the river on warm evenings.

My travels the past 16 months have taken me across the Czech Republic from Prague to Brno and Slovakia from Kosice to Bratislava. This trip will take me north from Bratislava to Krakow, Poland through Brno again and across eastern Czech Republic and southern Poland.

Over the next couple of weeks I will find out what it is like to visit the badass eastern front of central Europe in the shitty cold dark weather of December.

Uppsala snow day

Uppsala, Sweden snow day December 1, 2015 view from Radisson Blu window. We watched a fireworks show over Uppsala castle the day before – at 4:30pm.


  • Ron December 17, 2016

    Uh … you give the impression that your primary motivation for this winter travel is to drink cheap beer and eat inexpensively. While I have really enjoyed my travels to Eastern Europe, I think I’d just stay home if I wanted to eat and drink inexpensively.

  • Richard December 17, 2016

    Hi Ric, I was in Krakow pre Tday and Munich, Nuremberg, Salzburg and Vienna post Tday. It was already snowing and cold in Krakow early Nov so be prepared. Even in the cold Krakow is wonderful and their restaurants are a bargain, I’d suggest you even try a Milk bar for a truly budget meal. It’s easy to take bus 252 from the airport to the Hilton Garden if you’re staying there. It would be a great time of the year to see Zakopane. Landing in Salzburg I think you’re making a mistake if you don’t go to Munich to see their Christmas markets this time of year. Although Vienna has good ones as well, no one does them as well as Germany and Munich’s are terrific especially the Medieval and Royal residence for the food and gluhwein (of which I have a very nice cup collection)! The Aloft across for the main station is very convenient. Can’t wait to hear about Bratislava! Enjoy your travels!

  • Ric Garrido December 17, 2016

    @Ron – My primary motivation is to be away from the USA and live in Europe for a couple of weeks. Travel is kind of my primary motivation in life pursuits. Cheap beer is one of the perks of travel to central Europe.

    I can get into the serious side of travel in Poland discussing the current USA troop build-up on the eastern front 20 miles from the border of Russia in a build-up for the new Cold War, but that is probably not the aspect of Poland of primary interest to most tourists.,4000-US-troops-to-arrive-in-Poland-from-Germany-in-early-2017-commander

  • Ric Garrido December 17, 2016

    @Richard – the desire to visit Zakopane last July was my primary reason for going to Slovakia in September to hike in the Tatras on the other side of the Carpathian Mountains from Zakopane.

    Wife is not a mountain person. We have not even visited Lake Tahoe, California in past 20 years.

  • Marilyn B December 17, 2016

    Visited Prague, Vienna and Budapest in late March 1996, way before most US tourists. It was cold, very cold in Vienna, and mostly grey, but I still remember the wonderful times. We had no snow or rain, only 1 brief drizzle in Prague and loved every minute of that trip.

    Wishing you a great trip, and happy holidays, Happy New Year.

  • Jacob December 17, 2016

    Ric, you have been so helpful thank you. Regarding “my final trip as an AAdvantage Executive Platinum flyer.”, I think now there is an opportunity to focus on partner airlines that gain MQD through miles flown. OneWorld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance. Its more confusing, and more complicated itineraries where the loyalty traveler reader needs help. Too often we only hear in hindsight from bloggers.

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