With the veil of Communist Russia twenty years gone, it comes as no surprise that a strong interest in traveling around the former Eastern Bloc has become increasingly popular. Not only are the cities and villages of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary ageless and enchanting, they also represent celebrations of freedom and choice and stand as relics of constantly changing times. Tourist dollars and foreign investment capital are waking the sleeping giants that can develop as the beautiful capitals of Central Europe. Filled with wonderful food, distinct spirits, great symphonies, art museums and cobblestone streets, the cities of Central Europe await you. With low-priced package tours, you have no excuse not to indulge.
Paul Laifer Tours (tel. 800/346-6314; www.laifertours.com) offers trips that focus on individual cities or combination tours visiting many cities. For a look at Poland, specifically Krakow and Warsaw, Laifer Tours has an eleven-day package starting at $1,219 out of the New York area that visits the two Polish cities and makes a stop in Prague. In addition to the airfare, the trip includes four nights in Prague, two nights in Warsaw, three nights in Krakow, daily breakfast in each, a half-day guided tour of each city, a first-class rail ticket between Warsaw and Krakow and air travel to or from Prague. Laifer Tours remain flexible allowing you the ability to add-on stays at hotels or extend flights to make sure you get the most out of your Central European experience. The prices for this tour change during the different parts of the year, decreasing greatly in price in the colder months which begin around November and end in April. No book by date applies here and this mostly independent tour leaves throughout the year.
Krakow is known through Poland as the city of myth and legend. There are great stories associated with its heritage with many of its sights dating back to Krakow's Golden Age in the 15th Century. The Poles love to eat big, but they remain reserved by nature, so you should expect to enjoy some borscht with your quiet conversation. Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp is only an hour drive from Krakow. Go to www.krakow-info.com/musts.htm to check out information on Auschwitz as well as other must sees in the Southern Poland vicinity.
Laifer Tours also has a weeklong trip to the Hungarian capital of Budapest. Located on the Danube, Budapest is split into two halves by the great river -- the Buda side and the Pest side. Packed with cathedrals, medieval walkways, parks and shops, Budapest is never daunting and almost always charming. Still extremely inexpensive for Western tourists, Budapest is known for having great restaurants in grand and ornate settings dating back to the time of Mozart. Take the cable car up the hill to the castle that dominates the Buda side. Sample some Hungarian wines, take a thermal bath, shop in the modernity that has come to mark the new Budapest, or tour the underground caves that tunnel through the hills and valleys. Think Budapest is diverse? See what else there is to do there at www.budapestinfo.hu/en/sights/unusualplaces.html, a rundown of "unusual" things to do in the city put out by Budapest Tourism Office. Prices for this eight-day package trip including round-trip air from the New York area, hotels in Budapest, a half-day tour, and daily breakfast start at $739. The trip leaves throughout the year and increases in price based on the quality of hotel you choose.
Intrepid Travel (tel. 877/448-1616; www.intrepidtravel.com) has a ten-day Warsaw to Vienna trip stopping in Krakow, Prague, and Cesky Krumlov, a thirteenth century Czech city. The land-only trip starts at $1,500 and includes sightseeing tours, hotels, transport to and from each destination and some meals. Accommodations are in hotels, guest houses, apartments and one night in an overnight train. In addition to the sightseeing excursions, you get ample free time with Intrepid Travel's "Intrepid Original" trips, all of which are designed to give you time to explore on your own and see the country through the eyes of its residents. In Prague, the old Jewish quarter is as remarkable as everyone says, as is Kafka's neighborhood, the fresh Pilsner Urquell beer (www.pilsner-urquell.com), and the Charles Bridge overlooking the castle. If you feel as if you're in Disney territory, you're only half wrong. The Disney Castle is modeled after the Prague treasure.
General Tours (tel. 800/221-2216; www.generaltours.com) has a "Capitals of Central Europe" tour that makes stops in Berlin, Dresden and Prague. You can travel in either direction starting in Berlin or Prague. This eleven-day air-land luxury trip starts at $1,899 and includes nine night's in a luxury hotel, round-trip airfare, all luggage handling, daily breakfast, services of local guides, city tours, a walking tour of Dresden, a tour of Prague's castle and the Old Town, and a General Tour travel bag, document folder and luggage tags. Prices for this trip vary based on when you want to depart and the class of luxury in which you decide to travel. You can also have this trip as a land-only package starting at $1,529. As with all the above tours, you are responsible for air departure fees and September 11 security taxes.
See what other travelers have to say about their experience travelling to often overlooked Cental Europe at the Europe Message Boards.