I recently returned from a trip to the Czech Republic, where I gave a research talk at Liberec Technical University. Zénó, my generous host for this trip, showed me around the area, including a trip to the wonderful glass and bead museum in Jablonec, where they still make beads sold all around the world. He then accompanied me on a weekend trip to Prague, giving me my own personal guided tour of the city. Given my oft-repeated assertions of Budapest’s beauty, as well as Prague’s reputation, I wondered how the two cities would compare.
First of all, let me make clear that Prague is an absolutely beautiful city, even in frigid temperatures & snow (same goes for Budapest). I wasn’t really cut out to be a winter tourist to cold places, but sometimes that’s just how it goes! I was amazed by the architectural variety of the city, which definitely beats Budapest. From medieval buildings on the Old Town Square (also including my hotel, built in 1466) to Renaissance, Baroque, neo-Classical, wonderful Art Nouveau & Art Deco, even Cubist, and more modern, Prague is an architectural marvel, blessed by the fact that it was not bombed heavily during WWII. We went to an Art Nouveau cafe, a “Kubistic” cafe, and an Art Deco cafe (it was cold, so we needed lots of breaks for hot drinks!). I will admit that I haven’t found anything in Budapest to compare to the magnificent Art Nouveau Municipal House, home to said Art Nouveau cafe, as well as a restaurant and performing arts center. And I can’t recall ever seeing a “cubist” building like that bearing the Black Madonna statue. The medieval astronomical clock on the square is way cool. The synagogues are gorgeous, St. Vitus Cathedral has a stained glass window by Alfons Mucha, one of the most renowned Art Nouveau artists, and there is a fantastic Art Deco church as well. Despite my love of all things Art Nouveau and Art Deco, I have to say that I also have a fondness for much modern architecture, and Frank Gehry’s “Dancing House,” also known as “Fred & Ginger,” blew me away!
I dragged Zénó to the Mucha Museum, which showcased the artist’s wonderful posters, including the ones for Sarah Bernhardt that put him on the map, as well as drawings, paints, and other art; I didn’t make it to see his Slav Epic, the nationalist series that was his last major work. (If interested in Mucha, here’s more.) I also adored the whimsical art of famed Czech sculptor David Černy, particularly the “Tower Babies” climbing up the television tower, as well as the revolving head of Kafka (“Metamorphosis”), and St. Wenceslas (Vaclav) seated on an upside down dead horse (wry commentary on the traditional statue in Wenceslas Square). Bonus: he did an awesome bus stop in Liberec, called “Giant’s Banquet.” (For more on Černy, see this.)
It snowed all day the second day in Prague, and Prague in the snow is still beautiful, if treacherously slick. This was particularly true on the Charles Bridge, which was like a skating rink with everyone slip-sliding along. People made little snow people along the walls and bridges, which was cute.
So, is it more beautiful than Budapest? In terms of its diverse, wonderful architecture, I say yes. Budapest has some splendid buildings for sure: Odon Lechner’s Applied Arts Museum, the Matyas Church, the Castle, Gresham Palace, the Turkish Bank building, the Moorish Revival Great Synagogue, the train station by Eiffel, and the many Art Nouveau and Art Deco masterpieces. Not to mention the iconic thermal baths such as the Szechenyi Baths, and equally iconic, if of more recent vintage, ruin pubs.
Despite all this, Prague, I think, has a superior architectural footprint, mainly because of the profusion of diverse styles, which somehow all work together to form a fabulous whole. But (yes, there’s a but) I have to give Budapest the edge in terms of the splendor of its cityscape, sprawled as it is along both sides of the Danube. Its bridges are much more beautiful than Prague’s, in my view, and the hills and buildings along the Danube, whether by sunlight, in snow, or lit up at night, are impossible to beat for sheer magnificence! So in my humble opinion, if we are talking about the most beautiful city overall, Budapest wins hands down. It is simply stunning. Check it out and see if you agree.