How active is the “Vienna to Budapest Active” self-guided bike tour? After riding it this past summer, my answer would be: it’s as active as you make it. The itinerary has you pedaling an average of 54 miles per day, but my group discovered a bailout option — a train runs along the full route, and you can hop on for any segment of it. Here’s how we turned the local train into an impromptu SAG vehicle.
I found this itinerary while researching a supported, self-guided trip for my dad, my partner Nathan and me. My dad, now age 72, had a belated 70th birthday to celebrate since his milestone trip to Europe got canceled in 2020. Nathan and I are both in our late 30s, and all three of us are bicycle enthusiasts. My dad, who bike commutes 18 miles round trip to work each day, can almost keep up with the two of us 30-somethings. Also, we’re busy Americans with very limited time off, so an accelerated version of a classic 7-night itinerary appealed to me as a way to fit in three Central European countries by bicycle in less than a week. The Vienna to Budapest Active itinerary ticked all the boxes. We booked the trip for mid-May 2022.
Day 1 - Arrive in Vienna, Austria
Day 2 - Vienna, Austria to Bratislava, Slovakia (44 miles)
Day 3 - Bratislava, Slovakia to Györ, Hungary (50 miles)
Day 4 - Györ to Esztergom, Hungary (68 miles)
Day 5 - Esztergom to Budapest, Hungary (53 miles)
That makes 215 miles total on rented bicycles along one of Europe's great bikeways. Sounded very doable. But as the date approached, I kept circling back to that 68-mile day. Should we be training for this?
We’re from Colorado, I reasoned. We are used to cycling at altitudes with big hills. A flat ride near sea level will be a breeze. Without much preparation in the saddle at all, we packed our bike shorts, helmets, and water bottles, and hoped for the best.
Hello, Europe! The first day of this “five-day” trip is just arrival and sightseeing. So, per the itinerary, that's what we did. Vienna charmed us with its central square, its lofty views from cathedral towers, and its chocolates. We found a lovely patio in Burggarten near the Mozart statue and had afternoon patio drinks — soon to become our daily habit.
At our briefing, the outfitters equipped us with rental bikes and nifty paper maps for our self-guiding convenience. And .gpx map files, which was all we really needed.
For the first time, we mounted our rental bikes — firetruck-red heavyweight tanks on wheels. They came equipped with snazzy yellow handlebar bags and a side pannier. We were impossible to miss (or mistake for locals).
The bikes weren't performance machines (mine was basically a city cruiser) but the route infrastructure made up for it. The miles flew by on safe and well-marked bikeways all day. Highlights on this section were fortress ruins with a view and a WWII-era bunker on the border of Slovakia. We crossed the Danube into Bratislava, ready for yet another patio meal and drinks in the historic city center.
This was such a joyful day. The weather was perfect and we had no trouble following the Eurovelo 6 signs along car-free bikeways as we crossed into Hungary. We hit the lovely, unpronounceable town of Mosonmagyaróvár just in time for a patio lunch break, then made one more stop at the Hédervár castle before arriving in Györ.
Györ! Beautiful little city to stroll around and enjoy a nice dinner in the main square. There was some serious business to discuss, however: the next day. That dubious 68-mile day. The forecast showed a high chance of rain, and my dad’s tired legs were ready for a break from the bike. So we went to the train station and booked him a train ticket to the next town, Esztergom. Nathan and I planned to brave the first half of the 68 miles, with the train as a bailout option for the second half. Would it all work out?
Headwind. Looming clouds. Rough gravel. High mileage. Today contained more bike trip reality than our first sunny vacation days on the route. My dad opted out of biking entirely and went on his own lost-in-translation train adventure to the day's endpoint of Esztergom.
Fueled by grit and Hungarian pastries, Nathan and I pedaled from Györ to the train station at our halfway point, Komárom, where we found a rickety one-car train to get us the rest of the way. It was so antique-looking that I thought it was an artifact for decor, but we were ushered on board, bikes and all. We got situated and relaxed for the ride to Esztergom.
As if by magic, we all appeared at the train station of Esztergom that afternoon. Known as "Hungarian Rome" with a basilica on the top of a hill, Esztergom's high points to me were the postcard views from the top and the thermal swimming pool at the hotel.
Feelings were mixed about having cut bike mileage out of the route. Could we still call ourselves “active” travelers on an “active” trip? As we soaked our aching legs, we decided yes. Yes, we could.
One last push got us to our final destination. The ride was part obstacle course (we had to take two different river ferry crossings and dodge heavy pedestrian traffic in town), part scavenger hunt (a bump knocked my phone out of the holder and we had to backtrack 5 miles to find it), and part victory lap as we made it across the "finish line" to our hotel. Champagne cheers were in order, right there in the lobby.
I one hundred percent recommend this Vienna to Budapest tour, especially as an inter-generational adventure. Squeezing it all into the four-day active itinerary, however, was challenging on rental bikes. I'd advise slowing it down, bringing your own bike, or doing at least some training beforehand.
I'll be back someday for ALL of the Eurovelo 6 across Europe — most likely self-supported and without a septuagenarian dad to worry about. But I’d take that old-timey train again any day.
|Cynthia Ord lives in Denver, Colorado. She works in marketing to support her bicycle habit. In 2019 she crossed the USA by bicycle on the TransAmerica Route, solo and self-supported, and has been scheming her next cross-continental bicycle adventure ever since. Find her on Instagram at @littlemissbiketour