Group think and goulash

Supping on hearty stew and history, Nadia Jamal is happy to let others lead the way through the stunning cities of the east.

"I WANT to whisper sexy imperial details in your ear," purrs Isla, the tour guide at Vienna's grand Schonbrunn Palace.

We obediently put on our earphones as Isla, neatly dressed and coiffed to perfection, launched into a giddy spiel about the 640-year history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that would rival a bodice-ripping historical novel.

We hear about the Empress Maria Theresa, who took the bold step of marrying for love in an era when weddings were for strategic political alliances. "You could say the family motto was, 'Make love not war'," Isla says. The match produced 16 children (one of the youngest, Marie Antoinette, lost her head during the French Revolution).

When Maria Theresa ascended to the throne, she ignored the threats of Europe's elite who mused that a woman running the show would spell the end of the house of Habsburg. The staunchly Catholic empress proved her critics wrong and enjoyed a successful 40-year reign, Isla explains, with no small amount of satisfaction.

By now, our group is hooked on Isla's breathless delivery and we follow her through the imperial grandeur of the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer residence of the Habsburgs, which boasts 1441 rooms.

The building, with its distinctive 19th-century yellow facade, attracts 7000 visitors a day. Unlike other European royal homes it was never looted and is furnished with original items including dozens of paintings. Peering through its long, glass-panelled palace windows, visitors encounter very lush baroque gardens.

The palace is the first stop on Insight Vacations' nine-day coach tour of Vienna, Prague and Budapest. (We also spend one day and night in the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava.) If you want to see the highlights of a major city and have your hand held by a tour director and local guides, then this is a convenient way to do it. My fellow tourists are mostly older couples, who happily drink in all the information the guides feed us on the rich histories of the eastern-European cities we visit.

While there were opportunities to break away for some on-my-own exploring, knowing that I had limited time in a city meant I preferred to stick with the group to see the highlights. This, after all, is what coach tours are about.

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Before we know it we have left the Austrian capital and are driving through the Czech Republic's countryside, passing rolling hills and vineyards.

We stop for lunch at Cesky Krumlov ("Welcome to Bohemia!"). This well-preserved mediaeval town sits in a bend of the Vltava River and is where I have my first taste of hearty goulash with potato - which gives me starch overload.

The next stop, Prague, is the historic centre of the republic and considered one of the world's most beautiful cities. For the Czechs, the Velvet Revolution in 1989 brought an end to communism and a split from Slovakia. As we drive past communist-era public housing on the outskirts of the city, tarted up with striking pastel colours, we are warned about pickpockets. Locals complain this only became a problem post-split.

A bigger concern seems to be about capitalism itself. That the city has become a popular stop for the British stag party industry, courtesy of cheap flights, hasn't helped. But the modern touch can be expressed in positive ways.

We drive past a house that looks to be swaying - it's "Fred and Ginger", designed by architect Frank Gehry, completed in 1996 and named after the dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. A fellow traveller comments how out of place it looks amid the city's striking Baroque, Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture but for me it is a reminder that cities are living organisms that should be allowed to evolve.

The next day we begin our walking tour of the city, the best way to experience it (it should be noted though that the cobblestones take their toll regardless of the age of your knees). To understand how to get around this city you need to quickly wrap your head around its four quarters - Old Town, Lesser Town, Hradcany and New Town.

For the classic panoramic snapshot, you can visit St Vitus Cathedral, located in the Prague Castle royal complex, or Hradcany. The view of the city's striking rooftops tells its own story about the 1989 revolution.

"I had 40 years of communism and since 1989 you can see the rooftops have changed to red colour," our local guide says. "Before '89, it was black and grey. I'm glad I can see this."

He adds: "If I miss anything [of communism], it's not much."

We travel to Lesser Town by crossing the 500-metre-long Charles Bridge, a major cultural symbol that is buzzing with tourists, artists and musicians. A trip to Prague is not complete without a stroll over this bridge but as the trumpets sound from one of its fortified towers to catch the attention of paying tourists, our guide again mentions the word "commercialisation".

From the bridge we walk to nearby Charles Lane, a maze of narrow cobblestone lanes offering an array of hotels, cafes and pubs as well as souvenir, crystal and jewellery shops. We come out in the centre of Old Town. Crowds have gathered in the main square to take in the splendour of the mediaeval astronomical clock and its hourly show when figures of the 12 apostles march out.

The adjoining town hall has become a popular destination for eloping Russian tourists and we join the cheers of the crowd as a young couple emerge to celebrate their union with a kiss.

It seems the best was saved for last. The final two days of the trip are spent in Budapest, a city that must be seen from the Danube river, glittering as it does by night. Cruising the river, one must be prepared for neck strain - left, right, left right. Before you is a paradise of architecture in the Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau styles. On either side of the river visitors encounter a line of grand historical bridges and buildings. A royal palace over here, the landmark Parliament building over there. It really does feel like being in the middle of a beautiful work of art.

Like the Czech Republic, Hungary came out from behind the Iron Curtain in 1989. It is easy for tourists to take history for granted but in Budapest we are reminded that generations never learned modern history "because teachers told us what was in the books were lies", our local tour guide explains bitterly.

This is another city made for walking. Andrassy Avenue is an elegant boulevard that is lined with richly decorated neo-Renaissance homes, palaces and embassies that are on the World Heritage List and feature some of the city's main shopping streets, cafes, restaurants and luxury boutiques.

A common trait Hungarians share with their Viennese neighbours is a culture of coffee houses.

At the start of our tour in Vienna, our guide Isla had remarked: "We turn everything into a coffee house. It's our second home." We discover a similar story in Budapest.

Cafes were so important to the life of the city, especially as a central meeting point for intellectuals, the population had their mail delivered there, according to locals. It's not like the secret police could be stationed at every table.

I get a taste of why Hungary's coffee and cake houses are so famous when I visit the Panoramia Cafe & Bar on a terraced arcade at the Fisherman's Bastion, a location dominated by white limestone. I'm not sure where else in the world you pay just €3 for a cappuccino in a location that offers amazing panoramic views out over the city.

With some free time on my last afternoon, I decide the best and quickest way to soak up the atmosphere is to sample more of its cafes. An apt metaphor for the old and new Budapest must be the Lotz Room, off Andrassy Avenue, where I have the best hot chocolate of my life (orange and cinnamon flavour; creamy texture and hot to the very last sip).

Outside is a shopfront that looks like any other chain bookstore. I ride its escalator to the upper floor and my eye is drawn upwards. That is when I discover the treasure hidden inside. The cafe's ceiling features colourful frescos by Karoly Lotz, a leading Hungarian artist in the 19th century (his works are on display in major buildings including the Parliament).

This elegant, newly-renovated cafe retains the old high ceiling edifice, with the frescos beautifully reflected in tall mirrors inserted into striking arches on its walls.

My last stop is the famous New York Cafe, also off Andrassy. This ground-floor cafe started life inside the head office of a New York life insurance company. After the site was turned into a luxury hotel, the cafe was reopened and retains its original Italian-Renaissance pomp.

Once a famous literary hangout, its interior literally dazzles with marble pillars, ornate lamps and grand chandeliers. I gape at the eclectic magnificence of its lavish furnishings. Like the Lotz - and perhaps the whole of Hungary - this cafe is all about looking up.

The writer was a guest of Insight Vacations.

Trip notes

Getting there

Emirates operates 70 flights a week to Dubai from Australia — from Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney — with twice-daily and daily connections to Vienna. Return economy-class airfares from Sydney to Vienna start from $2102. 1300 303 777, emirates.com/au.

Touring there

Insight Vacations' nine-day The Bohemian, visiting Vienna, Prague, Bratislava and Budapest, runs from April to October each year and is priced from $2235 a person, twin share (land only). Price includes accommodation, many meals and transport by coach with extra legroom. One optional excursion I would recommend is a day trip to the German city of Dresden. 1300 237 886, insightvacations.com.

Tricks worth singing for

VIENNA is a famous drawcard for those who love the arts. And the "soul" of the city is undoubtedly the 2200-seat State Opera House, home to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as well as a venue for opera, musicals and ballet. As with any city's main cultural attractions, there are tricks tourists can learn only from locals. According to our guide, an opera regular, a box seat might set you back €220 ($288), for example, but if you want to experience the show without pain in your hip pocket, the sixth seat in the box can be secured for as little as €9. Or, for just €4.50, a spectator can gain entry to the standing room where tickets are secured on a first come, first served basis. The cheapest tag is reserved for the top level gallery — €2.50.

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