The Eastern Bloc Party: Ride the rails between cool-kid capitals and opulent palaces. Featuring cheap beer.
Days 1-3: Berlin, Germany
Fly into Berlin, arguably Western Europe’s cheapest cool-kid mecca, then pick a neighborhood to hang out in. Mitte, the city center, drops you close to Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, and a bunch of museums -- but you’ll get a better feel for Berlin’s alternative beat if you stay further afield. In Kreuzberg or Friedrichshain, hipsters, warehouse parties, and street art abound.
Day 4: Dresden, Germany
Take the train to Dresden (2 hours, $18). It’s basically Berlin’s little brother, with grit, glamor, and a feisty creative scene wedged into a very walkable center on the banks of the River Elbe. There are also baroque palaces (Zwinger is top dog) and soaring church spires -- many reconstructed, since the city was bombed almost into oblivion during World War II.
Days 5-6: Prague, Czechia
Catch a train to the country formerly known as the Czech Republic (2 hours and 15 minutes, from $20) and wander the maze of cobblestone streets in one of Europe’s most dazzling, history-filled beauties. Despite the hordes of tourists, you can still get a damn cheap (and damn good) beer the further you roam from Old Town Square. Definitely stop by the Museum of Communism, hit the majestic Charles Bridge (at sunrise, ideally), tour Prague Castle, and catch the overnight train to Budapest.
Day 7: Budapest, Hungary
Two things are precious on any trip: time and money. Your overnight train to Budapest (from $85, 8 hours) saves both. There are many sights to see (the palace and the parliament are the Big Two), ruin bars to drink through, and goulashes to eat, but the pro move here is a restorative dip in one of the city’s natural hot spring baths. For a grand old soak, drop into the Gellert Hotel spa, or for the most extensive multi-bath experience, go to the mahoosive Széchenyi on the outskirts of the city center.
Days 8-10: Vienna, Austria, with an optional stop in Bratislava, Slovakia
Go direct to Vienna from Budapest (from $30, 2 hours 40 minutes) if you’re desperate for a Wiener schnitzel. Or leave early and stop for lunch in Bratislava first; you can explore the Old Town and castle in a few hours. In classy, cosmopolitan Vienna, gaze at the Habsburg family’s imperial palaces and lend your ear to a classical concert -- this is the City of Music after all, and a favorite haunt of Mozart, Beethoven, and friends. There are tons of direct routes back to the States out of Vienna.