Europe's train systems make it possible to reclaim a sense of adventure--and still be back in time for dinner.
VIENNA TO BRATISLAVA
The capital of Slovakia is less than 40 miles from Vienna, but it feels like another world (and be sure to bring your passport). A city of fewer than 500,000, Bratislava has only been the capital since the separation of the Czech and Slovak republics in 1993. But it boasts a rich history: Back when the Turks occupied the largest part of the Kingdom of Hungary, Bratislava became the coronation seat; 10 Hungarian kings and one queen were crowned here. It has also been home to large German and Jewish minorities, who have left their rich traces in art, architecture, and food. And the historic, well-renovated Old Town--most of it a pedestrian-only zone--makes Bratislava perfect for a day trip: Buzz between busy cafés, explore romantic art museums, and clamber around the castle district. Woch Restaurant, in a corner of the main square, serves local fare such as fried goat cheese with grilled salmon, and a spicy bean soup. To catch a glimpse of local student life, have a beer at Slovak Pub. If you aim higher than the regional handicrafts offered at market stands, take a look at the famous Moser glass from Bohemia sold at a special store, Sklo-Porcelán, also on the main square.
Woch Restaurant: Frantiskánske námestie 7, 011-421/254-432-927, woch.sk, entrées from $7. Slovak Pub: Obchodná 62, 011-421/252-926-367, slovakpub.sk. Sklo-Porcelán: Zelená 1-3, 011-421/254-435-510.
Starting at 5 A.M., trains depart Vienna's Südbahnhof at 28 minutes past every hour, arriving at Bratislava's Hlavná stanica (main station) about an hour later. Ask an agent at Südbahnhof for a EURegio Excursion Ticket--the special price includes the round-trip fare and use of Bratislava's public transportation system ($19 round trip). Tickets are valid for same-day travel only and can be purchased up to four days in advance. Hop the 5:00 P.M. train to be back in time for dinner. Schedules at oebb.at. A few times a day, there's also a high-speed catamaran sailing between the two cities' downtowns. Catch the 8:30 A.M. departure for the 75-minute ride down the Danube; a return boat leaves Bratislava at 6:30 P.M. (from $67 round trip, reservations required). Schedules and tickets at twincityliner.com.