The first day of my bike ride from Vienna to Budapest along the Danube Cycle Path (part of the 3653 km Eurovelo 6 that runs from Nantes, France, to the Black Sea) was almost my last.
Due to a combination of bad planning, an unexpected detour, hot weather, and terrible headwinds, I was completely wasted when I arrived in the old town of Bratislava. How wasted? I can only quote my AirBnB hosts from their review of my stay:
We loved Keith. He came to us on a bicycle, and it was evident that the road was difficult. Despite the fatigue, he was very friendly and benevolent.
I just have to take their word for it. I don’t remember arriving … just kidding. Fortunately it was all uphill (actually slightly downhill as I was following the Danube to the sea) from there and I had a wonderful experience. Read on to learn more…
- What is the Danube Cycle Path?
- Maps and Guides
- What to Know Before You Go
- Routes and Stages
What is the Danube Cycle Path?
Running from Passau, Germany to the Black Sea, in various stages of completion and quality (I gather some of the downriver sections in Romania and Bulgaria aren’t completed and/or as easy to follow), the path is a series of paved cycling trails, occasional dirt paths, and streets (usually not very busy and/or with bicycle lanes) through towns. It’s part of the European cycle network, specifically EuroVelo 6.
People tend to do it in stages, rather than the full thing. Passau to Vienna is very popular, even moreso (from what I heard) than Vienna to Budapest. I did the latter in six days, covering almost 223 miles (almost 359 km).
Maps and Guides
I had a terrible time finding good information online. There are many sites, but most of them represent specific tour companies. I couldn’t find a single “Danube Cycle Path” organization but I suspect it’s just because I was searching in English. The European cycle path authority has good information on its site: http://www.eurovelo.com/en/eurovelos/eurovelo-6.
I purchased this guidebook and found it very helpful. In fact, I wouldn’t go without it.
You’ll find numerous tours listed online, from fully guided to self-supporting. I mingled with a fully guided group for a couple of days, and they seemed to be having a great time. The self-supporting involves paying a company to arrange all the accommodation and, often, a bike rental. This could be a good option if you want to simplify, although I had no problems reserving things on my own.
I would note that the trail is a bit tricky going into Budapest. That was the only place where I would have been grateful for a guide. I actually DID have a guide by accident: one of the guides for the aforementioned tour group had gone ahead and marked all turns with flour arrows and that really helped me.
What to Know Before You Go
This is NOT difficult cycling! It’s almost entirely flat or slightly downhill. The cycling infrastructure is generally excellent with very good signage and excellent trails. I’d put it like this:
- Austria: excellent trail marking and very good paths
- Slovakia: fair trail marking and good paths
- Hungary: good trail marking and very good paths
There were a few sections on dirt paths rather than paved trails. These are clearly marked in the guide, and are easily handled with some sort of hybrid or commuter bike, which is what I’d recommend renting.
Bottom line: if you’re in reasonable shape and take your time, you should have no problem completing the ride.
I rented in Vienna and then returned the bike myself via the train from Budapest to Vienna (super easy – you just need to buy a separate ticket for your bike for €5, and hang it in the designated bike car). There are companies that will rent one-way, but it’s going to cost you.
I was quite happy with the bike I rented from Pedal Power. They provided good panniers, a rain cover, spare tubes and a tool kit. The only thing the bike didn’t have that I could have used was a front carrier with one of those map cases on top. I had nowhere to store the guide book and it got to be a bit of a pain having to stop to pull it out.
On and Off the River
Finally, you’ll find that you’re not always on the Danube proper. In fact, I was not on the Danube proper (although I crossed the Little Danube a couple of times) on the third and fourth days (although I crossed it again at the very end of the fourth day). That’s not to say the riding isn’t beautiful through bucolic countryside. And there are variations you can take (the guide shows these) that would keep you on the Danube more. I avoided these as it would have limited my access to town and, therefore, food and accommodation.
Accommodation and Food
I stayed in AirBnBs as I wanted to be right in the towns. I found plenty of options in the cities and towns, and for very reasonable prices.
Camping is definitely an option, too. I saw several campgrounds, some fairly close to cities, and they looked quite nice. It means carrying the extra weight of tent and sleeping bag, plus possibly cooking gear and food.
Speaking of food, aside from the first section (basically from the Prater to the small town of Schönau an der Donau, a distance of about 30 km), you’ll pass through many towns with lots of grocery stores, convenience stores, cafes and restaurants, etc. There are also quite a few places right on the path that cater to cyclists.
Routes and Stages
You’ll need to make two decisions before embarking on the ride:
- Which route to follow
- How many days to take
The decision you need to make is whether to go south or north of the river from Bratislava. (There aren’t really any variations from Vienna to Bratislava.) I went south because:
- The infrastructure is more developed, with more and bigger towns and therefore more options for stopping, eating, accommodation, etc.
- I got to visit the lovely towns of Mosonmagyaróvár and Gyor in Hungary.
The disadvantages (which really aren’t disadvantages depending on your perspective):
- It’s longer: from Bratislava to Komárno in Slovakia north of the river is 107.3 km whereas it’s 131.7 km from Bratislava to Komárom (the twin city of Komárno on the south bank of the Danube).
- You won’t be on the actual Danube for much of this.
The guide book provides several small variations that generally go through quieter areas, sometimes on dirt roads and/or without bike paths. I didn’t do any of these variations, although a couple of the south side sounded nice and peaceful, particularly those running near the Little Danube.
How Many Days?
This decision comes down to how far you want to bike in a day and where do you want to stay. If you’re camping, for example, you’ll need to figure out where the campgrounds are and plot the distances. Staying in towns and cities is easier from this perspective as the towns are pretty well spaced for biking.
The other consideration is what you want to see along the way. If you just want to bike and look at the river a bit—and you’re in good shape—I’d say you could do it in four days without killing yourself. However, I would recommend giving yourself some time to explore along the way. In particular, I wouldn’t miss the following:
- Bratislava – Old Town and Castle: I stayed right in the Old Town and it’s lovely, a smaller and less crowded version of the Prague old town. I didn’t leave the next day until mid-afternoon as I’d planned a short day so I had the whole morning to explore the castle and Old Town.
- Esztergom, Hungary – I stayed across the river in Štúrovo, Slovakia, which gave me a tremendous view of the spectacular cathedral in Esztergom but then also biked over and explored. Definitely worth it.
- And one I missed but wish I hadn’t: Visegrád, Hungary. There’s an incredible castle here but it required a ferry to the south side and I just missed it. I would have had to wait too long for the next one.
- I didn’t spend much time in Vienna because I’d been there before but it’s not to be missed, either.
- Budapest: Give yourself at least two days at the end for this amazing city.
I did it in six as follows (this is from door to door of my accommodation – you’re actual mileage will vary):
- Day 1: Vienna, Austria, to Bratislava, Slovakia – 45.7 mi./73.4 km
- Day 2: Bratislava to Mosonmagyaróvár, Hungary – 23.8 mi./38.3 km
- Day 3: Mosonmagyaróvár to Gyor, Hungary – 30.2 mi./48.6 km
- Day 4: Gyor to Komárno, Slovakia – 37.4 mi./60.2 km
- Day 5: Komárno to Štúrovo, Slovakia – 33.2 mi./53.4 km
- Day 6: Štúrovo to Budapest, Hungary – 52.5 mi./84.5 km
Days 2-5 were quite easy. Day 1 was challenging for the reasons mentioned at the start of this post. And Day 6 was quite difficult as it was the longest day, it was quite hot, I had to take a couple of ferries (which were nice for views and rest, but slowed me down as I had to wait) and biking into Budapest was tough: the path was hard to follow, and there were several sections on streets that didn’t have obvious bike lanes. Knowing that, I might have visited Visegrád, and then stayed somewhere north of Budapest, doing the last bit into the city early the next day.