Cycling the Danube from Budapest to the Black Sea
20 days; 1,470 km
See below for map, elevation profile and GPS tracks.
Beginning in late August we set out to cycle through Eastern Europe along the Danube River, one of the continent’s major waterways. We started in Budapest, Hungary and wound our way through Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania to the Black Sea. Cycling the Danube is a pretty common itinerary among touring cyclists, especially on the initial leg from Germany through Austria to Budapest. South of the Hungarian capital the path becomes poorly marked and conditions become increasingly more adventurous, but don’t let that deter you. This long, flat itinerary is a great way to see Eastern Europe and offers much in the way of cultural and natural beauty.
When to Go
As is the case for many bike tour itineraries, late spring and late summer provide the best weather. The high heat of July and August can be difficult though are by no means extreme in this part of the world. June and September are probably the best months to balance long days, dry weather and cool evenings.
Our trip from August 28th to September 20th afforded us excellent weather with warm though not hot temperatures and only a few rainy days. Many things start to close in mid to late September so be prepared to keep riding if the campground on your map is no longer accepting visitors.
The diverse countries visited on this itinerary each offer their own accommodation options. Compared to Western Europe, organized campgrounds are relatively rare. In Hungary and Serbia they begin to close in the beginning of September. We didn’t find a campground in Bulgaria or Romania until we arrived at the Black Sea. Even then the beaches and amenities were closing for the season leaving us with limited options. Camping on the beach is illegal and we found ourselves in a pension for a few days after our campground closed. On our tour we primarily free-camped, but we stayed in hostels, hotels or holiday cabins when we needed a shower.
In Hungary we easily found places to stealth camp when needed and in one instance were offered space to camp in the empty lot adjacent to the restaurant where we’d had dinner.
In Romania it is legal to camp anywhere that is not private land and you see many locals camped out along the Danube. Armed with the confidence that the law was on our side we took to asking local cops for advice on where to pitch for the night and were always personally shown to a campsite.
Serbia can be a little tricky because they technically require all foreigners to register with the police every night they are in the country. We almost found this out the hard way when we tried to leave Serbia to enter Romania. No one had informed us about these regulations when we entered the country and we didn’t have the papers they wanted.
Turns out each hotel/hostel/campground owner must register every guest and give you a small slip of paper in return. Even when we did pay for accommodation the hotel owners did not always give us the paperwork and we were unaware we needed to ask for it.
The border guard let us go without incident despite the ominous sign describing penalties of 400€ or 14 days in Serbian prison for violations. From what I have read since this regulation is rarely enforced, but I would advise you to always ask for the registration receipt and stealth campers should be aware of potential consequences.
Hotels cost anywhere from $80 for a double room in Bulgaria to $12 for a two-bed cabin in Romania with equal levels of variety in quality and services available. Relying on hotels for accommodation on this route will require set distances and land you in some expensive rooms. This especially holds true in Romania where you will be lucky to find more than one hotel in most towns.
Food and Water
Tap water is safe to drink in Hungary but only in some parts of Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. In many small towns, especially in Romania you will find springs where the locals go to collect drinking water. I am sure it varies spring to spring, but we generally decided this was safe and had no health issues as a result, although we found ourselves purchasing water more often than not.
Small towns on the route will usually have little markets though the items available are very limited and rarely fresh. Big supermarkets can be found in the few large cities along the Danube. There are many bars open all day serving instant coffee and in larger towns you can usually find real coffee as well. Restaurants are relatively cheap and you can expect to pay $5 or less for a big meal.
We didn’t keep detailed accounting like we normally do, but overall we spent $1,200 for the two of us over the course of 24 days, including three nights in Budapest before we started riding. I estimate that we spent an average of $25.28 per person per day including food, accommodation and incidentals. We ran into some mechanical issues and some bad weather which drove us to relatively expensive accommodation several times, but these variables should be accounted for when planning any tour.
Over the next few weeks we will be posting entries from our daily touring diary with stories and information on our trip. You can find these posts here starting next week.
Until then here’s a map and elevation profile of our entire route and a link to the gpx track for download (right click-save as). Don’t let the elevation profile mislead you, the climbs are relatively small, they just look steep in the context of the obscenely flat route. The max elevation change from the highest point to the beach in Romania is only 260 meters.