There are several good guidebooks to choose from for all three cities; here are the two we like best:
Eyewitness Travel Guides:
Vienna, DK Publishing, 2014; Budapest, 2015; Prague, 2015
Very popular guides, heavily illustrated, strong on practical info, and excellent maps.
Also Top 10 Guides to each city.
Bob Dent, Blue Guide Budapest, Norton, 2nd ed., 2001
Nicholas T. Parsons, Blue Guide Austria, Norton, 4th ed., 2000
Jason Tilbury, Blue Guide Prague, Norton, 2nd ed., 2004
Though not with recent editions, easily the most serious, detailed guide to the art, architecture and history in English. Good practical info, no photos.
Lonnie Johnson, Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends,
Oxford University Press, 2010
A historical survey of Central Europe covering contemporary Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia.Claudio Magris, Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
The author tracks the Danube River, the pulse of Central Europe, the crucible of a culture that draws on influences of East and West, Christianity and Islam.
Patrick Leigh Fermer, A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and The Broken Road, NY Review, 2005, 2015An extraordinary trilogy by a great travel writer of his trek across the continent as a teenager. The middle volume covers much of Central Europe, including Budapest and Prague.
Istvan Bart, Hungary and the Hungarians, Corvina, 1999
Lively, humorous insight into Hungarian culture.
Magda Denis, Castles Burning, Touchstone 1997
Memoir of life in Budapest seen through the eyes of a 10-year old Jewish girl.
Peter Hanak, The Garden and the Workshop, Princeton, 1998
Essays on the cultural history of Vienna and Budapest.
Paul Lendvai, Blacklisted: a Journalist’s Life in Central Europe, Taurus, 1998
Written by a victim of both fascists and communists, with an overview of Hungarian history.
John Lukacs, Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and its Culture,
Grove Press, 1990
A distinguished historian writes of a city at the height of its powers
Susan Suleiman, Budapest Diary
Memoir of a current Harvard professor, born in Budapest, left as child in 1948, now returning.
Stephen Brook, The Double Eagle: Vienna, Budapest and Prague, London, 1988
Edmund de Waal, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, Farrar, Straus, 2010
Moving family memoir of the misfortunes of European Jewish banking during and after the war
Frederic Morton, A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/89, Penguin, 1980 (orig. 1979)
Entertaining read, which includes a bizarre story about Bruckner!
Nicholas Parsons, Vienna: A Cultural History, Oxford University Press, 2008
Excellent primer on the history and culture of the city
Carl E. Schorscke, Fin de Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Vintage, 1980
Acclaimed and original exploration of the period and place.
Allen Janik & Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Simon & Schuster, 1973
Another notable cultural history around the culture of the dying empire before WWI.
Kirk Varnedoe, Vienna 1900: Art Architecture, Design, MOMA, 1986
From the late, lamented curator of the Museum of Modern Art, covering 1900-1918.
Andrew Wheatcroft, The Hapsburgs, Penguin, 1997 (orig. 1995)
Peter Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold, 1997
Clear and scholarly.
Angelo Maria Ripellino, Magic Prague, 1995 pb.
Overly erudite but contains exciting and fanciful ideas about the city.
Vaclav Havel, Paul Wilson, Summer Meditations, Vintage, 1993
The first leader of the post-Soviet Czech Republic grapples with the challenges of political change.
Jan Kaplan, A Traveller’s Companion to Prague, Interlink, 2005
The turbulent history of “The City of a Hundred Spires” revealed through eyewitness accounts from medieval to modern times, including Petrarch, Hans Christian Anderson, and Graham Greene.
Melissa Muller, Alice’s Piano: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, St. Martin’s Press, 2012
Alice Herz-Sommer, a talented pianist born in Prague, was sent to a Nazi concentration camp in 1943 with her husband and six-year-old son. In the midst of horror, music was Alice’s salvation In more than a hundred concerts, Alice gave her fellow prisoners hope in a time of suffering.
Daniel Heartz, Music in European Capitals: The Galant Style, 1720-1780 (2003);
Mozart, Haydn, and Early Beethoven: 1781-1802 (2008)
Scholarly but wonderfully accessible, you can dip in and out of each volume.
If you like or tolerate a psychobio, two interesting onesJ.W.N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, Sullivan Press, 2008 (orig. 1927)
Not a bio, not by a music expert, but a timeless book on the creative genius and art.
Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Life of Beethoven, ed. Elliott Forbes, 2 vols. Princeton, rev. 1991 (orig. 1866-1908) Completed by others from his notes and after many updating, still a standard reference.
Robert Winter & Robert Martin, eds., The Beethoven Quartet Companion,
Univ. of California, 1994
Interesting essays which put the quartets in context historically, culturally, and in performance.
James Naughton, Traveller’s Literary Companion to Eastern and Central Europe, Brighton, 1995.
Marion Crawford, The Witch of Prague, London, 1976.
Martha Gellhorn, A Stricken Field
Autobiographical novel of an American journalist working in Prague after the Munich Pact of 1938.
Graham Greene, The Third Man
Novella set in Vienna, and most famously made into a film.
Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories
Also: The Trial, The Castle
Gustav Meyrink, The Golem, 1913-14
Classic work of historical fiction
Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities, Vintage, 1996 (2 vol., trans. Wilkins; orig. 1943)
The great novel of fin-de-siecle Vienna. Also: The Young Torless
Jan Neruda, Prague Tales, London, 1993 (trans M.H. Heim, orig. 1878)
Philip Roth, The Prague Orgy, London, 1985
Arthur Schnitzler, stories and novellas
Jiri Weil, Life with a Star, 1947
Mendelssohn is on the Roof, 1960 (both trans. M. Winn)
Bleak but ironic and savagely humorous evocations of Jewish life in Prague during the war.
Stefan Zweig, stories, and his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, U. of Nebraska Press, 1964
The Golem (Carl Boese & Paul Wegener, 1920) Classic German silent horror film.
Liebelei (Max Ophuls, 1933, in German)
Mayerling (Anatole Litvak, 1936, in French) Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux as Archduke Rudolf and Maria Vetsera.
Hangmen Also Die! (Fritz Lang, 1943) Noir about the assassination of a Nazi leader by Czech resistance fighters.
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948) Story by Stefan Zweig; a concert pianist and his admirer.
The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) Screenplay by Graham Greene, plus Orson Welles and that music!
Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984) Based on the play by Peter Schaffer, and filmed mostly in Prague.
Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995) Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke hanging out in Vienna.
Gloomy Sunday (Rolf Schübel, 1999, in German and Hungarian) Budapest in the 1930s.
Sunshine (Istvan Szabo, 1999) The fate of an Hungarian Jewish family throughout the 20th century; with Ralph Fiennes.
The Lives of Others (von Donnersmark, 2006, in German) Takes place in East Berlin, but a chilling evocation of the Stasi’s work.