Touristy but true to its character, Prague delights visitors with its fairytale architecture and surprises them with its oddball treasures. Hannah Carr guides us through the Czech capital.
Prague is often dubbed “the city of 100 spires”. Whilst we don’t recommend taking the trouble to count them, what you and every first-time visitor will see – no effort required – is the the city’s architectural splendour. Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, town halls and towers clamour for the attention of your camera lens in the picture perfect Old Town, whilst, silently surveying the entire of Prague, the city castle sits across the Vltava on its lofty hill.
Following generations of foreign domination, Nazi occupation and Communist rule, perhaps it’s no surprise that – after the Iron Curtain finally cracked in the early 1990s – the Czech Republic was the first of the Central and East European countries to successfully embrace the West and the sparkling allure of the free market. And whilst coach parties, drunk Brits, tacky tourist shops and M&S became an unfortunate side affect of the capital’s new Westernised identity, overall Prague has stubbornly maintained its character. Interspersed with the city’s more commercial side you’ll still find numerous antique shops, vintage boutiques and shops selling the famous Bohemian glass, whilst sales of vepřo-knedlo-zelo (pork and dumplings) and delicious honey cake still outnumber sales of Big Macs.
The city’s astonishing prettiness can make Prague resemble a toy town at times, but you don’t have to travel far off the track to experience local life in the living. For example in Letna Park skaters practice tricks, racing and shouting at each other, without a care in the world. This was the very spot where once stood a fearsome statue of Stalin, but now weeds have made their home and what remains of the base is obscured by tangles of grass and graffiti.
Best of the Beaten Track
Whether you visit Old Town Square at dawn, dusk or any hour in between, you can’t fail to be impressed by its pristine beauty. Some come to see the famed Astronomical Clock, others the Jan Hus Memorial and many Týn Cathedral with its iconic towers. Few go home disappointed.
Nearby Charles Bridge also deserves the hype surrounding it, but avoid visiting it in the day when crowds of excitable tourists make it difficult to see the statues that line the North and South sides – or to move. Instead visit on a cloudless night, when the crowds have dispersed and the moonlight illuminates the bridge and casts an eerie light over these noble effigies. At this hour you can touch the statue of the martyred St. John of Nepomuk to ensure you return to Prague, and take a look at the Czech capital while it’s semi-sleepy.
From the Charles Bridge it’s a seemingly vertical stroll to the castle, through Malá Strana and up a lot of steps. But it’s definitely worth sweating for. You can get a panoramic view of the city from above, before exploring this Gothic heavyweight and the nearby cathedral. Also on the top of the hill there’s a an entertaining Toy Museum (the second largest in the world) which includes an army of Barbies from 1959 onwards.
Whilst in Prague you can’t ignore the elephant in the room: the Museum of Communism is located on Na Příkopě 10, just off Wenceslas Square, above McDonald’s and close to a casino, which wouldn’t please Lenin. Today communism in the Czech capital seems as popular amongst residents as the Soviet tanks that enforced it, yet the guest book reveals that the museum attracts both critics and sympathisers of the regime.
The John Lennon Peace Wall is a bit of a mission to find in the winding streets of Malá Strana, but you’ll be glad of the effort when you get there, if only for the photo opportunity. It became an artistic canvas to commemorate the late Beatle, and was later scrawled on as a sign of protest against the communist regime in the 1980s. It has carried messages of peace ever since, and has been visited by Lennon’s leading lady, Yoko Ono. Don’t forget to take a pen. And a camera.
If you want to escape the city – and have a fascination with all that is morbid – take a trip to the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora. If you think churches tend to be dull, this one will certainly change your mind. Unlike the average parish prayer house, the shrine is decorated with the bones of the dead from the Hussite Wars and plague victims. The centrepiece is a huge chandelier made from every bone in the human body several times over.
Experience & Events
Prague has loads of activities on offer during the summer and, unlike many UK festivals, you won’t be plagued by wind, rain and mud. There’s the Prague Fringe Festival, which imitates its Edinburgh sister in June, and the Czech Beer Festival (one of Urban Travel Blog’s top festivals for 2010!) and Dance Prague in May. If you get your kicks from the silver screen, head to the city in January when the Prague Short Film Festival is on. You can even apply to enter your own. If you’re more interested in putting pen to paper, go in early June for the twentieth Prague Writers’ Festival. There’s also the Prague Food Festival, if you’re voyaging for victuals.
The more active might prefer to try their hand at Aquazorbing at the Aquapalace. It involves rolling around a swimming pool in a giant ball, which will make a good pub story when you get back home. The freezing winters also make skiing an potential activity. Head to the Jizerské Hory range, an hour’s drive from Prague, when the snow settles.
If you want your holiday with a side helping of servants, try The Golden Well Hotel, where you can have your luggage unpacked and your aromatic oil bath run for you, as well as an in-room massage. Guests also have access to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II’s private entrance into the castle gardens. If only home was this good! If your love of history extends to the boudoir, try the Sax Hotel. The 14th century building has rooms decorated in fifties, sixties and seventies themes. Choose your favourite decade and step in! For a more wallet friendly stay head to Hotel Clementin, which is noticeable for being housed in Prague’s narrowest building. For a high class hostel try Miss Sophie’s with its designer dorms. It’s chic but still cheap. Alternatively take a look at Oh Prague’s website.
Czech food is a tempting mix of the meaty and the carb-laden, but not very vegetarian friendly! For authentic Czech fare head to Botel Admiral, an old boat moored on the banks of the Vltava. Try the delicious old-Bohemian-style roast goose. It’s a guaranteed foodgasm, as is the fare at U Pinkasů. Established in 1843, it was the first place to serve Pilsner, and still prides itself on its wide range of brews. And don’t miss the Czech honey cake. Vegetarians may find it more of a mission to find good food in Prague, but definitely not impossible. Maitrea is a vegetarian joint lovingly designed with feng shui principles in mind. The restaurant, with its soothing fountains and cream decor, envelops you in a sense of calm. And importantly the food will leave you wanting a second portion, too.
When darkness falls Prague becomes a more flamboyant, hedonistic version of its daytime self, particularly in New Town and Old Town. For pre-drinks try Harley’s Bar. It’s as garish as a neon light in a library, but the atmosphere is always buzzing and the happy (three) hours are cheap. Cocktail freaks should hit Bugsy’s Bar, where 200 varieties are on offer, including the Long Breakfast Belevedere, intriguingly mixed with marmalade. While you’re here take a look at the paraphernalia on display – there’s a 1795 bottle of Madeira roasted wine, a Morris Hennessy signed bottle and the world’s tiniest mixer set. For something a bit twisted try the Cross Club, which is filled with works by local artists, strange inventions and kaleidoscopic lighting. It’ll make you feel like you’re tripping before you even are. The locals and students milling around also make it feel more authentic than other clubs.
You can fly cheaply to Prague with low cost airlines easyJet, Jet2 and Ryanair, from a variety of UK and Irish cities, such as London, Edinburgh and Dublin. If money’s more plentiful you can choose from British Airways, Czech Airlines, or KLM. From continental Europe you can travel cheaply by bus or train, with the overnighter to Krakow a staple on the backpacker route.
The Czech Tourism website which offers a comprehensive – albeit sanitised – guide to Prague. For the unofficial stamp of approval take a look at Empty Nest Expat, an expat American’s blog on life in the Czech capital. For hip tips and local secrets look no further than Spotted by Locals Prague blog.
Before you go, dip into The Visible World by Mark Slouka, which reawakens wartime Czechslovakia and the Nazi occupation. For a guide of what to see and do in Prague pick up a copy of Artel Style by Karen Feldman, a visual treat written by an expat who made her home in the city. It’s full of tips on where to play, eat, and sleep, as well as including more useful information, such as common Czech phrases, metro and tram maps. Of course no serious Bohemian heading to the homeland would forget to pack a little light reading by Kafka or Kundera.
Sadly the film version of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being was shot before the fall of the Iron Curtain and therefore filming in Prague was a no-go. Still worth it for a bit of Binoche and Daniel Day Lewis in their prime. Otherwise look no further than this classic INXS video (hat tip to Travel Edits!).
Soundtrack to the City
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