Prague is an amazing European city. The old capital of Bohemia is now the capital of the Czech Republic. Surprisingly close to the heart of Europe, its historical centre survived the wars intact. It forms part of the European Union although it is not part of the Euro zone, so you will have to exchange those Euros for the local Koruna Czech (Kč).
Prague’s buildings have been restored and polished to perfection, and the cobbled streets invite the foot to wander. One does wonder what their “thing” about statues is. Every rooftop and balcony in the old town seems to be adorned with a statue, or two, or three….
The city itself is very, very clean. And its coffee culture is impressive, even for a snobbish Australian coffee lover.
And yes, the German bachelor parties descend on the city every weekend and public holiday, like the Brits do in Amsterdam, but it is relatively easy to avoid those lederhosen…. we even saw an intrepid groom-to-be in nothing more than a pair of speedos and a giant condom!
Getting There and Around
Prague airport is well connected to the rest of Europe as well as the Middle East. There are Airport Express busses (100 Kč, buy from driver or kiosk) depart from Terminal 1 to the city, and from above the Central Train Station to both Terminal 1 and 2.
Alternatively, take the regular bus (number 119 from Terminal 1 and 2) which connects to the metro system. You can buy public transport tickets at vending machines that are at every metro and train station, the airport, larger bus stops, and kiosks (all accept card or phone!). They give a time slot for travel, like 30 or 90 mins. A 90 minute ticket (40 Kč) from the vending machine at the stop is enough to get you from the airport into town.
Train is another easy way to get to Prague from anywhere in Europe. The international trains deliver you right in the centre of the city, next to the old town.
The centre of Prague is compact and easily walkable. To get a bit faster from A to B the metro is an excellent option; it goes frequently and has three different lines that intersect at a number of stations. Signposts are clearly marked.
Alternatively, if you are tired of walking, there is also an excellent tram system in the city.
Where to Stay
I would recommend to stay in or next to the Old Town. There is a large selection of accomodation to cater for any preferences and wallets; hotels, hostels, airBnB, riverboats…. Do book as far ahead as possible, as this city’s tourist industry is booming right now!
We stayed at MeetMe23, a funky hotel that has twin, double and triple ensuite rooms, as well as larger family rooms and dormitories. It is also used by school groups, but although there were some staying while we were there, we hardly noticed them. Our room was quiet, clean and had everything we needed in it. It even had lockable closets. An excellent, “all you can eat” breakfast was included.
What to Do
Prague is definitely worth at least two full days. If you want to see something else in Bohemia, outside of the city, add another day. We arrived on a Thursday morning and left on a Sunday afternoon, so effectively had two half days and a full day in Prague, and did a full day bus tour away from the city.
1. Stoll around the Old Town
I can’t think of a better way to start a visit to Prague than with a walk around the old town. Once you hit the cobbled streets, you are in the Old Town. This entire area is on the world heritage list, and it isn’t hard to understand why. There are instagram worthy views everywhere!
Prague, capital city of the Czech Republic, is bisected by the Vltava River. Nicknamed “the City of a Hundred Spires,” it’s known for its Old Town Square, the heart of its historic core, with colorful baroque buildings, Gothic churches and the medieval Astronomical Clock, which gives an animated hourly show.Wikipedia
If you are like me, just let your feet do the walking and follow the groups of tourists weaving around town. As long as you are on the cobbled streets, you are somewhere in the Old Town. There are lots of signposts, with the names and (thankfully!) a sketch of the various landmarks.
While ambling along, move towards the Old Town Square. This lovely open space is flanked by various churches with its own fair share of statues, as well as the Astronomical Clock (see next), which is clearly marked on the signposts.
Dive into one of the side streets, grab a coffee or hot chocolate and one of those amazing pastries this town has to offer (move over Paris!).
If you are like my sister instead, grab a guidebook or app that provides one of the many, many walking routes (and figure out where you are and where you want to be) to make sure you get to see all the sights of the old town and the Jewish Quarter.
It is also very easy to sign up to a guided walk. They are generally advertised all around the Old Town Square, and some are even free to join, just expecting a tip afterwards. You get to follow a person with a flag / umbrella who usually also provides a compact summary of the history of this fascinating city.
2. Astronomical Clock
Tacky, fascinating or tourist trap/ A visit to Prague is not complete without having been part of the group of people waiting in eager anticipation for the hourly performance of the Astronomical Clock; the parade of the 12 apostles as it starts chiming the hour. There are also other animations on this large clock face happening.
However, if you consider its age, it was reportedly constructed in 1410, based on their understanding of the universe, it is an amazing piece of engineering and well worth a visit. The clock has a number of dials, and you may want to have a read of the full explanation online after seeing the clock for real.
The Astronomical Dial shows the medieval perception of the Universe: the Earth is the center. The blue part of the dial represents the sky above the horizon, the brown part the sky below it. There are Latin words ORTVS (east) and OCCASVS (west) written above the horizon, and AVRORA (dawn) and CPEPVSCVLVM (twilight) below. There is a Zodiac ring, which represents the stars in the sky and it moves according to it. The two clock hands bear the signs of the Sun and the Moon.http://www.prague.cz/astronomical-clock/
There are three circles on the dial, showing different time: the outer circle with Schwabacher numerals shows the Old Czech Time (“Italian Time”), the circle with Roman numbers shows the Central European Time and the inner circle with Arabic numerals shows the “Babylonian Time”: the length of an hour differs there according to the season – it is longer in the summer, shorter in the winter. The Prague Astronomical Clock is the only one in the world able to measure it. Furthermore, the little star by the zodiac ring shows the sidereal time.
3. Charles Bridge, Karluv Most
Forget about the insta-worthy shots, unless you are up at the crack of dawn. The bridge spanning the Vltava River is where you will find every tourist visiting Prague.
This bridge was first started in 1357 by Charles IV, so there has been plenty of time to add statues to adorn it, and as everywhere in the old town, they have surely done that. Some of the older ones are now replicas, but fascinating nevertheless.
Move along slowly with the crowd across the Bridge, stop and find out what some of the statues on the Bridge mean or stand for, take your time to have a gaze up and down the river, admiring the views of the Old Town and of the Castle. And take time to enjoy the products of the various portrait or caricature artists and musicians that are scattered along the bridge. Getting across it is an experience, so relax and amble along.
4. Letná Park / Letenské Sady
For an amazing view over the Old Town and the Castle you should walk up Letna Park in the morning. Take the metro to Malostranská (if you want to see the geological type section 🙂 or to čechuv Most. It is not a steep walk and the paths are well defined and often paved. With the morning sun behind you you will get a great view over the river, the bridges, the plethora of spires and the Prague Castle fortifications.
Also of interest is the 1891 Hanavsky Pavilion, nowadays a cafe and restaurant.
Geology in the heart of Prague
Absolutely to my amazement I happened to stumble upon a genuine certified geological type section at the base of Letna Park. It is the type section of the Letna formation of the Upper Ordovician in the Prague Basin, a flysch deposit with a rhythmic alteration of cycles of deep water to shallow marine deposits, up to 600 metres thick, and reportedly containing trilobite fossils in storm beds. No, I didn’t find any… It is just behind the Prague Geological Museum, which is also not mentioned in any of the guide books that I had.
For non-geologists, the fact that this section of rock is from a period between 444 and 485 Million Years ago may impress you nevertheless. These layers were the bottom of a very, very large sea. In the Ordovician Era we saw some of the highest sea levels ever, and most of the world was covered in a warm sea. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were higher than today so the climate was warmer. This encouraged an explosion of life, an intense diversification of species, the arrival of the first fish, and the first forms of life to move out of the water and on to the land. Yeah!!!
The Ordivician period ended with a mass extinction event, the second largest in our planet’s known history, at which more than 70% of all species (plant and animal) were wiped out. The cause for this event is assumed to be rapid climate change (doesn’t that sound familiar) due to natural tectonic processes. An ice age, followed by a sudden warming event, happened too fast for a lot of the species to adapt.
5. Prague Castle and Novy Svet
From the park you can walk straight through to the Prague Castle. The building of this huge complex started in 807 (yes, 9th century!). Many additions have been made over the centuries. The castle grounds and the large St Vitus Cathedral are freely accessible. It is well worth wandering around for an hour or so.
However, tickets are required if you want to see the inside of the castle, and amazingly also to enter the famous Medieval Golden Street (Zlatá Ulička) behind the Cathedral.
We decided against spending the money, and instead headed out to one of the cutest Medieval parts of Prague nearby, Novy Svet (literally, New World).
Away from the main masses, an easy 10 minutes walk from the Palace, this is described as one of the most romantic areas in Prague, most of the houses are from the 17th and 18th century. It has a very bohemian and artistic feel. This street also has an excellent little coffee shop towards the bottom end (Kavárna at Novy Svet 2), and halfway down the street is an outdoor theatre / stage with events during the summer months.
6. Klementinum Library and Astronomical Tower
My sister was very keen on visiting, and it took a bit of effort but was absolutely worth it. It can be very hard to get tickets as the website doesn’t yet work. After a full renovation the Barok Library of the Klementinum and the Astronomical Tower can again be visited, but only on pre-booked guided tours. Head to the desk and book your tour when you are in the Old Town on your first day. If you are lucky, you may get in on your last day!
The library is amazing, one of the world’s finest with beautiful frescos and series of historical globes. It really feels like the “sistine chapel of libraries”.
The tour then continuous with a walk up the Astronomical Tower, some fitness and a bit of head for heights is required for this, for an amazing view over Prague and an insight in traditional astronomical measurement techniques.
7. Kampa Island, Lennon Wall and Pastries
Just before reaching the side of the Castle, head down the stairs from Charles Bridge to Kampa Island. After the throngs of people on the bridge, descending to the small square of the island comes as a relief.
The island encourages you to stroll along the river and park, and there is a small sign pointing to the famous Lennon Wall. This wall is covered in graffiti and designs featuring global issues, it was started when Prague was still under communist rule. The assassination of John Lennon triggered a plethora of messages related to peace and love. Since then it has been painted, repainted, covered, and painted again, and the original portrait of Lennon is long lost under layers of paint. Today the wall represents a symbol of global ideals and reflects current issues.
A visit to Kampa Island is definitely not complete without a visit to the ultimate, absolutely best pastry place in Prague, the IF Cafe by pastry chef Iveta Fabesova, on the ground floor of the Werichova Villa.
8. Attend a classical concert, anywhere
As you wander around town, you cannot escape the large number of concerts taking place. Many churches and synagogues offer a relatively short (usually 1-2 hours) taste of the musical aspects of life in the Czech Republic.
We went to a concert in the Spanish Synagogue, to admire this amazing building and an enjoy a lovely medley of classic and modern music at the same time. The interior is reminiscent of the Moorish architecture found in the Alhambra, hence the name, Spanish Synagogue. The event did not disappoint, the concert was by a world class string quartet supported by a trumpet player and female vocalist.
You can buy your tickets online, or take your last minute pick from any of the street vendors.
9. A daytrip to Czesky Krumlov
There are a number of day trips from Prague, offered by a range of providers. They can be done as organised half or full day bus trips, complete with guides, or as public transport train journeys for the more intrepid travellers.
Popular are trips to the medieval towns of Czesky Krumlov, Kutna Hora with its ossuary or “bone church”, or Karlovy Vary, the spa town also known as Carlsbad.
We chose to head to Czesky Krumlov, a medieval town which is a nearly 3 hour drive to the south of Prague. We booked via Trip Advisor, selecting a small group tour. It was a full day outing, leaving at 9 am and returning at 8 pm, but we did have 5 hours in Czesky Krumlov. This gave us enough time to enjoy this absolutely stunning little city in our 3 hours of free time. The tour came complete with a guided tour of the city and castle.
Important to note: that due to the fact that castles are generally not heated, most Czech castles are closed to visitors during the winter months from November to March!
Eat, drink and be merry!
As already mentioned, the coffee scene in Prague is well developed and you should be able to get a good caffeine fix just about everywhere.
For a unique dining experience, try out the “Locál” restaurant in Dlouhaaa, it provides an atmosphere hailing back to the communist era, with simple dishes consisting of carbs and meat.
Warning; Prague can be tricky for vegetarians and vegans. There are usually some options available, and there is a Vegan restaurant close to Cafe Louvre, but be warned!
A common local dish is goulash (meat stew), and its derivative; goulash soup served in a fresh bread roll.
For desert, get a Trdelnik, a type of pastry horn that is filled with cream, vanilla cream and/or fruit. There are also 21st century varieties, with nutella (naturally) and other concoctions. Forget about the diet… you are on holiday!
As mentioned above, Prague is famous for its many, many locally brewed beers. Alas, I am not a beer drinker, but I was very happy with the offerings on the wine and cocktail menus. If you are looking for a non-alcoholic option, try the local “lemonades”, home made syrup with soda water and fruits. Great flavours and surprisingly cheaper than the normal range of soft drinks on offer.
I would recommend booking restaurants well in advance where possible. We were in Prague in the shoulder season, April, which was already very busy. I can only imagine how busy it gets during peak season!
- Locál Dlouhááá – for Soviet Era ambience but good basic dishes, you definitely need to book! (Dlouhá 33, 110 00 Staré Město)
- Bullet Proof – lovely place for a cocktail or dinner (Ungmannova 11, 101 00 Nové Město)
- Cafe Louvre – breakfast, brunch, lunch, a favourite with the locals (yes, head up those stairs to the top floor!), try the goulash with home made dumplings. The photo shows a half portion (yes! sharing is possible!) (Národní 22, 110 00 Nové Město)
- Choco Cafe U Cervene Zidle – hot chocolate and chocolates from a large range of different origins (think wine list but then hot chocolate) (Liliová 250/4, 110 00 Staré Město)