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Prague: A Succinct Guide for the Classy Traveller

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So, you’re coming to Prague, Czech Republic, are you? How lovely for you! Prague is a charming, vibrant city that you’ll enjoy regardless of your age or interests. Nevertheless, just so that we’re on the same page, this guide is best suited for the childfree wanderer who enjoys food, culture, walking, and poking their nose into secret gardens. If that’s you – let’s polka!

When to Come & How Long to Stay

Your best bets as regards weather (pleasant) and crowds (minimal) are spring (late May) and summer (early September). Honestly, forget about Prague at Christmas – it’s horribly cold, there’s never any snow, and the city is just depressing. Avoid the height of the summer, too, as it tends to get tiresomely hot and crowded. Easter is a hit or miss weatherwise, so if you’re willing to risk anything between arctic hail and tropical heat, by all means book those flights right now.

A weekend (two nights) stay is ideal for Prague. If you give yourself an extra day or two, you can take a more leisurely pace seeing the major sights, visiting museums, and exploring some of Prague’s lesser known (but all the more charming) areas. There’s also the option of taking a day trip outside the city bounds, although I suggest staying put and getting the most out of the city!

What to Pack

The only thing you really need is a pair of comfortable walking shoes, because if you want a genuine Prague experience, you’ve got to go on foot. Prague is wonderfully walkable and you won’t even look like a weirdo in your Le Coq Sportif trainers, athleisure fashion being all the rage. Other than that, you shouldn’t need any special equipment – nobody will want you to cover your knees and shoulders in churches, and you can walk into any theatre or restaurant in jeans and a t-shirt and not feel ill at ease.

What to See

Historical Landmarks

Literally every house in Prague is a historical landmark, and there are so many interesting things to see in the city that they could (and in fact have) fill up a whole book. Here are just the very basic “must-see” places, in order of importance.

Prague Castle & St. Vitus Cathedral: I recommend doing the whole shebang here, that is, buying the ticket granting you access to all the interior spaces (about 10 EUR). For one thing, you’ll get to see some unique architecture (a hallway formerly used for jousting matches, with steps leading up to it built especially for horses, for example), but you’ll also basically walk through a 3D Czech history class. Study the history of Prague Castle, and you’ve pretty much got a handle on the history of the entire nation from its inception in the 9th century to 1918, when the independent Czechoslovak Republic was formed after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I. Also, the gardens surrounding the castle are quite lovely and not as crowded.

Charles’ Bridge: Having been built in 1357, this is Prague’s oldest and arguably most beautiful bridge. Come here before noon or in the evening to avoid crowds, and take your time admiring the views on both sides as well as the 33 majestic statues (depicting various saints) flanking its sides.

Old Town Square: Just to explain, Prague was historically made up of four towns – the Castle Town (Hradčany) and the Lesser Town (Malá Strana) on the right river bank, and the Old Town (Staré Město) and New Town (Nové Město) on the left river bank. The Castle Town and Old Town are the oldest, and Old Town Square used to be the epicentre of life in Prague – with markets and fairs and hangings and beheadings. Today, it’s where the tourists congregate – for good reason, because this is where you get to admire the Old Town Hall and the famous Historical Clock. I recommend climbing the Old Town Hall tower for some magnificent views of the Old Town, which spreads out in front of you as if on the palm of your hand.

Vyšehrad & St. Peter and Paul Church: Vyšehrad used to be a castle surrounded by legends, and although none of it stands today, a magic still permeates this place. Come here on a sunny day to stroll along the old castle fortifications (great views), tour the underground cassemates (where some of the original statues from Charles Bridge are kept!), and admire the exceptional tombstones at Slavín – a cemetery where all the most famous Czechs from the past two centuries are buried. The interior of St. Peter and Paul church is also quite unique in that it is decorated in art deco style. (Think RiflePaper & Co on the walls of a church – reason alone to come to Prague.)

Bethlehem Square: This one’s off the beaten tourist track, but by no means out of the way. The most interesting landmark on this square is the Bethlehem Chapel – scene of the first steps of the Czech reformation movement. I recommend going inside to see the interior as it’s quite extraordinary, and if the Reformation sparks an interest, by all means check out the adjacent bite-sized historical exhibition, too.

Secret Gardens

Prague is lush with greenery and many of its gardens are splendid – with beautiful sculptures and ornate pavillions and tinkling fountains and cool ponds and regal peacocks. Peek into one, or two, or all of them and take some respite from the city in the shade of a tree.

Prague Castle Gardens: These are vast and beautiful and you may not want to see all of them, but do take a stroll in the Royal Garden with the elegant Belvedere and “singing” fountain.

Wallenstein Gardens: They’re located right under Prague Castle and feature the stunning sala terrena of the Wallenstein Palace (check out if any concerts are taking place here) and an impressive grotto, along with a humongous cage housing birds of prey.

Vrtba Garden: This one’s slightly hidden, but it’s glorious and totally worth the modest entry fee. This terraced garden offers some gorgeous and unusual views of Prague castle, and it’s more than likely that you’ll see a couple of weddings taking place here – for understandable reasons!

Kampa Island: Not a garden per se, but a beautiful spot of green right next to Charles’ Bridge. At the end of June 2017, the Werich Villa (which belonged to a famous Czech actor and musician) will open its doors to the public and will include what I suspect is a wonderful cafe, so be sure to check it out!

Vojan Gardens: Again, not that easy to find, but once you do you’ll feel like you’ve entered a completely different world. This garden provides a less manicured backdrop than some of the others, and is a great place to take a short break with a sandwich lunch. Which brings me to the most important part…

Where to Eat  

There is a wealth of great places to eat in Prague that cater to all dietary requirements. Below, I’ve listed my favourites that are all within a reasonable distance to the landmarks I’ve listed above.

Breakfast/Brunch

Café SavoyDo yourself a favour, disregard the temptations of a free hotel buffet breakfast, and come here instead. In a spacious, sparkling art-deco interior reminiscent of traditional Viennese cafés, you’ll be served some of Prague’s most delightful pastries. Try the French toast and, although this sounds odd, pay a visit the bathroom – there’s a glass wall in the hallway that opens onto the bakery downstairs!

Bake ShopThis place can get CROWDED by mid-morning and lunchtime but there’s absolutely no surprise as to why. It’s the Prague equivalent of San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery – come here early-ish for the most amazing croissants and pastries, or opt for one of their magnificent, towering quiches if you’re in the mood for something savoury.

Coffee/Snacks

Sisters BistroOne thing you should try when in Prague is chlebíčky [KHLEB-each-key] – open-faced sandwiches piled high with potato salad, ham, pickles, salami, and cheese (not necessarily all at once). They’re usually eaten as a party food (or served at meetings where no one touches them because they’re a mess to eat) and Sisters Bistro makes a modern variant – with celeriac remoulade, beetroot pate, roastbeef, and various other toppings served on custom-made bread. Perfect when you need some fuel between lunch and dinner!

Styl a InteriérThis is a bit of a hidden gem – just steps away from Wenceslas Square lies a peaceful, lush garden with pathways leading to tables surrounded by wicker chairs. The wine is plentiful, the tea is excellent, the cakes moist, and the estrogen level very high.

Original CoffeePrague has become a city of coffee snobs in the past five years or so, which means that specialty coffee shops brewing up all kinds of unique roasts abound. Original Coffee is one of those, offering a calming space for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up.

AngelatoThere is some debate as to the best ice-cream joint in Prague, and after trying a few of them, I no longer dare name any one place as the best (and I don’t see any reason why I should, really). Nevertheless, Angelato was one of the first and remains a firm favourite among the top three – don’t be put off by the queues, because service is fast and the ice-cream is worth it!

Lunch/Dinner

KolkovnaThis isn’t necessarily my favourite place to eat, but if you want traditional Czech fare, it’s probably your best choice. And it’s where I take all my friends who crave roast pork knee with horseradish and mustard, or half a roasted duck with purple sauerkraut and potato dumplings, or the famous tenderloin in creamy vegetable sauce that are some of the Czech cuisine staples. Oh, and beer, of course.

MaitreaAlthough this is a vegetarian restaurant, I guarantee you that omnivores will not be disappointed (I’ve tested it on many friends, male and female). Reservations are a good idea in the evening but lunch here can be a quick affair – the affordable menu features a soup, main dish, and water and you can be in and out within half an hour. Considering the fact that this place is a few steps away from Old Town Square, it’s excellent value.

EskaThis place is a revelation on the Czech culinary scene. The concept is back to the roots, which means they bake their own bread (there’s a bakery worth visiting), beat their own butter, ferment their own kefir, and serve traditional ingredients (root vegetables, freshwater fish) in a novel approach. The simplest and most enjoyable way of having the best time here is to just order the tasting menu (there’s a choice between 5 and 8 courses, both very affordable).

Beer & Cocktails

Hemingway Bar: One thing I find annoying about Prague is that it’s hard to get into a bar without a reservation on a Friday or Saturday night. If you really want your nightcap, therefore, call in ahead. If you’re too lazy to call and are willing to go for second (but still exceptional) best, check out the Cash Only Bar around the corner. (And, er, bring cash. Heh.)

Bar and BooksCome here if you want to have a quiet night sipping whisky and puffing on a cigar while reading your book (although maybe bring a reading light – there’s not much to see by in this place), or have a glass of wine (or more) with a trusted soul over deep and serious conversation that you’ll forget all about in the morning.

What to Do

Museums

Anežský klášter: Pop in here if you want to explore some of the luminous beauty of the art of the Dark Ages. The mediaeval period was actually one of prosperity in Bohemia, and this is reflected in the art. You might also be surprised – as I always seem to be – how “modern” some ancient art is – although we may not understand many of the symbolism anymore, some of the works really do speak to viewers in the 21st century, as well.

Mucha Museum: This is worth a visit if you a) are somewhat familiar with Alfons Mucha and his work and/or b) appreciate the ornate style of art deco. The museum’s gift shop is abundant in souvenirs, as well (as a matter of fact, one contemporary Czech jeweller recreates many of Alfons Mucha’s original designs), so it’s a good place to scout for gifts.

House of the Black Madonna: Czech cubism is a world to itself. The style took off in the newly formed Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the 20th century, and permeated all areas of everyday life – not just art! – to create an aesthetic style that had a distinct national identity. (A bit like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue did in musical terms for the USA.)

Other Activities

Should you find yourself with a long minute in Prague, try any of the following activities: visit the Náplavka farmers’ market on Wednesday or Saturday morning, located on the river bank – the atmosphere is lively and neighbourly with kids and dogs running amok, lots of good things to eat, fine coffe, and lovely river views.

If you have lots of time and perhaps the weather isn’t too good, go to the movies! Kino Lucerna on Wenceslas Square has gorgeous interiors and often shows rare films as part of various film festivals. And if you’re a classic cinema buff, then Kino Ponrepo is your place to be. Both cinemas have cafés where you can relax over a coffee and share your impressions. Should you want some classier entertainment, get tickets to the National Theatre (although the value of the architecture is more of that of the performances).

On a sunny afternoon, rent a pédallo at Žofín island and spend an hour admiring Prague from a completely different perspective. I definitely recommend this over a boat cruise – much cheaper and much more fun. When evening falls, try out one of Prague’s ghost tours – it may sound cheesy but it’s loads of fun and you’ll be told many interesting legends about the city.

What to Bring Back

If you don’t fancy shopping for presents too much, I recommend getting the following (all of which can be purchased at the airport): 1) A bottle of Becherovka, a traditional Czech liqueur made from 17 herbs following a secret recipe, excellent on its own as a digestif or in a variety of cocktails. I’ve never known anyone to be offended by a bottle of “the good stuff”, as a friend’s husband calls it. 2) A Studentská pečeť chocolate bar (comes in jumbo sizes for the especially greedy), which is not just any old chocolate bar, but a chocolate bar packed with nuts, raisins, and jelly beans. There are many variations, the classic milk chocolate being my favourite. 3) If you need to get a gift for a child, bring them a toy Krteček – Little Mole. He’s a cartoon character that every Czech kid is familiar with, and what’s great about the cartoons is that there’s no spoken word in them (just music and cute animal sounds).

Should you want to do some shopping, after all, here are my favourite haunts!

One of my favourite places to get gifts for friends who live abroad is Botanicus – a home-grown cosmetics company that grows its own plants (as a matter of fact, you can visit the garden where they grow all their organic herbs and plants just outside of Prague!) and makes its own products. Just the smell in their shops – herby and soothing – puts me in a good mood! I swear by their lotions but they also sell lovely edibles (syrups and teas) and some bath-time accessories.

Another good spot for mindful souvenirs is a store called Lípa, named after the Czech national tree, the linden.  They sell traditional Czech products with a modern twist, perfect accessories for the 21st century’s minimalist aesthetic. Find various products made from wood (something very typically Czech are wooden toys for children), paper goods, and traditional jams and fair trade chocolates – most bearing linden motifs.

If you have a movie fan in your life, visit Terryho ponožky (Terry’s Socks), a cupboard-sized shop selling reproductions of vintage movie posters. (Makes sense, right?) You’ll find a wealth of posters for movies from all over the world, but what I find most interesting are Czech-designed posters for foreign movies. This is definitely a place where you can kill some time at!

Further Research

Spotted by Locals: If you’re not already familiar with the Spotted by Locals website, you should check it out right now! It’s one of the first sites I go to when researching a new city and whilst the quality differs for various locations, the suggestions for Prague are excellent.

Taste of PragueThe only website you need to know about when it comes to researching places to eat in Prague. Whether you’re looking for the perfect place to enjoy a coffee outside or a fancy dinner for two, this is where you’ll find carefully curated, regularly updated information on the best that Prague has to serve.

Prague Up: An excellent website for finding out what’s going on in the city – I like that they show you the main events for each day as well as upcoming recommended events. Visit this website and you’ll be in the know!

Questions? Remarks? Spill your beans in the comments section and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can!

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