Oh, Prague. There’s truly something here for everyone; a city the likes of Mozart, Kafka, Einstein and even Martina Navratilova have each called home. To me it’s dreamier than Paris, more sophisticated than Berlin yet a hell of a lot more down to earth than Vienna. And the one euro beers certainly don’t hurt. Here’s how you can easily spend a weekend in Prague.
So, what’s the deal?
Don’t fall into the trap of dismissing Prague as part of ‘dreary Eastern Europe’. It’s positively none of these; the Vltava River sparkles on its way winding through the city, and calling Czechs Eastern Europeans is a bit like calling a Canadian an American. Just don’t go there.
If you look at a map, you can clearly see that Prague is smack-bang in the middle of Europe. It’s location is reflected in its history; its heydays were when it controlled the vast Holy Roman Empire. Before this, Prague was hardly even on the map, that is, until the village was chosen for the site of the new Prague Castle. Today, this castle is the biggest in the world.
Probably the most famous Prague resident was Charles IV, who built Charles University, Charles Bridge, and St Vitus (no, not Charles) Cathedral. The arts, particularly music, flourished and the people of Prague certainly enjoyed the good things in life.
This was however crushed by the Nazi and then Soviet occupation of the city, which lasted until 1989. Not only has Prague embraced its western neighbours, it’s also thrown open the doors to tourists as well. Today Prague receives around four million visitors a year, more than double its own population.
When do I go?
Prague’s weather can be a bit of a mixed bag. Temperatures plunge into the minuses and beyond for most of winter from Christmas onwards, so avoid the place then if you’re warm blooded like me. At the same time, the city looks absolutely wonderful under a blanket of snow, so it could be worth it. The temperature tends to pick up rather quickly, so any time after mid-March should see average to decent weather. Just note that the weather can change in a second and heavy rainfall can stay for days on end.
Where can I shack up?
Prague has a plethora of cheap accommodation options. Most are centred around Wenceslas Square, with others scattered around the neighbourhood of Holesovice on the other side of the river. The first hostel I stayed at in Prague was Hostel Bell, up a few flights of stairs in a stately apartment block just off Wenceslas Square. It was run by a middle-aged Czech woman who single-handedly taught me the history of the Czech Republic. I met some great people here, and it was homely, so don’t let its scruffy exterior put you off.
I’ve also stayed at Plus Prague a number of times. It’s a little out of the centre (in Holesovice) but that means the neighbourhood offers you delights such as a nearby pub with great Czech grub nicknamed the ‘Bowling Alley’ (which might have something do do with a fair dinkum bowling alley set up in the back room) and an awesome nearby bar called ‘Cross Club’ which looks like it fell of the set of Mad Max. But anyway, the hostel itself is massive, with a bar and restaurant, large ensuite rooms and even a (stone cold) swimming pool and sauna.
Now here’s for the really good news – you’re unlikely to pay more than €10 a night for a dorm bed in Prague, outside the height of the high season. This can also mean you might be up for looking at potential hotels as well. I can vouch for the four-star Panorama Hotel, where a double set us back a mere €22,50 each a night.
Even though hostels usually quote the prices of beds in euros, note that the Czech Republic is staying as far away from the euro as it can for the moment, thankyou very much. Instead the Czech crown is used, and even though it can fluctuate you can roughly convert it to 25Kc for a euro.
What photos do I need to take?
Most of Prague’s main sights are centred around a number of nearby districts; the Old Town, the New Town, the Lesser Town and the Castle District. If you’re staying near Wenceslas Square (or even if you’re not) it’s not a bad place to start. Essentially the square is one long boulevard, connecting the imposing National Museum (which looks more interesting on the outside than the inside) with the Old Town. This area, called the New Town even though it’s six hundred years old, is mainly a shopping area, but its sheer bulk is a sight in itself. This is also where hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks gathered in 1989 to peacefully call for democracy in Czechoslovakia, in what was later called the Velvet Revolution.
The best way to explore the Old Town is by throwing away your map and simply getting lost in the cobblestoned streets. Prague was thankfully never bombed during World War II (Hitler apparently loved the city) and development during the communist era was kept well away from the Old Town.
Without meaning to, you’ll eventually find yourself in the Old Town Square, one of my favourite town squares in the world. Dominating the square is the imposing Tyn Church, of which I know nothing about except that a dude called Tyco Brache is buried here. Good old Tyco was an astronomer who’d come to work at Charles University, and in his first week in town he was asked to dinner with many nobles. Tyco quite liked the free booze on offer and got stuck right into it, needing to visit the lavatories pretty early in. Trouble was, he was dining with nobles and you’re not allowed to excuse yourself from the table until one of your superiors does so. Wanting to fit in, Tyco held on as long as he could, but it wasn’t long enough. His bladder burst, and he died on the spot. Break the seal people, break the seal.
Another eye-catcher on the square is the Town Hall, with its astronomical clock charming passers-by on the hour. I don’t know about you, but I don’t understand central Europe’s obsession with public clocks. Everyone seems to walk away after it finishes saying, “was that it?”
Nevertheless, you can head to the top of the Town Hall for only 50Kc (€2) to admire two things. The first is of course the close-up view of the Old Town, and the other is the site of what is now known as the Defenestration of Prague. Sounds complicated? It really wasn’t; it was rather the first time Protestants and Catholics decided they weren’t great fans of each other and resorted to throwing each other out of the window (of the Town Hall) to show their displeasure. And this is why I love Europeans.
Also in the Old Town is the city’s old Jewish Quarter; Josefov. Before World War II, Prague was home to a thriving Jewish community which had called Prague home for hundreds of years. Prague’s Jewish population was almost completely wiped out in the Holocaust, though their home still remains. Ask yourself if this is a good thing; the Jewish Quarter is still here due to the fact that Hitler wanted it preserved as a ‘Museum to the Extinct Race’.
Make sure you get your timing right to see the fourteenth century Charles Bridge in all its glory. That’s right, this is a bridge that has been standing for more than six hundred years, and it’s still doing the same old job. The bridge is at its most beautiful at dawn, with the mist hanging over the statues, so especially if you’re a photographer head here then. Otherwise, join the throng of tourists at any other point in the day. It’s full of artisans and jewellers during the day, and the city council has enforced some quality control so they’re actually pretty decent.
On the other side of the Vltava River is the quiet but still exceptionally pretty Lesser Town, which leads you uphill to eventually arrive at Prague Castle. Now, the first time I visited the castle, I was confused; was it a palace, cathedral, or an entire village? It seemed like all of it and it was certainly unlike anything I’d ever seen before. A ticket into the castle costs 350Kc (€14) but the grounds are free to wander around, where you can see the Changing of the Guard (if you haven’t seen too many of them around Europe already).
Definitely make time to visit St Vitus Cathedral within Prague Castle, which is the jewel of Prague’s skyline. Now, I didn’t pay a cent to climb the tower the first time I visited, so that’s what I’d been telling passengers for a good few months until someone informed me that there was an entrance charge. So the next time I had time off in Prague off I toddled and lo and behold, up I got to the tower for free yet again. Perhaps I have found some secret entrance? Or maybe other people are paying an opportunistic beggar sometimes positioned in the doorway? Who knows.
In terms of museums and kitschy things to do in Prague, there are plenty. With so many tourists, horror museums, wax museums, sex museums, you name it have popped up and few have anything uniquely Czech about them. There is a communism museum, but mixed reviews mean that I haven’t been here yet.
One offbeat place I have visited which may be of interest to a slight few is Strahov Stadium. Never heard of it? Well, it just so happens to be the biggest stadium in the world, fitting in 220,000 spectators. It was built under communism for various hap-hap-happy gymnastic displays reminiscent of today’s North Korea, and today it is basically a modern ruin. It’s so big that the government doesn’t know what to do with it; it’s too expensive to bulldoze it all. If this sounds up your alley, you can find the stadium about a twenty minute walk uphill from Prague Castle, atop Petrin Hill.
Is there anything else around worth seeing?
The Czech Republic’s a fairly small country so in theory just about all cities can be accessed as a day trip. However, the most popular are Karlstejn and Kutna Hora.
Karlstejn is only thirty kilometres from Prague, and is essentially a village dominated by a whopping great castle atop its central hill. This castle was one of Charles’ creations, and was built to house the jewels of the Holy Roman Empire. The castle is pretty damn cute too, it looks exactly what you’d expect of a fairytale castle in the European countryside. Tours run hourly (except on Mondays and the winter in general) and will set you back 200Kc (€8). The tour isn’t anything special but it’s the only way to get in; they also don’t let you take photos so perhaps leave the SLR in the bag and take some sneaky ones with a pocket camera. Catch the train here from Prague’s main station, it will take about forty-five minutes and cost 46Kc (less than €2).
Kutna Hora is a little bit further away, taking about two hours on the train (and sometimes with a change) or ninety minutes by bus from Florenc Bus Station (both 62Kc, about €2,20). Kutna Hora is known first and foremost as boasting a Bone Church. Yes, it is what you think, a church made out of bones. Creepy yes, but perhaps not something to go two hours out of your way to see, unless you are quite strange. I pondered this the first time I went to Kutna Hora, making a beeline first for the Bone Church. Thankfully, I then took my chances and walked the half an hour or so through suburbia to find Kutna Hora’s Old Town which is just lovely. I’m going to be controversial and say its cathedral is even more impressive than the Bone Church, with its roof which looks like a circus big top. Crowds are manageable, local food is delicious and all in all Kutna Hora is more than just chandeliers made of skeletons.
Other places that deserve visits include Plzen, Olomouc and Cesky Krumlov, but all are a little further away and probably warrant an overnight visit. My only advice for the Czech train system is good luck; I have gotten hopelessly confused both times I used it and even travelled half an hour out of Kutna Hora before realising I was headed the wrong way. Buses though are a delight; my favourite by far is the Student Agency Bus which has English-speaking staff, free wifi on board and even make you cappuccinos.
What can I get Mum?
Shoppers behold; Prague is the crappy souvenir capital of Europe. Parts of the Old Town have unfortunately been plagued by countless shops selling hoodies emblazoned with ‘Czech Me Out’ and ‘Prague Drinking Team’. Prague also seems to be of the opinion that it invented amber jewellery, just like every second city in central and eastern Europe. This all translates to many, many options for cheap, crappy and all together awesome souvenir possibilities.
Those that perhaps have more expensive tastes can look at Charles Bridge for unique jewellery and artwork, and high-end shopping can be found in the Old Town as well as near Wenceslas Square.
How do I stop my tummy rumbling?
Your tummy should never rumble in Prague. Food is cheap, delicious, and can be found almost everywhere. Goulash, though technically Hungarian, can be found virtually everywhere, as can other Czech dishes like roast pork and dumplings. Vegetarians will unfortunately be in a bit of trouble here; vegetarian dishes, if at all, will be limited to one or two on a menu.
In terms of finding good food, the old trick of moving a few streets back from the tourist streets rings most true in Prague. Many little restaurants will offer menus which consist of a starter, main, dessert and beer for anything from 100-400Kc (€4-16), depending on how far you’re away from the square. These are generally good value and don’t worry about portions being small; that will never happen to you in the Czech Republic.
Where’s the pub?
Prague is blessed with a mountain of drinking options. Yes, the rumour is true; beer is cheaper than water. A pint should set you back 25-35Kc (€1-1,50) and it’s all of superb quality. These are the guys who invented pilsner, so they’ve definitely got it right. Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar (the original, not the American copy) are the most famous Czech exports, whilst Staropramen is from Prague itself.
Cheap and cheerful pubs are found throughout the Old and New Town, just be aware that if you’re visiting Prague on a weekend the city often finds itself taken over by stag nights, usually of the British variety. You’ll definitely find them in Karlovy Lazne, the famed five-storey club just near Charles Bridge which is the biggest in central Europe. Once you’ve gone you can then firmly state that you’ll never go again.
Right. So how do I get there?
If you’re coming into Prague from the UK, it’s cheapest and quickest to fly. Cheap airlines such as EasyJet, Jet2 and WizzAir all serve Prague and most depart daily. Getting to the city from the airport can look daunting as there’s a few different bus connections. The most straightforward is to get the Airport Express bus, which costs 50Kc (€2) and will drop you off at the main train station. Remember that the bus picks up and drops off from the rear, heritage-looking side of the station.
If you’re already on the continent and want to catch surface transport, regular trains connect Prague with most major cities in Europe. The Czech Republic has also recently joined Eurail so passes are now valid on Czech trains. If you’re travelling alone you may want to avoid night trains as there has been reports of robberies particularly on the Prague-Krakow night train.
In addition to Eurolines which connect up Prague, as mentioned above, I’m a massive fan of Student Agency Bus which not only connects up the country, but also has services to most cities in western Europe, including the UK.
In terms of getting around, Prague is a very walkable city, but also boasts an efficient public transport system that rivals most cities in the world. The metro has three lines and is excellent, and trams criss-cross through the Old Town (and run all night long). Tickets can be bought at metro stations but not on trams themselves so grab them ahead of time. Thirty minute tickets are 24Kc (€1) and ninety minute tickets 32Kc (€1,30). Remember to stamp them before or when boarding or else they aren’t valid.
Two little but important things to remember in Prague; don’t cross a road without a green man (I know a few people who have been fined 1000Kc (€40) on the spot; and avoid taxi drivers like the plague as they’ve got the worst reputation in Europe. If you must take a taxi, try and get your hostel to organise it, and if really pressed try and negotiate a price rather than risk it.