The first time I visited Prague, back in the ’90s, it was cold and foggy and rained almost constantly. I loved every minute of it. This, I thought, was how the city of Kafka should feel: 19th-century lamps emitting a ghostly glow through the dense fog; mysterious men in black coats shuffling along cobbled streets; handsome bridges arching over the silent Vltava river like claws.
Since then I’ve visited the Czech capital regularly. In summer I’ve joined the tourist throngs, admiring the pastel-hued buildings of the Old Town Square and the stately sprawl of the Old Royal Palace. I’ve enjoyed the calmer temperatures and extra space of the off-season, and over the years I’ve taken the opportunity to explore those outlying neighbourhoods with exotic-sounding names — Vinohrady, Žižkov, Holešovic — to get a sense of how the locals live.
Subsequently, my visual image of the city is far from the classic picture-postcard ‘City of Spires’. The Prague I know is a 21st-century potpourri, where local history mingles with international influences, baroque architecture rubs up against blocky communist buildings and 19th-century tenements now house hip hotels and chic restaurants. Visitors should spend time craning their necks beneath the gothic spires of St Vitus Cathedral, crossing the statue-lined Charles Bridge or drifting through the atmospheric Jewish Quarter.
But balancing these mainstream experiences with lesser-known sights offers a better insight into the city. You could, for example, climb Žižkov Television Tower, whose 216-metre base is covered in Černý’s crawling baby sculptures; take a tour of the fascinating Museum of Communism; or walk through Letná Park, where locals go to skateboard, drink a beer at sunset, and occasionally dance a foxtrot where the (hated) statue of Stalin once stood.
If you really want to feel like a local, head out to the residential districts. Not only do they offer a breath of fresh air from the commercial crush of the centre, but these days they’re home to some impressive hotspots, from the buzzing bar scenes around Vinohrady and Žižkov to Holešovic’s DOX Centre for Contemporary Art.
What to see
Kafka Museum: Prague has spawned many worthy and world-renowned writers over the centuries, but one name stands out above all others: Frankz Kafka. The best place to learn more about the life of this literary figure is at the dimly-lit and slightly unorthodox museum dedicated to his life, which presents the writer’s books as well as personal letters and video and sound installations.
Prague Castle: It’s worth the climb up to this impressive castle complex for the views alone — but it takes a good half day to thoroughly explore the surroundings. If you don’t have the luxury of time, head to the imposing St. Vitus Cathedral and the Old Royal Palace. The changing of the guard takes place daily at midday and tours can be arranged through the information centres on-site.
The Museum of Communism: Its creaking floorboards and slightly kitsch exhibitions might be in need of modernisation, but this museum remains the best place to go for a detailed account of life during the post-war Communist regime. Learn how the city suffered under Soviet oppression and discover how the people of Prague finally managed to regain their freedom.
DOX Centre of Contemporary Art: This gallery has helped put Holešovic on the map thanks to a consistently good roster of exhibitions, showcasing everything from sculpture to photography. There’s also a great cafe and a bookstore to explore.
Where to eat
Sisters: For low-budget dining or a snack on the go, this small but sparkling bistro sells delicious open-facaed sandwiches and great coffee and juices. It’s part of Palác Dlouhá, the slickly renovated art deco shopping arcade, which now houses several gourmet foodie stores.
George Prime Steak: This upmarket spot is famous for its steaks, which include some of the best rib-eyes, filet mignons and strip steaks in Prague, all sourced from the US. The equally classy bar serves top-notch cocktails.
La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise: One of the best restaurants in the city, La Degustation serves Michelin-starred cuisine that’s playfully imaginative, delicious and locally sourced.
Pařížská: If you’ve money to burn, head to Pařížská. Stretching out from Old Town Square and bisecting the Jewish Quarter, the street’s art nouveau buildings host flagship stores like Prada and Cartier. You’ll also find high-end Czech glass, porcelain and jewellery.
Old Town Square: For antiques and souvenirs — and everything from crystals to marionettes — explore the shops around the Old Town Square. Havelská has a market that sells groceries in the morning and toys, clothes and souvenirs in the afternoon.
Like a local
King of the castle: Follow the river south to Vyšehrad, a striking 10th-century fort with a lovely adjacent park and stunning views. Within the grounds, the Vyšehrad cemetery is the final resting place for famous Czech luminaries including Neruda and Dvořák. Nature buffs will enjoy the wild scenery and trails of Divoká Šárka, just half an hour from Wenceslas Square by train.
View from the top: Hoping to capture some classic photos of the city at sunset? Climb to the top of Letná Park, which offers sigh-inducing views across the river as well as a beer garden, skate park and walking trails.
Culture shock: Don’t be intimidated by rumours of surly Slavic service. Sure it can be stroppy sometimes, but it’s improving all the time — plus, swotting up ahead of time on a few basic Czech phrases can work magic.
Where to stay
Sophie’s Hostel: Set on a fairly quiet street in Prague’s New Town, this hostel offers minimalist rooms and dorms that manage to be both chic and cheap. The baar doubles as a traveller hangout, service is friendly and the breakfast (not included in the room rate) is fabulous.
Hotel Josef: One of the first boutique hotels to open in Prague, Josef remains one of the best. Eva Jiricna’s design aesthetic, all glass walls and funky furnishings, has most recently been applied to the colourful new bar.
Mandarin Oriental: This discreet five-star hotel, hidden away in Malá Strana, offers sumptuous rooms in a historic setting. It also houses one of the city’s best spas and an Asian-themed restaurant. Service is exemplary.
Zly Casy: It’s slightly out of town but well worth the 30-minute train or cab ride. With 48 different types of beer served up and a menu of Czech classics, this atmospheric, three-storey bar draws locals, tourist, and expats alike. Reservations are recommended.
Groove Bar: One of the hippest options in the Old Town, the sleek, two-level Groove Bar welcomes you in with a dark, seductive vibe and great cocktails and draft beer. There’s an excellent electronic playlist and DJs bring in the crowds at weekends — so book ahead.
Jazz Dock: One of the city’s newer jazz clubs, it’s modern and airy and has an enviable location right on the river — not to mention a regular line-up of local and international acts (blues as well as jazz) and a very well-stocked bar.
British Airways, EasyJet, Wizz Air, Ryanair, Jet2 and SmartWings all fly to Prague from a variety of UK cities including London, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.
Average flight time: 2h10m.
Prague’s cab drivers are notorious for overcharging tourists, so the safest bet from the airport is to book the Prague Airport Shuttle service, which takes just 20 minutes to get to the city centre. The public transport system in Prague is fast, clean and very good value, though the majority of the city’s tourist highlights can be easily reached on foot. It’s also possible to cycle, though you’ll have to watch out for obstacles like tram tracks and cobblestones. Rekola recycles old bikes you can share and hire, and City Bike rents bikes and runs tours.
When to go
The city is at its most vibrant — and busiest — in summer, though a quick detour into some of Prague’s neighbourhoods (even Mala Strana) is usually enough to get away from the considerable tourist hordes. Spring and autumn are generally quieter, and are therefore good times to visit. Winter, meanwhile, can be very atmospheric and romantic — if you can handle the cold.
Need to know
Currency: Czech Crown (CZK). £1 = 39CZK.
International dial code: 00 420.
Time difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
British Airways offers a range of city break, flight and hotel combination deals, which vary in price depending on the hotel. Prices start from £119 per person.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)