There’s a duality to Prague that has long intrigued me. I first visited the city in the summer of 1999 and found it, as most people do, a breezy and buoyant place, alive with street musicians, classical concerts, beautiful architecture and cultural happenings. Even back then, the tourists teemed and the spectre of the city’s communist days felt very far away.
I returned several years later in the midst of winter and found a very different city, one that was all rain and fog, enigmatic cobbled streets and hunched figures lit by street lamps. It felt mysteriously different, much more akin with the fevered Prague I’d read about in the books of Kafka, and the city that Nietzsche called ‘magical’, or even the one Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in and even professed a special relationship with.
There are, of course, many Pragues. Founded in the ninth century, the city has veered through light and dark, from its splendorous 14th-century Golden Age under Charles IV (who founded Charles University, the first university in central Europe) to religious wars, renowned defenestrations (literally throwing someone out of a window) and 1989’s Velvet Revolution, when not a single shot was fired.
Since then, the city has dived into the future with both feet and reinvented itself with a veneer of beauty and grace. Entry into the European Union in 2004 was followed by a powerful upswing in the economy; in 2005, Prague was among the top three cities in eastern Europe (according to The Economist) and in 2006 was ranked the 12th richest region in the EU. It’s odd to think this peaceful, poetic city was off limits to westerners just two decades ago.
Glimmers of history on every cobbled street and quaint square are the big draw here, from the statuesque Prague Castle and romantic Kampa Island to the pastel-coloured Baroque buildings of the Old Town Square and the Gothic spires of St Vitus Cathedral.But it’s something more abstract than pure history that enamours visitors; lurking just beneath Prague’s modern, commercial facade are layers of intrigue and elegance, whether caught in the fog walking across the statue-lined Charles Bridge or watching the afternoon shadows creep across the City Hall’s extraordinary Astronomical Clock.
Most visitors stay in the Old Town, or at least orientate themselves there first. It’s still very much Prague’s beating heart and, despite the high levels of commerce and tourism, wandering the narrow, labyrinthine streets is still a charming introduction. Large crowds should certainly not be a reason to miss its architectural highlights: the fairy-tale spires of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, the Jan Hus statue, erected in 1915 to mark the 500th anniversary of the reformer’s death, or the Baroque Church of St Nicholas, where you can listen to the Prague String Orchestra play renditions of Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi.
Prague has a long Jewish history stretching back to the 10th century, and its Jewish Quarter, Josefov, is one of the city’s most atmospheric areas. The Old Jewish Cemetery harks back to the 15th century and features an astounding 12,000 tombstones, with many more graves believed to be layered beneath.
The oldest tombstone belongs to poet and scholar Avigdor Karo, who died in 1439, but the most prominent is that of religious scholar and teacher Judah Loew ben Bezalel. Otherwise known as Rabbi Loew (he died in 1609), Bezalel was a focus of the most famous Golem narrative — tales in Jewish folklore involving a monster made of clay.
An early morning stroll across Charles Bridge to Mala Strana — Prague’s ‘Little Quarter’ — is a timeless activity but wake up early in summer to avoid the crowds. The best-known sight on this side of the river is Prague Castle, the largest castle in the world and the seat of the Czech government. But before you arrive there, clamber down the steps from the bridge and explore Kampa Island, an artificial island created in the 12th century as a millrace, which explains the mills you’ll see here — in particular, the Grand Prior’s Mill, whose restored wheel measures an impressive 26ft in diameter.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that the first houses were built on the island, at the northern end. They still stand today, while the small and peaceful Kampa Park (created in the 1940s) in the southern area endows beautiful views of the Old Town across the Vltava river. Also here, housed in a 14th-century flour mill, is the excellent Museum Kampa, dedicated to central European modern art.
A short walk from the park is the castle, comprised of a series of interconnected buildings and streets. A miniature city in itself it deserves at least half a day’s exploration with highlights such as St Vitus Cathedral, the largest church in Prague, Benedict Ried’s majestic Vladislav Hall in the Old Royal Palace, and St George’s Basilica, the best-preserved Romanesque church in the country.
One of the castle’s most notorious residents was Emperor Rudolph II, who used it as his main residence at the end of the 16th century and founded the northern wing. More concerned with patronising the arts and discovering the world’s intimate secrets than being a political ruler, with predictably disastrous results, Rudolph surrounded himself with astrologers, magicians and alchemists; the latter lived in Golden Lane, a picturesque street of tiny, charming wooden houses in the castle grounds.
Franz Kafka lived on Golden Lane, too — at number 22 — with his sister. The writer’s books and letters are a fascinating way to explore old-world Prague, and the excellent Kafka Museum, by the river, does a wonderful job of profiling his life and works. En route, be sure to drop into the Vrtbovská Gardens, which date back to the beginning of the 18th century and have an enchanting Italian-style Baroque feel to them — all grand staircases and statues of ancient Roman gods and goddesses.
Food in the Czech capital has undergone something of a revolution. You’ll find plenty of stodgy classics — roast pork with dumplings, goulash and pickled sausage. But the city’s new cosmopolitan mood is reflected in a wide range of international restaurants, stretching from haute Czech cuisine to something almost unthinkable a couple of decades ago: vegetarian food.
If you’re looking to splash out, try La Degustation Bohême Bouregeoise. Run by Oldrich Sahajadak, this smart, modern restaurant in Josefov offers seven-course tasting menus, the most popular of which presents traditional dishes based on recipes by 19th-century Czech culinary whizz Marie B Svobodová, updated for nouveau palettes. You can also opt for wines matched to the food by the sommelier, but either way, don’t even think about going unless you have four hours to spare.
Slightly less formal but still focused on Czech culinary traditions such as duck and game is U Modré Kachničky, whose cosy interior is reminiscent of a grandmother’s home, and the food accordingly comforting. Here you’ll find rich but refined dishes such as wild boar and glazed duck breasts, all within excellent sauces.
Even simpler (and cheaper) is Home Kitchen, a relatively new spot with just a few tables and reasonably priced meat and vegetarian dishes chosen from
a changing seasonal menu.
If you’re in the mood for Italian, you can’t go wrong with La Finestra, sister restaurant of the highly regarded Aromi in the district of Vinohrady. It has a simple, rustic interior and serves some of the finest Italian food in the city at reasonable prices. Lovers of Asian food should head to the Mandarin Oriental’s elegant Essensia, with an ever-evolving mix of Asian and high-end Czech cuisine; the weekend dim sum lunch is especially good. Vegetarians have a dedicated locale in Lehká Hlava/Clear Head, which offers up delicious tapas, soups, salads and juices in a highly memorable setting, where mismatched styles range from Moorish to futuristic.
If you’re a real foodie, visit in May to catch the annual Prague Food Festival, usually held in the Castle’s glorious gardens, for cookery shows from local chefs and wine tastings.
Prague’s first farmers’ market took place in 2010 and the trend has caught on like wildfire across the city. The most centrally located market is at Náplavka, every Saturday, 8am-2pm, next to Palackého Bridge. Here you can find local speciality cheeses such as tvaroh (curd cheese), dried mushrooms from the Ŝumava Forest and locally produced beers.
Beyond the rustic authenticity of the farmers’ markets, Prague’s shopping is often tacky, especially in the Old Town and commercial zones such as Wenceslas Square. Fortunately, the bland dominance of high-street shops is increasingly being balanced out by independent stores such as Hard-De-Core, on Hay Square — a design shop and gallery selling quirky jewellery, ceramics, homewares and clothing. If you’re looking for furniture, Konsepti sells unusual designs by Le Corbusier, Marcel Wanders, Phillippe Starck and others.
Lovers of Art Nouveau will adore Art Décoratif, run by the granddaughter of Czech painter Alfons Mucha. The store creates and sells jewellery, lamps and other gifts which are expensive but good quality. For vintage clothing and antiques ranging from clocks to chairs, try Art Deco Galerie, a quaint shop full of collectables from the 1930s and 1940s.
Books and literature are part of Prague’s lifeblood and there are a number of noteworthy independent English bookstores, including Shakespeare & Sons, in Malá Strana, which has a cellar reading room and regular open-mic nights, music and art exhibitions; and the Globe Bookstore & Cafe, with its pleasant restaurant, cafe and bookstore, stocking around 10,000 new and used titles as well as international newspapers. For high-end fashion, try the stylish Pařížská Street in Josefov, with upmarket boutiques such as Pařížská 13 as well as big names, including Burberry, Cartier and Prada.
Prague’s nightlife runs the gamut from traditional beer halls with accordion players to classical concerts in beautiful churches, and slick dance clubs. Of course, you can’t come to Prague without trying the beer. Combine a visit to Prague Castle with the nearby Strahov Monastery, which has a brewery dating back to the 13th century and sells a range of traditional beers. In the Old Town, the Prague Beer Museum isn’t really a museum at all but an unpretentious pub serving more than 30 different types of Czech brews, from pale ales to honey wheat beers.
Otherwise, the atmospheric cellar bar Blue Light is a good place to start, with walls decorated by graffiti, photos of jazz musicians and an extensive drinks list. Sophisticates and cocktail lovers can try Tynska Bar and Books, a spin-off from the New York cocktail bar of the same name (and same owners), serving inventive cocktails and great whiskeys in a dark, sumptuous room lined with books.
For concerts and DJ sets, try the Roxy, an abandoned concrete space in the centre of town revived by architect Jan Mayer, who transformed it into a spacious club, experimental theatre space and gallery which often features avant-garde exhibitions. Those seeking smarter kicks should try the relatively new SaSaZu, a large slick venue attracting a dressy, sometimes even celebrity, clientele. Meanwhile, the old-school Radost FX is a safe bet for a weekend party atmosphere, playing everything from house to hip-hop.
There is an ever-increasing range of places to stay in Prague, many of which now put firm emphasis on style and design. The continuing strength of the Crown means the city’s hotels aren’t as cheap as they once were, but growing competition means room rates are no longer on the up-and-up. The boutique Hotel Josef in Josefov remains one of the best value. Rooms here have bathrooms featuring glass partition walls and beautifully-upholstered interiors designed by leading Czech architect-designer Eva Jiricna. The Josef is also one of the main venues for the annual Prague Writers’ Festival, taking place 14-18 April 2012 — a host of readings and discussions from world famous writers.
Hotel Savic, a relative newcomer to the Prague hospitality scene, is a collection of restored former townhouses, some with features dating back to the 14th century. Original timbered and floral-painted ceilings, parquet floors and Italian marble bathrooms, plus a pretty, glassed-in courtyard are standout features; all just steps away from the Old Town Square.
The Riverside Hotel comes to Prague courtesy of the Mamaison group. Set in a restored art nouveau building, it boasts plush furnishings, modern comforts and top-notch service. For such a high-design hotel, room rates are reasonable — especially in standard rooms, which, in terms of style, are anything but. And, as the name suggests, the hotel has front-row seats to the buzz and flow of the mighty Vltava.
For something cheaper and more homely, head to Mala Strana where you’ll find the cheery, ramshackle Dům u velké boty (House at the Big Boot). Tucked away in a pretty square, it’s well known for its friendliness, antique-filled bedrooms and generous breakfasts. A taste of Old Prague, for sure.
BMIbaby flies from Birmingham, East Midlands and Manchester. British Airways flies from Heathrow and Stansted. EasyJet flies from Stansted, Gatwick and East Midlands. Jet2.com flies from Edinburgh, Leeds Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle. Wizzair flies from Luton. www.bmibaby.com www.ba.com www.easyjet.com www.jet2.com www.wizzair.com
Average flight time: 2h.
Eurostar departs from London St Pancras, with a change in Brussels or Paris for Prague, depending on your route. Journey time is around 20 hours. www.eurostar.com
Prague is an easy city to navigate, with most of the main destinations within walking distance. If you need it, the city’s public transport system is efficient, clean, safe and cheap. Trams are generally the best option, with 25 city-wide lines. A flexible, 24-hour pass costs from 100 CZK (£3.63) and allows unlimited rides on trams, buses and the Metro. When hiring a taxi, try and negotiate a fare beforehand.
When to go
Summer is the most popular time to visit Prague, when the average temperature climbs to 30C and the city’s beautiful gardens are in bloom. Spring and autumn also tend to be fairly warm, though, and the crowds are thinner. If you can handle colder temperatures, a winter visit can be incredibly picturesque, especially if there’s snow. The sparkling, food-focused Prague Christmas Market runs from 26 November to 8 January.
Need to know
Currency: Czech Crown (CZK).
£1 = 27.85 CZK.
International dial code: 00 420 2.
Time difference: GMT +1.
La Degustation Bohême Bouregeoise. Haštalská 18. www.ladegustation.cz
U Modré Kachnicky. Michalská 434/16. www.umodrekachnicky.cz
Lehká Hlava: Borsov 2/280. www.lehkahlava.cz
Essensia. Nebovidská 459/1. www.mandarinoriental.com/prague
Home Kitchen. Jungmannova 8. www.homekitchen.cz
La Finestra. Platneysk, 90/13. www.lafinestra.cz
Hard-De-Core. Senovážné Námestí 10. www.harddecore.cz
Konsepti. Komunardu 894/32. www.konsepti.com
Art Décoratif. www.artdecoratif.cz
Art Deco Galerie. Michalská 21. www.artdecogalerie-mili.com
Globe Bookstore & Cafe.
Patrossova 1925/6. www.globebookstore.cz
Shakespeare & Sons.
U Lužického semináre 10. www.shakes.cz
Prague Beer Museum. Dlouhá 720/46. www.praguebeermuseum.com
Roxy. Dlouhá 33. www.roxy.cz
Strahov Monastery. www.strahovskyklaster.cz
Blue Light. Josefská 42/1. www.bluelightbar.cz
Tynska Bar and Books. Týnská 19. www.barandbooks.cz/tynska
SaSaZu. Bubenské nábreží 306/13. www.sasazu.com
Radost FX. Belehradská 120. www.radostfx.cz
Hotel Josef. Rybná 20. www.hoteljosef.com
Hotel Savic. Jilska 7. www.hotelsavic.cz
Mamaison Hotel Riverside Prague. Janáckovo nábreží 15. www.mamaison.com
Dum u velké boty (House at the Big Boot). Vlašská 30/333. www.dumuvelkeboty.cz
Prague Writer’s Festival. www.pwf.cz
The Rough Guide to Prague. RRP: £12.99.
The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink. RRP: £7.99.
The Trial, by Franz Kafka. RRP: £8.99.
How to do it
Three nights in Prague including flights, accommodation and transfers starts from £320. www.regent-holidays.co.uk
Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)