Big Five City Guide: Prague, Czech Republic

May 25, 2014

In the heart of the Czech Republic, Prague is a vibrant, bustling city – full of history, political undertones, and a jubilant expression of freedom in post-Communist times.

In a time when the political center of Europe is shifting (and the Euro is flailing), Prague is growing – and thriving. Of its nearly 1.3 million residents, most are young, ambitious, and educated intellectuals fluent in Czech and English. Visit as an American who speaks nothing but English, and you’ll get by just fine: I never uttered a single useful Czech word during my stay; only words in practice with hostel roommates. Word of caution, though: “No” means “yes” here. (Shortened for “anno.”)

*Read more at Paradise in Prague

For the most authentic visit to Prague, pay close attention to what’s happening “off the strip” (venture off the Westernized, tourist-ridden Wenceslas Square), scout out the locals (they’re the ones tucked away in a street cafe or underground beer tavern), and slip inside the colorful culture.

Of course, make time for the sights too. Check out my city profile above for a comprehensive look at the City of a Thousand Golden Spires, then consider these free and paid attractions:

FREE

1. Astronomical Clock Tower/Old Town Square

Although underwhelming, the clock tower never fails to enchant first-timers to Prague, and remains one of those not-to-be-missed tourist attractions as characteristic of the city as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris. Stand in the packed city square at the top of the hour and watch the 5 minute performance, and hope there’s a student or political demonstration happening on the other side of the square that you can witness.

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2. Charles Bridge

“Well, duh.” You might be thinking this is a pass-over sight, but hear me out. You can’t not cross Charles Bridge if you’re in Prague. It should be an initiation to the city, and with good reason: despite the packed crowds, it’s a pleasant and enjoyable stroll, especially on a summer afternoon. Cross at midday for the least crowds, then come back in the hour before sunset for a glorious view of a sparkling river and a truly golden city – including the castle, which will glow red, gold, and yellow in the setting sun. I was intoxicated by the atmosphere, and charmed by the performers and artists – who won’t bother you, but humbly play on in hopes of a few crowns in their hats. Some may dismiss this as a gimmicky tourist trap, but I heartily disagree.

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3. Vltava River

The Vltava is a beautiful river, quite clean and aesthetic for a river that runs through a major city. Take a paddleboat or kayak out with a lover – especially at sunset, when the river sparkles in the low rays over Petrin Hill. Or simply stroll across the Charles Bridge and enjoy the river that way.

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4. Kampa Island

“When in Prague…” Even the locals love Kampa Island, a beautiful place to picnic, stroll, play, or just relax. Read, sunbathe, cuddle your lover…it’s the perfect park setting, between the river and a canal and secluded from the throngs of people swarming between the Castle Quarter and the bridge. Stroll through the markets and buy fresh organic fruit, set up a picnic beneath the trees, and easily while away an entire afternoon. Don’t forget to carve your initials or your favorite lyric on the John Lennon Wall, an eclectic and commemorative homage to the peace-loving musician – and a true testament to the heart of post-Communist Prague-ians.

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5. Petrin Hill

Although not entirely unknown, Petrin Hill is still often overlooked by the average Prague tourist – which makes it a perfect budget option for your trip. High above Old Town, accessible by Funicular or a steep hike, Petrin is a delightful place to spend an afternoon. The smell of rose takes over the whole of the hill, and little steps lead to other secret gardens, including a cottage and garden complete with love seat. My advice: ditch the funicular fee, take the trails, and stop about halfway up the hill for a beer at a cafe hanging on the side of the hill, with magnificent views across the whole of Prague.

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PAID

1. Jewish Museum

For a step back from the beer and nightlife, try a pensive morning spent in Prague’s Jewish Quarter. I had a few reservations about the entry fee (the equivalent of $21+ for the cemetery and all synagogues except the Old-New), but ended up spending a solid 5 hours walking around, reading the informational plaques and pondering almost every single display in the museums. You’ll learn a lot about the society, culture, and religion – whether you’re Jewish or not. Make sure to include the sobering Jewish Cemetery in your museum ticket, with its thousands of crooked, angled tombstones piled on top of a rising mound of earth…which holds 100,000 bodies. This hallowed ground was dug up, reburied, dug up again, and piled on with layers of bones and soil repeatedly between the 12th and 18th centuries, resulting in the haphazard sight you see today.

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2. Biergarten an der Moldau

This riverside biergarten remains one of my favorite memories of Prague: a lazy afternoon spent sipping cheap (but delicious) beer on a riverside terrace, watching boats sail by on the Vltava River, and lulled to peaceful relaxation by the live music, a pair of young acoustic guitarists. Go here any time of day, but my favorite was late afternoon – I easily passed 3 hours just sitting, listening, and watching – and then being dazzled when the sun sank behind Petrin Hill and bathed the castle in golden rays. It’s a beautiful and relaxing spot, for sure – whether you’re alone or with friends.

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3. Havelska Street Market

This organic street market features an excellent variety of vendors and displays – from handmade jewelry to mini wooden models of the Astronomical Clock to fresh produce and meats. I picked up some delicious fruit and cheese here for a picnic on Kampa Island – the nectarines were sweet, and the strawberries were so deep red and plump I stained my fingers. The prices aren’t as dirt cheap as you might expect, but still a better deal than at any restaurant. And I didn’t buy any of the crafts – although if you want a souvenir from your trip to Prague, get a handmade craft here and support the vendor instead of buying some “I Love Prague!” gimmick at a tourist trap shop.

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4. Petrin Hill Observation Tower

Hand-in-hand with the free experience on Petrin Hill, the observation tower is worth the admission fee. If you’re even somewhat fit, ditch the elevator and climb the steps yourself: the view as you gain altitude is a great crescendoing build-up to the summit, where all of Prague stretches out into the Czech sky in front of you. The observatory deck is not very big, so you’ll probably have to wait for a good piece of window territory at first – but when you do, take a minute to breathe in the panorama, snap a few pictures, and appreciate what you’re seeing before you relinquish your spot to the next pushing tourist. Or, get here early, enjoy a morning view of the city, and avoid the crowds.

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5. Prague Castle (Pražský hrad)

I’ve discovered that a cathedral in Europe is pretty much…well, a cathedral. After being to Paris, London, and Amsterdam, I’ve gotten a bit numb to the whole appeal. However, St. Vitus has the most beautiful stained glass I’ve seen. Follow my advice (which hails from my guidebook’s), and hike up the narrow cobbled hilltown streets to visit in the late afternoon: it makes all the difference. The sun streams through at a low angle through the red, yellow, and blue glass windows (which are immaculately detailed, by the way – make sure you stop to appreciate the stories embedded in the pictures) and simply makes the inside sparkle. The light crystals dance on the walls, painting the pews red and gold, and transform an otherwise dark and holy interior into something more akin to heaven. Visitors are now only allowed inside the first part for free; beyond that you have to have a ticket. But the courtyards and grounds are worth a tour, as well. Plus, the views of the city can’t be beat.

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For more things to do, places to stay, and things to eat, check out my Prague guide on Gogobot:

Prague Guide

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