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.
I received a healthy dose of Czech charm in this golden-spired city – and it met nearly every single one of my expectations. Cheap beer? Check. Friendly locals? Check. Rich history, sobering Jewish sights, and a vibrant nightlife scene? Check, check, Czech.
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.”)
Prague is home to a polished collection of Art Nouveau, with architecture boasting Baroque, Neo-Classical, and Renaissance-era themes. Notable figures like King Wenceslas and Charles IV (who commissioned the Charles Bridge, the design and construction of the New Town, and founded Charles University) called Prague home. And scholars like Jan Hus taught at the university, which also played a significant part in the nationalist movement of the 1800s.
With prominent roles in World War II, the Cold War (firmly within the Soviet Union’s military and political grasp), and later the Velvet Revolution (which ultimately created the Czech Republic), Prague has seen many a battle and shift in power over the centuries.
The city itself is compact and exciting. Narrow cobblestone streets bump and rise unevenly past tall, crooked shops, restaurants, and private residences. Nightclubs and black-light theaters (a Prague specialty) blend in with the soot-stained buildings, contrasted nonchalantly by historic museums, statues, or fountains. Vendors try to sell you cheap (not inexpensive) souvenirs, locals hand out flyers advertising that night’s theatre performances, and earnest Czechs warn you kindly to keep your camera hidden away and your pockets empty.
That is one downfall to this otherwise glorious city: the pickpockets. They run rampant here, experts at fishing out your valuables from places you think are hidden. Wear a money belt under your clothes, secure your camera strap around your arm and neck, and keep your daypack on your chest in overly crowded areas. Don’t get drunk alone (especially at night), don’t gamble frivolously, and in subways, if a “ticket inspector” asks to see your ticket, don’t hand it over before you see their badge and ID.
But there is no need to be scared. Theft is petty, not violent, and smart tourists will remain unscathed.
Prague was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, a critical seat in the Habsburg Monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was later the capital of Czechoslovakia after World War I. It suffered great destruction and seizure during World War II and then the Communist Era, and was the site of many a political protest – including Jan Palach, who doused himself in kerosene and lit himself on fire at the top of Wenceslas Square to protest the Communist reign.
Yet of all its legacies, Prague’s most famous – and most favored – is that of the pint persuasion: beer.
Yes, the Czechs love beer (“pivo”). Served cheap and delicious, it is best enjoyed in a tall, frothing glass in either a smoky underground bar (my favorite was a former bomb shelter below Old Town Square), or an open biergarten (my favorite was An Der Moldau, along the sparkling Vltava River.)
The young and beer-hearted make it a game to find the cheapest glass of pivo they can on their trip. (My record stands at 24 CK – roughly $1.50 – for a liter of tap beer.) Bar hopping becomes not only an enjoyable pastime, but a daily routine for many.
For sightseeing and exploration, Prague is drawn into four quarters: Old Town, New Town, the Castle Quarter, and the Jewish Quarter.
Wenceslas Square marches from the National Museum (and memorial to Jan Palach) down into town, a lively boulevard reminiscent of the Champs Elysees – toned down a few notches below luxury. This is the “fake” Prague – overrun with tourists and fast food chains, inflated prices and hordes of pickpockets. Use it as a spine to tour the city, but venture off – way off – to find authentic food, experience, and prices.
The city’s dramatic centerpiece lies in Old Town Square, where the curious Astronomical Clock ticks steadily away. The popular hourly “show” is about as exciting as a round of golf, but it’s worth at least one view to see the little figurines perform their tricks against a complex clock face of zodiac, celestial, and planetary proportions. Nearby, steeped in history, is sobering Josefov – the old Jewish ghetto. The overcrowded, hallowed ground of the Jewish Cemetery is a must-see even if you skip the fascinating museums.
Across the river, the Metronome stands hauntingly at the top of an outlying hill. An eerie, somewhat hair-raising symbol of oppression, the Czech people erected this in the spot where a giant statue of Stalin formerly stood. The ticker now sweeps silently back and forth over the town, reminding onlookers of the time wasted by Communist reign.
Shop around the Havelska Street Market for handmade trinkets and crafts, or buy a picnic lunch from the fresh meat and produce proudly served – and usually the favorited target of pesky little honey bees.
Charles Bridge is the tourist-packed, artist-flooded link between the two halves of Prague. The stroll is enjoyable, and the hour before sunset is magical: there’s 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. Puppeteers, artists, and musicians stake out territory along the bridge walls, offering entertainment in the hopes of a “koruna” here or there.
Across the river is Kampa Island, home to picnickers, lovers, and dogs; the oldest (operational) water wheel in the Czech Republic; and the infamous Lennon Wall: a stretch of concrete splashed with graffiti and art proclaiming peace and freedom in true John Lennon style. (Much like the artwork on the Berlin Wall, the Lennon Wall was whitewashed and “maintained” by officials during the Communist era, yet the messages stubbornly kept returning.)
The Castle Quarter is home to San Francisco-like hill streets (a joy to hike in the beating sun), and one of the most beautiful and dramatic Eastern European castles in existence; as well as a stunning view of the golden-roofed city below. Colored lights dance a dazzling waltz through St. Vitus Cathedral’s stain-glassed windows.
Petrin Hill offers a healthy and demanding climb (or simply take the quick funicular) through green meadows, with star-studded views from the top of their Eiffel-like tower.
In warm months, the late afternoon sun glows richly on the peacefully flowing river, beneath a bright blue sky – the absolute best ambience for a pint at a riverside biergarten.
Enjoy all these activities, sights, and more – much more – on your trip, and you will have merely tasted Prague. Don’t shortchange yourself: in this easy entry to Eastern Europe, you find a delightful blend of modern times and history, with a society laced by a culture that values hard work and even harder play. The city is alive and vibrant, young and old at the same time, bustling and churning and racing and bubbling…and ready to show you a fabulous time.