When I think of Europe, Prague is the first city that pops into my mind. Cities like Paris and Rome may have more glamour—and more tourists—but the Czech Republic’s capital truly captures the spirit of the entire European continent. Its cobblestone alleys, ornate buildings, and stalwart castles create a fairy tale atmosphere where the spirit of Old Europe still lives and breathes, beckoning visitors to take a journey into the past.
Planning: Springtime in Prague can be extremely soggy; to catch the best weather, wait until late May or early June. If you prefer cooler breezes and fewer tourists, September and October are wonderful months to visit. Prague is also beautiful in the dead of winter when snow frosts the buildings and bridges, but some attractions are open shorter hours during these non-peak months. Colder weather also makes it more difficult to enjoy Prague on foot, which is a must in my book.
For sightseeing at a leisurely pace, three days is plenty of time to experience everything Prague has to offer. If you plan on visiting the surrounding countryside, give yourself an extra two days minimum.
Arriving: Prague’s airport is only 12 miles outside of the city. One would think that a cab ride into town would be quick and inexpensive, but Prague’s drivers have a reputation for overcharging passengers if the opportunity presents itself. The ride should cost no more than $30-$40 and it’s best to agree on the amount before you leave the airport. AAA Taxi seems to have a better reputation than other cab companies, although it still gets its fair share of complaints.
A more affordable—and less stressful—option is to take a minibus or shuttle into town. Companies like CEDAZ will take you from the airport to any location in the city for a flat rate of $15 for one person or $24 for two.
If you’re not hauling tons of luggage, Prague also has cheap and reliable trains and buses.
Sleeping: In a way, Prague is like Disney World; if you stay in one of the picturesque parts of town, the illusion of wandering through the Europe of the past can be maintained throughout your entire trip. Since many of the hotels were built after the fall of Communism in 1989, though, expect to find rooms that are plain and modern no matter how fantastic the view out their windows may be.
Stare Mesto (Old Town) and Mala Strana (lesser Town) are two sections of the city that offer the most charming—though not necessarily the most quiet—places to sleep. Late-night revelers have been known to host impromptu parties outside hotel windows at all hours of the night. For a quieter room with a less-impressive view, look for hotels farther away from the action. As a general rule of thumb, the closer to the river Vltava you are, the noisier you can expect the room to be.
www.praguehotels.cz is a good place to start your hotel search.
Dining: There’s a good reason why Czech cuisine is virtually unknown outside of the country’s borders; the dumplings, pork dishes, and boiled cabbage that appear on almost every menu may be hearty and filling, but they rarely constitute a gourmet dining experience. You’ll find plenty of restaurants serving slightly more interesting German and Hungarian dishes, however, and Czech beer is among the finest produced anywhere in the world.
One unfortunate aspect of dining in Prague is the fact that navigating both the restaurant’s menu and your bill can be like walking through a virtual minefield with possible danger lurking at every step. While many restaurants openly tack on a service charge of a dollar or two per person, there are countless other ways to be secretly overcharged during your meal.
First of all, be aware that what you see on the menu isn’t necessarily what you’ll get. For instance, a soft drink might be priced at $1.50 for 100 ML. This seems reasonable if you’re unfamiliar with the metric system, but the standard 12-ounce bottle you’ll be served is actually 354 ML, so once the bill appears you’ll find yourself charged more than three times the price shown on the menu.
Another trick in Czech restaurants is for the waiter to pass by and casually place a basket of bread, olives, or nuts on your table as if it’s complimentary. It’s not, though, and you’ll wind up paying for these goodies whether you nibble them or not, so it’s best to immediately refuse any item placed on your table unless you specifically asked for it. In most cases, the waiter will remove it without a word and no charge will show up on your bill.
Exploring: Wandering aimlessly is one of the most enjoyable pastimes in Prague, where every major style of architecture from the past 1000 years—including Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Art Nouveau—appears in all its glory. If you turn a corner and suddenly find yourself face to face with groups of people dressed in clothing from centuries past, don’t start worrying about ghosts or hallucinations. Because of all the ancient architecture, Prague is a popular place to film movies—especially period pieces.
While wandering in a happy daze is a fine way to experience the city, make sure to leave plenty of time for Prague’s signature sights. The first is the Astronomical Clock located in the Old Town Square. Every hour on the hour painted figures surrounding the clock’s face come to life, drawing hoards of fascinated tourists. For the best view of the action, stake out a spot in front of the clock at least 20 minutes before the hour.
Another must-see is the Charles Bridge, lined with impressive statues on both sides. For a bit of good luck, line up with the other folks waiting to rub the brass plaque at the base of the statue of St. John of Nepomuk. The bridge is also lined with booths and tables where visitors can buy jewelry, artwork, and other crafts made by local artisans, and some of the work is very high quality.
Crossing Charles Bridge is the easiest way to reach Prague Castle, which can easily occupy a full day of your visit. Dozens of different attractions lie waiting within the castle walls, and a stroll through the Royal Garden alone warrants at least an hour or two. As you wander through the greenery with the towers and spires of the castle dominating the horizon, you might be so overwhelmed by the atmosphere that you find yourself tempted to don armor and grab a sword—but I wouldn’t recommend it. The castle guards tend to frown on such behavior.
|Old Town Square|