Moody, romantic, historic, mysterious — it’s impossible to put a single label on Prague because it’s a city that truly is the sum of its parts.
Modern-day Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is shaped by a storied past that dates back to the ninth century. Historical figures include the larger-than-life Bohemian Emperor Charles IV and, later, Empress Maria Theresa. In more recent times, the former Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Germans between 1939 and 1945. While it suffered the hardships of World War II, Prague saw less extensive bombing than many other European cities did. As a result, the city today is a wonderful, open-air gallery of largely undisturbed architectural styles that span the centuries: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Art Nouveau and Cubist. It’s not an overstatement to say there is no other place quite like it.
Czechoslovakia, liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, operated as a Soviet-style state for decades. Not until the 1970’s did dissident groups begin to organize against the Communist regime. But democracy was slow to take hold. It wasn’t until after the famed Prague Spring uprising in 1968 and the student-led Velvet Revolution in 1989 that playwright and former political prisoner Vaclav Havel was elected president. Full, multi-party elections under a new constitution were held in 1992. One year later, after the Czech Republic and Slovakia split into two nations, Havel was re-elected president of the Czech Republic.
Today’s Praha, as this city of 1.3 million is called, is becoming more of a tourist destination and an increasingly Westernized commodity. It’s not unusual to see Austrians, Germans, Russians and Americans following tour guides, with their ubiquitous raised umbrellas, through Prague Castle and the warren of cobblestone streets that make up Old Town. But that’s just part of the city’s present-day persona. Experience Prague for just a few days, and you also get the feeling that this is a place that is still defining itself. If history is any indicator, it is just that.
Old Town, anchored by Old Town Square, is a colorful collection of restaurants, shops and a stunning hodgepodge of architecture that includes Gothic towers, a premier Art Nouveau exhibition hall and Cubist houses. Vendors, sausage stands and, seasonally, a Christmas market enliven the square, which is also home to Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock. The clock was installed in 1410; every hour between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., two cuckoo clock windows open and statues of the 12 Apostles parade past, while the Grim Reaper rings his bell.
As any local will tell you, no visit to Prague would be complete without a stroll across Charles Bridge. The bridge, with its famous statues, straddles the Vltava River and has been Prague’s lifeline for centuries. Armies, monarchs and now tourists have all trooped across the bridge, completed in the early 1400’s. The Charles, named for famed Bohemian emperor Charles IV, has two towers worth climbing, if only for the photo opportunities. There’s also a museum with information about the history of the bridge.
If Prague has a visual signature, it is Prague Castle, the hilltop fortress that has dominated the city since the ninth century. There is no place better to view the so-called City of 100 Spires (though there are hundreds more than that across the city skyline). Said to be the largest ancient castle in the world, the complex has been reconstructed four times over the centuries and still serves as the seat of the presidency. When the president is in the country, his flag is flown. The grounds have four courtyards, a royal palace and several museums. An on-site cathedral, started in 1344, remarkably was not completed until 1929. There is a changing of the guard at the castle at the top of each hour, as well as a ceremony at noon, all with much ado.
Josefov, Prague’s Jewish quarter, is a well-preserved complex of Jewish historical monuments. It’s a strange little place because the former Jewish ghetto — which includes six synagogues, a town hall and the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe — now houses chic boutiques and galleries in what were once overpopulated medieval alleys. Much of the original Jewish quarter was demolished after 1893 to make way for a redevelopment project, but the buildings that did survive are testimony to Prague’s Jewish culture.
The 305-foot Zizkov Television Tower is a modern edifice, built in the late 80s and early 90s under the auspices of the Soviet Union. Disparaged by many locals, the skinny silver tower is sometimes jokingly referred to as “the Russian Finger,” said to offer the nicest view of the city because the tower itself isn’t in it. A panoramic observation deck is open daily.
A number of Vltava River cruises, some with dinner and music, originate at the Charles Bridge, among other places. One of the most popular, called Jazzboat, boards in the evening and features live jazz and dinner. The ship departs from Terminal 5, across from the InterContinental Hotel.
Even if you don’t use the metro system, check out a subway station just to ride the escalator. They’re extremely high and steep, and have become featured fodder on YouTube.com. (Go to the site, enter “Prague escalator” in the search bar and you’ll see what we mean.)
Most restaurants accept credit cards, but don’t include the tip on it, or it will likely go to the owner. It’s best to tip in cash, 10 percent to 15 percent of the check.
For an elegant dining experience, the riverside Bellevue Restaurant is well known for its superb cuisine and views of the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle. The restaurant is located in Old Town at Smetanovo Nab.18. Among many other selections, Bellevue features a multi-course tasting menu, served with optional wines.
For a big splurge, don’t miss La Degustation, which serves a variety of fixed-price multi-course menus. The cuisine is a mix of Czech and Continental, paired with fine wines and excellent service. The experience is worth the steep price tag.
Old Town Square and its environs are filled with festive outdoor cafes and restaurants. Many have menus with photographs that make it easy to order. For lovers of Art Nouveau, lunch in the Kavarna Obecni dum — the restaurant in the Municipal House, the city’s most prominent Nouveau building — is worth a stop. Light lunch, cakes and desserts are served in an elegant, beautifully appointed room with lofty ceilings, huge windows and period crystal chandeliers. It’s open daily, at Namesti Republiky 5.
Czechs love beer — in fact, there are tours built around pub crawls. Prague has a number of notable brew pubs, including two in New Town: U Fleku, a European-style beer hall and microbrewery at Kremencova 11, and Novomestsky Pivovar, a pub-style restaurant and microbrewery at Vodickova 20. U Fleku has a house specialty that includes one-quarter of a duck, half a sausage and fillet of pork shoulder. Novomestsky Pivovar is known for its goulash, pork knuckle and dumplings. Or stop by for a drink at the old-time U Zlateho Tygra pub on Husova Street, the Old Town venue long popular with the city’s intelligentsia.
Shopping in Prague
There’s no scarcity of terrific souvenir shopping venues in Prague. Take your pick: You can buy local wares from the street vendors who line St. Charles Bridge or at outdoor markets like Havelske Trziste, the main open-air market in the city center. There are also trinket shops around Old Town Square, which has year-round booths that sell arts and crafts. One noteworthy street runs off of Old Town Square; Celetna, one of Prague’s oldest streets, is a great place to find Czech handicrafts and souvenirs.
Among Prague’s prized products are Bohemian hand-cut crystal, handmade wool hats, Czech garnets, wooden marionettes, figurines of World War I soldiers and images of the Bambini of Praha, the infant Jesus.
If you’re looking to go beyond souvenir shopping, head to Wenceslas Square and the surrounding streets, where there are a number of department stores, antique stores and boutiques.
If you’re visiting during December or early January, don’t miss a stop in one of Prague’s Christmas markets; the main ones set up shop in Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. Sample mulled wine and warm pastries as you browse the stalls in search of local handicrafts such as Christmas tree ornaments and wooden puppets.
–written by Ellen Uzelac; updated by Sean Bestor