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Prague is one of Europe's most beautiful cities, full of Medieval architecture. It is also a center of the arts and of music, especially American-style blues and jazz.
Tourist friendly and easy to get around, Prague has plenty of cheap dining opportunities and an excellent public transportation system.
The only downside is that the entire city can, at times, come over as a tourist trap. Some of the attractions are on the pricy side for the amount of time you can realistically spend on them. In summer, the city can become very crowded and in winter the Eastern European climate is harsh, although the city becomes very pretty with snow on the ground. Christmas in Europe is always worth considering.
Prague has an international airport with very reasonable (even very cheap) flights from most other European cities. Travelers from the United States are probably best served by flying into London or Paris and then taking an onward flight to Prague.
Taking the train is an excellent way to get around Europe, and the former eastern block is no exception. Making Prague a stop on an overall tour of the region by train is a great idea - trains are comfortable, if elderly, and really do run on time.
It's possible to rent a car, but I don't recommend it unless you are going somewhere rural...and I definitely would not drive into Prague. It's not a car-oriented city such as you might find in the United States. An IDP is not required in the Czech Republic, but drivers under 21 or over 70 might have problems finding anyone willing to rent to them.
The wonderful thing about Eastern European cities, and Prague is no exception, is that they never got rid of their streetcars. Prague has one of the best networks.
Taking the tram is the best way to get around Prague if the distance is too far to walk - and take your walking shoes. It's a very walk friendly city and some of the best sites are in pedestrian-only zones.
In addition to the streetcars, Prague also has a three-line metro system. Be aware that neither the trams nor the subway run to the airport (I recommend getting a cab if you get in late so you are not messing around with buses after dark in a strange city). The metro runs from 4:45am until a bit after midnight. Trams, on the other hand, do run all night, albeit on a highly reduced schedule and only on certain routes.
On weekends and holidays, tram 91 runs historic cars through the city.
If you need to get somewhere that isn't on a streetcar line, Prague also has an excellent bus network. Like the streetcars, the buses run all night. You should almost never need to splash out for a cab.
Be very careful with taxis - if you need a taxi from the metro, arrange for it in advance. Absolutely do not get into a cab that's waiting at the airport - they love to stiff tourists. Gypsy cabs are also not uncommon. I recommend avoiding taxis unless you have a ton of luggage or, again, are arriving very late.
One word of caution. If you have a suitcase or a large tote bag and take it onto the streetcars, you will have to pay an extra half fare for your bag...and trust me, this is enforced. The transit police just love to fine tourists who forget about that rule or haven't been warned.
Where To Stay
Prague has accommodations ranging from dormitory-style youth hostels all the way up to internationally-renowned five-star hotels. Whatever your budget, you should have no problems finding a place to stay.
A 'pension' is a cheap, more basic hotel. An aparthotel is what Americans would call suites and there are also short-term stay apartments available that are ideal for larger families.
As of 2012, a 3 star room will set you back somewhere between $60 and $120 depending on size and location. On my visit, I stayed in the Hotel Merlin, which I recommend despite it not being as central a place as some.
Be aware that most of Prague's hotels are in historic buildings. This means that rooms are generally much smaller than in American hotels and may be oddly shaped. Double beds are unusual (and your 'double' bed may be two twin beds pushed together) and, as in much of Europe, shower quality can be iffy. If you are disabled you may end up having to book into a major chain.
If you want something a little different, considering booking a room in one of Prague's botels. These are a creative way to increase the city's hotel inventory - giant houseboats anchored in the river. Botels are, to my knowledge, a peculiarly Eastern European invention and worth checking out for an unusual experience.
Food and Drink
Drink the beer. In the Czech Republic, drink the beer. Even if you don't much like beer - the local brew, Budvar, is what Budweiser is a pale shadow of. It's light, relatively non-hoppy, and thirst quenching. It's also the only beverage that won't set you back more than your food bill.
Food wise, Prague does have fast food outlets and international restaurants, but the local cuisine is worth trying.
If your hotel serves breakfast, it may be juice and pastries. The Czech idea of a full breakfast involves eggs, ham, sausage and bread.
You need to try goulash at least once - most restaurants have their own version of this hearty, filling stew. It's often the cheapest item on the menu, as it's easy to make and can be varied to allow for what's good in the market that day. Another Czech specialty is roast pork and dumplings. For starch, pick dumplings or potatoes. Potatoes grow very well in eastern Europe and it is easy for restaurants to get high quality tubers for your plate. Potato salad is always worth considering as a side.
Be aware that in the Czech republic, sharing a table with strangers is perfectly acceptable and at peak hours you may be seated next to somebody else, especially if traveling alone. (Depending on your new neighbor, this may be highly annoying or a chance to make a new friend).
Another Prague peculiarity worth knowing is that in restaurants and hotel dining rooms, the staff often pipe their preferred radio station into the room. When we were there, this meant...American pop music. Usually from the 1980s. This is just a little bit of cognitive dissonance.
One last warning - vegetarians seem not to exist in eastern Europe...and if they do, they aren't that strict. If you are a strict vegetarian, you may have to eat at an international restaurant to find something that hasn't had a splash of meat broth sneaked into it somewhere and certainly to get any real variety.
Arts and Music
If you are the other side of the Atlantic from New Orleans, Prague is the place to go for jazz and blues. Banned during the Communist era, the jazz scene remained a healthy underground movement and with the fall of the iron curtain it came out into the open. Jazz clubs are all over the place.
My top recommendation if you want to understand what the jazz scene might have been like when it was basically in speakeasies is the tiny U Maleho Glena...a literal underground club that seats maybe twenty...get there early.
(Be aware. People in Prague still smoke indoors in bars, restaurants, and clubs, but many establishments actually have ventilation systems that can take it. I, with my nasty allergy to cigarette smoke, was able to spend a fun evening in U Maleho Glena practically sharing a table with a chain smoker).
If you prefer older music, Prague has a solid classical music scene and a high quality operatic company. There are also several rock clubs in the city.
Art galleries are everywhere, and the Charles Bridge (Karluv most) has become a traditional location for artists selling their own work on the street...worth checking out for reasonable prices (no middle man) and some remarkable work. Don't be surprised, though, if the artist speaks English with an accent that is very definitely not Czech - Prague's arts scene is so lively that artists, writers and poets move to the city from all over Europe and even sometimes further away. You might even find that you just went all the way to Prague to buy something from an artist from your home town.
Sites worth seeing
No visit to Prague is complete without visiting Prague castle, although it is pricy and often crowded. The castle is still the ceremonial seat of the Czech Republic's president.
The castle dates from the 9th century, but reached its current form during the reign of Maria Theresa. It is quite simply beautiful, and well worth taking the time (half to three quarters of a day) to tour. Word to the wise - don't buy from the little souvenir shops in the castle itself. You can find identical objects outside for half the price.
Petrin Hill Park is another must. A favorite with locals and vistors alike, you can climb the hill with a camera to get amazing vistas of the city. Or you can be lazy and take the funicular railway to the top. And yes, that is a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower on the top of the hill. There's also a mirror maze. Both of these charge fairly steep admission. Look out for the somewhat worn stone Stations of the Cross in the park...they aren't signed or indicated in any way.
Also plan to spend some time in Old Town Prague, dominated by interesting houses with facades that show how they have been built and rebuilt since Medieval times (the street level is also two meters higher as people kept building it up to prevent floods).
Also worth visiting is the oldest surviving synagogue in Europe, the Old-New Synagogue (what wonderful naming). It dates from the 13th century and is the best example of a Medieval synagogue in existence. As it is still an active synagogue, men are obliged to cover their heads when entering. If you don't have a hat with you, however, they will lend you one.
Prague also has an excellent zoo, which can be accessed via a free shuttle bus.
Gentlemen are still expected to open doors for ladies in most of Eastern Europe.
If you go to a pub, it is completely fine to ask to sit at an already occupied table...they get busy. Don't try to flag down the barkeep or waiter. Just put out a coaster. Waving will get you marked as a tourist instantly. Women alone should probably avoid pubs - they are a strongly male environment - unless you feel confident that you can handle having passes made at you. Do not go to the counter to ask for a drink, as table service is the norm, and don't pour your new beer into your old one, which is considered very rude.
As in most of continental Europe it is correct to greet the shopkeeper when entering the store or the hostess in a restaurant (many stories of Americans getting bad service in European restaurants can be put down to the fact that they followed the American custom of waiting for the hostess to acknowledge them - in Europe this is often assumed to mean you aren't ready to be seated yet). You should also say goodbye when you leave. Many people even say hello and goodbye in elevators and train compartments (and yes, many trains still have compartment/corridor layouts in eastern Europe).
If invited to somebody's home, you must take a suitable guest gift - chocolate, cookies, a bottle of wine. Avoid flowers, which have a ton of etiquette pitfalls associated with them. You will also be expected to remove your shoes on entering and offered indoor footwear - slippers, or sandals.
One word of warning - they expect tourists to tip at least 10%. Locals generally do not tip. (If you think this is unfair, remember you are a guest in their country). Waiters tend not to smile at you or ask if you enjoyed the food, but they are often polite and efficient.
Formal dress is expected at classical concerts or operas. And don't whistle - in the Czech Republic that means the same as booing.
Don't talk too loudly in public areas. Also, don't toss cigarette butts or used gum in the street - this can get you a stiff fine.
Dial 112 for general emergencies, 158 for police, 155 for an ambulance. (If in doubt, dial 112, which is the EU general emergency number and will get you help).
Get the international lost card number from your credit card provider and keep it somewhere other than with your credit card. Photocopy the relevant pages of your passport and leave one copy at home and another in the hotel safe. Do not leave small electronics in your hotel room.
Watch out in crowded areas such as the castle and Charles Bridge...these are often the stalking grounds of pickpockets. Pickpockets may also operate on public transportation. Keep money and valuables in inside pockets when possible.
Don't drink and drive - the legal limit in the Czech Republic is zero.
Follow normal common sense rules - guard your valuables and be aware of where you are traveling at night. As mentioned before, be wary of taxis - gypsy cabs are common and ripping off tourists is a cab driver pastime in Prague. It's best to arrange for a taxi in advance through your hotel concierge.