Things to do in Prague
During the decades of Soviet-imposed isolation, very few westerners ventured to beautiful Prague, but once the Czech Republic had won its freedom in the Velvet Revolution, all that changed.
Prague is now one of the most popular city break destinations in Europe and the streets around the main sights are packed with tourists for much of the year. Welcome to a Gothic fairyland of pinnacles, towers and fabulously ornate castles and palaces! With some six hundred years of architecture virtually untouched by natural disaster or war, few other cities anywhere in Europe look as good.
Straddling the winding River Vltava, with a steep wooded hill to one side, the city retains much of its mediaeval layout and the street facades remain smothered in a rich mantle of Baroque, Rococo and Art Nouveau. It’s true to say that not everyone in the Republic has been enamoured of the changes that have come with the embracing of mass tourism, but no amount of commercialism will ever nullify Prague’s magical appeal.
Getting to Prague
The most competitive air fares from Britain are with the no-frills airlines such as easyJet, but these need to be booked well in advance. Flight time from London is just under two hours. Czech Airlines is the only carrier offering non-stop flights to Prague from North America. All others make stop-overs at a European hub such as London or Paris.
The most frequent service is from New York, followed by Montreal in Canada. Flight time from NY is approximately 9 hours. Prague’s airport, Ruzyne, is fairly modern and ever expanding. It’s nine miles from the city centre and connected by bus, shared minibus and taxi. The airport itself recommends bus route 100, which travels to metro station Zlicin in about 15 minutes, or 119 which goes to metro station Dejvicka in about 20 minutes. Tickets costing around 40 Czech Crown or Kc (about £1/$1.80) can be bought from vending machines in the airport and in newspaper kiosks.
The shuttle minibuses run by Cedaz leave at half-hourly intervals and go to V Celnici Street in the middle of Prague. A shared ride will cost around 480Kc (£11.50/$22). The third option is an airport cab, which will cost between 500 and 600Kc (£12-14/$23-27), depending on which side of the city you want to go.
Travelling by train is a pleasantly old-fashioned and extremely leisurely way to reach Prague. You can go from London overnight in about 20 hours. There are several possible routes.
The most direct, and often cheapest, is via Brussels and Frankfurt, with a change in both. From Frankfurt there’s an overnight service to Prague, arriving at about 8am. Travelling via Paris tends to be a bit more expensive and you’ll still have to change trains at Frankfurt to pick up the overnight service.
Fares for continental rail travel are much more flexible than they used to be, so it’s worth shopping around for the best deal. International trains arrive either at the old Art Nouveau Praha Hlavni nadrazi, on the edge of Nove Mesto and Vinohrady, or at Praha-Holesovice, which lies in an industrial suburb north of the city centre. The former is only a five-minute walk from Wenceslas Square and both stations are on metro lines.
Coming from London, the most convenient route would be to take the car through the Channel Tunnel on a train and then drive via Brussels, Liege, Cologne, Frankfurt and Nuremberg, entering the country at the Waidhaus-Rozvadov border crossing – a journey of about 1,000 miles after arriving on mainland Europe.
It costs nothing to drive on motorways in Belgium and Germany, but to travel on any motorways within the Czech Republic, you need authorisation in the form of a sticker or vignette (dalnicni znamka) which can be bought from all border crossings and most garages and post offices. A ten-day sticker costs 100Kc (about £2.50/$4.50).
You don’t really need a car in Prague since much of the city centre is pedestrianised and public transport is efficient and cheap. Also, the narrow streets are difficult to negotiate and you have to deal with trams. One of the cheapest ways of reaching Prague is by bus. There’s a direct service run by Eurolines from London’s Victoria Coach Station.
The journey is about 18 hours and a flexible return can cost as little as £100. www.eurolines.co.uk
Prague’s main bus terminal is Praha-Florenc, which has an adjacent metro station.
Prague Travel Tips
The official language of the Czech Republic is Czech, a highly complex western Slav tongue. English is now widely spoken in hotels and restaurants, although less so in shops and museums.
Any attempt to speak Czech will be much appreciated, although if you’re intent on learning a little, you’ll come across what one student called ‘a traffic jam of consonants’ such as the tongue-twister strc prst skrz krk (stick your finger down your neck).
The following phrases are not so tricky:
Mluvite anglicky? (mloo-vee-te ang-glits-ki … Do you speak English?); Rozumite? (ro-zoo-mee-te … do you understand?);Diky (dyee-kil … thanks).
Currency And Tipping
The Czechs use the Crown or koruna ceska (Kc), which is divided into 100 relatively worthless hellers or halire. Despite the numerous prices quoted in Euros all over Prague, the Czechs have not adopted the Euro yet. However, a few of the places that quote Euro prices will accept that currency at a pretty fair rate.
Tipping is normal practice in cafes, bars, restaurants and taxis, though this is done usually by rounding up the total. For example, if a waiter tots up the bill and asks you for 74Kc, you could hand him a 100Kc note and say ‘take 80Kc.’
Lying at the heart of Europe, Prague has a continental climate: winters can be pretty cold, summers correspondingly scorching, so dress accordingly. The best times to visit, in terms of weather, are late spring and early autumn.
If you don’t mind the cold, the city can look beautiful in the snowy winter months, though it can fall prey to ‘inversions,’ which blanket Prague in a grey smog for a week or more. The most exclusive Prague restaurants prefer their clients to be formally dressed, but elsewhere, the smart casual look is quite acceptable.
Prague has experienced a dramatic rise in crime since 1989, but you shouldn’t be unduly paranoid: the crime rate is still very low compared with most European or North American cities.
Pickpockets are the biggest hassle, especially in summer around the most popular tourist sights and on the trams and metro. Sensible precautions include making photocopies of your passport, leaving valuables in the hotel safe and keeping cameras, i-pods etc. away from public view and zipped up.
The centre of Prague, where most of the city’s sights are concentrated, is reasonably small and best explored on foot. Many travel companies organise interesting walking tours. At some point, however, in order to cross the city quickly or reach some of the more widely dispersed attractions, you’ll need to use the city’s cheap and efficient public transport system. It comprises the metro (subway) and a network of trams and buses.
To get a clearer picture, it’s wise to invest in a city map which marks all the tram, bus and metro lines. You can buy a travel pass (casova jizdenka) for 24 hours, three days, seven days or fifteen days. No photos or ID are required, although you must write your name and date of birth on the reverse of the ticket and punch it to validate when you first use it.
They can be bought at offices of the Prague Information Service, newsagents, tobacconists and anywhere displaying the yellow DP sign of the Prague Public Transport Company. If you are intending to buy a single or return ticket, there are machines at all metro stations and some bus and tram stops, but be warned that they are complicated to figure out.
Thing to do in Prague
OldTown (Stare Mesto)
Prague’s charming mediaeval district. Contains the Old Town Square and the astronomical clock.
Prague Castle (Prazsky hrad)
Looking over the city from a hilltop on the west bank of the Vltava river. Contains St Vitus Cathedral, Golden Lane and the old Royal Palace.
Charles Bridge (Karluv most)
The main link between the two banks of the river for over 500 years. Peppered with Baroque statues and thronged with tourists, street vendors and artists.
The Jewish Quarter (Josefov)
Near the Old Town Square, this area dates back to the 13th century, and contains one of the best museums of its kind in the world.
Church of Our Lady Before Tyn (Chram Matky bozi pred Tynem)
A Gothic structure situated across from the Old Town Hall in the heart of Stare Mesto, distinguished by its twin towers that dominate the surrounding landscape.
Municipal House (Obecni dum)
The most remarkable Art Nouveau building in the Czech Republic – home to the Prague Symphony Orchestra, a gallery and three restaurants.
St Nicholas’s Church (sv Mikulas)
Easily the most magnificent Gothic building in the city, with an impressive dome and bell tower. Mozart is said to have played the organ here during a visit.
Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske namesti)
More like a long boulevard, this is the heart of the New Town (Nove Mesto), the bustling centre of the city in general and the scene of many of the biggest events in recent Czech history.
Dancing House (Tancici dum)
Also known as Fred and Ginger after the shape of the building’s two towers which look like a couple ballroom dancing. http://www.galinsky.com/buildings/dancinghouse
Situated on a plateau above Prague, this is the city’s largest expanse of greenery and incorporates a giant metronome on the site where Stalin’s statue once stood.
Eating and Drinking
The good news is that you can eat and drink very cheaply in Prague: the food is filling and the beer flows freely. The choice of places to eat has improved steadily over the past ten years. Why, you can spend a whole week eating out and never encounter a dumpling!
There’s a range of restaurants serving everything from sushi to Afghan cuisine. Pizza parlours have become especially popular. The division between cafes, bars, pubs and restaurants is difficult to draw in Prague. Most are there primarily to serve you food, but some will have a bar area where you can simply have a drink.
Beware of extras: you will often be faced with a cover charge for bread, music and for everything you touch … including the almonds you thought were courtesy of the house. Waiter service is the norm, even in pubs. Czech beer is inexpensive and highly thought-of (perhaps the main reason why Prague is now the destination of choice for young Brits staging pre-wedding bachelor weekends).
The most famous brew is Pilsner Urquell, known to the Czechs as Plzensky Prazdroj, which originates from Plzen (Pilsen), a city about 50 miles south-west of Prague. However, do not hesitate to explore a bit as breweries are popping up throughout the country, elevating beer drinking to an art comparable to wine tasting.
Insider info: The Pivni Galerie (Beer Gallery) located at U Pruhonu 9, Praha 7, presents the Czech art of brewing in the broadest sense, offering over a 180 different types of Czech beers.
Few people come to Prague exclusively to shop, although for the passing tourist there are bargains in goods like glass, ceramics, cutlery and wooden toys.
The backstreets of Little Quarter (Mala Strana) and Old Town (Stare Mesto) are good for finding interesting little shops, while Praguers do most of their shopping in New Town (Nove Mesto, particularly in the old-fashioned covered passage (pasaze) on and around Wenceslas Square, or in one of the city’s brand new shopping malls.
Antique shops and secondhand junk shops were popular even in Communist times and bric-a-brac outlets can be found all over Prague. Also, there are shops selling glass (sklo) everywhere. For folk arts and crafts, look no further than the Havelska market, which also has food and flowers - it’s open every day. For most basic goods, you’re best off heading for a department store (obchodni dum), which will stock most things including toiletries, stationery and usually an extensive food and drink selection. Try Kotva at Republiky 8, Nove Mesto (metro: Namesti Republiky) or Tesco at Narodni 26, Nove Mesto (metro: Narodni).
Apart from the popular pubs, Prague has a handful of half-decent clubs at which local DJs, and the occasional international one, perform. There are also a few good one-off raves during the year (a case of scouring the fly-posters scattered around).
Many clubs double as live music venues and a surprising array of world music bands find their way to Prague along with a regular supply of big names from the US and UK. Drink prices in clubs are inevitably higher than in the pubs, but the cost of entry to most late-night places is negligible.
The larger live venues include Abaton www.prostorabaton.cz and Lucerna www.lucpra.com while among the popular smaller clubs are Akropolis www.palacakropolis.cz, Duplex www.duplexduplex.cz and Futurum www.musicbar.cz. Prague has a small, but burgeoning gay and lesbian scene.
To find out the latest on up-and-coming events, check the listings section in Prague Post (www.praguepost.com) or the Czech listings monthly Culture in Prague (Ceska kultura). www.ceskakultura.cz