By all means, go to Paris, Rome and Amsterdam. But a visit to Europe will not be complete without experiencing Eastern Europe, which can easily be done through a rendezvous in Prague, the Czech Republic. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in Eastern Europe and after it survived Nazism and Communism, many consider it to be as beautiful as Paris. The city (at least 866 hectares of it) is a UNESCO Heritage site.
From my first whiff of the city, it was easy to comprehend why it was known as the “City of Gold.” The city gleamed with gold everywhere and golden spires rose from the rooftops of medieval churches, palaces and castles. If Midas once threaded the earth, he must have ran wild in Prague touching doors, gates and fences, including, would you believe, the walls and ceilings of metro stations.
Also known as The City of Spires, with over 500 of them (a record for a single city), trekking the city inspired me to believe in magic, sorcery and legends. The huge crowds did not take away from Prague’s old world feel. Gothic architecture was well-preserved which made every corner, nook and cranny, postcard-perfect. I felt like I was walking in a dream and despite the caffeine kick from my espresso, I was going to stay in that dream while I was there. My views remained ethereal and magical.
An overnight stay in Prague may seem downright ridiculous but if you really need to force the issue, you won’t be disappointed. With a huge part of the major sites concentrated in Stare Mesto (Old Town), there’s still a lot you can see in 18 hours. Three days to five days will be ideal to immerse yourself in the city’s opulent Bohemian culture.
Day One: Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, Prague Castle and the Loreto
To make the most of my Bohemian escapade, I started my day early heading off to the city’s heart and soul, the Old Town Square. Even at early morning, it was already bustling with activities, and despite the neutral colors of the surrounding Gothic buildings, the air was vibrant and peddlers were aplenty hawking their wares. I took my sweet time breathing in the air and view, and as much as I wanted a taste of Czech beer, I settled with an espresso in one of the cafes that lined the square. Coffee cup in tow, I waited for the next hour to strike so I could watch the bells ring, cocks crow and 15th-century statues dance in the Astronomical Clock. There was still so much to explore in the Square, such as the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, the Church of Saint Nicholas and the Jan Hus Memorial, so I made a mental note to return by evening or the next morning.
Moving on, I proceeded to Charles Bridge, Prague’s most iconic landmark. Its most distinguishing features are its 30 haunting Baroque sculptures. I climbed up the Old Town Bridge and was rewarded with mystifying views of the City of Spires.
I then made my way to Prague Castle. You’ll need a lot of time to soak in this 45-hectare monumental complex, which consists of fortifications, residential and office buildings. Founded in the last quarter of the 9th century, it has gone through so much history and evolution to form what it is today. Originally the residence of Bohemian royalty, it’s now the seat of the President. The complex is open to the public though I needed a ticket for the interiors. Don’t scrimp. The same ticket allowed me access to the Old Royal Palace, St. George’s convent and basilica, the Powder Tower and more importantly, St. Vitus’ Cathedral, which was exceptionally stunning. Located at the top of Hradcany Hill, its spires can practically be seen from anywhere in Prague. It also houses Bohemia’s crown jewels, which are said to be guarded by angels in the coronation chamber.
After soaking in Prague Castle, I walked further up to The Loreto, a replica of the Santa Casa where the Annunciation to Mary transpired (the original is located in Loreto, Italy). The copy was built to lure Czechs back into the Catholic faith.
Because I still had time to spare, I strolled off to Petrin Hill which was a great escape from the crowds. Being 300 meters above sea level, the vineyard-turned-park has stunning views of Prague. But if you can’t settle for the free views, climb Petrin Tower, Prague’s version of the Eiffel Tower. While there, I headed off to the Church of St. Michael, a quaint, rustic wooden church brought all the way from Ukraine.
Like I promised myself, I headed back to Old Town Square in search for Czech beer. But not before a stop at Charles Bridge for postcard views of magically-lit Prague Castle. Oh, what a view! It was really stunning I didn’t want to leave, but the thought of gulping the best beer in the world was palpable. Back at the Old Town, I finally settled on a traditional brew-pub and ordered the house special. After my first sip, I was determined to drink like the Czechs who drink more beer per capita than anyone else in the world.
Day Two: Old Jewish Cemetry, St. Agnes Convent, the National Gallery and Wenceslas Square
After an early caffeine fix, I prepared to go to the Old Jewish Cemetery. It is said that there are over 200,000 Jews buried here and since it was the only burial place for Jews that time, bodies were layered to accommodate them all. The result is a poignant symbol of the harsh treatment the Prague Jews lived through.
St. Agnes’s Convent was up next. Prague’s most impressive Gothic building, founded by a Princess turned nun now saint, is now home to some of Prague’s most precious medieval and early Renaissance art. If modern art is more to your liking, visit the National Gallery, where they have Cezannes and Picassos, instead.
From the convent, I strutted to Wenceslas Square. Named after Bohemia’s patron saint, the once medieval horse market is now a modern commercial hub. The National Museum, with its neo-renaissance design, opulent marble-clad floors and grand staircase make it every inch worth seeing. Just outside is St. Wenceslas’s Statue as well as a memorial to victims of Communism.
What better way to spend my last few hours than by heading back to the Old Town Square. Thankfully, it’s not hard to find traditional Czech bric-a-bracs like garnets, crystals and puppets. I was able to complete my shopping in no time, allowing me even some time for another Czech beer before I headed off for my train out. I guess, its Czech-mate for me.
Food and Beverage. When in Prague, you must have Czech beer, which is considered among the best in the world. Excellent local beer can easily be found in most restaurants and bars but if you want the best of the lot, go to a brew-pub, multi-storey restaurants, where they brew beer on-site in brass tanks.
With beer being so good in Prague, most of their foods go well with the beverage. For the best accompaniment though, try spicy goulash, roast duck, or roast pork knuckle. For something lighter, have some pickled sausages called utopenci, which literally means “drowned men.”
You won’t be wanting for comfort food when you’re in Prague. Czech dishes, which are highly influenced by its Bavarian and Austrian neighbors, include saucy meat and dumplings, roasted poultry, freshwater fish, hearty soups, sweet buns and cold meals. A recommended dish to try is the svickova na smetane or “tenderloin in cream sauce,” a plate of beef with dumplings bathed in a flavorful cream sauce.
If you’re seriously into star-sightings of the Michelin kind, indulge in Alcron, La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise and Field.
Weather. Like most European capitals, Prague is an all-year destination. During summer, you’ll enjoy clear blue skies along with a dense tourist population. Wintertime can be really beautiful with snow, and the thinner crowds mean more picture-perfect spots. Enjoy off-season hotel rates from September to March.
Visa. You need a Schengen visa, the same document that allows you to explore most of Europe. The rule is, get your visa where you stay the longest. As a tip, it may be easier to acquire a visa from top tourist destinations like Paris and Rome.
Getting there. A visit to Prague can be easily tagged with any European sojourn. There are direct flights (from four to seven hours) from Berlin, Munich, Vienna and Budapest that travel frequently. Additionally, you can save up on a night’s accommodations if you take the night train from Cologne, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Zurich and a host of other cities. Confirm and book schedules via the user-friendly website of eurail.com.
Getting around. It’s easy to navigate the city. Most attractions can easily be reached by metro (three lines with a fourth being planned), trams and buses.
Currency. You’ll need to convert your dollars ($1 = 25 CZK) or euros to Czech crowns (CZK), the official currency. ATMs are easy to find and credit cards are widely accepted.