The Czech Republic’s glorious, pedestrian-friendly capital boasts great sightseeing, good hotels, delicious food and crowds of tourists competing for nearly every inch of space.
By Kevin Chaffee
Soaring views of the Charles Bridge leading visitors to Prague’s city center.
One could easily take a week or more to explore all that this wondrously beautiful European city has to offer, but three days are enough to get a satisfying taste of its rich history, beautiful architecture (Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque spires mixed with Art Nouveau and Cubist structures) and wonderful eating, drinking and shopping opportunities among its many alluring charms. Spring and fall are obviously better times to visit than mid July, the height of summer season, when it is crowded with an estimated 70,000 tourists each day (at least most of them are not day trippers off cruise ships). If you go then, as I did, take it easy, avoid the main squares and Prague Castle area during peak times, use the efficient and easily navigated trolley system, trek off the beaten path into some of the funky surrounding neighborhoods and by all means secure your guided tours and restaurant reservation well ahead.
Beat the crowds in the Castle District (Hradcany) getting an early start to tour the immense Prague Castle area, the city’s number one tourist attraction, where the gates open at 6 a.m. and the historic buildings at 9 a.m. during the April-October high season. A good portion of the fortress complex is occupied by the offices of the president of the Czech Republic, but other areas are open to visitors. The Renaissance architecture and impressive collection of paintings by Holbein, Durer, Titian, da Vinci and Bruegel in the Spanish hall are the main attractions. The Belvedere Royal Summer Palace lies within the Castle gardens, where tulips were first introduced to Europe. Take a rest near the famous bronze Singing Fountain before heading to nearby St. Agnes Convent, the city’s oldest Gothic structure, which now houses Czech medieval art and offers nightly chamber concerts. St. Vitus Cathedral looks old but was consecrated only in 1929. Its numerous treasures include the 14th century mosaic of the Last Supper, the baroque silver tomb of St. John of Nepomuck and Art Nouveau stained glass. A return visit at night when the complex is magnificently illuminated amid a festive atmosphere is highly recommended.
Left to right: St. Nikolaus Church, Prague Castle, Lobkowicz Palace.
Overlooked by most visitors to Prague, the adjacent Lobkowicz Palace should enjoy pride of place on any truly sophisticated traveler’s must-see list. Home to the Lobkowicz dynasty since the 16th century (except for the era of communist rule from 1948 to 1990). Members of the princely family narrate the audio guide as you wander through 20-plus chambers filled with historical treasures that include musical scores by Beethoven and Mozart and artworks by Velasquez and Canaletto.
Just outside the Castle is the nearby 12th-century Romanesque Strahov Monastery, home to the nation’s most important collection of medieval manuscripts housed in a library with magnificent frescoed ceilings that may be viewed but not entered without a pre-paid reservation made well in advance. (strahovskyklaster.cz).
The Romanesque reading chamber of the Strahov Monastery.
Pause on the famed pedestrians-only Charles Bridge to enjoy the views on both sides of the river before arriving to the Old Town (Stare Mesto) where the city’s old Jewish Quarter is located near the Old Town Square (Staromestske Namesti). You’ll see rows of shops and sidewalk cafes there amid the historic buildings and churches including the former City Hall (Radnice) with its famous Astronomical Clock featuring moving figures (orloj) that mesmerize crowds at the top of each hour. Do pop into St. Niklaus Church, a high Baroque edifice famed for its energetic statues in rapid motion, including its patron saint dispatching devils with his spear-like crozier.
The Astronomical Clock
Walk south to arrive at the teeming Wenceslas Square, the commercial heart of the city, which you’ll want to experience despite the teeming crowds who gather there both day and night to enjoy performances by a wide array of street musicians, jugglers, acrobats, dancers and the like. (Watch out for pickpockets.)
Other sites you’ll want to include are the Jewish Museum (the former Nazi Museum of Extinct Races); the Church of Our Lady Victorious’ collection of 300 different and mostly very elaborately representations of the Infant of Prague, one of most revered Christian images; the European old masters (El Greco, Rembrandt, Rubens) at the Sternberg Palace; and the domestic modern art collection on display at the Veletrzni Palace.
Front Facade of Hotel Cosmopolitan
This luxury boutique hotel located on a quiet side street in the Old Town is not only surprisingly affordable (rates from $140-$350) but located within 15 minutes walking distance to Wenceslas Square and other attractions. The recently redesigned interior of the property’s two combined buildings, one old and one new, projects an atmosphere of cool refinement with black and white marble floors and elegant cream shades accented by photographs of pre-war Prague. The 106 rooms and suites feature comfortable high-end furnishings and bedding as well as the usual amenities (complimentary tea and coffee, minibars, Smart TVs, etc.). Bathrooms range in size but all have tubs and heated floors and Molton Brown toiletries.
Zlatnicka 1126/3 11000 Prague
Interior dining space of Hotel Cosmopolitan’s Next Door Restaurant.
Look no farther than the Hotel Cosmopolitan for a preferred dining experience at its (literally) Next Door Restaurant, celebrity chef Zdenk Pohlreich’s hot spot on international foodies’ do-not-miss list. The “Czech modern cuisine” is served in a grand setting with elaborate molding and original ceiling frescoes from 1889 complementing the open plan kitchen experience. Try the Czech dumplings with meat medallions and cranberry compote, the wild boar terrine and the crepes souffle with truffle gnocchi. A good wine list is also featured by the knowledgeable and friendly staff. Advance reservations recommended.
Terasa U Zlate Studne, located on the fourth floor of the Golden Well Hotel, boasts truly world-class views of the old city as well as direct entrance to the Palace Gardens. Noted chef Pavek Sapik offers traditional Czech cuisine focusing on seasonal options. Try the creamy Bohemian Kulaida soup, the duck and seafood dishes that include salmon and scallops. Expect to spend around $100 per person. U Zlate Studne,166-4.
Sansho, a “groundbreaking” restaurant helmed by British chef Paul Day, features locally sourced meat and produce for daily menus that are recited by the waiters rather than read on a menu. Favored dishes include the renowned pork belly with watermelon, curried rabbit, slow-cooked beef rendang. $50 per person. Petrská 1170/25.
Bistro 8 is open only for breakfast, lunch and brunch and features daily specials along with salads, omelettes and sandwiches along with house-made lemonade and tea. Portions tend to be a bit small but ultimately satisfying.
One of the city’s funkiest spots to lay back with a brewski, Bad Flash Bar attracts a lively crowd who come to quaff 12 different draft beers or choose from a selection of 450 different bottled varieties from around the world. Krymska, 126/2.
Parlor Cafe is where ice cream lovers run amok. Create your own sandwich from eight cookies and 12 ice cream flavors and then add a topping or syrup of your choice. Gin and tonic anyone? Krizikava, 37.