City Guide to Prague, Czech Republic
Quintessential Europe, stunning beauty, and lots and lots of tourists
Prague is the current capital of the Czech Republic and the historical capitol of Bohemia. Visiting Prague today is much different than it was only a couple of decades ago. Czechoslovakia, there is the first difference, was subject to heavy censorship, a police-state like atmosphere, and communist propaganda from Moscow. This all changed in late 1989 in what is known as the Velvet Revolution. Peaceful protests across Prague, as well as other central/eastern European nations led to the end of foreign communist rule. A few years later, in 1993, Czechoslovakia mutually split into the modern day nations of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Prague is the heart of Czech Republic, or Czechia if you want to call it by its desired nickname. Located in northwestern Czechia, Prague is only a short train ride, flight, or bus trip from major German cities like Munich and Berlin. Prague is quintessential old Europe: cobblestone streets, gothic churches everywhere, red roofs, and castles that look straight out of a fairytale. There is no way around it, Prague is stunningly beautiful. Unlike other major European cities in the 20th century, Prague was not heavily bombed in either world war, thus its buildings are still pristine and original. What makes it an even more desirable destination for college tourists is how relatively affordable it is.
The Czech Republic’s currency is not the euro, but instead the Czech koruna, pronounced crown. The current exchange rate is around 1 US dollar = 26 Kč. This means good things for American college tourists as you can live off of less than $20 a day for food and drinks fairly comfortably.
I am by no means an accurate predictor of Prague’s future, however I would recommend traveling to Prague sooner rather than later. The old vestiges of Soviet-Czech life seem to be quickly fading away while more modern western European influences are cropping up around the city. Though the gothic churches and baroque architecture will remain, the feel of that classic old-world Europe will likely continue to fade.
Top 5 Sights
Old Town Square
Prague’s Old Town Square, Staromestske Namesti, is where all things classic Prague can be found. Take in the baroque architecture all around you as you gaze up at St. Nicholas Church and the more gothic Tyn Church. Just a few steps away is the famous Astronomical Clock. Though it will almost certainly be surrounded by hundreds of tourists taking pictures and videos on their phones, the Astronomical Clock is a must-see in Prague. Originally constructed in the late 15th century, this beautiful time piece has pretty much everything a clock could have. It tells time in classic Bohemian time, modern time, daylight versus night hours, and the position of the sun and the moon. However, this convenience of numerous sights comes at a cost: masses and masses of other tourists.
St. Charles Bridge
St. Charles Bridge, or Karluv Most, was named after Emperor Charles IV. The bridge was completed in 1357 and has withstood many wars and natural disasters. Lucky thing too, because St. Charles Bridge is not only beautiful but it perfectly connects Prague’s Old Town with the Castle Quarter. My main piece of advice for the St. Charles Bridge is to avoid it at all costs on weekends during the day. It will be less of a bridge and more like an obstacle course with seemingly thousands of people. Instead, stroll over its cobblestones at dusk or at night when it is more quiet and take in the lights of Prague.
Up on a hill across the Vltava River from Old Town is Prague Castle, or Prazsky Hrad. You really cannot miss it, its the dominating structure in the Prague skyline. The castle is one of the largest ancient castles in the world. It was built in the 9th century by Prince Borijov, and just about every ruler after him made their own addition to the castle so it just got bigger and bigger.
The sights line up perfectly in a row if you want to start at either the Castle or in Old Town as the most direct route from one to other is crossing St. Charles Bridge. To reward your hike up the hill, its not that bad, from St. Charles Bridge, the St. Vitus Cathedral is also located within the castle. For entrance to the castle and St. Vitus Cathedral is about 125 kr for students. Totally worth it in my opinion.
David Cerny Statues
David Cerny is a Czech artist who specializes in less than traditional sculptures. Though his work differs from classic pieces, they do not shy away from political statements and often are self-deprecating to Czechs. One of the most blaring examples of this is his Peeing Statues located in the Lesser Quarter on the western side of St. Charles Bridge. The two statues, which represent Communist and Nazi invaders, are peeing into a basin the shape of the Czech Republic. If you keep a eye out as you wander the streets of Prague no doubt you will see other works of Cerny that might make you turn your head in slight confusion.
If you are a fan of Art Nouveau and/or graphic design then the Mucha Museum is a must visit. Alphonse Mucha’s, 1860-1939, style was revolutionary to the design field as his work was a stark contrast to the more rigid and industrial culture of his time as it focussed more on the harmony between man and nature. Though the museum is fairly small and students still have to pay, about 150 kr, the museum is full of Mucha’s famous pieces such as Gismonda featuring Sarah Bernhardt. There are also plenty of the Czech artist’s lesser known works that focus on Czech themes rather then his more famous French pieces. The museum’s gift shop is perfect for picking up a souvenir for the art lover in your family.
Not So Secret Sight
The Lennon Wall
During Soviet occupation of Prague, Czech rebels and revolutionaries would graffiti their anti-communist messages which often featured Beatles lyrics like “All you need is love” on what became known as the Lennon Wall, yes as in John Lennon. After Lennon’s death in 1980, the messages of love and hope only became more prominent on a wall in the Lesser Quarter. The Soviet government did not believe these graffiti messages were in Prague’s best interest and covered the messages daily. However the young Czechs kept writing their Lennon inspired lyrics and eventually the government legalized graffiti on what is now known as the Lennon Wall. Hipster tip: this is the place to take that Instagram photo your friends will be jealous of.
Food & Drink
In my recent article, 10 Tips for the Traveling Hipster, I suggested finding a restaurant that acknowledges its traditional cuisine while adding a modern culinary flair. This is exactly Lokal’s main objective. Lokal’s chefs take a modern twist on traditional Czech dishes. They also only serve classic Czech drinks, like locally brewed Kozel black. The service was friendly and full of menu recommendations. Lokal is also far enough away from the touristy old town that it will not be filled with droves of loud drunk foreigners, but local Czechs. Lokal was by far the best meal I had in Prague. So maybe try it last, otherwise you might just want to keep coming back again and again.
Creperie U Kajetana
This breakfast spot located close to Prague Castle that doubles as one of Prague’s best trdelnik purveyors was the perfect place to fuel up for a long day of exploring. Trdelnik is a traditional Czech sweet pastry that is cylindrical or cone shaped and covered with sugary goodness. Some places will even fill the trdelnik with ice cream and strawberries. You will see many trdelnik stalls all throughout Prague, but I challenge you to find one better and fresher than at Creperie U Kajetana. They also specialize in alternative coffee brewing methods such as V60 pour over, siphon vacuum, and aeropress which can hard to find in Europe and made for a great start to the day.
What? A Mexican restaurant in the Czech Republic that is good? Yes. As a southern Californian, Burrito Loco was a godsend and absolutely hit the spot. Open 24 hours, this Chipotle style small take-away restaurant is perfect for hungry college students craving a burrito. Though I will say, it felt kind of weird to be eating a chicken burrito filled with beans, salsa, and guacamole while sitting in the Prague cold while looking at century old baroque buildings instead of a sunny California beach.
Getting Around Prague
The public transportation in Prague is not bad, however I do not believe it is necessary for the average college tourist. Prague is not a huge city, so if you book your hostel or Airbnb wisely you should be able to walk everywhere you want to see. That being said, if you feel the need to relax for a few minutes instead of walking to the next spot, the trams are the way to go as they are cheap and quick.
Overall, Prague is very user friendly. Pretty much everyone speaks English so the language barrier should not be an issue. The only Czech phrase I learned was “Na zdravi”, pronounced naz-dlraw-vee, which is Czech for cheers and directly translates to “to health”. With drink prices very low you might just find yourself saying this phrase, which I think sounds more like a Dothraki word, quite a bit.
If you want to eat at a popular restaurant such as Lokal, I highly recommend calling for reservations because for whatever reason Czechs make reservations for many meals. Do not be left out and having to wait for an hour and just call ahead to be sure.