I promised a few thoughts and pictures of the three days I spent in Prague because it was, frankly, one of the most interesting places I’ve been in Europe. Small towns usually fascinate me. I enjoy taking road trips in the U.S. and, when possible, through other less developed corners of the globe.
Many people who visit Europe are flying into a big city. Even if they visit multiple cities during a longer trip, they’re usually taking the train between those big cities and not experiencing much along the way. That was my first encounter with Prague over a decade ago — we took the train from Berlin to Vienna and didn’t see anything other than the train station (which isn’t much to look at). On this trip I was determined to explore further. My stay at the Hilton Prague Old Town turned out to be a good base.
What I didn’t know until arriving is that the city was in the midst of a spring festival, so there were lots of crowds and more activities than I might have seen otherwise. That was a good thing. It felt like a lively city, and yet there weren’t so many people I had trouble getting admission anywhere. Do keep in mind that some of the churches and other buildings have limited hours — I tried to visit this imposing Gothic church (Church of Our Lady before Týn) on my last day and found that I’d missed the last tour.
After looking around the Old Town Square for a few minutes, I turned behind me to city hall, which offers an inexpensive ticket to walk up the bell tower for a better view. The elevator is a faster option, but it bypasses the historical plaques.
There are also some exhibit halls on lower floors that offer a free look about. I ended up going to both on separate days, although the architecture exhibit was mostly in Czech and not much use to me. The famous astrological clock is also here, at the base.
I wrapped up my first evening with a walk to Charles Bridge, and on the way I stumbled across the Apple Museum. It’s a private collection but easily the most comprehensive one I’ve ever seen — and that’s coming from someone who grew up in Cupertino. There were examples of every phone, computer, tablet, and even the failed Newton.
Finally I reached Charles Bridge, which looks incredibly spooky at night with its dim lighting, gothic spires, and soot-stained brick. Buildings like this were perhaps the best part of visiting Prague.
It’s the kind of Europe you read about in textbooks and dream about as a child. But places like Berlin, London, and Paris have all been rebuilt at one time or another. Aside from some confusing streets and lower building elevations it’s difficult to differentiate them from parts of New York. Large portions of Prague, on the other hand, look like they’ve remained untouched for hundreds of years.
That’s not to say Prague is some european idyll. Touristy areas like the bridge are overrun with performers and merchants. People are hawking marijuana and Thai massages along some thoroughfares. At times it feels a little like a European Las Vegas. But that element is small enough that I wouldn’t let it discourage you from visiting.
I walked up the hill to Prague Castle on my second day, enjoying the views from the ramparts.
The castle is a huge complex of palaces and workshops that surround the cathedral. Narrow paths and numerous entrances can make it difficult to navigate, especially if you approach from the front, like I did. I had to walk all the way to the back to purchase a ticket.
At some point in life, all cathedrals start to look the same. What I found most impressive at Prague Castle were the gargoyles, which seemed much closer than at other churches. I also enjoyed walking around the palace chambers and looking up at the elaborately vaulted ceilings.
Finally, a narrow alley back near the front included an impressive display of medieval weaponry. This is only a small sample. Hundreds of people were walking along the second level, which is only a few feet wide, to view the exhibits that lined the walls.
I walked back that evening, stopping at one of the many festival stands to pick up roast ham and sausages for my dinner. For dessert there were many booths selling a sort of cinnamon roll, roasted over a wood fire and filled with Nutella or other toppings.
Finally, on my last day I decided to take a leisurely walk around the city. The entire route would have been about two hours had I not made so many stops. If you don’t mind hiking, I recommend this approach for visiting Prague Castle since it passes right behind it and also offers some great views before and after.
I started out by walking through the Jewish Quarter, passing on a tour package that included admission to the various temples and cemetery. I’m sure it would be interesting, but it was also one of the most expensive tourist attractions in the city — something to save for a future trip.
Instead I walked past to a large string of parks that run along the mountain ridge behind Prague Castle and began by climbing the stairs up to Letenské sady, on the north side of the city and across the river from the InterContinental Prague. I got more views of the city and a nice place to hang out during a sunny morning.
There’s a small restaurant at the top if you wish to take a break, but I continued walking all the way past Prague Castle and toward a brewery that I’d heard a lot about.
Klášterní pivovar Strahov was founded by a 17th century monastery and was recently renovated and reopened as a restaurant. It’s got a reputation for great beer, and it’s close enough to Prague Castle that it would be a logical place to stop for lunch after visiting in the morning. (In fact, remember that I said my visit to the castle was a bit confusing since I approached from the wrong side? Taking this route through the parks brings you much closer to the ticket office. You can always walk through the shops of the old town as you walk back downhill to your hotel.)
The beer and sausages were good and not too expensive. I even got to watch the bartender’s four-year-old daughter pour my drink. (I’d like to see someone try that in Seattle.) But although I recommend the restaurant, don’t get your hopes up — it’s not as amazing as you’ll read in some reviews.
Rather than walking back down the hill I continued to travel along it. A well-worn path through the grass eventually lets you cut through a gate in the wall, and that leads to the observation tower you might have seen from the other side of the river.
I wasn’t particularly interested in another view (it seemed to be mostly local teenagers with their dates), but I did pay a dollar to visit the funhouse mirror maze.
During the summer months there is a funicular to take you back down the steep hill. I had to walk. Still, it was an enjoyable hike and — I think — a great way to see some of Prague’s attractions.
That night, I met up with a reader who happened to be in town and we went to the Hemingway Bar. We had some great cocktails, but reservations are recommended. I don’t remember exactly what I had. I do remember that it was served in a cute little flask shaped like a kerosene can, and that the bar had the most expansive selection of high end Champagne I’ve ever seen. One Mile at a Time would probably love it.
Everywhere I went in this city I saw something cool, whether very old or very new. I highly recommend you take the time to visit during your next trip to Europe if you haven’t been there before.