I was unprepared for how blown away I’d be by the stunning city of Prague and its landscape peppered with Gothic spires, ornate art nouveau and Cubist corners. I’d always wanted to travel to Prague, but expected it to be more like busy, touristy Paris, which never entirely imbued its magic to me.
But Prague is small enough to get a handle on in a few days, and I was lucky to attend a wedding one day, receive a personal tour by two people born and bred in the city the next, and finally have a third day to wander and explore toute seule. It’s no wonder that it felt like a magical trip!
I’m going to share with you a few of my highlights – including some hidden wonders and funny finds for travellers who like to stray from the beaten track – thanks to the brilliant Lonely Prague pocket guide to Prague, and of course my personal tour-guides Michal and Terka (or at least, what we saw when we weren’t exchanging Hitchhiker’s Guide quotes etc.).
The Unmissable Sights (for free!)
There’s no denying that there are a few sights you must see if you visit Prague, and that these tourist hotspots aren’t where you would want to spend your whole trip. However, there’s a very good reason why visitors make a beeline for the triad of unmissable sights – Charles Bridge, the Astronomical Clock and the Old Town Square, and Prague Castle.
My guide book recommends walking the beautiful 520m long bridge built in 1357 early in the morning, although I found myself crossing it at 1.30am, prettily lit up with a few couples tottering home. The bridge leads up to Prague Castle, which merits a good half-day at least and an early start to cope with the long queue to security.
Rather than a castle, it’s actually an enormous walled complex the size of 7 football fields inside the gates. You can pay for a short tour or a long tour, which means passes to 4 or 7 (I think) of the main sights inside. However, if you’re feeling skint, it doesn’t cost anything to enter the castle complex, and you can enter the incredible Gothic St Vitus’ Cathedral for free, and just stand within a smaller roped-off area and absorb the architecture around you. I was informed that my visit was appropriate, as St Vitus was the patron saint of dancers!
You can also visit the torture instrument-filled dungeon towers for free, which were rather fascinating and included a story about an incarcerated knight who according to legend drew crowds from far and wide to hear his fiddle playing – but in reality, the ‘fiddling’ of the legend may actually refer to the secrets he screamed out as he was horribly tortured. Ah, medieval times were so romantic….
It costs nothing to see the beautiful views and castle gardens, and apparently you can visit the golden lane for free between 5-8pm, and although the (touristy) shops are closed then, the displays about the tiny houses’ former residents was interesting and known for housing Prague’s famous existentialist writer Frances Kafka. What I found most interesting was the house inhabited by Josef Kazda, who saved many Czech films while the country was under Nazi occupation.
Finally, I found an expensive but serene place for coffee, a great view and time with my journal in the Lobkowicz Palace café.
When wandering a city alone and with a limited budget (or if you just don’t feel like visiting museums all day) I find myself repeatedly searching for places with great views! Prague has no shortage at all of amazing viewpoints, so here are a few of my favourites that I found:
- St Nicholas church tower, not far from the castle. The church itself is worth visiting first – an inexplicably enormous Baroque masterpiece inside, with the largest fresco in Europe, if you can believe it. Just around the co
rner, you can climb the bell tower (for a separate fee) which is a completely different experience. The top of the tower was used by the communist secret police as a spy post, and so still has secretive tiny windows at the top.
- The Lobkowicz Palace cafe, mentioned above, is ideal for a shady-coffee-fuel-stop with amazing views.
- The wedding villa, next to the castle, was an incredible spot for my friends Eva & Stepan to get married, with Prague providing the backdrop to the altar. Well done them!
- One afternoon, pouring with rain, my friends and I decided to climb the 15th century Power Gate, which had tiny sheltered alcoves in the corners to stand and watch as the skies turned an incredible colour as the storm moved across the city.
This is something I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t had locals guiding me around. Buildings don’t simply have a name attributed to them, but they have a kind of small sculptural plaque/motif which gives important buildings their unique names. During the week I saw a bell, a girl with a sheep, five crowns and a snake either eating someone or with a very long tongue!
I kept seeing this mole character everywhere and wanted to know who he was. He’s a national well-loved Czech children’s character, which doesn’t speak in the cartoons but apparently cries a lot and is super cute! As a big fan of the Finnish equivalent, the Moomins, I’ll have to do some more research. He’s called Little Mole, although the word in Czech is a cute play on the word that sounds like ‘froglet’ or ‘owlet’ (‘mole-let?’) and our conversation led to a long exchange of our favourite Mole/Clangers episodes from our childhoods!
In addition to the interesting story of the film maker (pictured above) my friend is an excellent tour guide and I enjoyed the potted histories of Prague from the 14th century medieval ‘hunger wall’ on Petřín Hill which provided work for starving citizens, to the two rival German early 20th century linguists whose followers both wanted a statue to be built in the same prominent square and fell out over it, and the saints surrounding the Wenceslas statue, one of whom was so ‘totally badass’ (in the words of Michal) that he actually enslaved the devil and set him to work ploughing the Czech countryside. Wow.
Cycling around the parks
The sprayed-pink bicycles chained around the city are part of a bike-scheme start-up, to which people donate bikes, get given codes and can use them to get around the city. I hired a bike myself one afternoon, which was a great way to explore the larger parks – although I wasn’t too confident cycling around the unfamiliar road system the rest of the time! Cycling from one beer garden to the next and up to the giant metronome on the hill is a highly recommended way to spend an afternoon.
There’s amazing sculpture everywhere – David Cerny is one of the best known and rather contraversial Prague sculptors, and you can do a trail of his strange creations which include a fountain of two moving figures pissing onto the Czech Republic. Well worth a visit. I also saw penguins on the river, a giant metronome on the hill (a company apparently bought it and painted the pointer in their company colour green, and some activists came and painted it back to red again – hurrah for art lovers!), and some scary giant babies with plugs in their faces, climbing up the TV tower (Cerny again).
I completely didn’t realise before I went, but there’s also lots of Cubist history in Prague, which is another whole trail you could take. One aspect, is that Prague can boast the world’s one and only Cubist Lamppost. Near Wenceslas Square, amidst an architectural mish-mash, this unusual chunky concrete sight worth seeing was created by Emil Králíček in 1911-13. I didn’t realise that Prague had the biggest Cubist movement outside Paris, nor that it had its own movement called Czech Rondocubism influenced by the heavy ornamentation of its folk culture. There’s also the lovely Grand Café Orient, certainly the only cubist cafe I’ve ever been to, and a quiet spot near the Powder Gate for a quirky coffee.
Consider staying in the Jewish Quarter…
There’s so much more I could mention, but I will leave you with the recommendation of staying in the quiet but central and ‘hipster’ vibes Jewish Quarter – where you can find delicious Bakeshop Praha, local stop for beer and Czech desserts ‘Loka’, there are lots of art material shops, the cheap and cheerful ‘Art Hole Hostel’ where I stayed, and you’re a couple of minutes from the Old Town square. I would highly recommend ditching any ideas to stay near the Charles Bridge, and stop here for a few days’ unforgettable visit to Prague.