“I don’t know why you decided to come to Prague in November” our tour guide exclaims as we huddle together in the Old Town Square, teeth chattering, knees shaking. “It’s one of the coldest months of the year!” Well, there’s nothing we can do about that now. The bitter cold that is sinking into our bones doesn’t take away from the beauty and charm of the historical centre of the Czech capital however. An old, charismatic yet dynamic city of approximately 1.2 million inhabitants, Prague is a cultural metropolis with a youthful, laid back vibe that still manages to retain a strong sense of it’s past.
The beauty of the city lies in it’s quaint cobblestoned side streets lined with artisan shops and bakeries selling Czech specialities and gingerbread men that use the front windows of buildings to sell their produce and send sweet aromas wafting through the air. With it’s high end fashion shops, active theatre and arts scene and a young population among which include scads of writers and fashion designers, it’s easy to forget that the Iron Curtain cast a dark shadow over the city just over 25 years ago.
History of Prague/ Walking Tour of the City
When my friend Hannah and I visited the city, we opted to do the Sandeman’s free walking tour on our first day to get our bearings. Our guide was a humorous and knowledgeable local who gave us an informative yet entertaining tour of the city while also giving us tips on where to eat and drink.
Our guide starts the tour off in the Old Town Square by giving us a brief history of Czechoslovakia. The first people to ever settle in the Czech lands were a Celtic tribe called the Boii who were dominant during Celtic Roman times. The neighbouring Germans referred to their land as ‘Boii heim’ (home of the Boii) and it was from this that the name ‘Bohemia’ was derived. To read more about the country’s history, czech out the historical article I wrote here: A short guide to Czech history (see what I just did there?)
On one side of the Old Town Square, the Jan Huss monument memorial towers proudly above passers-by, featuring a statue of Jan Huss and his Protestant followers standing defiantly in front of the Cathedral before them. According to our tour guide, Huss began the Reformation a full century before Martin Luther did by openly criticizing the moral decay of the Catholic Church in his works. Huss’ influence was so strong that a century later, 90% of Czech inhabitants were Hussite.
However, that is no longer the case, as our tour guide pointed out to us. Nowadays, only 1% of the Czech population are Protestant, 10% are Catholic and as many as 60% are atheist.
Our next stop is Wenceslas Square, named after the patron saint of Bohemia. More of a boulevard than a square, it is characterised by it’s classical and Baroque style architecture and elegant hotel facades. It’s main focal point is the National Museum, a towering neoclassical building which stands majestically at the top of the square. Our guide points to a spot on the ground in front of the building, diverting our gazes from the statues and stucco work we’ve just begun to admire. The thing she is pointing to is a bronze cross embedded in the cobbles of the courtyard, which, we are told, is a memorial to Jan Palach. Palach was a history and politics student who committed suicide in protest to the Soviet invasion by self-immolation, i.e. by setting himself on fire. After a period of reforms under the liberal leader Dubcek in 1968, the Soviet government grew worrisome that allowing these reforms to continue would jeopardise the survival of the Eastern bloc. As a result, they deployed over 600,000 troops to Czechoslovakia, much to the annoyance of the Czechs. They tried to protest by carrying sporadic acts of violence and demonstrating. Palach’s funeral turned into a massive protest against the occupation and his suicide by self-immolation started a disturbing trend which others would follow in subsequent months, such as Jan Zajic. Czechoslovakia remained Soviet controlled until 1989, when the Velvet Revolution ended Soviet rule peacefully.
The final stop on our tour is the Jewish Quarter of the city, The Josefov as it is known by the locals. Nowadays, it is a lively and affluent area with high end designer shops and trendy bars and restaurants. This is ironic given the fact that it was always one of the poorest areas of the city with ghettos and slums commonplace. Established in the 13th century, it is steeped in history and a really interesting district to explore, offering six different synagogues, Gothic architecture and a Jewish museum. It seems remarkable that so many old Jewish monuments did not fall prey to the bombings from the Luftwaffe during the Second World War- but this is no accident. Chillingly, Hitler intended to preserve this area so that it could be used as a “Museum of an extinct Race” in the future. He also gave specific orders that the army not destroy any of the buildings or monuments in the city, as he intended for Prague to become the artistic and cultural capital of the Third Reich. The only building in Prague destroyed by the Nazis was the Old Town Hall, the remains of which can still be seen on the Old Town Square.
Food and Drink
After exploring all the districts and side streets of the city in the bitter cold, you’re sure to have worked up an appetite! Czech food isn’t exactly synonymous with healthy eating but you’re on holiday- who count calories abroad, anyway? Goulash, potato dumplings and schnitzel are staples on any Czech menu, but if this doesn’t sound like you’re type of thing, don’t worry. There are plenty of other restaurants offering different types of cuisines.
What’s more, Prague offers food and drink for very reasonable prices. We paid an average of €8- €10 for a large meal and a pint of beer during our stay.
For lunch I would recommend the following places-
Café Slavia- this old-worldly café is full of history and charm: It was opened in 1881 and soon became a meeting place for artists and intellectuals including former President Vaclav Havel who was a regular customer here during his dissident years. It is a pleasant place to get breakfast or lunch and the menu offers Czech specialities as well as international cuisine. It’s high ceilings and Art Deco interior make you feel like you’ve been whisked off to another era and create a gorgeous atmosphere to dine with friends or sip on the café’s signature hot chocolate.
Café Lourve– this is an elegant and airy Art Nouveau café located in the city’s shopping district and was visited by customers such as Kafka and Einstein. It was closed during the Communist era because of it’s ‘bourgeois’ feel but re-opened in the early nineties. This is another great place to get breakfast or lunch or to seek refuge from the hustle and bustle from the city! The menu is diverse and reasonably priced, featuring a wide range of dishes and vegetarian and coeliac options.
Café Milena– this café was named after Kafka’s lover and is located on the first floor of a historical building in the Old Town Square.
A delicacy you must try during your stay in Prague is the ‘Trdelník’– don’t be put off by the spelling!- this is a sweet, fire cooked, cylindrical pastry similar to a donut sold from street vendors throughout the year. Some stalls offer them filled with chocolate, vanilla cream or strawberries and whipped cream but my advice is to just order a classic one rolled in cinnamon and sugar. You will not need to look far to try one of these delicacies as Trdelník stalls are ubiquitous in all of the main squares and touristy areas- just follow the smell of cinnamon and caramelised sugar. Best enjoyed ravenously after a night out on the walk back to your hostel!
If you like beer, you’ll be in your element over here. The selection to try from is huge, whether you want light or dark beer, lager or ale, the average pint costing less than €2. The first brewing was recorded in a monastery outside the city in 883 AD, so the Czechs probably know a thing or two about it. What’s more, Czech beer is packed full of vitamins and nutrients, so much so that our tour guide told us that her doctor recommended that she drink beer while she was pregnant with her son, who apparently is now quite tall for his age. I won’t argue about that finding! It’s no surprise really that the Czechs are the highest consumers of beer in the world, even surpassing their German neighbours. If you want to go all out and get the authentic beer-drinking experience check out the Strahov Monastery. A little bit outside the city, but from what I hear their unique flavours and lush surroundings make it totally worth the visit. You can get here with the number 22 tram or by walking uphill along Uvoz Street.
The Astronomical Clock
The Astronomical Clock, located in the Old Town Square is a medieval clock which has chimed since 1410 and has indicators for Babylonian time, a Zodiacal ring and an old Czech time scale. The four animated figures flanking the clock represent things that were despised at the time of the Clock’s production- greed, vanity, death and lust.
The Charles Bridge
This iconic bridge links the Old Town to Mala Straná, and frames the sight of Prague Castle. It was built in 1357 and features an alley of Baroque style statues.
This Castle complex dates back to the 9th century and is now where the Czech president has his office. It contains many churches such as St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the Holy Cross Chapel, the opulent Royal Palace and some towers. Entrance to the complex is free, however you have to pay to get access to the inside of St. Vitus’ Cathedral as well as other museums. I would highly recommend getting a guided tour while you’re here.
The Kafka Museum
This museum is a must see for any Kafka fans out there, or even those of you who have just leafed through some of his short stories in a bookshop. The Kafka Museum presents the psychological torments and inner struggles of this talented writer who never fully believed in himself in a relatable and interactive way. It’s thought provoking and leaves you with a good overview of his works.
The Communist Museum
This is an engrossing and informative museum which documents Czech history from the start of the 20th Century to 1989, explaining how the Communist government came to power, how people reacted to it and what the lives of people were like during this time period. It focuses on Communism from a social, economic, military and historical point of view, detailing the most banal things in the lives of the people to giving accounts of different leaders’ policies and the uprisings which sprung from this oppressive, restrictive regime. A must see for all you history buffs out there, but also for those who haven’t got the slightest clue about Czech history- you’re sure to learn so much from it.
For a city so aesthetically pleasing and harmoniously laid out, it’s nightlife is somewhat frenetic and wild, with bars of questionable morality, strip clubs and quasi-legal brothels never too far away. It’s main streets are all too often filled with raucous Stag party groups jeering and shouting as local Czechs look on, shaking their heads whilst insouciantly smoking their joints.
The nightlife scene encompasses a large part of the city from the mainstream Old Town Square district to some of it’s seedier areas. Note– do not visit Wenceslas Square at night unless you want to be offered to try some Class A drugs or have a prostitute come up to you and offer her services. Like most places, you can have a great night out if you stick to the main areas of the city. You really shouldn’t miss checking out the pulse of this energetic city at night which is almost as busy at 4am as it is at 4pm, albeit with different types of people!
Prague is renowned for it’s ice bars, a concept which I find hard to understand. If you’ve been walking around a city all day in sub-zero conditions that would test even the most hardy, robust build of Eskimo, why in God’s name would you choose to go into an ice bar of your own volition, and more than likely have to pay extra to do so?
If however you enjoy the searing pain that below freezing temperatures brings- which surprisingly lots of people seem to- check out the Ice Bar in Karlovy Lazne which is a part of Prague’s signature 5 storey club. I’ll admit the fact that a bar where everything is made of ice, including glasses, walls and tables does sound cool, but I’m just not in the habit of entering places where you have to wrap yourself in a foil emergency blanket, like the ones you’d see a paramedic using to prevent hypothermia. While standing outside the door to the bar, Hannah and I encountered two tall, burly German guys who came stumbling out the door, rubbing their hands together deliriously with lips reduced to a thin blue line- needless to say we took their advice and didn’t venture in. Maybe next time, if we come back in summer. Maybe.
When Kafka wrote that dear little Mother Prague “had claws” and would never let you go, he wasn’t joking. This city offers something for everyone- art lovers, history buffs, architects, writers and party animals alike are all bound to find something here. In a city that was repressed under a socialist tyranny for so long, you get a sense that the city is somehow still relishing the diversity and freedom that it now contains, and that it’s inhabitants have been imbued with a liberal, more open way of viewing the world. So the next time you see a cheap flight to Prague on offer don’t hesitate- convince the gang in your group chat, pack your woolies, and let yourself get lost exploring the city’s tangle of side streets, little squares and cute bridges. You’ll never get too far from the centre, but if you do, the sound of local harp players and smell of gingerbread men will bring you back.