The Prague skyline evoked a gasp as did our drink tab on the Old Town square. That’s the paradox of Prague. It’s a menage of tourist rip offs and heart stopping scenery, mind-blowing crowds and cobble stoned medieval streets. In Prague, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry – skip across the Charles bridge or jump off it. It’s a coin toss.
Old Town Prague is frozen in time – a medieval marvel which escaped the most brutal wrath of World War 2 with the narrow streets and cornucopia of gothic, baroque, and renaissance buildings largely in tact. As a consequence, it’s one of the largest, loveliest,and busiest cities in Europe. Old town is devoid of tourist mobs between 2 and 6 each morning and in February. During our June visit, we spent little time in Old Town and limited our visit to; wandering the streets to the square; elbowing our way across the square; and getting ripped off on the square. When nature blesses us with the uncharacteristically warm weekend in February, we’ll hop the four-hour train and return. On this visit, we have different fish to fry.
Our hotel was in the Andel area, a 20 minute walk from Charles Bridge. A spitfire with salmon-red hair and a personality to match greeted us – the owner, Kristina. Over welcome drinks she pulled out a map and gave us the rat-tat-tat Prague overview. Pay attention, it’s the best travel advise you’re gonna get. Do as she says and nobody gets hurt. Just remember to keep the marked up map with you.
Her hotel is next to the Staropramen brewery(follow the link for tour information) in a quiet, much more traditional Czech corner of the city. From here, it is a quick walk to the river, a longer walk – or tram ride – to the core tourist sites, a 15 minute stroll to the Vysehrad hill and Dvorak’s grave, and a 20 or so minute metro ride from the main train station. There’s an assortment of wonderful and cheap restaurants next door and sprinkled across the neighboring blocks. Each day we start and end with meals in this pleasantly affordable neighborhood. Couple that with our 65 Euro per night squeaky clean and pin drop quiet apartment, and we’re set.
Kristina’s best recommendation was to walk to the funicular, ride to the top of Petrin Hill (a single tram/metro ticket will pay for the trip), meander thru the park to the Strahov Monastery, onto the castle area, and down thru Mala Strana. It was all down hill with gorgeous panoramic views of the city. If you build up a thirst, stop by the monastery and their small micro brewery which is reputed to have some fine beers. It was early, and consequently we have no first hand experience. Let’s face it, you are in the Czech Republic… I’m betting on the monks and their beer – I’ve heard it is very good.
We spent some hours exploring and photographing the castle area and especially St. Vitus Cathedral. Prague has all the requisite changing of the
guard ceremonies and street music expected in the most popular tourist cities. We witnessed both during our visit to the castle. There’s always something happening here. We ended our walk in Mala Strana at lunch time. I love this relatively quiet and peaceful neighborhood below the Charles Bridge. Near the funicular base, we discovered a small Italian gem, Ristorante Carmelita. Fortunately, I ignored the nagging voice whispering “Czech’s can’t cook Italian” as the pasta would make your Italian nonna proud and the wood oven pizzas looked equally mouth-watering.
After lunch, we returned thru Mala Strana, braving the Charles Bridge crowds, to spend a few hours in the old Jewish neighborhood(see below for details). The Jewish cemetery and Pinkas Synagogue are two of the must
see sites in Europe. While the ticket price is a bit steep, I suggest you bite the bullet, slap down the money, and experience the emotion of these two very moving cornerstones of Jewish Prague. The main floor of the Pinkas is stark white walls with calligraphy names of Jews who perished during the war. The top floor of the Pinkas displays pictures drawn by Jewish children interred at the concentration camp just north of Prague, Theresienstadt (also known as Terezin). The old cemetery is a mess of crooked tombstones. Their willy-nilly appearance is due to the stacking of graves – in some places 12 graves deep. The remainder of the synagogues and museums are all worthwhile – and included within the single ticket price – but are not containable in this most whirl wind of visits.
Our one full day visit left us drained. We walked back towards our hotel to a traditional Czech restaurant, Andel Plzensky, and ended our day sitting outside on a beautiful summer evening, enjoying the stick to the ribs Czech cooking and local beer, and reflecting on a surprisingly wonderful day in this city I struggle to love. After dinner, we strolled the river bank. Wedding parties, Czech bands, tourists, young lovers all mingled along the river side promenade. Prague has yet to captivate me – but our relationship took a big step forward. Give us one pleasant February weekend – and we’ll be back.
Hotel: Aparthotel City 5. Vltavska 11. A funky main floor cafe with four floors of immaculate apartments. At 65 Euro per night (as low as 45 Euro in the low season) – neither the location, rooms, nor warm welcome and advice can be beaten. We’ll return.
Restaurants: Ristorante Carmilita: Ujezd 406/31 Wood fired oven pizza, delicious chicken and pasta dishes, nice wines and great beer all at very affordable prices. In Mala Strana but far enough from the mobs to be local and affordable.
Andel Plzenksy: Nadrazne 114 A classic beer garden atmosphere with good food, beers, desserts. Reasonable and busy – just across the road from the main Andel metro entrance.
Restaurce U Balbinu: Jungmannova 22. A good local option half way between New and Old Town near the Wenceslas Square. Back garden seating.
In all 3 restaurants English was spoken and the menus were translated. Each cost about 15 Euro per person with a full meal, drink and 10% tip (acceptable tipping ranges from 0 to 10%).
Breakfast near the hotel: Cafe Paul. A french bakery at the Andel metro stop (outside – near the entrance). Wonderful pastries and coffee – to go sandwiches – stand up tables. Average 4 Euro per person for a coffee and pastry.
Jewish Sites: This is one of the most important locations for Jewish history in the world. A 480 CZK ticket (around 18 Euro or 23 US dollars) allows one time access to six sites. The ticket will be individually validated at each site. This is the only means to access the Pinkas and the old cemetery. It is sold cash only (CZK or Euro). We bought our tickets outside the Pinkas which sits just in front of the cemetery. The remainder of the sites are in a relatively small area beyond the cemetery. Closed Saturdays and Jewish holidays.
Other sites: From Jungmannova (near the recommended restaurant), you can cut thru a small park near the P. Maria Snezna church. It’s not obvious from the street – but you will see folks coming and going thru a pathway on the Jungmannovo Namesti (back, right corner as you face the square). The park cuts over to Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske Namesti). It’s a small oasis in an otherwise bustling neighborhood.
Near the hotel is the Vysehrad hill (and castle) – reputed to be the original settlement of Prague. On this hill is the grave of the most famous Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak. One of our group (shout out to Annie!) got up early enough to check out this site the day we left.
Arrival Information: We arrived by train at the main station. Follow the signs to the metro. You will enter a large hall with 2 manned metro ticket booths, an ATM machine, and the entry to the metro (notice the direction you want to go). Assuming you don’t have Czech coins, buy tickets from the window (If you have coins, you can use the row of self-service machines) . If you know you will use the trams, metros, or funicular, buy the tickets here to avoid frustration later. Remember to stamp the ticket in the small machine as you enter the metro. Otherwise, it is as though you don’t have a ticket (something you don’t want to risk).
For the recommended hotel, enter the side posted “Ladvi”. Go one stop to Florenc and take the yellow line towards Zlicin. Exit at Andel. Assuming you come out the main exit, turn right and the hotel is down 2 blocks and to the left (have a map which covers this area – as it took me a few minutes to get my bearing).