Prague is such a magical place and I keep hearing so many great things about this historic city in Czech. Bisected by the Vltava River, Prague’s old town and the Castle are connected by the famous Charles Bridge that tens of thousands of tourists passing through every day. Filled with colorful baroque buildings, medieval spires, and Gothic churches, the city has such a poetic quality that inspires so many musicians, artists, writers – including Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, based on the backdrop of the Prague Spring.
I visited Prague when I was in Central Europe in December and I was planning to see the Christmas markets. It was actually the first post I did, introducing the Christmas markets in Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and Vienna. But apart from the Christmas markets – I did also explored many sites of these four cities during the day. To be honest, it was actually quite cold in December and I did not quite enjoy being out and about very much. You know, it’s a typical winter in Europe, gloomy, chillingly cold, and it gets dark so early in the afternoon. Shops close early and you didn’t get much time during the day to see all Prague has to offer. However, visiting Prague during Christmas does have its upside and you may find out why reading on.
There are so many things to see and do in Prague that you could easily spend a week in the city. If you have more time, I think it would be great to climb the Petrin hill or visit other parts of the city like Mala Strana and Nové Město (New Town). Since I only stay in Prague for two nights, I focused mainly on the Old Town and Prague Castle, find a few places to eat, explore the shops, go to a concert, and enjoy a quartet performance. I completely underestimated how grand and big Prague Castle as I basically spend the entire day there. The heritage site is absolutely incredible, especially with the Christmas Market behind the cathedral in December, after going through my pictures. I decided to write about the old town in this post and talk about the castle in my next post.
So here goes, part one of Exploring Prague: 2-day itinerary to cover all the city’s classics!
While the Czech Republic is a member state in the EU, it’s not in the Eurozone. (In fact, only 19 of 28 EU countries are in the Eurozone, and that means 9 countries aren’t. If you are interested to know what other EU countries are not in the Eurozone: Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and the UK). Czech Republic’s currency is the Czech Koruna, and 100 Czech Koruna is about 4 Euros. Given that credit card is also very common in hotels and restaurants (unless you are staying in an Airbnb and the host accepts only cash), you do not need to change that much. But note that if you are visiting the Christmas markets, the stalls only accept cash, and a hot drink is about 2-3 Euros. Money Exchange stores could be found all around the Old Town; the rate is slightly better in those around the train station. Once you get into the crowded area in the Old Town, the exchange rate could go up quite a bit. My suggestion – ask the hotel staff upon check-in and they may point you to the closest, safest, and best place to get Koruna with your Euros.
How to get around?
Prague has 3 metro lines and Metro Line A runs through the heart of the city, connecting the main tourist sights like the Prague Castle to Lesser Town to Old Town Square to the bottom of Wenceslas Square.
The city also has a sophisticated tram system that covers most parts of the old town; there are quite a lot of routes and to be honest, I didn’t bother to use the tram since Old Town is not that big and most places can be reached on foot. In other words, my foot is the best transportation to cover the Old Town, as I didn’t want to miss all the beautiful buildings and sceneries on the road. However, the tram and metro are a great option to visit places in the peripheral areas, like the Dancing House (Fred and Ginger).
Where to Stay?
Obviously, there are lots of options and places to stay in the Old Town, as for me, I stayed in CitySpot, which is a hip, modern and clean boutique hotel very close to the train station. As I mentioned, the hotel is only 150-meter away from the main train station, which is great if you plan to continue your journey to other cities or have an excursion on a day trip to places like Kutná Hora. Besides, it is a self-catering accommodation with an open kitchen that you can cook. The room is spacious and the hotel is only a short walk away to the Old Town Square. I personally love this hotel and it was my favorite.
What to Eat?
The great thing about visit Prague in December is that food is everywhere with the Christmas markets open till late. Restaurants usually close at around 9 to 10 pm in the Old Town and most of the restaurants are western food.
In fact, there are quite a lot of candy stores in the tourist area where you can find a great range of candies if this is your thing – from hard candies, gummies, chocolate, licorice, lollipops, and sours, to caramels. Don’t forget to taste Trdelník. It is a Transylvanian traditional pastry that could be seen basically everywhere in Prague. It is a traditional Slovak rolled pastry and they are served warm topped with a dusting of sugar, nuts, or cinnamon. Sometimes they put ice cream in the following canter. It tastes like a doughnut, but the texture is a bit chewier as the dough is roasted not fried.
Lastly, grab a coffee in one of the historic coffee houses. The two most popular coffee houses are Cafe Imperial, and Cafe Louvre: Založeno 1902. I went to Cafe Louvre one morning and there was already a line at the door. Luckily, the coffee house is actually quite big and the line moved fast, I got in waiting for about 15 minutes. Why Cafe Louvre is so famous? It’s because it’s the meeting place of Kafka with his three friends: Max Brod, Hugo Bergmann, and Felix Weltsch to talk about philosophy, literature, and politics during the period of 1902. The coffeehouse became famous then and it’s been a meeting place for many Czech artists and writers. To be honest, the food in Cafe Louvre is an “okay” – we had a club sandwich and coffee. The entrance of the cafe display historic pictures and every table has a paper pad with a pen, where you could get off-the-grid for a moment and imagine the life of the great minds in the past and actually write down about your experience in Prague.
Exploring Prague’s Old Town
Now, let’s get to the Old Town. The heart of Old Town is Prague’s largest market place, dating from the 10th century. A square is a wonderful place and every building around the square is a sight.
From the Church of our Lady before Tyn to Kinsky Palace, The House at the Minute, Estate Theater, Karolinum, The House at the Black Madonna, The Municipal House, The Stone Bell House, The Powder Tower, and Old Town Bridge Tower.
During Christmas, the Old Town Square is turned into a Christmas market. The market opens from day to night which is great to get food, gather with friends (in the cold), enjoy the street performance, and the incredible views.
The Old Town Hall is the centerpiece of the Old Town Square, and it is the most beautiful monument in Prague’s historical center. It was created from the 14th century by means of gradual purchasing of individual burgesses houses and their integration into a single unit. The hall consists of five historic houses that bear the characteristics of almost all the ensuing architectural periods. The building has a number of attractions, including the Astronomical Clock on the facade of the Old Town Hall since 1410. Another great place that not many people know about is climbing to the top of the tower and watch the Old Town Square from above. Visitors could purchase mTicket on their mobile phones to enter the tower without waiting in the queue, as well as download bonus content for their visit.
Every day, many tourists stand in front of the Astronomical Clock and try to decipher the time. While it might be a bit complicated to read time from the clock, it’s so much more than that. It accurately depicts the position of the sun, the moon, and the earth on the top part, and indicates the zodiac sign at the bottom part with images of the lives of Bohemian farmers. The 2 tiny windows at the top open hourly and the 12 apostles will rotate once with a chime. While the clock doesn’t have fancy music or eye-catching mechanism, it’s historic value and scientific importance has made it one (and actually the only one, I was told that the creator of this clock was blinded by the city council, hoping to stop him making another one elsewhere) great astronomic clock in the world.
The Church of Our Lady before Týn is the most eye-catching, and the tallest building in Old Town Square. The Gothic-style church is recognizable with its black twin Spires; in fact, this is how the church earned its nickname “Devil Church”. True, the design of the spire (which is not in the same size by the way) does have a certain “devil” quality with the pointy features that look like a devil’s horn. The entrance of the church is hard to find, too. While most churches have a front door, the entrance of The Church of our Lady before Týn is on the side. The front of the church is Týn School (so the church has “before Tyn” in the end). I walked around the church three times until I realized the church was closed during my visit…
Back to the Old Town Square, the area is filled with Christmas cheer. If you want to see a little more about my tips and advice on Christmas markets. But if you are there on a usual day, check out the beautiful buildings there. Not all buildings can be entered, visitors can still admire the exterior of the houses. Every house is special and has a story. The Kinsky Palace has a white and pink stucco facade. Built-in 1755, it was an old hotel. The House at the Minute is one of my favorites. Covered in ornate decorations depicting Greek mythology as well as references to biblical and Renaissance legends. The Estates Theater is one of the most beautiful theaters in Europe. Storch is a beautiful house with Renaissance paintings on its facade. Rott’s facade is painted by artist Mikulas Ales. House No.8 is where Kafka’s father opened his first business. Stone Bell House (now Prague City Gallery) is a gothic-style building in the 14th century with a stone bell. The House at the Stone Lamb is a house that can be easily identified with its gable, and a bas relief of the shepherd and a lamb. The House at the Two Golden Bears has to golden bear symbol at the entrance.
There is another church on the other side of Old Town Square – Church of St. Nicholas, and it is one of the finest Baroque-style churches built during the Bohemian times. So you see, the amount of work is enchanting in one place and you should spend at least a day (or even two) to look into them one by one. I agree that the Old Town Square is getting “touristy”, like many other popular destinations in Europe, always packed with tourists and filled with souvenir stores. Yet its valuable assets still remain and try to start your day a bit earlier to avoid the crowd. The square is much quieter before 10 am, this is the best time to look at the houses in the square, and then enjoy the market with the crowd in the late afternoon.
It takes about 10 to 15 minutes to walk from my hotel (close to the train station) to Old Town Square, the area is a little bit quieter to have a breather and there are some local shops in case you need to buy groceries for your stay. Check out the Powder Tower and the Municipal House – it is a landmark with a striking colorful mosaic Apotheosis of Prague according to a painting by Karel Spillar. This is also where the Prague Spring International Music Festival takes place.
Talking about music, Prague has quite an exciting music scene. If you are a fan of opera, Rudolfinum is the best music hall in Czech and where the Czech Philharmonic performs. I have also visited the Smetana Museum, which is located at the end of Charles Bridge by the river, and it showcases works, history, pictures, and music of Bedřich Smetana, the father of Czech music. Lastly, I would like to highly recommend going to a concert in a church in the evening. I walked into the Church of St. Nicholas during the day and it was the time that they are serving a Christmas mass. The singing in the church was so moving that I made up my mind to go to a concert. There’s usually a small table outside a church to sell tickets – tickets do sell out fast for the latest show, so I got tickets at the Cathedral of St. Clement Clementinum for the next day and I was still able to sit on the third row with an assigned seat and priority access. The concert starts at 6:30 pm and it elevated my experience in Prague to the next level. The song list (A. Vivaldi – the Four Seasons) is very well-known to the general crowd and it’s suitable for everyone. The quartet is very skilled and worked with each other seamlessly. On top of that, the backdrop of hearing music in a cathedral was impressive, I could almost hear every note bounce back from the roof of the hall to my ears, and it echoed in the air in harmony. While my ticket costs 700 Koruna (~ 27 Euros, not the cheapest I know, my friend told me they got tickets for half the price before), the concert worth every dime and I enjoyed it very much.