Prague City Guide by Fiona Lazareff
Prague is every bit as beautiful, historic and perfectly preserved as it is reputed to be. Yet many visitors end up feeling vaguely disappointed. Why? Because they missed the real gems and spent their time in areas which deserve only a glance at best.
Most guided tours start with recent history at The National Museum (where the Czechoslovak communist regime was peacefully overthrown in what is known as the Velvet Revolution) and work backwards ending up at the Castle, the oldest part of the city. But my advice is to start the other way round.
One other important bit of advice is to book tickets to the opera before you go. Even if you're not an opera buff, both the State Opera and the Estates theatre are beautiful buildings, and a night at the opera should not be missed. Bookings can be made
Prague Castle is half an hour’s walk from the city centre (10 minutes by tram or bus), and from its hilltop perch it offers a breathtaking view over the whole city. The castle itself has housed a steady stream of rulers, emperors and monarchs, ranging from its founder, Charles IV, to today’s President. Sprawling over 45 hectares it includes numerous buildings, churches, courtyards and ramparts which were in a permanent state of construction from the 9th – 18th centuries. Not surprisingly, it’s recognised by UNESCO as being one of the biggest castles in the world. Prague Cathedral’s Romanesque rotunda dates back to 926, its three-aisled basilica was completed in 1096 and the cathedral itself is Gothic in style. But even if it was "finished" in 1344 – the Czechs were still adding bits on until the beginning of the 20th century! In the crypt there are several imposing tombs including those of Charles IV and Rudolph II. Nearby is St Wenceslas’ Chapel, built in 1360 by Petr Parler, and St George’s Basilica, founded in 920 but with a 1680 Baroque façade, and said to be the best preserved Romanesque building in Bohemia. You should also see the Golden Lane, a street of tiny brightly painted houses built into the foundations of the fortifications, home to marksmen and goldsmiths in the 16th century. Later on Franz Kafka lived at number 22 but nowadays it’s all over-priced souvenir shops. Whilst you’re up at the castle, drop in at the National Gallery, which is like a Who’s Who of European painting from the 14th to 20th centuries, with works by Vivarini, Holbein, Rembrandt, Picasso and Klimt in the permanent collection, backed up by some interesting temporary exhibitions.
Whether it takes a few hours or a full day, when you’ve had your fill of the castle, you can saunter down the narrow cobbled street which leads to the Coty, perhaps stopping off at the beautiful Royal Summer Palace, which was built by Ferdinand I for Queen Anne in 1564. Further down the hill is the Loreta, a huge Baroque copy of the Virgin Mary’s home that has become a pilgrimage centre and which houses the Loreta Treasure, a collection of sacred objects. Inside there are beams and bricks supposedly from Nazareth and the steeple houses an amazing 27 different bells.
Five minutes walk away is the enormous Baroque Strahov Monastery, founded in 1140 by Vladislav II. Originally in Romanesque style, it went Renaissance after a fire in 1629, and tuned Baroque in 1698 (the last reconstruction was 1741 after the French invasion. It includes the Church of the Assumption and an 18th century library, today a memorial of national literature, where 130,000 rare manuscripts and prints are kept.
Now it's time to put your map away and get lost in the little paved streets of Mala Strana; this is probably the most attractive part of Prague with street upon street of unspoilt 17th century houses, leading onto magnificent squares and invariably outstanding Baroque churches. The narrow stone steps and iron balustrades call to mind nostalgic shots of the Montmarte of Paris in the 50s, but this is for real and there are endless streets of it. Maybe you just want to wander around, but take a closer look when you come to Nerodova Street. Cut in two by the Notre Dame church, with the top half of the street built by Santini, it’s a place that visibly marks historical and architectural changes.
Eventually you’ll end up at the river, nor far from Charles Bridge, Prague’s most instantly recognisable feature. The current bridge was finished in the 15th century, and is fortified by two towers. The middle of this bridge is the best place to appreciate Prague; you can absorb the beauty of the Little Town and the castle on one bank and the New Town on the other. Unfortunately, the bridge has fallen prey to mass tourism of the truly naff souvenir variety, so try to go either very early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid tour buses and hawkers. As you get to the end of the bridge you will see Saint Francis’s Church, which has marvellous acoustics (don’t forget to check the times of their candlelit concerts). Another way of taking in the splendours of the city is to take a boat ride, perhaps going down to Certova, with its overhanging houses on either side, reminiscent of Venice.
Don’t follow the crowds into the Old Town; wait until later. Instead turn right along the river. Admire the new Renaissance façade of the National Theatre and if you haven’t booked already (http://www.divento.com/) pop in and get some reasonably priced tickets for a play, an opera or a ballet. Just around the back is the Laterna Magika, another auditorium devoted to “Black Light Theatre” a Prague-born style in which movement is translated into light while the actors are seemingly invisible. Once the evening’s entertainment has been organised, turn into Kremencova and visit the U Flecku Brewery (see Eating and Drinking). The brewery has been making beer for over 500 years and was visited by Napoleon on his ill-fated march towards Russia. The guided tours are fascinating and a beer (or two) at the end is refreshing and very welcome.
When the crowds have gone, head back to Stare Mesto, the Old Town’s main square. The most picturesque way to get there is to go through the Klementium Monastery, with its marvellous collection of churches and other buildings constructed over the centuries. Occupied first by the Dominicans then by Jesuits, the oldest building is the St Clement Church, which dates back to 1232 although it was rebuilt in 1713. The Mirror Chapel, built in 1724, is now a concert hall, and the monastery’s main building has become a library with over 6 million books.
You have now reached the heart of Prague, Stare Mesto. It’s striking because it’s so enormous and because it’s surrounded by buildings from almost every age: the Town Hall and Tin Churches are in Gothic style, St Nicholas is Baroque and the Kinsky Palace is Rococo. The old Town Hall was built by John of Luxembourg in 1338. It has a 70m high tower with a chapel and an astronomical clock (built in 1410) over which tiny figures of the apostles march every hour. Another charming feature of the square is the houses, all painted different colours for tax reasons! The square has been the site of many historic events, including the execution of 27 revolutionaries who revolted against the Habsburgs in 1621. A short walk a way is the Municipal Hall (Obecni Dum) which includes a delightful brasserie (see Eating and Drinking).
You can put away your guide now and enjoy exploring the winding cobbled streets around the square. Michalska has some interesting art galleries and small restaurants and Male Namesi is a very pretty square in front of a graceful Baroque town hall. There is a good restaurant here too, called Urotta (see Eating and Drinking). You’ll come across the Estates Theatre, where Mozart’s Don Giovanni was first performed, and countless churches as well as cafes and little shops. Be warned though: many of the surrounding streets are lined with shops selling tourist rubbish.
If you walk towards the National Theatre, there is a very pretty area around the Betlem Chapel, with quiet cobbled streets, small squares and discreet inner courtyards, with surprisingly few tourists and souvenir shops. The chapel may not appear very interesting but it was built in 1394 and used by Jan Hus to preach the reformist ideas which led to his being burned at the stake in 1415. The church was pulled down in 1786, only to be restored in 1945 within its preserved walls.
If you still have time, head for the Vaclavste Namesti in the New Town, a down-market version of a Parisian boulevard, complete with shops, casinos and fast food joints. Looking up the avenue, the imposing presence of the National Museum dominates, fronted by the Wenceslas memorial. Pop into the museum just to see the rather grand interior or any interesting temporary exhibitions, but bear in mind that the majestic staircase is also used for classical concerts, so you may want to make a booking for one of these. A better bet may be the Museum of the City of Prague, north of the river, with a brilliant model of the city; or try the State Opera, another magnificent façade housing a world famous opera house (see "http://www.divento.com for programme and bookings).
Eating and Drinking
Once the watering hole of the Bohemian elite, this brewery /restaurant/beer garden now harbours jovial tourists singing Viva l’Espagna to the accompaniment of musicians in national dress, but decor-wise little has changed over the centuries. It still has dark wood panels and beams and wrought iron fittings, stone-flagged floors and oak furniture darkened with age. The over-generous helpings of food are stodgy but sufficient: cold starters cost between 75-120K and an enormous main course will set you back 220-390K (but will feed at least two). If you can possibly still be hungry desserts range from 49-99K (including the traditional pancake or strudel).
Kremencova 11 110 00 Praha +420 249 15118
The Obecni Dum
The brasserie in the Obecni Dum (Town Hall) is a good choice if only for the original 1912 Art Nouveau décor. The huge room is dominated by ornate brass and crystal chandeliers, reflected in the ubiquitous mirrors. One entire side is open onto the square, in striking contrast to the traditional beer tavern and there’s also a pianist playing at a grand piano. Stop here for a drink, snack or a full-on meal, choosing from dishes like crabmeat with toasted bread (145K) or chicken salad with oranges, lettuce and walnuts (145K). There’s also a good selection of fresh salads for 155K and sandwiches for 85-170K. There's also a good choice of old fahioned ornate-looking cakes and pastries.
Namesti epubliky, 5 110 00 Praha 1
+42 02200 27 63
This 3-room restaurant on the delightful Male Nam square opened in April and is an almost perfect mix of traditional and contemporary. The Gothic Room comes complete with giant cauldron and suits of armour, whilst the Roman Room has a beautiful vaulted ceiling, stone flagged floor, pine tables and live music. The main room is rustic too, with ochre walls, pine furniture and brass light fittings. The dishes are bread dumpling (181K) and beef goulash à la Rott (161K). For dessert, the Old Bohemian honey cake (49K) is irresistible.
U Rotta, Male nam, 3 Praha, 1 110 00
+ 42 02 24 22 95 29
Tucked away on a quite residential street of 17th century town houses, David is one of the few really excellent restaurants in the New Town. The dining room is a candle-lit 16th century vaulted room with a whitewashed ceiling and stonewalls. The focus is on local cuisine. Outsatnding are the foie gras with apples (490K) or the wild boar (390K).
Club Restaurant David, Trziste 21/611, Praha 1
+ 42 02 57 53 31 09
The Real Thing
We found a real Czech restaurant almost by accident. The decoration is simple and unremarkable and there is a large selection of dishes based mostly around rice or pasta. Not surprisingly you don’t find the Czech national dishes here. Salads cost 69-85K, starters will set you back 45-55K, soups such as chicken bouillon with almonds 30K, and meat or pasta dishes can be anything from pasta 70-170K. The set menu at 85K is excellent value for money!
V Zite 657
+42 02 63 09 29 21
AghaRTA Jazz Centrum
+42 02 2221 1275
The best jazz venue in the city.
+42 02 2425 4776
Slick dance club offering house and techno, with a vegetarian café and an art gallery upstairs.
Lucerna Music Bar
+42 02 2421 7108
Bar with jazz and rock music and space to dance.
+42 02 2271 0147
A huge complex with concert venues, bars and cafes.
Strelecky Ostrov 336
+42 02 2491 9235 *bleep*tail bar with a terrace that’s open until 3am.