In the heart of the Czech Republic, Prague is “the golden city of a hundred spires.” This vibrant Baroque capital escaped the worst bombing of World War II, so it remains one of Europe’s best-preserved cities. It’s the ideal springboard for travelers new to Eastern Europe — an accessible city with a story to tell and plenty to experience. When I need a break from history-heavy sightseeing, I stroll through its local markets, enjoy an outdoor concert, sip a Czech brew on a vista terrace or take a leisurely paddleboat ride on the Vltava River.
Treasures of the Old Town
The Old Town Square is my favorite place to start exploring Prague’s treasures. The vast square is ringed with colorful buildings; dotted with Baroque towers, steeples and statues; and alive with people. Horse-drawn carriages and Segways zip through constantly — a reminder that Prague is as much a city of yesterday as a city of today. At the top of the hour, locals gather around the towering astronomical clock to see a mechanical show of moving figures.
Explore the nearby open-air Havelska Market, a thriving hotbed of traditional-though-touristy Czech culture. Here you can browse for handicrafts, including fun “kitchen witch” marionettes for good luck. It’s also an inviting place to enjoy a healthy snack and connect with a local farmer.
At the head of the Old Town is the majestic Charles Bridge, lined with 17th and 18th century statues. Under communism, this pedestrian-only bridge crossing the Vltava River was quiet, its big Gothic towers and statues of saints coated in black soot. Today it’s a celebration of life, with a festival of artists and musicians all along its length.
A castle with a view
Another idyllic setting for an afternoon serenade is at Prague Castle, overlooking the river. There’s a tremendous city view and entertaining bands that play regularly at the gate. My favorite group is the Prague Castle Orchestra, headed by the friendly, mustachioed Josef. Prague booms with live and inexpensive classical music, jazz and theater. Be sure to catch a performance, whether on the street or at the famed Opera House.
After taking in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of a walk through Prague, consider a scenic tour from the water by renting a rowboat or paddleboat on the Vltava River. Float at your own pace among the swans and watch local lovers cruise by in their own boats.
Around sunset, the evening light is warm and the colors are rich. It’s the perfect time to grab a drink at the rooftop terrace at Hotel u Prince, overlooking the Old Town Square. While touristy, it offers the best views in town and refreshing Czech brews. Czechs are among the world’s most enthusiastic beer (“pivo”) drinkers, so whether you’re in a “restaurace” (restaurant), “hostinec” (pub) or “hospoda” (bar) — a beer will land on your table upon the slightest hint to the waiter. “Na Zdravi” (Cheers).
Memorable dining experiences
What you’d pay for a basic meal in Vienna or Munich will get you a memorable dining experience in Prague. From traditional, dark Czech beer halls, to elegant Art Nouveau dining rooms, to hip cafes, you won’t go hungry with stick-to-your-ribs Eastern European fare: goulash, dumplings, potatoes and lots of meat.
After a hearty Czech meal, I enjoy an amusing Prague tradition called Black Light Theater. Neon-clad acrobats dance and contort around the stage, creating optical illusions against a black backdrop. Although aficionados lament that it’s becoming a cheesy variety show, it’s still an unusual theater experience that many enjoy.
Prague’s seamless marriage of Old-World charm and modern urban bustle makes it ideal for experiences beyond the typical sightseeing routine. With music spilling into the streets, colorful farmers’ markets and animated pubs, it’s a city thriving with visitors and locals inviting you to join in.
IF YOU GO
SLEEPINGBrewery Hotel u Medvidku offers comfortable renovated rooms in a rustic, medieval shell with dark wood furniture (moderate, umedvidku.cz). Hotel Metamorphis rents bright, spacious rooms in a former 12th century hostel (splurge, hotelmetamorphis.cz).
EATINGHotel u Prince’s rooftop terrace is touristy, but it boasts spectacular views of Prague and offers an international menu (Staromestske Namesti 29, call 224-213-807). Pivovarsky Dum (“The Brewhouse”) is popular with locals for its variety of fresh beers, fine classic Czech dishes and an inviting interior (Lipova 15, call 296-216-666).
GETTING AROUND You can walk nearly everywhere in Prague, but it’s worth figuring out the public transportation system. The Metro is slick, the trams fun and the taxis quick and easy.