Prague, the 19th most-visited city on earth, sees more than 6 million tourists per year — quite an achievement for a town of only 300,000 inhabitants. What makes this landlocked city in a former communist country so appealing to vacationers? The answer can be boiled down to two words: safety and splendor. The Czech Republic is one of the few European countries lately untouched by terrorism — a growing concern for travelers these days. And Prague’s timeless and transcendent landscape is renowned for its beauty. Here are 10 ways to get the most out of your time in this popular city.
Discover the Jewish Quarter
You’ll find the names of Madeleine Albright’s ancestors, the Korbels, among 80,000 other Czech and Moravian Jews who perished under the Nazis, etched all over the interior walls of the 15th century Pinkas Synagogue, now a Holocaust Memorial. Prague’s Jewish Quarter in the former Jewish ghetto encompasses six synagogues, museums and a vast ancient cemetery chockablock with 12,000 headstones dating back to the 1400s. The Gothic-style Old-New Synagogue was completed in 1270 and is recognized as the oldest operating Jewish house of worship in Europe.
INFO Jewish museum admission $12.50; jewishmuseum.cz/en
Take a food tour or find a special restaurant
Prague has come a long way from its meat-and-potato goulash days, with three Michelin-starred restaurants and a growing number of culinary hot spots. Top picks include the molecular-gastronomy restaurant Field, adorably intimate Little Blue Duck, contemporary “Fred and Ginger” (in Frank Gehry’s Dancing House, pictured), riverfront Mlýnec restaurant and inventive Indian-Czech fusion V Zátiší. Prague also boasts two top-of-the-line vegetarian restaurants: Lehká Hlava (Clear Head) and Maitrea. If you’re in town only a few days, the best way to explore modern Czech cuisine is to delve into the myriad local favorites in one fell swoop on a Taste of Prague Food Tour.
INFO Food tour $120 per person; tasteofprague.com/taste-of-prague-food-tour
Paint the town in a vintage car
Anyone, anywhere can tool around in a taxi or plain-Jane vehicle, but Prague offers something quirkier for the visiting tourist: narrated rides around the city in antique automobiles. You’ll see plenty of knockoffs while strolling the streets (come on — a stretch Model-T?), so choose a company that can hook you up with an authentic, restored car complete with an English-speaking driver. Both pragueperfecttour.com and private-prague-guide.com offer the real deal.
INFO $85 for one hour in a car that seats one to four people, $160 for two hours (includes pick up at hotel and private, English-speaking guide/driver); historytrip.cz
Throw the peace sign by the vibrantly painted John Lennon wall
Though Lennon never visited here, his message of love and music was an inspiration to young Czechoslovakians during the later years of the communist regime. The sun-dappled wall in Lesser Town began as a memorial to Lennon, who was murdered in 1980. But artists and Velvet Revolutionaries started adding anti-communist cartoons and grievances, and the wall became a magnet for like-minded agitators. Now, the “Lennon Wall” is an amalgam of graffiti and pictures rendered in bold pigments, (mostly) spelling out messages of love.
Take a Vltava River cruise
You can’t miss the boats on the riverfront, or the skippers dressed in sailor-whites who hawk tours from booths by the Charles Bridge. An hourlong narrated boat trip on a small portion of the Vltava offers another perspective of the bridges that cross — and of the remarkable structures that line — the busy waterway. One of the strangest stories you’ll hear occurred during World War II, when Hitler installed his regional office in the ornate Rudolfinum Concert Hall. Hitler’s henchman Reinhard Heydrich ordered the statue of Mendelssohn, the only Jewish composer, to be removed from among many others that adorned the roof. But those tasked to take down Mendelssohn had no idea what he looked like, so they searched for the face with the largest nose. In so doing, the S.S. chose Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite musician.
INFO $12.50 for a 50-minute cruise; prague-boats.cz/river-cruises
Listen to classical music in a beatific setting
In 1787, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arranged to have the world premiere of his opera “Don Giovanni” staged in Prague at the opera hall now known as the Estates Theatre: a savvy move, as the city had already been a center of music and culture for centuries. Even if there isn’t a production of “Don Giovanni” scheduled during your visit, there are plenty of other opportunities hear the music of Bach, Dvorák, Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi and other classical composers in candlelit churches and palaces throughout Prague.
INFO Ticket prices range from free to $100; schedule at pragueexperience.com/opera-concerts/concert-halls.asp
Stroll the Charles Bridge
Heaving with craft and jewelry tables, artists, a-Cappella groups and legions of tourists, the Charles Bridge is a jamboree every day. Built in 1357, this pedestrian-only stone bridge links “Old Town” with “Lesser Town.” Nearly all of the 30 religious statues that flank the Charles Bridge (15 on each side) have been replaced over the centuries, though most date back several hundred years. Each sculpture represents a different Catholic Order, with a few that embody stories passed down through generations. St. John of Nepomuk, for example, was thrown from the bridge and killed at the request of the king. St. John’s statue is easily identified as the one with a halo of stars and the plaque at its base, rubbed to a burnished gleam by those seeking to ensure a quick return to Prague (as legend has it).
Tour, see a concert or have ‘the best coffee in Prague,’ at the Municipal House
This splendid Art Nouveau structure and the neighboring Powder Tower are located in Republic Square. Walk or drive through the watchtower, one of the 13 remaining 15th century stone-built city gates, to find the 1911 Municipal House. Looking every inch the ornate Victorian arcade, the sprawling concert hall, restaurant and commercial venue takes up a whole city block. There’s an ornamental mosaic above the entrance, an abundance of stained-glass windows and a maze of rooms seen via tours offered to the public daily.
INFO Concerts $35-$65; obecnidum.cz/en
Tour the meticulously maintained Prague Castle
As the Czech Republic is no longer a monarchy (it became a republic in 1918), the Changing of the Guard at Prague Castle is merely ceremonial. But tell that to the throngs of visitors who giddily gather each hour to watch soldiers exchange arms at the gates of the vast castle complex. First built as a fortification atop a strategic hill overlooking the Vltava River during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor in the 9th century, Prague Castle is now the official residence of the president of the Czech Republic. It encompasses St. Vitus Cathedral, Golden Lane, courtyards and seemingly endless buildings that once had to absorb 2,000 courtiers of Versailles and other visiting royal courts. While you can wander the castle complex at random, it’s best to take a tour or rent an audio headset for a self-guided tour.
INFO Admission about $6-$15; hrad.cz/en/prague-castle-for-visitors
Explore Old Town Square
Rimmed by multicolored buildings, restaurants, shops, Gothic churches and the Old Town Hall Tower, this festive city square is a gathering place for visitors. At its center, the monument of religious reformer Jan Hus serves the same role as the kiosk clock in New York’s Grand Central Terminal — an easily identifiable meeting point. Prague native Franz Kafka lived in a house on the square (recognized by the cameo-like frieze on its dark exterior), which stands a few paces from one of the oldest public timepieces in the world. People wait a long time for the overhyped hourly appearance of four mechanical figures set in motion on the famous astronomical clock, installed on the Old Town Hall Tower in 1410. The tiny skeleton, Death, rings a bell, and then a second later, it’s over.