[This blog post contains activities – a night tour and river cruise – which were provided to us in exchange for an honest opinion. We will only ever recommend services or products which we have tried, tested and are 100% satisfied with ourselves]
Prague, or Praha, has a well-deserved reputation as one of Europe’s best cities to visit. A rival in beauty to the likes of Paris and Vienna, the ‘City of a Thousand Spires’ attracts millions upon millions of visitors every year, all of whom have been enticed by the alluring medieval old town, the famous terracotta rooftops, and – yes – some of the best beer you’ll find anywhere in the world.
Prague had so far eluded us in the five years or so that we’ve been travelling together, but we finally took the plunge when planning our Christmas market trip – an annual ritual to get us into the festive spirit! Our hope was that we’d avoid the bulk of the crowds which squeeze into Prague during the summer holidays, whilst getting our fix of mulled wine and market food.
It’s safe to say that Prague served up a treat on all fronts. The long weekend went by in a flash, and any doubts that the infamous tsunami of tourists would take away from the magic of the place were quickly dispelled. We’re already planning our next explore of the Czech Republic – but in the meantime, here are our thoughts and tips from our long weekend.
Day 1 – Cute Cafes and Exploring at Night
Our flight times could hardly have worked out better. An early start at Leeds Bradford Airport and a great flight across with Jet2 saw us land in Prague just after 10am. For anyone running on a strict annual leave budget, having almost a full day to explore when you arrive means you can feel like your holiday allowance is going that little bit further!
The trip got off to an inauspicious start when we decided to save cash by getting public transport into the city center rather than opting for an expensive taxi or shuttle bus. For the equivalent of just over £1, you can get the 119 bus straight from the terminal to Nádraží Veleslavín metro station, where you will transfer onto the A (green) line and straight into the middle of town – a journey which should take around 45 minutes. You need to buy your tickets, and validate them, before boarding the bus – the good news is that there are plenty of ticket machines around to use. The bad news for us was that half of them were broken, and the other half were only accepting cash – despite having card readers.
We hadn’t accounted for needing cash so soon, and needed to find an ATM. Once this happens in an airport, you’re pretty much a captive audience, left to pray that the ATM providers have opted to take mercy on hapless new arrivals to their country. There was to be no such generosity in Prague airport, where we were charged nearly £8 to withdraw £25 of currency. Easily the most ridiculous markup of anywhere we’ve been so far!
Ah well, onwards and upwards. The journey into the center was fine, and any memories of the world’s worst ATM were cast aside by the time we stepped out onto the cobbled streets of Prague’s stunning old town. For a first-timer into the city, it’s almost overwhelming – history and beauty everywhere you look, intertwined with an uncanny number of mini-markets advertising absinthe and cannabis products (tip: they’re probably all fake).
It’s not only Prague’s medieval history which the savvy visitor should look out for. Having spent many long decades hidden behind the iron curtain, there are also plenty of subtle communist motifs to be spotted, which almost serves to accentuate the more traditionally beautiful buildings for which Prague is famous.
After wandering around with our rucksacks for a couple of hours, exploring the streets without too much of a plan or aim, it was time to search for a lunch spot. Even at lunch, most places we walked past were rammed full – not ideal with big bags, even if they could have squeezed us in. Thankfully, we stumbled across the inconspicuous looking Cafe No. 3 on a quiet street corner. With just 4 tables, intimate doesn’t quite describe the atmosphere here, but there was plenty of room to store our bags in the corner and we enjoyed some excellent coffee and food from their simple but delicious lunch menu. Highly recommended if you’re after a pit-stop and a change of pace in the Old Town.
Hunger and thirst abated, it was time for another quick wander before heading to check-in to our apartment and finally drop our rucksacks. This time, we headed across the Vltava River towards Prague’s ‘Lesser Town’ on the foothills of the imposing Prague Castle. Deciding to leave the serious exploration here until later, we skirted along the riverfront towards the Charles Bridge – probably the most iconic structure in the Czech capital, and certainly one of the most famous in Europe. Normally all eyes would be firmly fixed on this symbol of Prague – indeed they were, until Matt spotted a small stretch of riverbank covered in literally hundreds of swans and ducks. Cue great excitement, and plenty of photographs. After what must have felt to Lucy like several hours, we finally moved on and headed back across the Charles Bridge towards our accommodation.
By the time we’d arrived and checked in at our apartment (the excellent Krakovksa Terraces), our walking route had taken us straight across the crowded but crazily pretty Charles Bridge, the stunning Old Town Square, and the vast Wenceslas Square. Not bad for a few hours’ exploring!
We weren’t quite done with the walking yet, as we’d been booked onto a night walking tour thanks to Klook, which helps travelers like us find and book experiences across the world at the click of a button. The Prague Night Walking Tour was a great introduction to the city, and we were lucky enough to be the only ones booked onto the tour that evening – so we had our guide, Petra, to ourselves! Meeting just underneath the status of King Charles IV, at the entrance to the eponymous Charles Bridge, Petra asked what we wanted to discover and promptly tailored the tour to help us get the most out of it, walking us across the Charles Bridge and through the winding streets of the Lesser Town before heading up to Prague Castle.
Heading up to the castle in itself meant that it was well worth booking onto the tour, as the evening is without doubt the best time to visit Prague Castle. During the day, you can barely move for the thousands of tourists who pour in from coaches and off cruises. At night, however, it’s comparatively deserted, and we really felt like we had the place to ourselves. As well as getting a great general understanding of the history of Prague through the years, our small group size also gave us the chance to ask Petra her thoughts and experiences on living like a local in Prague – from the best hidden summertime bars, to her thoughts on the Lime & Bolt scooters which have sprung up all over the city (and, indeed, the world!) over the last couple of years!
After a couple of hours, we headed back across the river and made our way to the Old Town Square where we waved goodbye to Petra and set off in search of Christmas Market food! A few sausages later and it was time to call it a day – there was plenty to still explore in Prague, but our own wanders and the bonus of an excellent walking tour meant that we’d had a great introduction to this wonderful city.
Day 2 – More Markets and Hitting the Water!
After demolishing breakfast in our apartment (we’d done a big supermarket shop the day before!), we headed back out to explore more of the Christmas markets in daylight. They are dotted all over the city – from the most touristy (and busiest and most expensive!) in the Old Town Square, to smaller local markets a short tram journey away. The markets follow the tried and tested model of most throughout Europe – an enticing collection of artisan goods, Christmas decorations and produce stalls, mixed in with the constantly popular food and hot drink stalls which attracts locals and tourists by the thousands. Wrapping up warm with a mulled wine and a group of friends is, without doubt, one of the best things about Christmas.
Having always spent Christmas market trips in Germany up until now, there were a couple of things which were obviously different across the border in the Czech Republic. Firstly, one of the best things about German markets is the amazing selection of mulled wine mugs – these are normally personalised based on the town you’re in (and, often, the year of the market), and so make a great souvenir. Sadly, Prague’s mulled wine was always served in plastic or polystyrene cups – apart from anything else, this didn’t seem like the most environmentally friendly option!
Secondly, the food in Prague’s markets – although arguably more varied than the classic selections of sausages, steak and potatoes in Germany – was noticeably more expensive. There was good reason for this, as much of it was served by weight. Charging nearly £5 per 100g meant that you could easily spend the best part of a fiver on three chunky garlic mushrooms – not exactly value for money! Nonetheless, the food was delicious – but it would certainly set you back if you were relying on it for your main meal of the day!
Having cleared out our bank accounts in exchange for a handful of stewed mushrooms, it was on to the day’s main event – an afternoon cruise down the river, which gave us a unique perspective on Prague from the warm comfort of a covered barge. This was absolutely one of the highlights of the weekend – the boat served a wide selection of food and drink, and you could sip your mulled wine or beer whilst watching the Charles Bridge statues wave you off into the distance. Tourist boats can often be a bit hit-and-miss, but Prague is definitely one place where you shouldn’t pass up the chance to get out onto the water. As with the night walking tour, the 2 hour Prague cruise can be easily booked via Klook, and the boats they use are first class compared to some which we saw out on the water. Ours even did a little ‘pirouette’ by the Charles Bridge to let everyone take the best photos.
Once back on dry land, we headed back into the throng of Prague’s Old Town, getting lost among the streets of the old Jewish Quarter and battling the crowds once more on the Charles Bridge before heading back to the apartment to cook up another dinner and plan the next day.
Day 3 – Crowded Castles
Having spent the first couple of days getting acquainted with the city, and its many Christmas markets, it was time to start getting cultural on our last full day. The plan was jump on a tram up to Prague Castle, explore some of the buildings around the complex, before heading back down into town and spending the afternoon in the museums dotted throughout the Jewish Quarter.
We were fully aware the Prague Castle would be busy, but we hadn’t quite appreciated just how long the queues would be even early in the morning! It couldn’t have been a bigger contrast to our seemingly exclusive wander around on the night tour a couple of days prior, as we emerged from our tram to find two monumental queues snaking their way out into the streets. Every visitor to the castle needs to go through airport style security, including bag checks, which means that the wait to get in can be a tedious process.
The castle complex is similar to the likes of the Kremlin, housing a myriad of museums and ticketed buildings within its walls, and if its these attractions which you’re hoping to visit then it’s definitely worth your time queuing up. If, however, you just want to wander around the ground, then we’d strongly recommend you wait until after 6pm when the ticketed attractions close, and the crowds evaporate. You can even walk down the famous Golden Lane, a picture-postcard street of impossibly small houses which is a paid attraction during the day, for free.
We bought a combi-ticket which got us entry to the stunningly beautiful St. Vitus Cathedral, as well as Golden Lane and couple of other chapels and halls. Even in the less-popular winter season, each place was heaving with people – many of whom need to take lessons in respecting the place you’re in. As an example, the number of tourists who took their hats off as requested at the entrance to the cathedral before putting them back on 5 seconds later as they joined the mosh-pit of selfie sticks and bizarre poses at the viewpoint looking down the length of the building was ridiculous.
Putting aside the worst aspects of mass tourism, the combi-ticket for the cathedral, palace, basilica and Golden Lane was a good pick. We also opted to pay an extra £6 or so to head up the cathedral tower – this was well worth it, with excellent views over the castle complex and the rest of Prague from the top.
Next stop after the castle was the Jewish Quarter, where another combi-ticket can get you access to a mix of synagogues and museums, as well as the Old Jewish cemetery. After visiting a few of these, you’ll have a real sense of the ancient, fascinating and – all too often – troubled history of the Jewish population in Prague. Particularly poignant is the cemetery -where over 100,000 are buried in an almost impossibly small space, with thousands of gravestones crammed in alongside each other – and the Holocaust memorial in the Pinkas Synagogue, which contains a harrowing collection of children’s drawings from the Terezin Ghetto. Important, and not to be missed.
Once we’d left the Jewish Quarter, a quick hop on the metro took us back to the Wenceslas Square, where we had a dinner reservation nearby at a restaurant where duck and goose was the specialty. Husinec is a cosy collection of caverns which serves great Czech food at decent prices, and even has its own beer tanks, so you can wash down your grab with an excellent glass of Czech pilsner. Between the goose, camembert, pork knuckle and beer which was piled onto our table, our walk home was transformed into a waddle.
Day 4 – Trams and Travels
Having spent most of our time so far in awe of the very center of Prague – exploring bridges, rivers, alleyways and castles – it was time to branch out. Prague’s tram network is incredibly straightforward to navigate, and the ‘PID Litacka’ app is the perfect place to buy your tickets without having to queue at the machines. We simply bought ourselves a day ticket and went exploring, hopping on and off whenever we fancied. It’s a great way to see bits of the city which you might otherwise have ignored, as well as a chance to discover restaurants and cafes which are more in line with the ‘local’ prices in the Czech Republic! Note: if you do opt for a paper ticket from the machine, make sure you validate it – they do check on a regular basis in Prague!
After exhausting the Prague tram network, we were getting annoyingly close to needing to head over to the airport to begin our journey back to the UK. There was still time, however, for one last trip to Charles Bridge to make the short climb up the tower and get one last panorama of Prague. This is a perfect city for a winter getaway, with some beautiful Christmas markets dotted everywhere you look. It will always be crowded, but with good reason – it’s the definition of the ‘something for everyone’ cliche, and there’s enough to discover that you could easily spend weeks here without getting bored. We’ll be back.