We were too early for festive fairs and fairy lights and too late for golden October. Early November in Europe is a touring season betwixt and between, offering neither clear blue skies nor glistening white snow.
A cold coming we had of it
Just the worst time of year
Yet still the rain-slicked paving stones of Prague led us on paths of fascination and beauty.
It may cover an area of only around 500 square kilometres and the Old Town itself is very compact but I defy anyone to explore it all in a short break. We had just three nights in this extraordinary, historical, musical, architectural and quirky city. We packed as much in as we could, yet we barely scraped the surface of what Prague has to offer.
Situated on the same latitude as Paris, Frankfurt and Vancouver, Prague (or Praha locally) stands on the banks of the Vltava river and is home to around 2.2 million people. With warm summers and chilly winters it’s good for year-round travel. A cosmopolitan city, about 14% of the population are from other countries and English is widely spoken.
The most extraordinary feature is that its buildings have survived almost entirely intact for generations, weathering world wars, uprisings and an influx of around 6.4 million visitors each year. Cubism rubs shoulders with art deco, gothic with baroque, medieval with renaissance. The whole of the Old Town is a UNESCO designated World Heritage site.
We will definitely return to explore more and visit some of the amazing museums, but here’s a round-up of all the things we sought out, stumbled across, learned and enjoyed during our flying visit.
Prague walking tour
A guided walk around any city is a great way to get your bearings. Prague has dozens of options covering different aspects of the city. The Tourist Office has a few free places on some of them, but paying around 250 Czech Korunas, a little less than £10 in 2017, will guarantee you a ticket.
We were part of a group trip with a free city walk included and our guide Vladimiri was charming, patient and peppered her talk with snippets of information touching on almost every aspect of city life.
Some of Prague’s monuments are frankly hard to fathom without a guide to help you interpret them. Standing under a huge image of St Wenceslas astride an upside-down dead horse in the atrium of the art deco Lucerna shopping centre I would never never have guessed its mocking reference to the fall of communism.
Its creator David Cerný remains tight-lipped about its definitive meaning but it’s clearly an inversion of the more famous statue of Wenceslas on horseback in the main square. Cerný is also responsible for the unsettling giant babies crawling up the city’s television tower so it can be assumed the suspended horse isn’t a straightforward tribute.
Without a guide we’d probably have missed this oddity and the arcade itself which is home to a fascinating display of old radios. Another shopping centre nearby boasts a huge stained glass window created in 1940 advertising the electronics company TESLA.
A tour will ensure you see the main sights and your guide will throw in some fascinating facts about the people, the culture and the Praha way of life.
Prague is full of squares, but the most important is Wenceslas Square. Founded by the Bohemian King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and named for the city’s patron saint (the Good King in that merry carol) almost every significant event in Prague has taken place here.
From national celebrations to the protests of the Prague Uprising and demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution against the communist regime. Today it’s a modern shopping centre presided over by the huge National Museum Building (under renovation in late 2017) and surrounded by architectural gems.
Visitors also flock to Old Town Square, again surrounded by buildings of almost every era including the twin towered gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn. It’s home to the famous astronomical clock on the Town Hall. Dating from 1410 it’s the oldest working clock of its kind.
Hard to interpret without a science degree (or a knowledgeable guide) it has an hourly show where images appear in the small windows above the clock face. Hundreds gather to watch it, but blink and you’ll miss it, as it only lasts 20 seconds. Probably not worth the wait, to be honest.
Another obligatory stroll is over Charles Bridge to marvel at its statues, many of them originals, and even rub a few for luck. Bridge construction began in 1357, under Charles IV and until 1841 it was the only place to cross the Vltava so was of huge strategic importance.
It’s survived floods and traffic (although now it’s pedestrianised) and affords great views of the city. Dotted along its length you’ll find buskers, street artists and souvenir sellers.
Just over the bridge on the west bank is a little bakery selling the best local delicacy trdlo -a sugar-and-cinnamon encrusted enriched dough, wrapped around a cone-shape mould, lightly toasted, filled with a vanilla, apple or chocolate mixture and topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit.
They’re on sale all over the city and Pork Belly did a lot of market research before his eyes and stomach led him to sample this particular one. He can vouch for its deliciousness and warming properties on a cold and damp November day!
Prague Castle dominates the western skyline and it’s quite a hike up to the top of the hill above to get the best views across the city. You can let the funicular take the strain, but we took a more leisurely route through the grounds of the Strahov Monastery. It was beautiful amongst the fallen leaves under a leaden grey sky with the bare branches framing the city.
All paths lead to the famous Petrin Tower where a stiff climb (if you have the energy) or a rapid lift ride (for an additional fee) will give you a magnificent panorama, both day and night.
Everywhere, on every street, you’ll find examples of almost every style and design. In London you’d have to walk miles to see such architecture but in Prague the buildings are cheek-by-jowl and all remarkably clean, with little city grime. Don’t forget to stop and peer down the little alleyways.
Every time we did this we were rewarded with glimpses of courtyards and narrow passageways, many opening up into glorious gardens, hidden churches or more weird and wonderful statues. On the west bank we found Prague’s narrowest street – a pedestrianised corridor so tiny it even has traffic lights to ease congestion.
The Municipal Building, situated right next to the historic Powder Tower one of the original 13 city gates, is a highly decorated art nouveau building hosing the world famous venue Smetana Hall.
Unless you’re attending a concert or taking a guided tour you can’t see much of its famously decorated interior, but the café is all fancy balconies and glittering chandeliers.
A little way south of the main tourist areas, on the Rašin embankment, you’ll find Dancing House. Designed by the Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunic working with Frank Gehry, it stands out amongst the surrounding baroque, gothic and art nouveau edifices.
Startlingly the glass tower appears to be bending gently in the arms of a dancing partner, leading Gehry himself to nickname the towers Fred and Ginger. Some say it’s out of place in such an ancient city, but it’s beautiful in its own way. The best view is to partly cross the Jiráskuv bridge opposite and look back.
Music ripples under the surface wherever you go. The city boasts three opera houses, including the National Theatre and the Theatre of the Estates where Mozart directed the world premier of his Don Giovanni in October 1787. Fans of the film Amadeus might recognise the interior as many scenes were filmed there.
In fact Prague is a movie-maker’s paradise, with its ancient buildings, paved streets and beautiful riverside setting.
The Rudolfinum, once the seat of the Czechoslovakian Parliament, is one of the main music venues in the city and is home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s named in honour of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, who presided over the opening in 1885. The Rudolfinum’s Dvo?ák Hall is one of the oldest concert halls in Europe and is noted for its excellent acoustics.
Once known as the City of a Hundred Spires (probably closer to 500 these days) the churches remain, even though Prague is a secular city – around 75% of Prague’s residents declare they have no religion. But the churches have been maintained and the majority are now concert venues with beautiful acoustics and glorious, soaring architecture.
I got the chance to sing in the Church of St Simeon and St Jude, the home of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, a restored Gothic masterpiece with an organ that’s been played by both Mozart and Haydn.
Lovers of more modern music can hear a Beatle song or two from buskers at the perennially popular John Lennon Wall. It’s not that the legend ever visited Prague, it’s just that his music became a secret symbol of rebellion during the communist regime and the wall a focus for subversive graffiti and expressions of love not war.
Sadly nowadays most of the original graffiti has gone, smothered by frequent paint overs and sprayed expletives. We found it all a bit underwhelming.
Just around the corner you’ll find the John Lennon Pub. Even if you don’t fancy a pint or a bar meal, do stop and look at the wall to the right of the door. There you’ll see marked the various heights the Vltava has reached in floods over the centuries. The marker for 2002 is truly shocking.
Café culture in Prague
Okay like any big city you can hardly move for coffee shops. All the big names are here – Starbucks, Costa and of course the Hard Rock Café which is housed in the 1890 VJ Rott building. Decorated with frescoes by Mikulas Ales it’s the most colourful façade in Little Square.
Inside hangs a specially commissioned chandelier in the shape of a guitar so you can order burgers with style, as long as you are prepared to wait – as with Hard Rocks all over the world it’s extremely popular.
Another option is the local but very touristy cafés that surround the squares. High prices but worth it for the atmosphere. We indulged in Café Mozart with excellent coffee, a view of the astronomical clock, the Old Town Square and delightfully presented cakes.
But once again, don’t ignore the side streets. We loved the small independent, Republica Coffee on Martinská. Admit we were seduced by the sign, but inside was warm, friendly and the coffee was superb – strong but well rounded and fruity too.
Prague’s popular nowadays for stag parties and hen dos and offers a huge range of wacky and fun things to do, mostly in private clubs so little seems to spill out onto the streets. However our evening strolls were enlivened by the Beer Bikes – a pedal powered machine where up to 10 revellers can booze their way around the town, serenading passers-by with chants and songs. Well it’s one way to burn off all the alcohol!
We spotted a knitted Marilyn Monroe in Vaclav Havel Square, beside the New Stage of the National Theatre (which incidentally looks like it’s been covered in bubble wrap!).
The statue outside the Kafka museum raises a few eyebrows. A pair of well-endowed men swivel their hips and pee into a pool. Lots of women could be seen dropping coins in the water – can’t imagine what they were wishing for!
Whilst admiring these fine gentlemen allow your nose to be tantalised by the aromas issuing from the traditional gingerbread shop opposite.
Another Kafka-esque moving monument is the giant head of the writer himself, situated just outside a shopping mall. Stand and watch as the metal sections slowly revolve and slide into different face patterns. We spent a good half an hour there trying to predict the apparently random sequence.
A tip for photographers is that the whole head, without a stray piece of nose or ear out of place, appears most frequently as it faces west.
And there’s more strangeness with the representation of Sigmund Freud hanging by his hand from a pole above Husova Street in the Old Town. It’s official name is Man Hanging Out and is meant to represent Freud’s constant battle with his fear of dying. It’s odd, worth seeing but look up or you will miss it.
Two places we gave a miss to this time were the KGB museum and the Sex Machines museum – both works of passionate collectors with very different interests – but each to his or her own!
One other museum we didn’t have time to visit and is definitely on our return To Do list is the Museum of Alchemy. The ancient alchemical laboratory was discovered during renovation work on the house in Haštalská street and there’s evidence of a pharmacy on the site dating back to the 15th century.
Nowadays they offer elixirs of love, memory and eternal youth while their café serves drinks embellished with dry ice.
Winter in Prague
Getting around is easy in such a compact city. The Metro, buses and trams serve both the centre and the suburbs and you can buy 24, 48 and 72 hour passes which are very convenient. Most hotels sell them without incurring additional surcharges. And for tourists there are riverboat rides, old car tours and horse and buggy trips.
Walking is best, but do mind the pedestrian crossings. Very clear red and green lights but you only get 11 seconds to cross and the ticking pretty much indicates the speed you need to go. It’s fine in the Old Town but definitely a challenge in the outskirts when you have to get across four lanes and a tram track!
Accommodation comes in all shapes and sizes from cheap and cheerful hostels to five star. We stayed just out of town in the Vienna House Diplomat. Not our usual style of travel but warm, comfy and with very friendly staff.
Souvenirs of Prague
If you want to bring back something to remind you of the city the standard souvenirs are Bohemian glassware, marionettes, garnets and wooden toys.
We bought some pretty Christmas ornaments and this fabulous apron, stitched on the spot to our specific design – a suitable memento of Praha.
More about Prague
Facts, figures and more on Prague Tourism website
Heading for Prague? Check out the Lonely Planet guides (affiliate)