Prague, Czech Republic. Review, photos and video tour of this magical European city
What an amazing place Prague is. Perfect for a weekend visit. This article give you things To Do, information about hotels and staying there, holidays and short breaks, why it is popular for stag and hen parties and other top travel Tips.
I had been to Prague (capital of the Czech Republic) twice over the last 10 years or so, and both times only saw the airport to hotel to meeting room and back to the airport. I decided it was time to change that and arranged a 3 night long weekend visit. And wish I had done it sooner.
Prague = Rowdy stag and hen parties? Too busy?
Prague in recent years has had a reputation of being a bit of a tourist nightmare, renowned at one time for rowdy stag and hen weekends (largely people from the UK arriving on low cost flights) and in summer being rammed full, especially with US tourists who have added Prague as a must-see in their European schedule along with Paris.
It is clear that Prague is a very popular destination, the 6th most visited city in Europe I read somewhere (if that means anything) but as the heart of the old part of the city is quite compact and small, it does feel very busy as tourists all work (and walk) a fairly small route and area – as all the must-see attractions and in that area.
Prague = Ancient, undisturbed and fairy tale like
The city centre itself is quite remarkable. It is very ancient, undisturbed and fairy tale like. This is helped by the fact that it was occupied by the Germans in the 2nd World War, and was not bombed during its liberation. It seems then that all the development of new residential and tower blocks was made well out of the centre, and from the hills withing in the old city you can see what looks to be rather unattractive developments out of the city. I also wonder if during the Soviet years (after the Russians famously sent tanks in during 1968 to crush a move to greater democracy) there was not a lot of investment and upgrading and so the old buildings were retained. Ready for post iron curtain revival. I know that is true of the Petrin Tower which closed in 1979 for a decade as it had fallen into disrepair and was only recently restored and reopened.
It is noticeable how the local population and even the attractions across the area make almost no reference to the Soviet era in the history of the country and city itself. This is something I had noticed years ago when I had first visited for work, and also with local colleagues. People are uncomfortable talking about the part of history, and like to focus on the very far past, the now and the future. This is understandable.
The old part of Prague is especially remarkable. It is very magical and is like stepping back in time. Even the streets are cobbled through much of the old town!
The other thing that struck me is how small in relative terms the historical and so more tourist area of the city is. This is great as it is very easy to walk around the city and see everything you need to. It does though also make it quite busy, as all the tourists and sight seeing visitors are in a fairly compact area. It also means that in a weekend visit you can comfortably visit and see the major attractions you need to and should see.
The centre of Prague was incredibly neat and clean. It was something I noticed and yet you don’t seem to see people constantly cleaning, but the city is immaculately clean and neat.
As mentioned, the city is packed with sightseeing crowds. It was also interesting that there seemed to be a lot of young visitors of college, university and young traveller age (as well as school trips). It may have partly been the time of year, but it really stood out that the city seemed to attract and appeal to a fairly young crowd, and not sure if that is its history, if it is trendy or if also there is a lot of inexpensive young traveller friendly accommodation.
One other observation was the amount of glassware shops dotted around the city selling blown glass ornaments and vases. There seemed to be a constant flow of them. Also (and not sure why but there must be a good reason) there were a lot of shops selling puppets (the kind on strings). Again these seemed to be all over the place. I guess both of these have emerged to serve the large tourist trade. But both felt a bit tacky.
Easter is a big deal in Prague!
Easter is a big thing in Prague. There is a large Market in the Old Town Square, and all over town they sell easter eggs. But unlike in the UK these are not chocolate treats, but actual eggs that are hollowed out and very intricately designed. They are quite something, though you soon realise that this must be a large commercial enterprise as although there are many designs, all the shops and stalls are selling the same ones. So they are very impressive but not that personal or individual. But it still made me wonder what they do with the huge amounts of egg they must suck out of the shells (as assume you can’t get whole yolks out through the tiny holes) and than how they carve and decorate on such a scale. I never worked that riddle out!
So what are my tip tips for travellers visiting Prague?
#1 Getting there and getting around
As I mentioned, there is a very large airport with many connections and options including low-cost airlines from many European, and especially the UK, cities. It can be very cost effective to get to and from Prague. The airport is about half an hour by car from the city, and buses are the easiest way. Or book a pick-up in advance via the hotel you are staying at. Many of the tourist leaflets advise that if you are using a taxi from a taxi rank, or hailing one, that you agree a price before the trip, as there seems to have been some issues with rip-off and over-charging. I noted that at some taxi ranks across the city there were signs with guidelines on what a fare you should expect to pay, so you can make sure you agree the right price.
If you stay in the city itself, it is very easy to get around either by walking (as places that you are likely to want to see are all within reasonable walking distance). The other option is to use the Tram system. The tram network is very comprehensive and covers the city well, and well out into the suburbs. You can buy a day pass from hotel desks and corner shops. It is very inexpensive and very good value, and we found it easy to figure out the trams and routes. The daily pass also allows you to ride the venicular tram up to the Petrin Tower, which is must see and amazing it is included.
Another tip is to make sure you have change with you as everywhere charges for the toilet, even at attractions!
#2 When to go
Like most of Europe, summer will be jam packed in Prague. But it will also very stunning as the days will be long and warm and on the hills that overlook this pretty city are many outside bars and restaurants that would be great to sit and look at the scenery and to watch the people pass by.
Easter is a good time to go, as this is an important time in the city with the fair and lots of other activities and events going on.
In winter when there is snow on the ground and city, it is very beautiful and adds to the fairy tale feeling and look of the city. Though the streets and cobbles are quite icy and so getting around is less easy.
#3 Tours. Better to do it yourself
Unlike other major tourist cities, there is not the usual “open air bus tour”. This is partly I assume because the main things that you need to see you can’t get to on a bus – and need to walk to anyway. There are some tours that drive you to some of the key places and then escort you on foot into the various areas. So they may be worthwhile if you are not up for walking all the way, or don’t want to work out the trams.
As walking around is so key, there are many walking tours and tour companies. Though I think you can do this yourself. We saw loads of people walking around clutching a guide book so they could get the history and background. This for me is the best recommendation, assuming you can handle to walking.
One other feature are vintage open top cars that take you on a drive round the city, but they are quite expensive but seem popular. These seem to hang around by the Charles Bridge and near to Old Town Square.
There are also river tours along the beautiful river but they tend to be lunch or dinner cruises.
The must do sights to see and the routes I suggest:
Day one/ route one: Walk across the Charles Bridge, then through the old streets into the Old Town Square
Day Two/ route two: Walk up to the Castle and explore that for half a day, and then walk down the hill and catch the tram and visit the Petrin Tower.
Charles Bridge: This dates back to the 14th century and is one of the most famous landmarks of the city. It is also a magnet for tourists. There are huge barricade towers on both sides of the bridge, and very old and complex statutes dotted along it. There are small artist stands selling pictures, jewellery and the such. The views are stunning and great photo opportunities. On the one side is one of the tourist offices.
Old Town Square: After crossing the bridge you follow the crowds as they weave through the narrow streets with stunning old buildings and eventually come to the large Old Town Square. Just as you enter the square is the famous Astronomical Clock (which you can pay a fee to enter and climb right up the tower). It is quite amusing to watch as at the top of the hour, when it performs, huge crowds gather around the tower all staring at it and pointing their cameras at it. In Easter in the square is a large fair selling food and drink, with small stage. Around the square are many restaurants of varying quality and price.
As the Old Square is such an attraction, around it are many shops and other smaller destinations. One of the more popular is the Chocolate Museum and attached shop. The museum has a fee to enter, but in the shop they do demonstrations on making rock and sweets and attracts a big audience.
The Castle. This huge complex looks over the city from the top of a steep hill. This complex is quite something. It really is a city within a city and is very impressive and very popular. We walked up the steep hill and from up there are the most amazing views. You enter through impressive gates, with guards that people try and make laugh while they pose with them. You then enter this large square and have to queue to buy tickets. This was not that efficient, not helped by the fact that they take most currencies and so they keep having to work out rates. You can also hire an audio tour but have to go to a different line for that. There are 2 main tickets, which basically let you into more or less of the buildings and areas within the complex.
We had the one that let us into about 5 areas. This was plenty.
You go into the vast castle with its huge open hall. Round it are boards explaining the history and key events that took place. We also went into some of the churches, an old street that used to house the shops and workshops (and for those of you Harry Potter fans looked and felt like Diagonal Alley!). The buildings are huge, impressive and in amazing good repair.
You come out of the castle near the old vineyards, and this gives more stunning views. We walked down the hill and caught a tram across to the Petrin Tower.
Petrin Tower. This was built in the late 1800s inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Perched on top of another large hill opposite the castle, you reach it by a long venicular railway. It can have long queues to use it, and if you don’t want to wait then you can walk up through the park. Apparently Hitler had wanted the tower pulled down as he felt it ruined the view from the castle, but locals resisted. It was closed in 1979 as it was in a state of disrepair and reopened about 15 years later after restoration. I loved it. You climb up the stairs to the first level (about 100 stairs) and then over another 100 to the top. You need to have a good head for heights! The view from the 1st level (which we went to) is just amazing and you can see for miles and miles. Next to the tower is an old exhibit dating from the same era of a mirror maze and a room of mirrors that distort your image which children loved.
Prague was a great few days, and even better than I had expected it to be. There are many great hotels and restaurants and shops as well. Highly recommended.
Watch my audio and video tour of Prague with all of the sites mentioned above and more:
Watch a video and audio tour I did of the Petrin Tower:
To see all my photos on Flickr: click here