Where can you find a charming medieval city, hidden courtyards, winding lanes, a 14th-century bridge and some of the best beer Europe has to offer?
Look no further than Prague.
My first impression of the Czech capital is a place straight from the pages of a storybook. Not only is it an aesthetic gem, with reminders of medieval Bohemia everywhere, but it’s abuzz with character. From the romantic, colourful streets to the soaring towers and rich history it doesn’t take long for this city to find a special place in your heart.
Mere minutes after stepping off the bus I could tell why Prague is called ‘The Golden City of Spires’. It was an Autumn afternoon, the sun was shining and the everything was glowing. The gold detailing on buildings and the brightly coloured Old Town Square shone. There was energy everywhere – from tourists clustered around the Astronomical Clock to children blowing bubbles and running amongst the shimmering rainbow droplets.
Despite being weighed down by a heavy backpack and walking in circles, becoming increasingly disoriented as to which direction my hotel was, I was enchanted.
After a slight transport hiccup getting here, Jackie and I had less than 36 hours on the ground. So we checked into our hotel, went to dinner and were in bed by 9pm. Wild. The next day however was action stations. We had a lot to do in very little time.
Here’s a few things you can’t miss.
There’s no better way to get a feel from a city than via a quality free walking tour. They’re just about on par with museum audio guides in my books – essential. Most start in the Old Town Square and run for about two hours. You’ll meander through the Old Town, past gothic churches, into the Jewish Quarter and see some of the eclectic yet eerie statues scattered across the city, like the Cloaked Man.
Prague has a fascinating history from its Bohemian roots and playing a central role in the Roman Empire to the darker days of the 20th century. There’s no better way to travel through the ages and get a feel for what makes this place so rich.
Cross the Charles Bridge
Some days it can feel like you’re pushing past half of Europe so head here early. Charles Bridge is a striking stone structure linking the Old Town to the Lesser Side. You’ll see beautiful buildings, Prague Castle towering over fairytale-esque buildings below and up and down the lazy river which separates the sides. Of course, it wouldn’t be Prague without more head-turning and slightly disturbing statues. Also the people watching and photo bombing opportunities are endless.
Head to Josefov, the Jewish Quarter
Dating back to the 13th century this area was once a walled Jewish ghetto, now it’s one of Europe’s most complete collections of historical Jewish monuments. You can see Franz Kafka’s birthplace, the Jewish Cemetery and six synagogues here. Among the beautiful, storybook buildings and winding lanes is a devastating but important history. The area survived the Nazi 20th century occupation as Hitler wanted to preserve it as a ‘Museum of an Extinct Race.’ Give yourself plenty of time to wander and ponder the significance of the area.
Who doesn’t love a beautiful castle on a hill? Better yet it’s the largest coherent castle complex in Europe. Once you summit the hundreds of stairs (maybe not that many but it sure felt like it) and finish panting and are able to look back across the river you’ll be captivated by the view. If there’s any vantage point from which the city looks like an absolute fairytale this is it. Best to get in early as all this makes it a popular tourist, and Instagram, hotspot.
Wander the Old Town
Winding lanes all spill out into the lively heart of the city, the Old Town Square. Just a few blocks back you can stumble upon cafes, old-fashioned bars, churches and tiny gardens without a tourist in sight. There’s no shortage of charm and potential for exploration in the oldest part of the city.
Head to the Dancing House
This is the antithesis to the baroque, gothic and art nouveau buildings across the city. The fluid design, resembling a pair of dancers, is not only eye catching but one of the best spots to watch the sunset. Head to the rooftop bar for a few drinks while the setting sun bathes everything in shimmering golden hues. Remember to rug up in winter – it gets chilly!
Stay up late at Dog Bar
Vzorkovna is an edgby, underground bar. The place is a multi-level rabbit warren so prepare for an adventure. Cubby holes, hanging chairs, bleachers are just some of the eclectic elements. The best parts? Cheap beer and dogs. Yes, dogs. Big shaggy canines wander aimlessly eager for pats and snacks.
Drink Czech water
No, I don’t mean drink from the taps. Being the birthplace of Pilsner, beer is a massive part of Czech culture. It’s one of the best places in the world to enjoy a drop of amber nectar, even for non-beer drinkers. Prague consumes more beer per capita than anywhere else in the world so they know a thing or two when it comes to brewing it.
Catch the Astronomical Clock show
Every hour, on the hour crowds gather here to watch a mechanical show which was once considered a wonder of the world. But the people watching is better than the show itself. Tourists crowd around, cameras at the ready to catch the 600-year-old spectacle. However, it isn’t quite the spectacle. Not even close. Yet people still snap away, record videos and leave slightly deflated. In fact my walking tour guide described it as “Europe’s second most underwhelming attraction behind Stonehenge.”
Still, you can’t go to Prague without checking out the Astronomical Clock. It’s beautiful and comes with an intriguing history. Local legend has it that the city will suffer if the clock ceases to operate. In keeping with the city’s trend of odd statues there’s a creepy skeletal figure near the dial.
John Lennon wall
On our last morning Jackie and I set our alarms early and rushed through breakfast so we had plenty of time to check out the Lennon graffiti wall so many people rave about. “Is this it?” we asked each other when Google Maps said we’d reached our destination. Layers upon layers of spray paint cake this wall depicting dozens of random drawings and tags. If the Astronomical Clock is Europe’s second most underwhelming attraction this is the third. Surely there was something more? So I did a bit of Googling (which I highly recommend before you visit).
After his death Lennon became a pacifist hero for young Czechs. Since the 1980’s they’ve been spraying Beatles lyrics and political graffiti on the wall, especially during the height of the Soviet occupation. Despite attempts to whitewash the wall the secret police could never keep it clean for long. Today, the wall represents love and peace with the original Lennon portrait long lost under layers upon layers of paint.