Prague Guide: Top tips for your stay in the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’
The capital of the Czech Republic has a bit of everything – Baroque architecture, delicious food and a thriving art scene. Nick Constance goes totally Goulash.
Once thought of as old-fashioned and dull, Prague has magically mutated into one of Europe’s most vibrant cities.
Unfortunately, this means the only way you’re going to enjoy a princely stroll across Charles Bridge is if you rock up at 6am. Otherwise all you’ll see are crowds of people.
If you’re not into dawn strolls, try one of the neighbouring bridges, for an alternative view. The most surprising structure across the river is Trojsky Most (Troja Bridge) a creation so futuristic it could belong in Tokyo rather than Prague.
However, this wonderfully photogenic capital does offer a host of crowd-free spaces: coffee in some of Prague’s quirkiest courtyard cafes, a riverside picnic, or a lazy amble through Letná Park, in the Holešovice district, are all popular activities.
Located on an embankment-overlooking Vltava River, Letná Park is an equally good place to watch the afternoon sun go down, as it is to catch the twinkling lights illuminating the city’s ancient buildings.
It’s here you’ll find the 75ft metronome by International artist Vratislav Novak. The piece was erected in 1991 atop the massive stone plinth that originally served as the base for a monument to one Josef Vissarionovich Stalin. Some say the giant metronome is a symbolic reminder that whomever, or whatever party is in power, times change.
Alternatively, take the funicular up to the flowering cherry trees on Petřín Hill where there’s a lookout tower and a pavilion with a mirrored maze. With Prague’s historic centre being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you’ll find plenty to keep you intrigued.
If you’re feeling particularly idle, a riverboat tour is a perfect way to spend an afternoon. A fairy tale cruise through the Devil’s Channel will show you a number of Prague’s major waterfront attractions.
The Devil’s Channel is the name of a ‘hidden’ branch of the Vltava river, dividing Malá Strana from Kampa Island.
Boats depart from the dock at Čech Bridge, pier No. 5. Duration 50-minutes.
Tap And Go
Prague’s public transport system is excellent but, for my money, your best mode of transport is to walk. I bought a 3-day Prague card – valid for all public transport – but the weather was so good and the Old Town so gloriously pretty I walked everywhere.
To give you some scale, a medium-paced stroll across the city will take you less than 2 hours. If you have walking difficulties, the next best approach is definitely the tram. Having said the above, a Prague Card does allow free entry to over 50 attractions, plus 30 more with a discount.
On the 3rd day, I found myself at the foot of Powder Tower, the meeting point to join a walking tour about the Czech Resistance, during World War 2.
As well as showing us a network of tunnels, under the Town Hall, our guide gave us a lesson on Alois Denemarek and Jan Kubis, the key players in Anthropoid – a Czech Resistance operation to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most senior figures in Germany’s Third Reich.
Each detail of our tour was fascinating in a way that history at school wasn’t. Join the tour after a lunch of a cold Czech beer and a bowl of fiery Goulash. Highly recommended.
Sights and Sounds
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Prague Castle is the largest castle complex in the world, with an area of almost 70,000 m².
Originally the seat of Bohemian princes and kings, Prague castle has been the president’s home since 1918. It’s most important buildings are: The Royal Palace, the Gothic St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the Baroque Old Royal Palace and the Romanesque St. George’s Basilica. If you arrive just before noon, you’ll also see the ceremonial changing of the guard with an unusual music accompaniment.
The monumental Charles Bridge is selfie-central. Keep your wits about you and it’s perfectly possible to get a shot with you, the bridge and Prague Castle all in the frame. Best of all, it’s a traffic-free, toll-free, free-to-roam zone.
Eats and Sleeps
The 160-room Four Seasons is one of Prague’s plushest hotels. It offers views of the above-mentioned Vltava River, Charles Bridge and Prague Castle from one side of the hotel, and the Old Town Square and Jewish Quarter from the other. Wenceslas Square is but a pleasant 10-minute walk away.
This big-shot bolt-hole was created by cleverly linking three structures from various architectural periods: Romanesque arches in the lobby, Art Nouveau interior motifs and an open-air terrace built around a baroque former laundry.
We had lunch at the hotel’s Italian-themed CottoCrudo restaurant, out on the terrace. Check out their to-die-for soft-poached eggs with black truffle pesto, or go for Sea Bass with baby calamari and broccoli sauce.
Puglia born Exec’ Chef Leonardo Di Clemente has totally got this ‘mamma style cuisine’ licked – utterly delicious.
The chic AVA spa offers a selection of treatments by Swiss Perfection, Sodashi and Omorovicza. There’s also a small ‘vitality pool’ with separate steam and sauna. A fitness studio keeps the gym bunnies cheerful.
“Unwind and relax as you sink into the healing waters of our Czech-inspired mineral baths, enhanced with essential oils and flower petals,” urges Spa Manager Anna Larina.
For an altogether different experience try the artfully renovated Golden Key Hotel. Part of the Asten Hotels group, this 25-room site is located in Nerudova St in Malá Strana, one of Prague’s most charming neighbourhoods.
Expect toiletries from L’Occitane, specially blended herbal teas and welcome cookies in your room.
Its prime central location puts many attractions within easy walking distance, which is why the Golden Key is such a superb base from which to explore this beautiful city. “We like to think of The Golden Key as the key that unlocks all of Prague,” says Director of Sales, Matúš Príkazský. It certainly did for me.
The Golden Key partners with Designum Café, a cosy café located in the entrance of the hotel. It’s a perfect place to spread out the map and plan your day.
Most people know about creative powerhouses such as Antonín Dvořák and Franz Kafka, but the Czech Republic isn’t generally known for its gastronomic wizardry. Nevertheless, things are slowly changing. Call it the 2nd wave of the Velvet Revolution.
Offering some of the finest flavours in town, Michelin-starred Field restaurant is the perfect pit stop for lovers of Blumenthalesque theatrics. We’re talking dry ice, smoky bubbles and crazily flavoured savoury ice cream.
It sits on a quiet, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it street in the busy Jewish Quarter, but far enough from the madding crowd.
With chef Radek Kašpárek at the helm, Field offers a 10-course Degustation Menu, or a regular 4-course feast, whatever takes your fancy. Signature dishes include delights such as Goose Liver Mousse and Plums with Sheep cheese and chestnuts.
Much of the presentation is totally over-the-top, but the food more than matches this melodramatic flimflam. Field is serious about food, but it also has a light-hearted, supper club feel…in a good way. Some of the artwork is pretty fabulous, too. Check out the ceiling.
Located in a former cloth factory in Karlin – Prague’s coolest quarter – the recently opened bistro-bakery ESKA is part of the larger Ambiente Restaurant group. This casual eatery was awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand, an honour to celebrate restaurants serving high quality food at reasonable prices. (To be included on the Bib Gourmand list, restaurants are required to serve two courses with wine or dessert, all for $40 or less.)
The food focuses on ‘old’ Czech favourites, but with a modern twist. I opted for White Cabbage soup to start, followed by Farmer’s Chicken with spelt, zucchini and basil. The portions at Eska are not particularly gut-busting, but the food is artfully presented with drizzles and sprinkles of magic.
The look is industrial-chic, with exposed brickwork, long communal tables and plenty of grey concrete. Think ‘repurposed’ New York loft. Think you should definitely give this place a go.
Prague is undoubtedly a city on the up. All you need to do is roam and soak – roam around the streets and soak up the atmosphere. I might just stick around and start writing the novel.
* Images supplied by Czech Tourism