Friday, January 24, 2020

Prague: A Travel Guide for Europe’s Best Destination

There are many beautiful cities in Europe but right now Prague is one of the most popular destinations, receiving approximately 21 million visitors each year.

I first learned about The Czech Republic in third grade, when it was still known as Czechoslovakia. My teacher was born there and she taught the class about her culture and traditions.

Prague - “the city of a hundred spires” should definitely be on your bucket list. Vibrant baroque buildings line cobble stone streets and the historic center is surrounded by impressive Gothic churches, modern art installations and charming bridges that arch gracefully over the Vltava River.

I traveled from Berlin to Prague with Side Trip Tours. The company takes small groups on one-way trips between cities so you don’t have to waste a whole day in transit. I love this idea because instead of idly watching the world go by from a plane, train or bus, you can explore the sights along the way with a knowledgeable guide. The tour from Berlin to Prague is 10.5 hours and tickets cost 65 - 75 per person.

On our way to Prague we stopped at Moritzburg Castle in the German state of Saxony.

The Elbe Sandstone Mountains in Saxon Switzerland.

And our last stop before arriving in Prague was Dresden. To learn more about this interesting town check out my Berlin Travel Guide.

Since Prague is a walkable city, I suggest staying close to the historic center. We booked a room at The Grand Majestic Plaza, right around the corner from Palladium Shopping Mall and close to the iconic Powder Tower.

We visited in the fall for our anniversary and the weather was fantastic. Like most European countries, summer is busy season and winter is low season so hotels are much cheaper.

The best way to see Prague is on-foot, but if you get tired the tram system can take you almost anywhere in the city.

My private tour guide advised me not to use taxis because they usually rip people off. If you must take a cab, make sure to agree on a rate before getting in or a 20 ride may end up costing 200. We booked a hotel car back to the airport for 30.00.

The Transit Pass includes all modes of transportation (trams, metro, and Petrin Funicular). It cost 24 CZK for 30 minutes, 32 CZK for 90 minutes, 110 CZK for 24 hours and 310 CZK for three days. All tickets must be validated before riding and can be purchased at metro station machines, newsstands, snack shops and tourist information offices. More details are available online at pragueguidefm.

Currency Exchange
The Czech Republic uses the Koruna – abbreviated as Kc or CZK. 100 CZK is approximately $5.71 Canadian or $4.40 USD but make sure to check updated rates online.

It is a good idea to get money exchanged in your home country prior to departure because most places in Prague only use local currency. If you find shops and restaurants willing to take Euros, be careful. They often create their own exchange rate which is usually unfair.

If you need to change money in Prague, avoid random ATMs scattered around the city. It is better to use machines attached to official banks. Exchange Kiosks are usually safe because it is illegal for them to charge processing and handling fees.

Old Town Square and Surrounding Attractions
An excellent place to begin your tour is the Powder Tower – a monumental entrance to the old town which was completed in 1475.

As you walk through the archway, there is a picturesque boulevard lined with stores and restaurants. Keep straight and you will end up at the Old Town Square – located between Wencelas Square and the Charles Bridge.

Old Town Square

In this area you will also find Town Hall, Tyn Church, St, Nicholas Church, the Jan Hus Memorial, Kinsky Palace National Gallery, The Stone Bell House and the world famous Astronomical Clock.

Every hour on the hour a huge crowd gathers around the clock to watch the gears change and enjoy the procession of the apostles. This is the third oldest Astronomical Clock in the world – installed in 1410.

**Travel Tip: Be extra vigilant when standing in crowds around the Astronomical Clock, Royal Palace or Charles Bride. Keep purses, backpacks and bags in front of you at all times. Pick-pockets are active in these areas and often blend in with tourists. For more safety tips read – Tips for Planning a Great Vacation: What Every Traveler Should Know.

It is free to enter St. Nicholas Church so stop by and admire the gorgeous alter and glamorous chandeliers.

St. Nicholas Church (to the left)

For the best panoramic views of the city, I highly recommend the observatory deck atop the Old Town Hall Clock Tower.

View from the Clock Tower

To purchase tickets for the tower, make your way to the red building left of the Astronomical Clock. Tickets cost 250 CZK and there is an elevator to the top.

**Travel Tip: Close to the Square you will also find the Municipal Library of Prague. Many people pass by it without a second glance but in the lobby there is an amazing book tower designed to look like an endless tunnel.

When you need a break, find a seat in the little park near St. Nicholas Church. Tourists and locals stop for the roast pig and local beer but I prefer fresh fruit from the Farmer’s Market.

The market is also a great place to find deals on local goods, produce and souvenirs. I became obsessed with this delicious chocolate bar. It tastes like a cherry Oh Henry with chunks of yummy fruit and nuts.

Tips for Visiting the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle
The bridge and the castle are the most popular tourist attractions in the city so visiting them may require some planning. Most days there are so many people you can barely see the bridge and security lines at the castle can take up to 3 hours.

I suggest touring these historic sites on the same day since you have to cross the Charles Bridge to reach the castle. The best time to go is early in the morning. We arrived at 7 am and were among the first people there. I was able to get some great photos and enjoy the scenery without anyone in my way.

You can also enjoy aerial views from the Old Town Bridge Tower but it doesn’t open until 10 am and tickets are 100 CZK per person.

On the castle side of the Charles Bridge you will see an area where all the trams converge. Take number 22 uphill and get off at the Pohorelec stop. From there it is an easy walk downhill and the scenery is amazing.

If you don’t mind sweating, you can also walk uphill to the castle but the climb is steep and long so be prepared.

Once you reach Prague Castle the entrance will be on the left and like most buildings in Prague, it opens at 9 am. As mentioned, you will have to go through security and tickets for various tour routes can be purchased inside.

I chose Circuit B for 20 / 250 CZK. It includes Golden Lane, The Old Royal Palace, Basilica of St. George and St. Vitus Cathedral. In my opinion the only structure worth seeing is St. Vitus (the most beautiful church in Prague). The other buildings are less intriguing and a few are under construction.

Golden Lane is a small, colorful street that was built to house the guards in the 16th century. It was named after the goldsmiths who worked there.

Basilica of St. George

**Travel Tip: On your way back to town, stop at the Garden Cafe for a sweet treat, coffee or cool drink. The view is spectacular.

Closer to the Charles Bridge (on the street directly in front of the crosswalk) there is the small snack stall selling fresh fruit juice and large pizza slices for just 2 (I always find the pizza).

Vlata River Cruise
When you make your way back to the Charles Bridge, you will notice several cruise companies trying to get your attention. The Prague Venice Boat Cruise has the only fleet small enough to access the narrow canals. Ticket agents are dressed in white sailor uniforms at the foot of the bridge.

The Tour cost 340 CZK and includes ice cream or gingerbread, a hot drink or beer and entrance to the Charles Bridge Museum which is actually quite interesting. 

This is one of the better cruises but I suggest skipping it altogether. You won’t see anything you can’t see while standing on the riverbank and the “Venice-like canals” they advertise look more like abandoned back alleys. Your best bet is to take a stroll along the Vltava River at sunset or enjoy the view from a waterfront patio with a glass of wine. The boats don’t venture very far upriver.

Cool Things near the Charles Bridge
At the foot of the Charles Bridge (right before the intersection) there is a narrow covered walkway to the right. This well placed tourist lane has shops, currency exchange kiosks and a Robotic Bar! Entrance is free and you can order drinks on the computer.

Next door there is an Ice Bar claiming to be the fifth largest in Europe but there is a cover charge to get in.

The Dancing House stands out against the skyline because the design and color is unique. Inside there is a restaurant, art gallery and conference center. Most people stop to have a drink on the rooftop terrace overlooking the city.

From The Dancing House cross the street, walk along the river and enjoy the vibrant colors of Prague. You will pass beautiful parks that are perfect for picnics and relaxation.

If you continue towards the Charles Bridge, you will see the Prague National Theater. The river side of the street (by the paddle boat rentals) is the perfect place to capture a photo.

I didn’t make it to Petrin Hill or Letna Park but I heard they are worth visiting for amazing sunset views and beer.

Wenceslas Square is the center of the business and cultural communities in the new town of Prague. Many events occur here including demonstrations, celebrations and public gatherings. You will also find stores, theaters, hotels and restaurants.

The best way to spend your time in Prague after visiting all the attractions on your list is to wander around aimlessly and sample local treats. I recommend the Choco Topia Chocolate Museum. They sell a wide variety of sweets from all over the world and the adjoining wax museum is pretty good.

My husband is obsessed with Trdelnik – a soft, flaky pastry cooked over hot coals and rolled in crushed walnuts and sugar. You can have it stuffed with ice cream and fruit or slathered in Nutella. This delicious dessert originated in Budapest which is where I first tried it. In Hungary they call it Kurtoskalacs and here in Toronto it is commonly referred to as Chimney Cake. For my fellow Torontonians who are not planning a European vacation any time soon, try Eva’s Original Chimneys in Port Credit. Their traditional recipe is the best I’ve had in Canada.

There are also luxury candy stores where you can buy palm-sized gummy bears and other over-sized sweets.

When you’ve had enough sugar, enjoy the art installations around town. The Head of Franz Kafka (a German language writer) is 11 meters high and made of 42 rotating panels that are constantly in motion.

Around the corner from the Franz Kafka piece you will find a trendy mall with a food court offering a variety of cuisines. I had a delicious chicken tikka wrap at Bombay Express and there is a vegan bistro, fast food, sushi, a creperie and a Thai restaurant serving savory rice and noodle bowls. This is a great place to rest and have lunch.

Outside of Palladium Shopping Mall there is usually a small pop-up market selling street food and snacks. I tried the fried spiral potato which tastes like a combination of chips and French fries.

Inside the mall there are many floors and stores. 

For more vacation inspiration check out my Travel Page.

~ Bon Voyage!

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