Traveler: Danielle Gervalis
When: May 2018
While I hate to crudely condense my visit to Prague, I can best sum it up like this; if you appreciate architecture, cheap beer and meat and potatoes, you will LOVE it here! It has been an established city for over a thousand years and a large majority of its historical landmarks were spared the ravages of war. Walking through Prague is a delightful experience filled with cobblestone alleyways, hidden courtyards and a pub on nearly every corner!
I’d been keeping an eye on trips to Prague for a while and the stars aligned over Memorial Day weekend. I booked a five day trip including flights and a stay at Hotel Antik in the middle of Old Town via my favorite travel site Trip Masters. The hotel was comfy and included a giant breakfast buffet with about seven different kinds of juice. Additionally, the staff was helpful with coordinating transportation to and from the airport. I was able to set up a reservation via email for $30 each way which took about 25 minutes.
If you enjoy checking out all of the tourist sites then I highly recommend staying in the historic areas. The city is incredibly walkable and you can get pretty much anywhere within 20 minutes. You’ll want to pack comfortable shoes since you will be walking on cobblestone up and downhill. If you’re looking for additional planning/packing tips, check out our travel friend’s list.
Things to Do
It’s the largest castle in the world and a focal point in vistas of the city. There are different ticket options you can purchase to tour, which are cheaper than buying an individual ticket at each site. I purchased the Circuit B which included the Gardens, Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, Golden Lane and Daliborka Tower for around $12 USD and felt like I saw everything! Make sure to give yourself plenty of time. The complex is SPRAWLING and can get jammed with tourists.
The site has been in use since 925 AD but construction on the Gothic style began in 1344 under the direction of Charles IV and wasn’t consecrated until 1929! Talk about a long term project. You can look around the entrance area to the Cathedral for free but if you want to see the main altar and crypts, you’ll have to purchase a ticket. The architecture and stained glass in the front really caught my eye. The artistry is impressive and the stunning hues really pop in the changing daylight.
Climb the 275 steps to the top of this tower, which once served as a gunpowder store, to get 360 degree views of the city across the Vltava river. It was an extra $7 and quite the workout but it does have amazing views!
This is a narrow alleyway lined with tiny, colorful houses with plaques describing the actual people who lived there. It’s interesting to see how the common people lived, mostly archers and artisans in the 1500s and later struggling artists, like Franz Kafka, in the shadow of this massive castle and cathedral. One of the most intriguing stories comes from Number 14, the house of Psychic Matylda Prusova. She was a famous fortune-teller who was later killed by the Gestapo as a result of her predictions of the end of the war and thus the communist regime.
Dating back to 1135, the palace was used by princesses and kings as a residence. When you walk into the Vladislav Hall, make sure to look up at the intricate ceiling which has been in place for over 500 years. However, a significant part of history occurred here, the Second Defenestration of Prague, where a group of Protestants nobles threw three of the Hapsberg emperor’s Catholic employees out a window. Fortunately, they survived because they fell into a massive pile of manure…. If you’re interested in hearing more about the Defenestrations in Prague, I recommend listening to the “Stuff you Missed in History Class” podcast on the topic.
More of a basement torture chamber than a tower these days, it was named after the first prisoner, Dalibor of Kozojedy, in 1498. There are multiple cells and medieval torture tools you can still see there today, including the pulley where they sunk the prisoners. Creepy stuff!
The Jewish Quarter in Prague has existed since the Middle Ages and expanded as more and more Jewish people were forced from their homes and came to the city. Much of the area was destroyed in the 1890s, however the areas surrounding the Town Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery were saved. There are multiple tour packages you can purchase ranging from $10-$20 within the neighborhood or in advance at their e-shop.
Old Jewish Cemetery
There are over 12,000 gravestones nestled into this medieval cemetery as it was the only site Jewish people were allowed to be buried. Since the site was never expanded, graves are toppled 12 deep. Tombstones of notable individuals are pointed out with museum markers, for example Rabbi Low, who was a scholar said to have magical powers and used them to create the Golem.
Founded in 1479, the building has vaulted gothic style ceilings and serves as a powerful memorial to the 77,297 Jewish Czech citizens who were did not return from Nazi concentration camps. Their names are written on the walls throughout the complex as reminder to visitors to never forget.
Of all the amazing architecture in Prague the building on the corner of Bilkova and Elisky Krasnohorske may be the most unusual. When the Jewish quarter was being rebuilt in the early 1900s, architects began to experiment… with repetitive geometric shapes. It’s in stark contrast to the rest of the city’s aesthetic.
A market place since the 11th century, Old Town is the heart of the city and a central spoke to all the excitement . Make sure to inspect the facades of the houses surrounding the square where you will find unique decorative details and historical markers.
Have you heard about the astronomical clock in Prague? Oh you know, the one that EVERYBODY talks about if they’ve been to the city? Naturally, it was under extensive construction when I visited so I can’t tell you about all its wonders but I’ve been assured it’s magical. Womp womp.
Such is the luck of a traveler and not to be dismayed, I had a grand time heading straight to the top of the tower and enjoying the 360 degree views of the plaza below! You’ll get a bird’s eye views of the gothic Church of our Lady before Tyn and the Jan Hus Monument. Best of all, there is a modern elevator straight to the top, making it accessible for all visitors.
Additionally, you can tour the other rooms in the town hall including the impressive entrance hall decorated with a gleaming tile motif. Additionally, the Old Council Hall was the site of another defenestration, where the mayor was thrown from the window. He survived the hall but was dragged by a mob with broken leg and executed in the square.
Prague has a complicated history when it comes to religious freedom. The rebirth of religious tolerance is commemorated by a large monument to Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake after being pronounced as a heretic in 1415, but is today remembered as a man who gave up his life instead of relinquishing his beliefs.
Basilica of St. James
Free to enter and explore, this Basilica has a stunning Baroque organ loft, a wooden Pieta, and two morbid stories to note. You’ll see the ornate tomb of Count Vratislav near the front. The count was said to have accidentally been buried alive, as his corpse was later found to be sitting up. Additionally, as soon as you enter on the right side, look up. You’ll see an odd object hanging from the wall. It’s a mummified hand! It’s been there for hundreds of years and the story goes that it was the arm of a thief who tried to steal the jewels from the Madonna on the altar. The Virgin Mary grabbed and held the arm so tightly, it had to be cut off.
Connecting Old Town to the Little Quarter is the famed Charles Bridge, which I consider my nemesis. Is the bridge a magnificent and priceless work of architecture? Yes, of course, but it is also FILLED to capacity with a million people milling about penned into the middle because the sides are lined with street performers, oddballs with snakes around their necks and artists selling paintings of the bridge that don’t accurately portray the crowds. The bridge is .32 miles long but it takes 20 minutes to get across.
Now that I’ve warned you about the mass of people you will encounter, there are some redeeming qualities about Charles Bridge. It was completed in 1402 and has towers on both ends which you can access for a fee. Its 16 arches span the Vltava river and is decorated with 30 statutes of saints. My favorite was St. Vitus who was a 3rd century martyr who was supposed to be mauled to death by lions, but instead the lions just licked him. I hope you enjoy this architectural marvel during the off-peak times!
Grand Priory Square
A small shady square which houses the impressively designed French Embassy, previously the Buquoy family Palace, and the famous John Lennon Wall. A symbolic grave appeared here shortly after Lennon’s tragic death. Additional artwork and signs began to pop up and the site became a meeting point for Prague’s hippy community as a symbol to Lennon’s open-mindedness. It’s an important symbol and site in Prague as it become one of the protest platforms contributing to the fall of the communist regime in 1989. However, today it seems John Lennon’s legend has lost its luster. There are a few signs recalling his domestic abusive past and there is more individual graffiti instead of a cohesive mural with a message. Regardless, it draws large amounts of tourists for that perfect Instagram shot.
Wallenstein Palace and Garden
While walking to Prague Castle, we saw an open giant wooden door with a sign on it indicating it was open to the public. We entered to find the most beautiful gardens in a maze of rows dotted with statues of Greek gods and the odd peacock walking about. This wasn’t anywhere on my radar but turned into a highlight of my travels to Prague. It now serves as the home of the Czech Senate but the ornate design holds true to its grand past.
I’ll preface this by saying unless you are a huge Kafka fan, you can skip this museum. It’s about $9 to tour and it is divided into two sections; one dedicated to the biographical details of Kafka’s life including his youth, work, and love affairs. The later is a life size diorama interpreting his work. The section on bureaucracy as the most fascinating part.
On top of the hill in the Little Quarter is the Strahov Monestary complex. There are quite a few breweries on the grounds view sweeping views of the city. Founded in 1140 by a strict religious order, the building features fantastic architecture and the most incredible library in the Philosophical Hall. You aren’t allowed to actually enter the room but you can peer in to see the frescos and valuable rare books.
Walking south along the river from Old Town to the border of New Town, you’ll run into old friends, Fred and Ginger, which is the nickname of the Dancing House. It’s a lovely 15 minute walk from the Charles Bridge and you can reward yourself with a drink at the top of the building tower. You are only allowed to go outside on the balcony if you purchase a drink from the Glass Bar. So grab a cocktail, a seat and enjoy the views!
Bernard Beer Spa
After all the walking throughout Prague, you may need to treat yourself! WTU writer Breonne recommended this experience to me and I can’t think of a better way to unwind than at the Bernard Beer Spa! What’s a Beer Spa you might ask? Well it’s a delightful hot tub combined with hops and other ingredients where you can soak for 45 minutes while drinking unlimited cold pilsner! Once your soak is over, you get wrapped up like a burrito and rest in a heated bed for 30 minutes to ensure all the hoppy nutrients soften and soothe your skin. It’s the perfect way to rejuvenate tired feet for under $60 a person. We were well taken care of by the professional staff and truly enjoyed the fun experience!
Places to Eat and Drink
This cozy, cash only restaurant resembles what I think an old Prague Farmhouse would look like. Located near the Jewish Quarter, the food is traditional Czech and it’s popular with locals and tourists. I tried the cabbage pancakes, which were incredible, and then the duck leg with sauerkraut and potato dumplings. The staff was also very friendly and had fun teaching us some Czech words!
For river views and fresh brews head to Lod Pivovar which is a modern boat brewery and restaurant. They have three different kinds of Czech Lager and a variety of other beer styles to choose from while you sit on the upper deck or in the air conditioned boat. Their menu is also something to get excited about! The portions are big so if you don’t have a huge appetite stick to the small plates! My favorite was the baked brie and beet salad.
Wow! This was my favorite meal in Prague, the restaurant is a classy, modern bistro which was recommended by our local hiking guide. The service was impeccable and the meal was reasonably priced at $80 for two people with drinks, appetizers, dinners and dessert. If you do check this restaurant out, I loved the lobster parfait and the wild boar tenderloin in a red wine sauce with mushrooms and onions.
Located at the bottom of the hill in the Little Quarter, this restaurant has a lovely, shaded outdoor garden where you enjoy drinks and a wide variety of classic Prague dishes just like they made in the old days! The menu is reasonably priced as well! A great place to stop for lunch after a day of touring the Castle.
Pivnice U Kata
A bar in the old town which is named after the chief executioner in Prague, Jan Mydlar, during the 1600s. Even though he had a dirty job, he had a reputation as a just and respectable person. That was until he was tasked with executing the 27 Protestant noblemen who participated in the defenestration, an attempt to overthrow the Haspburg government (subsequently kicking off the 30 years war). He tried his best to ensure they did not suffer. So after a hard days work of executing, he would go to the place next door and drink his day away. This comfortable but divey pub enshrines his legend as an honest man doing hard work for a day’s wage. It’s worth stopping by to embrace the history.
This swanky bar serves speciality cocktails with historical and geographic themed names. Complete with large safes and funky coasters, highly recommend stopping in for a nightcap.