Prague’s beauty inspires a whole list of pet names for the city: The Golden City, The Pearl of Cities, A Symphony of Stone, and The City of a Hundred Spires to name just a few. Prague’s medieval buildings and cobblestone lanes, which look to be straight out of a fairy tale, have remained virtually unchanged for centuries, making it one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.
What to see and do in Prague
Prague is one of the most visited cities in Europe and crowds of tourists are an inevitable part of visiting the main attractions. Given that the largest section of tourists is made up of Europeans visiting on long weekend breaks, you can beat the worst of the crowds by visiting during the week.
Most of Prague’s attractions are within walking distance, and wandering through the winding streets can be a highlight of a visit. For sites that are farther afield, take advantage of Prague’s reliable and cheap trams and metro.
Prague’s skyline is dominated by its castle: the biggest ancient castle in the world. Prague Castle, or Pražský hrad was founded around 880 and features an eclectic mix of architectural styles. The imposing St. Vitus Cathedral, which lies at the center of the castle, is perhaps the most impressive part: the cathedral is an excellent example of Gothic architecture, displaying dramatic spires and flying buttresses, and contains the tombs of Bohemian kings and Holy Roman emperors.
Arriving early will help you to avoid the biggest crowds, and while you will need to purchase a ticket for special exhibits, including tours of St. Vitus Cathedral and the Old Royal Palace, where the castle grounds are free to visit. There are often, however, staff at the entrance who will insist that you need to purchase a ticket and an audio guide, saying that there are no signs in English: neither of these claims are true.
If the crowds at Prague Castle are too much, an alternative is a tour of tour of Vyšehrad Castle, which is almost always quiet and peaceful up on its hill. This castle dates from the 10th century and contains the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, as well as a cemetery that contains the remains of several famous Czech people, including the Art Nouveau artist Alfons Mucha.
The gothic Charles Bridge, (Karlův most) crosses the River Vltava and is adorned with 30 Baroque statues. Appreciating its beauty can be difficult during the day, when you will most likely find yourself elbow-to-elbow with tourists, buskers, hawkers and portrait painters. A wonderful time to cross the medieval stone bridge is before dawn when it is free from crowds and, given the quiet and the statues looming through the dark sky, pleasingly eerie.
Local mythology has it that the Astronomical Clock’s (Pražský orloj) creator, Master Hanuš was blind and, hence, unable to recreate his masterpiece anywhere else. The clock, located in Old Town Square, dates from the early 15th century, and is the oldest still-functioning astrological clock in the world. Every hour on the hour, from 8 a.m. to 8 p. m., the twelve apostles emerge from trap doors, while wooden figures representing Greed, Vanity, Death and the Turk are set in motion below.
The hourly display attracts crowds of tourists and is, frankly, unspectacular. You may prefer to time your visit to not coincide with the display and instead contemplate the astronomical dial and zodiacal ring (said to contain coded occult symbols) in peace.
From the ground, the 709 foot T.V. Tower in Žižkov is a rather offbeat attraction. The tower is unmistakably a product of tasteless Communist-era design and is rather disturbingly adorned with the figures of babies crawling towards the top. The view from the viewing deck, on the other hand, is spectacular.
Located in Josefov, Prague’s Jewish Quarter, the Old Jewish Cemetery was the final resting place for all of Prague’s Jewish residents until the late seventeenth century. This tiny patch of land is crammed full with 12,000 tombstones, highlighting the restraints of life in the Jewish ghetto, which remained walled until the late eighteenth century.
Prague’s puppet theaters are not just for children; in fact, they were favored gathering spaces for subversives in the run up to the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The art of puppetry has a long tradition in the Czech Republic and, although some of the shows aimed at tourists can be bland, there are still several, authentic performance spaces. Highly recommended is the progressive Divadlo Minor, where performances usually include live musicians.
Eating and drinking in Prague
Czech cuisine is rich and hearty, but if you tire of local dishes such as goulash, cabbage and dumplings, or pork knuckles, you will find that the city also offers a surprisingly cosmopolitan restaurant scene.
An abundance of eating and drinking options are clustered around the main tourist areas such as the Old Town Square. The quality of cuisine tends to be poorer at these more visible places and the prices are much higher; some unscrupulous restaurant staff will even quite unashamedly rip you off by tacking on extra items and ‘service charges.’ The following restaurants offer good quality Czech and international cuisine; have been around for years, and come recommended by both locals and visitors. A tip of at least 10% is expected.
The restaurant at U Medvidku, which also functions as a hotel and a brewery, serves unpretentious fare including robust local dishes such as pork knee, smoked tongue and its famous ‘head cheese’.
The pub-style restaurant Kolkovna serves reasonably priced Czech dishes and Pilsner Urquell beer. Perhaps Kolkovna’s best dish is its goulash, served with traditional Czech dumplings. Kolkovna is very popular with locals and tourists alike so reservations are almost always recommended.
The building that houses cellar restaurant U Závoje is also home to a wine bar and shop; brandy store; café, and a cheese store. The restaurant’s well-executed and inventive dishes include grilled foie gras and a venison ragout. The restaurant also offers an extensive wine list.
If you are not watching your budget too closely, Allegro may be the best international restaurant you will find in Prague – and it is the only one to hold a Michelin star. Allegro, which is in the Four Seasons hotel, offers an Italian-Czech fusion menu that features dished such as monkfish saltimbocca, foie gras and veal. The outdoor terrace has excellent views over the Vltava to the castle.
Home-sick Americans can fill up on bagels and refillable cups of coffee at the American expat-run Bohemia Bagel. American-style brunch is also available in a comfy lounge atmosphere at Radost, which turns into a nightclub in the evenings.
Prague’s nightlife scene is lively and varied, but cheap beer prices have led to an influx of rowdy, heavy drinking British stag and hen parties (bachelor/bachelorette parties), which arrive by the budget-flight load every weekend. These parties tend to congregate around Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, though. The best bars in the city are found elsewhere, especially in the Žižkov and Újezd districts.
Take a food or beer tour of Prague
Trying the local beers is a treat in the Czech Republic. You have a wide choice from Gambrinus, the most popular, to Budvar, Kozel’s Medium and Pilsner. A half-liter of domestic beer (16 ounces) usually costs around $1-1.50.
The more daring should try a taste of the local liqueur Becherovka: a potent herbal blend that is used to remedy anything from indigestion to arthritis and is similar in taste to Fernet Branca.
Hip art bar Cross Club occupies an industrial setting a short walk uphill from Nádraží Holešovice metro station. Cross Club offers a varied calendar of events that includes live DJs, cabaret, theater and film.
The three-floor Klub Újezd is filled with an interesting collection of original art and sculptures. Live DJs play in the basement bar, while the third level can be rented for private parties.
Also in Újezd, Popocafépetl is a small, dark cellar club where you can hear anything from ‘80s pop to live Gypsy music.
Two of the best bar/clubs in the Zizkov district are Akropolis, which has DJs every night and regular indie bands, and Sedm Viku, where DJs play jungle, drum n’ bass and breakbeat.
Best free thing to do in Prague
The history of the vast open space of Letná Park (Letenské sady) is storied: Přemysl Otakar II was coronated there in 1261, and later, during Communist times, it was the site of May Day parades and was the site of the world’s largest Stalin statue. Perhaps most significantly, 750,000 people gathered there in 1989 to spur on the Velvet Revolution.
During the summer, Praguers gather here to sunbathe, picnic and drink beer at the open-air beer garden. The park offers views across the city and a beautiful Neo-Baroque pavilion.
If you only have one day in Prague, don’t miss
The Obecní dům (Municipal House) is built on the ruins of the old royal court and is Prague’s most striking Art Nouveau building. The house, which was completed in 1911 and originally conceived as a cultural centre for the Czech community, is extravagantly decorated with mosaics, chandeliers and original paintings by Alfons Mucha. The décor remains unchanged since the house’s inauguration and creates an atmosphere of early 20th century café life. The house is the site of exhibitions, balls and nightly concerts.
An often-overlooked attraction in Prague
Divoká Šárka park lies on the outskirts of Prague and features rolling hills, a freshwater swimming pool and excellent city views. The park is a great place to get away from crowds and enjoy some quiet and a picnic lunch.
The best thing to eat in Prague
Haute cuisine it is not; neither is it remotely healthy, but the Smažený sýr is just irresistibly, terribly, delicious. This highly calorific treat is sold from sausage stands, particularly in Wenceslas Square, which makes it the go-to snack when walking home from a night’s drinking. The Smažený sýr consists of a thick slab of cheese, breaded, crumbed, topped with mayonnaise or tartar sauce and served in a bun. Stands usually also sell beer.
Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their Prague adventures!