Prague is one of the great cities of Europe, and it’s a city with a difference. Sitting at the crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe, it’s familiar yet a little exotic, with its Slavic language, its brooding stone towers, and a history that runs from ancient empires to 20th-century Communist rule. At the same time, it’s a place with a rich culture, a zest for life and a lot of interesting things to see.
To say Prague welcomes tourists is an understatement. Especially in summer, the streets are full of travellers, and the city is well equipped to serve them, with hundreds of restaurants, hotels of every description, lots of shopping and enough sights and experiences to keep you busy for a week. For those who love history, Prague’s medieval centre is very walkable, and surprisingly intact, and there’s a good transit system to help you reach the more distant sights. Best of all, prices are very affordable, and in some cases even cheap.
With such a lot to see and do, it’s good to have a road map when you’re planning your visit. So here’s my list of what to do in Prague:
Visit Prague Castle
The top attraction in Prague – both literally and figuratively – is Prague Castle. It sits on the heights, looking down on the city like the monarchs who used to live there. The castle’s history goes back to the ninth century, and it’s one of the largest in the world. But it isn’t quite the King Arthur castle you might expect. It was rebuilt in the 17th century into a palace complex, with a number of grand buildings where Prague’s aristocratic families once lived.
To me, the best part of the complex is St. Vitus’s Cathedral, an immense and showy building with its huge spires, flying buttress and intricate stonework. Inside, you’ll find the resting place of King Wenceslas IV, as well as the monumental tomb of St. John of Nepomuk, who defied him and was thrown in the Vltava River for refusing to disclose the queen’s confessions.
Cross the Charles Bridge
This is one of the city’s most famous landmarks, so it’s compulsory viewing: every tourist has to see it before leaving. The bridge is ancient, completed in 1402, and impressive, with a medieval tower at each end and a row of saintly statues on each side (most are 19th-century copies of the originals erected by the city’s Hapsburg rulers). As well, you get great views up and down the Vltava, which flows through the centre of the city. The whole thing is a bit sooty-looking, though, and it’s perpetually choked with tourists, so go during off hours if you can.
See the Old Town Square
The heart of Prague is Old Town Square, a charming medieval square ringed with beautiful old buildings. And the most famous part of Old Town is the town hall, with its wonderful astronomical clock (seen at the top of this post). Built in 1410 by the imperial clock maker Hanus Ruze and improved by subsequent masters of the art, it’s a marvel of early technology, with dials showing Central European, Old Bohemian and Babylonian time, as well as the movements of the sun and planets, and the zodiac.
When the clock strikes the hour, two little doors open to reveal the saints performing a circular procession, to the delight of hundreds of onlookers in the square below. Meanwhile, other figures move around and a skeleton representing death bangs time on an hour glass. It’s medieval Europe in a nutshell: if you want to see it, check out the video in this post.
Walk with Wenceslas
After Old Town Square, the most popular spot in downtown Prague is Wenceslas Square, named after the Bohemian King who inspired the popular Christmas carol. Wenceslas stands at one end of the square — which is more like a long boulevard — looking out on a long row of shops, restaurants, bars, casinos and other delights. If you want to buy a souvenir, or dine out on the patio, this is the place to come. The square is always full of tourists, but it’s also a favourite of locals. When I was there, the outdoor cinema was showing films about the Soviet invasion that snuffed out the “Prague Spring” democratic movement of 1968.
Have a beer
Prague is the beer capital of Central Europe – people come here just to sit in the cafés and drink the local Pilsener. And the local Pilsener is Urquell, made by the brewery that invented this light, hoppy style of beer. It’s good, refreshing, and best of all, cheap – you can get a mug for less than $3 in some places. There are other beers on tap, of course, and if you want to get some straight from the cask, you can go to the Strahov Monastery on the hill above the city and taste the St. Norbert beer the monks brew there.
Dine in a historic café
If you like restaurants with character, Prague is the place to be. Its historic centre boasts some beautiful, atmospheric eateries that take you on a trip to old Bohemia, including the Café Imperial, the cubist-themed Grand Café Orient and Café Louvre – you can get a good look at them here. Municipal House, home of one of the city’s premier concert houses, also has a couple of beautiful old-style eateries where you’ll be serenaded by piano music. They’re quite touristy, however, and the food isn’t as good.
Climb the Eiffel Tower
No need to go all the way to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower when Prague has the Observation Tower. Built as a smaller-scale copy of the famous French landmark, it stands on Petrin Hill, near the downtown core, and you can climb it if you’re fit. First, however, you have to find it, which can be tricky, since despite its height, it’s hard to see from nearby neighbourhoods. Go to Ujezd subway stop, walk across the bridge, turn right and find the station where you can take the funicular up the hill. Afterward, visit the nearby Strahov Monastery (see above) for a beer and a look at their display of ancient books. The monastery has a vast library, but only a small part of it is on display.
Admire Czech art — and buy some
There’s a lot of art on display in Prague, from the stonework and stained glass of the ancient churches to the modernist works in the art galleries. Highlights include the work of the renowned art nouveau master Alphons Mucha, which you can see in St. Vitus’s Cathedral, and the irreverent sculptures of David Cerny, which are prominently on display in a few parts of town. The most spectacular piece Cerny’s work his startling sculpture of King Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse, which hangs from the ceiling of the Lucerna Passage — an elegant shopping arcade just off Wenceslas Square, where the real King Wenceslas statue resides. Once you see his works, you don’t forget them.
Aside from high art, there’s a lot of artisanal and craft work that’s worth a look too, including the legendary Bohemian crystal, Czech garnets and Bohemian porcelain. These are are sold all over town. But the most eye-catching craft may be the fanciful marionette puppets, a local specialty dating back to the baroque era. You’ll find them in the open markets of Havelska, but top-quality ones are sold in specialty shops like Truhlar Marionettes.
Take in a concert
Prague has been a major musical centre since the 16th century – it was once known as the conservatory of Europe. So it’s not surprising that its downtown boasts a couple of beautiful old concert halls, including the Estates Theatre, where Mozart staged the first presentation of Don Giovanni in 1787 (you’ll see people in period costumes out front trying to pull you in). But there’s also the beautiful Municipal House, located on a prominent corner close to Old Town Square: I saw a well-performed concert there, amid its ornate interior. There are also numerous classical performances around town, some good, some not so much.
See the Fred and Ginger house
If you make your way down the Vltava River, it’s hard not to spot the “dancing house”, also known as the Fred and Ginger building because of the elegant, swaying shape of the building. Built in 1997, it’s the work of two innovative architects, the Czech-Croatian Vlado Milunic and the noted Canadian Frank Gehry. And it’s worth a closer look, to admire its sensuous curves and the metal strapping that flows around it like a skein of thread. There’s a classy restaurant on the top floor if you want to enjoy the building in style.
Remember the Communist past
Prague has recovered well from its dark years of Communist rule. But while it’s not readily apparent when you walk the downtown streets, the communist past is never far below the surface here. Old institutions like the Café Louvre are alive again, after being shut down by the Communists. A display of Russian cars and tanks draws a crowd of onlookers in Wenceslas Square. And near Prague Castle stands the derelict hulk of a Soviet-era sports stadium. If you want to really find out about this part of Prague’s history, you can take a Communist era tour. There are a few on offer, and most include a visit to the nuclear bunker the Soviets built under the city.
Sample some street food
You may have read my post about finally sampling a trdelnik, Prague’s tubular-shaped answer to the doughnut. You’ll find these in most of the big tourist spots, and they’re quite tasty. But as in Germany, next door, the true local street food is the sausage. There are sausage stands in every public place, offering many variations on the traditional old banger, from near-hot dogs to garlicky Polish sausage-like creations. Get a sausage on a bun, squirt on some mustard, stand at the counter and eat like a Czech.
So those are my top suggestions on what to do in Prague. These are for a fairly short visit, of course — I’m sure you can find other things to keep you busy, including a number of interesting museums, like the city’s Franz Kafka Museum. You could also spend a couple of days just touring Prague’s beautiful old churches and synagogues, or visiting the places where momentous historic events occurred.
As with most European cities, you can save a few dollars by buying a day pass on the transit — the subway is a quick way to get around, and relatively easy to use. And if you’re interested in seeing a lot of the sights, you might consider buying a Prague Card, which gives you unlimited transit rides, a free bus tour, and free admission to 50 attractions, including Prague Castle and Old Town Hall. A three-day pass costs about $60 U.S. ($80 Canadian) if you book online: whether it makes sense for you depends on the admission prices for the sights you want to visit.
If you’re less ambitious, don’t worry — you can just walk around Prague’s Old Town for days and never run out of things to see. And if you do, here’s a handy map to help you find your way around.