There are many Pragues, one is the Prague that is glanced quickly by the thousands of tourists who flow into it from everywhere, sticking to their guidebooks who just want to see enough to say, “We’ve done Prague” and move on with the rest of their fast paced European itinerary. They mostly head towards Old Town Square to gape at the world’s only functioning astronomical clock. Legend—one of many—has it that evil will befall the city if it ever stops working. Tourists stream through the square, some on Segways but most on foot. Buskers—musicians, singers, dancers, mime artists and more—liven up the atmosphere with their performances and antics. The square is a veritable tourist trap with souvenir shops, clubs and restaurant chains. Several stores sell fine garnet and amber jewelry, usually overpriced, while others sell the Bohemian Crystal that the Czech Republic is known for. Tourists make their way from here through the narrow winding cobbled lanes of Old Town (Staromestka), flanked on both sides by beautiful old buildings, to Charles Bridge. Very few meander off the track to discover the delightful little streets just waiting to be stumbled upon.
On Charles Bridge, they take in the breathtaking sight of the magnificent Prague Castle that dominates the city’s landscape. One can see vessels of all shapes and sizes from the bridge, mainly cruise boats going up and down the Vltava. Sometimes even a gondola or two can be spied here. On either bank lie gems of architecture, examples of the different architectural periods the city has experienced. The grandiose building of the National Theatre stands out, as does the Dancing House or the Fred and Ginger building whose modern day architecture tries to blend in with the centuries of different styles which surround it. Sadly, it falls short. While some sightseers go on towards the castle, for many the pilgrimage ends on Charles Bridge. Prague, however, has many hidden secrets tourists rarely find.
For those who want to see Prague off the beaten track there is a whole world of places to discover and things to do.
- Kampa Island.
If you take the stairs from Charles Bridge you’ll reach Kampa Island and its quiet park. The island is formed by a branch of the Vltava River—Čertovka or Devil’s Stream—and was used as a mill creek for several centuries. Today, three water mills still remain, and one can be seen from Charles Bridge itself.
- Wallenstein Garden.
Tucked in behind the Malostranská metro station is the delightful garden of Wallenstein Palace (presently the Senate). An idyllic place to get away from the crowds and pass some time, the serenity here is accompanied by the plaintive calls of its peacocks. The palace is the first Baroque building in Prague and was built by the notorious but wealthy and powerful Albrecht of Wallenstein, between 1624 and 1630.
- View from Prague Castle.
Wandering around Malá Strana, one can come upon a number of delights, many eccentric or whimsical. One is the Gingerbread Museum, where among other things is a huge gingerbread replica of Prague Castle. The road from here leads to the steps of Prague Castle, although there are more scenic routes. One is by taking tram 22 from Malostranská to Pohorolec and going to the Strahov Monastery in the castle courtyard. The walk downhill offers a stunning outlook of ‘the city of a thousand spires’. Another path is from the verdant Petřín Hill located in the middle of the city, that takes one from the heart of Hradčany to the imposing palaces of noblemen of yore and finally the castle itself. From a lookout point here one can enjoy Prague, dominated by the green Baroque dome of St. Nicholas’s church.
One has a choice of paths while leaving the castle. The route through the Garden of Heaven beside the castle offers incredible views of the city and the palaces below. Another is through the castle to a lookout point and other stairs which lead to Malá Strana. A better choice is the path that goes by Villa Richter Restaurant, a good place to relax and drink in the panorama, especially when the setting sun bathes the city in golden light, a good enough reason to call it the Golden City.
Prague has a number of lush green parks worth visiting for their beauty and tranquility. Some of these are Letná Park on Letná Hill, where the winding Vltava meet the bridges of Prague. Stromovka and Pruhonice, on the outskirts of Prague, have a castle, a lake, Alpine gardens, a botanical park and kilometers of meandering walks through forests.
- Theatres and Opera Houses.
Prague’s State Opera, National Theatre and Estates Theatre offer operas, ballets, concerts, dramas etc. almost the whole year round. Check the websites to see what’s on. Almost every famous opera and ballet is performed a few times a year; it is quite possible that you will be able to catch a show of something you have been longing to see.
- John Lennon Wall.
The Czech Republic is a relatively new state, having been liberated from the Communist regime in 1989 as a result of the peaceful Velvet Revolution. Back in the 1980s however, the wall was used as a space for Czech youths to make public their grievances against their oppressors with art and graffiti. This form of rebellion (nicknamed ‘Lennonism’) didn’t go down well with the Communists and led to clashes between Czech students and security forces on the nearby Charles Bridge. Despite the Communists’ best efforts to repaint it, the wall was painted afresh with new graffiti. Today, messages of peace and hope adorn the wall in remembrance of John Lennon and what he stood for. What you see on one day may very well be gone the next. The wall undergoes constant change as visitors from around the world embellish it with words and images expressing their desire for world peace. Add your own artwork or missive to it, you might inspire someone.
- The banks of the Vltava River.
The riverside is a picturesque place to run or cycle if you’re in the mood for outdoor activity. Breathe in the cool air while your heart rate hits the roof as you race against the glistening river. Remember to show affinity and encouragement to your fellow runners; pass on the energy with a smile or a wave. If you’d rather just take in the view, pop into one of the riverside restaurants for a drink or go on a short cruise.
Don’t be one of those tourists that gets coffee at commercial coffee franchises (or eats at fast food franchises for that matter). There are several historic and quaint little cafes that can offer you a fix of caffeine. The century old Café Louvre clicked with me for its delicious food and stunning interiors, and I tried to grasp at the elusive auras of great intellectuals like Kafka and Einstein that once frequented its halls.
The Czechs are fond of their tea and the city is sprinkled with čajovnas (teahouses) selling a multitude of tea blends. To imbibe the true local atmosphere of everyday Czech life, visit a čajovna or a kavarna (coffeehouse).
- Shakespeare & Sons.
Prague has bookstores and antiquarian bookshops at every few metres, and the reading culture is a joy to observe. People seem to read every chance they get—while in trams, metros, going up escalators (as some take over two minutes to complete ascension) or even while strolling down a street. Shakespeare & Sons, a charming bookstore close to Charles Bridge in Malostranská probably has the largest collection of new and used English books of various genres in the city. Well worth a visit and you can strike a pretty good deal if you want to trade books.
- St. Cyril & Methodius.
For a bit of World War II history of the city, visit the National Memorial at the Church of St. Cyril & Methodius and learn about the Czech paratroopers that put their lives on the line to carry out ‘Operation Anthropoid’, i.e. to assassinate Heydrich Reinhard. Reinhard was a ruthless Nazi official nicknamed the ‘Butcher of Prague’ for the atrocities he ordered on the Czechs and Slavs. The successful elimination of this monster in 1942 brought down the wrath of the Nazis upon the paratroopers and all the Czech people that had helped them or given them refuge. Two entire villages were razed to the ground in reprisal. Pay your respects to their courage and bravery to stand up against evil.
Tips for a pleasant trip.
While Prague is safe to travel in, there might be pickpockets around so take care of your things especially in crowded places and public transport.
Don’t exchange your money on the street! Use banks to get a fair rate, money exchanges often offer bad rates. Call 14014 when you need a cab. The cab you hail on the street will charge you much more than if that same cab is sent by its company. In fact, ask on the phone what it will cost. Get a Czech SIM card. Most importantly, have fun!