I am not going to lie, I waited a long time to visit Prague. I had heard so many good things about the city that it was a big disappointment when my first impression did not meet my expectations. It is true that everything there is as beautiful as the photographs, but something felt off. The thing was, I didn’t think I was the only one who felt conflicted by the city’s beauty and frustrated by the hoards of tourists that seem to be everywhere. I was overwhelmed by the vendors trying to make a few bucks off of a gullible visitor. I remembered being on the phone with Fausto on the first night telling him how let down I felt considering how excited I was about going there. The whole thing just didn’t feel authentic.
Luckily, all of that frustration disappeared once I left the Old Town area. We had decided to book a hotel in the Old Town to be in the center of everything, but that was a mistake. You don’t get a feel for the local culture in a place that’s overrun by outsiders. Just as someone wouldn’t get a true feeling for the great city of New York by only visiting Time Square (a place I avoid like the plague). I realized I shouldn’t judge Prague too harshly based on my first impression. You should cross the river over to Mala Strana and climb a hill so you can see the city from a different vantage point, or venture out to New Town where you can visit the local markets, or visit one of the beautiful ornate libraries that Prague is famous for instead of just going to a few touristy sites in the Old Town area. There are many things to do in this great city. In addition to spending our time climbing many towers, we managed to fit in a lot of other things. Here is a very LONG list of things to do around Prague that took me forever to write:
1. Astronomical Clock – Every hour, on the hour, hundreds of tourists from all over the world pour into Old Town Square to watch the astronomical clock performance. This 600 year old clock is one of the treasures of the city and was once considered one of the wonders of the world, in the Middle Ages. The complicated clock consists of three main parts: the astronomical dial, showing the position of the Sun and the Moon in the sky; the “Walk of the Apostles”, showing the time; and the calendar dial, which makes one turn per year. It’s an interesting working artefact that is a testament to Mikuláš of Kadaň, the Imperial clockmaker. This is the number one attraction in Prague and is often overrun with people. There is really no “good time” to go. I would say it’s definitely worth a visit, once.
2. Old Town Square – Prague is full of quaint cobblestone lanes that are convoluted and hard to navigate. However, it doesn’t matter which direction you walk in, eventually you’ll end up in the Old Town Square in the heart of the city. This square has been around since the Middle Ages and home to the famous astronomical clock, the Gothic Týn Cathedral and the interesting Jan Hus monument. At the end of every year, the already quite crowded square gets transformed into a big festive Christmas market that’s visited by hundreds of thousands of locals and visitors from abroad.
3. Klementium – You know those lists of the 5 most beautiful gardens in the world or the 10 most interesting castles in Europe? I love them! Anyways, before I came to Prague, I read a list about the top few libraries in the world. It turns out that 3 of those libraries are located right in the city. I love old books and I love ornate libraries, so I was sold. Klenetinum is the biggest building complex in Europe, and houses the National library with over 6 million books. Heaven right? Imagine a room richly decorated with dark wood paneling, and beautiful frescoes on the ceiling depicting the arts and sciences. In the center you’ll find a row of antique globes. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in this room. If books are not your thing, a 50 minute tour also visits the Chapel of Mirrors a classical music chamber with a very unique interior, and the astrological tower where there is a great view of the city below.
Cost: 120 Kč
4. Catch a Concert – Prague is a great city for music. There are many places around Prague where you can enjoy a classical concert. You will even find guys dressed up in period clothing trying to sell tickets on the street. Most of these shows are often held in one of the church halls around the Old Square with excellent acoustics. Depending on who you ask, some people feel that the talent is sub-par and the concerts are just a big rip-off. I am not a music snob, so I really enjoyed my experience. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the violins set in a beautiful church is not something that I get to experience every day and for $15 per person, I think it’s definitely worth going.
Cost: 350 Kč
5. Charles Bridge – You can not travel to Prague without visiting the most famous historical bridge in the city. The elaborate cobblestone bridge constructed in mid 15th century, spans the Vltava and is lined with 30 Baroque religious statues. The aesthetic of the bridge is beautiful, but when you are competing with hoards of tourists to enjoy the same view, it can be overwhelming. Along the sides of the walkway, are vendors hawking expensive hand-made souvenirs. Magnets were sold for $4-$8 dollars each, and we did not think it was worth the money. This is a bridge that you must see, just make sure to arrive at dawn to beat the crowds and enjoy a glorious sunrise over the river.
6. Lennon Wall – If you are tired of Baroque buildings and churches, take a short walk across the Charles bridge and visit the Lennon wall on the other side in Mala Strana. This famous wall was named after and inspired by the even more famous John Lennon of Beatles fame. Back in the 80s, the youths of Eastern Europe embraced the banned pop songs by Lennon praising peace and freedom, something that did not exist in communist Czech Republic. So when the man they admired was murdered, a wall was turned into a makeshift memorial. It evolved over the years into a protest of the Soviet occupation with graffiti defying the authorities. In expressing their thoughts and grievances, the artists risked prison sentences.
7. Zamecke Schody (Old Castle Stairs Outside) – From Mala Strana, one of the ways to get to the top of the hill is to walk the 500 year old steps originating from Pod Bruskou street and going all the way up to the eastern gate of Prague Castle. The 200 stone steps wind around the castle wall and provide a wonderful view of the city below as you rise. Long ago, this was the route taken by peasants, making their way to the castle above. The scenery has not changed much since then, and if you close your eyes you can almost imagine yourself back in time in a scene that’s not all that different from something out of Games of Thrones. Now a days, the steps are full of tourists posing for pictures.
8. Prague Castle – The castle, set high up on the hill, is one of the largest ancient castles in the world and it’s located right in the middle of Prague. It’s about the size of seven football fields, if you can imagine that. You can wander the vast complex that was once occupied by Bohemiuan royalty for thousands of years that included courtyards, palaces, alleyways, and a garden. Also not to be missed is the impressive St Vitus cathedral with it’s beautiful stained glass windows.
You can also wander over to Golden Lane where the the castle servants, goldsmiths, and the castle marksmen used to live. You can still see the historic houses, which have turned into souvenir shops now. My favorite place to visit was the medieval museum of armory where you can try your hand at firing a crossbow. Kim totally rocked it by getting a bullseye on her second try. At the end of the armory is a very realistic looking torture chamber that still sends chills down my spine. Buying a Circuit B ticket will get you access to all the places on the castle grounds.
9. Strahov Monastery – Tucked away at the top of the hill is where you will find the second oldest monastery in the city, constructed back in 1140 AD. People who go out of their way to visit Strahov don’t often come for the monastery or even the church, instead, the main draw of the place is actually the period library within its walls. The ornate library is divided into two major halls: the Theological Hall and the Philosophical Hall that holds many rare ancient religious and philosophical texts. The halls are decorated with elaborate fresco ceillings, gilded wood-carved shelves and rare 17th century globes. As someone who appreciate books, this place is heavenly.
Cost: 100 Kč for admission+ 50 Kč for photography
10. Memorial to the Victims of Communism – At the base of Petrin hill in Mala Strana, you’ll find a series of statues commemorating the victims of the Communist regime. Looking upward at the steps, the statues appear to disintegrate before your eyes. It starts off showing the first man as a whole, the next man who is cut up, then the following man who is missing an arm to the very last man who has become virtually nothing. As a symbol for the suffering of the victims of Communism, the statues are quite effective and powerful. Looking at the graphic art work, the poignant message was driven home.
11. St Nicholas – The Church of St Nicholas in the center of Lesser Town Square is the most striking Baroque church in Prague, and possibly all of Europe. Its majestic green dome can be seen from all over the city, and forms the main part of the iconic skyline . The interior is no less stunning, with its giant sculptures, gilded altars, and countless other decorative details. Walking by Lesser Town Square, we were drawn by the sweet sound of music that can be heard from outside. Classical concerts are held in these hallowed halls every week. Luckily for us, after hearing the music, we found out that there was a free concert inside. After a long day, we were happy to sit back and let the powerful organ music wash over us. The amazing acoustics allow the music to be heard from all corners of the church clearly.
12. Go to a Local Market – One of the things I love to do when I travel is visit the local market. That’s when you get the best feel for what it’s like to live in that city. Luckily for us, our last day in Prague was Sunday, and there were a lot of markets around. My favorite was the market in New Town that we happened to find on our way to the Dancing House. There were many stalls selling everything from handmade jewelry, to unique clothing, to eclectic crafts. We wandered from booth to booth, blending in with the locals. The atmosphere was lively with music blasting in the square. We were drawn in by all the beautiful products and couldn’t quite tear ourselves away.
13. Boat Ride on the Vltava River – On our last day, the weather finally changed for the better, it was no longer cold and dreary. The sun came out and everything became bright and beautiful. Walking around town, we noticed all the people in the row boats and paddle boats out on the Vltava river taking advantage of the amazing day. It looked like so much fun that we decided to venture out onto the water ourselves. It turned out to be the best decision of the trip. Snacks and drinks are allowed on the boat, which made the excursion even more enjoyable. We rowed around for an hour enjoying the the view from the water.
Cost: 250 Kč for up to 4 people for an hour
14. Dancing House– I still remembered seeing a photograph of the Dancing House a long time ago in an article about interesting buildings around the world. It was the first thing that I ever read about this city, and I wanted to see it for myself. The Dancing House was nicknamed Fred and Ginger after the famous dancing and singing duo. The non-traditional architecture is unique and stands out amongst the Baroque and Gothic buildings that dominate the city. However, our visit was a lackluster experience. Since it is a private office building, we were only able to walk up to the corner and take a few pictures. That was it! We couldn’t go inside, we didn’t really even have a chance to learn more about the architecture. Overall, it was disappointing.
Length of Stay: 5 days
Hotel: The Iron Gate Hotel and Suites – $135/night
Train: $62.50 – one way ticket from Berlin to Prague