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Expect to be awestruck when you enter the open expanse of Prague’s Old Town Square. You’ll face an array of facades, pediments and spires ranging from Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance to baroque and art nouveau. The buildings constitute a textbook study of urban development from the 14th century to the present. Somehow, the delightful dichotomy works; the pastel-colored buildings create a strikingly pleasing arena. Prague feels culturally old and simultaneously updated.
Following the 1989 Velvet Revolution, when the Czechs won independence, Prague began to reflect a renewed sense of vibrancy. Economic conditions improved and, in 2004, the country joined the European Union. Today, the drabness of the communist era has mostly vanished; the so-called Golden City again shines like Bohemian crystal, the hand-cut glass that lines shop windows.
The word Prague means “threshold,” which is apt when you consider the foes that trespassed through its city gates. Former generations suffered the plague, floods, fires, wars, religious persecution and oppressive rule; nonetheless, their spirit continually overcame defeat. The current theme of “reinventing oneself” is nothing new. In Prague, the past is the present, but the people have a futuristic outlook.
Residents live in updated homes and apartments, dine in hip restaurants and send text messages like American teens. The 1.2 million Praguers revel in social change and take advantage of the nearly endless array of city attractions: hockey and soccer games, museum and art gallery exhibits, rock and classical concerts, trendy shopping, costume festivals, coffeehouse chats and the best beer brewed in Europe.
A favorite Czech proverb says, “Where’s there’s beer, there’s cheer.” Sipping a tankard in a pub is likely the best way to meet locals. The country is blessed with ideal weather and soil for growing hops and the breweries here are world class. Beer lovers seeking an authentic taste should visit Strahov and U Fleku, two of the oldest breweries in Prague. Try a Pilsner Urguell or the flame-colored St. Norbert Holy Beer at the Strahov Monastery.
Strahov, founded in 1143, sits atop the steep incline near the massive 110-acre Castle Quarter. Beyond monastic beer, the site is noted for its Michelangelo-like 18th century frescoed ceilings and the Strahov Library’s collection of more than 200,000 rare books and illuminated manuscripts. Tour guides encourage children to hunt for a golden safe where Copernicus’ heretical book about the solar system was once stored.
St. Vitus Cathedral, the spiritual center of the Czech Republic, dominates the city skyline on foundations dating back to the 10th century. Construction of the towering cathedral, which was designed to upstage French Gothic countertypes, was beyond slow; it wasn’t completed until 1929, more than 600 years after work on the structure began.
The Royal Palace’s Vladislav Hall, a 15th century marvel of stone vaulting that resembles unfurled strands of ribbon, is where nobility elected a king and later parliament elected a president. Today, Prague Castle contains government offices. Václav Havel, the playwright who became the first president of the independent Czech Republic, envisioned tourists returning to the Castle Quarter. He restaged the changing-of-the-guard ceremony and even hired a movie costume designer to create new uniforms.
The Stenberg Palace also lies within castle grounds. It hosts the National Gallery’s collection of European art, while St. George’s Basilica houses the Bohemian art collection.
You don’t need a rental car in Prague. This is a walking city, so proceed down the castle steps for panoramic vistas of nine hills and 14 bridges. Step into Malá Strana or the Lesser Quarter, a spellbinding setting so similar to 18th century Vienna that it was chosen as the set for the film Amadeus. Meander through a labyrinth of shops and narrow streets. Stop for lunch at the Aria Hotel’s terraced restaurant for resplendent red rooftop views. Enjoy gourmet dining (the traditional mushroom soup coats the mouth with luxurious cream) and a chance to sneak into the Vrtbovská Gardens from the hotel’s private entrance.
Baby boomers are drawn to the Lennon Wall, which fans spontaneously covered with graffiti when the ex-Beatle was killed in 1980. Night after night, the police painted over “Imagine” and “All You Need is Love,” but day after day, the paintings reappeared.
As you cross Charles Bridge, keep an eye out for the canal known as the Venice of Prague–a photographer’s delight with a working waterwheel. Charles IV laid the foundation for the bridge, the symbolic city icon, in 1357. Until 1741, the span was the only crossing of the Vltava River and it remains a major thoroughfare. Today, it acts as a bustling open-air market, art gallery and performing theatre. The pedestrian-only pathway is best explored a few hours after sunrise, when it offers misty, enchanting scenes. Thirty-six age-blackened baroque sculptures adorn the crossing, making it reminiscent of Rome’s Bridge of Angels.
Continue into Old Town Square, with its 600-year-old astronomical clock. Crowds gather to watch a merry-go-round of mechanical statues parade across the clock’s face before the rooster crows, announcing another hour.
If the ornate baroque style begins to overwhelm your senses, visit the strikingly simple facade and geometric windows of the House of the Black Madonna, named for a figure perched on the corner. Though Picasso developed cubism in painting, the Czech style evolved into three-dimensional art. In 1912, architect Josef Goˇcár designed the first cubist building in Europe. The house, rescued in 2003, currently functions as a museum featuring the distinctive architectural design.
The Jewish Quarter adjacent to the Old Square is another must-see. The Jewish Museum consists of five synagogues, all with priceless artifacts. The Old-New Synagogue (its real name), built in 1270, is Europe’s oldest. The walls in the Pinkas Synagogue are inscribed with the names of 77,297 Prague Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis. The monumental list was erased during the communist era and later painstakingly re-chiseled on the walls. The Old Cemetery presents a haunting collection of 12,000 tombstones jutting from the ground in a haphazard manner. The arrangement is due to stacking the graves on top of one another. Guides say an estimated 100,000 are buried within the small space, which is surrounded by high walls.
During the 1880s, dire conditions in the Jewish Quarter called for razing most of the buildings. Today, the area ranks as one of the most desirable, with luxurious apartments and shops that rival those in Paris, Rome and London. Top-name fashion designs, eclectic boutiques, fine jewelers, five-star restaurants and high-end auto showrooms dominate the tree-lined streets.
At sunset, make your way to the Four Seasons Hotel and Restaurant to bask in illuminated fairytale views of the picturesque town and enjoy what is perhaps the city’s best food. The Michelin-starred chef crafts a menu that replaces traditional Czech food–hearty meat and potatoes–with exquisite international cuisine.
Mozart adored Prague and spent many years as a resident. Concerts featuring his music remain popular. Those who are lucky witness Don Giovanni in the tiered Neoclassical Estates Theater, which was renovated and reopened in 1991 for the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death. Imagine the elegantly attired audience in 1787, as the opera premiered with Mozart conducting from the piano. Top off the evening with coffee at the Grand Cafe Slavia, a historic hangout for Prague’s literary and intellectual sets. Although the art-deco interior shows signs of age, the place eludes effervescent vibes. Franz Kafka, a Prague Jew and notable Czech literary figure, was a frequent cafe customer, as was Václav Havel. Literary fans may enjoy touring other Kafka sites.
Wenceslas Square, the commercial district, flaunts art-nouveau designs. Most notable is the Hotel Europa for its fine details inside and out. Key moments in Prague’s modern history unfolded at this location. Nazi troops, Soviet tanks, student protesters and the Velvet Revolutionaries filled the space.
A 200-foot steel-frame copy of the Eiffel Tower sits atop Petrin Hill. Visitors hike up the 1,043-foot forested slope, or hop aboard a funicular, and then climb to the observation tower for sweeping cityscapes. The area makes an adventurous outing for children, who also enjoy the Mirror Labyrinth in a small castle-like building next to the tower.
Slightly farther to the West lies the newest attraction, the 1996 Dancing House or “Fred and Ginger,” nicknamed because the structure looks like the silhouette of a dancing pair. American architect Frank Gehry helped to create the modern masterpiece, blending it with earlier structures. The glass-and-concrete building was meant to symbolize society in transition against the straighter totalitarian past.
Prague requires a minimum of three days to explore. You’re guaranteed to get lost in the maze-like pattern of cobbled streets and interconnected passageways, meet welcoming English-speaking Czech citizens and find Prague’s radiant soul. The Golden City’s rebirth has restored it as a worthy destination for world-class travelers.
Traveler Report Card
Expect luxury-lodging prices to be comparable to those in Western European capitals. For romantic classic elegance, try the five-star Four Seasons Hotel (www.fourseasons.com/prague) on the banks of the Vltava. The Augustine (www.theaugustine.com) consists of seven historic buildings, including the 13th century Augustinian St. Thomas Monastery, where guests receive exclusive tours of the church’s private library. Lovers of all musical genres are drawn to the five-star Aria (www.aria.cz), a musically themed boutique hotel. Marriott Executive Apartments (www.marriott.com), near Wenceslas Square, offers furnished apartments, luxury services and a well-appointed business center.
From traditional to trendy, rustic to refined, Prague’s restaurant scene has it all. Zly Casy (www.zlycasy.eu), a gastro-pub in the city’s Nusle district, is home to 24 tap beers, all made by craft microbrewers, and hearty Czech fare. V Zatisi Wine Restaurant (www.zatisigroup.cz) offers superb dining in Old Town near the National Theater. Order the Bohemian Menu or follow the knowledgeable waiters’ suggestions. You can dine inside the Aria Hotel or on the not-to-be-missed rooftop terrace at the elegant Coda Restaurant (www.ariahotel.net), where chef David Sasek is known for using the French method of sous-vide, a water technique that results in meat so tender it needs almost no chewing. And try the newest five-star Italian restaurant, Cottocrudo, which opened at the Four Seasons in March.
Prague offers endless activities. Consider specialized tours for history, architecture or literary buffs; pub crawls; stadium sports hockey or soccer; boat rides on the Vltava; English-title bookstores; and shopping in the trendy Jewish Quarter or Celetna Street for souvenirs like quality crystal, garnets and wooden puppets. Winter is concert and opera season and December offers an old European Christmas Market.
Traveler Fast Facts
WHAT IT IS:
Prague, which attracts four million visitors annually, is the capital of the Czech Republic. The mountainous country, formerly called Bohemia, lies at the heart of Central Europe and shares borders with Germany, Austria and Slovakia. Poland sits to the north. Regional areas are referred to as Bohemia in the west and Moravia in the east.
Summers are sunny and hot while winters are cold and sometimes snowy. Spring and fall are mild and glorious. Tourist season is considered to run from Easter through October.
Airlines fly to Prague’s Ruzyne International, which is a short taxi or train ride from downtown. Kbelby Airport, which handles business jet traffic, has a 6,562-foot asphalt runway. Chartered jets are available at Kbelby, which is about 15 minutes from the city’s center.
Cesky Krumlov, a three- to four-hour drive from Prague, is a medieval fairytale town surrounded by the Vltava River and filled with cobbled streets, artists and a 16th century feel. Photographers will want to spend the night to capture the magnificent illuminated castle. Krakow, Poland, a short flight from Prague, is an up-and-coming tourist destination featuring a historic center that survived World War II intact, vibrant nightlife, magnificent churches and two new museums: a high-tech underground archeological museum; and Schlinder’s Museum, which portrays Jewish conditions during the war. Tours following the steps of Polish Pope John Paul II are extremely popular. The Wieliczka Salt Mines, which are on the original 1978 UNESCO World Heritage list,are just a few miles out of town.