Prague: still the best weekend break in Europe?

Sunset over Prague
Narrow cobbled streets, a world-famous bridge, an architecturally splendid castle complex and a higher concentration of eye-catching classic buildings than perhaps any of its illustrious rivals. Is Prague the perfect European city?

Well, it’s certainly not flawless, but it is perhaps as near to a perfect example as you’re likely to find of what appeals most to visitors who flock to Europe from every corner of the world. I was lucky to travel on a recent press trip to Prague, especially so as my wife was also invited and we were given a fairly open itinerary.

A disclaimer should follow here. Yes, the opinions expressed here are my own. Were my experiences in Prague influenced in any way by the fact that I was being hosted by generous sponsors? Of course they were, although we didn’t do things that much differently to what we would have done on a private trip.

View of Wenceslas Square from the Hotel Jalta

We had two days to explore Prague and get to see its main attractions. It was not enough of course, but then it never is. Any advantage of being there before was lost on us; it had been 1997, I was busily preparing my speech for a conference at which I would be speaking, and Princess Diana’s funeral was taking centre stage on every Czech TV station. This time thankfully there were no such distractions and we managed to do the city a little more justice. Here are just a few of the highlights for us.

Architecture

I lost track of the number of times I exclaimed ‘Look at that building!’ to my wife. On every street in any direction another stunning masterpiece seemed to stand out and dazzle us. We were fortunate that the walking tour that Czech Tourism provided for us was conducted by Marina, a lady with a passion for architecture. She patiently explained to us the different influences of the ne0-classic, function, cubist and art nouveau styles.Prague's architecture is the city's main draw

I wish I’d made notes as I would already fail an exam in Prague architecture, such is my lousy memory. Taken as nothing more than simple eye candy however, the buildings certainly made their mark. Given how the buildings were apparently neglected during the communist years it is clear that much hard work has gone into their recent restoration. It’s not too hard to venture away from the main tourist lanes and see some of the town houses and offices crumbling at the edges, but even these have a grandeur about them that offers hope that they will be preserved and restored in time.

The main sights

Charles Bridge is probably the number 1 site in Prague. Crowded with tourists, vendors and a smattering of beggars it is hardly a peaceful or romantic setting. By all accounts we needed to be there before 9am to capture its true magic; sadly on both mornings we failed miserably in this. It is of course ridiculously photogenic spot; I may just need to airbrush out a few hundred folks from my pictures. We did manage to visit the bridge just after sunset one day when the crowds were relatively light.

Strolling along Charles Bridge

The famous Astronomical Clock in the town hall attracts a swarm of tourists who, at the stroke of each hour, point their cameras eagerly at the moving figures that appear from the 15th century timepiece. The square opposite the clock was seriously crowded on a freezing cold day in early March; I can only guess how crowded it gets in the summer months.

Ready for the clock to strike on the hour

The cathedral and castle area dominates the skyline and forms a natural backdrop to any picture from Charles Bridge. You can walk freely around the complex and only pay for access to the buildings you choose to visit (or buy a combination ticket). We chose to climb the cathedral tower, and blessed with a clear day we enjoyed superb views across the city.

View from Cathedral Bell Tower

Lesser known sights

Without enough time to do more than scratch the surface of this complex city we picked a few places to visit and left many more for another visit.

The Museum of Communism is a compact museum ironically positioned in the same building as one of the city’s many new casinos. Relics of Prague from its days behind the Iron Curtain include a mock-up of a grocery store with authentically empty shelves. A 20 min video (with English subtitles) tells the dramatic and often painful history that the city endured in the 40 years of Soviet domination.

Museum of Communism
Petrin Hill dominates the west city, and at its summit is the alluring site of what looks like a replica of the Eiffel Tower. The tower itself is a popular attraction to climb and from there you can enjoy panoramic views of the Old Town. Entrance to the tower is 100K (around €4) which is the same as the cost to climb the cathedral tower; I would personally choose the latter. Regardless, Petrin Hill is a large park where families come to relax and passing tourist can sit and watch a small slice of local life.

Petrin Tower
Prague’s historic arcades link the main central streets with ornate hidden walkways, often hiding grandeur and opulence on a scale that surpasses the more celebrated outdoor buildings. Some of the best are found off Wenceslas Square; in one in particular (under the big Marks and Spencer sign) you can find a wonderfully atmospheric cafe in a pink marbled hall, with a statue of a man riding an upside-down horse at the entrance).

One of Prague's many beautiful arcades
The seedy side

I suspect that Prague has lost its mantle as the stag night capital of Europe (beer is cheaper in other Ryanair destinations these days). That said, there are still groups of loud drunken twentysomething (mainly British but not exclusively so) stumbling between the many Irish bars the Old Town has to offer. It’s now a mainstream tourist activity with young girls acting as stag party guides, leading the groups on a pre-arranged (and presumably commissioned) trail.

Museum of Sex MachinesIn an effort to appeal to this tourist demographic there is even a Museum of Sex Machines positioned with little regard for taste at the entrance to the main square. Presumably it seems like a good place to visit after 10 pints of traditional Czech Guinness, but I didn’t get to find out this time round. Strangely enough the museum closes in the evening, probably denying it of a ready audience.

A walk through Prague does involve passing scores of touts who are selling concert tickets, boat rides or trying to lure you into their restaurants. Again I wonder how much worse this will be in the summer months. Thankfully they are polite, not pushy and can easily be dismissed with a smile and a shake of the head. An inevitable price of being such a major tourist magnet?

Sponsor Thanks

Sincere thanks to bmibaby and Birmingham Airport for organising an excellent weekend and of course for inviting the two of us along. Thanks also to Czech Tourism and for their kind hospitality and also to Prague Airport for hosting us in their VIP lounge – if only every airport experience was that good!

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Freelance travel writer

7 Responses to “Prague: still the best weekend break in Europe?”

  1. Andy, many thanks for an interesting read. I do wish someone would sponsor me to visit Prague, too! : )

    Speaking of bars, it does pay off to look for lesser known venues outside the crowded spots. For example, I really enjoyed La Casa Blů Bar (featured in the “Loners” movie): http://www.flickr.com/photos/9899582@N05/4884272975/in/set-72157624583643315/.

    March 9, 2011 at 12:18 pm
  2. We visited Prague in Summer and had similar sort of observations as you. It’s almost a shame that it’s so overrun with tourists, though of course I understand the revenue is nice. It has to be one of the most astoundingly beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.

    If you’re interested here’s my rundown on our stay: http://schmeckt.com.au/?p=51

    March 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm
  3. I just arrived in Prague this afternoon. It’s my third visit – the first in 2000 is a fondly recalled, if extremely drunken, haze. The second in 2007 was a crushing disappointment – the Follow The Umbrella hordes had well and truly arrived. It came across as a beautiful city that had utterly sold its arse.

    I got to my hotel at about 4.30pm this afternoon, and since then, I’m been wandering with the loosest possible intent around Hradcany and Malastrana. It’s lovely; the buildings are gorgeous and all the pubs and restaurants seem to have those vaulted roofs that I’m an absolute sucker for. It’s been an absolute joy.

    I suspect my mood will darken tomorrow, however: Charles Bridge, Old Town and Castle are on the list.

    March 9, 2011 at 9:54 pm
  4. Thanks for the comments and the interesting links too. Look forward to reading your write up David. At least you’re there midweek – I hope you get to see those big sites before the weekend crowds arrive.
    It is a beautiful city – but then so are Krakow, Lvov and many others within an hour’s flight, yet they don’t get a fraction of the footfall.

    March 9, 2011 at 11:45 pm
  5. It was 1990 when I was last in Prague, and I think it has changed a lot since then! There wasn’t even the vaguest hint of it being a stag destination at that time. Your post has made me want to revisit though.

    March 10, 2011 at 10:23 am
  6. I visited Prague in 2003. A lot has changed since then in the country especially economically. One aspect that has not changed is the beauty of the architecture, which you alluded to in this post. That alone is worth the higher price to return. Another reason to go to Prague is the delicious beer. When I had my first pint of pilsner urquel for $1.00 I about melted in the glass it was so tasty.

    March 10, 2011 at 4:24 pm
  7. I loved Prague! Sure, there are some dirty or seedy areas but what city doesn’t have a darker side? I found it beautiful and am anxious to return again someday.

    You forgot to mention the Museum of Torture. It’s right up there with the Sex Machines museum. 🙂

    March 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm