Prague Rises, Again
When communism fell in Prague, Czech Republic, it didn’t fall by the hands of a warrior or businessman. It fell at the feet of a playwright, Václav Havel. It’s fitting, really, that this would happen in such a storied city. Taken over by Germans and then Soviets throughout the 20th century, the city has developed a unique personality, a feel undeniably all its own. From pain and suffering—common tropes in Prague’s history—rose beauty and luxury. From agony rose art, delicious food and beer and architectural marvels in combinations and densities rivaled by few metropolises.
Praguers are survivors and, as such, they’re a laid-back bunch. When the times are good, why worry? They love their beer and they love their clubs. They love their pork and boiled potatoes, love their families and perhaps most importantly, they love their city. I do, too.
When I lived in Prague, I lived by one rule: I would deny myself nothing. I would say “yes” to every piece of chocolate, mug of Pilsner Urquell and every plate of svickova I was offered. And that was a lot. If I wanted to go for a four-hour walk around the city before dusk instead of doing work, I did it. If I wanted to stay in and read Milan Kundera books and drink Austrian sturm in my are-you-kidding-me? Bohemian room, I did. If I wanted to eat pastries and knock-off Nutella for breakfast every day, I did (believe me).
It was the first and perhaps only, time in my life that I allowed myself to let go of my hang-ups and literally go with the ebb and flow of a magnificent city. I didn’t worry about gaining weight—the beer I drank would be walked off while exploring the city’s hilly streets. I didn’t worry about spending too much money—this was Eastern Europe in the mid-2000s, when the US dollar went a long, long way. And I didn’t worry about being productive. There would be plenty of time for that when I got back to America. For me, living in Prague at that time was, simply, a genuine luxury.
Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, so it’s no surprise that it’s also full of amazing historic architecture. Perhaps the most well known landmark is the Karlúv Most, known to English-speakers as the Charles Bridge, connecting Old Town and New Town over the Vltava River.
Definitely take a walk across this gorgeous, if crowded, bridge. Do your best to tune out the tourists—even though we know you will be one, too. Stop along the north side of the bridge and look across the river. You’ll see Letná straight ahead and slightly to your right—where the largest statue of Stalin used to stand and where a metronome, indicating that everything is always in flux, sits today—and the castle slightly to your left, which is the largest on the planet. Try to focus on the statues that line the bridge, each one a unique, seemly ancient homage to those who used to live here.
Prague is full of relics, and the bridge itself is one of them. Standing on one end, it’s possible to see that the bridge is curved—meaning that it would be nearly impossible to shoot an arrow straight at someone on the other side. The oldest part of Prague was built for a much different time. And thank goodness it’s a different time. By the time you get across to the bridge’s Old Town side, you’ve earned a half-liter of Czech Pilsner beer. Besides, it’s winter. It’ll warm you up.
After you leave the scenic bridge, wander through Malá Strana and head to the castle. The architecture you’ll encounter along the way—pretty pale painted homes, churches and dazzling European row houses—are more than worth the walk, even if it is mostly uphill. Unlike many other Eastern European cities, central Prague wasn’t physically leveled during either World War. It was kept largely intact, even if its culture was ripped apart and stitched back together after each invasion. The result is an array of gothic, baroque and rococo styles throughout the city. St. Vitus, the cathedral you’ll encounter at the castle, is a textbook example of gothic style—stark, beautiful and cold.
The castle’s St. Vitus Cathedral, complete with a dungeon and ultra-narrow, spooky stairwells, is a place of worship that isn’t to be missed. Its stark brownish-gray walls and stained glass evoke its more famous counterparts in Spain and Italy, but there’s something eerily different about this place. The walls have seen more than their share of the human condition, for they’ve been standing for centuries holding a multitude of secrets one could only imagine.
After you have finished exploring Malá Strana and the castle, it’s time to relax back at your lodging in New Town, the Icon hotel. The hotel comes with custom-made beds that are intended to give you a great night of sleep—and you’ll need that after all of the exploring you did during the day. The hotel is two minutes from Wenceslas Square, ten minutes from Old Town Square and five minutes from the National Museum. If location matters—and it must—Icon hotel is for you. The hotel features a full lounge and restaurant, which you may not find in other Czech luxe hotels. Enjoy your dinner and get a good night’s sleep: Prague needs you to be fresh for another full day of adventures.
In the morning, pop into one of Prague’s many New Town cafés and enjoy a cup of espresso and a pastry. Go for a walk through Wesceslas Square, one of the many gathering places in Prague’s city center, and take photos in front of the National Museum at the square’s head. If you look closely, you can see the marks left from bullets absorbed during the communist era. The museum—an homage to Prague’s resilience—remains not only standing, but also symbolically more defiantly beautiful as a result of the turmoil.
After walking even for a short while through the square, you’ll need to warm up. Café Imperial is the perfect place to do so. Order a pot of hot, mulled red or white wine, and a cheese plate. Some of my favorite memories in Prague are of this café, sipping warm drinks and chatting with friends. This cozy place is meant to warm and recharge you—but there is a lot more to see.
The National Theater is a must. The theater features operas with captions in several languages and it’s such a luxurious, authentic Czech experience that it shouldn’t be missed.
But before the curtain goes up on the opera, you’ll want to grab dinner. One of my favorite dining spots in Prague was Café Savoy, located just across the Vltava River from the theater. It features different types of schnitzels, dumplings and meats all prepared beautifully. I recommend the pork schnitzel. Although it’s not the most elegant of dishes, it’s surely one of the most delicious I’ve tasted in Eastern Europe.
After dinner, the walk to the National Theater is a romantic one—you’ll see the glistening city lights across the river—and it’s the ideal place to stop for a moment and reflect.
Every night when we had the time, about eight of my girlfriends and I would grab some bottles of wine and delicious Czech beer and take the tram up Petrin hill. From our favorite resting spot in the soft grass, we would watch the picturesque sunset in this, Europe’s most beautiful and mysterious city. To our left was Pražky Hrad. Straight ahead, the massive, ugly television tower in Žižkov, a gaudy remnant of a communist government that hasn’t existed for decades. Below, in Old Town and New Town, streetlights flickered on and Praguers walked home from work or ambled towards cafés for a bite to eat. And, like clockwork, we sat there sipping and giggling, as schoolgirls are wont to do. Those sunsets with friends rank as some of my most precious memories, and it’s fitting that they happened in Prague, such a magnificent destination.
Prague is so near to my heart, that it is difficult to choose the very best to share with travelers. There’s the dark, but fun David Cerny artwork throughout the city. There’s Frank Gehry’s famous “Dancing house,” a stark departure from the old-world architecture in much of central Prague. The Pilsner Urquell brewery, located just outside the capital in Plzen, is one of the most interesting places you’ll ever visit. Then there’s Old Town hall and the astronomical clock, located in an area that truly evokes old-world Europe. There’s u Fleku, a beer hall where you’ll hear the drinking songs of Germans, Russians and Irish travelers roar while you enjoy a plate of sausages. And, of course, Prague’s “Eiffel Tower,” which in true Czech fashion is taller than the one in Paris, but only if you include the hill it sits upon.
With that in mind, be sure to note that this list is not exhaustive. Prague is a city that invites exploration—so embrace your wanderlust.
Deny yourself nothing. Find your own Prague, as I found mine. The seasoned traveler owes a debt of gratitude to the Czech playwright and patriot, Václav Havel, for sharing his beautiful city. Run, don’t walk, to Prague and be transported to a different world. And isn’t that why we love to travel in the first place?