The first reaction most people have to this city is – ‘This was a communist country!??’
It really looks nothing like the kind, nor does it feel anything other than a typical European city. Until you taste the beer. And then ask for the bill.
Damn. That was cheap.
For a city with an efficient transportation system, multi-mode tickets (metro/tram/bus), clear signages in touristy areas and a great nightlife, it sure is a shock.
The walking tours that you’ll inevitably take in the city will give you the necessary details about the different attractions i.e. Jewish quarters, Astronomical clock, Prague Castle etc, so there’s no need to waste your time here. What I wanted to share with you here are the things you can do in your spare time, away from the touristy activities, as well as tips to enjoy the city better. So here goes……..
The Charles Bridge. No matter what you do, the Karlova Most will be central to a lot of activities. The castle is on the other side in Malostranska, all the sightseeing is nearby and all the watering holes are just down the road. Here is the catch – the entire day the bridge is crowded with tourists and street performers. Within a few minutes you’ll realise that even a selfie is not possible without someone else’s stick jutting into the frame. (In fact, in one photo of mine, someone’s tongue was sticking out, I wonder what the hell was he trying to do?)The solution? Come here as late at night as possible. There will be people here, sure. But they will be like you – just enjoying a stroll without maximizing their memory card.
Day Trips. Along with the city, Prague also has some great day trips. Kutna hora (with the Sedlec bone church, beautiful Gothic architecture and St Barbara church) is just about 2 hours away.
The Terezin concentration camp memorial is an hour and a half. The Karlstejn Castle is about 1 hour 30 minutes. None of them involve more than a single change for any transport, and you can comfortably come back by the evening. For the Terezin camp I would recommend taking it as a tour from Prague. Going on your own is a little difficult especially as there are two places to visit – the camp and the memorial. You also get great info in tours. The excellent transportation network of Prague will make sure that the connecting lines will take you straight to your destination. All the sites are very well linked. Still, ask your hostel/hotel for the routes/train lines. Most hostels also have daily tours to these places, so it’s always preferable to go with them.
Getting Around. Buy a bunch of metro/tram/bus tickets as soon as you land in the city. They can be used for all forms of transport within a specified area, which pretty much covers all the good parts of the city. Also, unlike Eastern Europe, they are valid for a certain amount of time rather than a single journey. The 24 kc tickets are valid for 30 minutes, the 32 kc is valid for 90 minutes and good enough to travel wherever you want for sightseeing. Make sure you validate it on the orange/yellow box before entering. The tickets are available at metro stations, Tabak shops and kiosks/newspaper stands.
Currency. For exchanging money look for shops that say ‘no commission’ and make sure you ask them what you’ll get for your money after all the deductions and charges. In the Old town, sometimes agents advertise fantastic rates, but they’ll either be for ‘buying’, or for a certain minimum amount. I’ve known someone who actually paid 20% commission in old town. As with every country, the best rates you will ever get is actually when you use your debit card.
The Clock. The ‘cuckoo’ of the astronomical clock is probably the most overrated thing in Prague. Every tour guide will make a great deal out of this. (Once you’ve seen it, you’ll remember the first time you had sex – “IS THAT IT!? I had to wait all that time for THIS?”) If you are in the area, then sure, see it. But don’t wait for 45 minutes for the bird to ‘pop’. (See, just like sex).
Eating Out. If you see a restaurant advertising ‘authentic Czech food ‘ or ‘traditional cuisine’, you can bet your 45 minutes of sex that it’s a touristy place and it will overcharge. Authentic Czech restaurants are most likely to have local patrons (as tourists come and go during the year) and don’t need to specify that. Think about it – will you find a restaurant in Beijing saying ‘Get Chinese food here?’ It’s just called ‘food’. Similarly, any place with an English menu, especially in the old town will most likely be a touristy one. The old rule of thumb applies here – walk atleast a block away from any major tourist attraction before finding a place to eat.
Escalators. Stand on the right side when traveling on an escalator, leaving the left free for people to pass you. (They should really follow this everywhere in the world.)
Shoes. Choose your shoes wisely. Prague is full of cobbled streets and hilly parts, which will make your heels look like they’ve been chewed by a Great Dane. Thick, comfy soles are very important. Remember, the Prague castle is the biggest one of its kind in the world and most people who are sitting on the side on the way up, are there because their shoes have given up. Wearing heels while walking around Old Town is like driving with the airbags inflated.
Taxis. Don’t pull out a cab in the middle of the street. Go to the nearest taxi stand and that too only take those from a reputed company. Private cabs in Prague are like any other place in the world – always ready to scam you.
Panoramic Views. The most easily accessible place for excellent views of the city is the Prague Tower. After that is the Charles Bridge tower. If the weather is clear then its best to go Letna Park.
Paying in different currencies. Never pay in Euros or Dollars in restaurants. A lot of Old Town restaurants advertise this, making you feel that it’s for your convenience, but their rate of exchange is pretty bad.
Hot Girl Scam. If you are a solo male and some women you meet on the street try to have a conversation with you, which ends up with you accompanying them for a drink nearby, be wary. This is a tourist trap. The bar that you’ll go to will inflate your drinks to hundreds of korunas. Most people won’t see the menu beforehand, and once the bill comes you really can’t do anything. The bar-owners, bouncers and the girls are all in on this, so you wont be able to create a scene. They may be good looking (it doesn’t work otherwise) and really charming, but remember you aren’t Brad Pitt and they aren’t Mother Teresa. Just pay, swallow your pride and walk away.
John Lennon Wall. Carry a waterproof marker when you go for the tour. Do write something on it. The higher it is, the longer it’ll last. Ask to climb onto someone’s shoulders. It’s for posterity.
Besides this, my favourite thing about Prague is the fact that it has everything in perfect doses without overwhelming your senses. The pub crawls are great and not crazy like Budapest. The street foods actually have variety and not restricted to doner kebabs. Goulash here is really a soup and not a full meal, so you can order more than two dishes for dinner; try ordering that in Hungary and be prepared to skip your second course. The main tourist attractions are (thankfully) mostly in the old town, and all just walking distance to each other. The free walking tours are informative and a great introduction to the city.
But the most distinctive thing, by far, about the city is the architecture. As an architect, my head was forever looking up at the beautiful detailing of each and every structure. The kind of intricate cornices, balustrades, layered arches and mouldings that is the hallmark of baroque architecture is mind boggling, and is sometimes more difficult to make than the structure itself. Even the new buildings are made with the same design language. You will be constantly avoiding tourist coming straight at you with their head turned up. I lost two shirts in three days to coffee and beer spills. (Who drinks beer at 10 am? Oh, right. I’m in the Czech Republic)
The entire walk from the Namesti Republiky metro station down Republic square towards Karlova Most is a cultural explosion for the senses. The walking tours are recommended for precisely this reason – the Old Town has so much history and information that without a guide you’ll have no clue as to what you’re looking at. One of the couples remarked about how life-like that statue was, how intricate the sinews of muscles were, and what a horrible idea it was to actually clothe a 300 year old statue. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that that was a mannequin outside a Prada store. Come to think of it, she was the one who spilled the beer on me. Hmmmmm