The city of Prague is divided into five main areas, and is split by the Vltava river. On the right bank, we have the Old Town, New Town, and Jewish Quarters. (Our Hotel was in Old Town). On the left bank, there is the "Little Quarter" and the Prague Castle and Hradcany area. Any good guidebook will show the main areas and main attractions of each, allowing you to make the most of your visit- we had purchased the eye-witness guide.
The best way to explore the city initially is on foot. We had a five night break in Prague, which is probably a little longer than average, but did give us plenty of time to explore every corner, and have time to relax and watch the world go by. Once you set out on your exploration, you will find that the city is extremely geared up for tourism – there are tour operators offering coach and boating tours, and if you want a tour by horse drawn carriage, or by a vintage Skoda, then you have come to the right place! There are plenty of walking tours, and you will soon get familiar with tour guides leading 10-50 people around the main sites of the city. We didn’t join any, as generally I would prefer to explore alone, however if you are near an historical site, if you are close enough to a tour guide you might learn a fact or two..!
We did opt for a late afternoon 1hr river cruise, which was pleasant and affordable enough. There is a myriad of entertainment boats offering dinner and jazz nights etc, from the bridge just north of Charles Bridge - that links Little Quarter with the Jewish Quarter, however these are not my idea of enjoyment.
It is possible to purchase tickets which cover both the electric trams, underground and buses for very affordable pricing across several days. Tickets can be bought at a tabac or at a station and should be validated at the ticket machines before making the first journey. If you don’t have a ticket you risk a fine, and it isn’t always possible to buy a ticket at a machine at a tram station. Public transport tends to be very busy and tickets are rarely checked but the sooner you can get to a station and buy a ticket the better, as there are heavy fines for passengers travelling without a ticket. We bought a three day ticket which we did not use all that much, but it was invaluable when it was late and it was a long walk home. Tickets also cover the Fenicular railway (although we didn’t realise that and paid twice!)
Our hotel was situated on Narodni, which divides the Old and New Town and we often found ourselves in the Old Town Area. The highlight of the area is the wonderful Old Town Square but all the streets leading into Old Town Square are bustling with life. Not surprisingly, as Old Town Square has been important for almost 1000 years. Even if churches are not your thing, the Powder Gate, the Old Town Hall Tower and its fantastic astronomical clock should not be missed.
Charles Bridge crosses the Vltava and links Old Town with the Little Quarter. Crossing the bridge might take a while! This footbridge used to take four carriages abreast. There are plenty of artists selling their wares as you walk over the bridge, but the main feature of the bridge is the umpteen statues of saints that line its route across the river. Be prepared for the groups of people who congregate to touch the statue of St John Nepomuk, the statue has been polished bright from people wanting to receive good luck.
Prague Castle – the size of the Prague Castle complex is overwhelming. According to the Guinness book of records it is the largest continuous castle complex in the world, and is recognised by Unesco. We opted for a traditional Czech lunch at one of the restaurants close to the castle, before exploring its grounds. There are in fact five churches within this area, as well as several palaces and historic buildings, museums and galleries and important streets, including Golden Lane.
The Cathedral is situated within the walls of Prague Castle, and while there may look like there is a long queue for entry, it disappears within a reasonable timeframe and it is worth joining. You cannot gain entry to Golden Lane and its picturesque 16th century cottages without purchasing a ticket, which also allows access to St George’s Basilica, the gruesome Dalibor Tower and other attractions. We found an anomaly here, in that it is cheaper to purchase a family ticket than it is to purchase a ticket for two adults...so we purchased a family ticket, and were then refused entry to St George’s on the grounds we didn’t have a child with us..! Madness..but we got in eventually. I think they got their pricing strategy a little incorrect there however..!
Museum of Communism – this small museum was situated just off Narodni, and a few minutes walk from our hotel. Amazingly this was not mentioned in our guide book however it was an excellent social history museum looking at communism, the dream, reality and nightmare that was life in Prague from the second world war until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The fact that they advertise themselves as situated betweein a McDonalds and a casino was not lost on me.
As you wander around Prague, you cannot fail to notice the large number of musical halls, and everywhere you walk, you will find leaflets thrust upon you, promoting classical music events available to you that evening. We found one we liked, which covered a mix of popular classical music and bought two tickets for approximately £10 for a one hour show. The act was a four piece string quartet, playing in a church and it was an excellent way to spend an hour early evening and experience the importance of music on this great city. I would however say that it is better to purchase the tickets at the venue itself, rather than street sellers, as a precautionary measure.
Wenceslas Square seemed quite commercialised to me, however the great buildings that are all around Prague are evident here, and it is impossible to come to Prague and not spend some time here. Most of our time was spent sitting outside the Hotel Europa, which has much of its original features, and is an affordable but fashionable place for a drink or lunch.
Back over the water to Petrin Park, which is worth visiting late afternoon, to spend some time see some of the attractions there, but also a good place to relax, read a book, and look down upon the city and river. The park itself is extremely steep, hence the reason for the 1891 Funicular Railway which carries visitors to the Observation Tower, the false "Eiffel Tower" that is clearly visible on the city skyline. Just 299 steps, and one spiral staircase will get you to the top of the tower, from which you can see for miles around, and the entrance fee is minimal.
The Jewish Cemetery, in the Jewish Quarter, was expensive, at the equivalent of approximately £7.50 a head. However this is an important part of Prague history, and even if you do not visit the cemetery, it is worthwhile spending an afternoon wandering through the Jewish quarter to get a better feeling of Jewish life. Most Jews in Prague were sent to Terezin ghetto once the second world war was underway.
I am delighted that I finally got the opportunity to visit Prague and even though my city break was fairly extended compared to others, I still wish I had a day or two more to do some more exploration. From exploring the architecture and culture of Prague, this has been a very wealthy city that has had its struggles under communism but is certainly a lively city for visitors from across the globe.
Obviously the city has become popular with group travel, but as we arrived Monday and departed Saturday we never saw any situations that we were uncomfortable with. There are plenty of warnings about pickpockets, and this is very much a city which is heaving with tourists. We took the normal sensible precautions and did not have any security scares either.
The city is alive from early morning to late evening, and whether you want to explore architecture, churches and history, relax in parklands and watch the world go by, or eat, drink and party to the small hours, then Prague has something to offer you.