Matička Praha - 'little mother Prague' - was largely undamaged by WWII, and the cityscape is stunning. Its compact medieval centre remains an evocative maze of cobbled lanes, ancient courtyards, dark passages and churches beyond number, all watched over by an 1100-year-old castle.
Kidnapped by communism for 40 years, Prague has become one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations. Its traditional pubs and eateries have been augmented by a wave of gourmet restaurants, cocktail bars and trendy cafes - though you can still feast on pork and dumplings washed down with a beer.
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What To See
Sightseeing in Prague means wandering through an invigorating diversity of neighbourhoods and pounding the cobblestones between old fortifications, historically resplendent squares and streets, majestic church-fronts, green open-air cuttings, and countless museum and gallery ticket booths.
Franz Kafka Museum
This much-hyped exhibition on the life and work of Prague’s most famous literary son, entitled ‘City of K’, explores the intimate relationship between the writer and the city that shaped him, through the use of original letters, photographs, quotations, period newspapers and publications, and video and sound installations.
Restored in the 1990s after decades of neglect, Prague’s most exuberant and sensual building is a labour of love, every detail of its design and decoration carefully considered, every painting and sculpture loaded with symbolism. The restaurant and cafe flanking the entrance are like walk-in museums of art nouveau design; upstairs are half a dozen sumptuously decorated halls that you can visit by guided tour.
Strolling across Charles Bridge is everybody’s favourite Prague activity. However, by 9am it’s a 500m-long fairground, with an army of tourists squeezing through a gauntlet of hawkers and buskers beneath the impassive gaze of the baroque statues that line the parapets. If you want to experience the bridge at its most atmospheric try to visit it at dawn.
In 1140 Vladislav II founded Strahov Monastery (Strahovský klášter) for the Premonstratensian order. The present monastery buildings, completed in the 17th and 18th centuries, functioned until the communist government closed them down and imprisoned most of the monks; they returned in 1990.
This fascinating (and busy) museum features the sensuous art nouveau posters, paintings and decorative panels of Alfons Mucha (1860–1939), as well as many sketches, photographs and other memorabilia. The exhibits include countless artworks showing Mucha’s trademark Slavic maidens with flowing hair and piercing blue eyes, bearing symbolic garlands and linden boughs.
Old Town Hall
Prague’s Old Town Hall, founded in 1338, is a hotchpotch of medieval buildings acquired piecemeal over the centuries, presided over by a tall Gothic tower with a splendid Astronomical Clock. As well as housing the Old Town’s main tourist information office, the town hall has several historic attractions, and hosts art exhibitions on the ground floor and the 2nd floor.
The National Gallery's collection of modern art, spread out over four floors, is a strong contender for Prague's best museum, with an unexpectedly rich collection of world masters, including works from Van Gogh, Picasso, Schiele, Klimt and on and on. The holdings of Czech interwar Abstract, Surrealist and Cubist art are worth the trip alone.
While this monument's massive functionalist structure has all the elegance of a nuclear power station, the interior is a spectacular extravaganza of polished art-deco marble, gilt and mosaics, and home to a fascinating museum of 20thcentury Czechoslovak history.
The Vyšehrad Citadel refers to the complex of buildings and structures atop Vyšehrad Hill and that have played a role in Czech history for over 1,000 years. While most structures date from the 18th century, the citadel is still viewed as the city’s spiritual home. The sights are spread out over a wide area, with commanding views.
Prague Castle – Pražský hrad, or just hrad to Czechs – is Prague’s most popular attraction. According to the Guinness World Records, it’s the largest ancient castle in the world: 570m long, an average of 128m wide and covering a total area bigger than seven football fields. Its history begins in the 9th century when Prince Bořivoj founded a fortified settlement here. It grew haphazardly as rulers made their own additions, creating an eclectic mixture of architectural styles.
The castle has always been the seat of Czech rulers as well as the official residence of the head of state, although the Czech Republic’s first president, Václav Havel, chose to live in his own house on the outskirts of the city. Prague Castle has seen four major reconstructions, from that of Prince Soběslav in the 12th century to a classical facelift under Empress Maria Theresa (r 1740–80). In the 1920s President Masaryk hired a Slovene architect, Jože Plečnik, to renovate the castle; his changes created some of its most memorable features and made the complex more tourist-friendly.
Big Ben is a small but well-stocked English-language bookshop, with shelves devoted to Czech and European history, books on Prague, travel (including Lonely Planet guides), science fiction, children’s books, poetry and all the latest fiction best sellers. There are also English-language newspapers and magazines at the counter.
Globe Bookstore & Café
A popular hang out for book-loving expats, the Globe is a cosy English-language bookshop with an excellent cafe-bar in which to peruse your purchases. There’s a good range of new fiction and nonfiction, a big selection of secondhand books, and newspapers and magazines in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Russian. Plus art exhibitions and film screenings.
Prepare for olfactory overload in this always-busy outlet for natural health and beauty products. The scented soaps, herbal bath oils and shampoos, fruit cordials and handmade paper products are made using herbs and plants grown on an organic farm at Ostra, east of Prague.
Modernista is an elegant gallery specialising in reproduction 20th-century furniture in classic styles ranging from art deco and cubist to functionalist and Bauhaus, including sensuously curved chairs that are a feature of the Icon Hotel, and an unusual chaise lounge by Adolf Loos (a copy of the one in the Villa Müller. The shop is inside the arcade at Celetná 12 (not visible from the street).
Belda & Co is a long-established Czech firm dating from 1922. Nationalised in 1948, it was revived by the founder’s son and grandson, and continues to create gold and silver jewellery of a very high standard. Its range includes its own angular, contemporary designs, as well as reproductions based on art nouveau designs by Alfons Mucha.
If you think Czech beer begins and ends with Pilsner Urquell, a visit to the tasting room at Pivní Galerie (the Beer Gallery) will lift the scales from your eyes. Here you can sample and purchase a huge range of Bohemian and Moravian beers – nearly 150 varieties from 30 different breweries – with expert advice from the owners.
This is an Aladdin’s cave of secondhand goods, bric-a-brac and junk with, in all likelihood, some genuine antiques for those who know what they’re looking for. There’s affordable stuff for all, from communist-era lapel pins, medals, postcards, old beer mugs and toys to crystal, shot glasses, porcelain, china, pipes and spa cups, all presided over by a bust of Lenin.
Art Deco Galerie
Specialising in early-20th-century items, this shop has a wide range of 1920s and '30s stuff, including clothes, handbags, jewellery, glassware and ceramics, along with knick-knacks such as the kind of cigarette case you might imagine Dorothy Parker pulling from her purse.
This boutique showcases the designs of Hana Stocklassa and her associates, with collections of knitwear, leather and suede clothes for women. Sweaters, turtlenecks, suede skirts, linen blouses, knit dresses and stretch denim suits seem to be the stock in trade, and there’s a range of jewellery to choose from as well.
Set in the ramshackle shell of an art-deco cinema, the legendary Roxy has nurtured the more independent and innovative end of Prague’s club spectrum since 1987 – this is the place to see the Czech Republic’s top DJs. On the 1st floor is NoD, an ‘experimental space’ that stages drama, dance, performance art, cinema and live music. Best nightspot in Staré Město.
The Akropolis is a Prague institution, a labyrinthine, sticky-floored shrine to alternative music and drama. Its various performance spaces host a smorgasbord of musical and cultural events, from DJs to string quartets to Macedonian Roma bands to local rock gods to visiting talent – Marianne Faithfull, the Flaming Lips and the Strokes have all played here.
An industrial club in every sense of the word: the setting in an industrial zone; the thumping music (both DJs and live acts); and the interior, an absolute must-see jumble of gadgets, shafts, cranks and pipes, many of which move and pulsate with light to the music. The programme includes occasional live music, theatre performances and art happenings.
Pivovar U Bulovky
This is a genuine neighbourhood bar out in the suburbs, a homely wood-panelled room with quirky metalwork, much of it home-built by the owner. The delicious house ležák (lager) is a yeast beer, cloudy in appearance, and crisp, citrusy and refreshing in flavour. Well worth the tram trip, but don’t expect the staff to speak English!
Prague State Opera
The impressive neo-rococo home of the Prague State Opera provides a glorious setting for performances of opera and ballet. An annual Verdi festival takes place here in August and September, and less conventional shows, such as Leoncavallo’s rarely staged version of La Bohème, are also performed here.
The year begins with a festive New Year's Eve celebration, followed by holidays like Three King's Day (6 January) and the Anniversary of Jan Palach's death (19 January), which honours the memory of a Charles University student who burned himself to death in protest of the 1969 Soviet occupation.
Easter Monday, which falls in either March or April, is a classic rite of spring: Czech men of all ages swat at their favourite women with willow swatches, while the ladies respond with gifts of hand painted eggs, after which everyone parties.
Once sacred to the communists, the Labour Day holiday (May 1) is now just an opportunity for a picnic or a day in the country.
Running from mid-May to early June is Prague's most prestigious event, Prague Spring, with classical music concerts held in theatres, churches and historic buildings.
Liberation Day was celebrated 9 May (the day in 1945 that the Red Army marched into Prague) under the communist government, but in recent years you've had to get there by 8 May (the day Prague liberated itself) to enjoy the festivities.
Food and Drink
‘Still Life’ is one of Prague’s top restaurants, famed for the quality of its cuisine. The decor is bold and modern, with quirky glassware, boldly patterned wallpapers and cappuccino-coloured crushed-velvet chairs. Of the 10 or so main courses on offer, four are seafood and the rest are meat – nothing vegetarian. There are also gourmet versions of traditional Czech dishes – the crispy roast duckling with red cabbage and herb dumplings is superb. If the three-course dinner is not enough, you can lash out on the five-course dégustation.
U Zlaté Hrušky
'At the Golden Pear' is a cosy, wood-panelled gourmets’ corner, serving Bohemian fish, fowl and game dishes (tripe fricassee is a speciality) and frequented by locals and visiting dignitaries as well as tourists (the Czech foreign ministry is just up the road, and Margaret Thatcher once dined here). In summer get a table in its leafy zahradní restaurace (garden restaurant) across the street
Tucked away down a narrow cul-de-sac, Lehká Hlava (the name means ‘clear head’) exists in a little world of its own. There are two unusually decorated dining rooms, both with a vaguely psychedelic vibe – tables lit from within, studded with glowing glass spheres or with a radiant wood-grain effect. In the kitchen the emphasis is on healthy, freshly prepared vegetarian and vegan dishes, ranging from hummus and roast vegies to spicy Asian stir-fry.
A small, friendly, family-run restaurant focusing on fresh Mediterranean cuisine, Oliva offers a menu of carefully prepared dishes that include linguine with mussels, white wine and herbs; and confit lamb with with cous-cous and pomegranate salad. It's also famous for its all-you-can-eat tiger prawn buffet, served with a choice of accompaniments including garlic and herbs, and coconut and coriander sauce.
This restaurant and tearoom cultivates a ramshackle, relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, with its batik tablecloths, wicker chairs, oriental knick-knacks and library of travel guidebooks. The menu is mostly Lebanese – baba ganoush, falafel, hummus and lamb kebabs – with a couple of Indian dishes thrown in, and there’s a huge range of speciality teas to choose from.
An unpretentious Indian restaurant, with all of the good food and none of the stultifying atmosphere and stiff service you normally find at Indian places here. The owners aim for what they call home-style service, meaning relaxed presentation and good home cooking. One minor quibble: the food could use more spice. Advance booking essential.
White walls, lattice screens, paper lanterns and polished granite tables create a relaxed and informal setting where a mixed crowd of businesspeople, locals and expats enjoys authentic Japanese and Korean cuisine. Tuck into a bowl of bibimbap (rice topped with meat and pickled vegetables spiced with hot pepper paste), or order a sashimi platter – the sushi here is probably the best in town.
This small, elegant Italian restaurant, on a quiet residential street, is one of Dejvice’s true destination restaurants. The main dining room, perched romantically below an arched brick ceiling, holds around a dozen tables, each with a vase of fresh flowers and covered in white linens. Since it’s small, you’ll have to book in advance.
This bright, cheerful café is a relatively new addition to this rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood between Letenské náměstí and Stromovka Park. The café is owned by an interior design company, and the polish shows, especially in the lovely open kitchen at the back. The menu includes a delicious selection of home-made cakes and light food items like soups and sandwiches. It’s popular with mothers with babies making the trek to and from the park.
Vino di Vino
This Italian wine shop and delicatessen doubles as a restaurant, with a menu that makes the most of all those imported goodies – bresaola with smoked mozzarella, spaghetti alla chitarra (with squid and pecorino), and saltimbocca alla Romana (beef fillet with prosciutto and sage). Good list of Italian wines, too, including excellent Montepulciano d'Abbruzzo.
U Malého Glena
‘Little Glen’s’ is a lively American-owned bar and restaurant where hard-swinging local jazz or blues bands play every night in the cramped and steamy stone-vaulted cellar. There are Sunday-night jam sessions where amateurs are welcome (as long as you’re good!) – it’s a small venue, so get here early if you want to see, as well as hear, the band.
This subterranean space under a corner house near Letenské náměstí is easily the friendliest bar this side of the Vltava. This is especially true for English speakers, as Fraktal serves as a kind of unofficial expat watering hole. There’s also good bar fare like burgers. The only drawback is the early closing time (last orders 11.30pm).
Letná Beer Garden
No accounting of watering holes in the neighbourhood would be complete without a nod toward the city’s best beer garden, situated at the eastern end of the Letná Gardens. Buy a takeaway beer from a small kiosk and grab a picnic table, or sit on a small terrace where you can order beer-by-the-glass and decent pizza. From the tram stop it is a five- or 10-minute walk south.
This tiny cocktail bar could not be further removed in atmosphere from your typical Old Town drinking place. Cramped and smoky – there are Cuban cigars for sale – with battered leather armchairs competing for space with a handful of tables, it’s friendly, relaxed and lively. Don’t miss the speciality of the house – a shot of rum mixed with finely chopped red chillis (minimum three shots).
Prague’s nicest open-air wine garden claims to be its oldest as well – apparently established by Emperor Charles IV himself. Enjoy a glass of locally made white or red on a refurbished wooden gazebo overlooking the vineyards and the Nusle valley. There’s no easy way to get here; try cutting through Vinohrady, following Americká and then continuing through Havlíčkovy sady. On trams 6, 7 and 24, stop at Otakarova then walk (uphill); for 4 and 22 stop at Jana Masaryka then walk.