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Prague Tips: History, Sights, Sleeping & Eating
by Rick Steves
[Excerpted from "Rick Steves' Germany, Austria & Switzerland... with Prague"
It's amazing what ten years of freedom can do. Prague has always been historic. Now it's fun too. No place in Europe has become so popular so quickly. And for good reason: The capital of the Czech Republic--the only major city of Central Europe to escape the bombs of this century's wars--is Europe's best-preserved Baroque city. It's slinky with sumptuous Art Nouveau facades, offers tons of cheap Mozart and Vivaldi, and brews the best beer in Europe. But more than the architecture and traditional culture, it's an explosion of pent-up entrepreneurial energy jumping for joy after fifty years of Communist rule. And its low prices will make your visit enjoyable and nearly stressless.
Planning Your Time
Two days makes the long train ride in and out worthwhile and gives you time to get beyond the sightseeing and enjoy Prague's fun-loving ambience. Many wish they'd scheduled three days for Prague. From Munich, Berlin, and Vienna, it's a 6-hour train ride (during the day) or an overnight ride.
With two days I'd spend a morning seeing the castle and a morning in the Jewish Quarter--the only two chunks of sightseeing which demand any brainpower. Spend your afternoons loitering around the Old Town, Charles Bridge, and the Little Quarter and your nights split between beerhalls and live music.
Keep in mind that state museums close on Monday and Jewish sites close on Saturday.
Prague's castle put it on the map in the 9th century. In the 10th century the region was incorporated into the German "Holy Roman" Empire. The 14th century was Prague's "Golden Age" when it was one of Europe's largest and highly cultured cities. During this period Prague built St. Vitus Cathedral and Charles Bridge and established the first university in Central Europe.
Bucking the pope and Germany
Jan Hus was a local preacher who got in trouble with the Vatican a hundred years before Martin Luther. Like Luther he preached in the people's language rather then Latin. To add insult to injury, he complained about Church corruption. Tried for heresy and burned in 1415, Hus roused nationalist (Bohemian) as well as religious feelings and became a symbol of Czech martyrdom. His followers are called Hussites.
The reformist times of Jan Hus (around 1400, rebelling against both German and Roman control) led to a period of religious wars and ultimately subjugation under Austrian rule. With the brief exception of Rudolf II's reign, Prague stagnated under the Habsburgs of Austria.
During the late-16th century rule of the Habsburg king Rudolf II, Prague emerged again as a cultural and intellectual center. Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and others worked here. Much of Prague's great art can be attributed to this Habsburg king who lived not in Vienna but in Prague.
The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) began in Prague when locals tossed two Catholic/Habsburg officials (Czechs sympathetic to the Germans) out the window of the Prague Castle. Often called "the first world war" because it engulfed so many nations, the Thirty Years were particularly tough on Prague. During this period, its population dropped from 60,000 to 25,000. The result of this war was 300 years of Habsburg rule: German and Catholic culture, not Czech. Prague was a backwater of Vienna.
Czech nationalist revival
The 19th century was a time of Nationalism for people throughout Europe, including the Czechs, as the age of divine kings and ruling families was coming to a fitful end. The arts (such as the paintings of Mucha and the building of the massive National Museum atop Wenceslas Square) stirred the national spirit. With the end of WWI the Habsburgs were history and in 1918 the independent country of Czechoslovakia was proclaimed with Prague as its capital.
Troubled 20th century
Independence had lasted barely 20 years when the Nazis swept in (1939). Prague escaped the bombs of WWII but went almost directly from the Nazi frying pan into the Communist fire. Almost. A local uprising freed the city from the Nazis on May 8, 1945. The Russians "liberated" them again on May 9th.
The Communist chapter of Czech subjugation (1948-1989) was grim. The student and artist-led "Prague Spring" revolt in 1968 was crushed. The charismatic leader Alexander Dubcek was exiled into a job in the back woods and the years after 1968 were particularly tough. But eventually the Soviet empire crumbled. Czechoslovakia regained its freedom in the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" (so called because there were no casualties). Until 1989, May 9th was the Czech day of liberation. Now Czechs celebrate their liberation on May 8th. In 1993 the Czech and Slovak republics agreed on the "Velvet Divorce" and became two separate countries.
Today, while not without its problems, the Czech Republic is enjoying a growing economy and a strong democracy. Prague has emerged as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. You're about to find out why.
Locals call their town Praha (pron: pra-ha). It's big, with 1.2 million people, but for the quick visit, think of it as small and focus on the core of the city. Knowing that the average American leaves Prague wild about the city but unable to say more than two Czech place names, I've simplified things drastically and will refer to the tourist landmarks in English (with the Czech name in parenthesis). Study the map and learn these key places:
Main Train Station: Hlavni nadrazi (hlav-nee nah-dra-shzee)
Old Town: Stare Mesto (sta-rey mnyess-toh)
Old Town Square: Staromestske namesti (starro-min-yes-ststi-keh nah-mnyess-tee)
New Town: Nove Mesto (no-vay mnyess-toh)
Little Quarter: Mala Strana (mah-lah strah-nah)
Jewish Quarter: Josefov (yoo-zef fohf)
Castle Area: Hradcany (hrad chah-nee)
Charles Bridge: Karluv most (kar-loov most)
Wenceslas Square: Vaclavske namesti (vah-slawf-skeh nah-mnyess-kee)
The River: Vltava (vul-tah-vah)
The Vltava River divides the West side (castle and Little Quarter) from the East side (train station, Old Town, New Town, and nearly all of the recommended hotels). Prague addresses come with a general zone. Praha 1 is in the old center on either side of the river. Praha 2 is in the new city south of Wenceslas Square. Praha 3 and higher indicates a location farther from the center.
TIs are at three key locations: at the main train station, on the old town square, and in the West Tower of Charles Bridge (daily 9:00-19:00, until 18:00 on weekends and in winter, tel. 02/2448-2202). They offer maps, information on guided walks and bus tours, and bookings for concerts, hotel rooms, and rooms in private homes. Get the brochure listing all of Prague's museums and hours.
Travel in Prague is like travel in Western Europe, only it's not covered by the Eurailpass and it seems about 15 years behind the times. Americans and Canadians need no visa. Just flash your passport at the border. (U.S. embassy in Prague, tel. 02/5732-0663.)
Prague's new freedom comes with new scams. There's no particular risk of violent crime, just green rich tourists getting taken by con artists. In general, simply be on guard: on trains (thieves on overnight trains and corrupt conductors intimidating Western tourists for a bribe); changing money (tellers anywhere with bad arithmetic and inexplicable pauses while counting back your change); and dealing with taxis (see Getting Around Prague, below). In restaurants, understand the price clearly on the menu before ordering.
Czech phones works like any in Europe. For international phone calls, buy a phone card at a kiosk or your hotel (150 kc). It costs about $1 a minute to call the USA directly (dial 001-area code-number) from a public phone booth that accepts the local phone card. To call Prague from abroad, dial the international code (00 in Europe or 011 in the USA), the Czech Republic code (420), then Prague's city code (2), followed by the local number.
32 Koruna = about U.S. $1. There is no black market. Assume anyone trying to sell money on the streets is peddling obsolete currency. Buy and sell easily at the station (4% fees), banks, or hotels. ATMs are everywhere. Czech money is tough to change in the West. Before leaving the Czech Republic, change your remaining Koruna into your next country's currency (at Prague train station change bureaus).
Magic Praha is a tiny travel service run by hardworking English-speaking Lida Steflova. She is a local jack of all trades, helpful with any needs you may have (tel. 02/302-5170, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Enjoy "the golden city of a hundred spires" from one of its many fine viewpoints during the early evening when the light is warm and colors rich. Good viewpoints include the castle square, the top of the east tower of Charles Bridge, the Old Town Square clock tower, and the steps of the National Museum overlooking Wenceslas Square.
Czech is a Slavic language so it has almost no resemblance to Western European languages you may know. These days, English is "modern" and you'll find the language barrier minimal. If you speak German, it's helpful, too. An acute accent means you linger on that vowel. The little carrot above the c, s, or z makes it ch, sh, or zh.
Learn these key Czech words:
Hello/Goodbye (familiar): Ahoy (ah-hoi)
Good day, Hello (formal): Dobry den (DOH-bree den)
Yes/No: Ano (AH-no)/Ne (neh)
Please: Prosim (proh-zeem)
Thank you: Dekuji (dyack-quee)
You're welcome: Prosim (proh-zeem)
Where is...?: Kde je ...? (gday yeh)
Do you speak English?: Mluvite anglicky? (MLOO-vit-eh ANG-litz-key)
krown (the money): koruna (koh-roo-nah)
Arrival in Prague
Prague unnerves many travelers--it's relatively rundown, you're going behind the former "Iron Curtain," and you've heard stories of rip-offs and sky-high hotel prices. But in reality, Prague is charming, safe, and welcomes you with open cash registers and smiles.
Prague has several train stations. Most travelers coming from and going to the West use the Main station (Hlavni Nadrazi) or the secondary station (Holesovice Nadrazi; if you arrive here, take metro into town: get off at Hlavni Nadrazi for main station, or transfer at Muzeum to green line, stops Mustek and Staromestska are in Old Town). Trains to other points within the country use Masarykovo or Smichov stations.
Prague's main train station feels like a big metro station. You'll be met at the tracks by room hustlers (snaring tourists for cheap rooms in the center--illegally). A huge highway (Wilson Boulevard) obliterates the front of the formerly elegant station (go upstairs to see its original Art Nouveau interior). The large low-ceilinged main hall is downstairs: filled with travelers, kiosks, loitering teenagers, and older riff-raff.
Upon arrival by train, change money. Rates vary--compare by asking at two windows what you'll get for $100. Count carefully. At the same window buy a city map (30 kc, with trams and metro lines marked and tiny sketches of the sights for ease in navigating). You'll be constantly referring to this map. Confirm your departure plans at the train information window. Possibly arrange for a room or tour at TI or the AVE travel agency. The left luggage counter is reportedly safer than the lockers.
To reach the Old Town from the train station, you can catch trams 5, 9 or 26 (to find the stop, walk into the park and head two minutes to the right) or take the metro (downstairs in the station, look for the red M, two directions: Muzeum or Florenc; take metro to Muzeum, then transfer to green line--stops Mustek and Staromestska straddle the Old Town). The courageous and savvy get a cabby to treat them fairly and get to their hotel fast and sweat-free for no more than 130 kc (see below).
Getting Around Prague
If you do things in logical order, you'll walk nearly everywhere. But the metro is slick, the trams fun, and the taxis quick and easy once you're initiated.
Prague's trams and metro work on the same tickets (buy from machines in metro, Tobac kiosks, or hotels). For convenience, buy all the tickets you think you'll need for your stay: 15 minute ticket--8 kc, 60 minute ticket--12 kc, 24-hour ticket--70 kc, 3-day pass--180 kc. The metro closes at midnight.
City maps show the tram/bus/metro lines. The metro system is handy and simple (just three lines) but doesn't get to many hotels and sights. Trams come by every couple of minutes. Get used to hopping on and off. Validate your ticket on the bus by sticking it in the machine (which stamps a time on it).
The most infamous taxis in Europe are being tamed. While bandito cabbies still have meters that spin like pinwheels, the city has made great strides in civilizing these crooks. While most guidebooks advise avoiding taxis, this is defeatist. I find Prague is a great taxi town and use them routinely. Get the local rate and they're cheap. Use only registered taxies: these are marked by a roof lamp with the word "TAXI" in black on both sides, and the front doors sport a black-and-white checkered ribbon, the company name, license number, and rates (three rows: drop charge--25 kc, per kilometer charge--17 kc, and wait time per minute--4 kc). The key is the tiny "sazba" box on the magic meter showing the rate. This should read "1." If a cabbie tries to rip you off, simply pay 100 kc. Let him follow you into the hotel if he insists you owe him more. (He won't.) The receptionist will defend you. Rip-offs are most likely around tourist sites and the train station. To remind him to turn on the meter, say "Zapnete taximetr" (zappa-nyet-ay tax-ah-met-er).
Prague Walks offers regular walking tours of the Old Town, Prague Castle, and the Jewish Quarter. Most last 2 hours and cost 200 kc. Get the current schedule from any TI (e-mail: email@example.com).
Cheap big bus orientation tours provide an efficient once-over-lightly look at Prague and a convenient way to see the castle. Premiant City Tours offers 15 different tours including: quick city (350 kc, 2 hrs, 5/day), grand city (550 kc, 3.5 hrs, 2/day), Jewish Quarter (590 kc, 2 hrs), Prague by night, Bohemian glass, Terezin Concentration camp memorial, Karlstejn Castle, Cesky Krumlov (1600 kc, 8 hrs), and a river cruise. The tours feature live guides (in German and English) and depart from near the bottom of Wenceslas Square at Na Prikope 40. Get tickets at an AVE travel agency, hotel, on the bus, or at Na Prikope 23 (tel. 02/0601-212625 or 02/2423-0072, http://www.sos.cz/premiant).
Tram 22 makes a fine joyride through town. Consider this as a scenic lead up to touring the castle. Catch it at metro: Namesti Miru, roll through a bit of new town, the old town, across the river and hop out just above the castle.
Self-Guided Walking Tour
The King's Walk (Kralovska cesta), the ancient way of coronation processions, is touristy but great. Pedestrian-friendly and full of playful diversions, it connects the essential Prague sites. The king would be crowned in St. Vitus Cathedral in the Prague castle, walk through the Little Quarter stopping at the Church of St. Nicholas, cross Charles Bridge, and finish at the Old Town Square. If he hurried, he'd be done in 20 minutes. Like the main drag in Venice between St. Mark's and the Rialto bridge, this walk mesmerizes tourists. Use it as a spine, but venture off it--especially to eat.
This walk laces together all the following recommended sights except the Jewish Quarter. From the castle, stairs lead down into the Little Quarter. They dump you into the Little Quarter Square and the Church of St. Nicholas. Farther downhill a medieval gate announces Charles Bridge. Over the river another gate welcomes you to the Old Town and a well-trod, shop-lined street under glorious Baroque and Art Nouveau facades leads to the Old Town Square. For the sake of completeness, extend the King's walk from there past the Havelska Market and up Wenceslas Square where a commanding view awaits from the National Museum steps.
Sights--Prague's Castle Area
**Prague Castle--For a thousand years, Czech rulers have ruled from the Prague Castle. It's huge (by some measures, the biggest castle on earth) with a wall more than a kilometer long. And it's confusing with plenty of sights not worth seeing and a newly rebuilt feeling. Rather than worry about rumors that you should spend all day here with long lists of museums within to see, keep things simple. Four stops matter and are explained here: St. Vitus Cathedral, the old Royal Palace, Basilica of St. George, and the Golden Lane. (100 kc for entrance to all sights within, daily 9:00-17:00; the 125 kc audio guide is good but renting it makes it impossible to exit the castle area from the bottom.) To reach the castle by metro, get off at the Malostranska metro stop, climb through the Little Quarter and up the castle steps (Zamecke Schody). Or ride tram 22 which stops above the castle.
Castle Square (Hradcanske namesti)--The big square facing the castle offers fine string quartet street music, an awesome city view, and stairs leading down to the Little Quarter. The National Gallery's collection of European paintings is in the neighboring Sternberg Palace (contains works by Durer, Rubens, Rembrandt, El Greco, and more--skipable if you're going to Vienna or Munich).
Survey the castle from here, the tip of a 500-meter-long series of courtyards, churches and palaces. The offices facing this first courtyard belong to the Czech president, Vaclav Havel (left side). The guard changes on the hour. Walk under the fighting giants, under an arch and straight into the info center in a small church--buy tickets here.
St. Vitus Cathedral--This cathedral symbolizes the Czech spirit. It was finished in 1929 on about the 1,000th anniversary of the assassination of Saint Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czechs. This most important church in Prague houses the crown jewels (thoroughly locked up and out of sight) and the tomb of "Good King" Wenceslas as well as other Czech royalty. Wenceslas' tomb sits in the fancy chapel (on the right). Murals here show scenes of his life. More kings are buried in the royal mausoleum in front of the high altar and in the crypt underneath. The cathedral, a mix of Gothic and neo-Gothic, is 124 meters long and offers a fine view from the top of its spire (daily 9:00-17:00, 287 steps). Notice the fine windows. The rose window above the entry shows the creation. The Art Nouveau window from 1931 is by Czech artist Alfons Mucha (look for Saints Cyril and Methodius, third chapel on left). If you like that, visit the Mucha museum in the Old Town (see below).
Old Royal Palace--This was the seat of the Bohemian Princes in the 12th century. While extensively rebuilt, the large hall is late Gothic. It's big enough for jousts--even the spiral staircases were designed to let a mounted soldier gallop up. Look up at the impressive vaulted ceiling, look down on the chapel from the end, and go out on the balcony for a fine Prague view. Is that Paris in the distance? No, it's an observation tower built for an exhibition in 1891 (60 meters tall, a quarter of the height of its big brother in Paris--built in 1889). There's nothing to see downstairs in the palace. Across from palace exit is St. George's Basilica.
St. George Basilica and Convent--The first Bohemian convent was established here near the palace in 973. Today the convent houses the Czech Gallery (best Czech paintings from Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque periods). The Basilica is the best-preserved Romanesque church in Prague. St. Ludmila was buried here in 973. Continue walking downhill through the castle grounds. Veer to the left and into a cute lane.
Golden Lane--This street of old buildings which originally housed goldsmiths is now filled with gift shops, boutiques, galleries, and cafes. The Czech writer Franz Kafka lived at #22. There's a handy deli/bistro for picnic items at the top and a public WC at the bottom. Beyond that at the end of the castle are fortifications beefed up in anticipation of the Turkish attack--the cause for most medieval arms build-ups in Europe--and steps leading down and out into the Little Quarter.
Sights--From the Little Quarter to Charles Bridge
**Little Quarter (Mala Strana)--This is the most characteristic fun-to-wander old section of town. It's one of four medieval towns (along with Hradcany, Stare Mesto, and Nove Mesto) which eventually grew to become Prague. It centers on the Little Quarter Square (Malostranske namesti) with its plague monument and the commanding church.
Church of St. Nicholas--Dominating the Little Quarter, this is the best example of High Baroque in town (daily 9:00-16:00, built 1703-1760, 230-foot-high dome). Normally every night there are concerts at two venues on this square: in the Church of St. Nicholas and in Lichtenstein Palace across the square from the church. Charles Bridge is just a short walk down Mostecka from the square.
***Charles Bridge (Karluv most)--This much-loved bridge, commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1357, offers one of the most pleasant 500-meter strolls in Europe. Be on the bridge when the sun is low for the warmest people-watching and photography. At one time, the black crucifix (1657) standing near the east end stood alone on the bridge. The multitude of other saints, near and dear to old Praguers, were added later. Today most are replicas with the originals in museums out of the pollution.
There's a tourist information office at the west end tower (climbable). The tower at the east end is considered one of the finest Gothic gates in existence. You can climb it for a fine view but nothing else (30 kc, daily 10:00-18:30).
After crossing the bridge, follow the shop-lined street to the Old Town Square.
Sights--Old Town Square
***Old Town Square--The focal point for most visits, this has been a market square since the 11th century. It became the nucleus of a town (Stare Mesto) in the 13th century when its city hall was built. Today the old time market stalls have been replaced by cafes, touristic horse buggies, and souvenir hawkers.
The Hus memorial--erected in 1915, 500 years after his burning--marks the center of the square and symbolizes the long struggle for Czech freedom. The Czech reformer, Jan Hus, stands tall between two groups of people: victorious Hussite patriots and Protestants defeated by the Habsburgs. A mother with her children behind Hus represents the ultimate rebirth of the Czech nation. The steps are a popular local hangout--young Czechs gawking at gawking tourists.
A spin tour from the center gives you a textbook of architectural styles: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Art Nouveau.
Spin clockwise from the green domes of the wildly Baroque Church of St. Nicholas. There has been a church on this site since the 12th century. This one, dating from the early 18th century, is now a Hussite church (evening concerts). The Jewish Quarter (Josefov) is a few blocks behind it.
Spin to the right past the Hus Memorial and the fine golden and mosaic Art Nouveau facade of the Prague City Insurance company.
Notice the fanciful Gothic Tyn Church with its Disney-esque spires flanking a solid gold effigy of the Virgin Mary. For two hundred years after Hus's death, this was the leading Hussite church in Prague (enter through arcade facing the square; a diagram at door locates spots of touristic interest such as the tomb of astronomer Tycho Brahe).
Lining the south side of the square is an interesting row of pastel houses. Their Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque facades are ornamented with interesting statues that symbolize the original use of each building. The pointed 230-foot-tall spire marks the 14th-century Old Town Hall (famous for its astronomical clock--see below). In front of the city hall, 27 white inlaid crosses mark the spot 27 Protestant nobles were beheaded in 1621 after rebelling against Catholic Habsburgs.
**Old Town Hall Astronomical Clock--Join the gang, ignoring the ridiculous human sales racks, for the striking of the hour (daily 8:00-20:00) on the 15th-century town hall clock. As you wait for the show, see if you can figure out how the clock works.
With revolving disks and sweeping hands, this clock keeps several versions of time. Two outer rings show the hour: Bohemian time (Gothic numbers, with hours counted from sunset) and our time (24 Roman numerals, XII at the top being noon, XII at the bottom being midnight). Everything revolves around the earth (the fixed middle background, with Prague at the center). Arcing lines and moving spheres combine with the big hand (a sweeping golden sun) and the little hand (the moon showing various stages) to indicate the times of sunset and sunrise. Look for the Orbits of the sun and moon as they ride through day (the blue zone) and night (the black zone). If this seems complex today, it must have been a marvel in 1490.
Four statues flank the clock representing 15th-century Prague's four biggest worries: invasion (the Turk), death (skeleton), greed (a moneylender, which used to have Jewish features until after WWII when anti-Semitism became politically incorrect), and vanity (enjoying the mirror).
At the top of the hour, 1) death tips his hourglass and pulls the chord ringing the bell, 2) the windows open and the twelve apostles parade by acknowledging the gang of onlookers, 3) the rooster crows, and 4) the hour is rung. The hour is often off because of daylight saving time (which made no sense at all in the 15th century).
Inside the city hall you'll find the main tourist office, local guides desk, and the opportunity to pay three admissions: for the city hall (by tour only), Gothic chapel (nothing to see except a close-up of the 12 apostles and the clock mechanism well-described in English), and the tower (climb for another fine city view).
The nearby Powder Tower sounds interesting but is a dud. Head instead toward Wenceslas Square.
Sights--Around Wenceslas Square
*Havelska Market--Central Prague's best open-air flower and produce market scene is a block toward the Old Town Square from the bottom of Wenceslas Square. Laid out in the 13th century by King Wenceslas for the German trading community, it keeps hungry locals and vagabonds fed cheaply today.
**Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske namesti)--More a broad boulevard than a square, it's named for the statue of King Wenceslas which stands on a horse at the top. The square is a stage for modern Czech history: The Czechoslovak state was proclaimed here in 1918. In 1968 the Soviets put down huge popular demonstrations here. And in 1969 Jan Palach set himself on fire here to protest against the puppet Soviet government. The next day 200,000 local protesters gathered here. Starting at the top (metro: Muzeum), stroll down the square:
The National Museum stands grandly at the top. The only thing exciting about it is the view (60 kc, daily 10:00-18:00, halls of Czech fossils and animals).
Saint Wenceslas, commemorated by the statue, is the "good king" of Christmas carol fame. He was never really a king, but the wise and benevolent 10th-century Duke of Bohemia. After being assassinated in 935, he became a symbol of Czech nationalism.
The metro stop (Muzeum) is the crosspoint of two metro lines. From here you could roll a ball straight down the boulevard and through the heart of Prague to Charles Bridge. It is famous locally as the downtown meeting place. They say, "I'll see you under the horse's ass."
Thirty meters below the big horse is a small round garden with a low-key memorial "to the victims of Communism." Pictured here is Jan Palach. The massive demonstrations here in the days following his death led to the overthrow of the Czech communist government. From the balcony of the Grand Hotel Europa (farther down), Vaclav Havel stood with Alexander Dubcek, hero of the 1968 revolt, and declared the free Republic of Czechoslovakia in December, 1989.
Continue people-watching your way downhill. American Express is on the corner (on left, daily 9:00-19:00, money exchange service).
The Grand Hotel Europa (halfway down Wenceslas Square) is hard to miss. Notice its Art Nouveau exterior and step inside for the smoky, elegant old world ambience of its Art Nouveau restaurant (see Sleeping, below).
The bottom of Wenceslas Square meets another fine pedestrian mall. Na Prikope (meaning "the moat") leads from Wenceslas Square right to the Powder Tower and Municipal House. City tour buses leave from along this street.
Sights--Prague's Jewish Quarter
***Jewish Quarter (Josefov)--The Jewish people were dispersed by the Romans two thousand years ago. "Time was their sanctuary which no army could destroy" as their culture survived in enclaves throughout the Western world. Jews first came to Prague in the 10th century. The main intersection of Josefov (Maiselova and Siroka streets) was the meeting point of two medieval trade routes. Jewish traders settled here in the 13th century and built a synagogue.
When the pope declared Jews and Christians should not live together, Jews had to wear yellow badges and their quarter was walled in, becoming a ghetto. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Prague had the biggest ghetto in Europe with 11,000 inhabitants--nearly half the population of Prague.
The "outcasts" of Christianity relied on profits from moneylending (forbidden to Christians) and community solidarity to survive. While their money protected them, it was also a curse. Throughout Europe, when times got tough and Christian debts to the Jewish community mounted, entire Jewish communities were burned, evicted, or killed.
Within its six gates Prague's Jewish Quarter was a gaggle of 100 wooden buildings. Someone wrote: "Jews nested rather then dwelled." In the 1780s Emperor Joseph II eased much of the discrimination against Jews. In 1848 the walls were torn down and the neighborhood, named Josefov in honor of the emperor who was less anti-Semitic than the norm, was incorporated as a district of Prague.
In 1897 ramshackle Josefov was razed and replaced with a new modern town--the original 31 streets and 220 buildings became ten streets and 83 buildings. This is what you'll see today: an attractive neighborhood of fine, mostly Art Nouveau buildings, with a few surviving historic Jewish buildings. In the 1930s some 50,000 Jews lived in Josefov. Today only a couple thousand remain.
Strangely, the museums of the Jewish Quarter are, in part, the work of Hitler. He preserved Josefov to be his museum of the "exterminated race." Six sites scattered over a three-block area make the tourists' Jewish Quarter. Five, called "the Museum," are treated as one admission. Go early or late as crowds can be fierce. Your ticket comes with a map locating the sights and five admission appointments: times you'll be let in if it's very crowded. (Without crowds, ignore the times.)
Start at the Maisel Synagogue unless you want to rent the AudioGuide (125 kc, at the Pinkas Synagogue). Westerners pay more than locals: 450 kc (250 kc for the "Museum" and 200 kc for the Old-New Synagogue). The sites are open Sunday-Thursday 9:00-17:30, Friday 9:00-14:00 (sometimes later), and closed on Saturday (the Jewish sabbath). The AudioGuide provides a good historic background and an easy-to-follow orientation for each site. There are also occasional live guided walks (often at 10:00, 40 kc). Most stops are wonderfully described in English. These museums are well-presented and profoundly moving: for me, this is the most interesting Jewish site in Europe.
Maisel Synagogue--This shows a thousand years of Jewish history in Bohemia and Moravia. Ironically, the collection was assembled from synagogues throughout the region by Nazis planning to archive the "extinct Jewish culture" here in Josefov with a huge museum. Exhibits include topics such as the origin of the star of David, Jewish mysticism, and the creation of the Prague Ghetto.
Pinkas Synagogue--A site of Jewish worship for 400 years, today this is a moving memorial to the victims of the Nazis. Of the 120,000 Jews living around here in 1939, only 15,000 lived to see liberation in 1945. The walls are covered with the handwritten names of 77,297 local Jews who were sent from here to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Family names are in gold followed by the individuals' first names in black with birthdays and the last date known to be alive (usually the date of transport). Notice how families generally perished together. Climb six steps into the women's gallery. The names near the ceiling in poor condition are from 1953. When the Communists moved in, they closed the synagogue and erased everything. With freedom, in 1989, the Pinkas synagogue was reopened and all the names rewritten.
Upstairs is the Terezin Children's Art Exhibit. Terezin, near Prague, was a fortified town of 7,000 Czechs. The Nazis moved these people out and moved in 60,000 Jews creating their model "Jewish town," a concentration camp dolled up for propaganda purposes. The town's medieval walls, which used to prevent people from getting in, were used by Nazis to prevent people from getting out. Jewish culture seemed to thrive in Terezin as "citizens" put on plays and concerts, published a magazine and raised their families in ways impressive to Red Cross inspectors. Of course, virtually all of the Jews ended up at Auschwitz. The art of the children of Terezin survives as a poignant testimony to the horrible reality of the Holocaust. While the communists kept the art away from the public, today it's well-displayed and described in English.
By the way, Terezin is a powerful day trip from Prague for those interested in touring the concentration camp memorial/museum; you can either take a tour bus (see City Tours, above) or public bus (6/day, 60 min, leaves from Prague's Florenc bus station).
Old Jewish Cemetery--From 1439 until 1787, this was the only burial ground allowed for the Jews of Prague. With limited space and over 100,000 graves, tombs were piled atop each other. With as many as twelve layers, the cemetery became a small plateau. The Jewish word for cemetery means "House of Life"; like Christians, Jews believe that death is the gateway into the next world. Today visitors wander among more than 12,000 evocative stones.
Ceremonial Hall--Leaving the cemetery you'll find a neo-Romanesque mortuary house built in 1911 for the purification of the dead. It's filled with an interesting exhibition on Jewish burial traditions with historic paintings of the cemetery.
Klaus Synagogue--This 17th century synagogue (also at the exit of the cemetery) is the final wing of this museum, devoted to Jewish religious practices.
Old-New Synagogue--For over 700 years, this has been the most important synagogue and central building in Josefov. Standing like a bomb-hardened bunker, it feels like it's survived plenty of hard times. Stairs take you down to the street level of the 13th century and into the Gothic interior. Built in 1270, it's the oldest synagogue in Europe. Originally called the New Synagogue, it was renamed Old-New as other synagogues were built. The Shrine of the Arc in front is the focus of worship. It holds the sacred scrolls of the Torah, the holiest place in the synagogue. The old rabbi's chair to the right is left empty out of respect. Twelve is a popular number (e.g., windows) which symbolizes the twelve tribes of Israel. The windows on the left are an 18th-century addition allowing women to view the men-only services.
**Mucha Museum--I find the art of Alfons Mucha (pron. moo-kah, 1860-1939) insistently likeable. Read about this popular Czech artist's posters which were patriotic banners in disguise, see the crucifixion scene he painted as an eight-year-old, and check out the photographs of his models. Prague isn't much on museums, but if you're into Art Nouveau (German Jugendstil), this one is great. Run by Mucha's grandson, it's two blocks off Wenceslas Square and wonderfully described and displayed on one comfortable floor (150 kc, daily 10:00-18:00, Panska 7, tel. 02/628-4162, http://www.mucha.cz). While the exhibit is well-described in English, the 50 kc English brochure on the art is a good supplement. The video is also worthwhile (30 minutes, hourly in English, ask upon entry).
More Art Nouveau--Prague is the best Art Nouveau town in Europe. Check out St. Vitus Cathedral (the Mucha stained glass window), the main train station (dome on top floor), and the Hotel Europa overlooking Wenceslas Square (inside and out). The Municipal House (Obecni Dum, built 1906-1912, near Powder Tower) features Prague's largest concert hall and a great Art Nouveau cafe with handy cyber access. On the building's striking facade, look for the "Homage to Prague" mosaic which stoked cultural pride and nationalist sentiment.
Prague booms with live (and inexpensive) theater, opera, classical, jazz, and pop entertainment. Everything's listed in "Test the Best" Prague's monthly cultural events program (free at TI). The "Prague Spring International Music Festival" runs the last three weeks in May.
There must be 6 or 8 classical "tourist" concerts a day in the famous old town halls and churches. The music is of the crowd-pleasing sort: Vivaldi, Best of Mozart, Most Famous Arias, and works by local boy Anton Dvorak. Leafleteers are everywhere announcing the evening's events. Concerts typically cost 400 kc, start anywhere from 17:00 to 21:00, last 60 minutes, and are usually quartets (e.g., flute, French horn, cella, violin). Common venues are in the Little Quarter Square (Malostranske namesti, at the Church of St. Nicholas and the Prague Academy of Music in the Lichtenstein Palace), at the east end of Charles Bridge (St. Francis Church), and on the Old Town Square (another St. Nicholas church).
Sleeping in Prague
Sleep Code: S=Single, D=Double/Twin, T=Triple, Q=Quad, b=bathroom, t=toilet only, s=shower only, CC=Credit Card (Visa, MasterCard, Amex).
Finding a bed in Prague worries Western tourists. It shouldn't. You have several options. Capitalism is working as Adam Smith promised: with a huge demand, the supply is increasing and the price is going up. Peak time is May, June, September, October, Christmas, and Easter. July and August are not too bad. Virtually every place listed speaks English. Reserve by telephone first, follow by a fax to confirm. Generally you simply promise to come and need no deposit.
Room-booking services: The city is awash with fancy rooms on the push list and private small-time operators with rooms to rent in their apartment. Numerous booking services connect these places with travelers for a small fee.
At the main train station, AVE is a helpful and well-organized booking service (daily 6:00-23:00, tel. 02/2422-3226, fax 02/2423-0783, http://www.russiatoday.com/sponsors/ave/ave.html, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). With the railroad tracks at your back, look for the small window on your right. Their main office is by the taxis on the left (at Wilsonova 8; another AVE office is at Holesovice station). Their push list board displays three-star hotels with $100 rooms available for half-price. They have a slew of private rooms and small pensions available ($50 pension doubles in the old center, $35 doubles a metro ride away). You can reserve by e-mail, using your credit card as a deposit.
Accotour accommodations booking service, 100 meters toward the National Museum from the main train station, has a line on lots of private rooms all over the Old Town. They charge 120 kc per person per booking. Page through their scrapbook and take your choice of doubles for as little as $20. They claim they always have rooms available and I believe them. For privacy, comfort and centrality, I'd recommend one of these rooms over a hostel (Thursday-Tuesday 9:00-17:00, closed Wednesday, Wahingtonova 23, tel. 02/2421-5406).
Three-star Hotels and Agencies
Prague's three star-rated hotels come with cookie-cutter standards. They're cheap, perfectly professional and hotelesque, with English-speaking receptionists, comfortable modern furnishings, modern full bathrooms, included buffet breakfasts, and rarely an elevator. These hotels are often beholden to agencies who have a lock on rooms (generally until six weeks in advance). Agencies get a 30% discount and can sell the rooms at whatever they like between that and the "rack rate." Because of these agencies, Prague has a reputation of being perpetually booked up. As they rarely use up their allotment, it almost never is. You need to make reservations either very long in advance--when the few rooms not reserved for agencies are still available, or not long in advance--after the agencies have released their rooms.
These recommended three-star hotels all cost about the same and have rooms any normal person would find pleasant. While I've listed them in order of value for the dollar, characteristics such as location and price need to be considered. Hotel Julian and Hotel Union are away from the center; the rest cluster in the Old Town, mainly near Metro: Mustek, unless otherwise noted.
Hotel Julian is an oasis of professional predictable decency in a quiet neighborhood a five-minute taxi or tram ride from the action. Its 29 spacious well-furnished rooms and big homey public spaces hide behind a noble neoclassical facade. The staff is friendly and helpful (Sb-2,680 kc, Db-3,080 kc, suite Db-3,680 kc, extra bed-800 kc, CC:VMA, 5% discount off best quoted rate with this book, parking lot, elevator, internet services, non-smoking rooms, Elisky Peskove 11, Prague 5, tel. 02/5731-1150, reception tel. 02/5731-1144, fax 02/5731-1149, e-mail: email@example.com).
Hotel Central is likeable like an old horse. I stayed there in the communist days and it hasn't changed a lot since. Even Charlie is still at the reception desk. The 62 rooms are proletarian plain but the place is well-run and the location, three blocks east of the old square, is excellent (Sb-2,400 kc, Db-3,100 kc, Tb-3,600 kc, CC:VMA, elevator, Rybna 8, Praha 1, metro: Namesti Republiky, tel. 02/2481-2041, fax 02/232-8404, e-mail: what?).
Bethlem Club is a shiny jewel of comfort on a charming medieval square in the heart of the old town across from the Bethlem chapel where Jan Hus preached his trouble-making sermons. Its 22 modern comfy rooms face a quiet inner courtyard and breakfast is served in a Gothic cellar (Sb-2,600 kc, Db-3,400 kc, extra bed-400 kc, elevator, Betlemske namesti 9, Praha 1, tel. 02/2421-6872, fax 02/2421-8054).
Hotel U Stare Pani is well-located in the old town above a jazz club which quits around midnight. The bright rooms are pastel cheery and wicker cozy (Db-3,830 kc, apartment Tb-5,760 kc, apartment Qb-6,660 kc, CC:VMA, no elevator, Michalska 9, Praha 1, two blocks from metro: Mustek, tel. 02/267-267, fax 02/267-9841).
Hotel U Klenotnika, with ten modern and comfortable rooms in an plain building, is the most central of my recommendations--three blocks off the old square (Sb-2,500 kc, Db-3,600 kc, Tb-4,300 kc, CC:VMA, no elevator, Rytirska 3, Praha 1, tel. 02/2421-1699, fax 02/261-782).
Hotel Lunik is a stately no-nonsense place out of the medieval faux-rustic world and in a normal, pleasant business district two stops by metro from the station or a ten-minute walk from Wenceslas Square. It's friendly, spacious, and rents 35 pleasant rooms (Db-2,500 kc, Tb-2,900 kc, CC:VMA, elevator, Londynska 50, Praha 2, tel. 02/2425-3974, fax 02/2425-3986).
Hotel Union is a grand 1906 Art Nouveau building filling its street corner. Like Hotel Lunik, it's away from the touristic center but in a more laid-back neighborhood a direct ten-minute ride to the station on tram #24 or to Charles Bridge on tram #18 (Db-3,350 kc, Nusle Ostrcilovo namesti 1, Praha 2, tel. 02/6121-4812, fax 02/6121-4820).
Hotel Europa is in a class by itself. This landmark place, in all the guidebooks for its wonderful 1903 Art Nouveau facade, is the centerpiece of Wenceslas Square. But someone pulled the plug on the hotel about 50 years ago and it's a mess, not even meriting its two stars. It offers haunting beauty in all the public spaces with 90 dreary ramshackle rooms and a weary staff (S-1,300 kc, Sb-2,450 kc, D-2,160 kc, Db-3,400 kc, T-2,800 kc, Tb-4,400 kc, CC:VMA, elevator, Vaclavske namesti 25, Praha 1, tel. 02/2422-8117, fax 02/2422-4544).
With the rush of tourists into Prague, small 6- to 15-room pensions are popping up everywhere. Most have small, basic, clean rooms with no plumbing at all; sinks, showers, and toilets are down the hall. Breakfast is included in the price. These places take bookings no more than a month in advance. All are within 100 meters of each other in the Old Town, close to the Mustek metro station.
Pension Unitas is best--in every guidebook, right in the center, with lots of modern rooms rented from a convent. It's next to the city police station--site of the old communist secret police headquarters which still gives locals the creeps. The Pension Unitas' 34 rooms are small and tidy with spartan furnishings and no sinks (S-1,020 kc, D-1,200 kc, T-1,650 kc, Q-2,000 kc, T and Q are cramped with bunks in D-sized rooms, book long in advance, Bartolomejska 9, 11000 Praha 1, tel. 02/421-1020, fax 02/421-0800, http://www.cloister-inn.cz, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). The place was actually a prison recently--Vaclav Havel spent a night here...free. Unitas shares the building with than the classy three-star Cloister Inn, different address (but same tel/fax and website as Unitas)--Konviktska St. 14, Praha 1(Db-3,800 kc--a great value but nearly always booked by agencies).
Express Pension is a creative little place renting 16 simple rooms and serving a lousy continental breakfast in the room (D-1,500 kc, two on ground floor and two on 4th floor, Db-2,300 kc, no elevator, Skorepka 5, Praha 1, tel. 02/2421-1801, fax 02/261-672).
Penzion U Medvidku rents seven big plain rooms with no sinks and an indifferent management (D-1,600 kc, Db-2,860 kc, T-2,400 kc, CC:VMA, Na Perstyne 7, Praha 1, tel. 02/2421-1916, fax 02/2422-0930). They run a popular restaurant which has live music until 23:00 nightly.
Eating in Prague
The beauty of Prague is wandering aimlessly through the winding old quarters marveling at the architecture, people-watching, and sniffing out restaurants. You can eat well and cheaply. What you'd pay for a basic meal in Vienna or Munich will get you an elegant meal in Prague. Your basic decision is: traditional dark Czech beerhall-type ambience, elegant Jugendstil turn-of-the-century atmosphere, or a modern place. For traditional, wander the old town (Stare Mesto).
I hesitate to recommend a particular place, but since you asked, here are a few places (between the bottom of Wenceslas Square and Charles Bridge) which I enjoyed:
Plzenska Restaurace U Dvou Kocek has cheap, local, no-nonsense hearty Czech food, great beer, and a local crowd (150 kc for 3 courses and beer, serving original Pilsner Urquell with traditional music daily until 23:00, under an arcade, facing the tiny square between Perlova and Skorepka streets, tel. 02/267-729). Restaurant U Stare Pani is a good place for Czech or International food (two blocks from metro: Mustek at Michalska 9 in hotel by same name). Restaurant u Plebana is a quiet little place with good service, Czech cuisine, and a more modern yet elegant setting (daily until 24:00, Betlemske square 10, tel. 02/2422-9023). Restaurant Mucha is smoky with decent but pricey Czech food in a formal Art Nouveau dining room (300 kc meals, daily until 24:00, Melantrichova 5, tel. 02/263-586). For a basic very local cafeteria, slide your tray down the line with locals in the Mustek metro station at 37 Patro Fast Food (extremely cheap, downstairs under the square). Prices go way down when you get away from the tourist areas. At least once, eat in a restaurant with no English menu.
For many, pivo (beer) is the top Czech tourist attraction. After all, the Czechs invented lager in nearby Pilsen. This is the famous Pilsner Urquell, a great lager available on tap everywhere. Budvar, another local beer, is the local Budweiser but not related to the American brew. Czechs are among the world's biggest beer drinkers--adults drink about 80 gallons a year. The big degree on bottles and menus marks the beer's heaviness, not its alcohol content (12 degrees is darker, 10 degrees lighter). The smaller figure shows alcohol content. Order beer from the tap (sudove pivo) in either small (.3 liter, male pivo) or large (.5 liter, pivo). In many restaurants a beer hits your table like a glass of water in the U.S.A. Pivo for lunch has me sightseeing the rest of the day on Czech knees.
Getting to Prague: Those with Eurailpasses, Europasses, or German railpasses need to purchase tickets from the border of the Czech Republic to Prague (do this from the city of your departure; explain at the station that you have a pass which covers you to the border). Or, supplement your pass with a "Czech Prague Out" pass, which gives you passage from any Czech border point into Prague and then from Prague to any border point out of the country. Both journeys must be completed within a seven-day period. Buy this pass (and get reservations while you're at it) at the EurAide offices in Munich or Berlin (90 DM first class, 60 DM second class, cheaper for youths under 26). In the U.S.A. it's sold by EurAide (tel. 630/420-2343), DER (tel. 847/692-6300), or your travel agent. Direct trains leave Munich for Prague daily around 7:00, 14:00, and 23:00, arriving 5 or 6 hours later. Tickets cost about 100 DM from Munich or 30 DM from the border (if you have a railpass covering Germany).
Prague by train to: Berlin (5/day, 5 hrs), Munich (3/day, 5 hrs), Frankfurt (3/day, 6 hrs), Vienna (3/day, 5 hrs), Budapest (6/day, 9 hrs). Train information: tel. 02/2422-4200. Czech Rail Agency tel. 02/800-805.
Old Town Hall façade
First lady Laura Bush, right, and her Czech counterpart Dagmar Havlova overlook Prague from the balcony of Prague Castle Monday, May 20, 2002. Mrs. Bush met Czech President Vaclav Havel and his wife on the third day of her five-day visit in the Czech Republic.