Moody, romantic, historic, mysterious: Think Franz Kafka, baroque music, medieval and Renaissance buildings, opera, small avant-garde theaters, marionettes, and the Velvet Revolution. All of these (and more) make the capital of the Czech Republic a must-do on a European river cruise.
Prague serves as a transfer destination for Danube River cruises, as well as cruises that eventually hit the Main, Rhine and Moselle rivers. Passengers frequently overnight here for one day or more before journeying by bus to meet their ships.
Modern-day Prague is shaped by a storied past that dates to the ninth century. Once part of the Holy Roman Empire, the city played a major role in the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years' War, and was later an important part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Historical figures associated with the city include the larger-than-life Bohemian Emperor Charles IV and, later, Empress Maria Theresa.
The former Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Germans from 1939 to 1945. While the country suffered the hardships of World War II, Prague itself -- unlike other European capitals -- was not bombed extensively (although Americans accidentally knocked out around 100 buildings in Prague's historic center). Because so much of the city remained unscathed, architectural styles span the centuries: Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, Art Nouveau and Cubist. It's not an overstatement to say there is no other place quite like it.
Liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, Czechoslovakia operated as a Soviet-style state for decades; not until the 1970s did dissident groups begin to organize against the Communist regime. But democracy was slow to take hold. It wasn't until after the famed Prague Spring uprising in 1968 and the student-led Velvet Revolution in 1989 that playwright and former political prisoner Vaclav Havel was elected president. Full, multiparty elections under a new constitution were held in 1992. One year later, the Czech Republic and Slovakia split into two nations.
Today's Praha, as this city of 1.3 million is called, is firmly a tourist destination, with high quality shops, restaurants with top chefs, a historic center designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and important museums. It's not unusual to see Austrians, Germans, Russians and Americans following tour guides (with those ubiquitous raised umbrellas) through Prague Castle and the warren of cobblestone streets that make up Old Town. But that's just part of the city's present-day persona. Take a few days here before or after your cruise to dive deeper.
Prague is one of a number of European cities that serve as departure and arrival points for major river cruises, but the ships do not dock there. Passengers meet at designated hotels and are bussed to their embarkation points. However, a number of local Vltava River trips -- some with dinner and music -- originate at the Charles Bridge.
Visitors who come a few days early would do well to reserve a room at one of the hotels right in the center of Old Town, where it's only a few blocks walk to theater, musical performances and restaurants. (Major cruise companies usually book travelers at international hotels, which are a long trek from the historic center.)
Prague Castle: This hilltop fortress on the west side of the Vltava River has loomed over the city since the ninth century. The complex has been reconstructed four times, and still serves as the seat of the presidency. (His flag is flown when he is in the country.) The grounds have four courtyards, a royal palace, several museums and the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, started in 1344 and the location for many coronations of kings and queens. There is a changing of the guard each hour, as well as a formal ceremony at noon, all with much ado.
Charles Bridge: Locals will tell you that this walkway, which links Lesser Town (the castle side) with Old Town, is the focal point of the city. A walk down from Prague Castle to Wenceslas Square in New Town (passing over the bridge and through Old Town Square) will take just 30 minutes.
The bridge, with its commanding 31 statues of saints, has been Prague's lifeline for centuries, and gets heavy use every day. Armies, monarchs and everyday folks have all trooped across since it was completed in the early 1400's. Named for famed Bohemian emperor Charles IV, Charles Bridge has two towers worth climbing, even if only for the photo opportunities. (See Old Town Hall below for an easier climb.)
Old Town: Anchored by Old Town Square, this section of Prague is known for its medieval and Renaissance buildings. Every hour on the hour, crowds gather in front of the Astronomical Clock on Old Town Square. Installed in 1410, it chimes daily on the hour between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. in an entrancing manner: Two cuckoo clock windows open, and statues of the 12 Apostles parade past, while the Grim Reaper rings his bell. Anyone not on an organized tour should visit the Tourism Office a few feet to the left of the clock for maps, tickets, and information on the city's many offerings.
Town Hall: One of the best views of Prague is from the top of Town Hall. Right alongside the clock you can climb the tower or take the elevator, and walk in a circle around the top to get sweeping panoramic views of the city in all directions.
Jewish Quarter: Also known as Josefov (Joseph's City), the neighborhood dates back to the 13th century, though Jews settled here as early as the 10th century. The section represents one of the most well-preserved complexes of Jewish historical monuments in Europe, and a ticket to the Jewish Museum will give you entry to most of the buildings. The original ghetto, once walled in, has six synagogues (including the world famous Old-New Synagogue), a town hall and the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. The graveyard is no longer visible from the outside because it has been incorporated into the museum, the medieval wall cordoning off this section of the city is long gone, and chic galleries and boutiques now line the once-narrow alleys. Most of the original Jewish quarter was demolished after 1893 to make way for a redevelopment project, but the newer neo-Renaissance buildings are testimony to Prague's Jewish culture.
Wenceslas Square: Once lined with small theatre companies, the long rectangular gathering place has become flashy and commercial with high-end chains in the last decade. (The lovelier historic part of the city is around Old Town Square). That said, a peek at Wenceslas Square is a must because it was the scene of the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which led to the end of Communist rule.
Museums: Prague Card provides free entry to the City of Prague Museum's main building, Old Custom House, Powder Tower, Petrin Park's lookout tower and mirror maze, and a discount on tickets to both Charles Bridge Towers and City Belfry at St. Nicholas Church.
Charles Bridge Museum is at street level on Krizovnicke Square, next to St. Francis' church. You can see the foundations of the original Judith Bridge and exhibits on the various areas of construction and medieval daily life. If you buy a ticket to a boat sightseeing tour with Prague Venice, you also get a free entry to the Charles Bridge Museum. (Open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Two of the most popular museums for tourists are the National Gallery and the Jewish Museum. The National Gallery -- a huge post-Renaissance structure situated at one end of Wenceslas Square -- has many sections, each dedicated to a different period (open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.). The Jewish Museum, just north of Old Town Square, has collections of artifacts that were brought to Prague from synagogues demolished during the Nazi era, and incorporates the Jewish cemetery. Plan to spend several hours here because the complex includes multiple buildings, among them the Spanish, Maisel and Old New Synagogues. (Open Sunday through Friday, closed Jewish holidays; 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in winter; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer.)
The Kampa Museum of Modern Art, located in the historic Sova Mill on the river not far from Charles Bridge, has Central European art and provides views of Kampa Park. (Open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Literary buffs may want to seek out the Franz Kafka Museum, also near Charles Bridge. (Open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
In addition, Prague is filled with interesting small museums such as the Choco Story Museum (open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.), the Dvorak Museum (open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.), the Toy Museum at Prague Castle (open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.), the Loreto Palace (open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, November to March; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., April to October), and the Museum of Communism (open daily, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.). The Museum of Decorative Arts is closed for renovations until July 2017.
Music and Theater: Prague thrives on classical music, and concerts are easy to come by, either by ordering tickets online before a trip, or purchasing them from the tourist bureau next to the Astronomical Clock at Old Town Square, or at hotels. St. Nicholas Church, the Municipal Hall and the Klementinium -- all located within a few blocks from Old Town Square -- are among the most popular venues.
The Prague Castle Ensemble performs a daily program at Lobkowicz Castle, with selections from Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Beethoven and Dvorak, among others. Combo tickets for the concert, a tour of the castle and lunch are available. Lobkowicz is the country's only private castle, with unique appeal to music fans. Once part of the National Museum, it has original musical scores composed and annotated by Beethoven and Hayden as well as many instruments.
The original Black Light Theatre Company is located at Savarin Palace, a baroque building close to Wenceslas Square.
At the State Opera you can view performances with English subtitles.
For jazz devotees, a popular evening cruise called Jazzboat boards at 8 p.m. and leaves at 8:30 p.m. from Gate 2, Cechuv Bridge, for a sail that includes dinner.
Christmas Markets: Prague is the center for Christmas Markets in the Czech Republic. In late fall, residents and tourists begin to celebrate the season at Old Town Square (where a large Christmas tree is lit the last Saturday of November), Wenceslas Square, Republic Square, Peace Square and the Holesovice Exhibition Grounds. There's a glittering atmosphere, along with many holiday gastronomic specialties. You'll find plenty of outdoor stalls selling Christmas decorations and ornaments, candles, candy, gingerbread and small gifts. (Note: Many have heaters to keep customers warm.) Nativity scenes and creches are set up in almost all places where the markets are held, as well as in all Catholic churches (without the baby Jesus until 25 December). There are also special Christmas exhibitions of carved creches and decorations in Jindrisska Tower or next to Bethlehem Chapel.
On Foot: Prague is a walking city, split into several areas that span the Vltava River. There's the Castle perched high up on the west side with Lesser Town (Mala Strana) cascading down beneath it. An eight-minute walk away on the east side of the water -- and on flatter ground -- is the Old Town (Stare Mesto) with Old Town Square. New Town (Nove Mesto) with Wenceslas Square and Republic Square is south and contains the National Museum and the main train station.
By Metro: Even if you don't use the metro system, check out a subway station just to ride the escalator. They're extremely high and steep, and have become featured fodder on YouTube. Go to YouTube and enter Prague escalator in the search bar, and you'll see what we mean.
You cannot buy tickets onboard but typically, you can purchase tickets at hotel concierge desks. If not, they are sold from the yellow machines at metro, tram and bus stops, or at tobacconists or newsstands -- just look for the Tabak and Trafika signs. Fares are good system-wide, allowing you to travel for 90 minutes; it can also be used on buses and streetcars. Don't forget to validate your ticket by inserting it into one of the yellow boxes before you enter the station. Subway stops most utilized by tourists are Mustek, the city center; Staromestska, Old Town; and Hradcanska, Prague Castle. Streetcar, number 22, stops at Prague Castle.
You can also buy tickets that are valid for 30 minutes. A Prague Card, available online and at the tourist bureau, can be used for both public transit and entry to Prague's major sights.
By Taxi: It's best to take a cab from your hotel or taxi ranks. If you do a hail a cab from the street, negotiate the price before setting off. Drivers usually speak limited English. The customary tip is 10 percent.
Czech food is heavy, and lunch is traditionally the main meal of the day. It generally starts with a hearty soup (often potato), followed by an entree of meat (often pork) and potatoes or bread dumplings. Popular desserts include apple strudel or small cakes with poppy seeds. You'll probably find items on the menu that you've never sampled; Prague restaurants have both their own favorite regional dishes plus eclectic international choices. As for beverages, plum brandy and locally-brewed beer are huge favorites.
Most restaurants accept credit cards, but don't include the tip on it or your generosity will likely go to the owner. It's best to tip in cash, 10 to 15 percent of the check. It's perfectly fine to use U.S. dollars or euros.
Cafe Savoy: Cafe Savoy, one of the most beautiful cafes in Prague with its Art Nouveau interiors, is best for breakfasts or brunches. The chef makes typical Czech pastries right on the premises. (Vitezna 5,150 00 Prague 5 Mala Strana; 420 257 311 562; open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday or Sunday, 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.)
Villa Richter - Piano Nobile: Villa Richter is situated on the eastern hillside of Prague Castle in the lower part of the oldest vineyard in Prague and Bohemia, founded by St. Wenceslas in the 10th century. The restaurant Piano Nobile offers both a seasonal menu and original Prague cuisine, as well as the best Czech, French and Italian wines. Due to its location, guests can also enjoy an amazing view of the city. Some walking is required to reach its entrance. (Stare zamecke schody 6/251, 118 00, Praha 1, Prazsky hrad; 420 702 205 108; open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
Mlynec: Situated on the river Vltava, Mlynec enables you to see the adjacent Charles Bridge from an unusual perspective. This Zatisi Group restaurant specializes in Czech cuisine; apart from its delicious menu, you can also "taste" a bit of the best contemporary Czech design represented by Rony Plesl's glass objects and original chandeliers. (Novotneho lavka 199/9, Prague 110 00; 420 277 000 777; open Monday to Sunday, noon to 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.)
Beer: Czechs love beer. Consider visiting the following in Old Town: Lokal Dlouha is sleek and modern, with carefully prepared homemade international and Czech cuisine (Dlouha 33, 110 00 Prague 1; 420 222 316 265; open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to midnight). U Medvidku brewery carries the strongest special X 33 (Na Perstyne 7, Stare Mesto, 110 00 Praha 1; 420 224 211 916; open Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday, 11:30 a.m.to 11 p.m., and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.). And on the opposite side of the river, a few steps from Charles Bridge, there is Lokal U Bile Kuzelky, sister to Lokal Dlouha. It's known for its finely brewed Pilsen (Pilsner) and delicious Czech traditional food (Misenska 12, 110 00 Praha 1, Prague 118 00; 420 257 014 800; open Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., Saturday, noon to 1 a.m., and Sunday, noon to midnight).
The official unit of currency of the Czech Republic is the Czech crown (Kc, CZK), which is divided into 100 hellers. Although it is possible to pay in euros for certain services and in many shops and restaurants (especially those near Old Town Square and the international hotels), it is better to get some local currency for a stay in the Czech Republic.
ATM machines are spread around the city and give the best exchange rates. The Currency Exchange offices charge commissions. ATM's, or bankomats, tend to be the least expensive way to obtain local currency.
Celetna, one of Prague's oldest streeets, runs right off Old Town Square, and is a great place to find souvenirs and Czech handicrafts. Manufactura shops sell Czech products such as natural cosmetics, decorations and wooden toys. Botanicus is a Czech brand known for its high-quality, organic handmade cosmetics, spice and herbs. Beautiful marionettes can be bought in the shops in Nerudova Street, leading from the Lesser Town Square up to the Castle, or at Marionety Truhlar next to the Charles Bridge in U luzickeho Seminare Street 78/5. For Czech design glass, go to Moser Shop situated in Na Prikope Street. Artel has three high-quality design stores in the city: Artel Mala Strana, U Luzickeho seminare 82/7; Artel Old Town Celetna 29 (entrance on Rybna); and Artel Concept Store at Platnerska 7.
On Parizska, nicknamed Paris Street, the fashion gods reside. Those with money to drop and a need for the latest style of evening dress, suit, shoes, jewelry or cut glass will want to shop here. It's akin to Schanzelize Street in Paris or the Via Condotti in Rome, and stretches from Old Town Square to the Cechuv Bridge. Both sides are lined with beautifully embellished Art Nouveau buildings.