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 serves as a transfer destination for river cruises. Passengers frequently overnight for one day or more in Prague before journeying by bus to meet their ships.
As in any large city, it is important to keep an eye out for pickpockets, especially in crowds. Men should not carry wallets in back pockets, and women should not let purses dangle. Many women wear the straps of their bags crisscross over the front.
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.
Czech is the official language in Prague, and it is difficult to learn. English is fast becoming the mainstream travel language as there are tourists from so many European countries. Most restaurants have menus in several languages, including English. Shopkeepers usually know enough so that they can make transactions. Concierges in the major hotels and restaurants are usually fluent in English, and most waiters usually know enough to take an order from an English menu with some pointing. Since English is taught in schools, most young people are comfortable with the language, and like to practice on tourists. The Czechs are very friendly, and will be delighted if you try such basic words as Hello (Ahoy) or Thank you (Dekuji; DICK-kwee). No need to enroll at Berlitz before you visit.
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.