If someone told me they could only visit one European City, I would send them to Prague without reservation. It is the first European city we visited, and one that has captured our hearts. We have visited many cities since, but Prague remains in the number one spot on our list. There is a magic found on the cobblestone streets, in the mix of Gothic and Art Nouveau, across the storied bridges, and under the magnificent Cathedrals. Prague is friendly, easy to explore, and simply delightful.
Our first month in Germany was a bit overwhelming. We arrived just prior to the start of the mass European vacation, known to the rest of the world as August. We felt as if we were the only people on the entire continent not travelling that month. But we were living in a pension (guest house), waiting for our household goods to arrive.
We moved into our new home in the beginning of August, and by the end of the month we were fairly settled in. We decided to celebrate with a trip over a long (American) weekend – Labor Day Weekend. The question was, where do we go for a long weekend trip? A work colleague of my husband gave us the perfect option.
“Why not Prague? It’s only a three-hour drive”, he said. It sounded ideal, we began to plan the perfect three-day trip.
I quickly devoured Rick Steves’ Prague travel guide, and scoured the internet for the best places to visit. It didn’t take long to fill an itinerary for the entire three-day weekend. We booked a room at the Hotel Elite (http://www.hotelelite.cz/en/) on the advice of this same colleague and impatiently waited for our trip to begin.
The Friday of our departure, we decided to embark on our journey later in the afternoon. I scheduled doctor’s appointments for the children earlier that day, and planned to pack the car after that. We weren’t too concerned about the times. We assumed we’d miss the rush hour traffic and arrive in Prague around 7 pm.
The one thing that we had neglected to check prior to our departure was the actual trip route. My husband plugged the coordinates to the hotel into the GPS, and began urging us to pack the car faster. The confusion on my face was clear, so he added – in a mildly agitated voice, “it’s not a three-hour drive. It’s a seven hour drive!”
We would not be arriving in the city until it was close to midnight. This trip was not off to a promising start. We did however learn a very important lesson about including a basic map check in our planning process.
The traffic was indeed light at that time of day, and we made very good time. Until we got to Prague that is. We could see the location of the hotel on the GPS. What we couldn’t do was figure out how to get across the river. Tempers were running high as we found ourselves stuck on a narrow dead-end street. On a hill. Of course. My husband performed a skillful and daring 200 point turn and we were once again on our way.
Finally, we managed to find our way across the river and found the hotel. There, we were in for the surprise of our life. This was the first time we encountered the European hotel “parking”. The Hotel Elite does indeed have parking. Below the hotel, in something that looks like an oversized closet. It is perfectly adequate parking, but if it’s your first encounter with a parking area like this, it’s nerve-wracking to be sure. We slowly descended into the garage, with an inch or so to spare on either side of the car. There were probably three or four cars in there already, parked end to end and side by side. We were the last. We had no idea how any of these cars would ever leave the garage again, but that was a problem that could wait until Monday when we headed back to Germany. For now, we were ready for bed!
Our room in the Hotel Elite was a very welcome surprise. We were in an absolutely stunning suite. Not only was it spacious and comfortable, it was beautifully decorated. The high ceilings are painted with angels and cherubs, giving you the feeling of sleeping in a church. We settled in for a few hours of sleep, and prepared ourselves for exploring the beautiful city.
The Hotel Elite is located in the Nove Mestro, the new city, not far from the National Theater. While outside the most heavily visited areas, it is within easy walking distance from everything you want to see. Breakfast is included with your stay, and the traditional Bohemian foods available are delicious and worth trying. Our children, who were 3 and 18 months, were not as appreciative and feasted on peanut butter bread – our constant traveling companion at those ages.
Although there is a very robust public transportation system, we walked everywhere in the very hilly city. Because of the ages of the children, I carried a child pack everywhere and the 18 month old dozed on and off throughout the weekend. The three year old spent most of the visit in an umbrella stroller, which is a bit difficult to maneuver through the cobblestone streets. I developed some serious stroller envy as I watched European mammas push there strollers effortlessly through the ancient streets.
Although the trip started out a bit on the rough side, it remains one of my favorites. Before we arrived in Prague, I had read that pick-pocketing and car-theft were fairly widespread, but I never encountered either. In fact, I felt safe and welcome everywhere we went. I enjoyed it so much, that I’ve been twice since that first trip and look forward to seeing it many more times.
My second trip to Prague was a day-trip alone with the children. We were now living near a military base that offered day-trips to various European cities. The kids and I decided to try a day alone in Prague. I don’t mind traveling alone with the children, especially now that they are old enough to actually enjoy the trips we take. Most of the trips I take alone with them are to smaller cities and towns, but we all loved Prague and wanted to see it again.
It was late November, and we had to leave our house at 4 am in order to make the early morning bus trip. The kids are always excited by the prospect of travel and trying something new, so we were eager to depart. We piled into the van, cuddled up together, and went back to sleep, awaking in the vaguely familiar early morning light of one of our favorite cities. Good morning Prague!
One thing I do with the children whenever we travel is provide them with a notebook and some pencils to document their travels. As we left the area the van would meet us later that day, both children were slightly concerned that we would never find it again. Obviously, they’re all too familiar with my map reading challenges. They stopped on the bridge and pulled out their notebooks, and drew some maps, then asked me for the camera. After they had fully documented our return route, we set out to explore the early morning in the city. It was too long before we encountered our first challenge of the day. The ATM. Unlike many places we travel to, the Czech Republic is not in the Euro zone, and we needed to figure out the exchange rate – from dollars to Euros to Koruna, and determine how much we should take out. I am going to admit straight off, that is not my strong point, and much to my chagrin, the ATM continued to tell me that I was unable to withdrawal the amount of money I wished to withdrawal. It looked as if this was going to be an adventure in Prague on the equivalent of 20 dollars a day!
Eventually, we managed to get a little money out of the ATM and exchange the 100 or so Euros I had in my wallet, and continued on our explorations, for the next 12 hours. It seemed like a good idea before we headed out, but even my well-travelled children grew bored of wandering by lunch time. We had fun, and found the bus in time to make the return trip home, but the children decided they were done with day-trips for a while after that.
Our third trip to Prague was just after Christmas. While most Christmas Markets end on the 23rd or 24th of December, the market in Prague lasts until New Year’s Day. Just when you think that the City can’t get lovelier, or more crowded, it does. The Prague Christmas market is fantastic. Like many other places, the market is spread out over multiple squares, and treasures await you around every corner. Most amazing of all is the Old Town Square, with its giant Christmas tree and charmingly lit stalls. You want to sample everything.
We spent almost a week exploring the city this time, and with each corner we explored we fell even more deeply under the spell of this charming, magical city.
This time we stayed in the Hotel u Martina Smichov (http://www.hotelumartina.cz/hotel-praha/en_sluzby.php), and it was another fantastic find. This hotel was located on the border of the Smichov and Mala Strana quarters. Outside the main tourist areas, it is a quiet location and a short walk to the Charles Bridge and most of the city’s popular tourist attractions. The breakfast was perfect, the rooms were clean and spacious, and the staff was friendly and helpful. There was plenty of street side parking, and although another of the stories we had read about Prague was the prevalence of car break-ins and auto theft, our car remained untouched throughout the week.
In our three visits to Prague, we’ve spent eight days exploring the lovely streets and sites of the city. We’ve spent time exploring each of the historic quarters of the city and we’ve visited many of the most popular sights. You can read about all of the most popular tourist attractions in any guide-book. I would of course recommend Rick Steves’ Prague and the Czech Republic, but we also relied on the Lonely Planet’s Prague encounter, and Eyewitness Travel Prague pocket map and guide. The latter two are handy pocket-sized guides, easy to refer to on the go.
What should you see in Prague? Everything. Each quarter has something special to offer visitors. The Astronomical Clock, Tyn Church, Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, Wenceslas Square, the Dancing House, Kafka’s Birthplace, are all worth visiting.
Both my husband and I studied history as undergraduates, and were familiar with the stories behind many of the attractions in the city before we arrived. Knowing the history of the places we came across in Prague made the visit even more moving. From the site of the Defenestration of Prague in 1618 which ushered in the Thirty Years’ War, to the paratroopers’ memorial at St Cyril and Methodius, to Wenceslas Square – the sight of the Velvet Revolution, Prague is a history lover’s dream, and here are just a few of our favorite things.
The Church of Sts Cyril and Methodius is well off the beaten path, but if you are a history buff, it is certainly worth a visit. This small unassuming church houses one of the most moving memorials – the National Memorial of the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror. It is here in the crypt of the small Orthodox Church that the seven Paratroopers who participated in Operation Anthropoid, which resulted in the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich hid and were ultimately betrayed and killed. If you are not familiar with the story, it is worth reading. The reprisals from the assassination were brutal. Standing in the crypt where the resistance fighters hid was a very moving experience.
The Jewish quarter, Josevof is a beautiful area, filled with museums. Most of the tourist attractions in this quarter are covered in one ticket. We did not make it through all of the buildings, but we did walk through the Pinkas Synagogue and the adjacent old Jewish Cemetery. I would highly recommend both.
The Pinkas Synagogue is an interior that breaks your heart and takes your breath away. Beautifully handwritten letters and numbers fill every wall with the names of nearly 80,000 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia that were killed in Concentration Camps. The concept is simple, black and red letters, with dates of birth and dates of death. The sheer volume of names is overwhelming. Upstairs the Synagogue hosts a permanent collection of children’s artwork from nearby Terezin. Looking at the children’s art you are moved once again, realizing that most of the children never returned home.
Not every space in Prague is as somber as these first two, but they are the two that I found the most moving.
At the other end of the spectrum are the playgrounds. When you’re traveling with young children, you need to know where the playgrounds are! On our first visit, we found the playground behind Church of our Lady of the Snows in Nove Mesto, near the Franciscan Garden. A small, well maintained playground, it was filled with locals enjoying the day with their little ones.
On our second trip, we discovered a small playground just off the Charles Bridge, which was unfortunately, closed when we went by.
On our third trip, we hit the playground jackpot. We decided to take the trails from our hotel to the Castle, thinking a walk through the Petrin Hill area would allow the children to frolic a bit in the green spaces found there. As we explored the trails, we came across several small playgrounds and finally one large one. The children began the day contented after a chilly morning romp through green spaces, and several playgrounds.
Another of my favorite places in Prague is a visit to the infant of Prague, located in the Little Quarter at the Church of St. Mary the Victorious. This is most likely because it took me the longest to actually accomplish. During our first visit to Prague, Mass was being held, when we stopped by and we were unable to visit. During the second visit, we were equally unlucky, the church was closed. On our third visit to Prague, we finally managed to find the church open and without a mass. The infant is dwarfed by the elaborate alter it rests on, and although we were pleased to finally see this revered statue, we were somewhat disappointed to find that he was not wearing any of the renowned fancy vestments. After we sat observing the small miraculous statue, we visited the museum in the rear of the church and marveled at the exceptionally fancy clothing the faithful have made for the infant over the years. On our way out, we passed through the gift shop and picked up a copy of the book “Hands for the Infant of Prague”, a children’s book detailing the history and the miracle associated with the small statue.
Next on our list of favorite places is the Museum of Communism ( http://www.muzeumkomunismu.cz/en) , ironically located right above McDonalds. This small museum packs in a lot of information in the three rooms covering Communism, the dream, the reality, the nightmare. It gives you an intimate look at life behind the iron curtain. This museum explains the significance of some of the other monuments and places you’ll encounter around the city.
If you are a fan of Art Nouveau, the small museum dedicated to Alfons Mucha is worth a visit. It was a very small museum, but it contains not only the well-known theater posters, but oil paintings, sketches and representations of traditional Czech culture. My personal favorite was a painting titled Woman in the Wilderness. I was previously unfamiliar with any of Mucha’s art beyond the popular posters. This enormous oil painting depicts a peasant woman sitting in the middle of a field of snow, with wolves approaching from the hillside. You can also see the designs for the stained glass window you may have seen in St Vitus Cathedral on Castle Hill.
Our favorite places are spread throughout the city, but if I had to name my favorite part of the city it would be Male Strana, the Little Quarter, located between the Charles Bridge and the Castle Quarter. I think this is the area where Prague is its quaintest, quietest and most charming. But go explore the city and find your favorite corners!
We’ve eaten in quite a few of the restaurants around town, and really never had a bad meal. We really enjoyed Klasterni Pivovar, Monastery Brewerey. It is quite a hike up, but the route offers fantastic views of the city and Prague’s “Eiffel Tower”. The food is tasty, but the real treat is the unpasteurized yeast beer brewed on the premises.
The Tavern of the seven Swabians is a dark, medieval looking tavern, making it the perfect place to stop for a traditional Czech lunch. We thoroughly enjoyed both the rustic food and the unique atmosphere of this tavern located in the Little Quarter.
Restaurace u Provanznice – By the Ropemaker’s Wife near Wenceslas Square, is another restaurant we enjoyed visiting. The food is tradition Czech, the decor features paintings of the infamous wife associated with the story of a wife who was strangled by her Ropemaker husband after he heard rumors of her unfaithful actions. The restaurant is now supposedly haunted by the woman. No ghosts made an appearance, but as it was cold and wintry on our visit, I decided to sample the grog. I had often read about grog, but didn’t actually know what was in it. In case you’re wondering, it’s rum. Hot rum. I found it much more pleasant after I added a liberal dose of lemon and sugar.
While beautiful year round, I found Prague magical at Christmas time. It was also the most crowded. If you’d like to avoid the crowds, we found Labor Day weekend to be the least crowded time we visited.