26 April 2017

72 Hours in Prague I: Things To Do

The Czech capital Prague has been on my travel bucket list for quite some time and my mum has also been keen to visit, so we decided to spend a long weekend there together at the end of April. We were there three nights, arriving early afternoon on Friday and heading back to the airport on Monday afternoon. This was enough time to see some of Prague's highlights, sample plenty of food and drink, and, of course, visit a few coffee shops. I've split my "72 Hours in Prague" guide into three posts; this one includes general tips for visiting the city and suggestions for things to do, before I move on to food and drink, and then speciality coffee in subsequent posts.

General tips
Arriving. Václav Havel Airport is about nine miles west of the city centre. My online research suggested booking an airport transfer instead of taking a taxi (this website came recommended); the journey takes 20-30 minutes and should cost about 600 Czech koruna (CZK), or about £19. Or, you can do what we did and take bus number 119 to Nádraží Veleslavín metro station and then take the green/A metro into the city. We were staying near the castle in Malá Strana, west of the Vltava river, and Malostranská metro station was a five-minute walk from our hotel; the journey took just under 40 minutes and cost 32 CZK (about £1). There is a public transport ticket machine in the arrivals hall of the airport, which takes cash and credit cards.

Getting around. Prague has a great, cheap public transport system involving trams, buses and three metro lines (among other things). You can buy a 24 CZK ticket that lasts for 30 minutes or a 32 CZK ticket that lasts 90 minutes. You can transfer freely between buses, metro trains and trams within the time period and just need to validate the ticket in one of the yellow machines when you start using it. The city centre is small and we walked around most of the time, but if you want to explore some of the less central districts, such as Vinohrady or Karlin, you might want to hop on a tram or the metro. We also took a couple of tram rides just because it was fun, particularly if you get one of the more old-fashioned style trams.

NB: you can't buy transport tickets at many tram stops, particularly west of the river, and in metro stations, the vending machines usually only accept coins (Relay newsagents let you pay for tickets with cash/card, though). In Malá Strana, the Malostranské náměstí tram stop has a ticket machine that takes contactless payments. If you think you'll be using public transport a fair bit, it's probably worth stocking up on a few tickets at one time (you don't need to use them right away as long as you validate them when you start using them) or buying a one- or three-day pass.

Money. There are currently about 31.5 Czech koruna (CZK) to the British pound. My mum exchanged some cash back in the UK, but we were able to pay by card (and usually with contactless payment) almost everywhere. Even if you plan to pay mainly by credit card, it's worth having some cash too, though. Western European and North American visitors will probably find food, drink and especially beer (cheaper than soda, if not water) prices very reasonable.

Language. Czech is the language here but a lot of people speak English and most eateries will have English menus available, especially in the city centre. If you want to learn a few words, ahoj (a-HOY) is "hello", ano (AH-no) is "yes", ne (nay) is "no", prosím (proh-SEEM) is "yes", and děkuji (djeh-kwee) is "thank you".

Accommodation. As it was our first time in Prague, we wanted to stay centrally so we could explore on foot. We also wanted to avoid the Old Town Square area, and settled on Malá Strana; more specifically, Hotel Bishop's House, which is about 30 seconds' walk from the ever-hectic Charles Bridge. We could even see the bridge from our room (pictured), although had to lean out the window. The hotel was comfortable, well-appointed and had friendly staff, and was surprisingly peaceful given its proximity to the bridge. The location worked well for us too: we were 15 minutes' walk from the castle and 15-20 minutes walk from most of the attractions, cafes and restaurants we wanted to visit in the Old Town (Staré Město) and New Town (Nové Město) across the river. There aren't any good coffee shops in the immediate vicinity, but Café Lounge and Original Coffee are under 15 minutes on foot.

When to come. We were a little unprepared for quite how busy the city was, especially on Friday night when we walked around for over an hour trying to find somewhere for a casual dinner. On Saturday morning, sprawling tour groups replaced the fabled stag dos, but the latter were out again in full force on Saturday night. Sunday was slightly quieter and Monday was calmer still, but I get the impression that the comparatively compact Old Town is rarely quiet. If you don't like crowds, you will probably want to avoid Friday night in the city — unless you've booked a cool restaurant in one of the more residential neighbourhoods, of course. The late April weather varied from cold (6 degrees C) and sleety on Saturday to warm (15 degrees C) and sunny on Monday. We were glad we came prepared for all weather types!

Things To Do
Charles Bridge and the Old Town. As we were staying so close to the Charles Bridge, we crossed it many times and the only time it wasn't incredibly crowded was when I went for a run at about 7:00 on Monday morning. You have to do it at least once but that might be enough. My favourite views of the Charles Bridge were from Legií bridge to the south and the riverside space near the Kafka Museum to the northwest (near the swans).

The crowds on the bridge also highlight the huge numbers of tourists visit Prague's relatively small city centre each day. We walked through the Old Town Square a few times — usually en route elsewhere — and glimpsed at the astronomical clock (NB: the hourly chiming isn't really worth sticking around for).

Prague castle (Pražský hrad). Our plans meant that Saturday was our only available day to visit the castle. We had heard that the queues were epic and tried to arrive early on Saturday morning, hoping the cold weather and rain would mitigate the crowds. But after a long breakfast a Café Lounge and a steep climb up the steps to the castle, it was 11 am by the time we arrived. We queued for about 30 minutes and the queue was much longer by the time we got in. We paid 350 CZK for the 'extended' ticket, which gives you access to more buildings, but the basic 250 CZK would probably suffice.

We had to queue for another 20 minutes or so to get into the famous St Vitus cathedral, which had been closed for a service all morning, but the stunning architecture and stained glass made it well worth the wait. We spent about two hours in total exploring the grounds and exhibits. Golden Lane was a little disappointing at peak time with so many visitors (and shops in the buildings). Don't miss the great city view from the rooftop of the Starbucks near the main entrance (don't worry; you don't really need to buy a coffee!).

Jewish Museum in Prague. Prague seems to like its combo tickets, and at the Jewish Museum, you can opt for a 330 CZK ticket that allows you to enter four synagogues — including the stunning, ornate Spanish Synagogue and the sobering Pinkas Synagogue, which is a memorial to the 80,000 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia who died in the Shoah — and the Ceremonial Hall and Old Jewish Cemetery. If you want to go into the Old-New Synagogue too, you'll need to upgrade to the 500 CZK ticket. It took us about two hours to visit the sites and it was truly fascinating and informative. We went late on Sunday morning and it was also very busy, particularly as there were so many big tour groups. NB: the sites are closed on Saturdays, of course.

Museum of Communism. The entrance to this small and dusty but fascinating museum located on the first floor inside a passage just off Na Příkopě, a major shopping street. At the top of the stairs, turn left for the museum...and right for a casino... Entrance to the museum is 190 CZK and you can easily spend an hour there learning about the history of Communism within what is now the Czech Republic and viewing the miscellany of objects on display.

St Agnes Convent. The impressive gothic convent now houses the national gallery. It's closed on Mondays, which meant we couldn't go inside but we walked around the gardens to admire the buildings and the modern art.

St Cyril and Methodius Cathedral. We had two reasons to visit the orthodox cathedral and its crypt, located near Jiráskův Bridge and the Dancing Building (pictured), south of the city centre. First, my grandfather is named Cyril and we wanted to take a photo for him, and second, the crypt had an important (and tragic) role in the WWII Operation Anthropoid (depicted in the films Operation: Daybreak and, more recently, Anthropoid, which I now want to watch).

Parks. 1) Letna Park (Letenské Sady). A short walk north of the Old Town, across the river via the Štefánikův bridge, is lovely, leafy Letna Park. It's a relatively steep climb to the top but there are great views of the city, especially up by the metronome. It was sunny when we arrived on Friday afternoon, so we wandered up there after lunch and then walked through the grounds of the castle, about 10 minutes' walk west of the park.

2) Petřín Park. South of the castle on the west side of the river, Petřín Park is another large, verdant park with a central hill. The hill is so steep that there is a funicular to the top (entrance near Újezd tram stop). You can use a regular public transport ticket to use the funicular, and the ride takes about 10 minutes. There is a lot to see at the top but there is limited signage and some very confusing maps. We spent about an hour trying to find the designated "viewpoints" (it should be easy given the height of the hill but tall trees seemed to block the city view from almost everywhere).

We did eventually find one but it was facing to the southeast so we couldn't see much of the city centre or castle. In the end, we shelled out 150 CZK to climb the Eiffel-Tower-alike 19th century Petřín Lookout Tower (there is a lift if you don't fancy the 299 steps, although it costs more). The views were great, although it was pretty chilly at the top.

3) Kampa Park. The small Čertovka water inlet separates Kampa Island from the mainland and there's a small but pleasant park near the river, which is nice for a wander. You can also visit the John Lennon Wall, a constantly evolving graffiti wall / public art space.

There are lots of other fun and interesting things to do in the city that we didn't have time for, but it's always good to save something for the next trip.

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