Happy Tuesday! You may notice that today's travel guide is a bit different than my typical formula, but that's because Prague wasn't my most conventional trip. If you've been following my blog from the beginning, you may have read an ancient post I wrote on my disappointment when I didn't get to go to Prague years ago. Long story short, this place has sat on my list for quite a while now. So when I booked this latest trip to Europe with no return ticket, I was determined to finally make it there.
As I started scheming, I called Jen- a new friend I met at a conference that I was speaking at last summer. She's a flight attendant and so we instantly connected over our shared love of travel. I remembered her previously telling me if I ever need a travel buddy to give her a call (she obviously gets flight perks that make it easier to be spontaneous). "I need a travel buddy. Want to meet me in Prague?" Lucky for me, she was up for the adventure to rendezvous in the Czech capital for a few days.
Prague is nicknamed "the City of a Hundred Spires" because of it's stunning Gothic churches and colorful baroque buildings. The Vltava River divides the city, which means it has no shortage of scenic bridges along the sparkling waters. Throw in the plethora of bohemian art and the rolling hills that offer breath-taking vantage points and you'll quickly find Prague is easily one of the more beautiful cities in Europe.
But aside from its beauty, Prague has some of the most interesting history (in my opinion anyway). While it dates all the way back to the 9th century, what I found so fascinating on this trip was how much the recent German history spilled over into its neighboring Czechoslovakia (which I also learned was divided into two countries in 1993: Czech Republic and Slovakia). When Germany endured the communist occupation, so did Czechoslovakia. When Germany endured the Nazi occupation, so did Czechoslovakia. These back-to-back seasons of the country's tumultuous past have had a great impact on lots of the culture you'll still see today (and I have lots more to share about those specifics in a minute...)
Overall, I fell in love with the whole of Prague: the architectural beauty, the eclectic history, the local people and even the lively energy from those tourists looking to have a good time (oh yeah, Prague is also a pretty popular party destination and home to some of the finest beer in the world). Needless to say, there is no shortage of experiences in the Czech capital. So when you visit yourself, here are the "musts" you need to know.
WALKING: Central Prague is super easy to explore on foot! We walked just about everywhere in the city so be prepared and pack some walking shoes.
TAXI VS UBER: We used Uber (which was always very cheap) as taxis are prone to rip-off drivers in tourist areas.
AIRPORT TRANSFERS: We used Google Maps to navigate the metro and bus. While it did take some time (about an hour) we found it to be very easy.
I found this article on getting around Prague to be extremely helpful if you want more details about the intricacies of public transportation.
The currency in Prague is the Czech Crown (czk). This translates to mean that (roughly) every 21.85 CZK equals about $1 (USD). So when you go to pay for a beer that's 60 CZK, don't freak out- it's still really cheap! Czech banknotes are issued in the following denominations: 100/200/500/1000/2000/5000. Some hotels, shops and restaurants will still accept Euros, but I found most would only take Czech Crowns. You'll want to be sure to get some of the local currency, as we did experience a handful of places that would not accept card. As I've shared in my "Tips for First-Time International Travelers" post, never get cash from conversion centers at the airport. You will always be able to find and ATM once you land, so always opt for that (Banks and ATM machines almost always offer the best rates). This article from Frommers is a helpful tool if you're looking for more information about familiarizing yourself with the local currency.
While most people in Prague speak English, I always encourage learning a few basic phrases in the native tongue simply out of respect to the locals.
YES = ANO (ano)
NO = NE (ne)
PLEASE = PROSÍM (proseem)
THANK YOU = DEvKUJI VAM (dyekooyi vam)
GOOD MORNING = DOBRÉ RÁNO (dobrye rano)
GOOD AFTERNOON = DOBRÉ ODPOLEDNE (dobrye odpoledne)
GOOD NIGHT = DOBROU NOC (dobroh nots)
HELLO = DOBRY' DEN (dobree den)
BEST TIME TO VISIT
I took note from my friends at Lonely Planet and visited during the summer: "High season in Prague generally means April to June, September and October, plus the Christmas and New Year holidays; the Prague Spring festival in May is the busiest time of year. July and August are midseason, and the rest of the year is low season, when hotel rates can drop by 30% or 40%."
what to see + do
Prague Castle is easily one of the most popular attractions in the entire country, and rightfully so! This ancient castle is the largest in the world (almost the size of seven football fields!) It's perched on a hillside overlooking the city, offering gorgeous views of Prague. Since this is a popular attraction, be prepared for crowds. If you want to avoid peak hours, plan on going as soon as it opens (the complex opens at 6am while the actual buildings on site don't open until 9am).
Another "must-see" in Prague is the 15th-century Astronomical Clock in the center of Old Town Square. At the top of the hour, Death tips his hourglass and pulls the cord; the windows open as the Twelve Apostles go by, the rooster crows, and then: the bell rings. The dials on the clock tell everything from the phases of the moon and sunset, the current sign of the zodiac, each day's special saint and of course, the time. But aside from watching the clock at the top of the hour, this charming little area is definitely worth paying a visit. While the cafes are touristy and a bit overpriced, they're still relatively cheap compared to other cities you'd visit in Europe. We sat outside to enjoy the views and wait for the clock to chime and our beer still only equalled about $5 USD.
Strolling across the Charles Bridge is one of the most popular things to do Prague. This means that come 9am it's completely jam-packed and almost hard to enjoy. We opted to wake up early and arrive around 7:30 am (I suggest you do the same if you want any personal space!) Regardless of when you decide to go, it's absolutely worth it to see the impressive baroque statues. The most famous figure is the monument to St John of Nepomuk and legend has it that if you rub the bronze plaque, you will one day return to Prague.
Visiting this church was one of my favorite things we did in Prague. The reason being, I watched the movie Anthropoid on my way into town (thanks, Caitlin for the reco!) Anthropoid is based on the extraordinary true story of Operation Anthropoid, the World War II mission to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich (who was second in command to Hitler). The final scene of this movie (which again, is based on actual events) actually occurred in the basement of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in real life and is now a museum you that can tour. I don't want to spoil the premise of the film, but I sincerely can't recommend watching it prior to your trip to Prague and then visiting this museum. Not only will it educate you on some of Prague's history during WWII, but visiting in person is a very moving and a sobering experience that I highly recommend.
You've probably seen photos of the John Lennon Wall at some point, whether or not you knew it was in Prague. To be honest, I didn't know much about this wall before visiting (other than the fact it was a popular attraction in Prague). After a bit of research, I learned that after his murder on 8 December 1980, "John Lennon became a pacifist hero for many young Czechs. An image of him was painted on a wall in a secluded square opposite the French embassy (there is a niche on the wall that looks like a tombstone), along with political graffiti and Beatles lyrics.
Despite repeated coats of whitewash, the secret police never managed to keep it clean for long, and the Lennon Wall became a political focus for Prague youth (a lot of Western pop music was banned by the communists, and some Czech musicians were even jailed for playing it).
Post-1989 weathering and lightweight graffiti ate away at the political messages and images, until little remained of Lennon but his eyes, but visiting tourists began making their own contributions. The wall is the property of the Knights of Malta, and they have repainted it several times, but it soon gets covered with more Lennon images, peace messages and inconsequential tourist graffiti. In recent years the Knights have bowed to the inevitable and don’t bother to whitewash it any more."
WHERE TO STAY
I love staying at hotels while traveling to do research + share which are the best options whenever you decide to go. With that said, I've previously shared in my "How I travel full time" blog post that the way I'm able to stay at hotels so frequently is by trading my services. Essentially, I style + capture photos and write about the hotel in exchange for my stay (deliverables vary depending on the property). While it may sound like a sweet deal (and don't get me wrong, it is!) it also comes with a lot more work than you probably realize. So from time to time I break up my hotel trades by getting a cheap Airbnb. Why? For starters, I know a lot of you want me to include recommendations in this category as well! But additionally, I believe it's also important for me to take a break from work and be a traveler myself. So in Prague (which is an incredibly affordable city to visit) we did just that by renting this Airbnb. The location was ideal, the price was great and overall I loved our stay there. If you're on a budget but don't want to compromise location or quality- I recommed it.
While I opted to take a break from work and stay at an Airbnb, I still did plenty of research on hotels in Prague. If there was ever a time to splurge on luxury, this is the place to do it! The Golden Well Hotel (Five-Stars) was voted the number 1 hotel in Europe and third best in the world by TripAdvisor. And the price tag? Rooms start at a whopping €175 a night (that's what I can charge to rent my non-luxury 1 BR apartment in Nashville on Airbnb for a night!) Had I not needed to stretch my budget out over the course of an indefinite time frame, I would absolutely have stayed here.
Looking for some other hotel options in Prague? Here are a few more that I checked out and would also recommend.
WHERE (AND WHAT) TO EAT
EAT TRDELNÍK (OR CHIMNEY CAKE)
Almost immediately upon arrival in Prague, we noticed these massive dough confections cooking on rotating rods that grabbed my attention. I learned these are traditional Slovak rolled pastries originating from the Hungarian-speaking region of Transylvania called Tredelník, and they are plentiful in the streets of Prague. a kind of split cake made from rolled dough, grilled and topped with sugar and walnut. They can be served with whip cream year round, although you'll commonly see them used in lieu of an ice cream cone in the warm summer months. We had many over the length of our trip and all of them were fantastic. But don't take my word for it- try one (or several) yourself!
I always search out the best local food when traveling to a new city, and I had many people point me to Lokál to find that in Prague. While Czech food seemed pretty heavy and hearty to me (which it is) I decided let my server order for me and recommend the best dishes. She pointed me to the smažený sýr (a dish of deep-fried cheese) for my starter and then svíčková na smetane (sirloin of beef with cream + cranberry sauce) for my main. While I’m typically not a fan of heavy dishes, both were unique and tasty. We washed our food down withbeer that they draught straight from the tanks they have in house (which was my favorite bit). Overall, I loved getting to experience Czech food in a cool environment and definitely recommend you pay Lokál a visit if you wish to do the same in Prague!
Why would you go to an Italian restaurant while in Prague? I asked myself the same thing when we went to lunch at La Bottega Linka- the newest addition to this Italian family’s chain of restaurants. We were greeted by Elisa: an Italian native living in Prague. Our lunch with her couldn’t have been more delightful. For starters, all of the food was absolutely delicious and I felt as if I had suddenly transformed to Italy. It was such a treat to eat something that tasty because while it had been so fun to try the traditional Czech food in Prague, I’d obviously be lying if I said that it even begins to compare to the mouthwatering food in Italy that everybody knows and loves. We indulged in truffle mashed potatoes, buttery scallops, rabbit ravioli and so many other dishes that were truly impressive. Just about everything they cook revolves around a very special X-Oven (which uses charcoal) to give it a distinct flavor that puts it over the edge.
While I could easily elaborate in great detail on why each dish was so incredible, what I really enjoyed about our visit was learning so much about the history of the cuisine in Prague thanks to Elisa.
Cuisine in Prague has historically, been very sensible- using hearty ingredients like meat and potatoes to keep one warm during blistering winters. This prompted people to prepare warm stews at the beginning of the week that could keep for several days. In short, cooking simply wasn’t an art or way of life like it is in Italy.
But then, you must also consider that even if one wanted to cook an elaborate meal, trade was extremely limited during both the Nazi and Communist occupations. This really only allowed locals to cook with what they had in their immediate proximity. Even sodas weren’t accessible, thus lemonade became their own way of enjoying sugary beverages (lemonade is still popular in Prague today for this reason and you’ll see it on many menus).
Elisa also taught me that until recently, Prague really didn’t have much in the way of global cuisine. The Nazi and Communist eras also limited the local’s ability to travel outside of their own country and develop more of a curiosity and appreciation about other cultures and cuisines.
In today’s modern Prague, however, things are vastly different. La Bottega Linka is a beautiful representation of the contemporary progression and global infusion that’s taken place in recent years. Learning more about cultural development like this has become one of my favorite parts of traveling. I'm so thankful for all my friend taught me during our lunch together and I can’t recommend you visit enough (be sure to say hi to Elisa for me when you go!)
For dinner one evening, we went to Kogo Slovansky Dum, yet another Italian restaurant in Prague (clearly the Czechs have welcomed this cuisine with open arms!) This particular menu focused on seafood, which is fresh from the neighboring Mediterranean. The venue is smart and offers an airy dining room with traditional artworks, or a beautiful patio where you can sit in the open air on a beautiful night (which is exactly what we did. It's a relatively upscale dining experience (complete with a fantastic wine menu) yet reasonably priced- which makes it the perfect spot to enjoy a "nicer" meal while visiting Prague if you want a break from all the sidewalk cafes or hole in the wall taverns. We started with quite an impressive raw seafood plate including oysters, tuna, salmon, and sea bass tartar’s and carpaccio’s which were so yummy and clearly fresh. For our main, we had pieces of grilled octopus served with small sepia risotto (also delicious). Everything was tried was wonderful and I loved sitting outside in such a beautiful atmosphere.
My last recommendation quickly turns into storytelling about a few of the many reasons why I love traveling the world. We went to Restaurant Bellavista for dinner one night (which I genuinely recommend simply for the incredible views of Prague). But what happened at dinner is what made the evening so memorable.
My friend Jen and I were taking photos of the sunset when the couple at the table in front of us offered to let us sit at their table and take our picture (since they knew they had the better view). That small interaction quickly snowballed into a friendship with Tim and Julie (or Jules as we now call her-- you know, since we're friends). Before I knew it, we were sitting at their table hours later still talking and laughing and getting to know each other. They live in St. Andrews but were in Prague for their anniversary (which shows how cool they are to let us crash their romantic evening). We talked about all the places we've traveled and which were our favorites. We talked about Brexit and the current state of the US (and how both are common conversation points people always want to bring up to us anytime we're traveling). We laughed and swapped stories. We even walked with them into town after our meal and all split some ice cream while walking across Charles Bridge. We parted ways late into the night after hours of great conversation and an invitation from them to visit their home in Scotland anytime.
The point of my story is simply this: Jen was a "friend" I barely knew when we went to Prague together. Tim and Julie were merely strangers at a neighboring table at dinner that night. But we're all travelers, and I swear-- something about that makes you a magnetic force to the people around you. When you're someone who gets out in the world, everything about you can't help but open up. You don't have to go looking for people to connect with- it just happens. It's how I befriended Paula, my Portuguese friend, on a boat in Croatia. It's how I seemed to become instant besties with Caitlin and Caroline, two of my friends who live in entirely different countries, from a simple trip we took to Cambridge. It's how a single lunch meeting with Elise at La Bottega Linka turned to storytelling and swapping numbers and continuing to touch base months after I left Prague. It's how I've made countless friends with people all over the globe that have all taught me and challenged the way I think about the world. Travel is the most powerful force that I know on earth to not only open your mind, but to bind you to others who remind you how big, beautiful + rich the world we live in is.
So while I want to provide you with recommendations of what to see + do, or the best places to eat while traveling so that you can have an amazing trip, my real hope for this platform is to do more than that. It's my goal to challenge the way you see the world- not just as a list of destinations to tick off a list, but more importantly as a wealth of possibility for the best kind of connections that eagerly await.
Prague was an absolutely incredible trip that expanded my mind and deepened my already all-consuming love of travel. I hope you find yourself there someday, that this guide helps you plan your trip when you go, and that you find it to be every bit as wonderful as I did.
Still have questions you want to know about Prague? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for stopping by and stay tuned later this week for a recap of my time in Loire Valley!