Praha, or as we call it in America Prague, provides the quintessential Old World Europe experience.
From charming Prague Castle to the Dancing House, Charles Bridge to the Vltava River, this city sparkles. Rising from the rubble of the Velvet Revolution, which ushered in democracy and name changes for what had been Czechoslovakia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are rich in tradition.
Yet Prague, the jewel and the capital of the CR, is a dichotomy -where old meets new and classy meets funky, not unlike it does in, say, New Orleans, where you can also wander into a centuries-old church one minute then dine al fresco with Fido the next. Yes, some restaurants let you bring your doggy to dinner here.
It's a terrific walking city. I recommend starting near the river, crossing the bridge to spy the street artists (bridge portraitists, if you will), buying a souveneir, stopping for some of the city's famous apple streudel and cappuccino then walking up the cobbled stones to the castle. Every step is a postcard photo.
What's also great about Prague is its value. If you just spent a week in London losing a month's salary on dinner out, you'll recoup that loss in the CR. Two of the best restaurants are the Kampa Park, which boasts 150 types of wine and offers romantic views of the Charles Bridge, and the swanky CottoCrudo for some fine Italian cuisine at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Make sure to tool around Old Town, one of the most charming spots on earth. Watch the surprising way the time strikes on the hour at the Astronomical Clock, a 1410 masterpiece towering over the streets. Walk a short distance and relax on a nearby park bench, making sure you take more photos than you think you'll need.
You'll also want to get as high as you can anywhere in the city. I rode the elevator up to a restaurant atop Old Town's Hotel U Prince, where I had a glass of wine overlooking sunkissed clay rooftops.
But there are other options, such as the Aria hotel where you can dine at Coda Restaurant for similarly divine views. While I didn't stay at either place, you would be wise to consider doing so if the budget allows. Rooms at Aria start around the equivalent of $500/night for two people, and for a few dozen euros you can add a massage.
Or stay at Metropol Praha and enjoy fine dining and sweeping views from your suite or on the upper deck. Other options include the aforementioned, super luxurious Four Seasons in Old Town. It boasts classical, renaissance and 18th-century baroque buildings melded into one stunning structure.
If you're on a budget, here's the good news: if you are willing to stay a bit away from the mainstream (and who needs the constant barrage of American tourists mowing you down on the bridge?), stay at a pension.
Svaty Jan at Vysehradska 28, was this Examiner's super charming homeaway. An eggshell and canary converted church, it boasts a shaded patio with greenery galore. It's a quick walk to a post office (to your left) or to a market and toward town (to your right). Very comfortable and cheap.
Many pensions are lovely, quiet and clean, meant to lure travelers who appreciate simplicity. In the morning, a breakfast of cheeses or just brie with fruit, cereal and toast is served in a lovely white tableclothed setting. For just 25 Euros (or 635 Czech Koruna*) a night you'll sleep like a queen and have money left over to enjoy the trip on the Funicular Railway.
Flying into the city on Easy Jet from London's Stansed Airport to Prague will cost about $170 RT if you go mid-week this month or early March. Prices vary, of course, but keep in mind that flying from Los Angeles to New York, then New York to London's Heathrow might work best. Direct flights from LA to Prague will cost about $880 RT on KLM Airlines and take about 14-1/2 hours.
- *Prague/the CR take the crown. The Czech crown (Koruna česká, or Kč) is split into 100 hellers. Banknotes come in denominations of 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000Kč; coins are of 50h and one, two, five, 10, 20 and 50Kč. (Read more about money in Prague here.) Some restaurants and shops will take your Euros but most only take the crown.
- Carry only a small amount of cash if you're out walking at night, and keep it close to yourself. While Prague is a very charming city, it has a fairly high incidence of pickpocketing. Don't be overly alarmed though; just be careful.
- Make sure to withdraw money in big amounts from the ATM. Every withdrawl will cost you both the fee at the ATM and with your bank. I recommend taking the maximum amount you can out at a time, then keeping it in the safe in your hotel or pension. A hundred Euros in your bag, plus two credit cards, is fine.
- Sign up for a tour to see the Jewish Quarter and cemetery.
- In advance of your trip, watch the charming chick flick "Chasing Liberty" with Mandy Moore and Matthew Goode. It affords spectacular views of Praha.
- For a map of the city, please click here. For a link to more info on Old Town, click here.
- Get to know the Czech names of the locations: Old Town = Staré Mesto; Charles Bridges = Karlův most, etc.. Here's a link which offers a primer.
Note: An earlier version mentioned the restaurant Allegro at Four Seasons. That restaurant was closed a few years ago and has been replaced by Cottocrudo. The Examiner regrets the error.