The ideal setting for a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, or a twisted adventure in the dark universe of the Brothers Grimm, Prague is a world of cobblestone streets, Gothic spires, Bohemian fairies and arched alleyways. It’s an heirloom lace glove once worn by a tiny grandmother, now inherited by her rebellious teenage granddaughter, dyed black and reinvigorated with an edgier undercurrent, but still reverent to the past.
A city of contradictions, shadows and intrigue, where functional cement communist columns of flats give way to to intricate architectural marvels, fringed with geraniums and decorated with graffiti scrawls. The birthplace of Bohemia, where buskers line ancient streets, and Absynth glitters enticingly in quixotic shop windows.
Despite the sudden annoying overpopulation of tourists on segways, the city hasn’t changed that much since my last visit and I still feel an instant affinity for it, largely due to its oldy-worldy charm and excellent goulash stew. We arrived with no plans in place, and spent most of the time exploring on foot, although there are plenty of trams available to cater for tired toes.
Here are some of my favourite spots around the city:
The River Vltava
When you stand on the bridge and gaze across the river as it snakes it way through the city, it’s hard not to hold your breath as the beauty of it seems to fill you up entirely. At dusk, the river reflects the flecks of gold in the sky, and highlights fall across the elegant buildings lining its vast banks. Bridges stretch as far as the eye can see, and the horizon is kissed goodbye by the sun as the day gives way to night. The water is calm and dotted with boats, and adults and children take their evening constitutionals along its serene shore. Multiple parks overlook it, shaded by trees and adorned in roses, with benches and patches of chartreuse grass for young lovers to rest on. This is the soul of the city and my favourite place.
On one sweaty summer’s day, Tom and I decided to join the throngs of people hiring paddle boats, and it was absolutely lovely. Captain Love tested my nerves with his boatseat driving, and we spent a pleasant hour navigating our way around the two small islands occupying the middle of the Vtlava. Our feet flew and we were very proud of the fact that we managed to get our vessel up to an impressive 2km/hr rate, thus, overtaking most other river dawdlers who were more preoccupied with their beers than participating in the Fast and the Furious boat edition.
The Old Town Square and Astronomical Clock Tower
The astronomical clock or orloj is such an iconic feature of the city, and happens to be the oldest working model in the world. The astronomical dial signifies the positioning of the sun and moon, with appearances by the apostles, Death, and a calendar dial. Local legend has it that the 1410 clock is the secret to the city’s vitality – if it’s working well then the city is in good health, if it stops, then Prague is in jeopardy. The square is a constant hive of activity, from roasted chestnut and Trdelnik vendors on the outskirts, to horse-drawn carriages, giant bubble blowers, musicians, peddlars, tourists and locals alike. One man approached us, appraised us and asked us if we ‘wanted to get effed up tonight’, while holding up a party flier. I think our faces said it all – he may as well have asked 90-year-olds with no teeth based on our reaction. On another eve, we wandered into the square to find an incredible pair of young musicians playing the keyboard and drums (on plastic buckets) with a synchronised soccer dance act accompanying them. A crowd had gathered around them and the Gothic castle was illuminated in the background providing a magical setting for the scene. We also found the sweetest old-school Italian joint called Giovannis just off the main square – the pizza is amazing and the beers are cheap!
The Funicular and Petrin Tower
Tom has a thing for funiculars – seriously, it was the first thing he found in every city we visited. The Prague funicular goes to the top of Petrin Hill, where there’s an observation tower that offers awesome vistas of the city. We climbed right to the top where we spent a little while photographing the view from every angle (I lost count of the number of panoramas Tom took). We met a charming American man on his 50th wedding anniversary who offered to take a snap of both of us – I’ll add it to this post once Tom plays with it in Lightroom.
Parks and Recreation
I’m not ashamed to admit that rather a lot of our holiday was spent sitting on benches in parks of various shapes and forms. On one afternoon we had a snooze on one of the city’s mini islands with a pretty view of the river, while another day was spent hiking up a hill to the less frequented Letenske sady park with wonderful vistas of Prague, and a path leading to the Royal Gardens which overlook the cathedral and castle. The parks are full of young people kissing in the sunshine, and families picnicking on the lush lawns – they’re a picture-perfect summer idyll and the ideal spot for late afternoon snacks.
The Castle and the Cathedral
Although we didn’t actually go into the castle or the cathedral, we admired their architecture from the outside and spent some time exploring the town surrounding them. You have to climb quite a hefty hill to reach the castle, via a number of meandering cobblestone streets laden with shops selling all manner of sweets and souvenirs.
Last time I visited Prague I stayed in the centre of Wenceslas Square so spent infinitely more time exploring it – this time we just wandered through it one evening, and enjoyed a McDonald’s burger at the top of the street – not our proudest moment, but definitely tasty. The buildings here are beautiful, colourful and complex, and occupied by some of the city’s most exclusive shops.
Gelato, Goulash and a Pint or Four
I think we could both have stayed in Prague forever, if only for the food! Tom was delighted that beer does, quite literally, cost less than bottled water, and I was delighted that it’s perfectly acceptable to eat delicious creamy gelato at any time of day. The food has Germanic influences, so there’s a lot of wiener schnitzel, goulash, soups, dumplings, sausage and duck on the menu – often sold to tourists as ‘Authentic Czech Cuisine’ (we quickly learnt to never eat anywhere with that sign on its door – exorbitant prices and bad food are guaranteed). Our favourite restaurant we ate at was an ancient establishment called Mlejnice, hidden at the end of a small alleyway off the main tourist track. I had goulash soup served in a traditional bread roll, which was hearty and moreish, and exactly what I had been searching for in terms of foodie aspirations for our whole visit.
We walked, sat, pondered and drank pints, and had the most blissful three days exploring my favourite city of spires. From Prague, we hopped on the train to Budapest – a similar city with an aura of melancholy.