Happy Holidays 2018! and by now when this is posted, Happy New Year!
I spent the first half of my Christmas weekend vacation in Prague, Czech Republic. It has long been on my list and plenty of people who have been consistently rave about how beautiful and affordable it is. Its Christmas Market is also usually in the top 10 lists of many publications (though, I’ll say it now, its very disappointing and extremely commercial/ touristy and not a true authentic Christmas Market, though the vibes are incredible and festive).
Besides the Christmas Market, did Prague live up to its expectations? Absolutely. The city is truly stunning and the Bohemian Gothic Architecture is mostly all original and intact as the city did not suffer extensive bombings or attacks during the wars of the 20th century. PRO TIP: wake up before sunrise to walk around town and then enjoy the sunrise on Charles Bridge with the few other early rising photographers, this is the city at its finest and most magical, the rest of the time its just packed full of tourists. It is filled with outstanding bespoke mixology cocktail and absinthe bars at very good prices (average $10 for a high-end craft cocktail) and beer is cheaper than water, and the food while not so aesthetically pleasing, is delicious and hearty and prices for a meal range from USD$6 to USD$20. This time of year there are less tourists, even though it didnt feel like it which is why I simply cannot imagine what summers are like, and the streets were filled with many locals rushing to get their Christmas shopping in. The city is 100% walk-able, and getting to and from the airport is easy and cheap, if you dont have large bags. Over all the hotels arent too expensive nor would I say they are cheap either, but definitely affordable for a major tourist hub in Europe. Most people speak very good English and signs are in both Czech and English everywhere so its actually fairly easy to navigate. Prague and Czech Republic is part of the EU but uses their own currency the Czech Koruna, most restaurants/shops/ hotels/ museums accept credit cards and its mainly stalls at the Christmas Market and public transport (except major stations) that does cash only.
I arrived at around 2PM at Prague airport. There are a few options to get from the airport to the city center. You can Uber, like I did which cost around USD$18 (with tip) and took around 20 minutes, or you can spend 36CZK (USD$1.5) for a 90 min. public transport ticket and take bus 119 to Nadrazi Veleslavin Station and transfer on to Metro line A which takes you to the heart of Old-Town or next to the Prague Castle, depending on which side of the river you are staying. NOTE: the metro station Nadrazi Veleslavin has no escalators or elevators from bus platform to metro station. I used this option to get to the airport from downtown. Travel time by public transport is around 35 minutes.
There are a wide range of hotels, hostels and AirBnBs in Prague, with my last minute situation, lots of the great and affordable AirBnBs were already booked. I went for MOODs Charles Bridge Hotel, located in Old Town Prague away from the main hustle and bustle but within walking distance to everything there is to do and see in Prague. It was around $130/night with tax and included breakfast. Rooms were quite large with lots of amenities and comfortable bedding for a 4-star hotel!
The rest of my time in Prague, I took a couple of metro rides to get me to further out places, but then I walked the rest of the time. Metro and public transport, you can either get a card at the airport or just buy tickets as you go, there are 30 minute, 90 minute and 24 hour time window tickets.
- After arriving at my hotel and settling in. I walked about 10 minutes to Staromestska Station to take metro line A (green line) to Namesti Miru for one of the many Christmas markets in town. Namesti Miru Square Christmas Market is a smaller, quainter, more local and authentic Christmas Market in Prague. There are more handicrafts, homemade Czech Christmas Cookies and definitely a local crowd here compared to the main Christmas Market in Old Town Square. Here I had some pan-fried cheese filled pastries topped with cranberry jam and mulled wine as well as some Christmas cookies. By this time, 4PM the sun had already set.
- From there I took Metro Line A to Mustek and walked to Havelska Koruna restaurant/dining hall. This is a local cafeteria style restaurant. You walk in, get a ordering card from the clerk, grab a tray and head to the stations to grab your food. There is a dessert, salad, mains and beverage station. You can find all your key traditional Czech food here. My meal of cabbage soup, pilsner beer, and svíčková na smetaně: knedlíky (bread dumpling) with sirloin steak (stewed in veggies and topped with spices and herbs) in creamy veggie sauce served with cranberry jam was around USD$6.
- I then walked to go take a look at the Cubist Lamp Post, if you are into art and sculpture worth quick glance at this pretty cool lamp post. I then continued up the main street of Vaclavske nam towards the National Museum. Just before the National Museum, I veered right on to Krakovska street to find the hidden cocktail bar Parlour.
- Parlour is a speakeasy-esque cocktail bar. It only take maximum groups of 4, unless you call in advance to reserve and they feel you are nice and cool people. There are no menus, instead the staff here ask you what you would like, your answer can range from the types of liquor and flavors you like, to the mood you are in, or even things like “I want a drink that someone in the 1920s would drink.” They will whip and mix up incredible cocktails from top-shelf liquors. They try not to use bitters and instead like to bring out the true flavors of the liquors they use. The place sounds pretentious but trust me, it is one of the least pretentious bars I have been to. Its so laidback, quaint, small and intimate. The staff are super friendly and chatty and down to earth. If you know nothing of alcohol or drinks, they wont judge and will still whip up an incredible basic drink like Gin and Tonic. They simply want you to enjoy yourself and spread their passion for mixology and the ingredients they use. I had two drinks, a gin based citrus drink after asking for something Christmas-y, with a bit of citrus and herbs but not too sweet or bitter. I then had an incredible scotch based drink made of French Suze liquor, Monkey Shoulder smokey single malt scotch, regular Monkey Shoulder scotch, and port. Tasted smokey, woody, chocolate and just so good, all without using any bitters. The bartender then gave me a taste of Becherovka: a Czech herb liquor. All this for less than USD$20. If you can locate its entrance, Parlour is most definitely worth a visit.
- From Parlour I walked about 15 minutes to Old Town Square to join the army of tourists. Old Town Square may be touristy, but it is definitely worth visiting as it is beautiful. The Astronomy Tower remains open into the night. I climbed up, bought my ticket around USD$9, and continued on up to the top observatory for spectacular views of Prague and Old Town Square. I got to the top just in time for a Christmas Tree light show in the Christmas Market, which added to the ambiance for sure. There are other exhibits in the tower that is included with your admission, I did not check these out. It is worth going up for the view for sure though, during the Christmas season, do it at night to catch all the lights and decorations across town.
- After the Christmas tree lighting show and taking in the views I headed back down to the main square to browse the Christmas Market. Like I mentioned earlier, the Prague Old Town Square Christmas Market, which is so often highly ranked, is very commercial and touristy. Hardly and true handcraft Christmas goods and its mostly food stalls that basically all sell the same thing. I nonetheless indulged in some Czech potato pancakes and Prague sausage with beer under the Christmas tree. Otherwise I was done with this particular Christmas Market within a few minutes. But I will say with the surrounding Bohemian Gothic architecture especially that of Church of Our Lady before Týn, the atmosphere is still great and magical.
- A short 5 minute walk from the square is popular cocktail bar called L’Fleur. This place does have a menu and whips up great cocktails that taste good and are definitely made for instagram. The bartenders here are very friendly and will still help you if you have no idea what to order and if you just tell them what you want and dont want in terms of liquor or flavors. I ordered the Jerez Martini (USD$10): gin, absinthe, sherry blend, roasted walnut bitters with candied walnut, quite tasty.
- After L’Fleur I walked back across town to another famous and popular cocktail and absinthe bar, The Hemingway Bar, located around the corner from my hotel. This is a great cocktail bar that gets quite packed and busy and has a 1920s vibe evoking a bygone era in which Hemingway would have been present at the bar. The thing to do here is to learn about and try Absinthe. They do it the authentic traditional way, none of the lighting sugar on fire and dripping it into the absinthe, which apparently I learned is not how one is supposed to drink Absinthe. I also learned that most commercially available Absinthe is fake and is usually just herb and licorice flavored vodka or gin. I asked for a absinthe that wasnt too sweet but not strong on the licorice flavor and smooth, the waiter recommended me the USD$7 Absinthe la Grenouille 65%. It came in a large apparatus of ice and water and with the glass already filled with some water, you then let it drip until the line in the glass for the ideal water to Absinthe ratio. And wow, did it taste good, by far the best Absinthe I have ever had, well balanced in the licorice flavor and the sweetness and herbal aromas. Highly recommend the Hemingway for an education in Absinthe.
- It was 11PM already after a long day of traveling and flying so I called it a night and hit the bed.
- The next morning I woke up at around 7:15AM to head out to the Charles Bridge. Some locals at the bars I went to the prior night said the best time to see Prague is at dawn. Sunrise was at 7:59AM and so I headed out at the break of dawn. They were right. Few if any tourists are out, only some photography enthusiasts waiting to capture the perfect shot of the city. Locals waking up and getting on their morning run. The city still lit with street lights but the cloudy sky slowly turning purple, orange and white. Truly a magical way to soak in Prague and to start off the day.
- I then returned to my hotel for a quick breakfast and shower before checking out, leaving my bags and getting on with the day.
- I walked down Masarykovo road along the river with some stunning art-deco buildings lining the banks before arriving at Frank Gehry’s Dancing House. There is a cafe at the top that you can visit. But I just admired the building from outside. From there I crossed the river and then walked back up river towards The Memorial to the Victims of Communism. This is a very interesting, albeit simple, sculpture and memorial, but in its simplicity carries heavy meaning and I think it is worth a stop to view. It is also just a few steps from the Ujezd Funicular Station where you board the funicular to the top of Petrin Hill to climb the 300 steps up the Petrin Tower for panoramic views of the city. And yes, this is what I did after viewing the memorial. The funicular is considered public transport so you buy a 30, 90, or 24 hour ticket. There is an entry fee at the Tower and its around 150CZK, Id say worth it.
- A 20 minute walk from the Ujezd funicular station is the Prague Castle, which if you have time, definitely line up and check it out as it is a combination of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture and interiors. Another tip is to arrive very very early or near the end of the day, in fact let this be your first or last thing. I arrived at 11AM and it was very crowded. Given my limited amount of time I opted not to line up to enter but to again admire it from the outside. The castle plaza is full of museums and beautiful architecture so its a nice stroll.
- Back down the hill I walked towards the Lennon Wall, the one tourist trap you can most definitely skip. Down the street is Kampa island, which is a small little islet along the river and under the Charles Bridge.
- I crossed the Charles Bridge back to Old Town to get a glimpse of Old Town Square in daylight, and while still great, it is much better at night.
- A couple more minutes walk north and I arrived at Lokal, a large restaurant serving up local Czech food at slightly higher prices. I once again had bread pudding, but this time ordered pork with sauerkraut and dark beer as well as Czech fried cheese.
- Lokal is located at the edge of the Jewish quarters, so on my return to my hotel I took a detour to wander through this neighborhood. It is filled with beautiful synagogues and incredible Bohemian Art-Deco and Neo-Gothic architecture. Worth a stroll. I also stumbled on Memorial Kafka, a memorial to Franz Kafka. Finally, right before I returned to my hotel to grab my things and head to the airport, I walked by City Hall, which is closed on weekends but during the week when its open you can go inside to experience the famous looping elevators (you know the ones that dont have doors and looks more amusement park ride than elevator?).
- Returned to my hotel, grabbed my things and proceeded to take the subway and transfer on to the bus to head to the airport and bid Prague a farewell.
Overall I really enjoyed my short but sweet time in Prague. The city is really one of the prettiest I have been to. The architecture, art, original buildings and sites are really all as great as they are made out to be. Czech food is not necessarily the most appealing to the eye but it tastes wonderful. Did I already talk about the bar scene? Yeah, probably my favorite part of this city, incredible craft cocktails, beers and more for all great prices in amazing ambiances. The Christmas market, which is for some reason always ranked amongst top 10 lists, is disappointing and very commercial, my least favorite of the 8-9 European Christmas markets I have been to. But the vibes are still great so dont skip or miss just dont expect anything great from the contents or food.