For our latest 2-night city exploration, Brendan and I decided to see just what it is everyone loves so much about Prague. So many people rave about this city - and after this visit, I would count myself and Brendan among their ranks.
We arrived in Prague knowing barely any Czech at all - we knew prosím for please, but just couldn't quite figure out how to pronounce the word for thank you - děkuju. It turns out you barely need it. The signs in the airport are in English first and largest, followed by Czech. Tourists from all over the world interact with the Czech people in English. We appreciated being able to manage a couple words in the local tongue, though, and we even managed to have entire interactions without any English - once in a department store, and once in an awesome pub. More on that later.
This was our first time in a post-Soviet city, and the furthest east either of us has ever been, and we felt very excited and aware of the little differences. There is a very clear Germanic element to the culture of this city, but you also see elements of a more eastern-style architecture. On the taxi ride in from the airport, we also saw some of the large, blocky apartment buildings on the city's edges that remind you of Soviet influences.
Once in the heart of things, we found ourselves surrounded by beautiful, old buildings and structures in a friendly, walkable city. Prague has a relatively casual feel to it - less formal than Edinburgh, for certain. As a lovely example, despite the quite nice location of our Airbnb apartment, there were two strip clubs on our street. We also saw lots of signs for classical music performances, jazz and blues venues, contemporary art galleries, and more.
Of course, December also means Christmas markets for Prague, as it does in much of Europe. And not just one Christmas market, but a proliferation of little Christmas markets in basically every public plaza in the city. These are composed of little wooden huts selling hot alcoholic beverages, sausages, pastries, and chocolates, as well as gift items. The Czech especially seemed to like to sell honey and beeswax products. On our first night in Prague, we explored the Old Town and found that the market in the Old Town Square was beautifully lit up, with a huge Christmas tree, and even a stage with little kids performing a dance to a Czech version of "Cotton-Eyed Joe."
Prague straddles a river, with the Medieval Old Town on one side (and the newer neighborhoods to its south) and Prague Castle looming high up on a hilltop on the other (see the featured photo at the top of this post). Having stuck to one bank on our first day, we decided to head for the castle on the second. What we didn't expect was just how much we would find in the surrounding neighborhood of Malá Strana. It is just as lively a neighborhood as Old Town, and it is packed with huge, beautiful, old buildings.
To get to the castle, you cross the river on a pedestrian bridge, then hike up a long series of stairs, gaining some beautiful views of the city behind you. The castle itself is a funny complex of interconnected buildings. You can walk right in the front gates, past the awesomely-uniformed guards, without paying.
Once inside, the imposing St. Vitus Cathedral dominates from its central position, surrounded by the rest of the castle buildings. The cathedral is largely classically Gothic, but has some simply gorgeous and rather less Gothic stained glass windows. This is thanks to the fact that the cathedral was actually not completed until the early 20th century.
To get into the rest of the castle interiors, you buy a pass for a given set of buildings. We visited several of the oldest buildings and enjoyed reading about the history of the kings of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire that ruled from there. Ever heard of the Defenestrations of Prague? Well now we have. And apparently they led to the Thirty Years' War.
They charge additional for a photo permit, however, so I unfortunately don't have much to show from this - just this shot of the inside of an old chapel, and some badass suits of armor.
To give you a taste of the rest of the sightseeing we did in Prague, here's a little selection of some favorite sights: the Prague Astronomical Clock, the Jewish Ceremonial Hall (in the Jewish ghetto, Josefov), Rudolfinum, Schwarzenberský palác (one of the many palaces around the castle), Strahov Monastery, and one of the tower gates of Karlův most, or Charles Bridge.
After exploring the castle, following the advice of our host, we found our way to a little pub on a side street in Malá Strana called U hrocha. It was smoky and small, and it was clear that no one spoke English, but we plopped ourselves down at the end of a communal table and ordered two beers with our practiced phrase - "Dva pivo, prosím." For something like 35 koruna a piece ($1.42), we got big mugs of tasty pilsner and enjoyed being part of a local scene.
Here's my attempt to photograph the place on the sly.
Finally, to cap it all off, we had a Czech dinner and then caught some live blues music. Dinner was at a Rick Steves-recommended Czech restaurant, where we sat at the bar and ordered a sampler platter of Czech dishes - roast pork, duck, ham, dumplings, two kinds of cabbage, and bread. I suppose we were making up for the vegan restaurant we had eaten at the night before (also very good).
The blues bar was called Blues Sklep, and the band was great. Though there were other tourists there, there were also locals, and the place had an authentic feel - not the polished look that I think some other jazz venues in the city do. And again, super cheap beer.
It's easy to see why Prague is so well-loved by those who have visited it. The city is full of culture and history, it has a somewhat more exotic feel to it than the well-known western European cities, and it is wonderfully affordable. I hope we'll be back again some day.