Prague! Europe’s Current “It” City.
Everybody I know has either been to Prague or wants to go to Prague. So yes, I too made a stop to check out this trendy city on the banks Vltava River.
I found the capital city of the Czech Republic to be both charming, and (sadly) ridiculously overrun with people. Many of the city’s best sites were wasted on tourists attempting to see or be seen in densely packed throngs.
I think that the crushing masses are more noticeable in Prague because of its size. Where huge masses are everyday affairs in Frankfurt, London, or Paris (Rome deals with this continuously), Prague is considerable smaller in size. It’s warren of narrow streets and quaint squares become overwhelmed with people much easily.
Underneath the off-putting masses however, you will find a charming, medieval, well-maintained city. The people are friendly, and the sites are world-class. It’s worth taking your time to work around the crowds and see what the city has to offer.
Weather. I made my way through Prague in the latter part of June, 2019, and the weather was excellent! Warm days, and blue skies. One morning required a long sleeved shirt, but otherwise it was t-shirt weather.
Money. The Czech Koruna is the national currency of the country, and the currency locally traded within the city. As of October 14, 2020, it’s exchange rate with the US Dollar was 23.200 Koruna to the Dollar.
The Czech Republic is going to transition to the Euro sometime in the future. The city sees so many European tourists that use of the euro isn’t a bother to a lot of shopkeepers. As with all travel, you’ll get the closest to banking exchange rates at bank ATM machines and by using credit cards for larger purchases.
Passport. You’ll need a valid passport for entry into the Czech Republic. Your passport will need to be valid for at least 90 days after your planned trip. The Czech Republic is part of the EU, so a visa for US based travelers is not required. You just need to factor your stay into your overall 90 day entry in the Schengen Zone, if you plan on exploring other countries as well.
Language. Once again, I found not being able to speak the language to not be much of a bother. Almost everyone I interacted with spoke passable English. Smile, be polite and a little humble, and things will go fine.
COVID-19 Issues. From the CDC website: “COVID-19 risk in the Czech Republic is high. CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to the Czech Republic.”
From the US Embassy website: “Currently, American citizens cannot travel to the Czech Republic for tourism or business purposes unless they are immediate family members of Czech citizens or EU citizens residing in the Czech Republic.”
Getting In and Out.
Prague is like any other European city. You can get there any way you chose to. Airplanes, trains, cars, by horse or foot, all are solid options.
I came into the city and left it by train. The Czech rail system is in good repair, and well managed. I came into the country from Hungary, without issue at the border. I left the country headed to Poland, also without issue.
I used a EURail pass for my travels inside the Czech Republic. I had no problems using the pass, or having it recognized by ticket checkers.
Navigating the City.
If you’re going far afield, the tram system will be desirable. The city is hilly, and there is a lot of walking up and down.
The river that cuts the city in two sits in a natural depression. You walk downhill to the river in both directions, so it’s uphill on the way home.
If you need the tram, definitely use it. Otherwise, I found the city to be quite manageable on foot. A great many of its nicer shops and sites aren’t located near tram stops, and walking really allows you to explore the city more deeply.
The city has a gritty, hard scrabble feel to it when you first arrive. Don’t worry about that. I found the whole place to be quite welcoming. I never felt put off when I was walking around. Even small side streets seems approachable.
The city of Prague has many fine places, and in opposition to Internet opinions, Wenceslas Square and the National Museum are not among them. One is overrun and bland, yet with a fine statue. The other is a serious waste of your tourist dollar.
There are some nice places. I found the following to be enjoyable enough.
Prague Castle is a majestic and fascinating place to explore, and sitting right inside the fortifications of the castle is ST Vitus Cathedral. A stone and glass mountain you can’t miss, even if you try.
The cathedral is a superlative piece of architecture. Started sometime in the 1000s, it wasn’t finished until the 1800s. This explains its Romanesque facade.
The interior is chocker-block full of chapels and statuary. It requires some time to work your way through, and is worth all the time you will spend going through it.
It draws a big crowd, actually it draws about everybody. Just be chill and go through with the lines. It really is worth your time.
The Alchemy Museum. If you go down hill from the castle toward the Charles Bridge, you will wander past an unassuming place on the left called the The Alchemy Museum.
Walking in through the entrance gateway into the open and sunny courtyard, you’ll find the museum entrance on one side and the bar/cafe on the other. The tour is guided and covers two stories. It’s kitschy cool, and the museum guides are great fun. The whole thing takes about 30 – 45 minutes, and is a well-deserved distraction from all the serious history that surrounds it.
Prague Ghosts and Legends Museum. Continuing downhill from the Alchemy Museum, just before the Charles Bridge, you will eventually find a place called the Prague Ghosts and Legends Museum. I say eventually, because the entrance is on a alley-side street off the main tourist route and requires a bit of scouting to locate. (It even confused google maps). But, find it you shall.
The museum is a self-guided, two story affair, highlighting the local ghost stories and cool/creepy legends associated with the Czech capital city. It’s a quick, yet fun stop, and the displays are better than you expect them to be upon entering. You can do the whole thing in 30 minutes, and like the Alchemy Museum, it’s a good alternative to the heavily touristed sites. I had a good time there.
The Charles Bridge. At the bottom of the hill below Prague Castle, spanning the Vltava River, you will find the Charles Bridge. An iconic structure, steeped in lore and covered with statues. It’s also covered with people. All day, every day. So many people. Half of the people are tourists, the other half are people attempting to make money off the tourist. You know, people in costume for photos, character drawing artists, and the like. You will also come across the dreaded umbrella of the day tripping bus tour guide.
Seriously though, the bridge does draw a big crowd. There are spots on both banks where you can get good pictures of the bridge. Getting good pictures of the individual statues on the bridge is a little more problematic, but doable. The crowds show up just after the sun, and are there all day. Take a stroll across the bridge and use your traveler’s imagination. You’ll be able to have a story for your friends.
I asked my hotel desk staff what was the best time to go if I wanted a picture of the bridge with nobody on it. The man told me between 4 and 5 am might be okay, but he wasn’t sure. (It’s completely dark at that time of day, which made me laugh.)
In the Old Town Square sits the Old Town Hall. The hall is host to one of Prague’s magnificent pieces, the astronomical clock.
The clock tower is easy to find, just look for the crowd once you enter the square. The clock draws a crowd for every cycling of its system. If you get there between cycling events, just grab a coffee or beer in the square and wait it out. It’s really worth the show.
It’s also worth the show, because it’s an up close and personal one. Where clock towers in Western Europe are massively tall affairs, this one is quaintly subdued. I honestly don’t think the clock is more than 30 feet off the ground. You’re literally looking right at it.
Old Town Square is easy to find, with a flow of people passing through it most of the time. You will no-doubt end up there at some point. Take in the clock while you’re there. It’s free, and cool.
I have to say that even with the crowds I enjoyed Prague very much. The city is easy to navigate, has lots of old stuff, a good castle, and plenty of places to drink beer. My favorite place being The Husinec. (See picture to follow.)
I imagine that the reason Prague is so overrun with tourists and travelers is that they are looking for the same thing I was looking for. That illusive “old Europe” that everyone talks about. The city has that, in spades! Still, it feels young and upbeat somehow.
Try not to get too bent out of shape by the crowds, and go explore the capital of the Czech Republic for yourself. Check the alleys and side streets, drink beer in the corner restaurants and hidden beer gardens, have a coffee in an old square. It’s all there to discover, if you’re willing to search it out.
Now get out there. Go explore somewhere new!
PS … I wasn’t going to add this part when I started, but have since changed my mind. One of the things I found somewhat off putting about Prague was its lack of respect for its scientific history. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was one of Prague’s honored sons, and a giant in the astronomical community. Yet, there is only a modest plaque on what was his house. Even his burial location inside the church is now relegated for the collection and stacking of pews and chairs. It’s a very sad note. There, I said it.