Jet2holidays (which is already a fairly reasonably priced travel company) was running a special of £50 off per person (so basically £100 off) during early to mid February. Never one to pass up a good deal, I booked two trips this March: Prague (with the Hubs) and Barcelona (girls weekend).
We flew to Prague from Leeds-Bradford Airport, about 25 minutes from our house, which enabled my husband to work a half-day before heading out. I’m a show up to the airport 2 hours early kind of gal, and in this case was one of those times that I’m glad that’s what I planned. Oh, the airport part went fine, but they are building a M&S Food on the main road to the airport, which delayed us a bit. But we were still there with enough time to get out boarding passes, go through security, and grab some lunch.
Because this was a somewhat of spur of the moment trip. I greatly benefited from the recommendations of a friend who had visited Prague last fall. My online research did reveal the availability the Prague Card, which gains you free entrance to some of Prague attractions, and discounts on others. Their website features a savings calculator (which I appreciated) and think other cities with museum passes should include. Based on what we were planning on doing, the card was only going to save us about the amount of the online discount for prepaying, therefore we chose not to buy it. We both wanted a relaxing trip, and I didn’t want the frugal part of my brain making me feel guilty about relaxing and not seeing sites included on the card. You can also buy the card to include transportation, but unless you’re staying a ways out of the city I don’t think it is cost effective. Public transit in Prague is pretty cheap and the city is pretty walk able.
Prague has a reputation in Great Britain as a destination for stag dos and guys weekends. Partially due to the affordability of the city (and beer), but of a number of strip clubs and the fact that prostitution exists in a gray zone. I noticed a little bit of that reputation on the flight over as the flight attendant had to make a second announcement that alcoholic drinks NOT purchased from the airline, where not allowed to be consumed. We were in the first row of the plan, but my suspicion is that that was probably a flask being passed around (must have been bought after security at the airport).
At night on the weekends, Wenceslas Square is quite crowded with people, some clearly intoxicated, but I didn’t find it rowdy. And there are several signs to strip clubs, but it wasn’t that in your face. If you are there with kids they probably wouldn’t notice anything unless they are teenagers. Despite Prague reputation as a party city, we were kicked out of several pubs at 11pm, so I unless you are going to go to a disco or a strip club, it makes for a fairly early night.
The Sights We Saw
We were in Prague for 3 nights and 3 full days, which in my opinion is a plenty of time to see the city. A two day trip wouldn’t feel rushed either. Prague was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire from the early 13th century to 1804. And as a city it is fairly well preserved, having escaped bombing during World War II.
After checking in to our hotel Thursday evening, we walked around Old Town Square and checked out the astronomical clock change over at the hour before heading to dinner. Dinner was in a restored historical building in Bethlehem Square, next to Bethlehem Chapel were Jan Hus preached. Jan Hus was an early Catholic Reformer (living prior to the Reformation) critical of the corruption of some Church leaders who was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for heresy. Following Jan Hus’s death in 1415 his followers took to open rebellion against the church and the crown. Though, like many conflict the Hussites split into factions and fought one another. However, it set the stage for tensions between those who would become Protestant and Catholics leading to the Defenestration of Prague in 1618, sparking the 30 Years War across Europe.
The next morning we headed to the Josefov, or Prague Jewish Quarter. The location of a Jewish Ghetto since the 13th century, today it houses a museum dedicated to the history of the Jewish people of Bohemia and Moravia through the present-day spread throughout several former synagogues in the community. Ironically (and depressingly) it is the Holocaust that is responsible for why so much of European Jewish history is preserved in Prague. As Hitler began his ‘final solution’ he also sent (looted) valuables from Jewish communities and sent them to Prague; intending to build a museum to the ‘extinct race.’
The Jewish Museum in Prague operates the sites, most of which are next to the Old Jewish Cemetery in a walled complex. (The irony is not lost on me that the Museum officials built a wall around sites that used to be part of the Jewish Ghetto.) The story of the Jewish people is located in the Maisel Synagogue (pre-20th century) and the Spanish Synagogue (20th century onwards), with the Pinkas Synagogue serving as a Holocaust memorial. I don’t have any pictures to share because as a predominantly religious site photography is not allowed.
Visiting the Josefov was a very profound and educational experience, that I’m glad we did. But I do think it is something that the traveler needs to budget for. The combined ticket for the museum sites and entrance to the Old-New Synagogue (the cities oldest synagogue still in operation) is around $24 per person, and the Prague Card only gets you a 15% discount. I assume that the museum does not get state funding, so they need to collect money to cover their operating costs. But I also wonder if part of the high price is to discourage large tours buses. I did see some school groups in the museum buildings, but most of the groups I noticed were outside of the sites with their tour guide talking with them (I assume about what was inside). If your interested in learning about Jewish History; but are on a budget, I would recommend buying the ticket just for the Jewish Museum sites and not the Old-New Synagogue. The Old-New Synagogue is significant in that it is a historic building still operating today as a synagogue, but it is a very medieval design and not that visually impressive on the inside.
After a lunch at a deli in the Josefov we walked around Old Town more by daylight to take some pictures and strolled across Prague’s iconic St. Charles Bridge. St. Charles Bridge is really quite pretty, but it is teaming with tourists, caricature sketchers, musicians, and other vendors. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds I would suggest going prior to 9am.
That evening we took a tram about 30 minutes out of the city center to the O2 arena for a HC Slavia Praha game. For about $9 each we sat six rows back from the ice in corner next to the visitor fan section (which unfortunately brought drums to the game). The quality of the skating was fairly close to NHL level, however there isn’t any fighting in European hockey leagues, and without TV timeouts the game goes much faster. It was the last game of the regular season against HC Litvinov. This hockey league has a very unique post-season program. The top teams go into a fairly traditional playoff system. But the bottom teams go into a ‘play-out’ tournament the loser of which plays against the best team a league lower and if they lose that series they are relegated and the other team moves up. The winner of this game was going to the playoffs, the loser was going to the play-outs. It was an exciting game; going into overtime and then a shootout, with Slavia Praha coming out victorious. That quited the obnoxious drums from the HC Litvinov section!
Saturday morning we toured Prague Castle, walking there from Old Town (across St. Charles Bridge again – but less crowded in the morning). We opted for the ‘short visit’ ticket, which includes: the Old Royal Palace, St. Vitus’s Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, and Golden Lane. The Prague Castle complex is the seat of the Czech government, and the President lives somewhere on the grounds. Only a portion of the Old Royal Palace is open for visiting but I enjoyed it. There are several long stone corridors, one of which is designed to be able to ride a horse up. I could see scenes from Game of Thrones being filmed in them. The Hubs was most impressed by St. Vitus’s Cathedral and the architecure that took over a century to complete. He didn’t find it was impressive as St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, but liked it better than Notre Dame in Paris.
We stayed for the changing of the guards at noon and then walked a little bit further up to the Strahov Monestary, to a brewery on the grounds for lunch and then walked through Petrin Hill on our way back into Old Town. The afternoon we spent in the shops around Wenceslas, which has most of the European stores. Hubs was able to find a really good deal on a fancy Finish ski jacket.
Sunday was our last day in Prague, but our flight wasn’t until 7:30pm, so we took our time in the morning until check-out time at 11am. We were able to leave our bags at the front desk and then walked to the National Gallery at Veletrzni Palace north of the city (about the same distance as it was to Prague Castle). Veletrzni Palace focuses of art from the 19th – 21st centuries; predominantly Czech artists but a fairly large collection of French artists.
After all our walking that weekend we took the tram back into Old Town and had lunch. After lunch we still had a few hours before we needed to head to the airport so we went to the Franciscan Gardens and read. As it was a sunny Sunday, the gardens was filled with families enjoying the fresh air.
Eating & Drinking in Prague
In Prague we found beer to be very cheap (like college-town $2 a half liter cheap). Food was also very affordable, but unless it was from a kebab stand it wasn’t what I would call cheap. What I did find was that you got a lot for your money. Dinner for two could come to around $40, but that was for a starter, two main courses, and a couple of beers. Czech food has some similarities to German and Hungarian food. The menu main stays being goulash (stew) and bread dumplings, various cuts of roasted pork, potato dumplings filled with meat, roast beef in a cream sauce, and fried cheese.
These aren’t the only places we went to, but these were the places I would recommend if you’re ever in Prague.
- Pivovarsky Klub v. Pivovarsky Dum: These are sister restaurants in the city. Pivovarsky Klub is an easy metro ride (about 10 minutes) slightly north-east of Old Town. Being a slight distance out of Old Town meant that it is mostly locals at the joint. Upstairs is mainly bar tables and downstairs has a second bar and tables. Because our hockey game went to a shoot out went we didn’t actually eat at ‘Klub,’ so we had to settle for liquid dinner. But we were very impressed by the beers they had on tap, and they also have an extensive bottle collection from around the world if there is a beer style that you like that is hard to find. If you are thinking of going to ‘Klub’ for dinner and are more than a group of 4 I would recommend making a reservation. We didn’t have a full meal at Pivovarsky Dum either. We stopped in for a drink on our way to dinner in New Town. This place had more of a restaurant feel, has a menu available in English, so they are familiar with tourists. Unfortunately, we didn’t think that the beer they had on tap was as good as ‘Klub;’ however, we were very impressed with their soft cheese marinated in beer, which I think bodes well for the rest of their menu.
- Universal: Ok, this is a French restaurant. So it may seem like we weren’t embracing the local cuisine. But this place had good reviews online, and I’ll say that it didn’t disappoint. It was better than some of the meals we had in Paris.
- Klasterni-Pivovar Strahov: This is brewery is on the grounds of the Strahov Monastery. They have outdoor seating, which unfortunately was booked when we arrived for lunch, but on the inside is a nice beer hall. Like most beer pubs in Europe the tables are large and it is very common for several parties to be seated together. They have very good classic Czech food.
- U tri ruzi: Nice traditional pub that brews it’s own beer so it’s only available there.
- U Medvidku: Hotel/restaurant brewery. The brewery is closed for renovations, so we didn’t actually have a drink here since we were stopping in before dinner. However, the place was highly recommended by a friend, so I thought that I would include it. They reportedly brew the strongest lager in the world at 12%. Rooms are fairly affordable as well.
Getting Around Prague
- From the Airport: There are buses from the airport to Prague. Most of the buses connect to one of Prague’s tram lines. Convenient for locals who live in the Prague area. We took the Airport Express bus that goes to the main train station (making about three stops around the city center). You buy the ticket on the bus in cash (so you will have to get some koruna at the airport) for 60 koruna each way, about $3.
- Tickets: You can buy public transit tickets (bus/tram/subway) good for 30 minutes – for 24 koruna – and 90 minutes – for 32 koruna – which include transfers, even between types of public transit. Day and monthly passes are also available. We found it quite easy to take the public transit system while in Prague, but seemed to only be able to buy tickets in the subway stations. So if you are planning on walking somewhere and taking the tram back, plan ahead and by a ticket as you walk by a metro station.
- Despite the ease of public transit throughout the city, we found Prague to be very walk able, which we did most of the time. If you are staying in the Old Town, most sights are less than a 3 km walk. There are some hills, the largest of which is at Prague Castle and Petrin Hill, but they aren’t as steep as hills in San Francisco or Edinburgh.
- Everything we read online and in the guide books strongly advised against taking a taxi in Prague. And that if you do make sure you get a fare quote before you get in. We didn’t take one on our trip, but we rarely do when we travel. If you are traveling as a group where the Airport Express bus may not be appropriate (they do fill it to standing room only), talk with your hotel about arranging a hired car that will be a fixed fee. Our look online about pre-booking an airport transfer.
Staying in Prague
I can only speak for where we stayed but it was Fusion Hotel, about two blocks from Wenceslas Square and a five minute walk from Old Town Square. It was packaged along with our Jet2 flight, but to make your reservation separately it is still affordable, and they have a variety of room types that include family rooms and bunk rooms. You can even just book a bed (like a hostel) in one of the communal rooms.
The building used to be a bank and based on the decor they are definitely marketing to a hip-younger traveler set. (Though there were plenty of families there during our stay.) We stayed in the ‘Ghost Room’ that had cutesy eyes peaking around the corner. The bathroom was painted dark purple, which you’d think I would like but it made it a little dark and was lit up by neon green lights. The shower was clean and had good pressure. The curtain was made up of vertical strips of heavy plastic which reminded me of what a serial killer might use to contain the mess, but it kept water off the bathroom floor better than most hotel showers.
There is a bar on the first floor that even on the weekends didn’t look very busy, but it did mean you could hear dance music in the lobby after 4pm. It wouldn’t effect you in the rooms, and it didn’t play during breakfast. The breakfast they served was quite good, ours was included in the package, but I would say that is it is under 200 koruna it is a very good deal.
As mentioned we found the Airport Express bus very easy to use. The Prague Airport has free wifi, which I appreciated since I like to get to the airport early (you never know what may come up). Security at the airport is done at the gate, so they only let you in about 50 minutes before the flight and after that there is no restroom, and if you are bringing food on the plan it can’t include a drink. Alcohol purchased in the duty free store is permissible as long as it is sealed in a duty free bag and you don’t open it until you reach your destination. By putting security at the gate it does shorten the line you wait through, but you should be aware that your basically ‘trapped’ once you go through. You may be able to leave and a go back through security, but I’m not sure.
I highly recommend Prague as a travel destination! It is very traveler friendly with easy to use public transportation system, and a high percentage of the population English speaking. There are plenty of sights to keep you busy and entertained for 2-3 days. After that I think you will be wanting to take day trips out of the city or moving on to another destination. The Hubs and I succeeded in achieving a relaxing city trip, with the right blend of sight seeing and relaxing.