Prague


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June 30th 2013
Published: September 30th 2009
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For four of the past five summers (2009-2011, 2013) I have spent six weeks in Prague teaching study abroad courses. The city is incredibly well-preserved and an architect's dream. If you go, take a few days to do the touristy activities and then begin exploring and enjoying the off-the-beaten path sites. I would recommend spending some time just getting lost wondering around the historic streets on both sides of the Vltava River.

The most popular sites in Prague include the castle area, the Charles Bridge, and Old Town Square where there is always a steady swarm of tourists in the summer. Walking into Old Town Square for the first time is great and I still enjoy it each time I return. I would recommend paying the fee to take in the views from the top of the tower in Old Town Square and also from one of the towers on either end of the Charles Bridge. You will get great views (and pics) there. Views of the city are also great from the castle. When at the castle make sure to go in and see the magnificent architecture and stained glass windows inside St. Vitus Cathedral. After seeing many cathedrals across Europe I still consider it one of the most impressive that I’ve seen. The oft-overlooked castle gardens just northwest of the castle are also nice for a stroll.

After you have negotiated through the crowds on Charles Bridge you might consider a walk on Kampa Island just across the bridge on the castle side of the Vltava. There you can see the unique baby sculptures by local artist David Černý and the nearby tribute wall to John Lennon with the colorful graffiti. One of my favorite parts of Prague is Petrin Hill. You can get some great exercise walking up its switchbacks or you can pay and take the lift. At the top, and along the way up, there are some excellent views of Prague. At the very top you will find a mini-replica of the Eiffel Tower that you can ascend and then take a stroll around the adjacent rose garden. When you explore Petrin Hill make sure not to miss the Strahov monastery library for a great photo op of their two main library rooms. Some of the ancient books even have wood covers. Another favorite place is the Vysehrad castle area that is down the river from the Charles Bridge. Vysehrad contains the old castle ruins and has a nice park and great views over the river. Other popular sites to see include the Jewish Quarter and the astronomical clock in Old Town Square (especially on the hour with its apostle figures make an appearance). Finally, make sure to return to Old Town and the river area at night to see the castle and other buildings illuminated.

After you have seen the more popular sites in Prague you might consider taking in some less touristy areas. You might want to spend some time just walking through the outlying neighborhoods such as Prague 3 or Prague 4 east of the city center. In Prague 3 or Zizkov you will find some nice architecture beckoning to the days under Communism along with some bars and restaurants that will be more affordable than in Old Town. You will also find the television tower that you can go up for more views of the city. Take a look at the tower and you will see more of Černý’s babies crawling up the side. The view of the Castle from the hillside in Riegrovy Sady just east of the main train station is very nice on a sunny day or at night.

The metro is easy to use and great for zipping around the city. If you are going to be in Prague for any length of time you should consider getting a public transportation pass that allows you to just jump on any metro, bus, or tram throughout the city. You will need a photo ID that you can make yourself at one of the photo booths inside the metro station (I know there is one at Mustek for sure). You can buy train/bus tickets at the Main Station (Hlavní nádraží) and make sure to buy all of your tickets at once if there is more than one person in your party because you will be given a group discount. If you are coming or going via bus you might be leaving from Florenc or Roztyly. Traveling by train throughout the Czech Republic is easy and very affordable and I would highly recommend that you visit some smaller Czech villages outside of Prague during your stay. The past couple years we have taken students to my friend Ondra’s hometown of Chlumec nad Cidlinou to visit the school and eat at a local restaurant. If you do venture out like this I’m sure that it will make your list of memorable Czech experiences.

In terms of food I’m not much into traditional Czech food that emphasizes meats in heavy sauces with dumplings but there are other options. I do enjoy schnitzels and they can be found in most restaurants. A restaurant that I really enjoy and is a favorite of our students near their pension is Neklid (http://www.neklid.com). It is a bit out of the way from Old Town but is my favorite Czech restaurant in Prague and has many different menu options. I particularly like the Greek platter, the chicken/pork tenderloin plate, and the trout. The two best pizza places that I have found so far are Pizzeria Kmotra (http://www.kmotra.cz/) and Grosseto (http://www.grosseto.cz/en/vinohrady) next to Nemesti Miru. Kmotra is a few blocks off of Old Town and is supposed to be the first pizza place in Prague. And my highest recommendation is to go to Angelato’s in Old Town for gelato. Try the stracciatella, amarena (cherry), or cookies and cream flavors. Angelato’s is much better than the pervasive Cream and Dream that you will see everywhere around town. If you want some food on the go check out the sausage stands in Wenceslas Square. Also make sure to enjoy snacking on Tuc Crackers and Milka chocolate bars that can be found at every market. And, unfortunately, it took me until Year 3 to realize the wonder of honey cake! I ate way too much of it the last two summers. Stop in most bakeries and they should have it . . . just make sure it is fresh!

If you like to exercise Prague is somewhat challenging unless you enjoy the feel of miles of cobblestones on your knees. If you like to jog I would recommend Stromovka park, northeast of the castle, where you can enjoy a beautiful park in the company of locals. A bit farther out at the Roztyly stop on the metro red line is the wonderful wooded Kunratice forest where wooded trails go on for miles. And, I have yet to make it to Divoka Sarka (northwest side of the city) but I’ve heard that it is a really nice place to get in a hike or run on trails that go for miles.

There are a number of museum options available to you in Prague. My favorite is the Mucha’s Slav Epic exhibition at the National Gallery located in the Veletrzni Palace. This is a display of 20 of Mucha’s huge paintings created for the city of Prague over the course of 18 years. They are displayed in a massive exhibition hall and it’s hard to not be in awe as you walk among them. I would recommend this as the one exhibit to see if you are limited for time in Prague. I also like the much less visually impressive Museum of Communism but for different reasons. I’ve been a couple times and have really learned a lot about the Czech Republic’s Communist past while taking the time to read the low-tech board displays.

If you are spending more than a couple days in the Czech Republic consider the following for day trips from Prague:

1. Cesky Krumlov. You can easily spend a couple days in this picturesque Czech town. I venture to say that pictures from here will be the first that you show when you return home. The castle tour is interesting and the views from the tower are outstanding. You might consider rafting down the Vltava for a day. You can stop along the way at a little sausage hut for lunch and also encounter numerous Czechs along the way enjoying their beers either in the water, in their boat, or from shore. Make sure to take a walk at night especially down by the bridge next to the castle. Also interesting are the bears that are kept in the moat at the castle entrance. I would also recommend three walks: the castle gardens which are just up from the castle, another is just outside of town where you can continue past the castle gardens for a nice walk on trails through the woods outside the city, and the third walk would be up to the little monastery ruins above town for a great view. For food the dry ribs in the underground cellar restaurant Tavern in Satlavska Street are very tasty and the hot chocolate at Klub Antre is not to be missed (good for a Panini and you might check out their honey cake also).

2. Czech Switzerland. This park is in the north along the German border. I was a little disappointed in the trail markings and the tourist office but you can walk some forest trails and you can see the Pravčická brána, the largest natural sandstone arch in Europe.

3. Karlstein Castle. The castle is an easy train ride just southwest of Prague. I enjoyed seeing the castle even though I didn’t tour the inside. We did take a nice hike behind the castle though those goes for a couple miles before coming out at an interesting tiny village where there is a monastery that was converted into a prison and is now a small college.

4. Mikulov. This village is like a miniature Cesky Krumlov that is in the south Moravia region of Czech Republic right on the Austria border. There are vineyards at the edge of the village and a nice Castle to tour. Mikulov and Cesky Krumlov are better done as weekend or multi-day trips.

5. Karlovy Vary. This is the famous spa town in the Czech Republic and also an upscale location that draws entertainment stars. I enjoyed the visit just to explore the city. Students I went with got into drinking the spring mineral water but it didn’t sound too appealing to me.

6. Vrchlabi. If you are looking for an active getaway for a couple days from Prague then it’s hard to beat Vrchlabi. I went this past summer with some friends and we had a great time climbing Sněžka, the highest peak in the Czech Republic. It makes for a great day hike and straddles the border of Poland as you get closer. In fact, the peak itself is on the border and at the top you will find a snack shop (far overpriced!) that sells food for złoty the Polish currency. In the winter the big attraction in Vrchlabi is skiing.

7. Cesky Raj. I was finally able to make it to Cesky Raj this past summer and am really glad that I did. It is only about an hour northeast of Prague. We used the small town of Turnov as the entry point for our hike through the woods seeing impressive grey rock formations jutting up through the trees. We went as far as the Hruba Skala chateau but I would like to continue on next time to the Trotsky Castle that can be viewed in the distance from the chateau.

8. Konopiste. The hunting lodge of Franz Ferdinand makes for an interesting visit and is just 40 minutes southeast of Prague just outside of the city of Benesov. Ferdinand was living here when he was assassinated in 1914 sparking the outbreak of World War I. The beginnings of this castle date back to the 13th century and when you visit today it looks as it did when Franz Ferdinand lived there with his thousands of animal trophies. When walking around the place it is difficult to imagine that one man could have killed so many animals. The grounds are nice to walk around and keep an eye out for the wandering peacocks.

9. Terezin. I have yet to visit the concentration camps in Poland (and elsewhere) but after visiting Terezin I think I would know what to expect. Terezin is approximately 45 minutes north/northwest of Prague and is easily accessible via bus. While there you can visit the concentration camp itself and then the museum and other sites around the adjacent town. Many accounts by people unfortunate enough to experience Terezin during the war describe its horrors as worse than many of the more well-know concentration camps. It is a quite somber but informative trip to take.


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