Prague: A Fairytale on Earth

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November 24th 2014
Published: December 25th 2014
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Charles Bridge overlooking the Vltava River and Mala StranaCharles Bridge overlooking the Vltava River and Mala StranaCharles Bridge overlooking the Vltava River and Mala Strana

The most famous landmark in Prague connects the Lesser Quarter with the Old Town.
Of the twenty cities on three continents that Kristina and I have visited together in the last two years--in addition to the scores of others we've traveled to separately--Prague is unquestionably our favorite. If fifth place was worth a medal, this town would give Phelps a run for his money; it ranks number five on both Tripadvisor's best destinations 2014 (after Istanbul, Rome, London, and Beijing) and the list of most visited cities in Europe (after Paris, London, Istanbul, and Rome). Contributing to this meteorologic rise in popularity was the fall of communism two decades ago, because before then, this city was left for dead amidst civil unrest, economic instability, and political turmoil. Give this town another twenty years and it may even surpass the "Big Three" in the number of visitors, but for now, it's the best kept "secret" that can hardly be considered one.

The thousand-year history of this city as the capital for two Holy Roman Emperors and Bohemia shaped it into a cultural icon of eastern Europe. Even two World Wars and the demise of the Soviet Union couldn't tarnish the beauty of Prague. In fact, the allure of a secluded place in the Eastern bloc
Astronomical Clock in Old Town SquareAstronomical Clock in Old Town SquareAstronomical Clock in Old Town Square

The oldest working astronomical clock in the world was installed in 1410.
unfamiliar to the West only added to its mystique in the late 20th century. Nowadays, it has turned into a popular destination for younger generations of backpackers and college students seeking an affordable getaway. Couple that with gorgeous architecture and a dreamy setting and you've entered a real-life fairytale, earning Prague the title of the "Golden City".

When traveling around any metropolitan area, it's best to utilize the public transit system. For 110 korunas (5 USD), you can purchase a 24-hour unlimited pass for use on all trams, buses, and metro. From the airport, take the 119 bus to Dejvicka metro stop, then take the Green Line A to Staromestska in the city center. The entire trip should last 40 minutes and will pass you through what looks like a Hollywood rendition of a war-torn Soviet bloc.

But don't fret because the Disney experience begins when you enter the Old Town Square (Staromestka). Located here are the oldest operational astronomical clock in the world and the Tyn Church that Walt used as his inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle. If you aren't immediately spellbound by the magical spires and Gothic facade of this immense plaza, pop a pill
Mostecka in Mala StranaMostecka in Mala StranaMostecka in Mala Strana

Mostecka is considered one of the most colorful streets in the world, leading up to St.Nicolas Church.
and wake up because nowhere else will you find this stunning backdrop. Don't bother waiting for the clock to chime at the top of the hour because it's unremarkable, but do spend time walking around the square and exploring the various vendors, especially if you're here for the Christmas markets beginning the first week of December. We arrived the week before its opening but the locals here don't wait to celebrate, for they already started selling seasonal goods like ornaments, hot mulled wine (svarene vino), and sugar-coated spiral pastries called trdelnik.

Head west from the square, passing the Prague Library and step onto the most famous landmark in town, the Charles Bridge. Its construction in 1357 made it the only connection between the Old Town and the Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana), as well as the gate between Eastern and Western Europe. Follow its thirty Baroque statues (now replicas) as you walk by artists and musicians who applied with the city to earn a spot on the bridge. Once you enter Mala Strana, head along Mostecka where you'll find a row of striking buildings on your right, which has been hailed as one of the most colorful streets in the
Strahov Monastery LibraryStrahov Monastery LibraryStrahov Monastery Library

The library is composed of 2 halls: the pictured Theological Hall was built in 1670 and the Philosophical Hall in 1779.
world. At the top of road is St.Nicolas Church with its Tiffany Blue Dome, where Mozart first performed on the organ in 1787 his masterpiece, Mass in C. The square surrounding the church is called Malostranske namesti, the Staromestska equivalent of the Lesser Quarter.

Now proceed northwest on Zamecka and turn left onto Thunovska. Veering off on the right is a flight of stone steps leading up to the Hradcany district where sits the Prague Castle, which Guinness declares is the world's largest. But this isn't your stereotypical castle with kings, secret corridors, or even wooden torches. Instead, it's a complex housing the St.Vitus Cathedral, Basilica of St.George, Golden Lane (small street with souvenir shops and a Toy Museum), and the Old Royal Palace (now home to the Czech President). It's free to enter the grounds, but each attraction inside is not, so simply stroll the premise and get a feel for how two emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, the king of Bohemia, and even Hitler during his seige of the city, lived in comfort and power.

Then hop on Tram 22 outside the northern exit and take it from Prazsky Hrad to Pohorelec. A short 3-minute
Old Town SquareOld Town SquareOld Town Square

The astronomical clock and Tyn Church in the background
walk from the stop is Strahov Monastery. This Premonstratensian (an order of Roman Catholicism) abbey was built in 1143 and holds the most spectacular library we've ever visited. It costs 80 korunas (4 USD) for admission and another 50 korunas (2 USD) to take photos, but it's worth the small fee to capture a hall full of antique books reminiscent of Hogwarts. If you prefer wine, beer, and cheese over literature, jump to the brewery on-site and have a taste.

Continue south along Strahovska through a park to arrive at the Petrin Tower (Petrinska Rozhledna), a knock-off of the Eiffel Tower. There's a charge to use the elevator for a view from the top, or you can climb the 300 steps for free, but the attendant we met that day claimed both require a charge and thus, we foregoed the opportunity. Walk to the roundabout at the end of the road to return to the main part of town below by taking the funicular, which your 24-hour transit pass is also valid for. Find a seat in the front for a good panoramic unhindered by other guests. Once at the bottom of Petrin Hill, head north on Ujezd and
Meal at U MalvazeMeal at U MalvazeMeal at U Malvaze

Svickova (marinated beef in sauce of carrot, celery, and cream) with knedlicky (bread dumplings). Pork knuckle served with pickled cabbage and a spicy mustard sauce.
arrive at the Lennon Wall (Lennonova Zed), a symbol of the Velvet Revolution that led to the downfall of the communist regime in 1989. While the Beatles' John Lennon never set foot in Prague, his lyrics set the tone for a revolution and he became the image of freedom for young Czechs, who to this day still leave messages of love and peace on the wall.

Nearby through a small alley to the east is the Lock Bridge. Couples for years have placed locks on the bridge and discarded the key in the waterway below as a testament of their enduring love, but contrary to Paul Simon's "Love is Eternal", not even forged metal love can last forever. For safety reasons spurred by the collapse of the Pont des Arts in Paris due to weight overload, local governments from Venice to Brooklyn have started cutting down these locks, forcing couples to hope this isn't an omen for their relationships.

Crossing over this bridge will bring you to Kampa Park, but don't wander around too long in this area with overpriced restaurants and shops. Instead, Kristina and I decided to eat dinner at U Malvaze (Karlova 185/10) back in
Pilsner UrquellPilsner UrquellPilsner Urquell

The most popular beer in the Czech Republic, which is acclaimed to produce the best beers in the world and consume more of it than any other country.
the Old Town after stumbling inside due to rain. The menu promised authentic Czech cuisine, which attracted us and it certainly didn't disappoint. The svickova (marinated beef sirloin with thick sauce of carrot, celery, and cream) and knedlicky (bread dumplings) were savory and moist, the goulash (meat stew) from lunch on our last day in Prague--also at this restaurant--was flavorful, and we also discovered our favorite dish from all our travels: the pork knuckle. If you pass through this country without tasting pork knuckle, you've missed an essence of Czech cuisine, and the one served at U Malvaze is so fall-off-the-bone good it's indescribable. Another must-try is the beer, which is consumed more in this country than any other worldwide. The best tasting is Kozel, but the most popular among locals is Pilsner Urquell. Regardless of whether you order these two, like we did, or others like Budvar or Gambrinus, anything over 50 korunas for half a liter is too much.

After you've worked up acetone breath, find your way to Bon Bon on Karlova for some hot chocolate, a form of liquid warmth in a cone. We then chose to stroll aimlessly to kill the night, but we
Kavarna SlaviaKavarna SlaviaKavarna Slavia

The most famous cafe in Prague, serving this great fruit cake with a view of the National Theater and the riverbank.
somehow found ourselves yet at another food joint. This time we landed in the most famous cafe in Prague, Kavarna Slavia. Enjoy a light treat with great views of the National Theater across the street and the riverside out front where Vaclav Havel (the country's first President), Hillary Clinton, and other influential figures of the 20th century once sat. Our dessert of choice was a delicious fruit cake with layers of cheese, chocolate, and pistachio. If food coma hasn't taken over by this point, window shop and soak in the sights for a bit before making your way back to call it a night.

For our second day in Prague, we roamed in search of breakfast at the Palladium shopping mall near our amazingly cheap ($52/night) yet clean and modern suite-style hotel, the Salvator Superior Apartments (Revolucni 1201/18). The food we bought at the mall, per usual, wasn't remotely as memorable as the salami we tried at the famous butcher shop, Nase Maso (Dlouha 727/39), on our first day in Prague. They were the best spicy and tender slices of meat cured to perfection that we've ever tasted, but Kristina followed it with another edible delight, an unbelievably buttery
East bank of the Vltava RiverEast bank of the Vltava RiverEast bank of the Vltava River

A view of Smetanovo Nabrezi looking south near Cafe Slavia.
and flaky croissant from Boulangerie Patisserie, also near our hotel. But after our mediocre breakfast from a stand at Palladium on our last day, we took the metro line B (yellow) towards Karlovo Namesti to see the Dancing House. Known as Tancici dum in Czech or "Fred and Ginger" by its designer, Frank Gehry, for its resemblance to two dancers, this building stirred controversy for its divergence from the traditional Gothic and Baroque architecture that had defined Prague.

Now cross the Legii Bridge to the Lesser Quarter and take a seat at Cafe Savoy (Vitezna 5), a top 25 bakery in the world. It's a cultural institution to take a coffee break here, so we went for a cappuccino, their famous chocolate Savoy cake, and some apricot juice; don't expect a steaming hot cup of coffee because in Europe, they do things luke warm. After the short pause, we headed to Wensceslas Square for a quick look at their main avenue in town before visiting Havelska Market at the northwestern end of the boulevard. Once you've had enough of tacky souvenirs priced for foreigners, go to U Medvidku (Na Perstyne 345/7), a medieval brewery turned restaurant and hotel. Patrons
Cafe SavoyCafe SavoyCafe Savoy

One of the Top 25 Bakeries in the world, serving their famous Savoy chocolate cake, cappuccino, and apricot juice.
claim this is the best eatery in town, but it's closed until 11 a.m. everyday, an unfortunate fact considering we needed to catch a flight at 1 p.m. So back to U Malvaze we went for a rushed lunch before scampering to the hotel to gather our belongings and high-stepping our way to the metro for a train to the airport.

With only 33 hours sandwiched between Vienna and Istanbul, it was quite a feat we visited 19 attractions and ate 3 meals plus 4 snacks at 2 cafes, a restaurant, a bakery, a chocolaterie, and a butcher shop. There's no shortage of things to do or places to see in the land of a hundred spires, so the next time you pass through Prague, order that extra liter of beer and immerse yourself in the majestic backdrop of Medieval bridges and Gothic churches. If we could have canceled our flight and spend extra time in this city, we would have; but by the constraints of time, we'll settle for the limited experience we had in the city that has become our favorite getaway in the world.

Additional photos below
Photos: 19, Displayed: 19


Nase MasoNase Maso
Nase Maso

Butcher shop on Dlouha in Old Town serving the best pork belly, sausage, and salami.
Boulangerie PatisserieBoulangerie Patisserie
Boulangerie Patisserie

Serves the most flaky and buttery croissants
Prague Castle Main EntrancePrague Castle Main Entrance
Prague Castle Main Entrance

Proclaimed by Guinness as the world's largest ancient castle, it houses St.Vitus Cathedral, St.George Basilica, Old Royal Palace, and Golden Lane.
St.Vitus CathedralSt.Vitus Cathedral
St.Vitus Cathedral

The hallmark of Prague Castle that towers above the main town in Mala Strana.
Lock Bridge near Kampa ParkLock Bridge near Kampa Park
Lock Bridge near Kampa Park

Lovers place locks and discard the key in the waterway below.
BonBon Hot Chocolate ShopBonBon Hot Chocolate Shop
BonBon Hot Chocolate Shop

Hot chocolate served on a cone
Havelska Market near Wenceslas SquareHavelska Market near Wenceslas Square
Havelska Market near Wenceslas Square

An open air market on Melantrichova Street.
Wenceslas Square in New TownWenceslas Square in New Town
Wenceslas Square in New Town

A view looking southeast on the boulevard towards the National Museum.
U MalvazeU Malvaze
U Malvaze

Goulash (meat stew) with knedlicky (bread dumplings) and pork knuckle.

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