A friend is going to Prague in a few months’ time, and asked me for some tips. I lived in the Czech capital for five months in 2005, as part of a study abroad programme at Charles University through the University of Otago, and was lucky enough to get back in 2012 for a conference. The prices had increased enormously since 2005–as the country joined the EU in 2004, prices back then were still far below most of Western Europe–and the tourist crowds had gotten even bigger, but the city is still gorgeous. I loved it then, and even ten years later, after having seen a whole lot more of the world, Prague is still one of my favourite places.
This post, then, is for my friend, but also for anyone else who wants some tips from someone who knows the place well. There are certain tourist sites that will be unavoidable–the Astronomical Clock, the Old Town Square, Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, the Jewish Quarters–and for good reason. But my recommendations include places that aren’t on every Italian bus tourist and British lager lout’s itinerary. I’m not suggesting that these tips are in any way off-the-beaten-path (they’re all permanent fixtures of guidebooks to the city) but they’re not on every tourist’s must-see list.
It’s been a while since I was there so I can’t really comment on entrance prices or precise bus/metro routes, but in general, Prague is still cheaper than most of Western Europe, and the public transport–metro, trams and buses–is cheap, efficient and on-time. I relied on an old Lonely Planet Prague city guide, and that can be relied upon for maps and transport routes. Most of central Prague, when the weather is good, is very walkable though.
1. Art by Alfons Mucha
Moravian artist Alfons Mucha–one of my favourites–wasn’t actually from Prague, but he was a proud Czech. He is well-known for his Art Nouveau Parisian salon scenes of the fin de siecle, but in my opinion, his most interesting and vibrant work is his Czech-inspired work. While I was in the Czech Republic, his Slav Epic was housed in a small town in Moravia, which I never made it to. In 2012, however, it was moved to Prague, where it was housed in the Veletržní Palace, one of the main branches of the Czech National Gallery. I’m not sure whether it’s still there, as there was controversy over the legality of its move.
The Mucha Museum, in the vicinity of the main commercial strip of Wenceslas Square, is also worth a visit if you like Mucha’s work. I don’t think they change their exhibits very often–there were no discernible differences between my visits seven years apart!–but the museum does a good job of explaining the artists’ life and influences, and the juxtaposition of his Parisian and Czech art.
The most beautiful window in St Vitus Cathedral (the main cathedral on the hill, part of the Prague Castle complex) is by Mucha, and is worth scrummaging through the crowds to see.
The Art Nouveau Municipal House, or Obecni Dum, also houses some of Mucha’s work. You can see this on a guided tour. The building is also worth a visit for its salons, stained glass, classical music (if you’re into that sort of thing), and general all-round beauty.
This old monastery up on a hill behind the Castle houses a stunning library that contains a lot of old books, globes and furniture. The ceilings are as good (maybe even better) than any of the city’s baroque churches. Most visitors have to stay safely behind a velvet rope, although in 2005 I was lucky because my history professor had some connections to the library and took my class there for an after-hours trip.
3. Museum of Decorative Arts
While not as large as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts (Umĕlecko-Průmyslové Muzeum) is another museum highlight. Especially if you love old clothing, ceramics, glassware, tiles, drawings, and other objects of beauty and function. From the galleries, you can look over into the old Jewish Cemetery–probably the quietest view you’ll get of the place (and the most free of Italian school groups).
4. Star Palace
Before Prague grew into the (not exactly sprawling) metropolis that it is now, the Letohrádek Hvězda, or Star Summer Pavilion, was a summer retreat in the countryside outside the city. Now, it’s an easy tram ride away from the centre, near the airport and surrounded by busy roads. The Renaissance palace, built in the mid-16th century in the shape of a star, is beautiful and whimsical, and the gardens surrounding it are peaceful and expansive.
5. Wallenstein Palace Gardens
There are a number of gorgeous gardens in the vicinity of the Castle, most of which are only open in the spring and summer months. The terraced gardens leading down the hill from the Castle are beautiful, but my favourite are the Wallenstein Palace Gardens. The busy, atmospheric streets of Mala Strana (the Little Quarter) are just outside the walls, but the gardens themselves are peaceful (apart from the cries of peacocks), well maintained to their original Baroque design, and have some entertaining architectural oddities (still haven’t figured out what’s going on with that goblin wall!) The Palace itself houses the Czech Senate, and can be toured separately.
6. Museum Kampa
In a riverside location (on the Castle side of the river) is the beautiful and relatively uncrowded Museum Kampa. Highlights include an extensive collection of Czech abstract/cubist painter Frantisek Kupka’s (1871-1957) work. I love how Kupka reminds me of both Gustav Klimt and Wassily Kandinsky, two of my favourite early twentieth century artists. The outdoor sculptures and views across the river are other highlights of this awesome art museum.
7. Cubist Architecture
Yes, it does seem to be a contradiction in terms: Cubist architecture. That is, the art movement was attempting to portray the feel of three dimensions in two dimensional media. Architecture is, inherently, three dimensional, so is it really Cubist? Prague is home to the only so-called Cubist architecture in the world, and this apparent contradiction may explain why it didn’t take off elsewhere. However, some beautiful and interesting buildings came out of the mini-movement, and are scattered around town, but mostly found in the Vinohrady area. These photos are of buildings found on the riverside walk towards Vyšehrad, Prague’s ‘other’ castle (which is worth a visit itself).
8. Ballet at the National Theatre
There used to be an office on one of Prague’s smaller squares that sold last-minute, discount ballet tickets to students. And when I say discount, I mean like $3 or something! I don’t know if this still happens. That was one of the things I loved about Prague a decade ago–it took its ‘high’ culture so seriously that it wasn’t really high culture at all, it was accessible to (almost) everyone. I took a friend who was visiting from the UK, who had practiced ballet all her life and was a good dancer, but had never actually been to see professional ballet because it was unaffordable for her in the UK. But I digress.
Whether or not tickets are still this cheap (I’m doubtful), a trip to the Národní Divadlo, or National Theatre to see the ballet (traditional or modern) can be the highlight of a trip to Prague. The theatre itself is worth paying money to see inside of, and even if you don’t know anything about classical dance, it’s hard not to be impressed by the elegance of the dancers, the costumes, the surroundings… those $3 tickets, as I recall, were for seats in the upper, upper balconies, but all the better a place to take in the surroundings from.
(Another digression: theatre is also a really big deal in Prague–I took a fantastic Czech Theatre course as part of my study at Charles University–but it’s a bit of a waste of time going to see any unless you understand Czech).
9. Žižkov Tower
Not the most beautiful building in Prague. Not even close. But a landmark nonetheless, and impossible not to notice. The Žižkov TV Tower, in a working-class eastern neighbourhood, has the best views of the city. And these really weird bronze babies crawling up the outside.
10. Convent of St Agnes of Bohemia
I think this was what New York’s Cloisters museum was going for: the real deal. The Convent of St Agnes of Bohemia is part of the Czech National Gallery network, and houses a stunning collection of medieval and early Renaissance religious art from around Central Europe. The buildings themselves date back to the 13th century, and is the city’s oldest surviving Gothic building. It can be a little tricky to get to in the back streets of the old town, but that’s part of the fun.
And a bonus no. 11…
Eat medovnik, or honey cake. Just do it.
(All costs were paid by me–well, apart from the conference trip, which was paid for by the Australian National University, where I was studying at the time, thanks!–and all opinions are my own. All links included in this post are for informational purposes only).