During the 1990s, tourists started to flock to Prague, especially college-age backpackers and recent graduates drawn by the cheap beer and hotel rooms. Soon, a youth hostel building boom followed, and then low-cost European airlines began flying to Prague from most other major cities, and the Czech capital became famous for raucous drinking weekends. (Again, that cheap beer.)
Today, though, the party has simmered down and most of the extraordinary architecture has been restored after decades of neglect under Communism and the damaging floods of 2002. And there are enough luxury hotels and gourmet restaurants to guarantee an indulgent experience, whether you’re looking for a romantic weekend or a heady cultural fix. Perhaps best of all, fairy-tale-looking Prague is in no danger of becoming a mere tourist attraction. For, unlike Venice, which has been losing full-time residents by the thousands every decade, Prague is growing, with one of the most dynamic economies in Eastern Europe. The theaters and coffee bars teem with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and real estate investors, along with musicians and artists, a new generation with no desire to live in the past.
Reminders of the atrocities committed here are everywhere, from the Jewish Cemetery to tales of blood spilled on the Charles Bridge, and yet the building facades are so romantic and cheerful that reconciling the city’s past with its present beauty is so unfathomable that it’s almost Kafkaesque. The author was born here, and an acceptance of the unbelievable seems almost ingrained in its citizens. Even former president Vacláv Havel said early in his first term, “I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my Presidency, I were summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to some quarry to break rocks.” And yet it is this surreal quality that leaves such an indelible impression on travelers and residents alike.
Plan your sightseeing in opposition to the crowds. For instance, to avoid the lines for the top of the Astronomical Clock Tower (a very cool view), go during lunchtime when the large tour groups are safely tucked in the massive cafes lining the old town square. And visit Prague Castle either first-thing or late in the afternoon when the crowds have thinned a little. For that quintessential photo of the Charles Bridge, rise early; on my recent visit, I was alone safe for some locals walking to work when I crossed the bridge at 7 a.m.
In addition, it’s worth getting tickets to a concert in one of the churches or concert halls—music takes on a magical quality here, and one of the guides or a hotel concierge can help you secure good tickets. Book tickets for opera, concerts and ballet, including those at the Rudolfinum, the National Theatre, Estates Theatre, the Prague State Opera and many churches, through your Indagare Travel Specialist. Theater tickets can be picked up at the box office, while opera, concert and ballet tickets can be collected at a central ticket office or delivered to your hotel for a fee.
The best times to see Prague are mid-October to early December and March to May, when the weather is not too cold (temperatures can be bitter from mid-December through February) and the streets are not too crowded. Late spring, summer and early fall attract lots of students, backpackers and Europeans taking advantage of the cheap flights into the city. In fact, Prague can become so crammed in high season with tourists that crossing the Charles Bridge can feel like being cast into a mosh pit.
From the U.S., multiple airlines fly to Prague via European capitals. Most European cities offer direct flights daily. Those coming from other cities in the region, such as Vienna or Budapest can take the efficient and comfortable train.
Comfortable walking shoes are essential because the simplest and most enjoyable way to explore Prague is on foot. The city’s efficient bus and subway system is excellent (and parking can be a challenge), so most tour guides suggest breaking the city down into walking segments. With a map of the city, you can easily navigate the streets on your own, but beware of pickpockets who frequent the tourist sights. Here are a few additional miscellaneous tips:
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