Ole Ellekrog gives a local’s tour through his adopted city……
Located just four and a half hours south of Berlin by train—a beautiful journey that passes alongside the Elbe and ‘Saxony Swiss’ mountains that straddle the Germany/Czech border—Prague is one of Europe’s most refined and elegant capital cities.
Its fascinating history is revealed in its diverse architecture: throughout the narrow streets of the Old Town, gothic buildings with soaring spires and imposing window panes are reminiscent of Dracula and other classic horror novels, while grandiose tenements with elaborate statues in the neighbourhoods of Vinohrady, Žižkov and Holešovice hark back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the outer suburbs boast the grey concrete prefabs of communist years—not unlike roaming around former East Berlin.
But this is all recent history for a city that has held its own since the fifth Century AD, and which became the capital of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1300s, ruling over large parts of Central Europe. Charles IV began work on the famous Charles Bridge in 1357 along with many of the city’s other iconic landmarks, but he also established Charles University—only the third university in Europe, and the first to teach in German.
An air of intellectualism can still be felt in the city today. Strolling through Prague, you will often notice the words knihu and divadlo—‘books’ and ‘theatre’. From small second-hand bookstores in hidden alleys to the splendour of the National Theatre on the riverbank, Prague is a city full of culture, with famous writers like Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera, and former president (and internationally recognised playwright) Vaclav Havel representing only the tip of the iceberg.
Like any city rich in culture, history and beauty, Prague welcomes lots of tourists—around eight million a year in fact; in 2019, pre-pandemic Prague was the sixth most visited city in Europe, ahead of Amsterdam and Barcelona. The crowds are certainly visible in the city, but they tend to stick to specific areas: the two-kilometre walk from the famous astronomical clock, across the Charles Bridge and up to Prague Castle is a pilgrimage of sorts for short-term visitors, full of tourist traps and photographing crowds; do by all means join them—the scenery is worth the commotion—but be careful how you spend your money.
There are also some less obvious sights along the way, such as the Skautský Institut (the Scout Institute), which is hidden in plain sight right next to the astronomical clock. A type of cultural centre run by a scout’s organisation, it’s open to everyone and everything; inside the anonymous doorway and up the stairs, you won’t find teams of eager Czech scouts running around, but rather a mix of locals and expats enjoying the reasonably priced draft beer, the relaxed atmosphere and the opportunities to study.
On the other side of Charles Bridge, enjoy a pause before heading uphill. This corner of Mala Strana (‘Little Town’), with its charming canal and tangled alleys is incredibly cute and ripe for exploration. When you’re done roaming around (or before), grab coffee and cake or a healthy lunch at the family-run Cukr Kava Limonada, or treat yourself to a glass of local vino at CocoWine.
At the other end of the ‘Royal Way’ you’ll find another iconic sight, Prague Castle. When you’ve finished marvelling at its tinted glass windows and chatting about the famous defenestrations, continue west just a little while farther to find an atmospheric part of the city almost entirely off the tourist trail—a great place for a quiet break is Kavarna Novy Svet.
A pathway leads from this area, behind Prague castle along the river, and to Letna Park, one of the city’s finest green spaces. Not only does it offer one of the best views in the city—across the winding Vltava, with its glamorous bridges and picturesque Old Town—it also has meadows for lounging and picnics, flower gardens and beer gardens, and even a skate park with its own huge metronome…which stands on the former site of a much-hated statue of Stalin, which was blown up in 1962.
Behind the park, the charming neighbourhood of Letna forms part of the larger district of Holešovice. Historically one of the city’s poorer areas, it is still home to its fair share of communist structures like the former Park Hotel (now Mama Shelter). But in recent years it has undergone gentrification and is arguably one of the hippest districts in Prague, with a slew of art galleries, wine bars, clubs and alternative boutiques; it also has its own beautiful park, Stromovka, which in turn has its own nightclub called Wildt—set inside a building reminiscent of a one-storey house in the suburbs complete with living room and garden.
To the south and east of the city centre lies the pleasant residential district of Vinohrady, which extends from the National Museum in the New Town, all the way to the Olsanske graveyard—the largest cemetery in Prague and best-known as the final resting place of Kafka. Vinohrady is a handsome, leafy neighbourhood with many buildings dating back to the early 20th century and built in Art Deco-style. It’s also peppered with a wide variety of shops, cafes and bars, many overlooked by short-term tourists.
Vinohrady means ‘wine castle’ and the area takes its name from Grebovka park, where an enormous villa towers on top of a hill streaked with vineyards. The views from up here are spectacular, looking out over the southern suburbs, and the park itself is lively too, full of dog-walkers and runners. As well as a unique man-made grotto, there’s a restaurant next to the villa that serves the hill’s homegrown wines.
Grebovka is also a great place to start a walk towards Prague’s ‘second castle’—Vysehrad. Cross at the traffic-heavy but otherwise splendid Nuselsky bridge so that you can feel like a giant while watching the city in miniature below. Exiting Grebovka in the other direction, towards the central squares of Namesti Miru or Sady Svatopluka Čecha, will bring you to the heart of Vinohrady.
The area is teeming with second-hand book and clothes shops, furniture and antique stores, and many other speciality shops. There is so much to choose from that taking your pick will be difficult but Bullerbyn is a good choice: it offers a bit of everything, serving as a café in the daytime and a bar and restaurant at night, with eccentric decoration and bathrooms that are surprisingly luxurious.
Before you leave Prague, please don’t miss the oasis that is Strelecky Ostrov. On this little island in the river, under chestnut trees and among the endearing muskrats that roam its shores, you can experience peace and quiet, and wonderful views of Charles Bridge. A little stage in the park often hosts intimate shows and various types of festivals too.
And finally, if your schedule allows it, Prague also offers various possibilities for day trips out of the city. The castle of Karlstejn, 40 minutes away by train, is impressive and characteristically Czech. In the autumn you can go mushroom hunting in the forest of Klanovice Cihadla, and in the summer you can go swimming—nude if you want to—in the lake of Džbán, both of which lie within the city outskirts.
For a longer trip, take the train three more hours south to the Czech Republic’s second city of Brno, which is more than worth the effort.