Here’s how to do Prague cheap, and well…
The quintessential Czech city, famed by donut ice creams, a bridge, beer and a rather large castle: Prague is an Eastern European fantasy city that needs no introduction. But beyond the Charles Bridges’s and the Prague Castle’s and the Astronomical Clock’s (the latter is the stupidest thing we’ve ever seen), there’s so much more in this city than to head where the hordes of tourists are. But there’s also the compulsion to do said touristy things – so here’s our alternative commentary on Prague‘s best bits.
Along with Charles Bridge, this is the icon of the Czech capital. It’s also the place where you’re about to wait in a long, snaking line for about an hour to get in – to wait in many more lines and play dodge-the-tourist all day. But let us break this beautiful piece of architecture-cum torturous tourist trap down for you.
Pros: This is the largest ancient castle in the world, dating back to the 9th century, complete with castle village behind its imposing walls. It’s also the official residence of the Czech president. St Vitus Cathedral is utterly enthralling: by far one of the most impeccable Gothic cathedrals you will ever see. Also, tickets are valid for two days, so if you haven’t had enough obnoxious crowd for one day: you can go back for a second.
Cons: Where do we begin. For starters, the entire complex is essentially sectioned off into different ticketing packages; everything they can charge you for, they will. The basic one (Circuit B) gets you into the cathedral, parts of the castle and Golden Lane for about 10 euro. Not bad. And for us, that was plenty. Covering the castle grounds will take you at least a couple of hours, including going through the cathedral and the village. After that, we’d had a week’s quota of selfie sticks and small screaming children – and headed straight for the pub.
Note: No matter what time you show up, there’s going to be a line. Unless you want to camp there overnight, there’s not really much point getting there for opening time. We did, and still ended up standing in a line that must have measured 500-people long.
Don’t even bother trying to figure this place out alone. Do yourselves a favour and book in to a walking tour (ding ding ding!) and get someone else to do the navigating and explaining for you. There is SO much to see in the Old Town alone, and it’s just not worth walking into lampposts as you flit between your guidebook/ smartphone and the street.
Sure, it’s a cool bridge – but what the heck is all the fuss is about? This place is busier than Times Square on Christmas Eve. As far as historic bridges go, it’s pretty exceptional (dates back to the 13th century, built under the auspices of King Charles IV, thus the name, and used to be the only way for castle-dwellers to get over the Vltava to town, and vice-versa) but these days, it’s a magnet for touts and selfie-stick wielders. Get up with the sun and you’ll enjoy a quiet-er view over the river and up to the castle, but any later than 10am and you’re dreams of a photo bomber-less new display picture is hapless.
In February 2016, some idiot on the internet crowned Prague as the inventor of the “donut ice-cream” – a trdelnik chimney cone stuffed with chocolate and soft serve. Never mind the fact that Hungary, Romania and plenty of neighbouring countries had been making the trdelnik (not a donut) for decades, and adding ice-cream to it is not really a new sensation. Anyway, the internet says to go to Good Food in the side streets of the main town for a funnel cake feat. icecream, but the reality is that as soon as this caught fire – every man and his dog started selling these. Wander anywhere in the main town, and you’ll find signs for them everywhere. Full disclosure: we did go to Good Food and we did pay an exorbitant sum for ‘the donut ice-cream’. We then went and posed on Charles Bridge with it. We hate ourselves.
River banks: We aren’t really sure how we got there, but we wandered the old town on the castle side of the Vlatva, and found what almost seemed to be like a swan breeding colony. The banks of the river make for a good view back over to Charles Bridge, too.
John Lennon wall:
It’s tucked away on a back street on the Prague Castle side of the river, but ask any random on the street and they’ll be able tell you exactly where to go. This colourful mural has been drawing the eager hipster for decades. Even though it essentially has absolutely nothing to do with Lennon himself, the graffiti adorning this nondescript wall first popped up in the 1980’s, when it first began sporting Beatles’ lyrics and Lennon-influenced graffiti. Not without its problems, as with all graffiti-disguised-as-art, tensions conspired in clashes between students and police on Charles Bridge in 1988 (a factor behind this was apparently grievances scrawled on the wall by young Czechs). Thus, the students dubbed their movement ‘Lennonism’, and everyone celebrated with lots of peace signs and circular glasses. These days, art on the wall is continuously undergoing change. There’s always going to be a dude there playing guitar and accidentally photobombing you, just like the other dozens of people wasting hours trying to get an un-manned space of wall. As far as tourist draws go, this one is quite lovely though, and worth taking in.
Petrin Hill: Because we can’t go five minutes without ordering everyone to hike someplace, here’s another wee jaunt. If you follow your feet up the hill from Prague Castle, there’s several landmarks and a pretty spectacular view over the city and the castle in it for you. On your way up, you’ll pass by the Loreta, which is supposedly a pilgrimage location – whatever that means -an old monastery which is now apparently a hotel, and the Strahov Monastery. The wide open green spaces and towering trees are not only a welcome change from city life, but there’s plenty of trails to get lost on (not just figuratively, you will probably get lost. It’s near impossible to find an accurate map of this maze of dirt tracks, so just embrace the fact that you’re going to be late to wherever you’re going). Otherwise, for the physically challenged, there is a funicular to haul your lazy ass up there. At the top, the Petrin Observation Tower will charge you a small fee to climb its stairs and take in the city and the park from the top, but we think there are plenty of places along the trails where the view is just as good (and free). There are also several poignant monuments dotted around the park, so watch out for the signs and be sure to take a look. The Monument to the Victims of Communism is particularly touching.
If being wedged into a huge open space with thousands of jostling tourists every hour, on the hour, to watch a clock chime is your thing, then (it’s not even the first, why the crowds?!) Zodiacal rings, ancient animated figures and breathtaking detail aside, this is for all intents and purposes Prague‘s biggest tourist gimmick. Every hour, tourists shove each other out of the way and block one another’s view with their annoying iPhone, for that perfect shot of a one-minute show they’re only watching through their phone screen. Sure, we get that it’s amazing that this thing is still going and that every tiny movement is a miracle – but still. It’s still a one-minute glorified cuckoo clock you can barely make out from a distance anyway.
Don’t get us wrong, by all means go and experience is (it’s free after all, so tourist gimmick it may well be but at least it’s not a rip-off), just go at night or early morning to beat the masses.
Get lost (in the nicest possible way) in the city:
It’s impossible to list all of Prague‘s delights in one cut and dry list – most of our favourite bits were found by just wandering into a church we couldn’t find in the guidebooks, or finding the Jewish quarter and a museum we’d never heard of. We’d definitely reccommend a solid afternoon away from the masses, getting lost in the city without a map (not too lost, we’re not responsible for any missing person’s cases).
If you’re on the hunt for the most delicious, largest and cheapest pork knuckles in the Czech Republic, served in a traditional pub frequented only by locals, where the beer is dirt cheap and the pub’s English translation literally means ‘at the hippopotamus’ (who isn’t?) – then look no further: you’ve hereby found the Holy Grail. U Hrocha looks from the outside to be a dirty, run-down shell of a place – but when you step inside, the true magic happens. There’s only a handful of seats crammed into the place, mostly taken up by locals chatting over a beer or 14 – but even if you have to linger awkwardly for a seat: don’t let it put you off. Do us all a favour and once you get a seat: order the pork knuckle. It’s barely 5 euros, but it almost takes a weightlifter to bring it to your table. We’re embarrassed to say we finished it off between two people, with sides, but it could easily feed four (if you’re worried about your waistline. In which case, you probably shouldn’t be in this pub at all. Or the Czech Republic. In fact, you’re disrespecting us all – get out). The meat is juicy and tender, and ordered alongside a 1 euro jug of Pilsener Urquell, it’s basically the fantasy world we imagined this country to be. The restaurant is barely 10 minutes from Prague Castle (which makes its affordability and quality even harder to understand), but it’s down a side street and looks like a crack den from the outside. So, we’ve attached quite a bad map for you below. You’re welcome.
If you’d succumbed to Prague‘s charms the night before and are feeling a bit sorry for yourself after one drink too many – or, like us you’re feeling a lot sorry for yourself after about 15 drinks too many and are craving grease after being picked up by police and spending the night in hospital (see below) – this place is on order. Styled like an old tavern, but serving up fare typical of an American diner, The Tavern are famous for their burgers – and for good reason. Do us a favour and order the Classic Cheddar, or the Danish Blue and Bacon – with a side of mixed normal and curly fries (beer if you can stomach it. It’s fair to say we couldn’t). It’s slightly out of the way (unless you’re staying at the Czech Inn – all the more reason too!) and a touch more expensive than your McDonald’s or your corner burger joint at about 8 euro for a burger, but trust us when we urge you to do it. Especially after a big night – even more so if that big night resulted in an emergency call to your home country – and you might even regain the will to live again.
This place is a huge, Westernised, clean and friendly hostel and would probably have been a great night’s sleep if I hadn’t been so blind drunk I ended up in a hospital bed instead (see below). It’s a no-frills type place and located a tram ride, or 30 minute walk, out of the city centre so there’s that to bear in mind too. Breakfast isn’t included but is on offer, and there’s plenty of common areas and a bar. But all that really matters is the price, and you’re not going to get any better in Prague, or the whole of Eastern Europe really, for 6 euro.
Price for a dorm bed in a girl’s room: 6 euro.
Go to an underground bar, order several buckets between you and four strapping lads, lose those four strapping lads somewhere between being blind drunk and home time, and wake up in a hospital bed the next day, dressed in a hospital gown and locked in a room for your own safety. The perpetrator is Harley’s Bar, near the main square, but if you can’t read signs – the warning signs should sound as soon as you order a drink and a crazy-looking ghoul-man starts pouring half a litre of vodka into a bucket and rubbing the straws under his armpits. Seriously, no good can come from this place.
(I may or may not have been picked up by police after losing my traveling companions – including my brother – my own flesh and blood left me for dead somewhere on a street corner I assume. I vaguely remember them asking me where I was saying, me losing the ability to form words, as well as the will to speak, and after that everything is black. Several hours later I awoke in a white hospital bed, completely naked underneath a hospital gown. Without completely jumping to conclusions, I then figured I was being held captive in an asylum a la Halle Berry in Gothika and ran to the hospital door, tearing furiously at the handle and then banging and kicking and screaming when I realised it was locked. For a solid five minutes I screamed “Let me out” to a deserted Czech hospital and/ or police station. They probably figured I wanted to escape – but really the reason behind my madness was just an urgent need to pee.
About 20 minutes of hoarse screaming later, a Czech doctor or police officer dressed in white unlocked my door and proceeded to enter the room, and shut the door behind him. I literally just about smacked him in the face – no man stands between me and the bathroom. After a solid lecturing I do not remember a word of, I can only vaguely recall him saying they weren’t letting me leave and I replied saying I was not pleased with the way he was treating me (with contempt, as I would too were I in his position) and that I was a very important journalist, completely able to out him in the media as the hideous torturer he was, and about to piss myself (I was only one of those things, and desperately needing the bathroom certainly didn’t wield me any power). About an hour of more kicking and screaming later, I was led to the office of an important female doctor – who gave me a huge bill for all the trouble I’d caused and proceeded to give me a similar lecture, neither of which I remember a word of. At some point during the night/ day, I’d given them the idea I was a 14-year-old girl whose first sip of the alcohol had turned into a Hangover-scale trainwreck, and who needed to be discplined. Which was probably accurate.
Pulling on my drenched, smelly clothes (one can only wonder why they were either of those things), I left the huge building I am still unsure of whether it was a hospital or a police station, and desperately tried to figure out where the hell I was (during the night my phone had died, I had lost my wallet and the money in my wallet, but somehow still had my credit cards). This meant lots of walking in to random shops, drawing disgusted looks from patrons and owners alike, as they garbled at me in Czech which was probably English but I was too drunk to notice. So instead, I found a tram line and followed it to the nearest stop. Quite literally punching and beating the ticket machine, causing a man who was trying to offer me some coins and buy my ticket for me, to back away slowly – I ended up just jumping on the tram and hoping I’d end up somewhere I recognised from the two hours I’d actually spent in the city. Spotting something that looked familiar, I jumped off the tram and stumbled through the city – looking like a crazed maniac. I spent two hours that morning in broad daylight, makeup smeared all over my face and fake sobbing, walking in circles about three blocks from my hostel. The best part of this was when I hopped on another tram, one that took me even further away from my lodgings – but it only took me another hour to find it from being much, much further away. Arriving at the hostel at about 9am, I set immediately about charging my phone and finding my lost brother.
To me, the smartest idea to go about this, was to text my boyfriend in New Zealand, telling him I’d just got out of hospital and asking him to call Daniel immediately as it was an emergency. You know, instead of just texting Daniel himself, or either one of my drinking companions from last night. An hour of useless detective work, a $20 phonecall from New Zealand to Prague, and much head swimming later, my brother surfaced. He’d been in his hostel bed the whole time.
A waste of a $3 hostel bed, cherished souvenir wallet bought in Ireland, $100 hospital/ police bill, and the addition of a new enemy in the skeletal man at Harley’s it may have been – but there really was a silver lining to all of this. I had the best burger and chips of my life.