One of the few European cities that preserved its stunning architecture through the centuries, Prague has that unmistakable Old-World feel, blending it with a modern, 21st-century vibe.
During our latest visit, my family and I spent about a week in Prague, staying in an apartment within walking distance from the historic city center. The 18th-century building with high ceilings, enormous rooms, walls decorated with baroque elements, and large, recessed windows made us feel like we were living in a castle. The wooden armoire closets and antique, baroque mirrors in the bedrooms added to this quaint charm. At the same time, the large kitchen filled with the newest gadgets and appliances gave the home a contemporary feel.
The apartment was a perfect example of the city, blending old, historic elements with the most modern ones. It also offered a great base for exploring Prague, while giving us an opportunity to feel like locals. Based on that experience, here are a few things to know before your first visit to the capital city of the Czech Republic.
The first thing you’ll notice when visiting Prague is its stunning architecture. Its buildings dating from the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque eras stand intact. Unlike those in other European cities, they survived both WWII and the Communist regime without much damage.
This makes Prague’s urban historical center the largest on the UNESCO World Heritage list, with its well-preserved area showcasing about 4,000 monuments. The city’s oldest buildings date from the Middle Ages, which along with added elements from the following centuries, resulted in a gorgeous architectural ensemble with an unparalleled historical value.
Walking through the historical buildings in Prague you might feel you are in an interactive, outdoor museum of architecture.
To start enjoying the stunning architectural marvels of the city, begin your visit in the Old Town Square. No matter what direction you approach it from, all roads seem to lead to it.
Close to the square, these roads lined by historical buildings become pedestrian only. Street artists, impromptu classical and contemporary music shows, puppets shows, and dances entertain you as you walk and especially in the square. Street vendors and outdoor cafes offer a place to sit and watch people walk by while listening to dozens of languages being spoken.
Don’t miss the Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall strike the hour. It is quite a spectacle. Stop by early, or you’ll have trouble getting close since an immense crowd gathers in front as the hour draws close.
While there, walk up into the Old Town Hall tower, visit the museum, and enjoy the views of the square and the city. Take a spiral ramp walkway or a glass elevator that leads to the top.
Flanked by two historic towers, the famous Charles Bridge connects the Old Town with the castle and the rest of the city across the Vltava River. The Gothic Old Town Bridge tower and the Lesser Town Bridge tower serve as entrances to the bridge that’s lined with statues of saints on both sides.
According to locals, King Charles personally laid the first brick of the bridge in 1357 on the 9th day of the 7th month at 5:31 in the morning. According to numerology, King Charles believed in, the resulting sequence of uneven numbers from 1 to 9 and back (the date read 135797531) assured that the bridge would last forever.
The pedestrian-only, medieval stone arch bridge is a favorite walking spot for tourists and locals alike. During the day it’s always busy and ultimately turns into a bazaar for street vendors, entertainers, artists, and artisans. To beat the crowds, walk across the bridge at sunrise, or late at night.
Across the Vltava River, opposite the Old Town, Prague Castle dominates the landscape. Visible from most of the city, it is the largest ancient castle in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Not merely a castle, but a castle complex, it covers an area of 43.5 square miles filled with temples, palaces, towers, and other historic buildings.
Though every building in the castle is an architectural masterpiece, nothing quite compares to the Saint Vitus Cathedral, the most visited place on the Castle grounds.
Started in 1344, it took a few centuries and generations of builders and artists to complete the cathedral, resulting in a stunning architectural masterpiece, featuring several styles and stone artwork with elaborate details.
Since it is one of the most visited spots in Prague, the Saint Vitus Cathedral is always busy. Count on waiting about 40 minutes to get in, but the experience is well worth the wait.
After walking through the architectural wonders and battling crowds for a better spot, you might need a break in a nice, peaceful, natural habitat. You’ll find it on Petrin Hill, a gorgeous, green, forested hill, covered with parks, and overlooking the city.
Though it is a steep climb, getting to the top of the hill offers a pleasant walk on a paved trail in a forested area. But if you prefer, you can take the funicular from Mala Strana Street, and enjoy the views of the city while riding it.
Paved paths criss-cross the largest green area in the city, offering opportunities to stroll through nature. However, the park is only one reason people visit Petrin Hill. Another one is the views from the Petrin Tower, one of the major attractions of the city.
To see most of Prague’s attractions, you will walk a lot, often on cobblestone streets. So, the main thing to pack is a pair of comfortable walking shoes.
In addition, when packing your clothes, also think comfortable, and layers, since weather can be unpredictable in Prague. A lightweight sweater and a foldable umbrella or raincoat also come in handy, since it may rain any time.
Though Prague has a compact center, where you can cover everything on foot, if you want to get from one side to another faster, or need to get to the airport or other sites outside the center, you might want to use public transportation. The good news is, Prague has one of the best and easiest to navigate public transportation systems in the world.
You can choose a bus, tram, or metro (subway) to get to your destination. No matter which one you use, the ticket is the same, and covers either 30 minutes or 90 minutes of travel, with or without transfer. We found it easiest to get a ticket with a transfer, giving us more flexibility.
No matter where you are in the city, you’ll find plenty of restaurants to choose from, offering local and international fare.
Some of my favorite spots were small, dark restaurants in medieval buildings, where we felt like we landed in a medieval pub or a fairytale. Offering local soups and bread, the meal added to the atmosphere.
On the other side of the spectrum, we also enjoyed world-class meals in ultra-modern settings or outdoor seating overlooking the city in the castle complex. No matter where you stop, the meals in Prague do not disappoint.
Tipping is customary in restaurants, at around 10% or rounding up the bill to the nearest 10. Sometimes, in higher-end developments, or for groups over five, they add it to the bill, so check before tipping twice.
Though the Czech Republic is part of the EU, it still uses its own currency, the Czech Koruna (Crown). You can exchange some before your trip, though it’s not necessary. The easiest and safest way to get money is using an ATM machine to withdraw money directly from your bank in the local currency. It was our favorite way of getting cash, since we found ATM machines on every street, and we got the best rates through them.
You can also find a bank to exchange money, but avoid the exchange offices in Old Town Square and the more touristy areas, since you’ll find the rates will not be to your advantage. Though you can return and cancel the transaction within 3 hours if you find a better rate nearby (don’t forget to bring your receipt).
However, you can pay with major credit cards in most places in Prague, except in smaller local shops and restaurants, or street vendors.
You will need an adapter to use your electronics in Prague. Make sure you get one that is both plug and voltage adapter for 230V. But if you forget, you can find one in any store in town. Often, the hotel will lend you one until you check out. Ask at the front desk.
To use your cell phone, contact your provider before your trip and add a temporary international plan to your monthly plan.
You’ll find Wi-Fi is available in all hotels, shopping malls, and coffee shops.
The local language in Prague is Czech, but you’ll find that almost everyone speaks English. Besides these two languages, you’ll hear a plethora of others, since the city is always filled with visitors from all around the globe.
Though you won’t find direct flights to Prague from the U.S., the city is still easy to reach with only one layover, most likely in London or Frankfurt. To visit the Czech Republic, you need a passport, but no visa.
COVID Advisory: Since June 2021, the Czech Republic is open for U.S. travelers; but before leaving, check travel advisories to be on the safe side.
Prague is often referred to as the Paris of Eastern Europe. Paris should be flattered. There are many things to do in this elegant city:
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