If, like me, you’ve always wanted to visit the 14th-largest city in the EU (Prague, of course), you’ll find it’s very easy to Czech out.
That’s a terrible pun that was good enough to use twice, in this headline and intro alike, but you’ll soon find that the Czech Republic’s astounding capital is a place where seemingly everything repeats, over and over and over again, and in a good way.
Cobbled streets, many mosaics, churches, archways, cafes, trams, towers, turrets, bridges, bars, bikes, spikes and spires – you can Czech them all off, again and again, as the Bohemian city is a place that reinforces its sights over and over, creating a singularly striking setting.
It’s a place that many of us have sitting on our bucket list as a dreamy, rosemantic and historical city that we’d all love to see – and, with a less prosaic view, it’s also one of Europe’s beer capitals – so a quick hop on a 2.5-hour flight will soon whisk lovers, families or beer-lovers alike over to the Czech Republic’s capital.
This ancient city has been home to all kinds of rulers, visitors and victors down the centuries – from Bohemian kings to Nazis to Communists to Velvet Revolutionaries to modern ‘invaders’ (groups of Irish and British gentlemen stuffed into Anto’s/Kev’s Stag Do t-shirts) – but Prague’s patient citizens are well used to dealing with burghers and burgers alike, offering cultural and popular attractions for all kinds of tourists and budgets, today.
Dubs, in particular, should feel at home here, as our capital is comparable in some ways to theirs – with just about 1.3 million citizens, and a sprawling city footprint that yet has a compact, easily walkable town centre, Prague is a very approachable city (with Metro lines, to boot).
Most visitors are drawn with the rest of the throng to the beating historical heart of Prague – its Old Town quarter, which is home to a huge amount of historical and cultural sights alike, and surrounded by endless eateries, bars and boozers.
The quarter’s rambling streets are perfect to go ambling along, with most roads, byways and alleys eventually leading to Old Town Square, the wide heart of historical Prague, and set along the edge of the city’s moving, thoughtful old Jewish quarter.
The square is a place to die for – quite literally, centuries ago, as it’s where all manner of the city’s very best (and worst) people were variously beheaded, burnt at the stake, and otherwise executed.
These days, the only killings going on are plenty of hours at the many pretty bars and cafes all around the square’s sides and side streets.
However, with such a marvellous setting in which to watch the world go by, you could happily stake an entire evening’s time and budget on hanging out here, staring up at the stark silhouettes rising above you.
Two things dominate the square – the stout, dark towers of the Church of Our Lady before Tyn to the east, and the Town Hall to the west, which is home to Prague’s legendary 600-year-old astronomical clock, the third-oldest in the world.
Alas, the landmark clock is currently hidden away for refurbishment, but there’s plenty of time to set aside your disappointment to go up to the top of the Clock Tower (which offers the very best views over the entire city), before descending to grab a signature ice cream or drink at one of the many neighbouring bars.
The Clock Tower (admission: 250Kr) is just one of many things to climb up, up and away from the bustle of the city’s streets – there are towers and other things to climb dotted all over the city centre and beyond, with plenty of smooth stone staircases, clanging metal steps, lifts, spiral ramps and even steep hills to give you elevated views over this city’s antiquity.
Most such towers and landmarks charge 250 Czech Koruna (or Crowns, which is close to €10) or less for admission, making that 25-to-1 ratio also something that’s easy to keep in mind when paying for anything.
Away from the endless sights of the Old Town quarter, the main drag in town is Wenceslas Square – and a drag it may be, if traipsing past such traditional Czech outlets like Starbucks, KFC, Burger King, Marks and Spencer’s, and signs for the likes of Rocky O’Reilly’s Irish Bar or, erm, Hooters isn’t quite your thing either.
Wenceslas Square is actually a very long street rising into a gentle hill – personally, I don’t think I could class a very long, narrow rectangle as a square, but the Czechs seem to have managed to square that particular circle. (They could probably manage that feat, too.)
Dotted with all kinds of high- and low-budget shops, stores, hotels, bars, clubs and boozers, Wenceslas Square is the retail and nightlife heart of Prague; a little like Grafton Street, Temple Bar and Henry Street all rolled into one.
Full in the daytime with Prague locals, Czech grannies (doing their ‘Clery’s run’), teenagers and tourists, Wenceslas Square turns into a nightlife hub once the sun goes down, with strip clubs and the like dotted off the street – just one more reason there are so many Antos and Kevs (and their Hen counterparts) wandering about at all hours.
However, you’ll still find plenty of cultural highlights dotted around here, too, with the smallish but brilliantly-staged New National Museum (200Kr, 340Kr family) just off the very southern end of Wenceslas Square just one of many places that are great for kids.
Of course, no trip to Prague would be complete without crossing Charles Bridge (Karluv most).
Still arguably the definitive Prague landmark, it’s a particularly lovely bit of architecture to stroll across, passing by the statues of many saints and scholars lining its sides, rubbing the ‘lucky’ brass plaques at the base of some, glancing over at nearby Prague Castle’s dramatic turrets and spires sweeping up into the sky…
That’s assuming that you arrive at dawn or soon afterwards, however, as the bridge very, very quickly turns into an absolutely jam-packed crush of heaving masses for the day.
Luckily, early birds – and I do mean early – can find the bridge largely empty, save for specks of fluttering white every 100 yards or so, as a range of canny bridal photographers nudge sleepy charges into place to get the perfect wedding shots before the hordes arrive.
Seeing Charles Bridge during a summer sunrise (5.30am or so, sleepyheads), is definitely a bucket list experience to savour.
That’s only a flavour of Prague – I haven’t even touched on her jaw-droppingly elaborate churches and cathedrals; the fantastic fusion of Gothic, Baroque and even Brutalist architectural styles all around; the complexities of the vast Prague Castle complex; simpler delights like the world’s only Cubist streetlight; the ever-spinning monument to Franz Kafka; family fun mucking about in swan-shaped pedalos on the river; or about the beer tankard-bearing skills of Prague waiting staff.
Nor have I talked about walking through crab apple groves in Petrin Park; standing in the shadow of the world’s largest metronome overlooking the city; or grabbing an ice-cold drink near John Lennon busker/graffiti wall.
I haven’t even talked about picking up blue glass souvenirs; feeling like a Harry Potter extra in the empty viewing deck of Henry Tower, or accidentally photobombing a Chinese couple’s wedding shots at Charles Bridge …
But that’s the thing about this city – once you’ve been, it’s clear that your first trip won’t be your last.
It may not be the most Prague-tical thing to be thinking about, but I can’t wait to go back…