If Europe were to hold a beauty pageant of its major cities, the Czech capital would be in serious contention for the sash.
While it might be the promise of castles, laneways and medieval squares that draw people here, visitors tend to then find their interest snared by some of the city’s other charms – the art, the food, the entertainment, the shops, or the through-the-ages architecture.
Prague is many things, but it’s never one-dimensional. Before embarking on your next Avalon River Cruise spend a few extra days in Prague soaking up some of these wonderful treasures.
Prague escaped the wartime bombings that affected so much of Europe, meaning the town center’s snaking lanes and soaring towers are as strikingly charismatic now as they’ve always been. There’s a huge amount to see, from the famous Gothic steeples of Tyn Church to the hushed confines of the Old Jewish Cemetery, but the city’s two most celebrated historical attractions remain the Charles Bridge – stroll across it early or late in the day to avoid the crowds – and Prague Castle.
The latter is the largest castle complex on the planet, and its hilltop location lends it genuine drama. Much of it dates back to before the days of King Wenceslas – he of Christmas carol fame – and fittingly, it’s arguably at its prettiest in the snow. Set aside at least half a day to explore various palaces and chapels, and be sure to catch the changing of the guards, taking place each hour.
They say the Czech Republic has the highest rate of beer consumption per capita in the world. Not only did the country create the first ever pilsner beer, it’s also home to the original Budweiser, the drink that’s since been imitated in the States and has become an American classic. Prague is somewhere that takes its beer seriously, so there are some wonderfully atmospheric places to sink a few cold ones.
Of course, you’ll need to eat too. Prague’s cuisine ranges from the classically Eastern European – the likes of pork, dumplings and potato pancakes, all nicely seasoned – to quality Italian, French and Asian fare. There are some truly excellent restaurants, including a couple of Michelin-starred spots, while the sugary delights of traditional Czech pastries can be found in most city bakeries.
Perhaps surprisingly for somewhere so associated with the Middle Ages, Prague’s buildings span a remarkable range of architectural periods, from renaissance and gothic to cubist and art nouveau.
Even if design appreciation isn’t normally your thing, you can’t fail to appreciate attractions such as the Municipal House – an utterly gorgeous assemblage of art nouveau salons and concert halls – and the near-adjacent Museum of Czech Cubism.
Likewise, the cultural luminaries who once called Prague home, such as writer Franz Kafka and painter Alphonse Mucha, provide their own reasons to visit the city. The Kafka Museum, not far from the Charles Bridge on the western bank of the river, does a fantastic job of explaining how Prague left its mark on the novelist’s work.
For an entertaining blast of contemporary art, meanwhile, trace down the various works of sculptor David Cerny, dotted around the city – my pick is the statue of Sigmund Freud dangling by one arm above the Old Town.
A city as well-preserved as Prague can have you ticking off sights for days, but be aware that some of its most absorbing attractions slip under the radar of most tour groups.
For example the Saints Cyril & Methodius Church, the basement of which has been converted into a museum telling a richly dramatic story about the building’s role in a daring, and ultimately tragic, resistance plot under Nazi rule. Close by, Vysehrad also draws comparatively few crowds, despite being an ancient clifftop fortress with spectacular views.
There’s an old-world structure of a different kind over on Petrin Hill, where the small but hugely picturesque St Michael’s Church was reassembled slat by slat in the 20th century, having been transferred here piecemeal from the Ukraine. And if modern history’s more your thing, the Museum of Communism houses an eye-opening array of photos and old propaganda posters, and gives a sobering overview of the events leading to 1989’s Velvet Revolution.
Prague keeps itself busy when the sun goes down. Culture vultures should check ahead for the regular opera and ballet performances at the strikingly designed National Theatre.
Elsewhere, dinner cruises are an enjoyable option for visitors looking to combine a meal out with a photo op – the skyline makes for a magical spectacle when illuminated – and of course various venues offer traditional Czech evenings, complete with folk music and costumed dancing.