While we lived in Prague, we were simultaneously awed by its beauty and frustrated by the rapacious tourism development that had swamped its old town. Recently, I’ve read a few blog posts from travelers disappointed by their visits to Prague because of the city’s tourist schlock. Yes, there’s a fair heap of it. But, there are also ways to avoid it.
Many moons ago, during our first month living in Prague, I remember exiting Charles University after a Czech language class and looking up at a night-lit Prague Castle and thinking, “My God, do I actually live here?”
It didn’t seem real.
Even after five years of living in Prague, I could still turn a corner, catch the right light and get that feeling. Prague is a Bucket List and “Top 10 Romantic Cities” favorite — for good reason. But frankly, there’s also a lot of crap that can leave a casual visitor tourist-worn.
During my last visit to Prague, I played tourist for a day and forced myself to walk through through its main tourist artery — from the Prague Castle, over the Charles Bridge, down Karlova Street, through Old Town, up to the top of Wenceslas Square. Maybe it had improved since we lived there?
But all is not lost. Here are some ideas on how to minimize the tourist schlock, what to replace it with, and what to eat at the end of the day.
Prague: What to Avoid
1. Karlova Street
In tourist hell, right next door to Fisherman’s Wharf and Khao San Road is Prague’s souvenir-engorged Karlova Street. If you only retain one piece of information from this post, it should be this: avoid this street like the plague. Don’t ask why, don’t be tempted. Just avoid it. Your visit will be all the better for it.
Alternative: But how am I going to get from Charles Bridge to Old Town Square? Easy. When you come off the Charles Bridge (on the opposite side of the river from Prague Castle), cut through the Clementinum (look for the doorway across the street to the left of Karlova street) and enjoy a peaceful stroll through a 14th century courtyard.
2. Concerts — or anything for that matter – sold by people in period costumes
If classical music’s greatest hits served up in machine-gun style is your thing, by all means head right for the guys in period outfits. If, however, you have a taste for a full symphony and the real, high-quality, accessible classical music Prague is known for, go elsewhere.
Alternative: See #2 below for where to find high quality shows.
3. Wenceslas Square at Night
Where protesters once stood up to Soviet tanks during Prague Spring in 1968, hawkers now stand up for your opportunity to patronize their strip clubs. After dark, Wenceslas Square becomes a central place for strip club touts, prostitutes, their pimps and all manner of the shady and unpleasant. Although it’s not unsafe per se, it’s best avoided.
Alternative: After dark, walk any of the streets parallel to Wenceslas Square or take the metro to avoid the area altogether.
4. Astronomical Clock Show on the Hour
I know I’m going to get crap for this one. Don’t get me wrong, the medieval astronomical clock on the side of Old Town City Hall is beautiful and worth a look. But really, don’t worry about fighting with the tourist hordes that gather on the hour to see the “show.” The hourly spectacle features some figures moving around, a rooster call (my personal favorite) and a dancing skeleton (Dan’s personal favorite). However, it’s really not worth the elbowing and unpleasant crowds you have to deal with to watch it.
Alternative: Have the clock to yourself to admire at any time outside the top-of-the-hour. If you find yourself tiring of the crowds on Old Town Square, pop up to the rooftop terrace at U Prince hotel, order a cocktail, and enjoy the view from above. It’s particularly nice at sunset.
5. Prague’s Scams and Overcharging at Tourist Restaurants
Unfortunately, some touristy restaurants and taxis still hold a narrowly opportunistic view of tourism and tourists (i.e., they scam anyone who looks like fresh meat).
What to do: Don’t let these places get away with it: be vigilant, mind your bill, count your change, and question or complain if you are being cheated. If you don’t, you’ll be doing yourself — and all other tourists who follow in your footsteps — a disservice. If your restaurant bill arrives with extra service charges or “taxes” that are not specifically called out on the menu, refuse to pay them.
If you need a taxi, have the hotel or restaurant call one in advance. I would never pick up a taxi outside the front door of the train station or hotel (these are usually reserved for suckers). If you pick up a taxi on the street, use a company like AAA or ProfiTaxi. Finally, if you’ve been grossly overcharged, pay what you believe is fair and walk away. We’ve done it.
Prague: The Good Stuff
With the unpleasant stuff out of the way, let’s focus on what to visit besides the Prague tourist triad (Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, Old Town Square). The aim: to give you a feel for a living city whose history goes long beyond just a few pretty buildings.
You might be thinking as you read, “But that’s outside the city center.” In some cases, our recommendations are outside of the Old Town City center, but they are not so far. Within a few minutes, you are a tram, metro or a few footsteps away.
1) Vyšehrad: An Alternative Castle
Just down the Vlatava River from Prague Castle is the lesser-known 10th century castle of Vyšehrad. In addition to offering great views of the Vltava River and the city, Vyšehrad features grassy grounds stocked full of locals having picnics with family and friends. The cemetery at Vyšehrad is also home to many of Czech greats of art and music, including Alphonse Mucha and Antonín Dvořák. The Peter and Paul church is also worth a look – neo-gothic on the outside, but Mucha-inspired art nouveau murals on the inside.
2. Classical Music Concerts and Operas
Prague’s music scene is one of the things that kept us there so long. Even if you’re not a huge classical music aficionado, it’s still worth trying to see a concert just to experience the venue.
Go directly to ticket offices or a venue’s box office for real performances. Basically, if the concert is associated with a national ensemble, you’re more likely to see a high quality concert at a lower price.
If your visit coincides with Prague Spring, try to book tickets in advance or, for last minute tickets, visit the box office. Prague Spring often features top performers, conductors and orchestras from around the world. I cannot begin to count the $1000s of dollars we would have spent on all the performances we took in had we seen the performers on their home turf. Prices continue to go up, but are still reasonable compared with Western Europe and the United States.
3. Exploring Prague’s Neighborhoods
Although Prague’s Old Town (Staré Město) and Lesser Town (Malá Strana) often steal the Prague tourist show (for good reason), it’s worth it to spend time poking around some of the surrounding neighborhoods. The architectural stock in Prague’s residential neighborhoods is impressive. Walk, look up and soak it up. Architectural period melange, details, mosaics, statues, paintings, are all standard fare. Not to mention, this is the way you’ll really begin to understand what modern-day living in Prague is all about.
Suggested neighborhoods to explore and to stay in: Vinohrady, Vršovice (our old neighborhood), Holesovice (Note: If you choose to rent an apartment in Prague, you can use this Airbnb discount link to save $25 on your first booking)
4. Beer gardens
When the weather is warm (or at least un-cold), Prague’s beer gardens are the place to while away an afternoon, evening, or possibly even both. Beer gardens are casual affairs with long, simple picnic tables, a food stand or two serving greasy sausages, and — most importantly — an endless supply of freshly pulled Czech beer. Relax with locals of all ages, from the stodgy business guy in a suit to grandpa with his dog to the young punk kids.
Suggested beer gardens: Letna Park (Prague 7) with views of the city or Riegrovy Sady (Prague 2) for a more grungy, local flavor.
5. Glass of Wine at Grebovka Vineyard
There’s actually a small vineyard within Prague’s city limits. And, there just happens to be a little café (called Altan) with a great gazebo sitting right above it. These are the makings of a perfect spot to enjoy a glass of wine and a cheese plate. For quality, we actually suggest trying the Austrian wine over the local Grebovka wine.
Address: Grebovka park is in Prague 10. Closest tram stop is Krymska on 22, 16, or 4 tram lines. Finding your way here through the windy residential streets is part of the fun; this is not a touristy area at all.
Suggested Prague Restaurants
This is the place you come for a view of the Prague castle, Vltava river and Malá strana – it would be hard to find a better one in the city. The food here is basic Italian pizzas and pasta, but the view from and the atmosphere in this boat-restaurant make it all a perfectly good value.
Update September 2015: We have received a couple of emails and comments that the service at Grosseto Marina has gone down hill since our last visit and our readers have had bad experiences at the restaurant. Therefore, we can no longer recommend this place.
Address: Alšovo nábřeží in Old Town. Our suggestion is to call ahead to reserve a table on the deck or by a window so you can enjoy the view (+420 605 454 020).
This little Italian restaurant combines high quality Italian food (the chef once lived in Tuscany) with a friendly ambience in a great local neighborhood. We know because we used to live around the corner. The menu changes regularly and features daily and weekly specials. Prices are reasonable.
Address: Mexicka 7, Vrsovice (Prague 10), tel: +420 271726548
It might sound odd to come to Prague and eat at an Indian restaurant, but the food here is really exceptional. The lunch thalis – meat (120 CZK/$6) or vegetarian (100 CZK/$5) – are authentic and flavorful. The menu also features some unusual dishes like idly, vada and chaats.
Address: Pod Karlovem 12/1574, Prague 2 (the Manesova location doesn’t have lunch thalis)
Long one of our favorite restaurants, Mozaika features a list of continental and fusion regulars plus fresh weekly specials. Relaxed atmosphere and reasonably priced for the quality.
Address: Nitranska 13, Prague 3 (right near Jiriho z Podebrad Metro and square)
5. Czech Pubs
You’re probably asking by now: “That’s all great, but what about Czech food?”
There is definitely no shortage of hospodas (pubs) serving Czech fare throughout the city with varying levels of quality and grease content.
If you want something with a little better meat quality and less grease, give one of the following places a try. In addition to good Czech food, they usually serve tank beer (unpasteurized), making the Czech beer drinking experience all the more enjoyable.
- Lokál: One of the newer additions to the Ambiante Restaurant empire. This place serves up quality Czech food at reasonable prices. Address: Dlouhá 33, Prague 1.
- Bredovsky Dvur: Just a block away from popular Wenceslas Square, but with a different feel from the high-traffic tourist areas. Try to go during lunch as there are inexpensive lunch menus and you’ll be enjoying your meal with locals on their lunch break. Address: Politických vězňů 13 (parallel street to Wenceslas Square), Prague 1
- Na Verandach: This restaurant is right at the Staropramen brewery, so you know the beer is fresh. Hearty food, too. Address: Nadrazni 84, Prague 5 (Smichov)
- Olympia: Nice Czech pub serving both Czech and continental specialties. Address: Vítězná 7, Praha 1 (Ujezd)
Honorable mentions of the Czech beer variety:
Prague Beer Museum: It’s not a restaurant and it’s really not a museum, but it does serve close to 30 different beers on tap from small to medium breweries across Czech Republic. This is the place to learn about Czech beer the old fashion way — by drinking it. The owner is meticulous about buying only small kegs, keeping the keg lines clean and changing the beer menu every three months. Just be careful and pace yourself — mixing heavy beers can have a devastating effect the next day.
Address: Dlouha 46, Prague 1
Update: A second Prague Beer Museum pub has opened up at Náměstí Míru (Americká 341/43, Prague 2) that is bigger and has a full menu. So you can have your fill of hearty Czech food to go with all those great beers.
Pivovarsky Klub: Features hundreds of beers (Czech and international) on the menu. Ask the waiter for advice if you get paralyzed on what to order. This place also has good and reasonably priced Czech food, too.
Address: Krizikova 17, Praha 8 – Karlin
Kavárna Mlýnská: This isn’t so much a pub as it is a mill that has been turned into a café near Kampa Park. It’s quite close to the touristy areas, but is a local place that serves wonderful unfiltered Bernard beer.
Address: Všehrdova 449, Prague 1
For more Prague restaurant recommendations, check out: Eating Ethnic in Prague
More Prague Tips and Resources for Travelers and Expats:
Booking Accommodation in Prague
Although booking accommodation in Prague’s Old Towns — Staroměstská or Malá Strana — will put you in the middle of the city’s main sites, we actually prefer staying in one of the nearby neighborhoods as it provides a more local feel with more non-touristy pubs, cafes, restaurants and shops. Recommended Prague neighborhoods to stay in include: Vinohrady, Vršovice, Holešovice or Dejvice.
A good place to search for hotels and last minute deals is on Booking.com’s Prague Page where you can sort by location and price.
Finding your own apartment in one of the recommended neighborhoods above is a great option if you are planning to stay in Prague for more than three or four days. If you’re new to Airbnb, sign up using this discount code to get $25 off your first stay.
Recommended Prague Guide Books
Prague: Artel Style – If you’re looking for a quirky and personal guidebook for Prague, check out this beautifully written and designed book by Karen Feldman. In full disclosure, Karen is one of our friends. Regardless, her book is nothing short of a work of art, collector’s item. She knows the city very well as she’s lived there for over a decade. It’s hard to beat her eye for design, quirk and the finer pleasures that Prague has to offer.
Time Out Prague: We’ve enjoyed using Time Out Guides in other cities in Europe, and their Prague guidebook is no exception for good advice on neighborhoods, cafes, restaurants and hotels.
Our Prague Recommendations in a Podcast
If you’re still curious about what else we recommend to see, do and eat in Prague, listen to this podcast interview on Prague we did with Chris Christensen of Amateur Traveler.
A Different Kind of Prague Vacation: Tours and Activities
Artbreak: If you’d like to use your time in Prague to explore your creative side while digging deeper into Prague’s art and cultural scene, check out Artbreak. Their programs combine hands-on art classes with visits to art exhibitions and music concerts. In full disclosure, we have not availed ourselves of Artbreak’s programs, but we know one of its founders. It’s because of his integrity that we recommend it here.
Context Walking Tours: Context Travel offers a series of walking tours in Prague with a strong focus on history, culture and architecture. While we haven’t taken a Context walking tour in Prague, we have taken one in Berlin and were very impressed by the expertise of the tour leader and learned a ton about a neighborhood that we thought we already knew well.
Interested in more Prague tips? We’ve partnered with Jennie Zeiner of Zeiner Images and taken the best of our Prague advice from over a decade of living there to bring you what to see, do, eat, and drink in one nifty pdf guide! Click on the image to buy and download!