Most of Prague's main attractions are grouped in the city's core neighborhoods of Staré Mesto, Malá Strana, Hradcany, and Nové Mesto and are within comfortable walking distance of each other. For those that aren't, there are trams and the metro, which can usually get you to within a 5- to 10-minute walk from where you want to go.
As with any historic urban destination, the main sights are made up primarily of museums, churches, parks, and public squares. Most of the center has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site and it's no stretch to say that among European capitals, at least, Prague has the continent's best-preserved stock of buildings from the 14th to the 18th centuries.
You'll find exquisite examples from the history of European architecture -- from Romanesque to Renaissance, from baroque to Art Nouveau to cubist -- crammed side-by-side on twisting narrow streets. Seen from Charles Bridge, this jumble of architecture thrusts from the hills and hugs the riverbanks, with little of the 20th century's own excesses obscuring the grandeur of the past millennium
But Prague is more than simply great architecture. The spires and pillars and columns and cherubs festooned onto nearly every building create a festive mood, regardless of the season. A good part of enjoyment is simply strolling around with no particular destination in mind and enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere. The thousands of other visitors who are here for the same reason, while occasionally a distraction, help to reinforce the feeling that something special is going on.
Once you are done drinking in the atmosphere, you are never far from a pub or club for drinking of another sort. Beer lovers will feel especially honored. Czech beer is arguably the best -- and cheapest -- in the world and no one will look askance if you pair a beer or two with a fine dinner, or indeed have one for breakfast.
What's Going on Around Town? -- Prague TV's website http://prague.tv is an excellent English-language resource for checking out what's happening around town. Other useful info sources include the Prague Information Service's website at www.pis.cz and the English-language newspaper The Prague Post, which is widely available on newsstands for 50Kc or online for free at www.praguepost.com. Expats.cz (www.expats.cz) runs an online bulletin board populated mainly by Prague's highly opinionated expat community. It's a good resource for taking the city's cultural pulse and gleaning hints on what to see and do.
The Art of Getting Lost
Prague is popular -- too popular, really -- and you can find yourself in the middle of a special moment only to have it punctured by the grating voice of a tour guide or a boisterous group of traveling high school students. So my advice to visitors trying to get a peek into the real life of Czechs is simple: Get lost. Get really, really lost.
You won't stray too far, since "tourist Prague" encompasses a relatively small area. And you know the landmarks: the castle, the bridge, the river, Old Town Square. So leave the map behind.
My favorite times to get lost in Prague are early morning and late at night. One foggy morning, I woke up early, grabbed a coffee in the breakfast room of my Communist-era hotel, and headed out. I'm not sure which direction I went -- left, I think. I strolled several blocks into unfamiliar territory. I found a wonderful bookshop where I picked up a Czech version of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Then I ducked into an old camera shop in search of film. The shop carried not only the latest German and Japanese cameras but also fascinating, old eastern European cameras that looked to my American eyes like some discarded cosmonaut space garbage. Next, I discovered a little hut of a church that was dark and wonderful; two old Czech women dusted while I looked around. I'd love to tell you where these memorable places were, but you see, I was lost.
Another great way to get lost is to hop on a tram and let the driver take you where he's going. Get off when you see an intriguing neighborhood, if you're hungry, or if you have to use a restroom. Or, if you're adventurous, follow someone. For 40 minutes I trailed an elderly woman doing her shopping. Wow, did she get me lost! I followed her into a local food shop, not one of the big chains filled with processed foods and produce from Germany, but just a little shop. I bought some candy, which I still have -- for me candy is the best kind of souvenir.
Late in the evening, as you wander aimlessly through Old Town, you'll half expect to see ghosts darting about. The lanterns along the uneven cobblestone streets don't really help you navigate; instead, I'm convinced that their function is to set a mysterious, quiet mood. That peacefulness is occasionally interrupted by the sounds of late-night revelers. You may be tempted to join them for a pivo (beer).
Roaming the streets of Prague is like unraveling a big ball of twine. When you get lost, you're likely to find something special, some experience that will make you feel "of" the place, rather than just passing through.
So remember where you are. Then get lost.
Purely Personal List of Five Can't-Miss Sights in Prague
Everyone has his or her own list of favorite things to see and do in Prague. After living here more than 15 years, I've included some of mine below. To avoid repetition, I'll assume that Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, and the Old Jewish Cemetery are givens and there's no need to re-list them here.
- Veletrzní palác. The National Gallery's collection of 20th- and 21st-century art is a jaw-dropper. Forget the Klimts, Schieles, Picassos, and Rodins for a moment and head straight for the gallery of constructivist, functionalist, surrealist Czech art from 1900 to 1930. This was an especially fruitful period for Czech art, when it was at the vanguard of modern movements.
- St. Agnes Convent. I would have never guessed I had an interest in Gothic art, but this museum in a former convent is full of surprises. The 13th and 14th century paintings are filled with wit and humor and could easily have come off a post-Modern easel somewhere last week. The sculpture and statuary are ample evidence of Prague's preeminence in Europe in the Middle Ages.
- The Palace Gardens (Palácové zahrady). This series of four sculpted baroque gardens on the hill below Prague Castle is simply special, filled with hidden corners and lovely views. They're accessible from Valdstejnská street below or from Prague Castle above.
- Vysehrad cemetery. I am sucker for celebrities, even dead ones. Dvorák, Smetana, Mucha, and the rest of the Czech pantheon are all laid to rest here in Prague's own version of Paris's Père-Lachaise. It's fun to poke around and look for familiar names, and the hilltop Vysehrad setting is stunning.
- Stromovka park. This seemingly limitless preserve of walks and trails is perfect for cycling, rollerblading, or just strolling among the trees. This park is situated miles from the tourist throng but it's within easy walking distance of the river promenade and the zoo. Grab a pack lunch, a blanket, and a good book and take the afternoon off (as I like to do as often as I can).
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