Venturing outside of Prague requires more patience and flexibility than you'll need within the city, due to the lack of tourist conveniences and scarcer use of English. For the adventurous, day trips to the surrounding countryside or longer excursions beyond can be surprising and rewarding. While Prague is well into its post-revolution reconstruction, many outlying provinces still groan under the decay of the former regime. But there are pockets of outstanding beauty, unique history, and eccentric pleasures that you can only experience by leaving the tourist bubble in the capital.
Prague has been blessed with golden spires, but the surrounding area is dotted with some of Europe's most beautiful castles, such as the majestic Karlstejn. Also spectacular are the impregnable Ceský Sternberk, the hunting lodge of Konopiste, and the interior of Krivoklát. The castle at Orlík overlooking the wide expanse of the Vltava may be the nicest of them all. As much as these sites testify to the country's beauty, there are also monuments that reflect its suffering. Witness the remains of the village of Lidice, which was leveled by the Nazis in a reprisal attack during World War II; and Terezín (Theresienstadt in German), the "model" Jewish ghetto, the so-called Paradise Ghetto, where a cruel trick duped the world and left tens of thousands to die. Also worth exploring is the medieval mining town of Kutná Hora (with the macabre "Bone Church" a mile away in Sedlec).
When you tire of touring castles, you can play a round of golf on a championship course in Karlstejn (or Mariánské Lázne if you have the time for a longer trip), sneak away to a cozy inn, or try the next generation of bungee jumping. You can also enjoy a glass of wine at the Renaissance Lobkowicz Château, the center of Czech winemaking in the most unlikely of places, Melník.
All the destinations described here are easily accessible from Prague by car, train, or bus. Some may not have accommodations, so they are best visited within a day. Students and seniors (over 65) should always show ID cards and ask for discounts, which are sometimes available.
By Car -- A liter of gasoline costs about 30Kc, expensive by North American standards but cheaper than in western Europe. Gas stations are plentiful, and most are equipped with small convenience stores.
Except for main highways, which are a seemingly endless parade of construction sites, roads tend to be narrow and in need of repair. Add maniacal Czech drivers in BMWs and Mercedes fighting for the limited space alongside the Communist-era Skodas, and you may think that it's a better option to take the train. Especially at night, you should drive only on major roads. If you must use smaller roads, be careful.
If you experience car trouble, major highways have emergency telephones from which you can call for assistance. There's also the ÚAMK, a 24-hour motor assistance club that provides service for a fee. They drive bright-yellow pickup trucks and can be summoned on main highways by using the SOS emergency phones located at the side of the road every kilometer or so. If you are not near one of these phones or are on a road that doesn't have them, you can contact ÚAMK at tel. 1230. This is a toll-free call.
By Train -- Trains operated by the state-run Ceské dráhy (Czech Rail; tel. 840-112-113, general train information for all stations; www.cd.cz) provide a good and less expensive alternative to driving. The fare is determined by how far you travel. A trip of 50km (31 miles) costs about 70Kc in second class and around 100Kc in first class. First class is not usually available, or needed, on shorter trips.
It's important to find out which Prague station your train departs from since not all trains leave from the main station, though all the major stations are on metro lines. Check when you buy your tickets. Trains heading to destinations in the north often depart from Nádrazí Holesovice, Vrbenského ulice, Prague 7, above the Nádrazí Holesovice metro stop on line C (red). Other northbound trains depart from Masarykovo nádrazí on Hybernská street, Prague 1, near Námestí Republiky on metro line B (yellow). Local trains to the southeast, such as those heading to Karlstejn and Beroun, are commonly found at Smíchovské nádrazí, Nádrazní ulice, Prague 5, on metro line B (yellow). Many trains to eastern and southern Bohemia and Moravia leave from Hlavní nádrazí (Main Station), Wilsonova 80, Prague 1, at the metro stop of the same name on metro line C (red) in the center.
Finding Train & Bus Connections Online -- You'll find a highly useful timetable showing both train and bus connections, as well as times, prices and departure stations, at http://jizdnirady.idnes.cz (note that you have to input city and destination names using their Czech spellings; i.e. "Praha" for Prague). Czech Rail has its own confusing website in English, German, and Czech at www.cd.cz, also showing departure times and stations as well as allowing you to reserve seats and book tickets online.
By Bus -- The Czech bus system is a cacophonous mix of public and private bus companies, and finding the right bus can be a taxing ordeal. Nevertheless, because trains often follow circuitous routes (or train service may not be available at all to some destinations), buses can sometimes be a better option. Buses can get very crowded, however, so make sure that you buy your tickets early and arrive well before the bus is scheduled to depart so that you are sure to get a seat.
Prague's main bus station, Central Bus Station -- Florenc, Krizíkova 5, Prague 8 (tel. 900-144-444 for bus connections information; www.florenc.cz), is above the Florenc metro stop on line C (red). Unfortunately, few employees speak English here, making it tricky for non-Czech speakers to obtain schedule information. To find your bus, you can try the large boards just next to the office where all buses are listed. They're in alphabetical order, but sometimes it's tough to find your destination since it may lie in the middle of a route to another place. The online timetable at http://jizdnirady.idnes.cz can be a real lifesaver and shows all bus connections and prices.
Organized Day Tours
Several companies operate day tours to popular destinations near Prague. Though most offer more or less the same services, it pays to shop around. Try the following agencies.
A Note on Tours -- Though many good organized tours are offered, for the most part I'd recommend going it alone. This gives you the freedom to change plans at the last minute in order to get a little more of what you want, not just what the tours provide. Besides, you get a greater sense of accomplishment when you navigate on your own.
- Martin Tour, Stepánská 61, Prague 1 (tel. 224-212-473; www.martintour.cz), has been around for several years and offers a couple of worthy tours. The Karlstejn Castle tour is its best. The tour is offered Tuesday to Sunday, departing at 10am from Staromestské námestí. It takes 5 hours and is expedient because you don't wait around for the next general tour at the castle. A traditional Czech lunch at a nearby restaurant is included (diabetics, vegetarians, and babies can be accommodated). The tour with lunch costs 950Kc. The 5-hour trip to the country's Jewish memorial of Terezín costs 1,100Kc. The bus leaves five times a week at 9:30am from Staromestské námestí.
- Cedok, Na Príkope 18, Prague 1 (tel. 221-447-242; www.cedok.com/prague-excursions.aspx), in the heart of Prague, has its advantages. For one, it offers by far the widest array of tours outside of Prague. Cedok has been doing this so long that it has access to all the important sights as well as guides who speak several languages. Prices are reasonable for what's offered. A day trip to Karlovy Vary, lunch, a swim at the Hotel Thermal outdoor pool, and a tour of the Moser glass factory costs 1,675Kc, while a journey to Karlstejn Castle and Château Konopiste, lunch and tour included, costs 1,950Kc.
- Prague Sightseeing Tours, Klimentská 52, Prague 1 (tel. 222-314-655; www.pstours.cz), is another reputable firm with some excellent tours. The company offers a combination all-day tour of the castles Karlstejn and Konopiste on weekends that includes lunch. It's a good way to see both castles without the hassle of negotiating the train and bus stations. The price is 1,990Kc for adults and 1,700Kc for children.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.