Small tips for a great city. What not to miss in Prague

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Every year it seems to have a favourite city where I am back more than once. Once upon a time was Budapest, or London or Tel Aviv. The winner of the 2014 trips was the lovely Prague, which I had the occasion to visit at least four times this year, after more than 2 trips on previous occasions in the last years. This last time, as it was a spontaneous trip, I tried to spot those things that should be on the bucket list of the traveller to Prague, and mostly can be done without too much money or special efforts.

During my first trip to Prague, the spectacular Dancing House – nicknamed Fred and Ginger, after the famous dancing partners Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – caught my eyes. Designed by Frank Gehry in collaboration with the local architect Vladi Millenic, it goes against the classical standards of local architectural beauty, but it definitely has its special charm. If you see it once, it’s hard to forget it!

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The lovers of classical architecture and especially of Art Nouveau, will have a lot of opportunities to nurture their eyes with beautiful apparitions. All you need is to learn how to use your eyes. After the first hour of walking around the old city, it will easily become a habit to speedily browse with the sight every building looking for some special unexpected corner.

??????????There is not only the Charles bridge. Although the most famous, it is only one of the 10 bridges over Vltava river. Many of them can be crossed by foot.

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Prague and the Czech Republic are famous for their exquisite glass art. Around the capital city, there are a couple of glass factories that can be visited, but otherwise, the best works of glass art can be admired in the small shops, some of them also offering live workshops introducing the visitor to the secrets of this traditional craft. Booking in advance is not necessary.

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If you start your journey early in the morning, it’s hard to avoid the open markets, selling besides souvenirs, among which various drawings, also fresh fruits and vegetables. My newest discovery was the Havlova Market.

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Some of the local samples of architecture are more than simple habitats, but decorated as unique works of art.

??????????Prague is a traditional city for jazz lovers. One of the famous one is Reduta, but there are many others inviting places for those passionate about this music style.

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The newly reopened Prague Technical Museum offers an extensive introduction to the Czech industrial history, with its samples of cars, airplanes, balloons and bikes. An interesting journey also for the non-practical humans, like this writer.

??????????If not necessarily in the mood to spend one or two or three late nights in a club with live music, it’s easy to have your own musical auditions. Some of the bands can be really good so they fully deserve some $$.

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While walking in a completely new area during my last trip, I was surprised by the ugly yet interesting insertion of the highway in the middle of the small buildings from the Vinogrady neighbourhood.

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My first encounter with Prague took place at the Art Nouveau decorated Central Station, as I was coming by train via Budapest. Built at the beginning of the 20th century, the Hlavni Nadrazi – the busiest railway in the Czech Republic – went through massive renovations in the last years.

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Although Prague is still an affordable city for tourists, little by little it is developing its luxury side too. Proof: the recent Jimmy Choo boutique opened, where else, but on Parizska – Paris – street.

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If not in the mood for some luxury shopping, a good coffee, near the window, from where you can observe the daily coming and going of the street is a good solution. This time, I tried O’Papa, a quiet bistro with a lot of healthy food options too.

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Last but not least: don’t forget to try some good traditional Czech beers. Near the Florench bus station, you can find the smallest microbrewery in the world, Pivovarsky Klub. Don’t forget to order some traditional Czech food too!

For more pictures from Prague and links to previous posts, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board

How to spend two full hours in Prague

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My 3-week long trip to Central and Eastern Europe started with a pleasant surprise: I was offered the chance to spend 2 full hours in Prague. After ten years of unjustified absence from the city, I was able to visit the city twice within the last 6 months. As during my February trip I made almost the full list of to-dos in the city, I had the freedom of gazing to the buildings or just walk in under the sunny sky of this summer. With sure and (very) fast steps, we headed directly to the old town area.

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I will never have enough time to fully understand and admire the spectacular architecture and art displayed on the streets of the city. From the massive realist statues that seem to fight hard to get a life of their own out of the stone carvings to the delicate Art Nouveau details, my eyes were challenged to keep a permanent focus.

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Many of those details I’ve seen more than once during my trips in the city, but you can never have enough of too much beauty, I suppose.

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My wandering to the city had at least one clear direction: to spend a bit more time at the Municipal House, right near the Powder Gate. The massive construction that was inaugurated in 1912 after 7 years of work is situated on the former location of the palace of the King of Bohemia who lived there in the second half of the 14th century. The historical details might be not obvious for the first-time visitor, but the beautiful embroideries of the building and the elaborated glass paintings and decorations are unforgettable.

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Every inch of wall and surface was carefully adorned with elaborated glass walls painted mostly in the Art Nouveau style. Nowadays, the municipal house is a distinguished concert hall – Smetana Hall bearing the name of a famous local composer, but it was used for various purposes in the last century. Here, for instance, was signed the Czechoslovak Declaration of Independence in 1918.

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The hall – that can be visited with guided tours – continues with a big coffee, Coffee Kavarna, where I dreamed to have my morning coffee for a long time. Before the coffee arrived, I spent a lot of time admiring the golden outlines of the interior decorations, delicately insinuated alongside the massive white marble.

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The lightning installation reflected in the massive mirrors are creating an even greater impression of a huge space. If you have a lot of imagination, you might feel invited to a secret ball at a castle.

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The entrance reminded me of old pieces of exquisite jewellery. Too much decorations are always a dangerous taste decision, but a creator should always assume the risk of going beyond the limits of accepted standards.

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Overloaded by colours and golden rays, I finally had my coffee paid with the local currency carefully saved from the last trip. Given the ambiance, the prices of a breakfast are much higher than the usual cheap offers around, and the coffee was not the best in the city, but I was too happy for finally spending time here for excessive kvetching.

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With some more time left, we took fast the road under the Powder Gate trying to see at least Charles Bridge in the summer. The only discomfort of the last trip was the late winter cold, which limited significantly our freedom of movement. Now, people were all over the places, many of them wearing delicate cotton umbrellas to get protected against the hot sun. Cleaning cars were spreading water on the streets aiming to bring more freshness.

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The streets were full not only with tourists, but with many more street artists, either presenting their works on sale, or sketching within minutes portraits of the visitors interested to leave with a special personalized memory from Prague.

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The colours of the painters were joined by the exuberant outbursts of sounds uttered by the street bands. Artists were almost everywhere and most of their music was very pleasant to the busy ears.

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Shortly after 12 o’clock, making your way through the streets was not an easy task. Especially if you hurry up as we did. Most shops in the old town were open and the offers of restaurants were becoming even more tempting. Languages from all over the world were heard on the streets, creating a good feeling for the indefatigable traveller in me: world can be so small sometimes!

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In the front of the Prague Astronomical Clock we went through another new experience: waiting together with a significant mass of people the last three minutes before 13 o’clock. Some were there with a purpose, some – like us – were simply by accident trying to get into the exciting mood of all the people gathered there. When the time had come, it was hard to stay untouched by the wave of excitement of people listening to the first gongs.

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We finally made it to the Charles Bridge as well, although for very short couple of minutes only, and at least with two new memories about Prague, we headed back to the bus station, waiting for the return in another dear city of mine: Budapest. To be continued.

For more insights from Prague, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/prague/

 

With a lot of love, from Prague

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When I was introduced to Prague, ten years ago, I instantly fell in love with, not only because I had enough time to know it and the best accompanying Czech humour to understand it, but because is something in the air that inspires you to do it. Not surprisingly, ten years after, we are still in love. My only question to myself is why I did not visit the city more often, with only 4 hours away by car from Berlin?

When we arrived, on a Sunday afternoon, it was cold, but not cold enough to deter us from a long walk through the city. After checking-in our accommodation in a relatively communist looking area, we started the (re)discovery, first by an old looking tram, and for the next 5-6 hours, by foot.

We couldn’t resist the curiosity to enter the imposing Opera, with the national composer Smetana a popular choice on the program, but also with a very elegant restaurant for exquisite music lovers.

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We continued without a plan on the streets from Nove Mesto, never having enough of the mythical architectural apparitions.

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The next hours were wisely spent in the Jewish quarter, the former Josefov ghetto, learning more about what used to be once a very interesting and well learned community. Nowadays, most of the synagogues are museums that can be visited with a common ticket covering all the main buildings displaying the local history. At the Pinkas synagogue, the walls are covered with the names of the Jews from Moravia murdered during WWII. At the first floor, an impressive exhibition of drawings of former inmates, many of them children, from Theresienstadt, situated close from Prague.

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The last stop, before a rich lunch at the King Solomon Kosher Restaurant, the Jewish cemetery, where many European Jewish personalities rest, among them the famous Maharal of Prague and the poet and kabbalist Avidgor Kara.

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Trying to avoid the busy streets with tourists from all over the world, we walked our way to the castle looking for small corners, without too much light, but with beautiful buildings telling their stories. Not necessarily because in the middle of a sociopath crisis, but because such a city requests to be listen in silence from time to time.

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But it did not last too long, our vow of silence. On the way back in the center, we got back the mood for society, and even made some jokes with the guys disguised as huge plush whales inviting us for a Thai massage. Instead of an Asian adventure, we wanted to see more local authenticity and entered one of the many Manufaktura shops, with puppet toys and hand made wooden products or natural cosmetics. With the temperature dropping, we made another stop at the colourful Blue Praha.

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Some iconic places should not be avoided, but photographed with interest. The astronomical clock is a mystery in itself and the picture can be an inspiration for more stories later. I wanted to have my own story of a famous Pavlova cake, but the Golden Deer, our last stop for the day, offered me instead an Algerian coffee, eggnog and whipped cream. As usual, I am ready for surprises and decreed that the taste is wonderful. With the taste of novelty back, I feel a mixed message of the black-and-white cobblestones: encouraging me to go to a new trip while waiting for me soon. Image

This time, I left Prague only for less than 24 hours, for a little travel adventure to Bratislava. The morning after, and the last in Prague for a while, we were early on the streets, practising my old time passion: discovering how a city is getting ready early in the morning. A very sunny Tuesday morning, this time.

In less than 30 minutes, we tried tram and metro, using the cheap tickets that can be bought usually from the yellow machines at the metro stations. The controls are quite frequent, as we noticed ourselves, so better respect the laws of the place.

From Namesti Republic square, we walked direction Wenceslas Square.

Paying respect to my childhood, I insisted to stop in the front of the Koh-I-Noor shop, explaining how much I loved this name at a time when I didn’t know it’s in fact the name of a rare diamond. At the time, there were the best pencils in the word I was ready to pay a fortune for.

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The architecture on the way to the famous square – synonymous with the anti-communist Prague Spring – deserves an extensive bibliography. When I was not taking pictures, I preferred to stop to the many bookstores on the way, many with rich English sections.

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When you don’t speak the language, walking only doesn’t bring always too much insights about the places you visit. As usual, I was craving for some cultural and historical stories. After more than 24 hours without a museum, I decided to visit the Narodni Museum, for an exhibition about money, whose main attraction was a gold ingot that was touchable. Besides, a lot of interesting information about the sociological paths of money and various snapshots from the pre- and post-war local economical challenges. Another interesting exhibition was dedicated to ‘scandals’ featuring various media coverage of the rich repertoire of bribes and corruption local stories. No wonder that Karel Capek’s wrote so interesting sci-fiction stories after years spent on the journalistic front.

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A visit to the Tower of Prague can be (mis)judged as a stereotypical tourist attraction and usually rejected with elitist despise. My excuse is that a panoramic view of the city explains a lot about how it developed and grew, shows it’s histories and architectural development. Especially in the 19th century, Paris was a reference point, and even a small scale Eiffel Tower was built that can be seen and visited today, with a funicular.

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Back on the ground, I entered one of the many crystal and glass shops, another local branded product and instead of an exhibition that I was supposed to visit, I arrived in a glass workshop where I was explained how the small souvenir glass birds or cats are made. Fascinated, I watched how the glass was malleable enough to be shaped easily, but only if used the right seconds when it was still hot enough.

 

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We returned on the Charles bridge, this time under the daylights. 10 years ago, in the early summer, the bridge was full of various presences, among them some orange dancing Hare Krishna, moving slowly in the sound of their tambourine among tourists and bouquinistes. The local artists were there now, with their unique pieces of jewellery or charcoal portraits, plus so many people franticly taking pictures. We rather prefer to have a stop and observe the small universe from a corner of the bridge.

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Lunch time is not always easy, especially when our time is limited. This time, I follow the opinion of the group and we stop at Gopal vegetarian restaurant. The sabjee – veggie ragout – and the pakora – very spicy balls are acceptable, cheap – as almost every meals here, offered for less than 20 euro for 3-course meals – but nothing special, despite a colourful and bohemian ambiance and a very fast service.

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I am more hungry for culture, and two days ago we were too late for the exhibition at trompe l’oeil painted Schwarzenberger Palace. The history of baroque in the Czech lands introduce us to the world of local painters, many of them strongly influenced by the German, Italian or French colleagues, yet adapting their techniques to the richness of the local traditions and landscape. At the neighbouring Salm Palace, the first extensive exhibition since 1968 of Ludvik Kuba, who was not only an Impressionist landscape painter, but also a dedicated traveller and anthropologist.

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At the castle nearby, time for a change of the guards, not an easy task with so many tourists ready for at least a photographic memory of the event.

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Since my trip to Luxembourg, two months ago, the crème brûlée – does it sound too brutal in English ‘burnt cream’ ? – is insidiously entering my usual travel menu. At the eclectic restaurant Pod Vezi, where I hear ‘A wonderful world’ at least the fifth time in the last 48 hours – I taste my pistachio variant. The crust was tasty, even delicious, but the cream a such a little bit too watery.

As I watch the time, we realize that it’s about time to go close to the bus station for the sad ‘return to Berlin’ moment. On the corner of my notebook, I scribble where I should go the next time: Special Effects Museum – dedicated to the passionate movie making Czech history (think about Milos Forman, for instance) – and the Museum of Czech literature.

At the Gallery Zlata Libi I discover some well priced design works, a domain often presented as part of the local branding of the Czech republic in Germany.

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I don’t like – ‘hate’, actually is the right tough word – to say ‘good bye’, and in our last 30 minutes in Prague and shortly before the closing time, I visit the Museum of the city of Prague, trying to learn more about my guest city. One of the historical observations is that ‘Prague basin used to be a crossroad of trade routes and cultures’. It continues to be today, in the most charming way. It’s a wonderful world, isn’t it?

For more insights from Prague, check my dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/prague/