Why is Prague so special? Simply put, it is the most eclectic place I’ve ever been. It is a place where tumbling Medieval walls are splashed with modern political graffiti, where a futuristic TV tower presides over streets teeming with centuries of shabby grandeur, where in the same day you can sip tea like a Crawley sister in a luxurious art nouveau salon or toss back shots of absinthe in a bar that used to be a concrete bunker. It is both a baroque fairy tale and a cubist fever dream.
Prague is dense with a thousand years of history, which still feels very much alive everywhere you go. Prague seethes with art– vibrates with it. There is hardly a building or structure in the entire city that hasn’t been designed with some kind of aesthetic principle in mind– the wilder and more experimental the better. You’ll see just about every architectural school of thought known to humankind represented somewhere on her streets. Prague is just as beautiful as Paris, maybe even more, but completely lacking in affect. Prague is not overly slick or standoffish. Prague is a hostess that invites you in from the rain, hands you a beer, and doesn’t give a fig if you’re tracked mud in on your boots.
After months of living in staid, buttoned up Switzerland, Prague was exactly what I needed.
Here’s my Prague adventure in words and pictures.
Arrived in the afternoon and took the bus/ tram from the airport to my Air B&B place. Prague has an excellent and fully integrated public transport system. Don’t bother getting ripped off at the airport by a taxi or shuttle service. The bus comes right outside the terminal and you can buy a bus ticket before you even step outside.
My room was in Brevnov, an unpretentious little neighborhood on the city outskirts.My Air B&B hostess plied me with coffee and then gave me some suggestions about where to explore for the afternoon. I have decided that Air B&B is really the only way to travel solo. Not only is it great to have someone to talk to when you’re on your own in a new city, but on a whole, Air B&B hosts really seem to care about helping you have a good time and discover everything their city has to offer. If you want an authentic experience, they’re way better than a hotel concierge. (Tip: Get yourself a really good map, don’t rely on a free tourist map. Prague is a labyrinth and finding sights you want to see can sometimes feel like trying to find Diagon Alley. If you want to get off the beaten track at all, you’ll need a good map.)
If you get tired of stepping out in the city center, Brevnov is home to Klasterni Senk, a working monastery with it’s own brewery. The restaurant is hearty and refreshingly tourist free, and the grounds are great for exploring too.
Home brewed beer and a cozy atmosphere at Klasterni Senk!
Two major tram lines stopped right in front of the apartment and could whisk me to and from the city in a short time. Brevnov with it’s family owned shops and bakeries was a nice laid back haven from the tourist hustle in Old Town.
At my hostess’ suggestion, I wandered in the direction of the city. From Stradhovske nadvori, another nearby monastery, there’s a breathtaking view of the entire city. It’s a great place to go when you first arrive so you can look out everything and say to yourself, “Yep, I’m in Prague.”
The monastery also overlooks a Vineyard, Because Prague.
From there I wandered down the hill and into old town, crossing over the famed Charles Bridge, which is every inch as charming and tourist clogged as everybody told me it would be. Worth it.
I got my first, “Wander round a corner and end up somewhere gobsmackingly weird and beautiful”, moment in Prague when I wandered round a corner and into Valdsejnska Zahrada, a gorgeous royal garden with these cool faux volcanic rock walls. Also, there just happens to be an aviary with live owls in it built into the walls. Because Prague.
Faux volcanic rock walls, which are said to have creepy hidden faces in them…
By the time I wandered out of the garden, darkness was falling and I was getting hungry. I just happened to pass a veggie restaurant housed at the top of a gorgeous historic building. I’m glad I hiked up those three flights of stairs because Lo Veg was definitely worth it. Nice atmosphere, friendly staff, and the veggie goulash was to die for. (Side note, people will warn you that veggie food is hard to find in Prague, but I didn’t find that to be so. Wander around a little and you’ll stumble upon quite a few veggie restaurants!)
I headed straight for Prague Castle, which is more of a collection of historic buildings atop a hillside than it is a traditional, “residential castle”. The crown jewel of which is St. Vitus Cathedral. One of the problems with traveling a lot is that it can leave you rather jaded. I tend to be of the opinion that once you’ve seen one Cathedral you’ve seen them all, so I almost didn’t go inside St. Vitus. I’m so glad I changed my mind, because I ended up seeing some of the most amazing and ornate stained glass I’ve ever seen in my life!
Mucha designed stained glass. Pretty damned breathtaking.
An older church on site, St. George’s Basilica, is also worth a visit. Marvelous frescoes and I just happened to catch the tail end of a choral performance when I walked in!
Inside Saint George’s Basilica.
From there, it was time to get my art nouveau on, so I headed straight to the Mucha- designed Prague Municipal House, aka my official palace when I am crowned Princess of Prague.
It’s well worth the price of admission to wander around inside for a while.
There’s a great exhibit on art nouveau design and fashion there too. My only regret is that I did not get to make it inside the theater itself, which was closed at the moment. I did get to peep into it through the gallery and hear the pipe organist warming up though! If you love classical music, they do concerts there pretty regularly too.
That day I also stopped by the Mucha Museum, which is small and a little disappointing, although there is a pretty great film about his life and work there too. If you want a full frontal Mucha experience though, go to the Veletrizni Palac. More on that later.
Stopped by the House of the Black Madonna, Prague’s famous Cubist house. An awesome piece of architecture with a cool cafe that’s worth visiting if you want to pretend you’re hanging with Picasso’s crowd in the 1930s (and who doesn’t!) but unfortunately, the Museum of Czech Cubism was closed for renovations at the time.
You’ve seen it in art history textbooks… the famed cubist staircase…
I headed straight for the Velentrizi Palac, Prague’s national art gallery. Housed in what looks like just a big ugly office building, Velentrizi Palac is home to the largest and most eclectic collection of late 19th-20th century art I’ve ever seen. In addition to works by great Czech artists, there were works by Picasso, Munch and Gustav Klimt that I’d never gotten to see outside of art history textbooks before. They also had a lot of film, poster and print design, dioramas, sculpture, even some interactive exhibits.
3 stories of art, with a musical performance space in the center.
The most mind blowing thing I saw there though, was Alphonse Mucha’s breathtaking masterpiece, the Slav Epic. If you simply think of Mucha as a print artist, this will completely reinvent your notion of him. He’s an artistic genius, a champion of the Czech people and a true lover of humanity.
The Slav epic is a cycle of 19 larger than life paintings that depict the history of the Slavic people. They have their own enormous gallery space, creating an effect very similar to walking into a Cathedral. I felt dwarfed by the power of these immensely detailed and theatrical paintings. The only thing I can compare the scope, detail and sheer passion of the artwork is to Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel. Viewing the Slav Epic felt as reverent and humbling to me as walking into the Sistine Chapel did. Just imagine being in the Sistine chapel and really being able to take in the art without being pushed around by throngs of tourists, and you’ll get how powerful seeing the Slav Epic was to me.
Once I was done in the museum I took a wander past Prague’s John Lennon wall.
During the height of communism, Lennon was seen as a pacifist hero to young Czechs, who graffittied his image on a wall in Prague as an act of defiance against the government. Years later the wall has continued to evolve as a piece of public art. It is constantly being painted over, added to, etc. At the moment it has, quite appropriately, become the host to a message of solidarity with the citizens of Hong Kong.
People adding their messages of support to the wall.
Lunch that day was at a cool beer hall called Local, which serves a vast variety of home-brewed beer and hearty stick to your ribs food. (Try the potato dumplings!) Evening drinks were at Duende, a laid back little hole in the wall that attracts an arty, punky kind of crowd. After dinner jazz was at U Maleho Glena, a well-regarded jazz and blues club that is literally, underground.
My hostess suggested that I check out Vinohrady, Prague’s hip, laid back and off the beaten path neighborhood. I had a lovely day hanging out in the park, hitting up a farmer’s market, and checking out this cool futurist church:
Of course, there was lots of incredible architecture to ogle:
And what trip to Prague would be complete without a trip up the weird, wacky and utterly amazing Prague TV tower? It’s bizarre, it’s covered in crawling baby sculptures, and has the most kick ass view in town. Which you can view from a pod chair dangling from the ceiling while you are serenaded by piped in ambient sounds. I can’t make this shit up.
Lunch was at the cool and laid back Cafe Pra De Luna, dinner was at the incredible veggie restaurant Lehka Hlva (Clear Head). The place has wonderfully arty decor that I did not fully get to appreciate because they were pretty booked up and could only offer me a table in the courtyard. But the food was stunning and the service was great. This is a must visit if you’re looking for veg dining in Prague.
Looking for a more bite sized version of Prague? Check out my guide to Krakow!
Prague is a city you could explore for weeks, months, years or a lifetime and still keep discovering amazing things. A great writer once told me that a book should end on an inhale, and so does my adventure in Prague, with so much left to taste and feel and see and do.