48 Hours In: Prague
Browse the markets, feast in elegant restaurants and walk through this miraculously preserved city – a weekend in the Czech capital is most rewarding in the spring.
Saturday 28 March 2009
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Why go now?
The Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolanek, may have lost his job this week, but 20 years after the collapse of communism Prague is thriving – and at its best and brightest in spring. The city has two cheerful Easter Markets, which run 9am-7pm daily (later at weekends) until 19 April in each of the city's two main plazas, Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. Soak up the atmosphere among stalls offering traditional hand-decorated eggs, hog roasts and cold beer.
Bmibaby (09111 54 54 54; bmibaby.com) flies to Prague from Birmingham and Manchester; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow; Czech Airlines (0871 663 3747; czechairlines.co.uk) from Heathrow and Manchester; easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) from Bristol, East Midlands, Gatwick and Stansted; and Jet2.com (0871 226 1737; jet2. com) from Leeds/Bradford.
The airport is 20km north-west of Prague. The cheapest way into the city is on bus 119, which runs from 4.15am-midnight to Dejvicka (1), the western terminus of Metro line A. You need to buy a ticket in advance at the airport public transport desk for 26 Czech crowns (26kc), about £1. You can connect to any metro station, tram or bus in the city within 75 minutes of starting your journey. Alternatively, the Cedaz shuttle service operates from 6am-9pm and drops you in the city centre for 120kc (£4.80). A 20-minute taxi ride into the city costs around 650kc (£26).
Get your bearings
Prague's main attractions are neatly balanced between the west and east banks of the River Vltava in four distinct districts. To the west is Hradcany, the hill topped by Prague Castle. Below are the winding streets and green slopes of Mala Strana (the Little Quarter). Across the Vltava – reached by the iconic Charles Bridge (2) – is the heart of the city, Stare Mesto (the Old Town). Josefov, the Jewish quarter, lies to the north on the curve of the river.
Tickets for the city's public transport system cover all trams, buses and the metro – buy them at metro stations or newsagents. You could pay 100kc (£4) for a 24-hour pass or, bizarrely, 330kc (£13.20) for a three-day pass – you are better off buying three 24-hour tickets. These tickets are also valid for the Petrin funicular – see Take a Ride, below. Validate your ticket (once only for passes) before you travel, using the yellow machines at metro entrances and inside trams and buses.
The Prague Information Service (00 420 221 714 444; prague-info.cz) has branches at the Old Town Hall (3), the splendid pink building next door to the Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square (open 9am-7.30pm daily) and at the main railway station (4) – open 9am-4pm at weekends, to 7pm on weekdays.
Dum U Tri Capu (5) is on the left bank near the Baroque church of St Nicolas at Tomasska 20 (00 420 257 533 833; utricapu.cz); the name translates as The House of the Three Storks. It is a chic Eva Jiricna-designed hotel situated on a quiet square below Prague castle in Mala Strana. Double rooms, including breakfast and free Wi-Fi, start at €129.
A few steps from Prague's defining landmark is the boutique hotel At the Charles Bridge (6) at Na Kampe 15 (00 420 234 652 808; archibald.cz) which dates from the 16th century and is currently offering a double room with a river view for 4,275kc (£171) if booked online.
The more traditional Hotel Antik (7) at Dlouha 22 (00 420 222 322 288; hotelantik.cz) is conveniently close to Old Town Square with double rooms including breakfast for around €159 (or €15 more for a river view).
Bazar Antique is co-sited with the Hotel Antik (7) at Dlouha 22; it sells carefully-selected ephemera. Just west along Dlouha several other shops offer smart additions to the home, including La Maison at number 24 and Apropos at number 36.
You can barely turn a corner in Prague without seeing Bohemian crystal; some of the most stylish can be bought at Material (8), which has a gallery at Lazenska 9 (00 420 257 533 663; i-material.com), and a shop nearby at 7 U Luzickeho seminare. A handblown, exquisitely decorated Martini glass will set you back 1,800kc (£72).
Classical music lovers can check out CD shop Via Musica (9) on the corner of Malostranske Namesti and Nerudova (10.30-7pm every day).
As well as the city's two Easter Markets, Havelska market (10) is a permanent fixture, selling a mix of fruit, vegetables, flowers and souvenirs; it opens 7am-6.30pm on Saturdays, 8am-6pm on Sundays, and 6am-4.30pm during the week.
Lunch on the run
The hot chocolate comes thick and flavoursome at the Choco Café (11) at Liliova 4 (00 420 222 222 519; choco-café.cz). You can get it spiced up with ginger, sea salt or chilli for 59kc (£2.35). Pick a bruschetta with one of a variety of toppings from 100kc (£4) to complete a delicious take on fast food.
Take a ride
Tram 20, 22 or 23 will drop you at the foot of Petrin Hill (12), from where you can take the funicular railway to the summit; it runs every 15 minutes from 9am-11.30pm daily. At the top of the hill, explore the attractions that include an Eiffel-inspired observation tower (13) and Mirror Maze (70kc/£2.80 each, both open 10am-6pm).
Take a hike
From the top of the hill, meander down the paths that wind through this former vineyard, taking in the fine views of Prague castle and the city below. At the bottom, turn north onto Karmelitska to the Church of Our Lady Victorious (14), best known for its wax statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague. The modern museum above the church showcases elaborate vestments created for the statue during the 18th-20th centuries and you'll find reproductions of the Infant in every conceivable material in the church shop (9.30am-5.30pm daily, except Sunday 1-6pm Sun).
Cross Karmelitska and turn right into Prokopska and through to Maltezske Namesti (15), once a settlement of the Knights of Malta. Cross the square into Velkoprevorkse and walk past the mother of all graffiti on the John Lennon Wall (16), where thousands have left their colourful tributes.
At the end of the wall, cross the small bridge to Prague's answer to Venice, Kampa island. Walk into the peaceful square of Na Kampe. Steps on the north side lead to the Charles Bridge (2), but to explore the rest of the island turn right to the park and riverfront. Ahead of you is the island's restored white mill building, which now houses the Kampa Museum (17) – a collection of Central European modern art open 10am-6pm daily (admission 180kc/£7.20; museumkampa.cz).
Where better to sample a typical Czech brew than at U Pinkasu (18), a traditional beer house next to Wenceslas Square on Jungmannovo Namesti (00 420 221 111 150; upinkasu.com)? Sink a large glass of Plzenska Prazdroj 12-degree proof beer for 41kc (£1.60) on one of several floors or outside seating areas.
Dining with the locals
Within the good-looking but unimaginatively-named Municipal House (19) at Namesti Republiky 5 is one of the city's most beautiful dining rooms: Francouszka Restaurace (00 420 222 002 770; francouzskarestaurace.cz). It's worth splashing out for a two-course dinner for 1,390kc (£55) to experience the restaurant's stunning Art Nouveau interior and blend of Czech and French cuisine.
A hearty Czech platter at local favourite Kolkovna (20) at Kolkovna 8 (00 420 224 819 701; kolkovna.cz) includes duck, smoked meat, beer, sausage, cabbage and three kinds of dumplings for 325kc (£13); or try beef goulash and potato pancakes for 165kc (£6.50).
Sunday morning: Go to church
Work began on the glorious St Vitus Cathedral (21) in 1344, with the finishing touches made in 1929 – surely one of the world's longest building projects. Join the locals for mass at 11am and then spend a few hours exploring the other eclectic features of Prague Castle (00 420 224 372 423; hrad.cz), including the Basilica of St George, the doll-like houses on Golden Lane and the macabre exhibits in the Daliborka prison tower.
Admission to the cathedral is free; a 'short tour' ticket gains you entrance to the major sights for 250kc (£10) or buy a 'long tour' ticket at 350kc (£14) for additional sights such as the Powder Tower. Most buildings open from 9am-6pm (closing earlier in winter).
There is no admission charge for the surrounding castle grounds, which are open 5am-midnight.
Out to brunch
You can have your eggs any way you like at the Little Whale (22) at Maltezske namesti 15 (00 420 257 214 703; umalevelryby.cz). The restaurant's Sunday brunch (11am-4pm) offers favourite breakfast treats and includes a glass of sekt for kc365 (£14.60).
Take a view
The Old Town Hall (3) offers a spectacular 360-degree panorama of the city: buy a 70kc (£2.80) ticket on the 3rd floor and take the circular glass lift to the top of its 70 metre-high tower. Open 9am-6pm daily (Mondays from 11am).
A walk around the Jewish Quarter of Josefov is both fas cinating and moving. Start by buying a 300kc (£12) ticket at Pinkas Synagogue (23) for the area's main sights, open from 9am-4.30pm daily except Saturdays and Jewish holidays (00 420 221 711 511; jewishmuseum.cz). Inside you find the synagogue's whitewashed walls covered with thousands of names of those who perished in death camps across Eastern Europe. Next door, the leaning headstones fight for space in the Old Jewish Cemetery. Paintings in the Ceremonial Hall offer a poignant display of Jewish burial rituals.
A walk in the park
Enclosed within high walls in Mala Strana, Vojanovy Sady (24) began life as a Monastic orchard in the 13th century and is now an elegant landscaped garden complete with resident peacocks. There is also a more formal area of clipped box hedges and rose-covered pergolas on the west side (open daily, 8am-7pm).
The icing on the cake
A late-night walk over Charles Bridge (2) from the Old Town, past its 30 religious statues (and the current restoration work on the east side of the bridge), will reward you with fairytale views of the brightly-illuminated Prague Castle.
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