48 Hours In: Prague

Ben Ross gets lost amid the castles, back alleys and beer halls of Eastern Europe's most entrancing capital


WHY GO NOW?

The Czech capital is glorious in any season, but in summer the city is at its most vibrant, with crowds thronging the lively street cafes and gawping at the sun-blushed architecture. Highbrow diversions are never far away: daily classical concerts are organised in every available space, for which tickets cost only 300Kc (£7.50) or so. Later in the year, the autumn version of the Prague Spring Festival gets underway. Prazsky Podzim ( www.prazskypodzim.cz) runs from 12 September to 2 October, attracting A-list classical musicians to the stately concert halls of the Rudolfinum (1).

TOUCH DOWN

Czech Airlines (0870 4443 747; www.csa.cz) flies from Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow; British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow; easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Nottingham, Bristol, Stansted, Gatwick and Newcastle; and Jet2 (0870 737 82 82; www.jet2.com) from Leeds-Bradford and Belfast.

From Ruzyne airport, about 10km north of the city, the easiest way into the city is to take a minibus. Cedaz (00 420 224 281 005) will take up to four people to one address for 480Kc (£12). Alternatively, pay 20Kc (50p) for a transfer ticket which gets you a ride on the 119 bus as far as Dejvicka metro station, from where you can travel to anywhere on the three-line underground network. Tickets for public-transport cost 14Kc/35p and are available at newsagents.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The city is divided by the Vltava River, which floods periodically (most recently and disastrously in August 2002). To the west lies Prague Castle (2), a district in itself (open daily 9am-5pm), unified behind a steep wall. Below the castle lie the narrow streets of Mala Strana, the "little quarter". The pedestrianised Charles Bridge (3) is the main route for tourists crossing the river, passing a gauntlet of caricature artists and buskers. Stare Mesto, the old town, sits in a rough semi-circle round the eastern entrance to the bridge. It is in turn surrounded by the arc of the new town, Nove Mesto. The Old Town Square (4), one of the great urban spaces of Europe and noted for its astronomical clock, is home to the tourist office (00 420 12 444; www.pis.cz), open 9am-7pm daily (to 6pm at weekends). Nove Mesto's Wenceslas Square (5), the scene of the demonstrations that ended communism in 1989, is now host to casinos and strip clubs.

CHECK IN

Prague's accommodation is rapidly improving. All the prices quoted here include breakfast. Newly opened and set in a quiet lane behind the Old Town Square is the Iron Gate Hotel (6) at Michalska 19 (00 420 225 777 777; www.irongate.cz) which has 43 luxury suites, ranging in design from the rustic to the strikingly modern. Prices start at €300 (£215). The pretty Hotel U Tri Pstrosu (The Three Ostriches) (7) at Drazickeho nam 12 (00 420 257 288 888; www.utripstrosu.cz) has a superb vantage point at the western end of the Charles Bridge. Double rooms with bridge views start at €155 (£110). U Zlate Studny (8) at Karlova 3 (00 420 222 220 262; www.uzlatestudny.cz) is a small pension, situated near the Old Town Square. A double room starts at €155 (£110).

TAKE A RIDE

... in a vintage Skoda. Operators lurk at the southern end of the Old Town Square (900Kc/£22.50 for two people). Or simply take the number 22 tram, which plies a scenic route from Prague Castle (2) through Mala Strana to the Old Town Square (4), and ends up at the National Theatre (9).

TAKE A VIEW

Petrin, the green-topped hill that rises beside the castle, is topped by a scaled-down version of the Eiffel Tower (10), built for the Czech national jubilee in 1891; the vast pendulum ticking indefatigably on the skyline nearby was built for the 1991 version. Take the funicular (14Kc/£35p) then climb 299 steps (admission 50Kc/£1.25) and you'll have the finest view of Prague.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Tax on meals quadrupled to 19 per cent when the Czech Republic joined the EU last year. Eating out is still affordable, though, even at Hergetova Cihelna (11) at Cihelna 2b (00 420 296 826 103; www.kampagroup.com) - an ultra-chic restaurant-bar that enjoys astonishing views of the river. A main of crispy pork salad costs 225Kc (£5.60); pizzas start at Kc175 (£4.35).

TAKE A HIKE

Escape the crowds by heading south from Charles Bridge (3), down the stately Rasinovo nabrezi, and past the famously loopy Dancing Building (12), an apartment block where straight lines have been discarded in favour of sensuous curves. After about 20 minutes, just beyond the junction with Libusina, you'll see a black sign pointing up a series of grassy steps, which lead up to Vysehrad (13), the High Castle. The vast brick fortifications contain a quiet church and shady park, with views over the Vltava as it flows south.

AN APERITIF

The steep walk up to Bazaar (14) at Nerudova 40 (00 420 257 535 050; www.kampagroup.com) is worth the effort. Rooms lit with candles on the floor lead upward to a lovely roof terrace, where Czech lager starts at 55Kc (£1.35) and a margarita will set you back 159Kc (£4).

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

For good beer and hearty food, head for Pivnice U Sv Tomase (15) at Letenska 12 (00 420 257 53 18 35; www.pivnice-sv-tomas.cz), a subterranean beer hall where suspiciously meaty "cabbage soup" (55Kc/ £1.35) is served in bowls made of bread, goulash costs Kc179 (£4.45) and beer starts at 35Kc (90p). Far more upmarket is U Modre Kachnicky II (16) at Michalska 16 (00 420 224 213 418; www.umodrekachnicky.cz), which manages to be both formal and friendly. The venison pâté starter is Kc190 (£4.75); leg of lamb costs 375Kc (£9.35).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

You can't throw a hassock without hitting a church in Prague, be it Catholic or Protestant; Baroque, Renaissance, Gothic or Romanesque. The imposing bulk of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn (17) takes the prize, though, by being a little bit of everything: the unmatched towers of its exterior are Gothic, the interior is Baroque; it started out Hussite, but was later taken over by the Jesuits. Mass is celebrated every Sunday at 11am.

Alternatively, visit Josefov, the Jewish Quarter. The area, with its disused synagogues and cemetery piled high with graves, has become a haunting memorial to the suffering of Jews in the city. A ticket to all the sites costs 300Kc (£7.50), with entry to the still-functioning Old-New Synagogue (18) an extra 200Kc (£5). The complex opens 9am-4.30pm daily except Saturdays and Jewish holidays.

OUT TO BRUNCH

The Ebel Coffee house (19) at Tyn 2/640 (00 420 224 895 788; www.ebelcoffee.cz) is a pretty little backwater just behind the Old Town Square. The all-day breakfast costs 165Kc (£4.15), or settle for an espresso (Kc50/£1.25) and bagel (Kc25/65p).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Even in summer, Prague Castle (2) casts a long shadow over the city; you can see how local boy Franz Kafka (1883-1924) drew inspiration from its sombre presence. Once inside, buy Ticket A (350Kc/£8.75), which grants access to all the available exhibits, including the tranquil Basilica of St George and the Great Tower of St Vitus Cathedral.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Return to Mala Strana from the castle via the steeply terraced, white-walled plots known as the "Palace Gardens Beneath Prague Castle" (20), open 10am-6pm daily. Each tiny piece of flat land is planted neatly with fruit trees, vegetables, or arrangements of flowers - and offers an antidote to the monumental scale of the castle itself. It costs Kc69 (£1.75) to take the pretty way.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Ticket A at the castle will also give you access to Golden Lane, a picturesque (if expensive) row of shops within the precincts, dating from the 16th century. Franz Kafka briefly lived at number 20, which is now a bookshop. Here, a copy of his The Castle costs 250Kc/£6.25.

WRITE A POSTCARD

A few rooms of the stately Wallenstein Palace (21) at Valdstejnske namesti 4 are open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays (10am-5pm, admission free). But the real treat is the palace's garden. Find a bench and write as you admire the ludicrously kitsch "dripstone wall" that dominates one end - caves and doors are in the artificial stone.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Obecni Dum, Prague's Municipal Hall (22) at namesti Republiky 5 has to be seen to be believed. Downstairs, the hangar-like restaurant, cafe and over-the-top American bar are a fevered mass of Art Deco tiles, chrome and glass. Feast your eyes, then your tastebuds: a slice of chocolate cake in the cafe costs 40Kc/£1. Upstairs, the vivid murals and frescoes of the assembly rooms can be visited on organised tours leaving at 10.15am, noon, 2pm and 4.30pm, price Kc150 (£3.75).

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