48 hours in Prague

With its medieval castle, cathedral and beautiful squares, the Czech capital has a fairy-tale charm. And it's very good value for British visitors, says Cathy Packe


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Now that summer is over, the crowds have finally thinned out in the Czech Republic's capital, making sightseeing more pleasant. And on 27 October, the city's annual two-week jazz festival (00 420 2 2481 8277) begins, with concerts taking place in venues around the city.

BEAM DOWN

There are plenty of direct flights to Prague from the UK. British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow; Czech Airlines (0870 4443 747; www.csa.cz) from Heathrow, Stansted, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh; easyJet (0870 6000 000; www.easyjet.com) from Bristol, Stansted, East Midlands and Newcastle; and Jet2 (0870 737 82 82; www.jet2.com) from Leeds-Bradford. Fares vary enormously but a return fare of £75 would be good value. The most direct route into the city is by minibus from outside the terminal; these leave as soon as they are full, dropping passengers at their hotels. A charge of 320 Czech crowns (written Kc), or £7, applies for each stop, and up to four people can be dropped off at one place for the same price. Alternatively, take the (very slow) bus number 119 as far as Dejvicka station , and then transfer to the metro; the bus journey and an onward metro ticket will cost Kc19 (40p). For details see www.dp-praha.cz.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The city sits astride the Vltava river, with the castle dominant on a hill on the west bank. The different districts are clearly defined: the Mala Strana, or Little Quarter, sits beneath the castle; on the opposite bank are Stare Mesto, the Old Quarter; Josefov, the Jewish district; and the new town, or Nove Mesto. The heart of the city is the Old Town Square - the Staromestske Namesti - although recent history has determined that the thin, sloping boulevard that is Wenceslas Square is better known. The main tourist office (00 420 12 444; www.pis.cz) is on the Old Town Square at number 1, beneath the astronomical clock, and is open Mon-Fri 9am-7pm, weekends until 6pm.

CHECK IN

Prague's newest upmarket hotel is the Aria , at 9 Trziste (00 420 2 2533 4111; www.ariahotel.net), a quiet street near the castle; there is a stunning view over the city from the hotel's roof garden. You pay for it, mind: rooms start at €325 (£226), although this includes breakfast and pick-up from the airport. For a room right in the city centre it is hard to do better than U Prince at 29 Old Town Square (00 420 2 2421 3807; www.hoteluprince.cz). The rooms are surprisingly quiet, given the location, and recently renovated, and the heated outdoor bar on the square is a good place for an early evening drink. In the low season, beginning in November, doubles start at Kc6,190 (£135), and singles at Kc5,990 (£131), including breakfast. Pension Dientzenhofer , at 2 Nosticova (00 420 2 5731 6830; www.dientzenhofer.cz) is in a quiet location but not too far from the action; tucked away down a side street, this 16th-century house is one of the most popular hotels in the city. Doubles here start at Kc2,800 (£61) and singles at Kc1,900 (£42).

TAKE A VIEW

Despite the presence of some of Europe's worst buskers, linger on the Charles Bridge . Whether you are looking west towards the castle , with the cathedral above it, or east towards the asymmetrical towers of the Tyn church and the solid form of the National Theatre further south, the view is impressive; at night it is magical.

TAKE A RIDE

Take a boat from the quay on the river's west bank, and admire the view from the water. Autumn temperatures don't need to be a deterrent, as all the boats have an enclosed, heated cabin. Most trips last 45 minutes and depart on the hour, although in winter the frequency may be reduced - phone to check on 00 420 2 2493 0017 and see www.paroplavba.cz. Trips costs Kc200 (£4.40).

TAKE A HIKE

Set off along Karlova on the eastern side of the Charles Bridge, stopping to admire the vast Klementinum (00 420 2 2166 3165; www.acein.cz/astronomickavez). This is the national library, and is worth visiting for the views from the top of the tower; but it is closed during the winter. Continue beyond the end of Karlova into the beautiful Old Town Square . This is the location for the Christmas market, which this year runs from 25 November to 6 January. In the centre is a statue of Jan Hus, the religious heretic and national hero, and the church of St Mikulas. The main attraction is the astronomical clock above the Town Hall; its hourly strikes are accompanied by a parade of mechanical figures. From here, take Celetna as far as the Obecni Dum at 5 Namesti Republiky (00 420 2 2200 2101; www.obecni-dum.cz). This civic centre, which contains Prague's main concert venue, the Smetana Hall, is the finest example of Art Nouveau architecture in the city. For more of this style, walk down Na Prikope, and turn off into Panska. At number 7 is the Mucha Museum (00 420 2 2421 5409), which contains examples of the work of the Czech Republic's best-known artist; it opens 10am-6pm daily, admission Kc120 (£2.60). Finally, continue along Na Prikope to the lower end of Wenceslas Square , location for the demonstrations of 1989 which led to Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The ground-floor café at Obecni Dum (00 420 2 2200 2763; open 9am-6pm) serves a good selection of sandwiches and light meals in lovely surroundings; the dessert trolley circles continuously to provide extra temptation. There are a number of cafés, too, on Wenceslas Square , including the elegant Cafe Europa at number 25 (00 420 2 2422 8117; open 7am-midnight daily), which offers salads and omelettes as well as more substantial dishes.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The castle (00 420 2 2437 3368; www.hrad.cz) is the seat of the Czech government, and a complex the size of a small town. It contains not only the parliament building but also the old Royal Palace, home of the Kings of Bohemia, and St Vitus Cathedral. Good King Wenceslas is buried in a chapel bearing his name. A door from this room, locked with seven keys, leads into the chamber where the crown jewels are held. The grounds of the castle are open 6am-11pm daily, the buildings are open 9am-4pm. A ticket valid for three days that covers all the attractions is Kc220 (£4.80).

WINDOW SHOPPING

If you are prepared to search for bargains, rather than expecting to find them all in a single store, Prague is a treasure trove. Peep into the Lucarna Arcade , an Art Nouveau jewel that links Wenceslas Square to Stepansky; another location to browse is Ungelt , the courtyard behind the Tyn church . For Bohemian crystal, try Male Namesti , a small square where several producers, including Moser at number 11 (00 420 2 2161 1520; www.moser-glass.com), have their stores. Loutky at Nerdova 51 (00 420 2 5753 3035; open daily 10am-7pm) sells hand-made puppets.

AN APERITIF

A good area for an evening drink is Malostranska Namesti , a rectangle below the castle which surrounds the church of St Mikulas. Try a glass of Pilsner Urquell (the strong, cheap beer that draws so many stag parties to Prague) at U Kostela at number 2, or Jo's Bar at number 7.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

For delicious, traditional Czech cuisine (heavy on meat and dumplings), try U Tri Pstrosu at 12 Drazickeho Namesti (00 420 2 5753 2410). Kampa Park at 8b Na Kampe (00 420 2 5753 2685; www.kampapark.com) is a very popular restaurant, particularly in summer, but its excellent food and stunning views across the river to the city's main sights make it a good choice at any time of year. Zahrada V Opere - the Garden in the Opera - is in the same building as the Opera House, on the left of the National Museum at the top of Wenceslas Square, at 75 Legerova (00 420 2 2423 9685; www.zahradavopere.cz). It has a number of Eastern touches in both decor and food.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The two unmatching towers of the Tyn church dominate the skyline of Prague. Although the building is undergoing seemingly endless restoration work, it still opens for Mass, so it is worth popping in for a glimpse of the gilded Baroque splendour. Service times vary according to the time of year; they usually take place at 11am and 9pm on Sunday, and at 8am on Saturday. The entrance is up a passage from the gateway on the Old Town Square marked number 14.

OUT TO BRUNCH

For a continental breakfast, try Ebel Coffee House at 2 Tyn (00 420 2 2489 5788; open 9am-10pm daily). For something more substantial go to Cafe Slavia , a Prague institution opposite the National Theatre at 1012 Smetanovo Nabrezi (00 420 2 2423 9604; www.restaurantparnas.net). For the full works, with a jazz accompaniment, book in at Bellevue at 18 Smetanovo Nabrezi (00 420 2 2222 1438). From 11am-3.30pm each Sunday it has a three-course menu, with as much orange juice or champagne as you can drink, for Kc795 (£17) a head.

A WALK IN THE PARK

The biggest green space is Petrin hill , on the western side of the city. Take the funicular railway; this runs every 15 minutes between 9.15am and 8.45pm from the station on Ujezd . The most notable sight is the Hunger Wall, a 15th-century job-creation scheme to provide work for the increasing number of destitute people in the city at that time.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

The Strahov Library , at 1 Strahovsky Nadvori (00 420 2 2051 6671; www.strahovskyklaster.cz), is breathtaking. It occupies the remains of a monastery that was founded in the 12th century, and flourished until the Communist era. Its fine collection of books is housed in two exquisite rooms. The Philosophical Hall has shelves from floor to ceiling. Outside the ornate Theological Hall is displayed the oldest book in the library: the 9th-century Strahov Gospel, beautifully illustrated and inlaid with precious stones. The library opens 9am-noon and 1-5pm daily; admission Kc60 (£1.30).

WRITE A POSTCARD

...from Josefov, the Jewish district, one of the most haunting parts of the city, with graves dating back hundreds of years piled on top of each other in the small cemetery . The synagogues (00 420 2 2231 7191; www.jewishmuseum.cz), closed during the Communist era, have been reopened. A ticket for the cemetery and most of the synagogues costs Kc250 (£5.50); the Old-New , which still functions as a synagogue, costs an extra Kc300 (£6.50). All open 9am-4.30pm daily except Saturdays and Jewish holidays. The Pinkas synagogue is still closed following flood damage last year.

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