Why go now?
Why go now?
After recently celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, Prague begins the new millennium in optimistic mood, with its tenure as one of the European Cities of Culture 2000. For visitors, winter sees the perennially popular Bohemian capital at its quietest; providing a rare opportunity for that jostle-free romantic stroll across Charles Bridge. Add a coating of snow to this chilly wonderland and January becomes a perfect month for a weekend break.
The cheapest deal is from Stansted on the daily flight on Go (0845 605 4321 or www.go-fly.com). Fares start at £ 95 (£ 93 if you book via the Internet), but with only one plane a day, it can be difficult to get a real bargain. British Midland (0870 607 0555 or www.britishmidland.com) and British Airways (0345 222111 or www.british-airways.com) fly daily from Heathrow but at higher fares, eg £ 189 return. A better bet is on Czech Airlines (0171-255 1898) between 4 and 22 February 2000, when there are special return fares from £ 109.50. This airline also offers five flights a week from Manchester non-stop to Prague.
A walk in the park
Petrn Hill is a network of eight parks that make up Prague's largest green space. Take the funicular railway (cable cars run approximately every 15 minutes from Ujezd) up to Petrn Tower (an Eiffel Tower lookalike) to enjoy a cup of mulled wine and unparalleled views of the city's famous "hundred spires". There's also a maze here - built for the 1891 Prague Exposition - that includes a mirrored section.
Icing on the cake
Leave the coach parties behind in Prague 1 and head out to one of the city's most vibrant inner suburbs, 'izhov (Prague 5). 'izhov retains the atmosphere that fuelled Prague's tourist boom at the start of the Nineties, when backpacking Americans arrived intoxicated by the legendary 30p pint and breathless talk of a "new Left Bank". Here, you can visit Franz Kafka's final resting-place in the overgrown Jewish cemetery, or the tallest structure in Prague, the TV Tower - strictly for fans of brutal 1970s architecture. 'izhov, though far from picturesque or glamorous, is where modern-day Czech writers and artists live, work and drink. One of the best ways to get quickly acquainted with the area is on the Zikov Pub Walk (00 420 261 214 603): the two-hour tour costs Kcs250 (£ 4.50) and includes three drinks.
Take a hike
Wrap up well, don sensible shoes and start the classic Prague walk from the Old Town Square, the heart of Prague since the 10th century. You can't fail to see the baroque St Nicholas Church, but it's worth catching the hourly chimes of the 600-year-old astronomical clock, a mechanical masterpiece. Wind your way through the narrow lanes and passages towards the famous Charles Bridge with its views of Prague's fairy-tale skyline, towards Prague Castle, Europe's oldest, dating back to the 9th century. The steep climb is rewarded not only by the view, but the myriad courtyards, gardens, towers, museums, galleries and churches to explore. Resist the temptation to spend an entire day here. It's easily done.
Get instant karma at the John Lennon Wall (Velkoprevorske nmest), more than simply a graffitoed monument to Lennon, who was lauded as a pacifist hero by young Czechs. During the Eighties, when Western music was banned, the wall acted as a focus for Czech dissent against the Communist authorities. Today, it's regarded as something of a tourist oddity, featuring all manner of scribbles, from the political and subversive to inane and offensive, but also a reminder of the hope that music can inspire.
Downriver from Charles Bridge, the charming 150-year-old restaurant, Zofn (Zofn 226, 00 420 224 918 134) is hidden away on the island of Slovansky Ostrov. The traditional Eastern European menu is authentic, but not cheap. Also on the banks of the Vltava river is Ostroff, Strelecky ostrov 336 (00 420 224 919 235), an Italian restaurant with commanding views of the National Theatre. If you can't afford dinner here, the restaurant's American bar is one of the city's hippest hang- outs. Meanwhile, Vladare, at Maltezke nmesti 10, (00 420 2 538 128) attracts celebrity visitors to a secluded corner of the Lesser Quarter. Dating back to 1779, this traditional Czech restaurant specialises in game and fish.
Head for the new Red Room at Kremencova 17 (00 420 224 916 047), sister to Gargoyle's French/Californian restaurant around the block. This intimate bar is bathed in hellish red tones but the Mediterranean bar- food, cool cocktails, and live folk music are heaven-sent. U Fleku at Kremencova 11 (00 420 224 915 118) is one of the best places to sample cheap (around 70p a pint), potent Czech beers (Velvet, Gambrinus and local brew Staropramen).
Get your bearings
Prague's taxi drivers are notorious cowboys - negotiate a fare with the cars outside Terminal 3 before getting in: a trip into central Prague should cost around Kcs600 (£11). The cheapest route into town is on the number 119 bus to Dejvick metro station for Kcs12 (20p). A good compromise is the airport minibus, which runs every half-hour for Kcs90 (£ 1.60). The main areas of interest - Wenceslas Square, Old Town Square, Charles Bridge and Prague Castle - are easily reached on foot. Prague is very walkable, and to choose any other method of exploration would be to miss its charming cobbled lanes, mysterious dark alleys and cornucopia of architectural gems. Prague Information Service (Old Town Hall, Old Town Square, 00 420 224 482 202) can provide maps and the English- language weekly newspaper, The Prague Post, and the new Prague Affair magazine (www.pragueaffair.cz) are both useful reads.
Prague is short of accommodation (particularly mid-range options) and, compared to other services, it can be prohibitively priced. Among the luxury choices is the five-star Hotel Jalta Prague, at Wenceslas Square 45 (00 420 222 82 2111), with 89 chic rooms costing from Kcs8,200 (£ 150) per double. Catering to a large Japanese clientele, the hotel includes a sushi bar and Japanese restaurant. Also on Wenceslas Square is the art- nouveau Hotel Europa (00 420 224 228 117), one of the city's most distinctive, and popular, hotels with doubles from Kcs3,700 (£ 68). Across the Vltava river is the Hotel Sax at Jnsky Vrsek 3 (00 420 257 530172), a fashionable place with wooden floors, whitewashed walls and doubles from Kcs4,500 (£ 80). For budget travellers, the Hostel Sokol, Ujezd 40/450, Prague 1 (00 420 257 007 397), in the trendy Mala Strana district, is clean and friendly. Dorm-style beds cost Kcs270 (£5).
Among the best buys are Bohemian crystal and pottery with Bohemian Mosaic at Rytirska 24, which offers one of the most extensive selections, from kitsch to contemporary. Also worth a wander is the Lucerna mall, situated just off Wenceslas Square, a marble-pillared shopping arcade. With its exquisite cafe, cinema and lively music bar/club, Lucerna is, for the moment, refreshingly tourist-free, with genuine Eastern European panache.
Lunch on the run
A recent Prague phenomenon has been the emergence of oriental-style tea-houses serving warming brews and light meals. Mal' Buddha, Uvoz 46, Prague 1 (00 420 220 513 894) is a calming Buddhist tea-room, serving nourishing fast food and exotic herbal teas, all at very Zen prices.
One of the first cultural events of Prague 2000 is "Prague's Passages" (1 Jan-31 Mar) at the Fragner Gallery (11), an exhibition of Prague architecture and interiors, documenting the city's development from the turn of the 20th century. Alternatively, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's mutual love affair with the city is celebrated at Bertramka, Mozartova 169, Prague 5, the 17th-century villa where the composer completed his opera Don Giovanni, and which now houses a Mozart Museum and cafe. For a more contemporary and gritty cultural experience, join the Communist Prague Walk (from Muzeum Metro station at 3.30pm) with informative local guides relating their personal experiences of November 1989's Velvet Revolution, during a tour of the important sites from Prague's 40 years under Communist rule.