Pros: Prague Castle, Czech Beer, used as a base to visit surrounding towns and countryside.
Cons: Tourist trap numero uno. Finding accommodation. Nothing really outstanding. Getting expensive.
Prague or Praha to the Czechs is a nice city. Now, you must be wondering if that is the only adjective I can come up with. I am probably going to get some flak for this but I will stand up to my opinion. It is a nice city to visit, but it is not a great city to visit.
I can certainly see why so many people are enamored with this Bohemian city but aside from a few wonderful places of interest (namely Prasky Hrad or Prague Castle and Slavin Cemetery), I felt like Prague is a case of much-ado-about-nothing. Now, this comment is made in comparison to other popular European destinations as well as other places of interests in Bohemia-land.
In all sincerity, there are definitely places worth visiting in Prague. Prague Castle, the Mala Strana area beneath Prague Castle, the Jewish Quarter and Slavin Cemetery in Vyehrad area. Personally, and I know Prague lovers will agree with this, the crown jewel of Prague lies with Prague Castle.
Prague Castle, founded in the 9th century AD is the official residence of the Czech President. Since it is still a functioning center of political power, buildings of historical significance are limited to several buildings within the vicinity of the castle itself. Dominating the skyline of Prague is the wonderful Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, built during the Holy Roman Empire.
A full price ticket of approximately US$7 will enable you to visit all the main five attractions in Prague Castle St. Vitus Cathedral, the Great Tower, Old Royal Palace, Basilica of St. George and the trademens quarter in Golden Lane (where Franz Kafka once worked). Considering the price of the ticket, these places are definitely worth the visit but be warned that unless you are there early (buildings open at 9am), the hordes of tourists (we are talking about Times Square crowd during rush hour) will certainly dampen the magical feel.
I personally enjoyed the wonderful stained glass windows of St. Vitus Cathedral and if you are there at the right moment of the day, you can truly enjoy the breathtaking beauty created when the sun shines through these windows. The royal crypt and St. Wenceslas tomb in the Cathedral also merit a visit. Unfortunately, the Golden Lane east of the Cathedral has been turned into an obvious tacky tourist trap (to be noted as over-priced). I would spend less time in these souvenir shops and more time appreciating the beauty and architecture of the Cathedral. If you are physically fit, do climb the 287 steps of the Great Tower in the Cathedral. The view is the best in Prague. However, be warned as you are likely to hear your fellow visitors cursing between their breaths after the first 100 steps of the spiral staircase.
I will start off using Prague Castle as a focus point rather than the Old Town Sq. considering my disappointment with it (I will explain that later). St. Nicholas Church in the Mala Strana area, located south of Prague Castle, is worth a visit. It is definitely an impressive baroque building topped with a dome visible from far. West of the castle lies the Hraeany district. It is well worth the walk from the castle to appreciate the architecture and history. Here, you will find government buildings housed in baroque and renaissance buildings. You will also find the Strahov Library, the largest monastic library in the country. However, I was disappointed with it since even after charging an admission fee, you are still basically kept behind a velvet rope to appreciate the books from a distance. Not worth the visit, the time nor the money.
I personally found the Old Town Sq. to be the most disappointing. It is just a big tourist trap much bigger than anything I have seen in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome or Athens. Here you will find your souvenir stands and shops hawking everything from T-shirts to Bohemian Crystal and your sidewalk cafes and restaurants. Prices are exorbitant with the exception of Czech beer. You can certainly thank your fellow tourists for causing this galloping inflation. I can certainly find cheaper places to eat in New York City.
On the hour, the area surrounding the Old Town Hall comes to a standstill as hundreds of onlookers stared at the parade of Apostles in the Gothic Astronomical Clock. This is a disappointment and I know that the thousands who stared at it on a daily basis probably would agree, even though they may not openly say so. After the parade is over, the large majority still stood their ground as if they are hoping for more. There is nothing more. The parade ends, the doors close and the bells ring. It is simple and disappointing. The Glockenspiel in Munich is much more interesting and entertaining.
For those who enjoy shopping, check out Na Pikopi and the boulevard surrounding Wenceslas Sq., southeast of the Old Town Sq. Those who are inclined to purchase Bohemian Crystal, I would strongly suggest you explore the shops around the Old Town Sq. as well as the shops found in these shopping areas. At times, I have found prices to vary by more than 50%.
You will also find an amazing range of entertainment and cultural life around the Old Town Sq. There are even budget concerts and recitals held in churches for tourists but unfortunately, the quality is dubious.
Prague is a city best explored by walking. The many alleys and cobblestone streets can hide numerous cafes, restaurants and shops off the tourist belt. In general, Prague is safe, even at night. You are more likely to get hurt by tourists stepping on your shoes. However, if you choose to avoid the crowd in getting around or Czech beer has affected your senses, the subway metro network and the trams are cheap and efficient. I often feel embarrassed looking at the quality of the trains compared to the NYC Subway.
I was disappointed with Czech cuisine. Dominated by meat dishes and dumplings and saturated with sauces, I have found little to be excited about even though I love meat and dumplings. It seems that even the locals themselves prefer the American Invasion of McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut. Hot Dog stands are as ubiquitous as in NYC and equally expensive.
Czech beer is the only consolation and it can certainly hold its own against the top competition from Germany and Belgium.
Prague is a travelers nightmare. Despite the numerous hostels, budget hotels and high-end hotels, thanks to the tourist invasion of the late 20th century and early 21st century, finding accommodation is a scary process. Make your reservations early. With the exception of the top-end hotels (and they are Expen$ive), most reception assistants are not very courteous or helpful. If you plan on staying around the Old Town Sq., book early and be prepared to pay rates you would normally find in London, Paris or NYC.
I would strongly recommend using Prague as a base for visiting the surrounding towns and villages, or at least get away from the tourist belt. Two easy and convenient day trips are to Karlstejn Castle, southwest of Prague, and to the former silver mining town of Kutna Hora, east of Prague. Both are assessable by train from Prague or you can join a package tour from one of the numerous operators around the Old Town Sq.
Kutna Hora (listed in UNESCOs World Heritage List) is worth the visit, and your first stop is likely to be the interesting and macabre Sedlec Ossuary, decorated with the bones of 40,000 people, including soldiers. The Cathedral of St. Barbara is also an amazing and wonderful building, exhibiting beautiful Gothic architecture and design.
Prague certainly has its attractions. I especially enjoyed Prague in the early hours before the shops, museums and galleries are opened. Charles Bridge and the Vlatava River look beautiful and romantic beneath the shadows of Prague Castle. And then the first busload of tourists arrives. I can understand the irony of my complaints of these hordes of tourists, being one myself. Unfortunately, it may well be the tourists themselves who are destroying what could have been a beautiful city.
If you are planning on a trip to the Czech Republic, do visit Prague but if you dare venture beyond Prague, such as to wonderful Bohemian towns like Ceske Budijovice and Cesky Krumlov, you will be rewarded with unspoiled splendor and beauty and much fewer tourists. You will also find room rates and costs of food have dropped significantly.
Am I glad I visited Prague? Yes.
Would I ever want to go back? No.