The Golden City of Prague – Then and Now
Contributed by Milena
We just returned from the wonderful, albeit cold, city of Prague this past week. We had visited previously in May 2008 with (then) a 5-year and a 2-year old and returned this time with a 10-year and 7- year old and with their grandmother. Talk about two very different trips!
Prague is, hands down, my favorite city in Eastern Europe. It is romantic, has history, the people are friendly and love Americans, and it is cheap by Western European standards.
In this post, I offer insight and logistical tips for things to do and see in Prague to accommodate different age groups. This is a longer post in comparison to others on this site, but it is as thorough as I can get without writing a guidebook! I hope you will find it useful!
Driving to Prague
Driving to Prague is an easy driving option from Vienna (3.5-hour drive). There are plenty of roadside grills along the way if you need to stop for food and tons of McDonald’s and KFC’s. The Czechs really like both fast food options so you can literally find them EVERYWHERE. We stopped at an “auto” grill for lunch and were pleasantly surprised by its offerings.
And don’t forget: when you cross the Czech border, stop at the nearest tabak or gas station to purchase the Czech toll sticker so you can legally drive on the highway. It is sold in 10-day increments for about $15-16 US.
Language and Money
Language is obviously Czech. My previous Polish lessons (we did a previous post in Warsaw) came in handy here since the two languages are similar.
The local currency is the Czech koruna, which makes things somewhat cheaper. At the time of our visit, 20 kc roughly equaled $1 US (to convert prices from kc to USD, drop the last zero and divide by half for a rough estimate).
This will make or break your trip. Prague is an excellent walking city, but obviously it’s difficult to do that when you are shivering down to your bones. Our first trip occurred over a long weekend at the end of May. It was still somewhat cold, but it was spring-like cold, which was perfect. I remember starting off that weekend wearing a light sweater and ending our trip in shorts and a t-shirt.
This past trip was completely different. Perhaps Easter equated to spring in my mind, but that was certainly not the case in Prague (or Vienna for that matter!). There was daily flurry activity, the wind was blowing, and it was freezing cold. That was the biggest complaint I got from the kids who begged to go to museums for warmth. So, make sure you check the weather in advance or better yet, visit Prague in May, June, September and October. I leave out July and August because it is hot and there is no air conditioning in many places.
Hotels are plentiful in Prague, but we have never stayed in one. Both trips we stayed in an apartment in the Anděl section of Prague. It is about 2-3 trams stops from city center and the Metro as well as the Nový Smichov shopping mall and restaurants (such as TGI Fridays and a superb Argentine grill) is one block from the apartments. There are also supermarkets (e.g., Tesco, Albert’s) within a block so you can stock up on necessary items.
We rented a 1-bedroom during our first stay and a 2-bedroom this time around since my mother was along for the ride. We stayed at Aparthotel Angel. The apartments were simple with modern furnishings but, most importantly, had lots of space and wi-fi was included. I recommend these apartments mostly for their location and ease of transport options.
Parking is available for 15 Euro per day, but is based on availability. There is also a lot nearby for 10 Euros per day, which we were directed to. If you stay here, don’t do what my husband did and park at the mall where upon retrieving our car, we ended up with sticker shock: US $347 for 4 days of parking! In retrospect, he should have just pretended to lose the ticket and we would have only owed US $100!
All I have to say about this is that it is cheap and efficient! Tram 22 is equivalent to the “Ringtram” in Vienna and drops you off right in front of the castle area (short walk from stop) and the Lesser Town area.
Check out the Prague’s transportation site for an app to plan your journey and for transit maps. You can even buy tickets via SMS (smsTicket).
Every kind of cuisine is available here. Czech food is hearty and beer is cheap (favorite Czech beers: the original Budweiser and Pilsner). And rest assured, if you have picky eaters, there is an abundance of American food: I saw five (!) TGI Fridays within a 3-mile radius. There is even a Hard Rock Café in old town!
Things to Do
Where to begin!? There is lots to explore, see and do. Let’s start with….
Staré Město – The Old Town
There are no Metros or Trams in the Old Town. To get there, it is best to take a tram to Karlův Most (Charles Bridge) and walk down Karlová Street to the Old Town. You will want to go there anyway because this is the area with views.
Prague is a city of many views. You can climb up the Bridge Tower, the Old Town Hall Tower, the Petřín Look-Out Tower, St. Nicholas Church, Prague Castle, etc. I say pick a tower on one side of the river and another one on the other and leave it at that! Otherwise you are paying money to climb stairs for the same view which is a rather unnecessary form of exercise considering that you will spend most of your visit walking on an incline anyway – did I mention the hills yet? Keep reading!
From Charles Bridge, walk down Karlová Street, generally a tourist trap of a street, which also houses some fine shops selling Bohemian Crystal and glass. You will also find many art galleries throughout the city. My recommendation for shopping is to check out prices and make a mental note to go back to whomever has the better deal. Nové Město, or the New Town also offers many shops selling similar items.
There are many restaurants and cafes along the way and within the Old Town Square itself. By the square, you can take a carriage ride, which is usually a big hit with the kids and every hour on the hour, you can watch the Astronomical (i.e. the Doomsday) clock at work. You can’t miss it since the crowds congregate in front of it every hour. (Be careful of pickpockets in the crowd: this is a well-known location for them.) My suggestion if you are there in the afternoon, have kids, and need a “pick-me-up:” visit Café Mozart across from the clock. It is upstairs and if you request, you can sit next to a window and enjoy your cake and coffee (or ice cream for the kids) while you watch the clock in action. Best view in town!
From Old Town, you have several options. You can book a lunch, dinner or hour-long cruise on the Vltava (we used Martin Tours). On your way back, you can stroll down Pařížská Street (high-end shops and restaurants) and pass the Jewish Quarter before arriving back at the Vltava River dock. The cruises are fun for kids and a nice place to take a break from all that walking. I found the one-hour cruise to be perfect as anything longer might bore young kids.
The other option is to walk down Celetná Street (located near the Týn Church), which leads to the New Town. Once you reach the “Powder Tower” take Na Příkopě Street ending at Wenceslas Square.
I don’t mention the Týn church because there are many churches to explore in Prague and young children tend to get bored quickly and have a hard time being quiet. We did visit this one as well as both of the St. Nicholas churches on our previous visit, but if you have really young children, I would stick with the magnificent main cathedral of St. Vitus (comparable to St. Stephens in Vienna).
Wenceslas Square bridges the area between the Old and New Town. It is a large boulevard like the Champs Elysées, but without the traffic. Streets are lined with hotels, restaurants and shops.
The significance of Wenceslas Square lies in politics. When the people of Prague protest, this seems to be the gathering place. The events of the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Velvet Revolution in 1989 took place here. And for all you movie lovers, this square may look a tad bit familiar because it was used to represent two locations in the movie Mission Impossible: The Grand Hotel Europa served as Max’s apartment and the façade of National Museum behind St. Wenceslas Statue was used to represent the US Embassy. St. Wenceslas is the same one represented in the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” A statue representing him sits in front of the National Museum.
The last time we were here, we only walked around. This time, we headed over to the Museum of Communism on Na Příkopě. My mother is Cuban and since my kids are now older, it was a good history lesson for them, both in the museum and over lunch with abuela.
Prague Castle Complex
Prague is best known for Pražský Hrad, its Castle Complex, situated on top of a hill. The easiest way to get there is to take tram 22 or 23 to the Pražský Hrad stop. You can hike up the hill if you really want to, but during our first trip with strollers, that did not seem like a good (or fun) option. And just to warn you, going down may seem easier at first glance, but is, in fact not, as the trails can be rather steep. Just take the tram!
A guard keeps watch at the entrance to the 1st courtyard and there is a changing of the guard ceremony every hour. No matter how much you look them in the eye, they do not blink! It is reminiscent of the changing of the guard ritual at Arlington Cemetery in the US.
The Castle Complex dates back to 880. Since this time, the “castle” has served as seat for the Head of State (princes, kings, now the President) as well as for highest representative of church, the Archbishop of Prague.
The castle is not really a castle, but a group of buildings that include St. Vitus Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Old Royal Palace, the Czech President’s home and office, St. George’s Basilica, and Golden Lane. The spires of St. Vitus are what give the complex the appearance of a castle. You can pay for admission to each attraction separately or in a bundle.
During our visit in 2008, we chose the short audio guide tour because we doubted the kids would survive past two hours. This time around, my mother wanted to do a hop on/hop off tour, which provided a tour of the castle grounds and a brief stint inside St. Vitus. This is a good option if you are not too interested in history. I like history and if you do too, you should definitely take the tour. Don’t forget you can always bribe the kids with a trip to the Prague Zoo for good “boring tour behavior” or have one group take the kids there while the history lovers in your group take in the full tour. If you opt to take the kids on the short audio tour, St. Vitus is definitely the church you want to bring them into.
St. Vitus Cathedral
As you stroll into the 2nd courtyard, the magnificent façade of St. Vitus Cathedral is the first building you encounter. I have seen many cathedrals over the years, but I liked this one most (so far) because of the light. Most cathedrals in Europe are kept dimly lit, but this one has natural light flowing through the stained glass windows.
While the history of the Castle Complex dates back to the year 880, the cathedral was founded in 1344, a year after Notre Dame in Paris was completed. It was modeled after cathedrals in France (flying buttresses and all) and was not fully completed until 1929 although it was in use before then. I am not sure of the exact measurements but I found it to be much larger than St. Stephens.
A branch of the Habsburgs is buried in one of the many imperial tombs at the center of the Cathedral before the high altar. The relics of St. Wenceslas are kept within Wenceslas Chapel, which is not open to the public. The crown of St. Wenceslas is kept in the chapel under seven locks. Seven keys are distributed to various heads of government so that the locks can only be open if all seven key holders are present. It is only on display once every 8 years. St. John Nepomuk (more on him later) is buried here in an ornate silver coffin as is King Charles IV who practically built the city of Prague.
In our discussion with the guide this time around, we leaned that Czechs are not religious people and that churches these days are quite empty for services. They serve more as art and history museums.
The Presidential Palace
Only five rooms are open to the public including Vladislav Hall. Its big windows are considered to be one of the first examples of the renaissance style in Bohemia. Other rooms include a bed-chamber, parliament, and a chapel. Walking past the Old Royal Palace, you come upon St. George’s basilica, the oldest church in the complex built around 920. Inside you can see remnants of Romanesque ceiling paintings as well as tombs of Bohemian kings.
Following St. George’s, we walked towards Golden Lane. Dating from the 15th Century, this small street is lined by 11 historic houses, which now sell all kinds of souvenirs. Golden Lane got its name from the story of alchemists living in the street during the reign of Rudolf II who tried to make not only the philosopher stone or the elixir of youth, but also to transform metals into gold. Franz Kafka lived here in No. 22. The lane itself is charming, but unbelievably overcrowded. I would avoid it or go first thing in the morning.
As you exit Golden Lane, you end up in front of Daliborka Tower, an old dungeon named after a young knight, Dalibor, its first prisoner.
The Castle Hill grounds are open to the public from 5am to midnight daily so you can wander through the gardens (great place to let the kids run) or take the trails as far down as you can stand it into Malá Strana, or the Lesser Town.
Petřín Hill is a park on one of the many hills. At the base of the hill before going up to the funicular, is a sculpture memorial to the victims of communism. It contains seven “phases” of a man living in a totalitarian state – from the first statue being a full man, up to the last statue where only a part of him remains. This evaporation represents the gradual physical and psychological destruction of a man who is ruled by any undemocratic regime. The man disappears due to censorship, secret police, restrictions of thoughts and expressions etc. It is a very moving memorial.
From the memorial, walk right to the Újezd funicular tram, which is included in any transportation ticket. You will want to take the funicular as the hill is 1043 feet high! As you ride up the tram, you see the city of Prague emerging from the trees. The park contains many gardens, trails. It is peaceful and quiet yet a nice open area for kids to safely run around. Once you get to the top, it is a short walk to the Petřín Observation Tower. A small version of Paris’s Eiffel Tower, it was built in 1891. The view is magnificent and well worth the 299 step climb to reach the viewing platform. You can opt for the elevator to the top as well for a few more crowns. There is a café here which sells paninis and hot dogs as well as coffee and cake. It can be very crowded at lunch. You can also bring your own lunch and picnic in the park if the weather is nice.
Near the tower, there is an indoor labyrinth of mirrors like the funhouses at carnivals in the US. The kids loved making their way through the maze and then ended in a room of mirrors with distorted appearances.
There are two playgrounds that we were able to locate in Petřín. One is near the tower and seems best for kids 5 and up since there are mostly climbing stuctures. The second is on the way down to the funicular’s first stop and is suitable for all ages.
When you leave Petřín (by foot or funicular), and if you are still up for more exploring, you can take Tram 22 into the Lesser Town.
Malá Strana (Lesser Town)
The Lesser Town is called this way because it is smaller in comparison to the towns across the river. The US Embassy is located in this area (you can actually see it from the Castle). The better of the two St. Nicholas churches is located here. If you are into churches and art, pick this one.
There are restaurants and shops here too and they all lead to the Lesser Town gate that connects to the Castle side of Charles Bridge.
There are only two reasons to walk down the steps from Charles Bridge to Kampa Island (near the Malá Strana entrance):
1) you are a big fan of Mission Impossible and want a picture taken on the famous steps and
2) your kids need a playground break. If your kids need a break, go down the steps (take your picture) and go right and underneath the bridge. There is a playground for all ages here. Amazing how children who complain about being tired suddenly have an uptick in energy when a playground is introduced.
You will take in Charles Bridge on your way to and from Mala Strana or the Old Town. Don’t worry, it’s hard to miss! It is a magnificent medieval bridge and religious statues line each side. One in particular, the statue of St. John Nepomuk, attracts attention because parts of the plaque on its base are still golden. People touch this part of the statue for good luck.
The bridge is lined with street vendors and musicians. There is one musician that your children will enjoy at any age. He plays music over glasses of water. It is quite a sight! This is a great place to take in the views and take pictures of the Castle Complex.
Notes on traveling with younger children (contributed by Mary, who traveled to Prague with her 3- and 4-year old children, and Nicole)
- The Czechs are very child-friendly. The shopkeepers didn’t seem concerned about our children touching things, and the employees at the puppet shops actually gave our kids puppets to try out. Our children were handed free chocolates and lollipops everywhere we went, and whenever we got on a tram people got up so my kids could sit down.
- Similarly, almost every restaurant that we went to had a child’s menu and high chairs available, and no one seemed put out if we ordered something like a plate of French fries as a meal. One especially child-friendly restaurant is Kozlovna Apropos restaurant on Krizovnicka 4 (only a block or two from Charles Bridge). As soon as we sat down the waiter brought a box of Legos, a box of dolls, and a coloring book with crayons to our table, and then gave each of our children a toy to take with them when we left. Oh, and the food and beer there was terrific, too!
- On the topic of trams: while they did seem to come more regularly than the ones in Vienna, they were generally smaller, crowded, and involved stairs to board. I only saw a few trams that were handicapped/stroller accessible, and I am not sure how we would have used the trams if we had a stroller with us.
- On a similar note, I would not classify the city as stroller-friendly. There are lots of cobblestones and narrow passages, as well as a few steep inclines. The climb to castle hill from the lesser city would have been especially painful with a stroller considering it was a steep incline primarily lined with cobblestones.
- There is a Lego store and museum on Národní 31 in the 1st district, close to the old town. The floor on which you enter contains the store and a few display cases of old school Legos, plus a couple interactive displays. The museum is downstairs, and since we managed to escape without visiting the museum I cannot give any more details on that topic.
- Lastly, there is a mini train that does a one-hour loop from the old town square to Prague castle. We did this late afternoon when the kids were tired, and they both fell asleep as soon as the train started moving. The tour wasn’t overly spectacular, but it was a good way for mommy and daddy to see some sites while the kids took a much needed nap.
- A great place to stop is the “railroad restaurant” Vytopna – close to Wenceslas Square where 400m of railroad tracks allow a miniature train to deliver drinks. Note that the food is NOT very recommendable but if you’re stopping for some drinks or a beer, this is a great place!
- This blogger has a great suggestion for avoiding the crowds by heading to the Vysehrad fort for a relaxing park, playground, and beer garden day – highly recommendable!
To wrap up, Prague is a wonderful long weekend getaway. Prague can be divided into four quadrants, three of which hold the majority of attractions, so two full days (with a half day on arrival and departure) is all you need with older children. With younger children, spread your stay over 3 full days to allow for afternoon naps at hotels and such.
There are also day trips from Prague. Kutná Hora has a famous bone church, which would either score points with the kids or freak them out. The Terezín concentration camp is equivalent to the Polish Auschwitz. Don’t bring kids under 14 here (or to Auschwitz!)
My last tip is to download a guidebook on your e-reader or phone rather than carrying around a hard copy. If you have questions, please feel free to post them. Have a fun trip to Prague and let us know what you did!