Prague's bohemian rhapsody

by Francesca.Syz

With its Gothic spires, Baroque domes, twisting medieval alleyways and cavernous candlelit taverns, Prague's an amalgamation of all your childhood fairy tales

Prague has been embracing the free thinker since the days of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, crowned King of Bohemia in 1575. His court was a lively place through which a steady stream of philosophers, alchemists, astronomers and artists passed. His mission in life was to accelerate the world’s spiritual and moral renewal through debate with those he invited into his private world.
 
The city would continue to captivate creative types, from Mozart and Franz Kafka to the 1960s pro-democracy Absurdist playwright Vaclav Havel, who became president when communism collapsed in 1989, and its spirit for free-thinking has endured. The arrival of democracy gave Prague a whole new lease of life. Today, it is a vibrant, cosmopolitan international city to which young, creative Praguers, who fled to London, New York and beyond in their droves, are now returning.
 
Post-war emergence
Despite a tumultuous history, Prague emerged from World War II with miraculously little damage and there are few places in which it’s more enjoyable to get lost. The city’s five central neighbourhoods – on both sides of the River Vltava - are all within walking distance of each other and linked by bridges, the most noticeably ornate being the Charles Bridge, flanked at either end by Gothic towers and dotted with statues of Catholic saints.
 
On the East Bank is Stare Mesto (Old Town), home to the city’s medieval town square with its famous astronomical clock. In winter, it is transformed into a huge Christmas market. Next door, Nove Mesto (New Town) has some fine examples of Art Nouveau and Baroque architecture. Josefov (the Jewish Quarter) is a labyrinth of tiny alleys and crumbling synagogues and home to some of Prague’s most glamourous boutiques. Across the river are Mala Strana – a mass of winding, cobbled leafy lanes – and Hradcany, the hillside neighbourhood crowned by Prague Castle.
 
Hotel tips
The city has several excellent hotels. One of its first boutique properties, the chic Hotel Josef, located in the Jewish Quarter and designed by Eva Jiricna, opened in 2003 and since then a fleet of other great luxury hotels have followed. More recently, the elegant Mandarin Oriental opened in a converted 14th-century monastery in Mala Strana, with a spa housed in the renaissance chapel, an Asian-modern European restaurant and a cosy piano bar. 
 
The Art Deco-meets-contemporary Hilton Prague Old Town has just given all its bedrooms a facelift and added, among other things, a branch of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant and cocktail bar, Maze, being overseen by Ramsay protégée Jason Atherton.
 
Grown up clubbers will like the new modern Asian Buddha-Bar Hotel Prague, just a short walk from Old Town Square and the Parisian restaurant group’s first hotel project. Later this year, Rocco Forte will unveil the much-anticipated Augustine, another converted monastery, this time just below Prague Castle.
 
Culture
No visit to Prague would be complete without attending a concert and you will find no shortage of opportunities, whether you’re looking for a solo performance or a fully-blown orchestral extravaganza. Book tickets in advance to see an opera at the gorgeous Estates Theatre at the bottom of Wenceslas Square in the Old Town, where Mozart personally conducted the world premiere of Don Giovanni back in 1787.
 
The Mucha Museum in the ornate Kaunicky Palace in Nove Mesto celebrates the life of local artist Alphonso Mucha (1860-1939) and provides an excellent refresher course in Art Nouveau. For 20th-century Czech avant-garde furniture and design, visit Prague’s biggest dealer, Modernista, housed in a Baroque Palace in the heart of the Old Town.
 
Make the steep ascent to the Prague Castle complex, a miniature walled city in itself, with its own cathedral, churches, presidential palace and art galleries. Whether you choose to explore the buildings themselves or just go to admire the fantastic city views, it's worth the trek. Pop into nearby U Cerneho Vola for a glass of chilled Czech beer among wizened regulars.
 
Evening magic
Begin the perfect evening with martinis at Tretters, a 1920s New York-style cocktail bar in the Old Town and then amble on to V Zatisi for seriously good, eclectic gourmet food. The evening should finish off with a nightcap in a bar with no name you find en route on the way home, where, if you play your cards right, you can get into a hot debate with a local.