Walking in a winter wonderland - a short break in Prague

by mrthompson

It's a fact that Prague has joined the stag weekend destinations. But choose the right time and, for a romantic weekend of sightseeing, history, culture, shopping and food and drink, it’s hard to beat

A shoulder in an angle of the River Vltava, the city’s Old Town (Stare Mesto) is a self-contained time capsule. I first spent time there working in February and that for me is the perfect month to visit. The bitter cold of the winter has softened and a dusting of snow only adds to the city’s mediaeval charm. Take a pair of comfortable shoes and arm yourself with a good street map. Walking is the way to explore old Prague.

Where to stay

The Hotel Century Old Town Prague (Na Porici 7) is ten minutes walk from the centre of the Old Town. Double rooms are from around 2233 cz koruna a night but don’t book breakfast. There are better options in town and it's cheaper. The hotel was an insurance company that employed Franz Kafka and you may find yourself in the room that was once his office. Cheaper, from around 1489 cz koruna per night for a double, is the Ibis Prague Old Town (Na Porici 5) next door.

Get walking

This is the perfect starting point. Turn right out of the hotel and head along Na Porici until the street opens into a square, Namesti Republiky. Ahead is the Art Nouveau gem Obecni Dum (Municipal House). It is concert hall, restaurant and cafe, but it’s the cafe we’re interested in. Turn left after entering and you’re in a turn-of-the-20th-century emporium of brass, glass, wood and crystal. The grand piano might be tinkling away, echoed by the fountain at the far end. Open from around 7.30 am, it is the ideal breakfast stop. 119 cz koruna will set you up for the morning. Soak up the atmosphere and don’t be surprised if Kafka turns up for a coffee.

From here, you can turn right through the hulking black Powder Tower and straight to Old Town Square (Staromestske Namesti). But turn left and a more interesting journey winds its way to the hub of the Old Town. Follow your map to Jakubska, passing glittering hotels, haute couture shops, inviting bars and restaurants until, facing you, is an archway, through which you find yourself in the courtyard of Tyn. Here are cafés, craft shops and bars as well as a balcony that’s missing only Juliet. Walk on into an alley until you reach the wide open space of Old Town Square.

The square has been the heart of the city since mediaeval times. It’s surrounded by a time travel tapestry of buildings, from Gothic through Baroque to Parisian-like 19th Century.
Three structures dominate the square. Looming up behind is the great Gothic presence of Our Lady Before Tyn. See the church’s twin-spired facade lit at night and be transported to another age, an effect heightened by the cloistered collection of shops and restaurants at its base. Central to square is the huge memorial to martyr Jan Hus and ahead is the Old Town Hall, a jumble of buildings at the end of which is the 15th Century Astronomical Clock. It draws huge crowds as it marks the hours with a charming display of whirring, ticking and chiming as wooden saints appear and disappear. The tower provides superb views over the city.

With the Old Town Hall to your right, continue across the square, follow the dog-legged route to Karlova and you’re at Charles Bridge (Karlov Most). Ignore the jauntily clad sailors hawking boat trips. It will be busy but it is a wonderful place to be. A sweeping panorama on the opposite bank draws you up to the bulk of the castle brooding above the Hradcany district while behind, the skyline of domes, towers and pinnacles has inspired countless artists. The bridge is lined with statues of historic and religious significance, along with artists and trinket sellers and it remains one of the promenades of Prague.

Exploring further

You now have the main axis of a walking tour and you have numerous possibilities but here are three.

North west of Old Town Square is the Josefov district. Elegant, Parisian-style boulevards provide stately company to the Jewish quarter that gives this area an atmosphere all of its own. You can buy a ticket giving entry to all the historic synagogues and the Jewish cemetery and a tour is laden with poignant memory of the Nazi occupation.

Or carry on over the Charles Bridge into Hradcany into Prague’s own Ruritania. Shops, cafés, bars and restaurants line the climbing cobbled streets that hold the castle aloft. The castle is a set of palaces at the heart of which is St Vitus’s Cathedral. There are magnificent views of the city laid out below across the river. Pay and walk down Golden Lane if you must. I think it is overpriced and toytownish.

Finally, the area to the south east of Old Town Square is well worth exploring. Among the picks is the gorgeous Estates Theatre (Stavovske Divadlo), where Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered. Tickets for productions are readily available. The other is Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske Namesti). It is a long boulevard like the Champs Elysees but a little bit tired now. Nevertheless it remains at the heart of popular political expression and the walk to the National Museum rewards you with a surprisingly elevated view over the city. Here is also the memorial to student Jan Palach, who set fire to himself in 1968 in protest at Soviet occupation and is a chance to reflect on the price of freedom.

Eating and drinking

Prague is a lively place to venture out, particularly in the evening. The Municipal House (www.vysehrad2000.cz; Namesti Republiky 5; +420 222 002 763) is open early until late and offers a welcome break on the way back to the hotel. Cafe Colonial (www.lecafecolonial.cz; Siroka 6; +420 224 818 322) near the Jewish Cemetery is a more contemporary but relaxed environment and is open until midnight. For an authentic Prague experience, head past the Municipal House along Na Prikope until you spot Tesco (about ten minutes). Turn right into Na Perstyne and go into U Medvidku (www.umedviku.cz; Na Perstyne 7; +420 224 211 916) beneath the sign of the bears. This is a genuine Czech beer hall. The food is hearty (wild boar and dumplings) and the waiter-served beer is good and cheap. An absolute must. A romantic candlelit dinner? Head for Le Saint Jacques (www.saint-jacques.cz; Jakubska 4; +420 222 322 685) just before the Tyn courtyard. The piano/violin duo is fun and they play a song for each nationality in the restaurant.

The joy of Prague is to make your own discoveries and memories. I hope I’ve given you a start and the rest is up to you. I’ll leave the sex museum for another time. Dobry Den!