Visit in December and raise a glass of Czech beer to the fairy tale city of Prague, where the romantic castle presides over snow-shrouded streets and cafés glow with festive cheer
A fairy tale city with a castle up on a hill... Prague could have fallen from the pages of a storybook. Its pristine streets seem almost surreal, a shining showcase of art nouveau, baroque and Renaissance styles. Delve beneath the surface, though – peering into the corners of cosy cafés, wandering under the arches and alleyways between its cobbled streets – and you’ll find much more.
This is a city that spent 40 years under communist rule, with a rich history of Jewish writers – Kafka was inspired to write his dark fables here – and a dynamic opera and theatre scene. Walk through the maze of medieval streets and you’ll find palaces and museums, and hear the music of Czech composers Smetana and Dvorák being performed in churches and squares.
Come here at Christmas when the city is at its most irresistible, covered in snow and brimming with festivities. Wrap up warm and explore the markets or listen to carol singers in the Old Town Square.
What to do
Start early and make for the Old Town Square and spectacular Astronomical Clock, which takes centre stage every hour as it strikes. Watch as the wooden statues pop out and enact a scene of medieval morality. Climb the clock tower next door for fabulous views over the city’s rooftops.
Nearby is the Jewish Museum (www.jewishmuseum.cz), made up of six sites – a ceremonial hall, synagogues and cemetery. It’s a moving tribute to an often-overlooked part of Czech history. The Moorish-style Spanish Synagogue is particularly impressive with its ornately decorated ceilings and stained glass windows.
Walk across Manesuv Most bridge and drop into Vojanovy Sady, a peaceful walled garden. From here you can catch one of the red-and-cream trams up the hillside to Prague Castle. Allow an afternoon to explore the sprawling complex, making sure you pop your head inside the Church of St Nicholas for a glimpse of its stunning baroque interior.
Afterwards, weave your way back down past brightly coloured houses and lively cafés, and then walk across the iconic Charles Bridge, which is lined with statues. Head for the little wooden huts selling Christmas handicrafts in the Old Town Square or Wenceslas Square. In the evening, dress to impress and head for Municipal House (www.obecni-dum.cz), to hear the accomplished Prague Symphony Orchestra perform.
Where to stay
A few steps away from Wenceslas Square, Hotel Yasmin is right in the heart of the action. A boutique hotel, it is sleek and chic – rooms exude a sense of understated cool with gorgeously comfy beds. On the other side of the water, built in an old monastery, the Mandarin Oriental hotel is plush, posh and only three elegant blocks from Charles Bridge. It’s worth booking ahead for a bed at the gorgeous Romantik Hotel U Raka. The six enchanting rooms are charmingly rustic and date back to 1739.
Where to eat and drink
Prague’s cafés are made for meeting and eating. A favourite with artists and intellectuals, U Zavesenyho Kafe (www.uzavesenyhokafe.cz) is thoroughly Czech and serves a range of velvety coffees. Set in a pretty courtyard behind the Old Town Square, Ebel Coffee House (www.ebelcoffee.cz) feels like a secret find. It has over 30 blends of coffee and seriously good cakes. On a narrow street, U Modré Kachnicky (www.umodrekachnicky.cz) is intimate with just a handful of tables. The menu is full of family recipes; try the delicious wild game goulash with crackling dumplings.
Chef Jiri Stift at the Alcron (www.prague.radissonsas.com) cooks serious seafood, and the fish is fantastically fresh – try the risotto with seared scallops and porcini mushrooms. Looking out over the Vltava River, in the shadow of the Charles Bridge, Mlynec (www.zatisigroup.cz) has arguably the best views in Prague and a well-deserved Michelin star. Or head to Essensia in the Mandarin Oriental hotel (see Where to stay), which serves contemporary Asian cuisine.
A glass of Czech beer is best drunk in an old-style beer hall. Pivovarsky Dùm (Vodiekova ul 20) has everything from chilli and champagne to coffee-flavoured brews.
Time running out?
Take a boat trip down the Vltava River and drink in Prague’s beauty from another perspective.
Remember that on Mondays the city’s shops, museums and galleries tend to be closed.
Currency is the Czech koruna. Prague is one hour ahead of GMT, and a one-hour 50-minute flight from London.
Czech Airlines (0871 663 3747; www.czechairlines.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) both fly from Heathrow.
Prague Information Service: Rytírská Street 31 (00 420 221 714 444; www.pis.cz). Open Monday-Friday 9am-6pm.
Good Beer Guide Prague by Evan Rail (CAMRA Books, £12.99).
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.