Prague, Czech Republic

Posted on Posted in Czech Republic, Europe, International

Fast Facts

Prague, the first stop on our one-and-a-half-week quick trip through Central Europe, was an amazing city to visit. The quirky Czech culture was on full display as we kicked off our journey with lots of walking tours and some great food!

Dates: May 17–20, 2016

Time on the Ground: Approx 65 hours

Overall Rating: 5/5 – The entertaining culture, surprisingly good food, historical sights, and beautiful countryside made Prague one of our favorite trips ever!

Pizza Rating: 5/8 – We grabbed some pizza at Pizzeria Sicillia, which was few blocks from our hotel. Overall, the pizza was pretty good and we did takeaway back to our hotel for dinner.

Airport Rating: 4/5 – We actually flew into Frankfurt Airport (FRA), which was busy and complex, but well laid out and clean. When compared to other European hubs, such as CDG and LHR, FRA was impressive.

Airplane: Airbus A330-200

Walkability: 3.5/5 – Prague was a walkable, although hilly, city. We ended up parking our car when we first checked in to the hotel and did not pick it up until we were heading to Poland. There is also a subway, which we used a couple times, although it did not have stops located very close to the best attractions.

Free Walking Tour: 3.5/5 – Although our tour guide was very funny, he was also obviously very pleased with himself the entire tour, which was a little off-putting. Besides that, he provided excellent historical information, colorful commentary, and great recommendations for things to see around the city.

Lay of the Land

Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic, also known as Czechia, and is located roughly in the center of the western third of the country. Just weeks before our trip, the country’s government voted to officially create a new shorter English name for the country (Czechia). The Czech Republic has a complicated past as part of the Bohemian kingdom, Habsburg dynasty, Holy Roman Empire, Austrian Empire, Republic of Czechoslovakia, eventually becoming modern day Czech Republic. The population has been ruled by emperors, kings, communists, and a democracy. This complicated national history is deeply ingrained in the history of the country and its capital. The country is located to the east of Germany, north of Austria, west of Slovakia, and south of Poland.

For our stay in Prague, we opted for Hotel Machova, which was located toward the southeast side of the city. The hotel was a great first stop on our trip—reasonably priced with parking included for the car (although, this was at another hotel about a 20-minute walk away). A simple breakfast and Wi-Fi were also included in the stay. This provided us with a comfortable 30-minute walk to Old Town Square. It was downhill going there, so the hill coming back up after a long day of exploring can be tough! There was also a subway stop a few minutes away, but this did not save much time. It does, however, provide a seated ride rather than a walk.

Once we were in the city center, we walked everywhere. The best sites to see are close together, and there are plenty of cafes and bars to stop by and take a break if you get tired or need some fresh Czech beer to drink. There are a few buses and trams that can limit the walking, especially if you are interested in checking out the castle across the river.

Arrival

Prague was the first stop on our whirlwind honeymoon around Central Europe. Although the trip as a whole was certainly not a quick trip (we spent almost 12 full days in Europe), we packed enough stops into the trip that it made each city feel like a quick trip.

We flew into Frankfurt (FRA) directly from the States and managed to snag two seats in business class, which certainly was not a bad way to start our honeymoon! Once we had arrived and cleared customs, we made the seemingly endless journey to find our rental car. Since we were flying in and out of Frankfurt, we opted to rent a car for our Eurotrip. It ended up being significantly cheaper than buying train tickets for two people, which came as a surprise. Although you often hear about people exploring Europe by train, a car provides its own nuances that are fun to experience. We often purposely got off the major roads and soon found ourselves driving through picturesque towns, breathtaking flower-filled meadows, or even old ruins on hill tops. Also, it’s not a bad day when you get to take a drive on the German Autobahn! (Unless you're the passenger, that is.)

Bohemian Switzerland National Park

Stephen had the seemingly great idea that on the way from Frankfurt to Prague, we should stop at the Bohemian Switzerland National Park, which is famous for its rock formations and forests. On paper, this seemed like a great idea: we would land early in Frankfurt, the more direct route to Prague was covered in construction detours, and you cannot usually check into hotels until the afternoon anyways! In practice, it turned out to be quite a challenge. Not only did we almost run out of gas when Germany became extremely rural near the Czech border, but our phone lost signal and we were not prepared for how difficult Czech signs were to understand.

Tired, hungry, and thoroughly lost, we stumbled upon what seemed like an eerie old hotel and restaurant and ordered the only thing we could figure out on the menu: chicken cordon bleu. We were not sure if it was the combination of being lost and hungry or the food was really just that good, but this was the best chicken cordon bleu we have ever tasted. After refueling, we decided that we should cut our losses and head to Prague before we got too lost in the woods. Although pictures of the park look amazing, we recommend doing some serious research before you take on this journey or going with someone who knows where they are going (or better yet, can read Czech!).

Free Walking Tour

As usual, we started our first full day with a general free walking tour with SANDEMANs tours. The tour started in the morning and gave us a good overview of the city’s and the country’s complicated history. Our tour guide was a bit braggadocious, but the tour was still enjoyable. He intertwined colorful commentary, historical anecdotes, and a few bad jokes throughout the tour as we made our way through the oldest parts of the city. About two-thirds of the way through the tour, we stopped at a restaurant where we were given time to order some food and a drink.

At the stop, there was a representative from the tour company helping register people for any of the numerous paid tours the company offers. We overheard a few people mention that without a tour guide their visit to the castle had been a waste of time, so we took advantage of this setup and elected to do the afternoon castle tour the same day (around $12 a person). We also signed up for the Kutná Hora day trip the next day (about $40 a person). We were already planning on purchasing a tour to do the day trip, so the timing was perfect. And although we did not love our original tour guide, it was obvious that the tours were well-organized.

The free walking tour gives you a great overview of the city but ends short of heading across the river and up to the castle. You do get to stop at the Old Town Square, the theater house where several of Mozart’s performances debuted, and the famous astronomical clock. Although our tour guide warned us that the clock was often the greatest disappointment on the tour (another example of the Czech’s self-deprecating humor), we were actually very impressed. Installed in the 1400s, the clock is the oldest working astronomical clock in the world (third oldest created). In addition to telling time and the positions of the sun and moon, every hour wooden characters depicting the 12 apostles “walk” around the clock. We could definitely understanding how in today’s world this may be underwhelming, but taken in context of the period it was created and how beautiful the clock is, we were very impressed.

Prague Castle Tour

We had a late lunch, then we met up with our next tour group at Jan Palach Square to head across the river and up to Prague Castle. As we had hoped, this tour was just as organized and the tour guide was much more enjoyable! She was well informed and entertaining as we made our way across the river. Note: Be sure to have spare change because you will need some to ride the trolley up the hill to the castle gardens, and this is not included in your tour!

On the approximately three-hour tour, you get to see the majority of the world’s largest medieval castle. (Hence, taking the trolley eliminates the time needed to walk up the hill!) The tour will take you in the back side of the castle, stopping at the castle gardens, and then by the buildings that once housed the king's pets (tigers and bears, oh my). Finally, you’ll make your way into the castle itself.

Of all the tours we did on our honeymoon, this one was the most advantageous for two reasons. First, the conversation we overheard was extremely accurate. Unlike historical sites in many other countries, there were very few signs, in English or Czech, to explain what the importance of the different areas in the castle. Having a tour guide added a lot of value to the visit, especially considering the vast history housed within the castle. Second, our tour guide let us in on the best-kept secret in Prague: the Wallenstein Gardens. These gardens are tucked behind tall walls covered in ivy and contain a beautiful pond, fountains, and several gorgeous white peacocks! Be sure to quickly make your way down from the castle though, because the gardens close early in the evening, and the guards don’t mess around when it comes to closing time!

Kutná Hora

We took a day trip to Kutná Hora with SANDEMANs tours toward the end of our stay in Prague. The city and surrounding area were deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its historical prominence, unique sights, and remarkably well-preserved quality. Whether you do an organized tour or not, the Sedlec Ossuary (also known as the Bone Church) in particular is a must-see.

In all of our travels, we have never seen anything quite like it. The Bone Church is a Catholic chapel located in the suburbs of Kutná Hora. The beginning of this phenomenon stems from one man’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in Palestine in the 15th century. An abbot from the church brought back a container of dirt from his travels and spread it in the graveyard of his local church. News of this act spread quickly and soon the graveyard of this little chapel in the middle of the countryside became the most popular place to bury loved ones for miles around because their relatives could be buried in holy ground.

Soon, the existing graves were dug up to make room for new burials, but no one knew what to do with the bones, so they convinced a local half-blind monk to take them and stack them inside the old chapel of the church (a new larger one had recently been completed). There they sat until over 300 years later when a local woodcarver Frantisek Rindt decided to use the bones to decorate the old chapel, because in the Czech Republic, why not?

Using the bones of an estimated 40,000–70,000 people, Rindt created a breathtaking and extremely bizarre masterpiece inside the old chapel building. Bones adorn everything from the walls to the lights and the ceilings, and they are even put together into large pieces of art. Although it’s a bit creepy, pictures and words do not do this chapel justice.

 

Church of St. Barbara

On this tour, we also took a guided walked through the city of Kutná Hora itself, which started the Church of St. Barbara. Kutná Hora’s prominence in Bohemian history stems from the large amounts of silver mined there, especially between the 13th and 16th centuries. At its peak, Kutná Hora was the crown jewel the Bohemian kingdom, competing with Prague itself economically and politically. It was a favorite residence of several rulers of the area as well as home to the national mint.

As quickly as the mining boom started in Kutná Hora, it stopped—so quickly, in fact, the Church of St. Barbara was never completed because the city ran out of money. Part of the church’s charm stems from the fact it was originally designed to be twice the size of its finished state. Because of this, the buttresses, spires, and other gothic decorations are all overproportioned for the size of the building, giving the church a striking look.

Throughout the city and church, you can find other connections to the silver mining past of the area, including the church itself, which is named after the saint of mining—St. Barbara. The inside of the church is also different from other churches we have visited in Europe. Somehow, the overbuilt high-arched ceiling (for the size of the church), mining murals painted on the wall, and overall design of the building make it one of the most remarkable churches we’ve visited in Europe.

After learning about the history of the church, the guided tour continued into town, where we learned more about its history as we made our way to lunch (where Ashley had a delicious goulash), and then there was some time for individual sightseeing and shopping. Overall, the tour was a great way to get out of Prague for a quick day trip, but we would have liked to explore the city further, including a visit to the Silver Museum in the old mint, which is highly recommended by many other reviews of Kutná Hora.

Harrachov Glass Factory and Brewery

On our way out of the Czech Republic to Poland, we stopped at a glassmaking factory in the foothills of the mountains. The Czech Republic and the surrounding area has one of the oldest traditions of glass blowing in the world. The factory is well worth the stop. Not only do that have a wide selection of products for sale that are a fraction of the price back in the States, but you can also do a tour of the factory. The tour is just a few Euros, and you get to go down into the factory right next to workers creating glasses and drinking Czech beer to stay cool and hydrated. They claimed that the beer had a very low alcohol content and kept the workers hydrated, but unlimited beers on the job around open flames didn't seem like the best idea to us. In the end, we spent a couple hours at the factory and walked away with a vase, some glasses, and a few other trinkets for a relatively small price. Not to mention we had a taste of that hydrating beer!

Recap

Overall we were extremely impressed by Prague—by its people, sights, food, and culture. The Czech people have a hilarious, dry, self-deprecating humor that stems from a complicated history. They have the ability to take any seemingly daunting or dark piece of their history, such as communist rule in the 20th century, and find the humor and irony in it. For example, after the November 1989 “Velvet Revolution,” where the country returned to a democratic system of rule from communism, the new president, Vaclav Havel, invited the Rolling Stones to play an outdoor concert in the middle of the city the next year. This was ironic because the previous Communist president had specifically denounced the band for being the epitome of capitalism. After discovering the beautiful Prague Castle was not lit at night during their visit, the Stones personally installed over $32,000 worth of lights to highlight the castle’s magnificence for all of the city to see after sunset. These lights are still used today.

When we return to Central Europe, we will definitely include a repeat stop in Prague because the city has so much to offer. We were pleasantly surprised not only by the Czech people, but by their food and drink. The food was delicious (we highly recommend trying goulash and schnitzel while you are there) and the beer was fresh and cheaper than water. We also enjoyed wandering around the city on our own to explore sights such as the Charles Bridge and never felt unsafe. Next time, we will probably spend more time in the Old Town part of the city and take the time to explore the shops and museums more thoroughly. On this trip however, after a couple nights in Prague, we were back in the car to hit the second stop of our honeymoon: Krakow, Poland!

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