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Prague is the best preserved Medieval city in Europe, with an entire city center listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. From the moment you arrive in the city center, you are instantly struck by the overwhelming Medieval Gothic architecture that seemingly has no end. Every street and tiny alleyway you traverse seems to lead to more incredible architectural marvels. I was completely blown away by Prague's incredible cityscape. But, what's great about Prague is you get this beautiful Medieval ambiance mixed in with a completely modern city, as well as one of the craziest night life scenes you'll ever encounter. Prague is definitely one of the craziest, weirdest, most interesting cities I've ever been to. The types of things you run into in Prague range from beautiful Medieval cathedrals, to world renown sex museums, to underground ice bars with soviet rockets hanging from the ceiling. Truly a cultural city.
A Little History
Prague has an extremely vibrant and varying history from its 1,200 year existence. The city has experienced periods of great prosperity, as well as extreme poverty and deprivation. Being a celtic settlement since the B.C's, Prague didn't see any permanent buildings until the creation of Prague castle in the 800's A.D. Beginning in the 14th century Prague became the cultural and political center of Bohemia. Prague began to see great prosperity throughout the Hapsburg era in the 16th century, which elevated the city to the capital of European culture at this time. Yet, as with any great city, her fortunes saw dark days and for the next couple hundred years Prague saw a devastating mixture or war, plague, political dissent, revolution, and fire (the most devastating of which happened in 1689 which was on par with the great London fire of 1666). But the city found its feet again and began to proper in the 18th century. By the late 19th century the city had transformed from a predominantly German speaking populace into a Czech one, with the influx of Bohemian migrants and cultural assimilation.
WWI, which ended the Austro-Hungarian Empire, saw the creation of Czechoslovakia with Prague as its new capital. During WWII the city was occupied by Hitler and declared a protectorate, however the people were defiant (which is typical of the Czech resolve) and fought back, which saw the assassination of one of Nazi Germany's most powerful men- Reinhard Heydrich. Remarkably the city saw little overall damage compared to other European cities as a result of the war. After WWII most of the German population fled and the city came under the control of the Soviet Union. At the outset the Russians were greeted with praise, but it was not to last. True to their character, the Czech's were defiant and resisted Soviet control over their freedoms and fought underground campaigns against the regime (including the famous Lenon Wall which I will discuss later on). In 1993 Czechoslovakia split and two states were formed; the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Prague became the capitol of the newly formed Czech Republic and remains the cultural and political hub of the country.
That was just a very brief overview of the city's history, in reality the city's history is much more complicated with a complex web of cultural, political, and social entanglements which make any true coherent account impossible.
1) Prague Castle- An absolute must see. Dating back to the 9th century, Prague castle is officially the largest castle in the world. Although you can't actually tour most of it (as it is still in use by government officials) you can awe at the castle's magnificent size, parooze the castle gardens, or scope out the ancient cathedral (St. Vitus) on the castle mount.
2) Charles Bridge- Once the only crossing over the Vltava river connecting Prague castle to the Old Town, Charles Bridge serves as one of the only surviving gated bridges in Europe. At night the bridge is a quiet place, but during the day it changes into a bustling venue with painters, owners of kiosks, and vendors alongside numerous tourists crossing the bridge. The bridge is lined with dozens of old Christian statues and imagery, offering a great view of the castle and surrounding cityscape.
3) Old Town Square-Prague's old district is the hub of the city center, and the place where the city sees its most visitors. Definitely a tourist trap, the Old Town Square is encased by some of Prague's neatest monuments. Once you've taken enough pictures to satisfy your facebook album I would recommend moving on as there is nothing overly exciting about this part of town other than its Gothic architecture.
4) Astronomical Clock-One thing the Old Town Square does have, besides its Gothic architecture, is Prague's Astronomical Clock. As the world's first astronomical clock, it has become the most visited attraction in Prague. A famous feature of the clock that draws millions of tourists every year is the hourly song and dance the four statues on the clock do every hour. It's nothing more than a few head nods and body turns, but in the Medieval period that was quite a show! It's actually quite funny to see the great disappointment by the huge crowds that mass around the clock waiting for it to strike the hour and unleash the world famous show. In fact this became such a problem for the city's tourist board that they added a few trumpet players at the top of the tower to spice things up.
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5) Lennon Wall- A section of wall in the Lesser Town (near the foot of Prague castle) with imagery of John Lennon and lyrics from the Beatles. The wall started as a silent protest to the Communist regime and began to irritate the authorities after the wall was continually re-painted when taken down. It's a neat sight and a humbling reminder of the tyranny of oppression.
6) Wenceslas Square- A popular shopping boulevard of Prague lined with restaurants, cafes, bars. This square was the site of many of Prague's historical events over the last 100, including The Velvet Revolution, which led to the collapse of Communism in the country in 1989. The street also has some fine examples of Art Nouveau.
7) Jewish Quarter- A district of Prague near the Old Town which used to serve as the Jewish ghetto's during WWII. Actually, Hitler gave orders for this quarter to remain intact after the war because when the Jews were exterminated he wanted a 'living museum' of an extinct race. Terrible I know. But, history always serves to teach us these important lessons. The district houses the 13th century 'New Old Synagogue', which is the oldest surviving Gothic hall type of its kind.
8) The Dancing House- A unique modern design constructed in 1992, it was originally named Fred and Ginger because of its resemblance to two dancers. Its unusual shape was controversial at the time, but apparently locals have grown to like it. It's interesting at least, like many other sites in Prague.
9) Strahov Monastery- Founded in 1140, the monastery is famous not only for its beautiful architecture and tranquil setting, but also for its magnificent library which contains books which are more than 1000 years old
10) Petrin Hill- The hill is nearly completely covered in parks, has great views of the city, and houses some interesting as well. One of those sights is the Observation Tower, which is actually a mini Eiffel Tower, which was created in the competition with Paris for cultural dominance.
11) Urination Fountain- Not really sure the history behind this lovely fountain, but it was a hilarious thing to stumble on to. Apparently you can text a number that will spell your name in the water. Located just around the corner from the John Lennon wall.
Besides the must see sights listed above, there are a few things which I feel are a must do whilst in Prague.
Pub Crawl-Absolutely the best city to bar crawl with thousands bars throughout the city. Prague's nightlife boasts some of the neatest locale's and setups you'll see anywhere in Europe. The best bar crawls to join are the ones given by hostels, so if you're staying in a hostel just hop on one of those (also a great way to meet people you're staying with).
City Tour-whether it's a walking tour through your hostel, segway tour or any other tour you've managed to find (there are plenty to choose from) you will learn a lot about the city and find out about places you wouldn't have otherwise. Prague has a lot of small winding streets which get overlooked by the average tourist (this is where a lot of the city's real cultural places can be found).
Walk/drink along the river- Definitely have at least one night down on the river. There are countless great restaurants along the river of if you're just looking for a spot to sit and hang out at night, walk a long the river near the Charles Bridge and you'll find loads of spots with great views of the lit up city.
Boat Tour- Only if you have more than a few days as there is already so much to do/see in Prague, but if you do have the time it's well worth the cheap price offering unparalleled views of Prague castle and cityscape.
Check out some of the lesser Museums- Prague is home to a plethra of museums covering all forms of art and artwork. This one I found cruising around near the old town is the young museum of art. Pretty interesting place.
In my opinion there is only one place you should be staying in Prague. The Mosaic House. I have absolutely nothing to gain from its promotion but trust me, it is the best place to stay in Prague. Much more than just your typical hostel, it's more like an upscale hotel/restaurant/bar with ultra modern rooms and infrastructure. Centrally located and an absolute blast, with a fun crowd and nightly pub crawls.
Czech Republic is on the Koruna, or Crown, symbol (Kč). The exchange rate is about $1 USD to 20 Kč.
Depending on which country you're coming from, your money should take you a long way in Prague. Unless you're in tourist areas, food is cheap, beer is cheap (around a $1.50 a beer), and most attractions are as well.
Public transit closes around midnight, so if you're out and relying on the underground or tram then plan on a cab or walk home if you're out late.
Cab drivers will try to screw you. Always pre-negotiate a fare before taking off because cabbies will often jack up the prices on tourists. Don't let them jerk you around!
Be weary of pickpockets. Charles Bridge and other very tourist places in Prague are known for heavy pickpocketing so when in crowded areas just hold on to your stuff. Other than this petty theft I felt Prague was a very safe place.
Prague is historically renown for a practice called Defenestration- or the act of throwing someone from a window- as punishment for crimes and other offenses.
Per person the people of Prague consume more alcohol than any other European city.
The city has a large number of cathedrals converted into bars and clubs.