Prague Destination Guide
The minor issue of the political freedom of millions aside, the greatest consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism in 1989 was the restoration of Prague to the tourist trail.
The capital of the Czech Republic (or Czechoslovakia as it was then, before the divorce from Slovakia in 1993) is a glorious metropolis whose medieval past is writ large across its narrow streets, cobbled squares and stately buildings.
And with good reason. Unlike many cities in central Europe, Prague was left largely untouched by the ravages of the Second World War (it fell to Germany without a fight in 1939, the Russians encountered similarly minimal resistance in 1945). The result is a city that practically defines the word 'picturesque', with the River Vltava cutting down between the castle district on the left bank, and the Old Town on the right.
Most of Prague's key sights are located in a narrow strip on either side of the river – or, in the case of the 14th century Charles Bridge (Karluv most), actually on the Vltava. Most people head directly for the imposing hilltop castle district (Hradcany) on the left bank, and the Old Town (Stare Mesto), with its showpiece square (Staromestske namesti) and famous (if curious) astronomical clock, on the right.
However, there is also much to see not far from the beaten track. Petrin Hill, on the left bank, is a breezy (if steep) open space, with an observation tower that offers wonderful views of the red-roofed city below and a quaint turn-of-the-century hall of mirrors that will amuse visitors of all ages. And at the foot of the hill is the Mala Strana (Little Quarter), an area of noble townhouses, quiet style and much character.
There are plenty of shops around the Old Town and the Castle District, most aimed squarely at the tourist Koruna (wooden toys, arts and crafts) – although it must be said that the Christmas market, which offers much the same fare every December in the Staromestske namesti (from beneath a vast glittery Christmas tree), has real charm.
Most of Prague's more ordinary shops are clustered in and around Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske namesti) in the New Town (Nove Mesto) – some contained within (sadly faded) Art Deco arcades.
Trivia fans will be interested to hear that the Wenceslas Square balcony from which local hero and future president Vaclav Havel addressed the crowds during the Velvet Revolution of 1989 now finds itself stuck on a branch of Marks & Spencers. Whether this is a sign of thriving free market economics or just a nation's failure to remember a key moment in its past is perhaps a matter of opinion.
As with any major tourist city, you need to be careful where you eat. Many of the restaurants at either end of the Charles Bridge are distinctly mediocre – although there are also good beer kellers offering classically stodgy Czech cuisine (think thick stews) in the same area.
As a general guide, if the couple at the next table is speaking Czech rather than English, you've probably chosen well. You can, of course, improve your odds of a good meal by straying away from the tourist areas. Visiting the Mala Strana or Nove Mesto, for example, is likely to prove both cheaper and more palatable.
As the proliferation of Czech beers in British bars over the last decade has shown, the Czech Republic has quite a drinking culture, and you will find pubs dotted at regular intervals across all areas of Prague. Most of these are traditional and down-to-earth (long wooden tables, frothy ale in large flagons) – and a great deal of fun with it.
The concept of the style bar is catching on slowly, and you will find the odd cocktail lounge around the Mala Strana and at the base of the castle district. Clubbing is less popular, and with late-night venues subject to strict licensing laws, not dramatically easy to find. Night owls should try the Nove Mesto, home to most of Prague's clubs.
Should you exhaust the city's attractions in a weekend (unlikely), the countryside around Prague is extensive, wooded and remarkably beautiful. Old-school Bohemia, in other words. Melnik, to the north, is a quaint wine-producing town. Kutna Hora, to the east, is a small town of some medieval pedigree, where a large Gothic church dominates the skyline. Konopiste, to the south (www.konopiste.com), meanwhile, offers towers and turrets to those seeking more castle after their trip to the Hradcany.
Getting there, getting around
Unless you're crossing Europe by rail, you'll almost certainly arrive in Prague via Ruzyne, the airport that sits roughly six miles northwest of the centre (and is served by both national carriers and budget airlines). There's no rail link to the city, but there is a regular bus service, while the short distance makes a taxi ride perfectly viable.
The city itself is fairly compact, and everything you would wish to see on a weekend break can be visited on foot. That said, public transport in Prague is well organised, with three underground lines complimenting a comprehensive tram service. The latter forms an evocative part of the Prague experience, as the tramcars clank over the river.
It's a small thing, but local custom dictates that all men, and anyone youthful, should give up their seat to an older female traveller on a tram. Londoners take note.