A Storybook City: Finding the Best of Prague

TIMEDecember 29, 2021

Anyone who has been there will tell you: Prague feels like a fairy tale. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first visit or your 20th, when you walk into Old Town Square just after dark, you will draw a breath. Your head will tip up, admiring the monuments and spires: the soaring gothic towers of Our Lady before Tyn, the solid bricks of Old Town Hall, the astronomical clock dating back to 1410, the oldest one still in operation in the world.

Some have called this Czech capital the “largest open-air museum on earth,” and that’s fair. Spared most of the bombs that turned many other European cities into post-World War II reconstructions, Prague’s oldest buildings and bridges actually date back centuries.

But it’s more than that. Czechs have always been believers—including the late Vaclav Havel, the country’s poet-turned-president. Artists are rarely well-suited for government work, but Havel made the initial transition well, elected to lead the country into a new future. At the Prague Castle, a national institution that overlooks the entire city, from the soaring buttresses of St. Vitus Cathedral to the windows (and defenestration) that instigated the Thirty Years’ War, this is an important place.

Havel outfitted the guards with what he estimated to be storybook uniforms. He invited Frank Zappa for an official state visit. Havel ended the gray of communism and gave the country a flourish of color—and it hasn’t looked back.

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The Prague Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square is the oldest clock in the world still in operation. It was first installed in 1410. (Radoslaw Maciejewski/Shutterstock)

Beer Heritage

One thing that didn’t suffer through the years: beer. Czechs drink more of the stuff per capita than any other country on earth, and it remains their passion. In the nearby town of Pilsen, the famous Pilsner was born, created when a group of frustrated homebrewers decided to unite and brew a product that was consistently great. The town is now home to Pilsner Urquell, the national beer, where you can take a Willy Wonka-style tour beyond the gates and explore deep into the heart of the operation.

Walk through the process with a guide, learning general brewing processes as well as their own special take on the product, then enjoy a pint nearby. Some of the bars in town offer unfiltered and unpasteurized versions. In some cases, the brewery delivers the freshest version they can provide, direct from the factory, in a shining tank.

And you can get a beer massage, too, which I experienced while staying at a luxury hotel that was once a monastery (and still is, with just a handful of monks occupying a corner of the building). The monks still brew the good stuff, and one brings a sample in a silver urn to the spa, and it’s mixed into a massage oil. The brochure mentions many healthy properties; the brew regenerates your skin.

Yes, there are a number of sites you should visit when you come to Prague. Old Town Square, certainly. A guided tour of Prague Castle, up on the hill on the far side of the river, is a must. And a stroll across the Charles Bridge is the signature experience here, a span whose construction dates back to 1357. Lined with statues, it’s named for the first king of Bohemia to be named Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV—his stamp remains all over the city.

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A guide shows old wooden barrels in the cellars at Pilsner Urquell Brewery. (Fotokon/Shutterstock)

City Quirks

But you’ll find quirks, too. Just off Old Town Square, in the bureaucratic environs of City Hall, you’ll discover one of the world’s weirdest elevators. Built without doors, the cars just move constantly. Step on, then alight at your desired floor. No buttons required. It’s a strange and slightly wonderful experience to ride this lift, striding into the car, then stepping off at your desired floor while the whole operation just continues to roll.

Seeing the city from the river is a rare and absolutely worthwhile endeavor. Staying at the Four Seasons Prague, one of the few properties here that sits directly on the Vltava—the longest river in the Czech Republic—I climbed into a small motorboat with Captain Stepan. Employed by the Four Seasons Hotel since the hotel renovated and grouped four distinct buildings into one united operation in the 1990s, he helped authorities rescue stranded people when floods on the river rose to record levels in 2001. Now, he simply pilots a little wooden boat and shows visitors a view of Prague they’ve never before seen.

After climbing in, we roll. First, through narrow passageways I’d never imagined, under the Charles Bridge. Then past Little Venice, a canal lined with old mills, plus waterfront restaurants and bars.

“During communist times, the pollution was so bad you couldn’t see from one side of the river to the other,” he said, hand steady at the controls.

A chill is in the air, and I’m happy to be here now, on the country’s longest waterway, the world’s greatest open-air museum rising around me. A beer awaits when I get back to dry land. But for the next hour, I’ll ride, seeing a whole different side of the city.

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The historic Charles Bridge. (Rasto SK/Shutterstock)

If You Go

Getting Around: The city offers an extensive public transit system, with subways and streetcars covering most of the destinations you’d like to visit. There’s Uber, too, in a pinch.

Stay: The Four Seasons Prague is one of the few hotels in the city situated directly on the river. Take their river tour to see the city in a whole new way.

Note: Despite its popularity, Prague remains a relatively inexpensive destination, in part because it has shunned the euro in favor of the Czech crown (CZK). Most shops and restaurants will accept euros and even American dollars, but you’re best off getting local currency.

Tim Johnson
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.