As I see it, as far as travel in Europe goes, you have the big three: London, Paris and Berlin (some people feel that Rome should replace Berlin on this list, but they are wrong). These are the major hubs – centers of culture, history, and tourism. So you if you wanted to get a good feel of Europe with the most stuff to do, you’d want to make sure you hit those cities.
But you should also note that some of the slightly smaller European cities provide equally amazing experiences, without the huge crowds. Some of those cities would be Florence, Amsterdam, Budapest and Vienna. And for me, Prague is on the top of that list.
Prague has a lot going for it. It’s situated in a good location which is easily accessible from most of Europe, it has a rich and colorful history that takes you from the Romanesque era all the way through the fall of Communism, There’s gorgeous architecture everywhere, it’s a great value in Europe, and the city is very family friendly, with plenty to keep kids engaged and interested – which makes it a perfect family destination. I’ll get into more of that later.
Overview of Prague
There are basically three main areas of Prague – Old Town (Staré Město), and New Town (Nové Město), are separated from Lesser Town (Malá Strana) by Vltava River.
Consider Old Town to be the epicenter of Prague, and therefore you should consider staying as close to it as possible. Walk into the Old Town square, and you’ll gasp in amazement as you find yourself surrounded by the most amazing representation of architecture from nearly every era, from Baroque, to Gothic to Art Nouveau. Here you’ll find the iconic Astronomical Clock, and the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn.
Fortunately, the effects of WWII and the ensuing Communist Occupation left Old Town relatively intact. They trashed New Town instead.
Visit any Communist Occupied city, and you’ll see the Russians left their mark, and not in a good way. Historic buildings were torn down to make way for ugly, generic prefabricated structures that could be assembled quickly, to house as many people as possible. These quarters were tiny and uncomfortable, but hey – free housing, right?
Wenceslas Square (which is actually more of a rectangle) has a lot of evidence of this. The Velvet Revolution took place in this square in 1989, where 500,000 protestors assembled and peacefully brought an end to Communism in the Czech Republic.
Sadly, I’m not sure the Square is faring any better these days. This main drag is home to fast food joints, tourist traps, and strip clubs. At night, working girls make this square their territory. It’s like a Champs Elysees gone very wrong.
Although Prague missed most of the damage from WWII, the city was bombed once – by us Americans. On accident. We thought we were bombing Dresden, and we strayed off course. When the clouds cleared, the pilots saw Prague, thought they were over Dresden, and dropped their bombs. There’s a legend, although not confirmed, that one of the pilots was of Czech descent, and the bombs he dropped accidentally killed some of his relatives.
Anyway, one of the new buildings that was erected in the destroyed spot was Frank Gehry’s famous “Dancing House”.
Across the river is Lesser Town, which is home to the Prague Castle and the St. Vitus Cathedral. I would definitely spend a few hours exploring the castle site. You can easily make a perfect day out of crossing the Charles Bridge, visiting the Castle Grounds, The Petřín tower, and the Lennon Wall.
Where To Stay
Since Old Town is considered the center of Prague, I would suggest staying as close to it as possible. Bear in mind that since this is a medieval city, the streets are very narrow, so driving to and parking near the hotel will be either very difficult or impossible, so find out in advance what the parking policies are.
My last trip to Prague (last week), I strongly considered staying at the Hilton, which was reasonably priced, and had great amenities, so I knew it would be family friendly. However, it was quite a distance from Old Town, and I didn’t want to have to spend 30 minutes walking or spend all the money on a taxi each time I wanted to get into town.
After losing an apartment in the Jewish Quarter (seriously, jump on them quickly), I eventually decided on this little boutique hotel right in between old town and new town – the Hotel U Medvídků. Built in 1466, it was a medieval brewery that was converted into a hotel. I can’t say enough great things about this hotel. Upon arriving, you are greeted with a complementary beer from the brewery!
Location-wise, it’s perfect. It’s about a 7 minute walk to Old Town Square.
The rooms were spacious (much larger than what you can typically expect from a modern double), and had all the modern amenities, but kept the historic charm.
The free breakfast in the old cellar was fantastic, one of the best I’ve had in Europe – they even had a crepe station!
The people at the front desk were wonderful. They helped me score a parking spot right in front, and even kept track of the meter and put coins in for me when it was about to expire. Who does that???
So, as far as hotels in Prague go, this is by far my favorite so far. I’ve also stayed in the Radisson Blu and the Esplanade – both near Wenceslas Square, and both were decent, but the U Medvidku – even as a 3 star, beat those hotels in every way.
What To Do
First, take the free tour. This is another one of those things I can’t say enough good things about.
In case you don’t know how it works, let me give you an overview. Sandemans operates in most major cities in Europe, like Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Paris, and London. You meet at the location, the guides split you into groups of about 20, and spend about 3 hours seeing the major sites of the city, with about a 20 minute break in the middle for lunch. At the end, you simply tip the guide what you think it was worth.
The guides do an excellent job, in fact, this free tour is far better than the bus tour I went on during my first visit to Prague (which cost about 20 euros). It’s well paced, informative, and entertaining – combining history, legend and culture, and you walk away with a greater insight of all the sites you pass by. Even my 6 year old was entertained.
The tour is good for kids? Yes! Because the stories are told in such a way to keep them entertained and interested. My son’s favorite story was the legend of the Golem.
According to the legend, a 16th century rabbi magically created the Golem of clay to protect the Jewish Quarter in Prague, and brought it to life by inserting a scroll into its mouth. And as long as the Golem stood, nobody would mess with the Jews. The only catch was, the rabbi had to “deactivate” the Golem before Sabbath on Friday night – because as you know, Jews cannot work on Saturday. Well, one Friday night, the rabbi forgot to remove the scroll, and the Golem went crazy, tearing up the town. When the rabbi finally wrestled the scroll out of its mouth, the Golem fell apart into pieces of clay, and the legend holds that they are stored in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, though nobody is allowed in there to see.
Another thing I would recommend for the kids is the Vytopna Restaurant. Located at Václavské Nám. 56 on Wenceslas Square, this restaurant uses model trains to deliver drinks to your table! The food was decent, but the kids were constantly entertained by watching the trains going by. This is a perfect way to let the kids decompress after the tour.
Now, for an evening out, we went to the Traditional Czech Evening Experience. This was a dinner, music and dancing show, and the kids loved it.
A shuttle bus picks you up from your hotel and takes you to the event. Upon arriving, you are greeted with a welcome drink (are we seeing a theme here?), and you are seated at a table with other people from your country. We were seated with other Americans from San Diego and Ohio, and had wonderful conversation.
The kids did very well, as the food was delicious – there were about 4 courses.
Oh, and did I mention all you can drink? Cause that totally happened.
After we were starting to feel it, the dancers came out into the audience to pick partners, and taught them the traditional dance. Needless to say, when one of your party gets picked, it’s quite entertaining.
The Bone Church
Finally, you may have heard about the Bone Church in Kutná Hora – about an hour outside of Prague. This is a popular attraction, and there are several ways to visit. You can either drive there yourself, take a train, or a guided tour through Sandamans again.
Now, the tour is a half day experience that takes you through the entire town of Kutná Hora, and while it was informative and enjoyable, to tell the truth, if you are limited on time and have to choose between that and the castle, choose the castle.
In any case, the story behind this church is that that the cemetery grounds were sprinkled with dirt from the Holy Land in the 1200s and became a desirable place to be buried. There were so many bones from the plague and Hussite Wars, that in 1870 a woodcarver had creatively arranged the bones all over the church. It’s amazing. There are ornate sculptures of bones everywhere – the most impressive being a giant chandelier which reportedly is made from every bone in the human body.
The place was fascinating, but I am not sure it would be completely appropriate for everyone. You are your best judge of whether your kids would enjoy it or not, but like I said, it’s an hour further into the Czech Republic, and time you could spend enjoying more of the treasures of Prague.
So that’s a summary of my experiences in Prague. I hope you found some valuable information in here, and I look forward to hearing about your experiences there!