Prague offers so much more than alluring architecture, abundant brews and an inherently romantic atmosphere. The city has kept up with European trends in the realms of art, fashion, gastronomy and more, lending it a contemporary sheen that merges comfortably with its historical and architectural prowess. Indeed, as you browse the wealth of impressive Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance buildings (Powder Tower; St. Vitus Cathedral; Kinsky Palace), it’s difficult not to be equally bewitched by the trendy boutiques, swish hotels, and chic cocktail bars and microbreweries that pepper most downtown streets these days.
The city’s various epochs – Slavic, Habsburgian, Communist – are also still visible and make for fascinating explorations, as do their associated personalities, from Rudolf II to Franz Kafka. When the centre gets too much, hit the neighbourhoods – Vinohrady, Žižkov, Karlín, Holešovice – which throw up all kinds of interesting surprises, from independent galleries and cosy jazz bars to the witty public art of David Černý, and plenty of hidden gardens and churches.
Start with one of the city’s most peaceful and elegant areas: the former Jewish Quarter, aka Josefov. To see the main sights here, grab a combined entry ticket from the Jewish Museum, then saunter between the 16th-century neo-Gothic Maisel Synagogue, whose fixed exhibition focuses on Jewish history in Bohemia and Moravia between the 10th-12th centuries; the atmospheric Old Jewish Cemetery, whose oldest grave dates from 1439 and is the resting place of Golem creator rabbi Loew; get a separate ticket to visit the Old-New Synagogue, one of the largest extant Gothic buildings in Prague. Despite floods, fires, and the Nazis, it’s still the main synagogue of the local Jewish community.
Saunter along the luxury-shop-lined Parizska – where you can browse the likes of Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Salvatore Ferragamo – to Old Town Square. As touristy as it is, its medley of eye-catching architecture always manages to impress. The landmark here, of course, is the Astronomical Clock. Rather than joining the throng for the hourly procession of the 12 Apostles, climb to the top of the adjacent Old Town Hall Tower for fabulous views of the square and beyond.
More lovely façades can be found along Celetná, one of the oldest streets in the city, which leads past the Cubist House of the Black Madonna and to the 11th-century Powder Tower. Next door is the flamboyantly Art Nouveau Municipal House, which hosts works by Czech artists such as Jan Preisler, Josef Václav Myslbek and Alfons Mucha. It’s home to the Czech National Symphony Orchestra – which regularly plays in the venue’s glamorous concert hall – and also has an elegant French restaurant, Francouzska, for a convenient lunch-time stop; choose from hearty soups, traditional Czech meat dishes, or vegetarian and seafood options.
Stroll over to the New Town, perhaps stop by the Communism Museum en route to the National Museum, fully reopened since spring 2019, with a new interactive exhibition about Wenceslas Square (its architecture and history), and new public areas such as cafés, a bookshop and a giftshop.
Head south through Wenceslas Square, site of the Velvet Revolution, through town to splash on some classic – and classy – Italian cuisine at Divinis. American film stars shooting in Prague are sent here to feast on Czech television chef Zdeněk Pohlreich’s fabulous creations, such as roe deer saddle with mushroom ragout. Simpler but equally memorable dishes include shrimp risotto, roast beef and osso bucco, all served up expertly with a glass of good pinot grigio from Trentino.
Today is all about the other side of the city: Malá Strana, aka ‘Lesser Town’. Reach it from the Old Town by crossing over the historic, statue-lined Charles Bridge and enjoy a slow walk up to Prague Castle. Its sprawling grounds will need at least a couple of hours to explore properly. Tickets are available online and are valid for 48 hours, meaning you can always return the next day if the crowds are too hectic.
Within the castle complex, don’t miss the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral (and its stained glass windows), the 16th-century Vladislav Hall (which is occasionally used for jousting contests), and the impossibly cute Golden Lane, where Kafka lived for a while.
The best place to dive into all things Kafka, though, is the Kafka Museum which is a 10-minute walk back down the hill and close to the river. Right outside you can find a couple of David Černý’s playful sculptures. One has two figures peeing onto a map, while his creepier giant babies with slots for faces introduce the neighbouring Kampa Park, whose collection of international contemporary art and sculpture are worth inspecting. The Kampa Park restaurant is a convenient stop for a slap-up lunch: try the pepper steak with roasted zucchini, glazed shallots, crispy potato cake and cognac sauce, or the Grilled octopus with fava bean risotto, shiitake mushrooms, coconut milk sauce with coriander and cashew.
Then it’s time for Petřín Hill, most famous for its Observation Tower, affectionately regarded as Prague’s own, albeit smaller, version of the Eiffel Tower. On the way are a slew of interesting stops, including the Petřín Rose Garden, which has plenty of welcoming benches to rest on, and a mirror maze that dates from the Victorian era, plus a couple of attractive churches. At the top, Strahov Monastery awaits, complete with its modern beer hall serving home-brewed IPAs and wheat beers, and a courtyard garden.
Back down the hill, stop off at the outstandingly baroque St Nicholas Church, where you might be lucky enough to find a classical concert. Grab a drink at the cosy Blue Light, whose walls are covered with tattered posters, graffiti from some of its more famous guests (such as Bruce Willis) and jazz album covers.
Then head to riverside venue Jazz Dock, which has food (burgers; pasta; fish dishes), a great selection of drinks, and a solid programme of live jazz and soul music.
Holešovice has been getting steadily hipper over the last few years. Formerly known as a meat-packing district, its industrial buildings now house restaurants and art galleries, and its former 1960s prestigious communist hotel is now a funky Mama Shelter. It’s easily reached through lovely Letna Park, and you can grab a pleasant brunch at cosy Bistro 8, dinner at the buzzy Asian-fusion hangout SASAZU, or visit the sprawling, colourful DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in between.
The riverside promenade known as Náplavka, just east of the city centre, comes alive on Saturdays with an atmospheric farmers’ market, pop-up bars, live music and more.
Many restaurants in Prague, aside from the more obvious tourist spots, offer discounted lunch deals between 11am and 2pm during the week. Vinohrady tapas-spot Kofein is one example, with changing lunch menus for CZK 160 (£5.50). Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t see any signs promoting the deal.
Unique place to stay
The Sky Suite consists of one luxurious double room at the top of Žižkov Tower and is quite possibly the city’s most memorable stay. The views are tremendous and the chances of being disturbed by other guests are zero.
Where to stay
Arguably one of Prague’s most impressive accommodation options is the Augustine, which merges a historical location with some seriously sharp contemporary design. Amenities include a comprehensive spa, a magnificent cocktail bar and courtyard restaurant with terrace.
The Emblem is a classy design hotel located on a quiet street close to Prague’s Old Town Square. The 59-room bolthole is nothing if not comprehensive: as well as slick, contemporary bedrooms dotted with punchy artworks, you’ll find a rooftop spa and gym, a guest lounge with a daily happy hour, and one of the city’s best steakhouses.
A convenient location and crisp boutique aesthetic are what’s on offer at Miss Sophie’s New Town, which sits in a renovated Art Nouveau building. The double and triple private rooms are fairly swanky for the price, and the atmosphere is quiet and relaxed. Breakfast is included in the price and there’s a private spa too.
What to bring home
Pick up something from a Czech producer at one of the city’s three aptly named Local Artist stores, which stock a range of ceramics, toys, stationary, home decor, cosmetics and more. A convenient outlet can be found along the Royal Way in Mala Strana (Karlova 21, localartists.cz/en).
When to go
Prague truly transforms in the spring, as pasty-looking people stop to take in the sun and the sight of sprouting leaves in beer gardens. It’s usually overrun from June to August – though it’s easy to give tourists the slip in Malá Strana and Žižkov. Autumn is lovely, cool and nearly tourist-free, and snow-capped Gothic spires a sight to savour in winter.
Know before you go
British Embassy: Thunovska 14, Prague; 0042 257 402 370. Open Mon-Friday, 9am-5pm
Czech emergency services: dial 112
Prague Information Service: Staroměstské náměstí 1 (0042 221 714 444; praguewelcome.cz)
Local laws & etiquette: Czech law requires that you always have personal ID about your person, so keep your passport on you.
• When you address someone, whether to share a table in a pub or to buy something in a shop, say “dobrý den” for “good day” or “dobrý večer” for “good evening.”
• Most Czechs in Prague’s centre speak excellent English – but greatly appreciate your attempts at a few phrases of Czech, even if it’s just “děkuji” for “thank you” or “prosím” for “please.”
• Prague is, for better or worse, used to hordes of mates on drinking rampages – but recent laws banned public drinking in many of the city’s main parks so best to be discreet in between pub visits. A smoking ban has been in effect since 2017 that encompasses all restaurants, bars and many public spaces including tram stops.
• Despite reports to the contrary, drugs, even for personal use, are not legal in the Czech Republic, although enforcement for casual users is rare.
Currency: Czech koruna
Telephone code: 0042
Time difference: +1
Flight time: London to Prague is around two hours.
Paul has been a regular visitor to the Czech capital since 2004. He takes the train several times a year from Berlin to soak up the city’s atmosphere and explore new places.