Of the European cities I visited this summer during my interrailing trip, Prague was my favourite, as its beauty lies in its old buildings and cobbled streets. It has not succumbed to the modern tourists’ need for high-rise buildings and technology.
Many travel reviews will recommend the obvious, touristy places like the main square in the Old Town which although a must-see, is packed with tourists posing before cameras to get the best photo for their Instagrams. Likewise, the Ice Bar, which whilst fun and relatively cheap, is essentially just sitting in a poncho that makes you look like the tin man, ‘freezing your tits off’ for 20 minutes.
Ok, I agree, the top attraction on your travel agenda should be Prague castle. However, I believe that the trek up to see it is better than the castle itself, as it provides various angles of the cinematic view that overlooks this picturesque city.
But imagine telling all your friends and family that you visited places off the beaten tracks, the ones you can’t view on Google and Trip Advisor before you’ve even booked your flight.
After a nine-hour train journey from Berlin to Prague, we left the main station excited to explore, but very hungry.
I was also restless from carrying a huge rucksack with two weeks’ worth of clothes, yet, straight away I was enamoured by the sight of the city. Immediately, I fell in love with the cobbled streets and multi-coloured buildings. It was like an even more aesthetic version of the buildings in the programme Ballamory, where the colours seems edited and less realistic than the old, slightly faded buildings that the sun was shining down upon before my eyes. This was because each building consisted of a different colour and shade; you could almost imagine Edie McCready herding her students along the city’s narrow cobbled paths.
I was intrigued about how every building was still so Romanesque when many European cities, much like Berlin, have lost and are still losing their original buildings to modernised ones. Therefore, I’ve done some research and according to the Private Prague Guide, Prague was not rebuilt like most European cities during the 18th and 19th centuries, nor was it destroyed in World War II like Dresden had been.
As students on a budget, we’d booked Prague Square Hostel, which was supposedly a fifteen-minute walk away from the station, a direction that we agreed to head in. So, we trudged along, taking in each intricate detail of the scene around us.
Blinded by the burst of colour which imitated the shades of the rainbow, bouncing off of each spontaneously individual building, the first sign we saw was for a Subway (the sandwich takeaway that overpowers your nostrils with the smell of fresh bread when walking past). Thus, we followed the sign. I felt giddy, there was so much to look at, from the buildings, the freshly green grassed parks, to the energetic cyclists flying down the road.
We walked past a little park that had grass so green it seemed illuminous, much greener than the grass I see in Leeds’s Hyde Park, every morning on my way into university. Every street was cobbled like that of what you see in films like Oliver Twist. Every building different, in shape and colour, some pink, some yellow, some blue, some tall buildings, some small, and each with unique architecture to add charisma to their individuality.
Down a narrow street with wooden signs sticking out of each shop door, a man popped his head out of a restaurant.
At first, he spoke in Czech and I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying.
“Please, please, good food. Come inside,” he said, realising that we hadn’t understood him the first time.
So, intrigued, tired and hungry, we strolled the over to have a peep at the menu. Although, this too was in Czech.
“Do you have the menu in English?”
“No but come inside and I will translate. We serve good food.”
With a shrug of the shoulders and our tummies rumbling, we went inside to see if the food really was good, not having a clue what kind of restaurant this was.
Inside boasted fancy décor, possessing dim blue lighting and a large wine rack. We felt embarrassed dumping our huge rucksacks on the floor, with my hair so greasy you could fry chips off of it and our under eyes as purple as the night sky. However, immediately our new friend hurried over with the menus.
In his best English he rushed through the five dishes that were on offer and I picked the veggie pasta. A tomatoey pasta dish, filled with peppers and onions and soft, chewy penne shells.
After what felt like the best bowl of pasta I’d ever eaten (probably because I was so hungry and because it was cheap) we headed to the hostel to begin our adventures.
The walk was longer than anticipated, probably due to the weight of our rucksacks causing to walk at snails’ pace, however it meant that we saw more of this fairy-tale city. The area surrounding us wasn’t busy so all that could be heard was the quiet bustle of people walking from one destination to the next and the ‘clippity clop’ of horses’ hooves trotting against the cobbles with carriages at their backs.
The sun warmed our faces, causing a sweat.
Finally, we arrived at Prague Square Hostel, which welcomed us with a steep stair case that we had to clamber up to reach the reception. Our room was small, consisting of two single beds and a bunkbed, located right next to the communal kitchen and opposite the showers- great for a late-night snack and early-morning wash. The beige walls contrasted with the building’s lemon-coloured exterior, but the rooms were clean, and the halls were filled with lively travellers, and it was great value for money. Perfect for a couple night’s stay.
If you stay in our hostel, take the backroads that lead you around the corner to find a little brick chapel. Its frontal spiral tower possesses bricks of a dark grey and is covered in vines. On the wooden door to the entrance, homemade posters are stuck. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to enter, but you’ll see the light of the sun reflecting off the stained-glass window on one side of the building, creating a purple light and emphasizing the image of a woman kneeling in prayer.
If you’re on a budget like me, don’t bother staying in 5-star hotels, as hostels are completely doable and much more fun.
Our hostel, despite being down what English folk call an ‘alleyway’, was in a perfect location. On a narrow street, around the corner from a selection of supermarkets and cafes, and only a five-minute walk away from the Old Town Square (Prague’s main square.)
Make sure you don’t just go to the first restaurant you see, despite us doing this on that first day, but explore your options. Venture away from the main square, away from the destination that you’re heading to next.
As you walk through the cobbled archways saying no to the Indian restaurants and the overpriced themed restaurants, you may stumble across a quaint, authentic one with candle lit outdoor seating.
If you are unsure whether this the right place, spot the old local sat among the customers playing the ukulele and singing in Czech.
It was the strains of the ukulele that drew our attention to him which spread sweet harmony through the chatter of the restaurant’s many guests. My eyes followed this sound until I spotted this old and intriguing man perched over his instrument on a wooden stool with a hat wanting coins sat at his feet. He wore a white and blue striped polo shirt with short grey trousers ending just below his knees and flashed a yellow, crooked smile as he provided us with his soft music.
As you sit down under the heated lamps you will have no idea where to look on the menu as the range of food is so vast; offering a selection of typical Czech dishes, salads for those watching their weight and classic pasta dishes for the less adventurous.
Trust me, not only is the food amazing but so is the atmosphere, with the friendly waiters grinning from ear to ear, the soft voice of the old local harmonizing with the gentle sound of his ukulele and the candle light warming your skin in the evening breeze. If you want to witness true Prague lifestyle, this is the place. What’s more, the prices were cheap, as is most of the city.
Despite it looking like you’re spending a hundred quid (a fiver is 147 Czech Koruna) on a floppy egg and cress sandwich from Rossman’s (a European supermarket that appeared in every city of my interrailing tour), Prague is actually very cheap, their currency is just difficult to grasp at first. Therefore, don’t worry about bringing your year’s savings. You’re going to the right place for a budget holiday that isn’t at Butlins or the Costa Del Sol.
Yes, there are many attractions that require money, however, to truly witness the Czech Republic’s capital in all its glory is merely by walking around and absorbing the detailed, exquisite architecture, and the fantasy-like scenery.
There is so much to see, the river that separates the city into two with its clear waters, the little churches that appear on various corners representing colourful, opaque stained-glass windows, and the vintage gift shops, all competing to sell the cheapest postcard.
Thus, my tip to you is to bring comfy footwear as you will do a lot of walking. You can still rock it in a pair of trainers or Timberland boots.
I know I mentioned that the Ice Bar wasn’t all that, and it certainly wasn’t that great compared to the hidden treasures that I’ll be providing you with throughout this article, but it was worth the two free drinks and Instagram pictures. Plus, it was a fifteen-minute walk to a part of the city that we didn’t see for the rest our stay there, and the view once we left was one that reduced me to happy tears (embarrassing I know).
Enroute to the Ice Bar we walked through Old Town Square which was booming with people. Laughter from many filled my ears, and there was so much going on, I didn’t know where to look. A man with a huge bubble maker was freeing bubbles into the open air, another man painted pink was pretending to be a statue. Tourists were everywhere, stopping and taking photos of both themselves and the scenery A horse, as white as snow, stood proudly by its carriage munching on a rosy apple.
The Ice Bar was freezing compared to the warmth of the sun we had felt outside. The two free drinks were a choice of different flavoured vodka cocktails and they were served in blocks of ice. Again cold, but the worth the aesthetics.
Outside, afterwards was where the real magic lay. As we stood at the edge of the river and looked across, we could see the castle up in the hills, all lit up in the evening light. Like an image you’d see in a Disney film.
After a happy cry in awe at the sight, we found a traditional Czech restaurant where the waiters wore conventional Czech attire; the men wore tall hats, white shirts, puffy jackets and funky trousers, and the women wore puffy dresses. The colours consisted of white, red and green.
Satisfied with a glass of wine and a bowl of Česnečka (garlic soup) whose delicious smell overwhelmed my nostrils, and thick texture warmed my belly after being cold in the bar, the girls and I felt that we needed something sweet.
On the hunt for dessert, head down the back roads lit with street lamps just like the one in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, through brick archways until you spot a young man selling ice-cream.
This ice-cream shop won’t be found on Google but on the back corner of the main square. It is literally a window in a brick wall, selling ice-cream of all weird and wonderful flavours, including a marijuana flavour.
“It doesn’t really count as edibles, I’d go for the Oreo flavour,” said the young man in the window, with a soft Czech accent, seeing my confusion at the flavour.
I knew I was searching for something sweet, and that, this man certainly was.
Although the hostel offered an organised bar crawl, we decided to create our own after our ice-cream detour.
My favourite bars that we visited were Bankers Bar, which was decorated like an old-fashioned bank, boasting black and gold décor, and served an array of different flavoured gins, from strawberry to palmer violet, and the Hemingway Bar, which served a variety of cocktails served in quirky glasses, in a dim setting much like that of a dark box room lit only by candlelight, an image you could imagine Hemingway himself writing in. In the mood to get drunk, I chose a cocktail made with lemon and absinthe as was apparently Hemingway’s favourite drink, which was served in a rather large oval glass with a tap which I would have to turn to fill my actual glass with the bitter sweet liquor. Despite the strong flavour of absinthe which made me shake my head with the first sip, the hint of lemon tingled on my tongue.
Apart from visiting the Warhol and Dali art galleries, most of our second day consisted of walking around and absorbing the sights. There were many people zooming round on bikes and the sparkling river glistened in the sun, flowing past the fairy tale castle up on the hill. Looking at this tremendous view, I could feel the sun kissing my bare shoulders and face.
At the bottom of the bridge, venture down into a little cove that takes you to the edge of the river. There you will see bottle-green ducks, and swans waddling about and a view of the side of the city that we stayed in. This is one of the few peaceful parts of Prague where you can pause and take in all the enamour of the city.
After stopping at the river, we walked to a busier part of the city. In contrast to the serenity that we had just witnessed, this part of town was booming with people, tourists, snapping photos of every angle of the landscape they could find.
On one side stood a man with a huge lemon coloured snake rapped around his shoulders, urging people to take pictures with it.
Avoiding him, we pushed our way through the crowd, my ears ringing with the sound of the crowds of people, until we found a spot that overlooked a river cruise gently chugging its way through the clear waters. To my surprise, I soon felt a huge scaly weight on my shoulders that moved about and hissed in my ear.
“Photo with my snake.” The man sounded like his snake.
“No, I don’t want to.”
For a few minutes the snake wriggled about my shoulders and all I could see were tourists staring at me and my friends laughing in confusion.
To my surprise, the man charged me 5 euros.
“1,2,3,4,5,” he sneered as he took coins from my palm.
Thus, my fourth tip to you is to beware of the ‘Snake Man’ and be careful walking through busy crowds.
Our trip was coming to an end, so we decided to visit the castle. And once again, we took the back routes to get there.
Even though most of Prague looked similar, I was still in awe at everything I saw. The burst of colour surrounding each road, the narrow streets that had enough room for a ray of sunlight and the river which glistened in the September sun.
As we walked higher up the path, I noticed that every building apart from one had orange, red roofs. Surprisingly, although the buildings consisted of a variety of colours, the red was aesthetic and gave a warm feeling to the city like that of a flame. In the centre was a flash of turquoise that gave the impression of a swimming pool. Even though I don’t know what the building was, it really stood out like a vision of water amidst the fire. Alongside this eruption of colour were many trees. This made Prague look like a huge forest filled with buildings, rather than a city filled with trees.
With every step the view distracted me from my aching feet. Each one provided a new angle of the city and I noticed that my mouth was open in an ‘O’ shape, I could not believe a place could be so perfect.
We reached a rest point, the top of a crumbling brick tower. It was like those that you’d imagine medieval castles to have and there were some bricks missing at the top suggesting it was old. This worked as a successful point to pause and snap some pics.
Eventually we reached the castle, that stands at the top of the hill. It had huge deserted rooms and shiny crown jewels kept in glass cabinets.
The huge courtyard inserted in the middle had the castle wrapped round its edges. Although at first it looked more like a museum with its plain brick walls and flat roofs, the spiky spires behind it that soared high into the sky are what made it recognisable as a castle.
Once you reach the top, take yourself away from the main path where everyone walks and head to the side along a cobbled street and through a brick archway. Walk past the little courtyard coffee shop where people sit at metal tables and past the giftshop (unless you want a cheap postcard.) To your right, is a fuchsia building that as you enter, will smother your nose with the scent of warm ginger.
This is a little gingerbread shop, like those you’d imagine in fairy-tales, filled with various types of gingerbread men and chocolate treats. Enough to make your mouth water and a fantastic gift idea to bring back for the family. This was the most perfect end to the most perfect day.
To end our time in Prague, we decided to embark on a river cruise to rest our aching feet and take a final glimpse at the city. As the cruise commenced, we clinked our glasses of wine and looked up to the sunset.
For the first time since we arrived, I could see both sides of the city. On one side was Old Town Square and on the other stood the castle.
In the river the sunset was reflecting, turning the clear water into a warm orange colour, and the sky turned purple, due to the gradual descent into darkness.
In front of me, the huge orange sun was setting before my eyes and nestling behind the many buildings Prague owned. I couldn’t think of a better way to end our time in what is now my favourite city.
Images: Tilly O’Brien