Not so long ago, intrepid travelers talked of a charming, “undiscovered” city in Central Europe. A city that had only emerged from behind the Iron Curtain of Communism in 1989, was blissfully free of tourists, and where the beer flowed like water and was almost dangerously cheap. That city was Prague. The capital and largest city in the Czech Republic (part of the former Czechoslovakia), Prague became popular with budget travelers, expats and TEFL teachers who came to be a part of the city’s post-Soviet growth….and to drink a whole lot of that ridiculously cheap beer.
Those days are gone now, and those early travelers and expats would probably be astounded by the changes the city has gone through. Prague is now the sixth most-visited city in Europe, receiving an estimated 4.1 million visitors in 2009. And it’s no wonder, the city ticks off every box on the European “must-have” list for travelers – fascinating history? Gorgeous art and architecture? Delicious local food and drink? Affordable prices? Prague fits every requirement.
Just because it’s not the tourist-free city it once was doesn’t mean independent travelers should cross Prague off the list though. As Prague has stepped further out of the shadows of Communism and welcomed more visitors, the tourist infrastructure has grown and now it’s easier than ever to explore the City of a Hundred Spires. If you’re thinking about a trip to Prague, here’s what you need to know.
There’s more to Czech food than “Czech food”….
Traditional Czech food is heavy on the meat and carbs and it seems you can’t walk more than five minutes in any direction without passing at least one restaurant serving up heaping plates of goulash and dumplings, carving boards bearing obscenely large pork knuckles, bowls of sausage in dark beer sauce or platters of beer cheese and fried bread. Don’t miss your chance to try at least a few of these delicious specialties, but if you find (as you probably will) that one can only eat so many platters of goulash and dumplings, know that there are many more options available.
Like any major city in the world, Prague offers an international array of choices. Greek, Italian, French, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Chinese, Balkan and even Afghan cuisines are all available. They’re good and inexpensive, and more often than not, the restaurants are frequented by larger numbers of young locals than tourists.
Tips for dining in Prague:
- When tipping, at most places, you can simply round the bill up by 10 or 20 crowns. At nicer restaurants, a tip of 10-15% is expected. Always check to see if the gratuity was added to the final bill.
- It’s considered polite to hand the tip to the waiter. Just tell him or her how much you’d like back, or tell him or her to keep the change, rather than leaving it on the table.
- Many excellent places have menus in both Czech and English, but you’d still be wise to avoid places – especially around Old Town Square – that have menus in nearly a dozen languages. These tend to be the most overpriced.
>> Check out ten weird food delicacies from around the world
And there’s more to drink in the Czech Republic than just beer
The Czech Republic is the home of beer. Beer’s been brewed here since at least the 12th century and the country has the highest per-capita rate of beer consumption in the world. Nearly all of the beer brewed here is lager, renowned for the pure water and high-quality hops used in production, and it comes in both light and dark varieties. The two most popular brands are Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser (no, not that Budweiser!) Budvar, though you’ll also see a lot of Gambrinus, Kozel and Staropramen as well.
Many traditional pubs are licensed by one brewery (just look for the sign hanging outside) so your choices will be limited to light or dark (tmavé). In these pubs, just put a coaster down on your table and you’ll be brought beers until you say “stop” while the beer is tallied on a sheet of paper on your table.
But light and dark beers aren’t your only options. In recent years, Prague microbreweries like Pivovarksy Dum have opened up and begun serving varieties like banana beer and coffee beer alongside more traditional styles. And when you don’t think you can drink another beer, you can sample the Czech wines from Moravia and Bohemia. Take a bus 50 minutes outside the city to Melnik Castle and you can even enjoy a day of wine tasting – just be aware that the whites are much more palatable than the reds. For a taste of absinthe in Prague, head to Absinthe Time, which offers a comprehensive absinthe list and a number of surprisingly drinkable (even for those averse to the anise flavor) absinthe cocktails.
Tips for drinking in Prague:
- If you’re paying more than 30-40 kc for a 0.5l beer, you’re paying too much.
- To “cheers” in Czech, raise your glass, look the person in the eye and say “Na zdravi,” briefly set your glass on the table, and then drink.
- To drink the freshest beer, look for a tank pub or tankovna (such as Bredovsky Dvur), where the beer is served fresh from the brewery and unpasteurized, giving it a richer, more complex flavor.
>> Discover the world’s best selling beers
Prague is made up of 10 distinct districts
Walk through Praha 1 (the Old Town and the area across the Vltava river where Prague Castle is located) or most of Praha 2 (the New Town, near Wenceslas Square) and you may think you’ve seen Prague. But there is so much more of the city to discover. Head to the confluence of Praha 2 and Praha 3, to the Vinohrady neighborhood, and you’ll find cheaper accommodations, an eclectic collection of bars and pubs, and the Riegrovy Sady park and beer garden, the perfect place for enjoying a few cheap (25 crowns) beers under the sun or stars. Or explore the Zizkov, a formerly working-class neighborhood that is now home to many students, artists and expats. Play Prague roulette – pick a numbered neighborhood, hop on a tram and go.
Public transportation in Prague is excellent and you’ll have your choice of tram, bus, or underground metro to help you get around. A ticket good for 75 minutes of travel on all forms is only 26 kc, so hop aboard and set off to explore one of the neighborhoods outside of the city center. Buy your ticket at a metro station (many convenience stores also sell them) and then validate it when you get on.
Tips for getting around in Prague:
- When looking at the schedule at a tram stop, the stop underlined is the one you are at. The ones listed above your stop have already been passed. If the stop you want is there, cross the street and catch the tram going the other way.
- Technically….travelers on a tight budget could get away without a ticket as they aren’t checked each time you get on to ride. But, if you do get caught, you could be fined 900 kc.
As a tourist destination, Prague is still going through some growing pains
As in any city heavily visited by tourists, scams designed to help separate said tourists from their cash abound. Pickpockets are a threat in the most crowded areas – the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, Wenceslas Square (where you’ll also find the “ladies of the night”) and Old Town. There’s no need to be paranoid, just keep your wits about you in touristy areas and don’t make yourself a target. For ladies, carry a purse that can go over your shoulder and don’t throw it over the back of your chair in a restaurant. If someone claims to be an undercover policeman and asks for your passport, don’t hand it over; instead demand to go to the police station or the nearest hotel. And if plainclothes “metro inspectors” ask to see your ticket and then tell you it’s invalid and demand a fine, don’t give it up; real inspectors are required to show you a badge.
Obviously, most people involved in the tourist industry in Prague don’t have ill intentions, but some haven’t yet learned that making tourists happy (or at least, not ripping them off) will help the economy of both the city and themselves more in the long run than pulling a scam to make a quick buck.
Tips for avoiding scams:
- Avoid picking up a taxi on the street, especially in more touristy areas, as you’ll nearly always pay more than you should (airport taxis tend to be the exception). Use a radio dispatched taxi when possible, and know that it is illegal for a driver to refuse you a receipt.
- Avoid changing money anywhere except a bank. The exchange rates are very bad and hidden fees are often tacked on. The best way to convert your money is to simply withdraw it from the ATM.
- Always count the change given. One scam that seems to be quite prevalent involves being shorted, usually by about 100 kc (around $5US) but the amount can vary, on your change for a large bill. Often the waitstaff will drop the majority of your change in bills and then scatter a handful of odd coins for the rest. Tourists naturally assume the change is correct or don’t notice because they are unfamiliar with the currency, and the server gets an extra-large tip. When confronted, the server apologizes and produces the remaining money owed.
You don’t need to speak a word of Czech to get by (but it helps)
In the last decade or so, Prague was the place to go for expats looking to teach English in Europe, and it seems their hard work paid off. Outside of Prague and among the older generation you’ll find plenty of people who don’t speak English, but nearly all of the younger people in Prague – especially those working in the tourism industry – will be able to help you even if you can barely muster a “prosim.”
That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to commit at least a few Czech pleasantries to memory: the words for thank you, good day, the check please, and of course, beer, will help, as will becoming familiar with the pronunciation of Czech words. And the more you plan on spending time outside of the touristy areas of Prague, the more a little Czech will come in handy.
Your dollar still goes a long way in Prague
Travelers who visited Prague in the late 90’s and early 2000’s will lament the rising prices and increased cost of living that has occurred, but tourists accustomed to paying in Euros elsewhere in Europe will delight at how inexpensive everything is – beer for 30 crowns (about $1.50US) and a hearty dinner for two for 400 (about $20US)! And those on a tight budget can stretch their dollars even further. Fill up on a hearty bowl of potato soup for around 50 kc (under $3) or a sausage or slice of pizza from a street vendor for even less. Grab your beers from the local convenience store and you’ll be looking at less than a buck per beer.
Prague joined the European Union in 2004, but as of yet, has not adopted the currency. Initially, the plan was to switch to the Euro by 2010; now speculation ranges from 2015 to 2019, meaning tourists can enjoy a low-cost trip to the Czech Republic for a few more years to come.
Tips for saving money in Prague:
- Avoid any pubs and restaurants that list the prices in Euros; it will undoubtedly be more expensive.
- When dining out, be aware that bread, butter and most sauces will cost extra. Water is only served in bottles, and often costs more than a beer.
>> Read why you should visit the post-Communist countries of eastern Europe
Prague isn’t the only city in the Czech Republic
Prague is obviously just one part of the Czech Republic, yet many people don’t even consider visiting any other areas of the country. While one could easily spend weeks or months exploring Prague, it’s also worthwhile to venture out of the city for at least a day or two. The Czech Republic encompasses about 30,000 square miles, making it only slightly larger than the US state of Massachusetts. It’s well connected by rail and bus and there are several towns that are close enough to be viable day trips while still offering a look at another side of the country.
Beer lovers can head to Plzen and tour the Pilsner Urquell brewery, while wine lovers can hop a bus to Melnik for some Bohemian wine tasting. On an easy day trip, tourists can soak in the supposedly healing waters of Karlovy Vary, check out the bone chapel near Kutna Hora, or visit the World War II holding camp for Jews at Terezin.
Tips for exploring outside of Prague:
- Check both bus and train options for transportation. While riding the rails may seem more romantic, the bus routes are often cheaper and faster.
- Buses and trains depart from several different stations located around Prague. Confirm your point of departure before setting out.
>> Read about off-the-beaten path experiences in the Czech Republic
Prague is no longer a “hidden gem” of Europe
No, nowadays Prague is out there sparkling in all its glory, recognized as one of the most beautiful, enchanting cities in Europe. And with that recognition come the crowds, especially from May to September. During these months, the line to enter St. Vitus’s Cathedral snakes around the building and the Charles Bridge seems to move as a pulsing mass of people makes its way over the Vltava River from sunrise to sundown. There’s no escaping the crowds in these touristy areas, but if you venture even a few blocks away from the epicenter, you’ll be amazed at how quickly and dramatically the crowds disappear.
Tips for avoiding the crowds:
- Arrive at Prague Castle as early as you can (before it officially opens) or expect to wait at least 30-40 minutes to get inside St. Vitus’s Cathedral. It generally closes at 4pm and stays busy throughout opening hours.
- Save your stroll along the Charles Bridge for early morning or late evening. Same goes for your visit to Old Town Square, where after 8pm the crowds decrease considerably.
- Seek out some of the smaller museums and sights. The Museum of Communism is much less visited but provides a comprehensive history of Prague from 1945 through the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
>> Check out six tips on getting away from the crowds
Looking for a hostel in Prague? The Clown and Bard and Sir Toby’s come highly recommended. We stayed in a private ensuite double at the Dahlia Inn, which offered free wi-fi. Compare prices on flights to Czech Republic.