Our Christmas festivities with family in Austria had been planned for almost a year, but with two spare weeks until we joined the clan what else could we do to enhance our vacation? Why not try Prague in the Czech Republic? We had never travelled to Prague before and quite frankly we were pretty ignorant of what to expect. Upon arrival we were very pleasantly surprised. Not only were the locals friendly and welcoming, but English was widely spoken and understood, particularly in the more touristy locations. Yet, perhaps best of all, the city was breathtakingly beautiful.
One of the best decisions we made was to be collected at the airport by Welcome Pickups. They had clean, new Skoda vehicles and well-groomed English-speaking drivers who went out of their way to assist us. We were personally guided to our accommodation in the car-free zone of the Old Town at 10pm and would not have found our lodgings without our driver’s assistance because it’s just a doorway wedged between two shops. No sign to announce our apartment. “Try your keys,” urged our driver. Voila, we were in. Brilliant! What a relief!
We booked our accommodation online and there was a wide range of comfortable lodgings on offer. Just make sure they have a lift as many are stair access only.
Fortunately, Prague was spared much of the destruction of World War II, so it still has an amazing array of medieval architecture and a fascinating history not widely known throughout the English-speaking world. Many of the current tourist attractions were constructed during Prague’s ‘Golden Ages’ in the 14th and 16th centuries and are largely intact.
You’re probably still wondering why you should visit Prague at Christmas. Won’t it be cold and crowded and expensive? Well, actually it is neither that cold nor that crowded at Christmas. As for cost, Prague is not bad compared to Western European cities. It takes a while to get used to the local currency with 16 Czech Koruna to the AUD, and while credit cards are commonly accepted, cash is king, so make sure you have some local currency, especially for mulled wine!
Whilst Prague is subjected to more than 12 million visitors annually, many come in the warmer months (May to September). While there are still plenty of visitors in winter, it is not as manic as the summer and you also get the wonder of Christmas festivities – Czech style. There are many Christmas markets including within the Old Town Square, lots of local food and mulled wine (yum!) on offer — all cheap, warming and plentiful.
Do yourself a favour and make the effort to climb up or catch the elevator to the top of the Old Town Hall gothic tower which overlooks the Old Town Square. You will be rewarded with jaw-dropping views of a winter wonderland that would rival any Disney fantasy. This is a popular attraction with a cap on the number of visitors, so make sure to book ahead online at least 24 hours prior to avoid disappointment. You also receive a 10 per cent discount and there is no wait if you pre-book.
We decided to hoof it and climb the spiralling ramp only to be met at the foot of the last flight of steps by a red traffic light! You see, they don’t let too many people on the ramparts at one time, so we waited for the green light and then, wow, what a view!
The tower closes at 8pm daily, so make sure to plan your visit around dinner. Speaking of dinner, there are plenty of restaurants fringing the Old Town Square, but these are often pricey and busy. Walk one block back from the square in any direction and you will find many great restaurants at a reduced price. One of our favourites was Deer Restaurant.
If you are a history nut, Prague is the perfect destination. Tour Prague Castle, which sits atop a hillside (naturally) overlooking the Vltava River and the city. The Castle is the largest in Europe and encompasses St Vitus Cathedral as well as the Parliament and the home of the President, so it’s not just a museum, but the working seat of government. Consequently, visitors are subjected to the usual security checks and greeted not only by dozing ceremonial guards, but also active servicemen complete with automatic weapons. Despite this, the castle has a festive atmosphere and there are even Christmas markets within the grounds.
Access to the castle is easy. Either walk across the Charles Bridge and climb the hill via switch back streets or, if you are feeling your age, catch a tram, as we did, right to the castle entrance. Trams are frequent, fares are cheap and tickets can be purchased at any tobacconist (of which there are many).
St Vitus Cathedral is a beautiful example of Gothic and Renaissance architecture and houses the tombs of many Bohemian Kings and Holy Roman Emperors including the one and only Good King Wenceslas. Yep, he’s the one in the Christmas carol.
If you are able bodied, then a must do is to climb the narrow 287-step spiral staircase to the top of the bell tower. Convincing ourselves that we were still 19, we took off up the staircase. After a lot of gasping, a few prayers and the occasional debate as to the sense of all this, we finally made it to the top and were treated to magnificent views of Prague in every direction.
We were blessed with snowfall upon dusk, so it was absolutely magical. Most of the castle is wheelchair friendly, but there is no elevator or access for disabled to the bell tower. Unfortunately, they did not plan for such things in centuries past. Take your time if you do this climb — it’s a lot easier coming down, as we found.
There is much more to see within the castle grounds including Golden Lane, which is a series of 15th century row houses that accommodated all the artisans and craftsmen that serviced the castle. Czech craftsmanship is world-renowned and although there are lots of implements for skewering and dismembering people on display, you cannot help but admire the workmanship! Allow a minimum of 4 hours to tour the castle — you will not be disappointed.
As you can see, we loved Prague at Christmas and so will you!