Since I spent nearly 6 years living in this beautiful city, I can also make few observations and possibly offer few practical tips about it. Apart from being a truly stunning town, Prague also comes with an efficient service industry as well as reliable and comfy public transport. In spite of the steep increase in prices during the last few years in the region, Praha is still not a criminally overpriced city like other European metropolises yet. When it comes to what would be the best time to visit Prague, I’d say autumn because of the added value of the extra colours.
In the heart of Europe
First of all, please forget the term Eastern Europe. It’s been well over a decade, since one could safely say that Prague has transformed into a classic Western European city, at least from the traveller’s point of view, unless you take some architecture into consideration. And the locals prefer Central Europe that indicates the country’s actual geographical location.
You won’t see any grey colours, barbed wires or red stars, except for the last one which appears to be a somewhat popular item in the cheesy tourist souvenir shops. This part of the world has always been Central Europe, taking the fact that Europe stretches its geographical territory nearly 3000km further east all the way up to the Ural Mountains.
I understand that from the Western point of view some might still see the Iron Curtain hanging in the air but as we are now marking 30 years since its fall, many believe that it’s time to move on. Those 30 long years of transformation and hard work transformed Prague back to what it has always been prior to the communist dictatorship: one beautiful and cosmopolitan city.
General cost. The cheapest dorm bed goes from about €7 upwards but I’d count on €10+, depending on the season. Single rooms start from about €25, although you can score one for €15 if you’re a modest non-conformist. Meals start at €5, beers are €1.50-5. Spirits and cocktails start at €4-6. Public transport is reliable and you can get around the city for €5 per day or €1,30 for 1hr journey.
Currency. The local currency is Czech Crowns (koruny). Coins are 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50. Notes are 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 Czk. Exchange rates are here. Make sure you’ll exchange your cash in a place with good rates. I used to do it here, they always had the best rates. Watch out for exchange scammers – there’s many, especially in the historical centre.
Credit/Debit cards. Check your bank’s fees for withdrawing cash using your debit card. Using credit cards for cash withdrawals is usually a bad idea as you might already know. You can pay for your hotel with credit/debit cards. Many restaurants and places will accept all major cards, but you better check first, especially if you don’t see the logo of your card at the entrance.
Tips are mostly optional, but sometimes they could also be included in the bill. People usually round up the number by approximately 10+%. For example, you could pay around 180,-Czk for a good meal and a ½ litre of fantastic local lager – round it up to 200,-Czk (approx €7.80, incl €0.80 tip) if you were happy with the service and/or if the bill didn’t say that a tip was included. FYI: restaurant/bar staff are usually students with the basic wage, relying on tips like you once were 😉
The local language is Czech (čeština). Within the service industry, at least basic English is mostly spoken. German could be useful as well. For social purposes, more and more young people do speak fluent-ish English. The older generation could possibly produce some basic Russian that was enforced in schools during the years of occupation.
Basic Czech words to know:
- thank you: děkuji (dhekhuji)
- no thank you: ne, děkuji (ne, dhekhuji)
- please: prosím (proseem)
- informal greeting is: ahoj (ahoy)
- lager: pivo (pivo)
- meaning of life: smysl života (smysl zhivota)
Public transport around the city works perfectly fine. Although you will most likely find the stations’ names unpronounceable and hard to remember, you will be able to work it out. If you are planning to be a tourist the whole day, it’s worth getting the full-day ticket for just under €5. Otherwise use the shorter term tics as explained on the website above. The Old Town is for example easily walkable on foot. You can buy your tickets in the yellow ticket vending machines in every metro station. You’ll need coins for that.
From the airport, you will get to your hotel within an hour by taking the bus nr 119 to the Veleslavín Station (it’s the last stop of the bus + an English announcement will be made) and then taking the tube (metro/underground) anywhere. Please remember to validate your ticket in the yellow thingies before taking escalators inside the metro system or when you’ll get on the bus. It marks the time when your journey began.
Night public transport. There’s also a rather extensive night system of public transport. Ask at your hotel how could you get back after midnight. It could be good fun on night trams sometimes if you’re a social person. Otherwise, taxis are affordable but check google maps so they don’t drive you in circles, Uber is also around.
To leave the city, trains and buses are reliable and comfy. Buying a ticket in advance with Czech National Rail or other companies such as Flix Bus as well as Student Agency for a particular train or bus could save you considerable amounts. Both, the central train station (Praha hlavní nádraží) as well as the central bus station (Autobusové nádraží Praha Florenc) have their own tube stops. A journey to Vienna takes about 4,5 hours, Krakow about 6,5 hours, Bratislava about 5 hours.
9 million international visitors a year put Prague to fourth place of most visited cities in Europe, right after Paris, London and Rome. And mass tourism always comes with a scam. If possible, try to avoid eating or drinking or in fact doing anything rather than taking pictures near the main tourist attractions. Like in many other touristic places around the world, there are some clever-ish scammers around trying to do you.
The exchange rates in those areas could cost up to a ⅓ of your Euro value and the meals as well as beverages could sometimes be 200-300% more expensive as opposed to a normal honest place which could be often located just around the corner somewhere in a side street. You’ll know which places I’m talking about when you’ll see them or you will learn your lesson fast. Taxi drivers could also be very greedy. You should not pay more than €10 for a 10-minute ride within the Old Town. If you have time, take public transport or double-check the prices using Uber.
Hoods to stay
The Old Town could be busy and expensive. IMHO, New Town, Letná or Vinohrady are better and yet still central options. Hostelsworld.com, Booking.com or Airbnb list many places. If you want something different – try this place. It’s managed by a very nice naturalized Aussie guy.
Central European cuisine is pretty much flour-based. There’s so much flour everywhere, even in soups sometimes. The classic meal could be Vepřo knedlo zelo (bread dumplings with cabbage and pork) or people’s/students’ classic Smažený sýr (fried cheese with potatoes or french fries and mayonnaise).
I’d recommend trying the glorified versions of those in one of the more modern restaurants. They would start at about 150,-Czk (€7), the working-class level of those dishes could be available from under €5. As a snack to go with your pint of lager, you could also opt for a Nakládaný Hermelín (a pickled Camembert-type cheese). If it’s done well it could be yummy.
The Czech Republic is among the top countries when it comes to beer/lager consumption per capita. So it is larger all day. For some people, it is not abnormal to get a 1/2 litre after your lunch and head back to work. Lager is in fact mostly cheaper than any soft drink on the menus. It is – let’s say – a cultural thing in Czechia.
I would recommend trying Pilsner Urquell from the tank, which is a special technology that delivers unpasteurised and therefore fresh lager straight on your table without the extra CO2 so it’s not very gassy). You’ll see signs “Tanková Plzeň” around.
Furthermore, except for the corporate breweries that produce mostly classic soulless Euro beers (Premium lagers), such as Staropramen and co, there are tons of other breweries, including microbreweries making various IPAs, APAs, IPLs and so on, in case you like those. Unlike in the UK, beers in the Czech Republic are served with heads. All other drinks are also widely available, in case you were not keen on lager.
Prague’s equivalent of Time Out that lists any arts, live music, theatre, comedy and clubbing is here. Some interesting contemporary annual events worth experiencing are the video mapping Signal, electronic music festival Spectaculare. Outside Prague, there are many music festivals taking place annually. Colours of Ostrava normally have great lineups.
Vistas, bars and places to see
There’s the usual lot, as the route from the castle (Hradčany), Charles Bridge (Karlův most), Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) you’ll get in every guide. It’s all pretty, picturesque and all that and it’s also very busy and crowded like every other touristic place in the world. My favourite quarter of all that is Malá Strana – the residential part before you hit the bridge when coming down from the castle. Jewish Quarter is also awesome. Avoid the rush hours if you want to enjoy it without the crowds. Waking up early or going to bed really late could help.
Another great place with a view is Vyšehrad. Right as you’ll get out of the metro station, you’ll see the infamous suicide bridge were prior to the installation of a protective fence, people used to… well, it’s rather self-explanatory, isn’t it? Then it is about a 5-10 minutes walk towards the castle, passing the ugly conference centre building. Vyšehrad is a nice and very old place with even great view that turns to have smaller crowds if compared to Prague’s Castle.
From Vyšehrad you can then walk down the steep path towards the river. In the summer, there’s a great stretch on its bank with places to grab a drink where many young people hung around. During the last few seasons it has been slowly turning from the great spot for the liberal and alternative crowd to a rather soulless money-making Ibiza-like “Captain Morgan” drunk touristy/crowded place but some of the venues there are still kind off all right.
Stalin has one of the best views of the city from under the metronome and some good live/DJ productions throughout the summer. Letná is a trendy hip neighbourhood with some good street art, galleries and some interesting clubs, such as the industrial Cross, a cyber punky venue Paralelní Polis that’s otherwise known as The Institute of Cryptoanarchy or Bar Cobra where one might feel like inside of a hipster music video.
Another great neighbourhood to see is Vinohrady (my old hood, around Namestí Míru station), especially if you like less crowded places and a more residential kind of vibe. You can wander towards Žižkov (JZP station), a neighbouring former working-class hood with many many pubs. This one, in particular, holds a place in my heart because it was my local and the people running it are just really nice. Old Town, Malá Strana and Vinohrady are just great for random walks and stopovers in cafés and bars.
The party street is Dlouhá. Like the rest of the centre, the nightlife is mostly Erasmus youth and English stag doers, doing their best to leave an entirely wrong impression of their national identity, while trying to make the stupid Brexit popular among Europeans. An honourable mention is Krymská – a street right in front of Czech Inn Hostel. Someone labelled it as Prague’s Kreuzberg, even though it’s a bit of a stretch as it’s just one street with few bars such as my fav Cafe Sladkowski, in case you wanted to check out a friendly place with Wes Anderson-like interior.
1+ Day trips around
People enjoy trips to Kutná Hora to see the skeleton weird place or a small pretty tourist town of Český Krumlov. People who are keen on architecture often find the futuristic tower Ještěd near the northern town of Liberec very interesting. There are many places around the Czech Republic worth visiting, whether you head south to explore the stunning treks in the Bohemian Forest (Šumava) or east to check out the friendly people and wineries of Moravia.
Weed is kinda tolerated, in fact, in some areas of town, you’ll smell it around more than in Amsterdam. Drugs, in general, are decriminalized in the Czech Republic, from the user’s point of view. Drug use is therefore not an offence in the country, and possession of small quantities for personal use is a non-criminal offence under the Act of Violations, punishable by a fine of up to CZK 15 000 (EUR 550). I’ve personally seen cops passing by some groups smoking joints and they didn’t even bother to stop. Buying and selling drugs is strictly illegal.
If you want to have a go, please be sharp and clever. You never know what are you buying and from whom, like in the rest of the world. Days, when you could have your pills tested in Prague’s clubs, are gone now. Know your limits, drink enough water. Wait until you come up, there are many alarming stories of fake ecstasy that kicks in much later. Furthermore, please be careful when drinking Absinthe. Although the actual thujone level is limited, it’s still a very strong spirit (up to 80% volume) so it can get you pretty wasted rather fast…
The National Health System is not exactly matching the Belgian level but it is rather decent and it offers everything one needs in an emergency. FYI: if you are not European – you might need insurance – pls check your country’s deal with the EU…
Prague is quoted to be one of the safest cities in the World. In my opinion, it is as dangerous as any other non-dangerous city. Of course, shit happens and it can happen anywhere but if you are considerate and not stupid, like getting completely wasted and leaving your phone on the table, you should be all right.
The Czech Republic sadly follows the current global trend of anti-immigration sentiment. The reported racially fuelled incidents are rare but not non-existent): Regardless of your colour of skin, sexuality, religion or anything else – avoid large groups of drunk football hooligans and other general neo-nazi, skinhead looking people.
People and some things to know
Czechs are proud of their fairly rich history. It’s not just the fact that Prague hosts one of the world’s oldest universities Charles University (1348), there are also numerous artists, kings and public figures worth mentioning, particularly Jan Žižka, Jan Jesenius, Bedřich Smetana, Alphonse Mucha or Franz Kafka.
More contemporary names of famous Czechs are for example the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera, the multiple Academy Award for Best Director Miloš Forman and the statesman, writer and former dissident Václav Havel. If you are into tennis, ice hockey or football (soccer), you should be able to name few great Czech players. Learn something about the country before you go – the locals will appreciate it 😉
Given the message of one of the Velvet Revolution leaders Václav Havel, Czechia is rather liberal, taking the Central European standards into consideration. However, the 40 years of “people’s dictatorship” influenced the classic Western take on the left-wing vs right-wing divide a bit. The Right-Wing in the Czech Republic connotes freedom and until about 10 years ago it also symbolised liberal policies, while Left-Wing still connotes the dictatorship. In contrast, it is exactly the opposite to the Western take of the split, the exact opposite of the former right-wing totalitarian regimes like Spain or Portugal, after Franco’s, respective Salazar’s right-wing dictatorships were overthrown.
The impact is still present in the generational divide. The post-1989’s Velvet Revolution generations were influenced by rather conservative, business and privatisation were driven profit kind of values, where money overthrew human decency, solidarity and social thinking for several generations to come.
My personal observation however is that the next generation could potentially be the first one not affected by this modern history’s shift of values and options. The youth could (hopefully) be all right, given Prague’s continuous come back to its historical multicultural status and the normalization of a cultural diversity that’s coming with it.
Enjoy your stay 😉