Tourists act pretty much the same all across the globe – they take photos of everything and stroll patiently along the streets as if they have all the time in the world (and they probably do – they are on holidays after all). Shawn, our local Prague ambassador, has put together a list of things only tourists do in the Czech capital. If you want to avoid looking like one, be sure to follow his advice!
1. Never leave the Old Town
There’s no doubt that Prague has one of the most beautiful old towns in Europe and perhaps the world. It’s easy to get lost in the winding alleys and narrow cobblestone streets of the City of a Hundred Spires. It’s also easy to forget that there’s a lot more to experience beyond Staroměstská and Malá Strana, including some of the city’s best restaurants and museums. Though Czechs are extraordinarily proud of their historical monuments, most locals have a hard time finding any decent restaurants and cafés in the Old Town, since all the proprietors know that all the tourists will stay within its boundaries and can be ripped off by excruciating degrees. In fact, unless a local works there, they tend to avoid the Old Town like it’s quarantined. There can be good deals for business lunches in the Old Town though, so you’ll occasionally see locals dining there.
Why not then get out of the Old Town and venture into other historical neighbourhoods like New Town, Vinohrady, Letná, Karlín or Žižkov? Each of these areas bristles with cafés, pubs and bars that are much cheaper and of a higher quality than their Old Town counterparts. Žižkov is known as the more alternative hangout, while the hipsters tend to coalesce in Vinohrady around Krymská or across the river in Letná. New Town has a mix of tourists and locals due to its proximity to the Old Town. If you prefer quiet, tree-lined streets with sidewalk cafés, then wander up to Karlín, which is just a couple of tram stops from the city centre.
The point is that there’s a lot more to Prague than the Old Town and Malá Strana – nobody falls in love with the city simply for the Orloj (astronomical clock).
2. Have a drink at the Old Town Square
If you like paying exorbitant prices for small quantities and poor quality, then you certainly must order a drink on the Old Town Square. Everything on the Square is there for location, location, location. As you wander around and take your pictures (the Orloj and the Church of Our Lady before Týn are some of the most beautiful monuments in Europe), notice that the only locals you see are waiting tables and running Segway tours. Besides work, taking in the view and watching street performances, there’s nothing that will make locals linger here.
3. Admire the view from the top of the Orloj
Not only does the climb to the top of the Orloj cost more than a train ride across the country, every local knows that it also doesn’t give you the best views of Prague. Instead of wasting your time and money going up there, head over to Petřín Hill. You can take the funicular, or if you’re feeling more active, hike on up and see the beautiful city peeking through the trees. You can also get great views from the decks of one of Petřín’s many beer gardens. There’s even a trail that goes from the top of Petřín Hill over to Strahov Monastery, where you can refresh yourself with a locally brewed beer.
There are other places for premium views of the city as well. Check out the view at Riegrovy Sady, which is one of Prague’s main parks. It’s a great place to jog, sunbathe, swim and, as it’s on the side of a hill, to see the spires of the city. There’s also a locally famous beer garden that’s always full of people throughout the summer, often hosting concerts and showing football games on the big screen outside.
In addition, Letná Park offers spectacular views; you can take in the city in the same way that a gigantic statue of Stalin once did. Stalin has since been replaced by an equally gigantic metronome that stopped working many years ago. Locals like to joke that once the metronome starts moving again, Stalin will come back! That might be why no one has ever bothered to fix it.
4. Visit the Castle and pay for the museums
Czechs are very defensive of Prague Castle, especially when it comes to comments about how it’s not actually a castle at all. When I first came to Prague five years ago, everyone told me the Castle is a must-see. I was looking all around for a Disneyland-like castle – which the Czech Republic has plenty of – but was somehow unable to locate it. Finally someone pointed it out to me, “It’s the thing with the big church on the hill!” It is technically a castle, but the walls are hidden by other buildings and the interior is filled with palaces, so at first glance it’s hard to understand that you are, in fact, looking at the world’s largest castle.
When looking at the castle, keep in mind that one thousand years ago it did look more like the traditional Disney stereotype of castles. It has since been rebuilt, expanded, modernised and finally, 200 years ago, given the baroque facelift that it has today. The Castle is full of sights and museums, but the best parts of it can be seen for free (and anyway, many of the museums are history museums with the same content as Wikipedia). Join the “short tour” – you can get inside the entrance of St. Vitus Cathedral and see its grandeur (if you want to see the whole interior, you’ll have to buy a ticket), and after 6 pm, the Zlatá Ulička (Golden Lane) is free and open to the public. The grounds don’t close until midnight and towards that time it’s an extremely beautiful place, free from the tourist traffic.
If you do want to find the more stereotypical castles, then take a short day trip to Karlštejn, Konopiště or Hluboká, which are all reachable in under an hour. They are all picturesque monuments to bygone times, in their own unique period styles.
Photo credit: Traveltipy
5. Ride a sightseeing bus or take a riverboat cruise
In all cities across Europe, tourists crowd to get on these things. It’s like you can’t check the box of being a tourist somewhere unless you buy an overpriced ticket to get on a big red bus that takes you to all the same places as the public transit! Prague is a city of trams – the trams have been here for more than a hundred years – and riding them is part of the historical Prague experience, so ride them! A day pass only costs about $4 anyway. What’s even more fantastic is that the #22 tramline takes you to almost everywhere a tourist or a local would want to go. Incidentally, it’s also the line that’s the most packed, running from Vinohrady to New Town, Malá Strana, the Castle and finally to the Strahov and Břevnov monasteries. With a single tramline that useful, why take a tourist bus? It really makes no sense! A few of the other lines will take you across the Old Town and into other nearby neighbourhoods. If you’re staying anywhere further out, you can use the metro to get around.
As for the riverboat, if you’re feeling like spending some time next to the water or on a boat, then do what the locals do. They head down to Naplavka, a large stretch of river that was recently renovated, right next to Charles Square. It’s always a party there, with loads of places to get beers, see street performers and watch locals letting their dogs jump in the river to chase the ducks and swans.
Photo credit: Shawn Basey
6. Get a portrait done on the Charles Bridge
This is another one of those things on the tourist checklist of every city it seems. No local would ever be caught dead getting a sketch of themselves on the Charles Bridge or anywhere else in the city. Apparently business is good, since sketch artists line the Bridge, selling their drawings all day long. Prague is full of fine and modern art, but it’s not found on the Bridge. All of these sketches are overpriced and dull, and nobody has told the artists (or their customers) that caricatures are neither original nor clever.
Prague is full of really awesome and edgy art, with lots of festivals throughout the year. If art is your thing, skip the scammy sketchers and head over to Veletržní Palác in the Letná district. The Veletržní Palác is probably one of the ugliest buildings in a city full of architectural gems, but it houses an impressive collection of works by famous masters and lesser-known Czech artists. I would also recommend the National Gallery, but it seems to be undergoing a never-ending renovation. Lastly, you can make your own tour of Prague by seeking out works by the famous Czech sculptor David Černý, from the statue of two men urinating on the Czech Republic outside the Kafka Museum to the giant babies crawling up Žižkov Television Tower.
Photo credit: Shawn Basey
7. Drink Heineken
It has become a weird tendency at tourist trap bars and clubs to serve Heineken instead of Czech beer, and tourists can often be spotted drinking the terrible stuff. The trend really makes no sense, since I don’t even know a single Dutch person who likes Heineken. The Czech Republic is the birthplace of modern beer – pilsner gets its name from the Czech city of Pilsen – so it makes sense to drink Czech beer and not some silly overpriced import. This is also a good way to tell if you’re in a tourist trap – does the place serve Heineken or does the Czech beer cost over 40 crowns?
You might think that one pilsner-style beer is the same as any other, or that Czech beer is comprised only of pilsners. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Czechs divide their beers typically between a svetle or light beer, a ležák or lager and a polotmavý or half dark. They also often use numbers – the 10 degree is a light beer and the 12 degree is a more full-bodied lager. For the fullest taste, always choose a 12 degree or a polotmavý. Also be sure to try the hundreds of microbrews that Prague has to offer. Beer tourists usually first head to the Prague Beer Museum on Dlouhá, but there are also a lot of locally known places. The Prague Beer Museum at Náměstí Míru tends to host more locals, and then there’s even more locally known places like Zlý Časy, Beer Geek and U Kačiře.
8. Eat a sausage at Wenceslas Square
Every tourist loves to go to Wenceslas Square. It has many Czech landmarks, from the National Gallery to the statue of St. Wenceslas, as well as the New Yorker and Bata shoe stores. It’s always packed with people of every nationality besides Czech, and every tourist loves to think they’re doing the local thing by buying a sausage from one of the street vendors. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Locals try to avoid Wenceslas, and better street food can easily be found elsewhere.
Firstly, in nearly every metro station there’s a place that serves hot, greasy and delicious New York-style pizza for cheap. Kebab windows are pretty bountiful as well, and the kebabs are always tasty. The real local favourite though is Vietnamese fast food – locals love getting a bahn mi, a type of Vietnamese sandwich served with vegetables, chilli and pate, from places like Mr. Bánh Mì in Vinohrady and Red Hot Chili in Karlín. These sandwiches have almost become a staple in every local’s diet. As many might say, you haven’t experienced true Czech food until you’ve had a Vietnamese sandwich!
Photo credit: Krob
9. Do an organised pub crawl
It seems that you’re not a drunken football fan or English guy on his stag party unless you do some sort of organised pub crawl. Of course, if you’re a tourist, I guess it’s impossible to find a bar or pub in a city that has one in every other building. And maybe you want to play it safe and stay on a typical guided tour route where every bar can earn a killing from the tourists. But believe me, you won’t get the local drinking experience, especially since every local tries to avoid anywhere on the regular pub-crawl circuit. It’s better to just look through the Like a Local website for much more interesting places and create your own private pub crawl!
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