Great things to do in Prague
1. Down a pint of the brown, frothy stuff
The Czechs regard their locally produced beers as a national treasure. ‘If Czech beer is the best in the world,’ ask many visitors to Prague, ‘what’s the best beer in the Czech Republic? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you might hope or expect. The most popular beer here is Gambrinus. However, it’s not universally recognised as the best. Kozel’s Medium, a pale lager, won the prize for the best Czech beer at the Research Institute of Brewing & Malting awards in 2008. Many locals, meanwhile, claim that Pilsner Urquell is the best of the bunch, with Czechs from Pilsen insisting that the water quality in their home city means that their pilsner is superior to those produced anywhere else in the country.
Inevitably, Prague is home to a number of bars that specialise in beer, offering a huge variety or a carefully chosen selection of top-notch brews. The best beer experience can be had in U Medvídků, U Černého vola, U Houdků, U Provaznice, U Vejvodů.
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2. Decipher a 15th century clock face
The Astronomical Clock has been ticking and pulling in the crowds since 1490, although its party trick is laughably unspectacular. Every hour on the hour, from 8am to 8pm, wooden saints emerge from trap doors, while below them, a lesson in medieval morality is enacted by Greed, Vanity, Death and the Turk.
However look a little longer and try and figure out the complicated zodiac figures on the clock’s face, reputedly there are some occult mysteries encoded in them.
3. Join the nation’s contemporary art movement
DOX, a new art centre opened in 2008, placed modern-day art in Prague firmly on the bleeding edge with its hit first exhibition, ‘Welcome to Capitalism!’. The centre’s manifesto sets out to its ideals with admirable clarity: ‘Today, when more and more people tend to think dangerously alike, art’s capacity to suspend, even for a moment, our habitual ways of seeing may be its greatest value.’
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4. Greet some old faces
Look up as you’re walking through Prague’s medieval warrens and saints, gods and gargoyles will be looking back at you. Nowhere are the displays more lively than in Staré Mêsto. One on Charles Bridge depicts the famously lusty St Roc, just after his testicles had been bitten off by a dog sent by God. Others include a sceptical-looking Czech prophetess-queen, puppets, Kafka, and the Angel of Death.
5. Hit a local note
Political anthem-mongerers Lucie, ska masters Sto Zvirat and Moravian folk rockers Cechomor are some of Prague’s better-known local musical talents, but there are plenty more where they came from. Catch local acts in beautiful art deco theatre Akropolis which hosts avant-garde, indie and world bands. Jazz acts, blues bands play weekdays in the Lucerna Music Bar and Vagon stages fresh unrecorded rock, jam nights and reggae.
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6. Pay your respects to the dead
Wander amidst ancient sandstone and marble tombstones in Prague’s eerie tree-shaded Old Jewish Cemetery (Starý Židovský hřbitov). The tiny patch of ground contains around 100,000 bodies and is a forceful reminder of the lack of space accorded to the ghetto, which remained walled until the late 1700s. Forbidden to enlarge the burial ground, the Jews were forced to bury their dead on top of one another up to 12 layers deep.
7. Say ‘I do’ in Czech
With all those Baroque church bells, the fantastical architecture and old-world glamour, Prague is a great place to tie the knot, pop the question or do anything else of a romantic nature. It’s a popular wedding destination for anyone looking to do something different. Top places to get hitched are theOld Town Hall (Staroměstská radnice) and the New Town Hall (Novoměstská radnice), both offering couples the chance to pair up in a historic Gothic building.
Local wedding planners – White (www.destination-wedding.cz), PragueWeddings.com (www.pragueweddings.com) and Prague Wedding Planners (www.pragueweddingplanners.com) – can deal with the practicalities.
8. Get the picture
The revival of Czech photography is upon us. While homegrown photograhers such as Josef Sudek and Jan Saudek have long made their mark on the international scene, photography has taken a back seat at home for almost two decades. That’s set to change with the arrival of prominent Prague photgraphy galleries.
The Prague House of Photography plans to mix classic modern Czech photography with recent local trends, the Leica Gallery aims to exhibit the best local art photgraphers and photojournalists, while Galerie Fotografie Louvre (housed within the venerable Café Louvre) has started life with a bang, with impressive shows by ever-mutable Václav Stratil and always-subtle Pavel Baňka.
9. Pull some anarchic moves
A unique aspect of Prague clubbing is the feeling of anarchy that could only be found in a place with virtually no safety regulations or political correctness. Bar-top stripping, crumbling walls and rampant stimulant use can all be found in Staré Mêsto on any Friday night. Pass over the tacky tourist-traps and head to the hipper art bar – Cross Club – it’s raw and laid-back and you’ll find the arty types or perhaps a short film festival. Bordo organises infectiously fun nights a throwback to Prague’s mid-’90s salad days.
Delving deeper into the oddities of the Prague underworld, Újezd is a three-storey madhouse filled with smoke and badly amplified rock. and patronised by a young Czech crowd with dreads: more fun than it sounds. And if what you really want is a club whose interior décor could be the set of a cheap horror film head to Wakata, a down-and-dirty teenage wasteland.
10. Eat pub-grub Czech style
After all the beer, you may fancy some cold smoked mackerel? Raw beef on deep-fried toast? Bits of meat suspended in aspic, aka ‘head cheese’? well, we won’t describe Czech pub grub as healthy but it’s certainly pretty unique to the Czech Republic. Some of the best places to try it are: Pivnice u Pivrnce, which serves meaty no-nonsense local fare; U Medvídků, which offers the infamous head cheese; and U Radnice, where feasts, served at shared tables, can be had for surprisingly low prices.
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11. Travel back 1,000 years at Prague Castle
Prague Castle dominates the city’s skyline, its jumble of styles and influences perfectly illustrating the shifting demands of its occupants and conquerors over the last millennium. At the centre of the castle, its dramatic Gothic spires and flying buttresses visible from everywhere in town, is the imposing St Vitus’s Cathedral; even the most jaded of visitors will be given pause by its grandeur. Other highlights within the castle complex include the Old Royal Palace, which has excellent historic and architectural displays; Basiica of St George; the Lobkowicz Palace, which now has a fully fledged museum, with the city’s best restaurant vistas; and Villa Richter, the scene of many cultural events, including Jazz at the Castle (www.jazznahrade.cz).
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12. Jump off a bridge
From June to September KI Bungee Jump (www.bungee.cz) have been doing brisk business in pitching otherwise rational weekend vistors off Zvikovské podhradí, a bridge high over the Vltava valley. Expect to pay 900-1,000 Kč per jump, and be sure to book ahead.
13. Marvel at the puppet masters
Puppet shows are not just for children in Prague. The art of puppetry has a long and sometimes subversive history in the Czech Rebublic. Although much puppet theatre is aimed at tourists, high-quality Czech puppeteers and productions appear frequently. Catch a show at the lively and progressiveDivadlo Minor, or buy a puppet for yourself at Truhlář Marionety.
You don’t often get to see slapstick puppet operas performed on a boat and the slapstick puppet opera on the Formans’ Mystery Boat Theatre is pretty special. The playing area itself is a miniature mock-up of a classic Baroque stage, populated by a variety of puppets, from antique marionettes to hand puppets; and masked actors continually intrude upon the grotesqueries that ensue. The theatre seats 170 (each place is supplied with its own lifejacket).
With its cosy hull bar and charming touches, such as stained-glass tables in the theatre, the boat merits a visit in its own right. Great visuals and strong music mean you don’t need Czech to enjoy it. It’s understandably popular, so be sure to buy tickets in advance.
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14. Burn a witch
In a tradition that rolls the best of Halloween and Bonfire Night into one, Witches Night (Pálení čarodźjnic) marks the death of winter and the birth of the new spring. On April 30, locals light bonfires to purge the winter spirits, an effigy of a hag is burnt – a relic of real witch hunts – and the more daring observers of the custom leap over the flames. Most fires are in the countryside, but there’s sometimes a pyre in the city: check Pet¡ín Hill in Malá Strana.
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15. Attune to the ‘frozen music’
Goethe wasn’t definitely talking about Prague when he called architecture ‘frozen music’ – but he could have been. The city is an ice cube box of melodies, striking chords, making vibrations.
Down the blind alleys and twisting lanes you’ll find ancient Romanesque basilicas, Gothic turrets pointing up like magicians’ hats, brutalist Soviet tower-blocks and Art Nouveau façades. Prague is a mass of extrovert styles knitted together in a glorious and unique cityscape.
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16. Live a little Las Vegas
Adding an old-world Czech touch to the casino idea, the Savarin Casino has candelabras and Baroque frescoes as well as American roulette and stud poker. It’s a world apart from most of the betting rooms on Wenceslas Square, and worth a look even if you don’t gamble; if you do, drinks are on the house.
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17. Dine in style
Recently, menus in Prague have risen above stodgy dumplings and saurkraut, and it’s now possible to dine on world-class cuisine. Allegro was the first Prague restaurant to win a Michelin star, and its inspired Tuscan-meets-Czech menu features delights like veal fillet, pan-fried foie gras and truffles and monkfish saltimbocca.
Two other restaurants of particular note are the Alcron, where seafood master Roman Paulus casts lobster bisque and smoked eel with black truffles and savoury sauces; and Kampa Park, also serving gourmet seafood in a restaurant overlooking Charles Bridge.
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18. Indulge in an outlandish baroque fantasy
A swirling mass of stuccoed cherubs front the façade of the Loreto, perhaps the wildest expression of Catholic Baroque in Prague, inside are the skeletons of two female saints and a diamond-studded cross-shaped monstrance. Also look out for the carving of St Wilgefortis the bearded (female) saint, and the sculpture of St Agatha carrying her breasts on a meat platter.
A small chapel to the Virgin boasts several relics, a crevice – supposedly caused by lightening – and a dark red colour scheme that makes it look less like a virgin’s boudoir and more like a place in which to hold a black mass. Visit, pray and soak up a bit of Catholic miracle culture.
19. Explore an existentialist’s mind
Standing just outside the Spanish Synagogue is a surreal bronze statue of Kafka depicted as a gnomish figure riding on the shoulders of a headless, handless, footless giant with a striking resemblance to the Golem of Prague.
Only erected in 2004, it’s a sign of Prague’s ambivalent attitude to Kafka. Born in Prague he wrote in German and has never been entirely accepted by Czechs as one of their own. However, that hasn’t stopped a small industry of cafés and restaurants around his old neighbourhood in the tourist-saturated Jewish quarter of Josefov from cashing in on his name.
If you’re a budding Kafka yourself head down to The Globe Bookstore & Coffeehouse, where Alchemy hosts organises readings and open mic sessions on the first Monday of every month (www.alchemy-prague.com).
20. Become X-rated
Warning for adults only: read on only if you’re an exhibitionist without any inhibitions! Czech law skirts the issue of prostitution and as a result Prague is known for its prospering sex business. But they’re not resting on their err laurels. The Big Sister brothel gives a new media twist on this old profession. It nakedly cashes in on the Big Brother phenomenon, putting live internet cameras inside. All the punters who agree to appear on the web, get an hour of gratis action.