Prague - 5 Tourist Traps to Avoid and 5 to Embrace
For many people out there, drinking by night and cruising the tourism hot spots by day is the perfect getaway, especially in a city that offers great summer weather, cheap beer and such a wealth of touristy things to do. If that’s the kind of holiday that you are looking for then Prague is certainly the perfect choice. The city is easy and cheap to get around by public transport meaning that the cheaper accommodations on the outskirts of the city are worth considering. Everything in the city is geared at tourists, but this is also something to be hugely aware of. Prague is one of Europe’s ultimate tourist traps. Be wise and plan your trip well to avoid the crowds and the tourist expenses. Ultimately, be picky about where you choose to spend your money and how to spend your time.
Tourist Traps to Avoid
The Astronomical Clock
The Prague Orloj is a medieval astronomical clock that is mounted on the southern wall of the Old Town Hall in Old Town Square, Prague. First installed in 1410, it is the third oldest of its kind in the world and the oldest that is still operating, using special mechanisms and dials to display the relative positions of the sun and the moon. It is the number one tourist attraction in Prague.
The Astronomical Clock, Old Town Square
There are four figures attached to the clock that are set in motion on the hour. These figures represent four things that were despised at the time of the clock’s making; vanity, greed, lust and death. The skeleton representing death chimes the clock’s bell on the hour which instigates the show. Above the clock, the statues of the Twelve Apostles pass an open doorway.
The Astronomical Clock Waits for its Doors to Open
While the mastery and science behind the clock, along with its record breaking history is certainly of interest, the moment that the skeleton of death strikes that bell can be completely ruined by the hundreds of tourists which surround the Old Town Hall each hour. The stretch from Karlova Street to the Old Town Square is near impassable for about 15 minutes every hour as the mass of people stand around looking for a good spot to watch the clock. This attracts pick pockets, tour agencies and scammers looking to take advantage of the clock’s audiences.
The Skeleton Chimes his Bell on the Hour
Of course you could decide that 15 minutes of pain is totally worth it for a view of the clock’s mechanical wonders and the cute display of moving figurines. However, if you want to enjoy the experience without the over zealous crowds and annoying tall people who will just stand right in front of you, I suggest you enjoy this spectacle from a different stand point. At the back of the street restaurants opposite the clock is a building which houses a hotel and on their first floor is the deliciously, classically decorated Café Mozart.
Café Mozart, Old Town Square, Prague
Head upstairs at about half past the hour, grab a window seat and order a cocktail. Perhaps even treat yourself to a tantalising treat which you can choose from their tempting displays or from their iPad menus which offer 360 degree views of their cakes and ice creams. All that will be left is for you to sit back, enjoy your frozen margarita while nibbling on some apple strudel and wait for the clock to work its magic with the best view in town!
The Charles Bridge
If the astronomical clock wasn’t first on your list to things to do in Prague, then the Charles Bridge may well be. Unfortunately, as grand as it is and the views across the Vltava are gorgeous, walking across it can be an unpleasant experience. The Charles Bridge originally connected Prague Castle with the city’s Old Town and is considered to be one of the best examples of civil gothic-style buildings in the world. The bridge measures at 621 metres long and 10 metres wide and rests on 16 arches. There are three bridge towers, two on the Lesser Quarter side which leads up to the castle and one on the Old Town side. The bridge is also decorated by 30 statues which lead your way across the water.
The Charles Bridge, Prague
The bridge is certainly something that should be seen, but it is not all that it has been cracked up to be. For a start, the statues are now all replicas, which is not a complaint, they are still impressive, but they are not originals. More annoyingly, it is one of the most difficult paths to negotiate in all of Prague. Karlova Street which passes across the bridge is outrageously frustrating. On the Old Town side of the river, the street is small and winding, filled with tacky shops, Thai massage parlours, restaurants and bars that spill out onto the already small pathway and a myriad of touts trying to sell you tickets for tacky tours and concerts. The street on the other side of the river is wider, more commercial and slightly more bearable, but overly busy with crowds making their way to the bridge.
One of the Thirty Charles Bridge Statues
Then there is the bridge itself, the landmark that the swarms of people are aiming for. If you are looking to take an atmospheric photo of the great bridge, you can forget it unless you are happy with hundreds of heads in the bottom of your photo. You will also be greeted by what feels like every musician and artist in the world who want to sell you something or at least take some of your hard earned cash. The standards aren’t bad and if you have nothing better to do, you may well enjoy the 50th performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that you have seen in Prague and you could possibly be enticed to sit for a portrait, but it is the volume of them that is incredulous. Every few feet you will be greeted by a struggling artist!
The Charles Bridge Artists
At the time it was built, the Charles Bridge was the only means of crossing the Vltava river and as the only connection between the castle and the Old Town, it was an important trade route between Eastern and Western Europe. Fortunately for us travellers today, it most certainly isn’t. Unless you are planning to visit Kampa Island, I suggest you avoid walking across the bridge at all. There are many other bridges in Prague which are a perfect vantage point to see the Charles Bridge without having to battle your way across it. Walk along the Vltava waterfront for fantastic views of the river and the bridge, or go under it. If you’re brave enough to venture along Karlova Street, take a hike up to the top of one of the towers and look down. If you must walk over the Charles Bridge, do it at sunrise without the crowds.
A View of the Charles Bridge at Sunset
One of the largest square in Prague, located in New Town, has been the scene of historical demonstrations, celebrations and ground breaking public gatherings and is home to the great Czech National Museum. Once the scene of the 1918 proclamation of independence of Czechoslovakia, Nazi demonstrations, the Prague Uprising of 1945, protests against the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1968 and the incredible demonstrations that led to the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Wenceslas Square is steeped in recent history and emotion if you let yourself think about it and imagine the things that happened on those paved walkways.
Wenceslas Square, Prague
However, today the square is a large commercial wonderland, filled with fast food restaurants, high street shops and offices. It is nice to walk up the pedestrianised centre towards the National Museum and the statue of Wenceslas, but in comparison to other areas of the city, it just feels like you could be anywhere in the world. At night the square is a hub of nightlife activity which attracts the stags and hens from all over Europe. Once the sun has set, the bars and strip clubs come alive and the prostitutes come to the streets looking for business. If you must visit Wenceslas Square, do it during the day and make the National Museum your target.
The Tram Café on Wenceslas Square, Looking up to the National Museum
Oh the blight of the Segway. Please do not be one of those people! As a tourist, you cannot escape them, they are everywhere. Every corner you turn, every square you find yourself upon, every tourist attraction in the city you aim for, there they are. While they appear to be a fun way to get around the city, they are dangerous and incredibly annoying. While touting for business, the tour leaders don’t look where they’re going and while the tours are in action, you have no choice but to give way to them as a pedestrian. They take to the pavements instead making them one of the greatest annoyances I came across in Prague. They are like an infection which I haven't yet seen in any other European city.
Segway Tours in Prague
According to news reports, the city’s council has received countless complaints about the battery operated walking aid (yes, you could just walk around the city!) and have now implemented a complete ban on Segways in the historic centre, which is certainly a start. The laws across the world regarding the Segway is sketchy. In France they are considered to be like pedestrians, in the UK they are considered motor vehicles and are not allowed on pavements, but as vehicles need to be licensed, insured and taxed as well as road legal, such as having brake lights and registration plates, they are not allowed on the roads either. If you want a Segway tour in the UK, you are restricted to parks and country tours.
Perhaps I am being a killjoy here, but I think there is a time and a place for a Segway and the pedestrian paths of Prague is not one of them. Prague is such an easy city to get around, just use your feet or public transport and leave the Segway experience off road!
If you are a fan of museums then Prague will not leave you disappointed. There are currently 306 museums listed on TripAdvisor in Prague and while some of them are truly worthwhile, there are a couple of hundred that are just designed to draw you in and take your money. To mention a few that I highly recommend, Lobkwicz Palace, The Franz Kafka Museum, the Mucha Museum and the Museum of Communism are well worth a visit on a rainy day. However, there are so many that are simply a hilarity or just a bit of fun, but you need to consider, when Prague can end up being quite an expensive tourist experience anyway, whether they are worth handing your cash over to. Read about the Mucha Museum and his Slav Epic here.
The Mucha Museum, Prague
The Sex Museum offers some light relief in the way of sexual contraptions used throughout the centuries (yes they really have been used). Four floors of debauchery and sexual innuendos and twenty minutes of trying to work out how they were used will keep you entertained. The KGB Museum, a shrine to the overzealous Russian military agency is also one to deliberate. Not having visited myself, you should at least read the reviews on TripAdvisor for some light entertainment. It seems to be a place you will either love or hate. The replies that the owner has left on the bad reviews are incredible.
David Cerny's "Peeing Statues" Franz Kafka Museum
The Museum of Medieval Torture is Prague’s answer to the London Dungeon, there are chocolate museums, perfume museums, a gingerbread museum, even Apple has a museum in Prague. Surely Prague should be called the ‘City of Museums'?
Tourist Traps to Embrace
The castle is one tourist trap that you should definitely embrace. You can spend as little or as much time as you like at the largest ancient castle in the world and with a huge variety of ticket prices, with three possible circuits and a number of exhibitions, you can even budget carefully for it. I chose ‘Circuit B’, which includes St Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St George’s Basilica and Golden Lane, but an upgrade to ‘Circuit A’ will get you full access to all of the available buildings. Whichever ticket type you choose, you have the ability to wander the streets of the complex for as long as you like within the opening hours and the tickets can be used for two days.
St Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle
Prepare yourself to contend with masses of people and queues in some cases too, but they are worth it and unfortunately, can’t be avoided. There are a huge variety of architectural styles to enjoy from the Gothic of the cathedral to the Romanesque of the Basilica and on a sunny day, the squares are delightful places to sit and watch the world go by. Leave the Golden Lane till last. While you would do well to avoid the souvenir shops, it is a delightful parade of some of the smallest homes in Prague. Kafka even resided at no. 22 in 1916 and 1917. Hradcany is also a delightful district of Prague to explore, offering romantic strolls, cute little nooks of cafés and restaurants and incredible views across the city.
St George's Basilica, Prague Castle
Exploring the Jewish Quarter was one of my favourite mornings spent in Prague. Don’t bother with a tour, visit one of the major synagogues in the area and buy an all access ticket for 300CZK and take yourself around. The combination ticket will get you into the Spanish Synagogue and the Jewish Museum, St Salvator, Maisel, Pinkas and Klaus Synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery.
The Interior of the Spanish Synagogue, Prague
Some are more impressive than others but the less impressive ones contain a huge amount of information about the lives of Jews in Prague which is haunting and incredibly interesting when considering the city’s past.
The Walls of the Pinkas Synagogue, Prague
Highlights include the architecture and decor of the Spanish Synagogue and the emotionally charged Pinkas Synagogue which has the names of every Czech holocaust victim inscribed on the walls. It is through Pinkas that you gain access to the cemetery. Take your time to walk around and inhale the atmosphere. Note how visitors commemorate their loved ones and the city’s Jewish history with stones and paper messages. It is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe.
The Jewish Cemetery, Prague
You will need to take a tram to get to Strahov, but of all the attractions I visited, this was the quietest and as a result, possibly the most enjoyable. Inside there are Romanesque halls and refectories and a picture gallery and if you can get in, the Basilica is definitely worth seeing for its altars and frescoes. It also houses one of many organs in the city that Mozart is believed to have played on. But the real attraction here is the famous Strahov Library. It truly is a sight to behold and well worth the queues and the photography fee to get in.
The Strahov Monastery, Prague
The Philosophical Hall has a walnut interior which was transported from another monastery and shelves upon shelves of books. The fresco above depicts science and religion as they have evolved over the centuries.
The Philosophical Hall at the Strahov Monastery Library
The Theological Hall seems smaller and lighter but equally as impressive and is the oldest part of the library. There are 18,000 books in this room and the ceiling has an impressive array of scenes telling the idea that wisdom is acquired through fear of God. The decor is intricate, detailed and colourful. While finding your way between the two halls, you should at least glance upon the Cabinet of Curiosities too, a collection of strange monstrosities. You can decide for yourselves whether they are real or fake!
The Theological Hall at the Strahov Monastery Library
Take the time to enjoy the peaceful surroundings. Sip on some monastery beer in one of the few bars and restaurants in the complex and don’t miss the incredible view over the city. Step through the archway at the side of the main square and find the small platform underneath one of the restaurants for one of the best views over Prague and the Vltava river.
No visit to Prague would be complete without tasting at least one of its many cheap beers. It is a city of microbreweries and every bar you go into will have something different for you to try. Prague has a reputation for selling the £1 beer and while I am not sure you could find one at that price, the beer certainly is cheap in comparison to what we are used to. Also, don’t be surprised if you find some locals supping on a can of beer on the bus first thing in the morning! Pilsner Urquell is probably the best known Czech beer, alongside Budvar and Staropramen, but once you’ve tried those, branch out a little and try some home-brews.
One of the Hundreds of Different Beers of Prague
Some of the best include Klasterni Pivovar which is located at the Strahov Monastery mentioned above, where brewing dates back to the early 14th century. Pivovarsky Dum of New Town is popular with locals which gives it a huge thumbs up. It is also famous for being a little more experimental with its beer, adding flavours such as cherry, chilli and coffee to its menu. U Fleku is probably the most frequented by tourists, filled with long tales and a smoky atmosphere. But be warned, while he beer is dark and delicious, it is rather touristy, often filled with costume wearing waiters and musicians. However, it is the only brewery in Central Europe to brew beer for 500 years straight, so worth adding to your bucket list.
The Letna Hill Beer Garden
If you have no idea where to begin, check out the Prague Beer Museum or the Czech Beer Museum for a head start.
The John Lennon Wall
One of the things I love about Prague is that art and music are everywhere. What makes the John Lennon Wall so unique is that it is created by normal people like you and me and it changes every single day. It is also a platform through which to get your message heard. It is a tourist trap in that it is incredibly crowded every moment of the day and you will find people there asking for your money, but in this case, the musicians add to the ambience and without the paint sellers, you wouldn’t be able to leave your own message.
A Local Musician at the John Lennon Wall, Prague
Once a huge grievance to the authorities, the wall was used by youths of the city to share their annoyances about the state which often led to clashes between students and police. This movement became known as “Lennonism” and the young people were labelled as alcoholics, mentally deranged and sociopaths. The wall was often painted over by the authorities but they would find new messages of poems and flowers the very next day. Today, the wall represents a symbol of love and peace across the world.
Paint Your Message to the World on the John Lennon Wall
Spend some time there and soak up the energy. If you feel inclined to, buy a pot of paint and a brush and leave your own mark of love and peace upon this great work of urban art.