Overview

Prague, Czech Republic, is a city of stunning physical beauty. The capitals of many other European nations were flattened or heavily damaged during World War II, but Prague survived intact.

Thanks to Prague's role as a focal point of culture and commerce for nearly a millennium, it retains evidence of the many nationalities that have influenced and sometimes dominated its course in history. Gothic and baroque spires, art-nouveau facades and even cubist structures reflect a crucible of German, Italian, Flemish and Bohemian artistic movements. At one time the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and at another the citadel of the Hapsburgs, Prague sustains a reputation as a vital political, cultural and economic center.

This is especially true since the 1989 bloodless Velvet Revolution swept out communism. Tourists and foreign expatriates continue to descend on the City of a Hundred Spires, although those hoping to see evidence of its totalitarian past may be disappointed to find that Prague has very much become a cosmopolitan Western capital. Gone are the days of standing in line for bananas in Spartan, communist-style grocery stores; instead, expect to see people standing in line for the dressing room at the Swedish clothing-store chain H&M.

Although the city embraces innovation, Prague's old-world appeal has been steadfastly preserved. Thick river fogs, arched stone bridges, mysteriously lit alleyways and other charming scenes linger around almost every corner. If you slip away from the main tourist scene, you'll likely stumble upon a bakery offering freshly baked brown loaves from 200-year-old recipes, or a lively political debate in a Hapsburg-era hospoda (pub). For many, Prague carries on as it always has.

Geography

Prague is composed of 22 administrative districts, although historically it was divided into 10 districts, which are still used when referring to cadastral areas within the city. These districts stretch across seven hills, centered on the broad Vltava River (known as the Moldau in German). Each district's boundaries are printed on city maps, and Praguers will refer to them when giving directions.

The central district, Prague 1, includes the areas known as the Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana) on the west bank of the Vltava River, and the Old Town and New Town (Stare Mesto and Nove Mesto) on the east side of the river. These areas of Prague 1, along with portions of Prague 2, comprise what is often called the centrum, or city center. The centrum contains the main tourist attractions, most major businesses, many hotels and restaurants, and the banking district. The city also boasts several attractive districts for residential life, business and, consequently, tourism, thanks to the top-flight bars, restaurants and shopping. These areas include Prague 3 (Zizkov), with its landmark television tower; Prague 5 (Andel), home to multiplexes and malls; and Prague 7, site of the lovely Letna Park.

Twelve bridges cross the Vltava River. Karluv Most, the oldest and most spectacular bridge, is known by visitors and natives alike as the Charles Bridge. It connects the Lesser Town's quaint streets with the Old and New Towns' and is for pedestrians only.

All addresses in this report include the district number in parentheses.

History

The first Slav settlements near Prague date from the late sixth century, but it wasn't until about AD 880 that the ruling dukes built Prague Castle. During the following centuries, Prague became an important center for Christianity in the Czech state, and the monarchy began to take notice of the emerging town.

Shortly after coming to the throne in 1230, King Wenceslas I began fortifying an area in Stare Mesto (Old Town). His successor, King Otakar II, was responsible for fortifying what today is known as Nove Mesto (New Town). The two areas were not officially unified until 1287. The reign of Charles IV in the 14th century brought much construction to the city: Universities were established, the cathedral was erected, and work on the Charles Bridge began. The population also soared, making Prague the largest city in central Europe.

Subsequent centuries brought busts and booms, conflicts and uprisings as the region came under the control of the Hapsburgs' Austrian empire for more than five centuries. One of Europe's first civic rebellions against Catholicism occurred early in the 15th century when priest Jan Hus delivered services in Czech instead of Latin and condemned the collection of payment for absolutions. He was burned at the stake in 1415, but his actions foreshadowed Martin Luther by two centuries.

It was not until the early 19th century that support for the National Czech Movement arose. After the 1918 armistice of World War I, Czechoslovakia became an independent republic under the modern Czech hero, former President Tomas G. Masaryk.

But all was not settled with the new country. The 1938 Munich Agreement ceded one-third of Czechoslovakia's territory to Germany, and Hitler invaded soon after. Following World War II and the murder of thousands of Czechs by the Nazis, the territory was returned and Czechs of German descent were expelled. Communists won the 1946 elections, and in 1948 the party established totalitarian rule and came increasingly under Soviet influence.

Emerging visions of democracy, known as Prague Spring, were crushed by a Soviet invasion in August 1968, and it wasn't until the late 1980s that communism was finally defeated. Vaclav Havel, a dissident, playwright and darling of Western politicians, became president in 1989. In 1993, the long-considered separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic became official. After the peaceful split, Prague became the capital of the new Czech Republic. In 2003, Havel was replaced by his archrival, Vaclav Klaus, and in 2003, Milos Zeman became the first directly elected president of the Czech Republic. The country became a member of NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.

Sightseeing

The center of Prague is basically one big landmark, monument and historic site after another, spread across three districts. Most of the city's attractions are found there. The best way to experience it all is on foot, and a lot of the old city is zoned for pedestrians only.

Begin your tour at Prague Castle, once the home of Bohemian royalty; it overlooks the city from the ancient quarter of Hradcany. Afterward, make your way down to the Mala Strana, where the winding cobblestoned streets are the city's best for strolling. Keep your eyes open for hidden gardens in courtyards and behind walls. Cross the 14th-century Charles Bridge. Continue to Old Town Square (Staromestske Namesti) and you'll find rows of well-preserved historic buildings, large sidewalk cafes and churches.

On the Old Town Square are the Kinsky Palace, where the beginning of the communist state was proclaimed, and the former city hall (radnice) with its tall tower and famous Astronomical Clock's orloj (moving figures) that delight the gathered crowds at the top of each hour. You'll also see the statue of the 15th-century reformer Jan Hus, the other St. Nicholas Church (the more famous one is in the Lesser Quarter—this one contains a magnificent crystal chandelier) and the many-spired Church of Our Lady Before Tyn.

Of course it helps to know what you are looking at. Prague boasts seven dominant architectural styles, but the key styles for intrepid visitors are Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, baroque and art nouveau, whose most famous practitioner was the beloved Alfonse Mucha. The Romanesque style, an early medieval style closely associated with thick walls and arches, was the basis for the Convent of St. George on the grounds of Prague Castle. The Charles Bridge and Our Lady Before Tyn on Old Town Square display the characteristics of the Gothic movement. With its playful arcades and copper roof, Belvedere, Prague Castle's summer palace that sits next to the Royal Gardens, is an outstanding example of Italian Renaissance architecture.

Fans of the neoclassical period will enjoy the Estates Theatre—it somewhat resembles a wedding cake. The impressive Municipal House (Obecni Dum) is a great example of an art-nouveau building. Prague has received many awards for its post-1989 architecture. The Dancing Building, designed to resemble the dancing silhouette of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is a swaying glass edifice in New Town that epitomizes contemporary design in the capital city.

Prague has dozens of other sights, including the Franz Kafka Museum and the National Gallery Center of Modern and Contemporary Art.

If you have time, climb one of the city's many towers (most open their doors and spiraling stairways daily for a nominal fee). Good options include the Powder Tower next to the Municipal House and the towers of Charles Bridge. Magnificent views are one of Prague's specialties, so don't miss the funicular ride up Petrin Hill in Mala Strana. From there you get a panoramic vantage point, but you can just as easily survey the city's gems from Letna Park.

Greenery is another advantage, so try to take at least one stroll through the picturesque gardens during your stay, particularly at Vysehrad, the New Jewish Cemetery, or one of the many free gardens surrounding the castle.

To get around, use the Prague City Card, available in a two-, three- or four-day option (prices vary accordingly). The card gets you access to major city sights and museums for free or reduced rates, as well as unlimited use of public transportation. You can book online in advance and pick it up from Prague Airport terminals 1 and 2 or Prague Tourist Information (Rytirska 31). http://www.praguecitycard.com.

Nightlife

Prague is magical at night. Golden lamps flicker along narrow streets, theatrical spotlights glow on castles and bridges, and the notes of saxophones, violins and pianos drift out across the city. The taverns of Prague, notably U Fleku, serve the much-loved dark beer of Bohemia that is often brewed on the premises. Live music is plentiful, especially jazz.

And for something a bit laid-back, stroll Charles Bridge at night. There are sure to be buskers there—some very talented—providing entertainment under the stars.

Most city-center bars and taverns stay open until midnight or 1 am, but clubs often party until the wee hours (5-6 am).

Dining

Thanks to a growing number of tourists and immigrants, the restaurant scene in Prague is becoming more cosmopolitan. Until the early 1990s, visitors were hard-pressed to find anything but Czech cuisine, but these days, it's possible to dine on well-prepared dishes from around the globe.

The city center offers many restaurants, including the first one in the region to be awarded a Michelin star (Cotto/Crudo, formerly Allegro). Now a majority of outlying neighborhoods boast good ethnic and Continental restaurants. The Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana) offers the best and most expensive variety by far, followed by Old Town (especially near Dlouha and Parizska streets). Cafe society also thrives in Prague. There are intimate places to sit and chat over a creamy cappuccino or a cold drink throughout the city.

Czech cuisine can basically be summed up in three words: starch, grease and meat. It's tasty but can be somewhat limited in variety. The traditional Czech meal consists of roast pork, sauerkraut and knedliky (dumplings). Other specialties are goulash (often served with dumplings) and svickova (boiled beef sirloin in a cream gravy topped with cranberry sauce and a lemon slice). Expect soup, such as cibulacka (onion soup) or cesnekova (garlic soup), and heavy rye bread to accompany most meals. Fried cheese is a delicacy that few Czechs can resist. Each menu item is sold separately, so be sure to order your side items in addition to your entree. All the traditional dishes seem to taste better with Czech beer, which is famous worldwide—try Pilsner Urquell, Budvar, Radegast, Staropramen, Velkopopovicky Kozel or unpasteurized Bernard.

The main meal of the day is eaten at noon. In addition to a simple breakfast and evening meal, Czechs enjoy a snack (svacina) around 10 am. Most pub-style restaurants are open throughout the day 11 am-11 pm and will serve food at any time during these hours. Typically there is a daily lunchtime (denni poledni) menu with cheaper offerings from around noon to 3 pm, which is highly recommended for its good value. The availability of late-night food is increasing, with some restaurants extending their hours to 1 am or later, particularly in the summer and on weekends.

Because so many of the good restaurants are quite small, they tend to fill up quickly. We recommend that you make reservations for dinner whenever possible. In a traditional Czech pub, don't be surprised if another party joins you at your table if seats are free. It is considered perfectly acceptable to sit and talk for hours, even after the table has been cleared, so if you want the check, be sure you ask for it.

Restaurants generally have stickers on their windows indicating if they allow smoking or not.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost for one person for dinner, excluding drinks and tip: $ = less than 350 CZK; $$ = 350 CZK-700 CZK; $$$ = 701 CZK-1,200 CZK; $$$$ = more than 1,200 CZK.

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