A guest post by Tom Stockwell.
The darling of the central European tourist scene and the cherry on top of many a bucket-list checking, dream fulfilling trip to the continent, it’s easy to say that in the past decade or so Prague has gone from being a bargain hunter’s sort-of-secret spot to a destination known the world over for its beauty and its beer.
On any given day, a trip to the Old Town or hanging around Wenceslas Square will see you shoulder to shoulder with tourists from all corners of the globe anxious to get their snapshot in this postcard perfect city, or trying to drown out the decibels coming from the British stag-dos stumbling down the streets more than a little merry on the local brew.
This has led a lot of people to believe that Prague is nothing more than a tourist trap with little to offer the intrepid explorer. True, nowhere in Prague is truly the path un-trodden, but there are places that you can escape the hoards and feel like you’re in a living, breathing city and not just a parking lot for Chinese and Korean tour buses.
1. Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord
Try saying that name three times quickly without getting tongue ache. If your eyes have grown tired of the fairytale architecture of the Old Town, then hop on the metro and get off at Jiriho z Podebrad. Walking straight out of the exit, you’ll come across this church with the oh-so-long name. The church was built in 1932 by a Slovenian architect, and seems to be something of a love-it or hate-it addition to Prague’s architectural canon. Whatever your feelings, it’s a building that will stop you in your tracks after all the eye soothing buildings of the old town.
2. Letna Park
Popular with locals and expats alike, Letna Park is a place rarely visited by tourists, yet only a short way away from Charles Bridge. Take the bridge to the right of Charles Bridge and you’ll end up a world away from the street hawkers and wind up in a quiet area with a road that winds up and up and up. The road takes you to Letna Park, which is a popular place for people to walk their dogs and, when summer hits, to hang out at the beer gardens. The park also offers spectacular views over Prague.
AMoYA, an acronym for Artbanka Museum of Young Art, is a gallery situated right before walking under that famous arch and onto Charles Bridge. Yet it’s tucked away slightly to the left, down an arch way and devoid of any pomp and ceremony. Only the curious and those with time to wander make it here – the tourist groups bypass the place without a second thought on their mission to Charles Bridge and the castle. This is a place that, as the name suggests, is young, hip and edgy – and “edgy” isn’t thrown around lightly in this case. Jesus doing gymnastics, a very lifelike statue who is, erm, having “personal time”, and a toy collection that make Andy’s toys from the first Toy Story movie look like a collection of Care Bears – this is an art gallery that will leave you with your mouth wide open and plenty of space to breathe.
Update – May 2013: I’ve received reports that the AMoYA has been closed. Please check with the local tourism board in Prague for latest news.
4. Beer Monastery
Yes, you did read that correctly. If you’re going to be in the area around the castle, make a beeline for the Strahov Monastic Brewery. The monastery brews it’s own beer, St Norberts, and serves up hearty grub to the folk who make it over there. Despite its location in the heart of the castle district, the monastery has a very relaxed atmosphere and is the perfect place to recharge with a glass of beer before setting off to explore the rest of the area.
Czech food doesn’t quite carry the same cache as, say, Italian or French food, but that’s not to say that it’s without its charms. Sometimes the charming aspect can arise from rather peculiar combinations of food, a category which svickova definitely falls into. A dish made of beef that has been marinated in a cream of decomposed vegetables, the meal is served up with dumplings and then has a generous dollop of whipped cream and cranberry sauce plopped on top. Far more appetising than it sounds, the best place to Czech out (sorry, I couldn’t resist) svickova is in Therapy, a trendy but not pretentious restaurant where the waitresses are all former drug addicts (hence the name), with dim lighting and dark wooded furniture.
OK, so this one is maybe cheating a bit, as Terezin is actually an hour’s day trip away from Prague on the bus. However, for anyone who has a few days in the city, Terezin is unmissable. Better known by its old name of Theresienstadt, Terezin is a small town that was home to a Nazi concentration camp in World War Two. A visit here is a truly humbling yet eerie and uncomfortable. Walking among ghosts, the message that we should never forget what took place at this dark point in human history rings loud and clear. Terezin receives around 250,000 visitors annually, with October to March being the quietest months for anyone who wants to experience the place in relative silence.
7. Beer Museum
More beer? Well, it’s what Prague does best along with that fairytale feeling. The Beer Museum isn’t a museum but more accurately a bar with 30 weird and wonderful beers on tap. Sure you’re bound to run into a few tourists here, but you’ll forget it once you sample the offerings from the somewhat surly bartenders. Thick and rich chocolate beer, bubbly and fresh cherry beer, beer with herbs and a hint of banana, and a local brew made from blueberries – you could spend quite a long time trying one of everything, although your liver may not thank you the next morning.
Another Czech culinary delight is hermelin, a kind of cheese that originates from the central Bohemia area of the Czech Republic and is best served pickled. Head to the Vinohrady part of the city for a more authentic – and cheaper – experience and pick any pub that you come across. A bar snack extraordinaire, hermelin is the perfect accompaniment to a cool pint of Pilsners (that’s the last beer reference, I promise you).
9. Prague Metronome
Even more divisive than the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord, for another healthy dose of quirky architecture Prague-style, make sure you check out the Metronome. Overlooking the Vltava and constructed in 1991, the Metronome is an oddity on the Prague skyline, and the hangout of local skater boys and graffiti artists. If you like your city with a bit of grit, pay it a visit. The Metronome offers killer photo opportunities of the city.
10. Old Town Square
I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist. Yes it’s full of tourists and yes you’ve seen it in photos a thousand times, but nothing beats actually going to the square at the heart of Prague’s Old Town. Ignore the fact that the first thing you’re likely to see as you approach is Starbucks. Old Town Square’s beauty will knock your socks off and the streets leading off it will lead you on numerous different adventures, from exploring a Jewish cemetery to ending up on a chic boulevard with clusters of Italian designers. Visiting Prague and skipping the Old Town Square is like visiting Paris and not going to the Eiffel Tower or leaving out the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. You’ll be glad you went, and you’ll be spared the questions when your family start nagging you about why you didn’t go.
About the guest writer
Tom Stockwell is the voice, brain and fingers behind Waegook-Tom.com, a travel and expat lifestyle blog. Living in South Korea, Tom is in the midst of planning his round the world adventures which kick off in spring 2013. In the meantime, he’s eating as much Korean barbecue as he can and treading the fine line between his love of terribly singing karaoke and wanting to actually keep his friends. You can follow his adventures through his blog, on Facebook, and by following @waegook_tom52 on Twitter.