Nicknamed the Golden City, the Bohemian Czech capital Prague has been reclaimed with renewed affection as a chic, cosmopolitan capital.
Nicknamed the Golden City, the Bohemian Czech capital Prague has been reclaimed with renewed affection as a chic, cosmopolitan capital rich with history and architectural delights. The most Western of the post-communist capitals, both literally and figuratively, Prague is a true microcosm of Europe Old and New. Only a few decades ago the capital of Czechoslovakia emerged from behind the Iron Curtain as a compact city of contemporary style with a backdrop of Baroque architecture and cobbled lanes. The cosmopolitan city is now home to fashionable restaurants, an innovative club scene and designers and artists at the tops of their games. Combine this new Zeitgeist picture with a frame of antiquitous streets and gothic architecture galore, and you have the modern masterpiece known as Prague. Thanks to its relatively petite center, the entire city is accessible on foot. On the left bank of the Vltava River, the rambling Prague Castle complex is one of the most popular sites in the city. Looming large over the capital, buildings enclosed by the castle walls include the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, the Baroque Old Royal Palace and the Romanesque St. George’s Basilica, along with museums and galleries and the tiny and very photogenic lane known as Novy Svet.
Steps lead down from the Castle to the Malá Strana (Lesser Quarter) district, an area with ornate mansions built for 17th and 18th century nobility. Behind Malá Strana and watched over by the Castle lies Petrin Hill. Formerly the royal orchards of the Castle, the vast park grounds are completed by the Žižkov Television Tower and a funicular railway.
The Castle and Malá Strana district are linked to the Old Town by the Charles Bridge, Prague’s most famous monument. Decorated by 30 Baroque statues of saints, the 14th century bridge is home to buskers and souvenir sellers. The Old Town is hemmed in by the Vltava River and comprises three large avenues that lead to Old Town Square — a plaza encircled by palaces and a Gothic cathedral and anchored by the Old Town Hall’s tower with its medieval astronomical clock.
The art scene in Prague also has been revived and today the Museum Kampa, Rudolfinum Gallery, and the Museum of Czech Cubism housed in Black Madonna House provide quality exhibitions.
The most desirable neighborhoods to stay in are Old Town and Malá Strana, and both districts have some outstanding hotel options. With its still-active ecclesiastical libraries and 18th century frescoes, the Augustine hotel merges an antiquated location and history with modern design. Housed in a 13th century monastery in Malá Strana, a working community of Augustinian friars still live on the grounds. The Augustine’s courtyard restaurant with glass ceiling and bar inside the monastery’s barrel-vaulted hall are well worth staying in for.
Set among the 17th century palaces and gardens of the Malá Strana district, the Mandarin Oriental also is built on the site of a monastery. The tranquility of the Mandarin Oriental tradition is amplified throughout the host of buildings that make up the hotel. Amenities include a comprehensive spa set in a former Cistercian monastery and the Spices Restaurant and Bar, serving both pan-European cuisine and Asian dishes.
The Four Seasons on the east bank of the Vltava River in the city’s medieval heart is one of Prague’s best-located hotels. It comprises four buildings from different architectural eras (Baroque, Neoclassical, Neo-Renaissance and Modernista-revival). The hotel’s revamped award-winning spa opened this summer; it also boasts the Michelin-starred restaurant Allegro, which is one of the city’s finest dining experiences. It features alfresco riverside tables.
Those looking to partake in Prague’s proud café tradition should head to Café Savoy with its tall windows and ornate ceilings; the Grand Café Orient in the Black Madonna House; or across the river to Slavia, which has a stylish Deco interior and great views.
Cloud 9 at the Hilton Prague provides fantastic cocktails and mocktails accompanied by spectacular views from the sky-high lounge. Prague is, however, most famous for its refreshing beer; those looking to sample some local brews should visit Zly Casy, which has a rotating selection of microbrews. Or step aboard the Prvni Pivni Tramway – a theme pub decorated with old tram seats.
Prague also is famous for its glass craftsmanship, but unfortunately a lot of places sell inauthentic products to tourists. For high-end, lead-free crystal pieces, Moser and Material are known for superior artistry and craftsmanship. For a modern take on designs, Artel has two boutiques and four spectacular chandeliers, there is Preciosa and Lasvit. For traditional Bohemian garnets, go to local jewelers Halada or Studio Sperk.
With its Art Nouveau façades, the tree-lined Paríská (‘Paris’) Street in the Old Town is the place to head for designer duds, including Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Tiffany. Dušní Street is home to pieces by Hana Havelková, Klara Nademlynska, Boutique Tatiana and Boheme, to name just a few. And if art is your thing, Modernista deals in good reproductions of Czech Cubist paintings, furniture and ceramics; Kubista sells pieces inspired by the design of the same era.
From fairy-tale architecture to good food and drink, Prague has to be one of Europe’s loveliest capitals and is well worth a diversion at the beginning or end of any trip to the continent.