Something’s definitely wrong with me! I ain’t supposed to feel so miserable in (what’s considered to be) one of the world’s most beautiful cities! Please, oh God, please let me find something about this place that I can like… Something… Anything…Pretty please!!
On a cold late-April evening, after spending a couple of weeks at some immensely peaceful places in Hungary, I went to Prague. Dragging my luggage on the oh-so-beautiful-but-so-impractical cobblestone streets, I walked for almost half-an-hour before reaching the hostel at the immensely crowded Wenceslas Square. “Beware of tourist traps” – that was the first tip I got from the receptionist at the hostel. I promised that I would approach him in case of any doubts or questions. After a bit of rest, I was out to explore what many call as the “fairytale city”.
I spent the evening being part of crowds, making my way through the narrow alleys of the Old Town, watching dance at the Old Town Square while sipping hot red wine, and walking over the much talked-and-written-about Charles Bridge on the river Vltava. After a not-so-hearty meal comprising grilled vegetables from a nearby food stall, I returned to the hostel.
“It’s raining!” A roommate lamented the next morning while I was still in bed. Ah grrreat!! Just what I needed to hear. But nope, I am not going to let the silly weather spoil my mood or plans. And then, what’s the rain jacket for? Well, the rain jacket proved to be of not much use, so I bought an umbrella from a street-side shop. I walked just a few hundred feet when umbrella gave in to the forces of the strong winds. Drenched and cold, I continued to walk around in the city trying hard to keep feeling cheerful and warm, but returned to the hostel after a couple of hours, shivering and feeling miserable.
Misery loves company, so finding my Algerian roommate feeling just as miserable made me feel slightly better. “It’s been raining the whole day. I have only one day in Prague and I don’t know how I’m going to explore the city in the rains!” she said ruefully. After a brief chat about our travel plans, the countries that we belong to, and her love for the Indian attire – especially sarees, she was all set to leave the room to go out in the rains and explore the city again. “I’m going to make the most of the day”, the girl said in a determined tone.
Stop complaining and start exploring, I kept telling myself that night before going to bed. The Algerian girl’s resolve to go out and enjoy herself despite the terrible weather taught me a thing or two about the spirit of travel.
Overcommercialized, overrated, overhyped, hotchpotch city – those were the words I wrote in my diary on my first day in Prague. In the next 4-5 days though, I discovered quite a few things about and in Prague and learned quite a lot in the process and was rather surprised to find myself feeling a little sad to leave the city on my last day there. Here’s what I saw, felt, and experienced in Prague.
Prague is.. Ermm.. yes, it IS beautiful
When I think about Prague, it brings back the memories of cobblestone streets with different patterns, the calm Vltava river flowing through the city, islands and bridges on the river, stunning architectural landmarks, intriguing sculptures, large squares, artists at different squares – painters and musicians with musical instruments that I’d never seen or heard before! Yes, Prague or Praha as it is called by the locals, is a paradise for the lovers of history, architecture, and art and it is undeniably beautiful.
Prague – for the architecture and history lovers
Wenceslas Square that’s home to numerous architectural been witness to many a historic events, especially the anti-communist demonstrations during the communist era in Czechoslovakia, the bustling Old Town Square and the Old Town Hall building with the vibrantly-colored Astronomical Clock at the square that attracts a huge crowd willing to wait patiently until the clock strikes an hour, the historic Charles Bridge built over the Vltava river and connecting the old and new Prague towns with the Lesser Town (Mala Strana), the incredibly huge Prague Castle complex with its palaces and churches – especially St. Vitus Cathedral with its colorful stained glass windows, the Powder Tower – one of the original Prague city gates that separates the Old Town from the New Town, the absolutely magnificent St. Nicholas Church at the picturesque Little Quarter Square – these are the just the typical tourist attractions. These are all in the Prague 1 district and are all at an easily walkable distance from one another. These are also the most crowded places.
Among the modern architectural structures, the one I’d heard about was the Dancing House. I didn’t find anything special about it besides the fact that it doesn’t conform to the traditional architectural styles of Prague. You can go upstairs and there is a roof-top restaurant. You don’t have to pay anything to go and see the views of Prague, just eat something at the restaurant or just have a coffee.
Prague – for the Bibliophiles
If you love even the sight of books, you wouldn’t want to miss visiting the libraries in Prague. I visited only the Municipal Library of Prague, which is home to a structure dubbed as “Idiom” made from thousands of books. A peek inside the structure through the tear-shaped opening on one side of the tower gives the illusion of looking into a bottomless pit of books. It’s quite cleverly done! There’s no entrance fee to visit the Municipal Library of Prague.
Prague is also home to what’s considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful libraries – the National Library. Besides this, the Strahov Library is said to have exceptionally beautiful furnishings and painted ceilings and some of the rare volumes and manuscripts and art collections. As much as I would have loved to visit these libraries to admire their beauty, the reviews that I read indicated that unless you pre-book a guided tour, which costs a considerable amount, you cannot go to the main halls.
Prague – for the art lovers
Museums and galleries showcasing the works of the local artists, street artists demonstrating their painting or musical skills at every corner, magnificent wall art inside buildings – Prague is an art lover’s dream come true.
Among all the reasons that I’ll remember Prague for, the most important is its intriguing sculptures, which compelled me to read the stories about the sculptures and their sculptors. When I was still a bit miserable in the city and in the “oh I dislike this place” mode, while aimlessly wandering, I came across a series of statues on steps of the Petrin hill. The human figures on each step were missing some body parts. Disturbing as it was, the Memorial to the Victims of Communism got me curious enough to start looking for sculptures and the stories behind them.
Among the artworks that are most unusual, controversial, incredibly rebellious and extremely bold are the works by the sculptor, David Cerny. Giant, faceless babies in the Kampa Park and on the Zizkov Television Tower, head of Franz Kafka – a huge stainless steel sculpture of the Czech writer, two men pissing in a pond that’s in the shape of Czech Republic/Czechia (not quite sure how the Czechs feel about this!), the 7ft tall hanging statue of the renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud hanging between life and death are some of the quirky artworks by David Cerny.
Prague – away from the crowds
I craved for some crowds when I was in quieter places in Hungary and then I craved to be in some quieter places away from crowds when I was in Prague. Thankfully, Prague does have some peaceful places away from tourist crowds.
The green Letna park located right at the center of the city on top of the small Letna hill provides spectacular views of the city. While the park is pretty well-known, I didn’t see too many tourists there and I loved the views of the Vltava river and the bridges. I quite enjoyed my slow walks in the park and the greenery around.
A walk up the Petrin Hill and around in the beautiful landscaped gardens on the hill was absolutely refreshing and again. The Lookout Tower on the hill provides spectacular views of the city. I found the mirror maze underwhelming though.
Kampa Island, an island in the Vltava river, was another place where I loved to walk around. This is also a place where you’d find some incredible artworks at Museum Kampa. Besides the peaceful stroll, there are other reasons to go there. The sculptures Babies created by David Cerny and The Penguins created from recycled materials to share the message about climate change and plastic consumption are located at the Kampa Park on the island. For those who love John Lennon’s music and also love graffiti, there’s the Lennon Wall dedicated to the legendary singer, John Lennon, and has graffiti and lyrics of the Beatles songs inscribed on it.
Wallenstein Garden is another absolutely beautiful place where you can spot some peacocks too!
And while Prague Castle is one of the most visited and crowded places in Prague, the less frequented Visehrad Castle with its parks and lanes is a beautiful place for a peaceful walk away from tourist crowds.
Yes, Prague is beautiful, but…
…there were things that surprised me, some pleasantly and some not so, maybe because I wasn’t exactly expecting what I saw and experienced or because I wasn’t aware. Here are a couple of things that bothered me.
Why so cold…? (Not just the weather!)
I remember entering a street-side café on the very first day in Prague. I was drenched and cold and I wanted to have a cup of tea. The unfriendly looks, colder than the outside weather, from the owner of the café, made me want to walk out immediately. Be it shops or street food joints, I almost always got strange looks – no smiles, no hellos and sometimes no answers to questions! I thought it was something to do with my skin color, but then I came across a lot of similar stories from various people with different nationalities and skin colors.
Among all the places that I’ve been to so far, I found Prague people (and I’m only talking about the ones in shops since I didn’t get the opportunity to talk to any locals besides those) to be the least friendly.
Of course, there were exceptions (very few though!). For instance, imagine my happiness on being invited to a shop by a Czech guy who spoke in my national language and made a quick needle art with my name written on a piece of paper and said “take it… free… gift for you”! This most definitely was a perfect antidote to my “unhappy in Prague” phase! 🙂 And oh, my experience with the people from the company with which I went for a day hike to Bohemian Switzerland was really awesome.
Oh, those crowds!
Ok, I know it’s kind of silly to be commenting about huge tourist crowds especially since I AM part of the crowd and also given the fact that I belong to a country where every city is overcrowded! Yet, the kind of crowds, especially the number of tourists, who perhaps outnumber the locals, in Prague surprised me. I guess I wasn’t quite expecting to see as many people as I saw there and the peak tourist season (June-August) had not even begun yet!
The Old Town and Lesser Town areas are crowded with tourists of all kinds and from what I hear and read, that’s the case during most parts of the year. I cannot imagine what it must be like for locals to live in parts of the city that probably have more tourists at any point in time than the number of locals. When I visited Prague, it rained on some days and in a way, that proved to be a boon. On rainy days, the streets were comparatively less crowded.
If crowds are to be avoided, some of the ways to do that are to either visit the places early in the morning or late in the evening and visit the places that are not such tourist hotspots and are beautiful nevertheless.
Ripped off by ATMs and money exchange places!
This is actually not specific to Prague. I think I pretty much experienced this in places in Hungary as well. Some places accept only cash in local currency (in the Czech Republic/Czechia, it’s Korunas/Crowns). When I went to exchange money to the money exchange places, I realized I was getting a bad exchange rate (The biggest lesson I learned – don’t go by those “0% Commission” boards!). So then I withdrew from ATMs using my forex card only to realize (when I checked my card statement) that I had been charged heavily for conversion charges and fees. I didn’t even know what I was doing wrong! I learned the right way of doing things a little too late, after losing a significant amount in conversion and transaction fees.
Here are two useful links to know exactly how to exchange or withdraw money the right way.
With Prague, it definitely wasn’t love at first sight. It took some effort to find places of my liking, it took me multiple visits to certain places to appreciate them, it took some effort to read about the story behind certain sculptures and sculptors (and for someone like me, that truly was quite an effort!). I learned to truly appreciate art and architecture and make some effort to find more information about it. And oh, I even started understanding (only to a little extent) the difference between baroque and gothic architecture! I learned to go out and enjoy myself even when the weather wasn’t favorable or even when I wasn’t feeling too good about the city. My visit to Prague changed my perspective on quite a few things. It needed some time. It deserved that time.
Have you been to Prague? What was your experience like? Do share your experiences. And if you are planning to make a trip to Prague sometime, do check the Honest Guide channel on YouTube by two of the locals from Czech Republic. Months after returning from Prague, I still love to watch their videos! 🙂