Destination of the Week: Prague
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TPG contributor Adee Braun takes us to one of her (and our) favorite European cities for today's Destination of the Week to take a stroll on the Charles Bridge, hear a concert at the Rudolfinum and explore the ancient alleys of the city's Jewish Quarter in Prague.
If a cake maker transitioned careers to design cities, he might have dreamed up Prague. Prague (Praha) is easily one of Europe’s most beautiful cities with its frosting-colored buildings, cobblestone streets, and Baroque palaces. Prague has also seen its share of hardships during the twentieth century, though. Czechoslovakia (which was the country’s name until its split with Slovakia in 1993) practically went right from Nazi rule to Soviet rule with just a brief stint of independence in between. Despite this, the city remained remarkably intact, and today Prague is an inviting, compact, and exceedingly photogenic city.
Western tourists rediscovered its charms almost from the moment the Soviet Union collapsed. Now that the Czech Republic is a member of the European Union (though still on the Czech Koruna currency), visiting Prague is no longer the bargain it used to be. Nevertheless, the city’s beautiful architecture, majestic Vltava River and stoic Gothic castle make it a jewel-like town that is unlike any other.
WHAT TO DO
Central Prague is made up of four neighborhoods which used to be four independent towns until the early 19th century: the Old Town (Staré Město), the city’s medieval quarter; the New Town (Nové Město), the city’s modern heart; the Castle Quarter (Hradčany) on the left bank where the Prague castle overlooks the Vltava River; and the Lesser Town (Malá strana), also on the left bank where Baroque palaces and gardens are tucked into the hills. Getting around is easy, either by foot, metro or tram.
The best introduction to Prague is by a walk around the Old Town Square where cafes and restaurants (and souvenir hawkers) spill out onto the cobblestones. The Astrological Clock is the centerpiece of the square. At the top of each hour, crowds gather to witness a marvel of medieval engineering. Several figures pop out of the clock each representing a different objectionable quality: vanity, death, usury and pleasure.
Also in the Old Town is the striking Moorish-style Spanish Synagogue, part of what is now the Jewish Museum of Prague. The synagogue is one of a few other religious and cultural sites in the Jewish Quarter that are all that are left of Prague’s thriving Jewish community, once one of the largest in Europe. The most iconic image of Prague is undoubtedly the Gothic Charles Bridge, which spans the Vltava River. Go early in the morning if you want to stroll across the bridge rather than get stuck on it amongst the throngs of tourists.
The New Town is Prague’s bustling modern neighborhood (though it was founded in the 14th century) with Wenceslas Square as its focal point. Praguers have celebrated their triumphs and endured their defeats in this square. It’s where the creation of Czechoslovakia was celebrated in 1918, where the Soviets brutally put down the 1968 uprising, and where Praguers peacefully demonstrated for their independence during their Velvet Revolution in 1989. The neighborhood is also home to the stunning National Theater and several museums, including the Museum of Communism, and the Mucha Museum, which celebrates the founding father of the Art Nouveau.
On the left bank of the Vltava below the castle, is the Lesser Town. Though it’s not a neighborhood studded with sights like the other three are, the Lesser Town is where you’ll find the charming Kampa Island with its pleasant pubs and shady park. The neighborhood is also home to the Kafka Museum and the macabre and gimmicky Torture Museum.
You may want to shake off your visit by hiking up to the Castle Quarter. A tram will also get you there or you can take the Metro line A if you’re coming from the right bank. The Prague Castle was once the home of Czech kings. Today it is the seat of the Czech government. The castle is actually a compound made up of several different structures including a cathedral, a basilica, and several palaces, museums and gardens. Tickets are priced according to how much you want to see and some of the buildings and gardens are only open part of the year.
Czech food is traditionally a hearty affair—pork, dumplings, and more pork. Oh, and beer. But these days Prague is offering up more than just beer hall eats (though it still does that very well). The city is attracting more international chefs while diners are demanding more sophisticated cuisine. You can still get a good Svíčková (braised sirloin with dumplings) but you can also get surprisingly good Italian and Asian fare. Check out the New York Times’ listing of Prague restaurants for a full spectrum of options.
The Prague Václav Havel Airport (PRG) mostly serves the Czech Republic and Europe. Though all the major US airlines have connections to Prague, none fly directly. Consequently, you’re in for a stopover in another European city. Czech Airlines is the national carrier and is partnered with Delta (SkyTeam). Delta flies direct from New York (JFK). A United (Star Alliance) flight gets you to various Swiss or Lufthansa hubs, while American Airlines and British Airways (oneworld) will take you through London. Virgin Atlantic also flies to Prague through London.
The Prague airport is about 6 miles from the city center. It’s not directly accessible by train or metro, so your best option is to go by bus, taxi or shuttle. Buses run frequently and take 20-30 minutes, depending on which part of the city you’re headed to. A ticket costs 32 CZK ($1.60) and can be bought either in the terminal or directly from the driver (small bills only). The Airport Express is operated by Czech Airways and runs a bus service to the main train station. A ticket costs 60 CZK ($3.00), or less if you’re planning to travel out of Prague and already hold a rail ticket. Taxi fares will run you 650-850 CZK ($30-$40). There are also shuttle services that offer rides to various hotels. These cost a little less than a taxi but can a little longer.
Radisson Blu Alcron: This elegant and centrally located hotel is housed in a recently restored 1930’s building in the Old Town. The 206 rooms are Art Deco-inspired with muted colors, geometric motifs and mirrored walls. Standard rooms are somewhat small, but do include elegant marble bathrooms with L’Occitane toiletries. There’s free WiFi access and LCD TVs in each room. Hotel services include a health club offering sauna and spa treatments. The hotel’s restaurant, The Alcron, was awarded one Michelin star in 2012, one of only two awarded in Prague that year. If dining there isn’t satisfying enough, you can take a cooking class with the chef himself (3,800 CZK ($185) per person, includes a three-course dinner and wine tasting). The restaurant offers a seafood-heavy menu in a tasteful period dining room complete with a curved mural of roaring Prague life. A second restaurant called La Rotonde serves local and international cuisine with a live jazz band accompanying Sunday brunch. The Be Pop Bar serves snacks and period cocktails. Room rates from 4,116 CZK in April ($205) or 44,000 Gold Points.
The Park Inn is a casual and modern hotel located in the New Town just a few blocks from the river. Rates in April start at 2,070 CZK ($105) or 28,000 Gold Points.
Hilton Prague Old Town: Conveniently located in the heart of the Old Town, this hotel has contemporary rooms decorated in light and neutral tones. All rooms are outfitted with flatscreen TVs and WiFi access for a fee, though WiFi is free in the public areas. Standard rooms are on the small side with equally slim but sleek and modern bathrooms. Hotel amenities include a fitness club and pool. There’s a restaurant and bar that serves European and Asian cuisine. This is a Category 6 hotel requiring 40,000 HHonors points or 3,300 CZK ($165) in April.
The Hilton Prague Hotel occupies a boxy glass structure in the Old Town. It is a mammoth hotel with 37 meeting and banquet rooms geared to business travelers. Rates start at 2,400 CZK ($120), or at 30,000-50,000 HHonors points as this is a Category 6 hotel.
Prague Marriott: Centrally located near the train station, this hotel has all the usual amenities: a restaurant, a bar, a gym, plus a casino. The 258 rooms are casual and decorated in a functional, classic-contemporary style. WiFi access is available both in the public areas and in the rooms. There’s free access to the sauna, indoor pool and jacuzzi. The hotel’s restaurant, Midtown Grill, is a steakhouse while the Lobby Lounge offers lighter, more international cuisine. There’s also a cafe that serves coffee and pastries. This hotel is a Category 6 property, requiring 30,000 points or 4,120 CZK ($205) per night.
Other Marriott properties include the Courtyard Prague Airport, which is a Category 2 hotel requiring 10,000 points or 3,500 CZK ($175) in April. The Hotel Boscolo Prague near the main train station in the Old Town is Category 6 hotel requiring 30,000 points or 4,635 CZK ($229). The Courtyard Prague Flora is a bit farther afield, a 10-minute metro ride to the Old Town. It’s a Category 4 hotel requiring 20,000 points or 3,015 CZK ($150) in April.
InterContinental Prague: The location of this property cannot be beat—right on the river and steps from the colorful streets of the Old Town. The lobby is more business than pleasure with sensible lighting and highly polished chrome and marble. The rooms are comfortable and simply designed. The hotel features an indoor saltwater pool, a spa, two restaurants and a cocktail lounge. Duke's Bar & Café is located in the lobby offering meals and drinks, including a selection of Czech slivovitz (plum brandy). For outdoor options the rooftop Zlatá Praha restaurant looks out onto the city and the seasonal Enjoy 43 Bar is open on the plaza in front of the hotel during warmer months. Room rates in April start at 35,000 Priority Club Reward points or 3,391 CZK ($168).
There are four Priority Club hotels in Prague, but the InterContinental is the only one located in the Old Town. Across the river is the Crowne Plaza, about three miles from the Old Town center. Rates start at 20,000 Priority Club points or 2,045 CZK ($100). In the New Town you’ll find the Holiday Inn Prague Congress Centre with rates starting at 2,000 CZK ($99 ) or 15,000 points. For easy access to the Prague Airport, the Holiday Inn Prague Airport offers rooms starting at 15,000 points or 2,174 CZK ($110).
Sheraton Prague Charles Square Hotel: Right on the border between the New and Old Towns, this hotel's decor is modern and playful, with pops of colors and patterns. Rooms vary in size from 248-301 square feet for Deluxe rooms to 560-786 square feet for Premium Duplex suites. All rooms have WiFi (for 450 CZK ($22) per day, through it’s free in the public areas) and flatscreen TVs. There is one restaurant and a cafe, a spa and a fitness center. Sheraton Club guests enjoy some additional amenities including free bottled water and access to the Club Lounge with complimentary breakfast, afternoon hors d’oeuvres and drinks. Rates start at 10,000 Starpoints or 3,200 CZK ($160) in April.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a loyalty program for Amex Platinum cardholders who receive special benefits at participating hotels such as early check-in and late check-out, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, and other perks.
Mandarin Oriental Prague: Occupying a former monastery (complete with a walled-in garden) on a cheerful block on the left bank of the river, this hotel’s 99 rooms and suites either look out onto the street, garden, or castle. Rooms are a good size (starting out at 344 square feet) and have a warm and contemporary feel. Reminders of the building’s original function as a monastery peek through with the occasional vaulted or wood-beamed ceiling. You can contemplate the irony of history while getting a massage at the self-proclaimed “only spa in the world located in a former Renaissance chapel.” The hotel restaurant, Essensia, offers Czech and Asian cuisine while the Barego bar offers drinks and light fare. Rates in April start at 7,378 CZK ($365).
Four Seasons Hotel Prague: Blending the classic charm of its Old Town surroundings with contemporary comfort, this luxury hotel is located just steps from the Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square and offers both convenience and class. The rooms vary in style from classical and Renaissance inspired to more modern designs, though all are decorated with restraint. Some rooms overlook the river and the castle and others give a sweeping view of city’s tiled rooftops. The hotel’s small, but functional health club is free for all guests to use and is open 24-hours. It includes a gym, sauna and massage rooms. There are amenities for the kids too including cookies and snacks, kid-sized bathrobes, and a book of Czech folk tales. Children under the age of five also get to eat for free at the hotel’s renowned modern Italian restaurant, CottoCrudo. Opened a couple years ago to much fanfare, the restaurant includes a raw bar, cheese cave, wine cellar as well as a full bar. Room rates in April start at 7,378 CZK ($365).
The Augustine Hotel is a Rocco Forte Hotel spread across seven buildings on the left bank. Rooms blend contemporary and classic styles with rates in April starting at 6,861 CZK ($340).
Visa Signature Hotels
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, British Airways Visa Signature Card, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
Alchymist Grand Hotel & Spa: Housed in a 16th-century building, this hotel offers lavish accommodations and then some. The hotel is located in the Malá Strana district of the city on the left bank (about a 10 minute walk to the Charles Bridge). The 46 rooms and suites are dripping with Baroque opulence in warm reds and yellows. There’s gilding, crystal, and a lot of heavy draping, but there’s no shortage of modern amenities amongst the filigree. All rooms have flatscreen TVs, high-speed internet and marble bathrooms with rain showerheads. The glam-goth Ecsotica Spa is studded with chandeliers hanging from the exposed brick ceilings. It offers a full range of treatments as well as a gym, sauna and a small pool. The Aquarius Restaurant serves pan-European fare including Czech specialties in an elegant dining room that spills out onto the Italianate courtyard during warm weather. There’s also a cafe and a lobby bar. Room rates in April start at 5,022 CZK ($249).
The Hotel le Palais Prague, an Art Nouveau palace, offers elegant accommodations in the New Town with rates starting at 3,728 CZK ($185). Near the main train station in the Old Town is the more contemporary Kempinski Hotel Hybernská Prague with rates in April starting at 5,670 CZK ($280). And, across the river is the eclectic Aria Hotel, with rates starting at 6,213 CZK ($310). The Mandarin Oriental is also a Visa Signature hotel.