Prague: Old world Bohemian charm
Updated: Jun 1
After finally departing Brussels after the airport mix-up debacle (Brussels: Dumb travel mistakes we made (so you don't have to)), our short flight to Prague was over in a flash but we landed rather late. By the time we checked into our hotel it was around 11pm and we were absolutely starving, having missed out on dinner during the airport drama. We were not interested in room service, after all, we were in Prague and just steps from the lively streets of Old Town that were filled with restaurants and bars. This was a major city and, of course, some quality late night food could be found. So, we set off on foot into the cold night air, the snow falling as we walked merrily across ancient cobblestones with eyes wide open, looking for food and fun.
Sure enough, just a few hundred meters down the road the restaurants and bars began to appear. And one by one, we were disappointed to learn the kitchen was closed. This was certainly not Barcelona where the kitchens don't even open until 10pm. No, this was Prague and a very different culture than its westernmost European neighbors. Sure, the nightclubs and erotic entertainment bars were hopping, but we were famished and wanted a late-night taste of Prague's cuisine.
Having nearly given up hope, we finally stumbled upon it. We were in Wenceslas Square, named for The Good King Wenceslas who was famously assassinated by his brother Boleslaus the Cruel in 935 AD. So, how fitting it was that we were beckoned through the front door of the only royal restaurant in Prague serving food at midnight. The aptly named Burger King! The burgers were delicious but only in an I-am-so-hungry-I-could-eat-my-hand kind of way. But the redeeming value of dining at the king of burgers on our international vacation was that I ordered a glass of Budvar pilsner to accompany my burger for 50 Czech Koruna which is the equivalent of $2.25. Yeah, we were going to like Prague!
The next day we awoke in our comfy bed at NH Collection Carlo IV Hotel and planned our day. As we walked toward the dining area for our breakfast we were greeted by the enchanting sounds of a harp. The music echoed off the marble floors and stone columns of the lobby and made us smile about the unexpected things to come as we began our day. After an amazing breakfast we headed out on foot to explore this fantastic city in full daylight. Back to the square we went, this time taking in all the sights that were no longer cloaked in darkness. The architecture in Prague is something to behold. It is a mixture of Gothic, Baroque, and Romanesque. Ornate spires dominate the skyline. Prague is one of the very few European cities that did not suffer major damage during World War II and so the buildings are original and date back many hundreds of years.
One of Prague's best-known attractions is the Astronomical Clock attached to the old town hall, dating back to 1410. The clock features an hourly display of the "Walk of the Apostles" with apostles and other sculptures, and a skeleton striking the time. Every hour a crowd gathers around to observe the clock in action. Local legend has it that if the clock is ever neglected and not in good operation, the city will suffer. So here we were, some 600 years later and the clock continues to tell time, the position of the sun and moon, with an hourly show as if it were new. No, they don't make 'em like this anymore!
We got to see the statue of Wenceslas on horseback in the daylight (without the visit to Burger King).
Behind him the beautiful Narodni museum can be seen, and in front there's a great view down the entire boulevard toward the Old Town.
The Charles Bridge is another Prague landmark that will not disappoint. It spans across the Vltava River and connects Old Town with the area surrounding Prague Castle. It is a wonderful place to take in the sights from both sides of the river while experiencing lively musicians who set up along the bridge.
We crossed the bridge and headed up the hill to Prague Castle, a must-do when visiting. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Prague Castle is the largest coherent castle complex in the world. This UNESCO World Heritage site is comprised of palaces and a beautiful cathedral. We were fortunate to catch the changing of the guard when we arrived, and we followed them inside the gates to explore.
We started with the St. Vitus Cathedral, where patron saints, sovereigns, noblemen and archbishops are buried. It's a beautiful place and a stark contrast to the modest, small dwellings outside where the defenders of the castle, servants and craftsmen lived. But when we were there the small lanes led to something big and beautiful - a Czech Christmas market! This is where we discovered the amazing smell (and then taste) of the Trdelnik or Czech Chimney Cake. It's a rolled dough that is wrapped around a stick, grilled, then rolled in sugar and walnuts. It comes off the stick in a curled fashion and is absolutely delicious. So much so that we purchased a kit so that we could make them at home. Yummm.
After a full day walking around the city, we decided to get off our feet with some time in the spa at our hotel. The spa features a blue mosaic-tiled 20-meter heated pool with water massage beds (yes really!) a whirlpool, steam room, and various naked Europeans enjoying the sauna. All this relaxation sits quietly below street level inside this ancient marble building, and it proved to be a wonderfully mellow way to finish our afternoon before a dinner in Old Town. Our hotel recommended we go to Restaurace Tiskarna, a short walk away. We were glad we took their advice! This place was amazing, and Jennifer still recalls her svickova na smetaneit as one of the best meals she's ever had even though it was basically beef in cream sauce - but, according to her, it was the best beef in cream sauce in the entire world! Having never tried goulash before, I was excited to give it a try and it did not disappoint. Flavorful and aromatic, while leaving me comfortably satisfied. We definitely highly recommended this delightful spot if you find yourself in Prague.
The Christmas markets in Prague were all set up and ready to go but unfortunately the big one wasn't going to open until the day we departed. But we are resourceful, found some smaller ones in local neighborhoods, and also discovered the perfect opportunity to visit a Christmas market in nearby Pilsen. My pre-trip planning had identified the opening of this market just as we arrived, which was particularly exciting for me. But not for the Christmas market. It was because Pilsen is also home to the world-renowned Pilsner Urquell brewery and a chance to visit the brewery and taste the absolute freshest draught Pilsner Urquell served anywhere in the world. And wouldn't you know it, Jennifer was equally thrilled about the opportunity to visit the brewery, along with the Christmas market. This was going to be a great day! We jumped on the train in central Prague and 60 minutes later we were walking up the street in Pilsen.
On the way to the Christmas market, we stumbled across a very special little place that was completely unexpected. A cat cafe! It is a place where humans sit around drinking coffee while a couple dozen friendly and cuddly cats roam around, perch atop cat trees, and snooze in little cat beds. If not for the bustle of people coming and going and hot milk being frothed for cappuccino, I am sure one could hear the quiet murmur of happy cats purring. We popped in for a cup of coffee and hot chocolate and to pet a few cute little ones before continuing our walk toward the Christmas market. If we had time to spare, we could have stayed for an hour or two.
The Christmas market was on the smallish size compared to what you might see in Paris or Munich, but it was charming and welcoming. The smell of Glühwein and roasting nuts wafted through the air. Local arts and crafts and textiles were on display throughout. We casually strolled through the aisles and sampled some cheese from one of the stands. I tried a Kozel beer (quite delicious) and purchased a Pilsner Urquell coffee mug.
Pilsner Urquell (original pilsner) is one of my favorite beers going back to the early days of my beer exploration and home brewing. I had the privilege of representing Pilsner Urquell in the early years of my career in the beer industry and to this day it has a permanent spot in my fridge. This was the beer that started it all.
Brewed at cold temperatures using bottom fermenting yeast, it was the first crisp and golden colored beer that was not cloudy and dark like all the others, you could actually see through it. This is not your grandfather's pilsner from St. Louis or Milwaukee. No, this is unique and full of flavor with a head that lasts to the bottom of the glass. So, this was a sort of mecca trip for me.
The tour of the brewery was a thrill. It was modernized in ways that can keep up with current safety and health standards, while maintaining all of the old-world brewery's best attributes. The same pure ingredients, original yeast, and nice cold temperatures ensure this original pilsner from Pilsen can stand the test of time and deliver amazing quality.
One of the most eye-opening sights was the enormous brick room with a hatch in the ceiling. Every winter since the opening of the brewery in 1842 they have been shoveling snow and ice through the hatch, filling this room to the top and keeping the brewing area cool for the proper lager brewing temperatures. We were there at the very end of November and there was ice in that room that remained from the prior winter.
Impressive and quite amazing that they have kept this tradition going for a century and a half.
There's a museum area in the brewery with lots of interesting historical things to see. Of particular interest was this gorgeously sexy motorcycle that was just screaming for a loud ride down the streets of Pilsen.
Oh, and that fresh draught beer was exactly as expected. Incredible!
After the brewery visit, we made our way to the train and headed back to our final dinner in Prague. We stumbled into an unassuming place (as seen from the outside) that was anything but that on the inside. It turns out that U Zlate Konvice is the oldest restaurant in Prague with a cellar, and this cellar is something to see. The stone and mortar walls are adorned with hundreds of wild animal heads. Perhaps a bit creepy but totally fitting for the setting.
No doubt these bears, stags, elk, and moose were hunted and eaten, some of them hundreds of years ago. The food was traditional Czech and delicious. This large room was filled with people, beer hall style. And unbeknown to us, our dinner featured entertainment! Shortly after we were seated, a group of men wearing traditional garb walked in and began playing charming Czech music to the delight of everyone in the room. They even encouraged us to join in, handing out instruments for us to play along. It was the perfect way to end our time in Prague.
Our trip had come to an end, and we called it a night. The next day we had a long flight home. As we reflected on our visit to Prague we vowed to come back again. This trip was far too short to see everything that Prague had to offer.
There's lots to love about this beautiful city. The castle, the shopping, the Charles bridge, the lively nightlife. But if you ask me what I think my favorite thing was, I think I would have to say the fact that a huge mug of Pilsner Urquell is available at every bar or restaurant on every corner for the paltry sum of 35 Czech Koruna, the equivalent of $1.60. I have no idea how the economics of this are even possible given the cost of materials and the fact that locally brewed, high-quality beers in the good ol' USA frequent the $8-9 range. It is an inexplicable anomaly that I took full advantage of more times than I could possibly count. We will be back to take advantage of this economic windfall and this beautiful, welcoming city.
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