If you’re a fan of wandering through major European cities, then Prague is definitely a place you need to visit. The incredible architecture, the robust history, and the fact that it’s nestled in the middle of Germany, Austria, and Poland make it a great destination on any trip through Europe. If you’re looking for a true European experience, Prague has what you need, and whether you plan to spend a few hours or a few days in this city, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
So, what makes a visit to this city so quintessentially European? Here are 5 things I have found to be typical of major European cities, and Prague has them all!
1. The major sites and landmarks are easily accessible by a combination of public transportation and walking.
In my experience, European cities are great because there is a system in place making it unnecessary to have a car. Depending on where you stay during your visit, many sites of interest are within walking distance, and if you aren’t able to stay close to these sites, you can generally find a bus or tram nearby which takes you where you want to go.
Prague is no different. We didn’t stay in the city center, close to all the touristy places because we were there over New Years’ Eve, meaning the price for lodgings in the city center was astronomical. We opted for a less expensive apartment still in Prague but further out. This meant we had to rely on public transportation to get us to where we wanted to go, and then we walked to the different tourist sites.
2. Like most European cities, there are tours available to provide you with the experience you want.
We are typically DIY kind of travelers. We don’t enjoy being herded around on huge guided tours (unless there’s no way around it) because we like the freedom to see what we want to see at our own pace. We almost always rely on the self-guided walking tours by Rick Steves because they are easily navigable and provide us with all the information we want about the things we see. But our site seeing preference doesn’t mean there aren’t tons of options available when it comes to tours. Depending on your personal preference, there are options for private tours that take all day, tours of specific landmarks like Prague Castle, massive tours with a guide who uses a headset and microphone in order to deliver information, and simple walking tours that allow you to see sites in a designated area. If you do a little research, you are sure to find just the kind of tour you want.
While we were in Prague, we tried something that was new to us. Our travel buddies, Catie and Jason, over at funktravels.com introduced us to the free walking tour company called White Umbrella Tours. You read that correctly; these walking tours are free. You don’t have to pay a ticket fee to participate in the tour. You simply show up in the old town square at the directed time (in Prague, at 11am), and you get a tour guide who provides you with an entertaining and informative look at the history of the area. When you show up for one of these tours, the tour guides will inform you that the tour is completely free, and they mean it. But they will also be sure to let you know that they work based on tips. Therefore, at the end of the tour, you get to decide what the tour is worth, and if you genuinely thought the guide did a poor job, you don’t have to tip! This business model incentivises the guides to provide an informative and entertaining tour that people think are worthwhile. Our experience with the free tour was great, so we were sure to tip our guide well.
As a side note, these companies typically have more specific tours available later in the day which do have a cost, so often the free tours are walking advertisements for their ticketed tours…literally. If there had been more time, I think we would have looked at doing the ticketed tour of Prague Castle with our tour guide later that day because he was really great.
To support point one about historical sites being easily accessible by foot, it’s good to note that on our 2-3 hour walking tour, we saw much of the historical points of Prague – the Jewish Quarter, buildings where Mozart performed, the astronomical clock (more on that later), and the river (it was nearly everything major, except Prague Castle). I know we didn’t see everything historical during that time, but my point is that all of these points of interest were within walking distance of each other. As a side note, if you want to spend any length of time in any of the places from the tour, you’ll have to return to it at a later time. The fact that the tour is free does not give you license to drag your tour guide to whatever points interest you!
If you’re interested in learning more, check out this company’s website. They have a presence in several cities, so be sure you take a look if you’re planning a trip to any of their hubs.
3. There’s a castle.
In my opinion, a European city isn’t complete without a castle or a castle-like structure, so Prague’s sprawling castle complex is just the ticket for your own fairy tale adventure. Before your imagination runs away with you, I feel it is my duty to inform you that this castle isn’t quite the fairy tale castle with towers and grand ball rooms. The spires that create the skyline of the castle are actually the bell towers of a huge cathedral within the castle complex. This castle complex, one of the biggest in Europe, is the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic, and among his residence, this complex is also the home of St. Vitus Cathedral, the Basilica of St. George, a monastery, several palaces, museums, and gardens, and if you’re there on a cold winter’s day, there is a convenient Starbucks located just to the side of the square where the President’s residence is located!
The view from Prague Castle is hard to beat. We were fortunate to catch a bright, sunny winter’s day and were able to see for miles from a viewpoint close to the complex. Toward the end of the day, we also experienced a very thick fog which enveloped the castle, making us feel like we were in a cloud! These were very different weather experiences, but both were beautiful in their own right.
4. Some of the famous sites are incredible and more exciting than you expected, and some just aren’t.
There are many amazing places to visit in this world, and most of the time, the experiences you have exceed expectations. I was absolutely stunned by the breathtaking intricacies of the Sistine Chapel, and I couldn’t believe the amount of ruins archeologists have been able to uncover and restore in Ephesus (Turkey) and Jerash (Jordan). One site that still gives me chills to think about was the moment we turned the corner in the Accademia in Florence to see David by Michelangelo towering above the crowd. These are places you hear about for your entire life, so your expectations can be very high.
There are those times when you have the chance to see these sites in person that have been built up over a lifetime, and they turn out not to be quite what you expected. Some examples of this might be The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen because it’s much smaller than one would expect it to be (I still loved it). Or maybe the Mona Lisa in Paris for the same reason. Or perhaps it’s the Great Wall of China or St. Mark’s Square in Venice because it’s not a serene, people-less place to relax and marvel at the ability with which it was constructed.
We had one of these experiences in Prague. There is an astronomical clock in the old town square that has been around for centuries – first installed in 1410. It has dials for the time, the sun, and the moon set within a zodiac dial, and the moon on the clock actually changes phases by gravitational forces! There are little wooden figurines on the sides of the clock and inside windows at the top of the clock that move on the hour, and in an attempt to “future-proof” the clock’s attraction, a chicken was added that squawks when all of the other movement on the clock is finished. (Fascinating, right?)
I must admit that this wasn’t something I knew about prior to our time in Prague, so I didn’t exactly have expectations about it. But it is one of the top attractions in Prague, and if you saw the number of people who stand to watch this clock toll the hour, you’d certainly think you were seeing one of the most amazing sites in the world. TONS of people show up to view this “phenomenon,” which as it turns out, is quite a let down, and in fact, our tour guide said it’s often rated as one of the most disappointing tourist attractions in Europe! In my opinion, it was worth seeing just to say I’ve seen one of the most uninspired sites in Europe.
5. Food isn’t just about eating. It’s about the experience.
Who doesn’t enjoy the atmosphere of a pub or a tavern? People talking. Food sizzling. Glasses clinking. Add to that low lighting, wooden tables, exposed brick walls, and local beers on tap, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a classic tavern experience.
These kinds of places are all over Europe, and sometimes the more “hole-in-the-wall” they are, the better. One such place we really enjoyed in Prague was one we sort of stumbled upon while looking for dinner one night. It’s called U Provaznice, and it’s just off the old town square. This place boasted traditional Czech food, a delicious assortment of beers, and decor which was not exactly what I would call wholesome.
If you time your trip to Prague well, you might even have the chance to eat food from the stalls at the Christmas markets all over town. From sausage and fish to fried bread and mulled wine, you can’t go wrong with anything you choose! Just keep in mind that eating at every stall can add up – both in money and in your waistline! You have to decide if it’s worth it! (It totally is!)
So, that’s it. That’s why I think Prague is so perfectly European! What makes you think of a city as being European? Is there anything you would add?