Prague, the vibrant Czech capital and centre of Bohemia, provides a hugely rewarding blend of fascinating history and cutting-edge style. It’s the equal of Paris in terms of beauty and boasts numerous architectural, artistic and cultural treasures. And, while the spring and summer months see Praguers and the city’s many visitors in their element – with café and pub terraces spilling onto the streets and squares, and fantastic picnic-with-a-view opportunities in Letna Park – the build-up to Christmas is an equally magical time to visit the Czech capital, and I loved it…
A winter wonderland
Wrap up warm (it can get cold; very cold!) and stroll the frosty, cobbled streets of this former Eastern Bloc capital, admiring the way the energetic and open-minded Czechs have transformed it into a cosy and endlessly fascinating winter wonderland. Take in the scenery as you cross the iconic Charles Bridge on foot: there was a mysterious-looking frozen mist suspended over the ice-cold waters of the mighty River Vltava when I was here. Then continue through delightful Mala Straná (the Little Quarter) on your way to Hradčany, Prague’s magnificent castle district, dominated by the spires of St Vitus Cathedral and criss-crossed by a maze of eerily quiet streets. Later, or whenever you feel the chill, hunker down in one of the city’s atmospheric bars, coffee shops and restaurants – there seems to be one on every corner!
Visitors flock from far and wide to take in the festive atmosphere and spectacular Christmas Markets in the Old Town Square (Stároměstské náměstí), and while you certainly won’t have them to yourselves, they are well worth a visit – if not several visits – during your stay. There are countless stalls selling gifts and warming food, and thousands of lights illuminating what is undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful squares. (My top tip: make sure you take the lift – or walk – up to the top of the Old Town Hall tower at night for a truly unforgettable panorama.) There are markets located in other areas of the city, too: Wenceslas Square is the other main draw, but I can also recommend Havel’s Market on Kampa, an attractive islet on the River Vltava, and the stalls in front of St George’s Basilica (handy for when you visit the castle).
Other festive activities
As well as indulging in the ubiquitous cups of hot wine, gingerbread and tempting food on display throughout the city, why not make the most of Prague’s musical heritage by attending a Christmas concert? Although mainly geared towards tourists, this might be no bad thing, as they tend to be held centrally in beautiful locations and last no longer than an hour (tickets are readily available just prior to performances). You could also seek out one of the charming nativity displays or Christmas exhibitions being shown at various churches and museums throughout the city (the one I found in the large crypt at Bethlehem Chapel was certainly worth a look).
Eating, drinking & getting around
In addition to our detailed city walking routes, don’t be afraid of making good use of Prague’s excellent transport network. There’s something special about the red-and-white trams rattling through the wintry streets (and noisily clanging their bells) at night, and hopping on and off these – and the plentiful local buses and efficient metro trains – is a great way to travel between the sights and to seek out some of the best places to eat and drink. As far as the latter is concerned, you’ll be spoiled for choice, but here are just a handful of my favourites (many more are included in our holiday notes) to whet your appetite:
• Svejk Restaurant U Karla (Křemencova 7): this traditional Czech eatery, next to the famous brewery U Fleků, transported me back to the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and is popular with both visitors and locals for its robust, no-nonsense dishes. Just look for the sign with the chubby soldier's face on it – a character from the darkly comic novel by Jaroslav Hašek.
• Hemingway Bar (Karolíny Světlé): nothing to do with the writer, but it might as well be! This place is dark, atmospheric and offers a tempting cocktail list. And it’s a mere cold-shoe-shuffle from our hotel.
• U Magistra Kelly (Sporkova 5): you’ll really need to winkle this place out as it’s tiny and easy to miss, tucked away down a steep lane in the maze of streets just below Prague Castle.
• Choco Café (Liliová): Part café, part shop, part postcard museum, but definitely the place to go if you love chocolate and/or need warming up.
• Oblaca at Tower Park (Žižkov TV Tower, Žižkov): choose this rather swanky restaurant and cocktail bar for the very best views in Prague, 66 metres up the iconic TV Tower in Žižkov. Book ahead!