PHOTO: A traditional dish called svícková (beef tenderloin in a cream sauce). (photo by Connie Walsh)
It had been over a decade since I visited Prague, but I vividly remembered the Czech Republic capital’s evocative beauty, stunning architecture and tales of turbulent and fascinating history.
I was fortunate enough to return recently as a guest of Czech Tourism, to re-experience the city by means of a special itinerary crafted in collaboration with its tourism partners.
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We checked into our hotel, the brand new (and beautiful) boutique Hotel Cosmopolitan. Well-located in Prague, it’s within walking distance of a wealth of iconic sites.
And we were off to explore.
Jitka Simkova, founder of Prague Walks, served as our guide and orchestrated special visits, a literal “taste of Prague” and iconic sightseeing. We walked over to Old Town Square, with its collage of architecture—truly one of the most beautiful historical sites in all of Europe. There’s the Gothic Tyn Cathedral, Baroque St. Nicholas Church and the Rococo-styled pink-and-white Kinsky Palace. Built in 1755, it was from here President Vaclav Havel announced the end of Communist rule in 1990.
The Old Town Hall, with its Astronomical Clock, is great fun while the statue of beloved reformer Jan Hus (1369-1415) overlooks locals bustling about their business, awe-struck tourists and street performers. Cafes and shops line the square and its adjacent winding cobblestone streets.
Lit up at night, the square is magical and worth a second visit.
Our walking tour of New Town (“new” as in 600 years old) included Wenceslas Square. Actually, a vibrant broad boulevard, it’s dominated by a statue of good King Wenceslas, the Czech Republic’s patron saint. He sits astride his horse and has seen much: dramatic events, passionate demonstrations and the game-changing 1989 Velvet Revolution.
The Square’s Art Deco and Cubist arcades—with their labyrinth of passages filled with shops and cafes—are beguiling. If you have time for just one, make it the Lucerna Arcade/Palace.
Resplendent in its faded boho glory, it’s home to an elegant old movie theater, a rock club and the notorious statue of St. Wenceslas sitting on a dead horse—hung upside down from the ceiling. It’s the creation of controversial Czech artist David Cerny, and his works are seen throughout the city.
Prague’s No.1 tourist attraction is its magnificent Castle—the world’s oldest and largest. The 18-acre complex boasts three courtyards, eclectic architecture and a thousand years of history. There is much to see including the Old Royal Palace, the Romanesque Basilica of St. George and the Gothic masterpiece St. Vitus Cathedral—whose spires dominate the Prague skyline. (Visitors should have a plan and be aware of the security lines that can add time, or better yet, go with a good guide.)
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We began our Castle visit at the Baroque Lobkowicz Palace. Privately owned by the Lobkowicz Czech nobility, it’s home to one of Central Europe’s most significant museums. Works by the Old Masters, collections of ceramics, musical instruments and manuscripts are all on display.
We attended a classical music performance in the Palace’s beautiful concert hall—held daily 1-2:00 pm. Visitors can also “meet” the Lobkowicz family: Their portraits hang in the museum, and members narrate the exceptional audio guide that details their past interwoven with the country’s tumultuous history.
The many benefits of a private guide include an itinerary structured for sightseeing to flow easily within a time frame along with other special arrangements that have appeal for clients. For example, Jitka organized an exciting visit to the atelier of prominent Czech fashion designer Ivana Follova.
We also visited the riverside Museum Kampa, founded by Czech patron of the arts Mrs. Meda Mladek. Housed in a beautifully restored old mill on an oasis called Kampa Island, it showcases a compilation of Eastern European modern art along with many works by Frank Kupka, a pioneer of abstract art. Its galleries are frequently booked with exciting traveling exhibits and outdoor art installations.
Giant crawling babies by David Cerny and a parade of 30 neon yellow penguins that have been fashioned from recycled water bottles are quite a sight.
Jitka accommodated our request to see the John Lennon graffiti-laden wall and made sure there was time to walk across the iconic Charles River Bridge. Emblematic of Prague, the Gothic stone structure, replete with statues, spans the Vltava River. Lit-up in the evening, it’s breathtaking. (Bring your camera!)
Prague is a feast for the eyes, but its cuisine is often dismissed by foodies. Long a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, decades of subsequent Communist rule impacted the availability and quality of ingredients as well as long-held culinary traditions.
Chefs are rediscovering and reinventing their grandmother’s recipes, and visitors can enjoy them while dining in some of the world’s most atmospheric venues. The Hotel Cosmopolitan's on-site restaurant, Next Door by Imperial is the newest eatery by celebrity chef Zdenek Pohlreich and offers riffs on traditional Czech dishes. It’s fabulous!
Prague has a well-preserved Viennese cafe culture and, of late, lots of hip coffee shops, talented baristas. The city also now boasts three Michelin-star restaurants.
Pork is king in the Czech Republic and an integral part of a trifecta with dumplings and cabbage. (I tucked into a Flintstone-size pork knuckle knee on my first night.) As a group, we also savored duck—roast and confit—feasted on freshwater fish and swooned over medallions of venison. We found the soups delicious—especially the traditional creamy potato—and consumed variations of stew-like goulash.
And ahh, the kolache pastries with all the different fillings.
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Czechs love their beer. Pilsner was invented here after all, and nothing goes better with a locally-made sausage. Beer geeks: Take note that craft beer breweries are popping up all over the country.
Jitka introduced us to trdelnik, the ubiquitous and delicious circular grilled sweet pastry that seemingly sold on every corner. There's also the popular Chlebicky: Open-faced sandwiches that fill the delis’ glass cases and make the perfect grab-and-go lunch or snack.
After visiting Havel Market (the city’s oldest) to ogle the produce and souvenir shop, we joined locals at the cafeteria-style restaurant Havel Koruna. There we sampled the traditional and beloved svickova: Beef tenderloin is smothered in a cream sauce (and dolloped with whipped cream for good measure). then served with dumplings and cranberries. Try it. You’ll like it.
I’m already looking forward to a third Prague visit, mouth watering and all.