48 Hours In: Prague
Winter lends an atmospheric charm to the beautiful and historic Czech capital as it gears up for the festive season.
If you need a timely excuse to visit one of the world's most beautiful cities, try this: because Prague's magical array of spires, domes, cobbled streets and graceful bridges look magnificent in the haunting winter daylight, and indeed in the city's striking illuminations thereafter. What's more, two weeks from now, the capital of the Czech Republic gets into festive mode: Christmas markets are held in the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square from 1 December to New Year's Day, with Czech choirs adding atmosphere most afternoons.
The widest choice of flights from across the UK is offered by easyJet (0871 244 2366; www.easyjet.com ), with services from Gatwick, Stansted, Belfast, Bristol, East Midlands and Newcastle. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com ) flies from Heathrow and Gatwick; bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com ) from Birmingham, Manchester and East Midlands; Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com ) from Belfast, Edinburgh, Leeds/Bradford and Manchester; Czech Airlines (0870 444 3747; www.czechairlines.co.uk ) from Heathrow, Stansted and Manchester; Flyglobespan (08712 710 415; www.flyglobespan.com ) from Edinburgh and Glasgow; and Thomsonfly (0870 165 0079; www.thomson.co.uk ) from Bournemouth and Doncaster.
Prague's Ruzyne airport is 20km north-west of the city centre. The cheapest way into town is to take bus 119 (departing every 10 minutes between 4.25am and 11.40pm) for Dejvicka station (1) at the start of the green Metro Line A; the ticket costs 20 crowns (Ck20/ 52p). Large luggage is charged at Ck10 (26p) per item on public transport. Taxis cost Ck600-800 (£16-£21), if you pre-pay at the stand outside the exit from Customs. To the right are stalls for slightly cheaper "hotel shuttle" taxis costing from Ck440 (£12) for up to four people.
Get your bearings
Prague is majestically set astride the Vltava river. On the right bank is the original medieval hub, the Stare Mesto (or Old Town). Immediately above this is the Jewish quarter amid elegant early 20th-century avenues. South and east of the ancient core is the Nove Mesto, or New Town, actually founded in the 14th century and now the main commercial quarter. Across on the left bank, Prague's vast castle, with the cathedral (2) at its heart, dominates the north-west skyline. Between these mighty landmarks and the river lies the Mala Strana, "Little Quarter", crammed with Baroque mansions and cobbled alleyways.
The most central tourist information office (3) is at the Old Town Square (00 420 221 714 444; www.pis.cz ; open 9am-6pm daily, except weekends to 5pm). It lies behind a pink façade in part of the old town hall and next to the city's ornate, 15th-century astronomical clock, which offers a mechanical parade of figures on the hour from 8am to 8pm.
Well-located just outside the remaining Gothic gate to the Old Town, the Hilton Prague Old Town (4) at Celnici 7 (00 420 221 822 100; www.hilton.com ) opened just a couple of weeks ago after a refurbishment in Czech cubism style (a major influence on the Art Deco movement). This 305-room hotel presents the city with a bold new gourmet experience: Gordon Ramsay's " maze Prague", a sister outlet to the British chef's "maze" restaurants in London and New York. Doubles are priced at €299 (£214) excluding breakfast, though specials are often available.
For a smaller design option head for Dum U Tri Capu (The House of the Three Storks) (5) on the left bank near the Baroque church of St Nicolas at Tomasska 20 (00 420 257 210 779). Inside this late 18th-century building are 20 bedrooms where clean lines and funky furnishings combine to give a comfortably chic look. Doubles start at €270 (£192) including breakfast.
The year-old Hotel Manes (6) at Myslikova 20 (00 420 221 516 388; www.euroagentur.com ) is well fitted out with stylish rooms and free Wi-Fi, and sometimes exceptionally good deals: for some dates later this month it is quoting just €65 (£47) double, including breakfast.
An increasingly popular alternative is to rent a place of your own. Old Town Apartments (0871 733 3034; www.apartmentsapart.com ) offers a variety of short-term rentals across the city. A one-bedroom flat at Legerova 48 (7) in Nove Mesto, for example, currently costs €138 (£99) for two nights.
Take a hike
For a walk that takes in some of Prague's most important sights, start at the foot of Wenceslas Square (8), which is actually a long rectangle. This shopping and entertainment area was where protests against the 1968 Soviet invasion took place and where the demonstrations of the 1989 Velvet Revolution ushered in independence. Turn right into Na Prikope shopping boulevard and then left down Havirska. At the end is the green-and-cream Estates Theatre (9) where Mozart staged the premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787; it is open only for performances.
Turn left and then right down Zelezna and continue to the Old Town Square, which for centuries has hosted markets and public events. Amble straight across this large cobbled area, lined even in winter with outdoor cafés, and proceed down the tree-lined boulevard of Parizska. Bordered by Art Deco buildings, this street leads to Josefov, or the Jewish Quarter. Turn left at the Old-New Synagogue (10), which dates from the 13th century and is the oldest practising synagogue in Europe (open to visitors Sun-Thurs 9.30am-5.30pm, Fri 9am-4pm; adults Ck200/ £5.25) and left again down Maiselova.
Take a right turn into Siroka and follow this road round – past the Pinkas synagogue (11) – to the Vltava. Turn left and follow the riverside path as far as you can go, turning left at the end and proceeding right along Krizovnicka. At the first junction turn right and you are at Charles Bridge (12), which for about 400 years was the city's only fixed link across the river. Today it is Prague's main touristic artery; even in freezing temperatures, it is lined with artists and draws the biggest tourist crowds of all Prague's sights.
Lunch on the run
On the left bank, just south of Charles Bridge the neat little square of Saska (13) makes a good stopping point and is home to cosy Dvorak Restaurant (00 420 257 530 056; www.restaurantdvorak.cz ) where you can warm up with the likes of onion soup (Ck65/£1.70) and gnocchi with salmon sauce (Ck225/£5.90).
Get an insight into the recent Communist past and the Velvet Revolution. The absorbing, shocking Museum of Communism (14) is at Na Prikope 10 (00 420 224 212 966; www.museumofcommunism.com ) – a building that is now shared with a casino. Visitors are taken on a chronological journey through the Communist period with displays of propaganda, classrooms, austere shops, an interrogation room and film clips. It opens 9am-9pm daily, admission Ck180 (£4.75).
From Communism to retail therapy: on Na Prikope just outside the museum you'll find Zara and Mango, while adjacent Havirska offers Max Mara and Cerruti. Prague's smartest shopping street is Parizska, where Dior, Hermes and more are located. You can buy Bohemian crystal and Czech wooden toys just about anywhere in the city but for a good range of such shops wander the maze of the Old Town or head to Nerudova on the left bank. You may find that the prices there are lower than at the open-air Havelska market (15), a colourful tourist trap with fruit, Czech delicacies and souvenirs.
The smart set heads to Tynska Bar and Books (16) at Tynska 19 in the Old Town (00 420 224 808 250; www.barandbooks.cz ), an ultra-chic cocktail bar lined in wood and mirrors and with one wall of books – mainly in Russian and Czech. A martini here will set you back Ck145 (£3.80).
Dining with the locals
U Petrske veze (17) at Petrska 12 (00 420 222 329 856; www.upetrskeveze.cz ) is a haven of old Prague circa 1880 – although in fact this prettily furnished house was substantially recreated in the 1990s. It is set in an up-and-coming quarter of the city and serves excellent traditional dishes such as braised beef with cranberry sauce (Ck500/£13.15) and boar steaks (Ck390/£10.26).
Sunday morning: go to church
The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn (18), known as the Tyn church for short, dominates one side of Old Town Square. Access to this imposing building is, rather bizarrely, through a narrow passageway between cafés. It's worth taking a look inside to see the lofty Gothic nave uplifted by Baroque embellishments. Sunday services (in Czech) take place at 9.30am and 9pm, when the main part of the church is closed to visitors, but you can quietly look in from the entrance. The church is fully open to tourists Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-1pm and 3-5pm.
Out to brunch
Grand Café Orient (19) at Dum U Cerne Matky Bozi, Ovocny trh 19, is a wonderfully restored 1911 café housed on the first floor of a building by Czech cubist architect Josef Gocar. The menu includes breakfast of boiled egg, cheese, toast and more for Ck125 (£3.30), and crêpes with fruit and maple syrup Ck85 (£2.25).
A walk in the park
Take tram 20, 22 or 23 to cobbled Karmelitska street on the left bank. Just beyond the Church of Infant Jesus of Prague (20), a turning on the left leads to Seminary Gardens, a green swathe of hill topped by the Petrin Tower (21), a miniature Eiffel Tower lookalike.
Take a view
The most atmospheric views of the Vltava and the old city are from the castle precincts, and a trip here is an essential Prague experience. You can wander freely through most of the streets and courtyards of this vast complex (open daily 6am-11pm; even longer from April to October). Entrance fees are charged for the major sights including the Old Royal Palace (22), St George's Basilica (23) and parts of St Vitus Cathedral (2) – though the cathedral itself is free. The locations open daily 9am-4pm; prices start from Ck100 (£2.60).
Icing on the cake
Take in a concert. From Dvorak to Smetana and Mozart to Massenet, Prague is awash with fine classical music. Regular venues, where you'll find that day's programme (with performances usually at 5pm or 8pm), include the Municipal House (24), a masterpiece of Art Deco worth exploring even if no concert is scheduled; the 18th-century St Climent Cathedral (25), renowned for its acoustics; and the church of St Nicolas (26) off the Old Town Square.