A few things I learned in the Czech capital

Before heading off on one of my favorite ways to travel–girls weekend with my coworker/best friend/platonic love/and favorite travel partner, Pili–I already had some preconceived notions about Prague. I had been there once during a whirlwind Easter break trip through Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and Krakow, and had only really spent little over 24 hours there. I did remember, though, that of these four cities, (and their four respective countries), Prague was the one that left the biggest impression on me, and incited my return almost nine years later.  But Prague isn’t like other places in Europe, and there were a lot of things that (pleasantly) surprised us in our journey. So in this post, instead of trying to point you in the direction of the BEST things to do, (after being there for just over 48 hours), here you have some not-so-predictable things  you’ll find about this lovely town.

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1. It is super reasonable, but not dirt cheap.

Obviously, this depends on your bank account and budget, (mine is elementary school teacher level), but let me clarify. Europe is a big place. There are countries that open a black hole in your bank account (*cough cough Switzerland), and there are countries you can have lunch and a beer for a couple euros. (*cough cough Spain). But I think the number one thing people tell you about Prague is how ridiculously cheap it is.  (For reference, according to Numbeo,  it is actually 22% percent cheaper than Barcelona). This, in general, proved to be true. We were especially shocked about beer prices, as a pint cost a little over a euro, and we stayed in a gorgeous studio apartment with AirBnB for less than 70 euros a night, and there were options far cheaper than that. However, in general, we never fell out of our chairs at the good prices.  Our reaction after every bill was pretty much this:

Like, “huh, yep, cheaper than Barcelona.” Not, “I CAN BUY REAL ESTATE HERE.”

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Holding up our tour group as per usual.

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2.  They shouldn’t just be known for their beer

Yes, your best friend’s sister’s boyfriend who studied in Prague and everyone who has ever been there will tell you, “drink the beer, it is cheaper than water!” (True, by the way). And I’ll be honest, that beer is GOOD. (Donna Meagle voice). But there’s only so much beer you can drink before you’ve gotta switch it up. Before arriving I did some research and found that Prague has an emerging cocktail scene, and we were only too eager to check it out.

IMPORTANT NOTE—If you want to go to a nice cocktail place, you need to call and make a reservation. Living in Spain, we are not used to this at all, and on our first night we were shocked to see that every cocktail place we went to simply told us they were full. As frustrating as it was the first night, on our second night when we had our reservation at Hemingway’s, it was really nice to be able to sit down and not have someone’s elbow in my lower lumbar area.  Also important to note–“going out” means having a drink around 9, and going home by 11-12. We tried explaining the typical Spanish night out to our Czech tour guide and he nearly died when we said a night out in Spain could end at 8am. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Our experience at Hemingway’s was as unique as the poet himself–both with the dark, intimate, sensual decor, and the drinks. Oh the drinks. We had a front row seat at the bar as our waiter created literal works of art with all sorts of liquors, flavors, garnishes, and contraptions. Exhibit A:

 

 

I mean honestly–a snowglobe, a classic absinthe dripper, a sugar-glass garnish, and, (though not pictured), scientific beakers and a light effect? Yeah I’ll buy all of that. And we did. Just have a look at this menu:

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Too many to choose, but we tried the Magic Moment, the Fairy Ale, the Christmas in Havana, and the Michelin Cocktail–all somewhere between 8-12 euros. You have your work cut out for you.

Just in case Hemingway’s doesn’t seem to have enough of an amazing menu for you, or you are lucky to have a few nights in Prague, our amazing bartender/drink magician recommended a long list of other cocktail bars in Prague that are well worth a visit, and are at the top of my to do list the next time I get back there. The following list, by the way, is handwritten on the back of a receipt and has been in my wallet for the last three months. Its authenticity cannot be argued.

Bartender’s favorites:

Honorable mentions:

REMEMBER! Do not forget to check their hours and make a reservation. You do NOT want to be the dweebs walking around Prague at midnight who get denied at every single place. The only upside to this is that you may be lucky enough to come across the hole in the wall bar with sub par gin where Justin Bieber’s doppleganger hangs on Friday nights.

 

Don’t tell me it’s not uncanny.

3.  Absinthe is not a truly Prague tradition…and it won’t make you see green fairies.

“The green fairy.” You can see absinthe bars and souvenir shops advertising for the green drink on almost every corner. But it is actually not something locals usually drink, and isn’t even something that is historically from Prague. It became popular with artists and poets who once frequented the bars and streets of Prague in the 19th century, and who are also responsible for its bad reputation as a hallucinogenic. Absinthe has no known hallucinogenic effects and has proven to cause no more social ills than any other high grade alcohol. Which, to be honest, means it should be drunk with caution because we all know that after your third or fourth cocktail with any kind of alcohol, there’s no telling what color fairies you’ll see.  According to our barman/trusted source, people from the Czech Republic may only sip on an absinthe cocktail with a nice summer brunch or something of the sort. (So classy). Anyone seen searching out absinthe in Prague gets an instant “tourist” stamp. That being said, the “Fairy Ale” drink I had at Hemingway’s was delightful, and only got better as the flavors and ice cubes blended together. The perfect drink for sipping. (PS, it was not fluorescent green, either.) As an alternative, you might try, “Becherovka”, another herb liquor that you can find all over the city.

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Oh and that sugar cube thing? Tourist trap as well. Don’t be fooled.

4. Tips are a thing.

As a woman who worked her way through college in the service industry, and as a decent human being, this is something that you should have very clear before you travel somewhere. In Spain we are not used to tipping much at all, except for a euro or two on a big meal, so this was different for us. Its easy enough, though, and seems to be just 10% of the bill, so it isn’t going to break your bank like a meal in Chicago might.

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5. It is strikingly beautiful, even in unexpected ways

Walking through Prague is like taking a step back in time to a very different place. In Europe we are spoiled with low cost airlines that can jet us off to another country in a matter of hours. Because we are spoiled, however, France and Italy and Germany and Spain and Portugal, though beautiful, start to sort of blend together. And it makes sense. Many share linguistic, historical, architectural, and gastronomical roots. (Makes sense, right? They are essentially the size of a state in the US). But heading over to eastern Europe brings a whole different vibe. And though the Czech Republic has come a long way, you can still wander your way through winding streets, try to keep your balance on broken cobbles, ride an electric trolley, admire the pastel colored buildings that look like cupcakes lining the streets, and feel as though time hasn’t touched this city in the last fifty years. And here is the even more unexpected part–all, yes, all of their toilets complete my 5 star rating system that I came up with in Spain.

  1. Toilet seat
  2. Lock on door
  3. Toilet paper
  4. Soap
  5. Hand towels and/or drier

Hey, I said it was unexpectedly beautiful, and I meant it.

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6. Those spiral pastries aren’t typical, either.

We spent the whole morning of our first day in Prague doing a free walking tour. (Incidentally, one of my favorite things to do in ANY city I go to.) We were running late and didn’t have time to grab breakfast at one of the cafes in the center like we had planned. So instead, as we waited to be placed in a tour group, I ran to the nearest stand in the main square and ordered a “Trdelnik”, you know, one of those spirally-sugar-coated pastries you seen EVERYWHERE in Prague.

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You know, these ones.

I have to be honest, I really enjoyed it and I felt really authentic as I went to town on it in that plaza. Half way through our tour, our tour guide asked us if we had tried one during our visit. I very proudly raised my hand. Said tour guide proceeded to put me on blast because apparently these pastries are not originally from Prague at all, but rather Transylvania, (real place, swear), and are just as big of a tourist trap as absinthe and some kind of pork kebab. He was nice enough about it though, and suggested instead that if we had time we should try his favorite Czech pastry, a jelly-filled “kolach”.

All said, I do not regret my breakfast choice.

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In case you want to try more authentic Prague pastries, check out Cafe Savoy. You can even watch them make the pastries!

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7. Getting around couldn’t be easier.

Starting with getting from the airport to the center. (Always a battle, amirite?) Another thing with low cost airlines is that sometimes they bring you to an airport in God knows where, three hours from the city center. Not the case in Prague. It is a short 30-40 minute journey (depending on traffic), and I am here to tell you that this low cost shuttle is the best and easiest way to do so.  You make you reservation online, can pay online or in person, the driver waits for you with a sign, and takes you to the center. If you choose the shared shuttle like we did for 5.50, you may have to wait for others in your shuttle to arrive at the airport, but for us it wasn’t a big deal at all. We were even given a big book on what to see and do in Prague. We took the same shuttle back, (made our reservation prior), and happened to be the only two inside. You should know that they don’t take you to the doorstop of your hotel or apartment, but to a very central location. (You can pay more to be dropped off anywhere).

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Most times when you jet off to a different country for the weekend, you need to prioritize your time and do as much as you can in the days you’ve got. This usually means mapping out the subway and bus stops to all of the places you want to go in order to see it all. You don’t have to worry about this in Prague. In fact, just go ahead and forget it all together, because getting around is the best part. Prague is totally a walking city, (even in November), and its beauty is in the journey.

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Everyone describes different European capitals as “full of life”. And, to be honest, I would hope they are because if not, that would make for a really creepy visit. The thing is, Prague isn’t just full of life, it incites it. Prague isn’t the polished architecture and attitude of Paris, it isn’t the sprawling bustle of London, and it isn’t the crumbling ruins and crusty pizza in Rome. It is different. It is uneven cobblestone streets sliced in half by trolley tracks and buildings that look like frosted cupcakes.  It is history and sorrow and deep scars still healing. It is coffee and pastries and cheap beer and wide smiles.  And if you’re lucky, you just might find something unexpected.*

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Just a small town Wisconsinite in a fiery love affair with a country that sometimes loves me back and sometimes smiles and winks as it gives me the middle finger. I’ve spent seven years in this constant back and forth and I’m still as enchanted as day one. But there’s always tomorrow.

7 thoughts on “A few things I learned in the Czech capital

  1. I really liked your post, your photo of Charles Bridge is awesome!
    However, did you know about free city tours in Prague?
    In my opinion, that’s the best chance to explore the city without a big budget and discover sights for a free with local guides.
    Reading your article is like I was in Prague again, thank you for that)
    P.S. Hope, you have a nice day!

    Like

    1. Hi Michelle! Thanks very much! I absolutely loved Prague, and Im glad I was able to capture that 🙂 You are absolutely right about the free tours, they are always the first thing I do when I go to a new city!

      PS I hope you have a great day as well!

      Like

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