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I recently traveled to Europe to tour three Christmas markets. Christmas markets have been a bucket list dream for me, and this year, I was fortunate enough to make it happen. See my previous posts on Wroclaw and Dresden.
As I looked out the taxi window at 3:41 am (the morning we started our journey home,) I was struck by just how little I saw of Prague. For a city I had always wanted to visit, Chris and I barely scratched the surface. This made me sad. Usually, I feel like I really have been able to explore and see all that the city has to offer. But not Prague. I said to myself, I need to come back and I need to do it soon.
Yet, a few hours later I sat on my plane ride home thinking further about Prague. And, now, I think, you know what, I don’t need to come back. And, I further ask myself does Prague really captivate those who visit or are they wearing rose-colored glasses and don’t see it for what it is?
Let me explain. We arrived late morning on a train from Dresden. The train ride was uneventful. Nothing bad nothing extraordinary. I enjoyed the sites along the way though.
We grabbed an Uber from the train station. Cheap and easy. Our driver said not two words, but we certainly could smell the lunch he had from his burps. We arrived at the hotel and were checked in, but our room wasn’t ready. No problem. The hotel (Hotel Century by MGallery Sofitel) was nice and in a good location in Prague 1’s Old Town.
We decided to take a walk and grab some lunch. We hit the first Christmas market by Namesti Republic. Not a lot there – some hats that were $12 in Poland, $25 Euro in Dresden and what amounted to $22 USD in Prague. There were many mass-produced magnets and some ornaments that looked like they had been scooped up from Michael’s. We continued down the street passing many breathtaking buildings. I was already in awe of the architecture.
We passed a TGI Friday’s and I had to laugh since I think there is only one even left in Arizona. We opted for a place on a side street called Repre’s or something like that. The decor wasn’t that memorable, but their beer was cheap and food reasonable. I had a goulash and Chris had a burger. That plus two beers ended up being around $15.
After wandering around a bit, we went back to the hotel. Unfortunately, a large tour group from Spain arrived and the lobby was packed. The hotel staff worked hard to get everyone processed in a timely fashion.
We then took off to the Christmas market in Old Town Square. I was very eager to see this. After all, many say this is the best Christmas Market in Europe. We walked to the square and my breath was taken away. The huge Christmas tree surrounded by the gorgeous churches and architecture. Wow! This is amazing I remarked.
We walked around a bit, and caught a performance of little girls dressed as babuski singing traditional Czech music. My heart was melting. How adorable! We popped into St. Nicholas’ Church. It was pretty but not the most stunning. We grabbed a glass of hot wine, rather I should say paper cup. Unlike other cities, Prague doesn’t do the collector’s cup. Then, we looked at some of the booths. Again, mass produced magnets, scarves from China, and a few unmemorable trinkets here and there.
Let’s go down by Charles Bridge to see it at night, I say. So we start to head that way. So many tour groups and tourists everywhere. It took us a bit to get down there, but we made it and enjoyed the view for a bit before deciding to head back to the Christmas market. I think from the river area to Old Town Square it’s about a 5-10 minute walk. It took us about 40. Oh you went into shops you say, no. There were so many people you could barely move down the streets. Tour groups with their umbrellas, masses of people trying to get from one end of the area to the other. It was really slow going. Then, we got to the Astronomical Clock and there you couldn’t move as there were hundreds of people wall to wall waiting for the show to start. Lucky us, we were there a few minutes before starting. So the clock struck 5 p.m. and the show began. And, just as soon as it began, it ended. It ended not with cheering from hundreds of adoring fans, but a collective groan from the massive crowd of tourists. I know they were all thinking “we waited for that.”
We opted to grab a drink from a restaurant on ten square. (Yes, we knew we’d be paying 5x what we should for a beer. We were just going for the atmosphere.)
After, we walked around the Christmas Market some more and grabbed some delicious langos (Hungarian dish with bread, garlic sauce and cheese) for dinner. We found nothing else at the market so decided to go to the market at Wensales Square. This was the same type of market … a disappointment. We did wander down the street and visit an amazing toy store called Hanley’s. But we opted for an early night to get up early to see all the sights.
It was once we were back at the hotel that we found out St. Vitus at Prague Castle wasn’t open the day we were able to visit. So frustrating because I checked the site days before and there was no mention of this.
The next morning, we head to the Metro to get over to Prague Castle. What we first learn is that the metro station only takes coins and there is no way to break bills. That’s frustrating. We finally get to the castle and there are security lines. We wait about 45 minutes. Then, another 25 minutes to get tickets in a small room. The nice cashier tells us we can come back the next day to see the church. Sadly, with a 6 am flight, that didn’t happen.
We see the Old Royal Palace, Golden Lane, and tower. Hmm … I’m not that enamored. Maybe it was because there were so many people there. The little houses of Golden Lane were the most enjoyable. I always love peering into how people used to live.
What I did like is the area around Prague Castle. I think we would’ve liked being over there more, but when I booked, I wanted to be close to the Christmas market.
After a nice lunch at a local pub (I had spaghetti and it was definitely in the top four of pasta dishes I’ve had ever), we headed toward the bridge. (Not Charles Bridge – I’ve heard that one is crowded and can take an hour to cross.)
The Charles Bridge.
We saw a nice “Romantic Christmas” concert at Mirror Chapel that afternoon. It was enjoyable though I wish there would have been more Christmas music performed. The Mirror Chapel was gorgeous. After the concert, we made our way back toward the Christmas market and main square along with the thousands of other tourists. But now it had started to rain and everyone had whipped out their umbrellas. Thankfully, no one got poked in the eye!
We popped into a few shops before heading to dinner at an Italian restaurant. It was pretty good and right near one of the churches in the square. We didn’t end up finding anything at the shops either. Most of the items were the same magnets, T-shirt’s and overpriced Russian nesting dolls. We took one last look at the beautiful Christmas tree in the square. And, as we continued to walk, what we did notice is that trash from the trash cans were overflowing all over the street.
Our 6 a.m. flight meant we had to leave the hotel at 3:30 am. The taxi driver was pleasant and pointed out some of the embassies we passed along the way. Shame it was so dark we couldn’t really see. I thought to myself I wonder if this area is like Andrassy Ut in Budapest where I could just walk for hours admiring the buildings.
The airport even at the early hour was bustling with travelers, mostly Americans. Security was quick and efficient, but we ran into issues at the gate where KLM’s gate agent had it out for any non-Czech passport holder. I’ll spare the commentary on this one, but it wasn’t a pleasant way to end our time in Prague.
That aside, overall I’m not sure what to think of Prague. The buildings were gorgeous. There seems to be a lot of sites to see – I would have liked to have gone into several of the other churches, seen the Dancing House, Lennon’s Wall, the Jewish Cemetery and more. But, I felt that we didn’t have time to do this because we spent so much time stuck in crowds. We are very fast sightseers and can get in a lot in a day. Not in Prague, everywhere was crowded with tour groups. I’d hate to be there during peak tourist season.
I think Prague has a nice ambience to it. In certain ways, it reminds me of New York City. It seems to have a lot to offer if you have the time and can deal with the crowds. Perhaps Prague has become a victim of its own success – too many tourists. I’m a huge Budapest lover and have often wondered which is better – Prague or Budapest. The first day of my visit to Prague, I might have said Prague. Now, I’d hands down say Budapest. It didn’t seem as overrun with tourists, but perhaps that is changing too.
Am I happy I saw Prague? Absolutely! Would I go back? Probably not. I think for me, I’d be better off seeing some of the other interesting towns the Czech Republic has to offer. I like to have a more local, real experience of a places – not one with thousands of tourists crowding the streets with their audio guides and umbrella toting tour guide. Prague is beautiful, but I think it’s often put on a pedestal that maybe it doesn’t quite deserve. But with each travel experience comes a chance to learn something about yourself. I’ve learned that I should be looking to visit less mainstream destinations in the future, and I’ll be honest, that’s quite exciting.
So what if you are going to Prague? Here are my tips:
Where to stay? Everyone says Prague 1. I would agree with this, but I think the side by the castle is tamer, quieter, and less crowded. Prices in restaurants and souvenir stores were also slightly less. We stayed at the Hotel Century which featured nicely decorated rooms and a friendly hotel staff. I found the Prague hotels to be pricey. I booked 2.5 months out and couldn’t really find a deal. I wanted a Hilton previously, but the rates were sky high. The Hilton Old Town at one point was 4x the price of the Hilton in Budapest.
Eats – many options. I used TripAdvisor before I went, but we ended up just wandering around and looking at menus. This to me is actually kind of fun.
Transportation – Use Uber. It’s cheap and easy. Public transportation is good. Bring coins though for the machines.
Christmas Markets – it you are going to see beauty, this one meets that expectation. For gifts, the markets miss the mark by a lot. For food, hard to say. Seemed to be the same things as in Germany and Poland (sausages, langos, chimney cakes.)