The eleventh stop on our nine week, fourteen city summer vacation across Europe brought us to Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic.
20 years ago Prague was an up and coming budget tourism destination full of culture and history where one could escape the higher prices of western Europe. Today, it still has the charm of the good old days but with slightly higher price tags compared to much of the rest of low-cost central and eastern Europe.
While in Prague, we visited the usual mix of castles, churches, and historic town squares. I was surprised at how many tourists were jam-packed into the center of the historic center of town. Maybe it was due to our visit falling in the middle of the peak summer tourist season? Fortunately we found a quiet escape just a mile south of the historic Old Town section of Prague at the Vysehrad Fort.
Here’s a summary of our trip in Europe so far. We started our journey in Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain. After Granada we visited Seville, Spain. From Seville, we flew to Milan on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice.
Then we took a four hour bus ride to Ljubljana where we spent a week exploring the city and the nearby caves before we headed an hour north to the edge of Slovenia to Podkoren to explore the Soča Valley and river and the Julian Alps. After Podkoren we visited Salzburg, Austria with a side trip to Hallstatt and the Dachstein ice caves. Leaving Salzburg, we drove two hours west to Munich, Germany. From Munich, we took a four hour bus to the northeast and crossed the border into the Czech Republic where we soon entered Prague (where our story picks up today).
Old Town Prague
We spent several days exploring the areas in and around “Old Town” Prague. There’s so much to see and do down here for people of all ages. The Prague Castle is just across the river from Old Town along the Charles Bridge. The Jewish Quarter lies just to the north. To the south is the expansive Wenceslas Square and the “New Town” of Prague.
The main attraction in town is the Prague Castle. It’s free to enter the castle grounds however there are various admission charges if you want to tour the churches, palaces, and museums within the castle complex. We chose not to tour the interior buildings after seeing very similar places earlier during our trip.
If you only had a week in Europe and wanted to “do Europe”, this one castle complex could just about do the job for you since it has a little bit of everything.
Near the end of our week in Prague we discovered this wonderful retreat. It’s only a mile from the busy tourist core of Prague but it feels like it’s out in the countryside. The subway stop for Vysehrad Fort is only five minutes from the entrance gate, so you know you’re still in the city.
The expansive grounds of the fort complex measure almost a half mile across. Exploring the entire site would require several miles of walking and at least a half day. After spending most of our time walking the crowded streets around Old Town and the Prague Castle, the Vysehrad fort’s relative tranquility was a welcome relief.
Like Prague Castle, admission to the fort grounds is free with additional admission fees to enter the various buildings within the complex.
We followed a path along the top of the 50 foot tall walls around the perimeter of the fortress to begin our exploration.
Within the fort complex, we found a church, a cemetery, a fort-themed playground, a vineyard, and several other interesting buildings. We also found a beer garden with very reasonable food and drink prices and free bathrooms (both of which were rarities in the tourist core of Prague). If we make it back to Prague in the future, I’d definitely like to spend more time exploring and relaxing in the Vysehrad fort.
Lodging for a week in Prague with Airbnb
At $50 per night, we found an amazing deal through Airbnb for our one week stay in Prague. This was by far the best value for accommodations while in Europe. The apartment had three bedrooms and could have slept eight people comfortably (ten with the fold out couch).
The apartment was about two miles from the tourist district of Prague but directly on a tram line and a short walk from the subway (either of which would take us directly into the tourist section of town).
Our Airbnb host went out of her way to make us feel at home. She picked us up from the train station in her tiny Skoda compact car (with four people riding in the back seat). Once we arrived at her apartment, she offered us plenty of food and drink in the form of a fresh baked cake, a bottle of wine, a bottle of fruit juice for the kids, and a six pack of local Czech beer. A previous Airbnb tenant left a bottle of absinthe and a bottle of marijuana-infused vodka in the fridge which we sampled more than once during the remainder of our stay.
We even received an authentic cultural experience while staying in her apartment. She notified us ahead of time that the hot water would be out of service for the first 24 hours of our stay due to the annual boiler/hot water heater maintenance. We would definitely have hot water by the evening of day two, she said. Cool, no problem, just skip the shower on day one, right?
This outage stretched on for a few more days as the boiler-workers hammered and chiseled away in the building’s innards. Our Airbnb host was kind enough to bring a large wash basin for us to bathe in using stove-heated water. Our Airbnb host was heartbroken, but I reassured her that we would persevere. I joked that “it’s just like old Communist days, huh?”. She nervously laughed in response that yes, this is exactly what it was like. They promise one thing and many days (weeks, months, years) later nothing has happened with no explanation other than “we are working on it”.
The building was obviously a relic from the Communist era with ample modern capitalistic upgrades, yet the maintenance regimen remained stolidly Eastern Bloc.
By the end of day three the hot water returned for a while before another brief outage. By day four the water was nice and hot non-stop and we thawed out after that. In the end all was good, but there were a couple of very uncomfortable showers mixed in to the first few days of our stay in Prague.
In brighter news, the neighborhood where we stayed was great for families. The apartment building fronted a courtyard with a small playground that was popular with other families. One minute away was a much larger city park where we let our kids explore on their own for an hour or two. Within two blocks we had an ATM, a wide selection of restaurants and bars, and a small grocery store.
After seeing the crowds and higher prices in downtown Prague, I’m glad we stayed a short distance away from all the action! It was a nice break (cold showers notwithstanding).
If you want to enjoy the personal connection that comes with Airbnb rentals while saving a lot of money, click here to take $40 off your stay.
Food in Prague
We ate out in Prague more than any other city during our nine week trip. Part of that was price. Restaurants were rather cheap where we stayed. For USD$4-5 per plate we were able to get a full meal including sides at a local Czech restaurant recommended by our Airbnb host. We also visited a Chinese restaurant and found prices to be about the same at $4-5 per plate.
Our typical daily routine was to wake up late and make some coffee in our Airbnb. Then head out at 11 am as soon as the restaurant opened to pick up four take out plates full of different dishes that always included some version of potatoes as a side. We would eat those goodies for an early lunch, then pack a small sandwich for a late afternoon snack or meal while we explored downtown Prague all afternoon. Restaurant prices were significantly lower near our apartment two miles out from the center of town. In the middle of the tourist district, prices at local restaurants doubled or tripled.
The food from the local Czech place was very different from the cuisine we experienced everywhere else in Europe. So much flavor and a distinct influence of spices and seasonings from elsewhere. Turkey? The middle east? India? Hearty and filling food from wherever it drew its influences. We returned to the same local Czech place again and again for their varying specials of the day.
How did we know what to order at the local Czech restaurant? Google Translate was our friend.
Each day the “Svejk” restaurant a block away from our apartment offered a long list of daily specials. Unfortunately for us, the specials menu was only in Czech. Each morning we would screen cap the Czech version of the menu and paste it into Google Keep (a cloud based Evernote type app available on desktop and phone). Then view the web page through Google Translate and screen cap the English translation.
We pored over the English version of the menu we created to identify the 4-5 dishes we wanted to try that day. I highlighted the Czech names of those dishes in Google Keep.
After figuring out what we would order, I grabbed my phone and headed to the Svejk restaurant with USD$20 worth of Czech Koruna in hand. I showed the waiter the highlighted Czech version of the menu items we wanted on my phone as I struggled to pronounce them in Czech. The waitstaff spoke some English but probably not enough to order the dishes in English.
For groceries, a Tesco Express was within walking distance. It was rather small and offered a variety of groceries somewhere between a convenience store and a regular grocery store. Fortunately the Tesco had milk, yogurt, some meats, and plenty of fresh produce plus a fresh bakery. We made do with groceries from that store most of the week.
Further away was a full-sized Lidl grocery store. At the beginning of our week in Prague, I made the short trek on the tram down to the Lidl with my two daughters tagging along to help carry the food back home.
Getting Around Prague
Since we weren’t planning on leaving Prague during our stay in the Czech Republic, we chose to skip a rental car and rely on transit. It’s incredibly easy to get around Prague by public transit. Three subway lines connect most of the city, and tram routes criss-cross the remaining areas. The outskirts of Prague are served by city buses but those city buses do not go into the center of the most tourist-oriented parts of town due to congestion.
From our apartment, the subway was about seven minutes away while the tram was about three minutes.
Prices for a single 30 minute ride were about USD$1 for adults and $0.50 for kids with age five and under riding free. In total, we paid $6 for a round trip downtown and back for the whole family. In general, we would head downtown then explore on foot for several hours before heading back home.
The transit system sells all day passes for $5.00 per person (half off for kid’s passes).
We probably would have opted for a rental car if we planned on visiting destinations outside Prague. However a rental car is completely unnecessary (and more of a hindrance) when visiting Prague proper.
Thoughts on Prague and the Czech Republic
We loved Prague. It’s no longer a “hidden gem” given how many tourists we encountered in the tourist center of town. In fact, the hectic crowds were a bit of a downer. We visited in the middle of summer so I suppose we have to accept crowds in such a beautiful and historic city during peak season.
Toward the end of our stay in Prague we discovered the Vysehrad fort and enjoyed the relative lack of crowds and quieter scene just a mile outside the core tourist area. I kept thinking what a shame it was that we didn’t visit Vysehrad at the beginning of our week in Prague so we could spend more time there.
As I write this, it’s been about nine months since we were in Prague and I have since discovered tons of places in the city that we zoomed past or missed completely while in town. However, we still managed to get a great feel for the place during our one week in town.
I would recommend four days at a minimum to catch a glimpse of what Prague has to offer. A week would be better. With two weeks, you could see most of the highlights in Prague and take several day trips to some amazing places in the surrounding countryside.
Other than the crowds in the center of town, we didn’t have any complaints. The food was great. Beer was delicious. Prices were low to moderate. Transit was easy. Summertime weather was awesome. The people were very nice. I would definitely visit again and hope to spend more than a week in Prague next time around.
Have you ever been to Prague or the Czech Republic? What was the highlight of your trip?
Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:
- Summer Vacation for 5 in Europe: 9 Weeks, 8 Countries, 14 Cities, $10,000
- Surprising Finds in Lisbon, Portugal
- From the Alcazaba to Sea in Malaga, Spain
- Exploring La Alhambra and the Narrow Alleyways of Granada, Spain
- Enjoying The Alcazar and Jamon Iberico in Seville, Spain
- Castles, Skyscrapers, and Prosciutto in Milan, Italy
- The Meandering Canals and Bridges of Venice, Italy
- Exploring Caves and Castles in Ljubljana, Slovenia
- The Hidden Gems of the Julian Alps and Soča Valley in Slovenia
- Explore Austria: Salzburg, Hallstatt and the Dachstein Ice Cave
- A Week in Munich, Germany plus Neuschwanstein and Dachau
- Czech it out: Exploring Prague in a Week
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