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Trip Report Trip Report: Prague & London in January

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Just returned from 4 days in Prague and a week in London. Used Delta miles from JFK/PRG and LHR/JFK (both flights were virtually empty – only 40 pax on the LHR/JFK leg).

PRAGUE:
Weather: grey but bright all 4 days; no snow, except snow showers one night which melted quickly; temps were in the range of 28-32 F and breezy each day.
Clothes: as a single, 50’s women, I like to look good but warmth and limited luggage were my priorities. Wore a long (below knee) down coat, with jeans, micro-fleece top and Merrill shoes. Bought lightweight long underwear @ EMS (top & bottom), which was a life saver. Scarf, hat & gloves completed the look.
Hotel: Hotel Paris, on Republic Square (across the street from the Municipal Building). Initial room was a corner, which was lovely with 2 huge windows and another huge window in the renovated bathroom. However, it was SO noisy at night with cars revving around the corner and pedestrians. At midnight I went to the front desk and asked them to move me; they were very gracious and moved me to room 509, on the top floor. These rooms hadn’t been 100% renovated but it was fine – ended up w/a suite. Flat screen TV with lots of channels, 4 or 5 in English, in the bedroom and sitting room, along with a comfortable sofa. Décor was elegant and the location was great. Breakfast was included in my rate and that was a real treat! In their fine dining restaurant, Sarah Bernhardt, a full buffet including omelet station – good variety and quality. Loved sitting in this elegant, art nouveau restaurant, w/linen tablecloths and napkins, having a tasty breakfast and watching the world go by. Would definitely stay here again and recommend them wholeheartedly.
Local transportation: got a 3 day metro/tram pass; city is compact enough that walking was easy, but trams were convenient ways to get to the farther points (such as the castle and mala strana). From the airport, I took local bus #100 to the metro stop, which went directly to Republic Square.
Food: ate breakfast at the hotel; lunches in local cafes most days; filled baguettes, pastry & chocs for dinners in my room, other than the 2 restaurants mentioned below.
Shopping: didn’t do any shopping.
Pre-trip research: I like to read beforehand and have a general plan for each day’s activities; used DK guidebook.

DAY 1
Arrived mid-morning, took bus from airport to metro directly to the hotel’s stop and walked about 100 feet to the front entrance. Hotel was very snazzy – art nouveau exterior and interior. Interesting paintings in all hallways and beautiful, graceful stairway w/stained glass window (2 quiet elevators). Checked in and wandered around nearby area getting my bearings. Walked to St. Agnes convent which had a huge exhibit of medieval religious art; impressive but too much for me (a little goes a long way, although I do find myself remembering the vibrant reds and blues). Came across Bakeshop and bought really good ham & cheese croissant for lunch. Via wandering and getting lost, I ended up in Old Town Square (which I later realized is a 5 min direct walk from my hotel). Kept walking, sometimes in circles; a heavy snow shower which looked beautiful in the street lights. Found my way back to Republic Square and had dinner in the café in the Municipal Building (there are 3 restaurants in this amazing art nouveau gem); the café was perfect; had goulash w/dumplings and listened to a trio play Cole Porter, etc. and watched the snow fall. After dinner, walked across the square to the Billa market for soda and snacks. Tired so walked about 50 feet around the corner to Hotel Paris. As mentioned above, couldn’t get to sleep due to vehicle noise, so changed rooms at midnight.

DAY 2
Breakfast in hotel restaurant (fruit, yogurt w/muesli and brown bread). Walked to Bakeshop and bought 2 mini-ham & cheese croissants for later. One minute later, was in Old Town Square waiting for the 10:30 “free walking tour”. A large group (about 20) was led by a gregarious Scot named Colin; this 3 hour tour is truly free and the guides work for tips (I gave him $10 and most other people seemed to do the same). We covered a lot of territory, excluding the Charles Bridge, the castle area and Mala Strana. Colin was very knowledgeable but had a sense of humor so the 3 hours passed pleasantly. That tour was immediately followed by his 2:30 walking tour of the castle, mala strana, etc. which cost $10 or $15, so I took that too. He again covered a lot of distance and provided history, plus odds & ends of info; ended at the Strahov monastery & brewery – very evocative in the cold and dark night. Many tour-goers had a beer and/or dinner at the restaurant but I opted for a tram ride back to Republic Square and dinner in the beer hall of the Municipal Building. Another great slice of history – huge basement restaurant w/nouveau tiles, mosaics, lighting fixtures, booths, etc. Had goulash soup and roast pork w/dumplings and toddled back to the hotel.

DAY 3 (Sunday)
Breakfast in hotel. Took metro to Charles Bridge and studied the statues. Wandered Mala Strana; two highlights: the John Lennon graffiti wall, near the French embassy in Grand Priory Square and St. Nicholas church. The graffiti interests me, both from an artistic perspective and the actual notes people leave; plus, it’s always interesting to see who else is there reading, admiring and photographing. St. Nicholas was something else – a high baroque style church unlike any I’ve seen! Talk about gilt, carvings, marble, frescos, statuary, etc. – I don’t think there was an empty inch anywhere! A world of difference from Gothic churches but very interesting. In the square outside, bought Tredlic (sp?) from a cart – it’s sweet dough cooked on a round metal roller and then rolled in cinnamon & sugar…yummy. Walked around and around and ended up in a restaurant next to the mill wheel; it was an outdoor restaurant, encased in glass walls & roof, with area heaters and sheepskin on the chairs and red fleece blankets for your lap. It was too scenic to pass up, plus my feets were tired; had port schnitzel w/rice but even bundled up with 2 fleece blankets (over my coat), it was still cool. Rested up and talked about Obama w/the waiter, then walked back to New Town. Rode trams around, to see what’s what outside of the main areas.

DAY 4
Breakfast in hotel. Had planned to go to Kutna Hora for St. Barbara’s and the ossuary, but wasn’t that motivated…so decided to wander and return to some of the places we went to on the free tour. St. James church (w/the famous mummified arm) – also baroque but not as over the top as St. Nicholas; went to the other St. Nicholas church in the Old Town Square, very plain but w/interesting huge chandelier; checked out Astronomical clock (big deal about not much); walked all around, admiring buildings and ornamentation. St, Ignatius church where I bought a pamphlet written by a priest about the treatment of Czech priests under Communism. Saw the “dancing lady” building. Dinner in room and packed.

While I enjoyed Prague and am glad I went, I don’t think I’d go back again. One of the highlights I’ve told people is that it’s very unusual to see, in such a compact area, architecture that ranges from medieval, to 18th century, to 19th and then art nouveau, 1930”s plain and then communist style.

Will post the London section tomorrow.

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    Here's the London part:

    LONDON:
    Weather: grey but bright every day, with drizzle 2 days; unseasonably warm – about 50 F each day.
    Clothes: my down coat was annoying due to bulk, but warm enough and could unzip when too hot. Gloves and a hat/scarf were key; no need for the sunglasses.
    Apartment: since I’ve been to London many, many times, I opted to rent an apt instead of a hotel. Knew that all the sights I’ll be visiting are in central, east and southern London so finally settled on a one bedroom flat in Fitzrovia (between Tottenham Court Road to the east and Great Portland Street to the west). Loved having my own space where I could relax each night and watch BBC/ITV, etc on a flat screen TV; full, regular bed (not a futon or sofa bed); etc.
    Local transportation: got a 7day travel card for all tube & bus travel. How cool was that – never having to worry about having change or buying a ticket in a machine. For the first time ever, I used the buses and loved them! The upper floor of the double-decker provides a great view (esp the front seats) and I like seeing what’s going on. They weren’t the speediest, but I was rarely in a hurry so enjoyed the trip. Very logical system of bus stops, w/maps showing where the buses actually stop. Enter via the front door, exit via the middle door. Tubes were so hot underground and those escalators, hallways and stairways sometimes seem interminable so the buses were a nice option.
    Food: stocked up on yogurt so ate breakfast in the flat; lunches out and dinners were take-aways, eaten in front of the TV
    Shopping: Everything was expensive and I hate to spend time shopping but did pop into Marks & Spencer for some undies and a bath mat. Also, haunted every Boots and SuperDrug to buy various Original Source body wash and scrubs (recommended by Suzy Gershwin, so I bought one to test – loved it and bought 8 more; plus, they were half-price, so for 99p, I got great souvenirs!)
    Pre-trip research: I admit that I’m an organizer and a wee bit obsessive, but I hate to waste time on vacation dithering about where to go and how to get there, so I created a master plan for each day’s activities; I don’t overfill a day – I’m happy if I get 3 things done, but I like a plan!

    DAY 5 (Tues)
    From Prague, took Metro to bus to airport for flight to Heathrow. Once in Heathrow, bought a 7 day travel card (£40, including £5 deposit and £2-3 for day 8’s trip back to the airport). I really got my money’s worth – I took 4-5 bus/tube rides per day. From LHR, took the tube (Piccadilly line) – it’s only about £4 vs £28 for the Paddington Express and I wasn’t in a hurry. Walked several blocks from Great Portland Street to the flat and settled in. Wandered around the area, bought breakfast items and snacks at Sainsbury. Early night.

    DAY 6 (Wed)
    Went to see the Women of WWII memorial on Whitehall; new memorial, south of the Cenotaph, just past the Horse Guards. It’s in the middle of the street but I quite liked it and took several photos (relief showing various coats and outfits worn by women who filled various roles during WWII). Walked to the Cabinet War Rooms which I loved. Had been there before, but enjoyed it so much that I wanted to go back, plus the Churchill Museum was new. Tons to see and listen to (recordings of people who worked in the CWR & speeches). Able to delay or dodge the school groups and took my time looking at all the details of the rooms. Extensive shop – bought two books (brief history of Churchill and diaries of various folks during the war) plus a CD of speech extracts and songs.

    Had read about Blewcoat School Café & Shop (on Caxton Street, near Buckingham Gate) so walked over there – what a great find! It’s the National Trust’s shop in London and is an old school, smack dab in the middle of a business area. You walk in to a one large room, with huge windows, moldings, ornate ceiling, and fireplace; there are several tables for 2 or 4, plus comfy leather sofa & arm chair seating areas. Around the perimeter are shelves and some tables of National Trust items for sale and the café case & ordering area are to the left of the entrance; I had a roast beef & stilton sandwich on walnut bread for £6, although the chicken, ham & stuffing pie was very tempting. How civilized to sit in a leather chair in this grand room and feel like it’s the 19th century. Other patrons were British – I was clearly the only tourist; two senior women with their granddaughter; several twosomes; and some businessmen. Loved this and would have gone back again for lunch but I was never in the area at the right time.

    At 1:45, took a walking tour of Chelsea (one of London Original Walks offerings – I’ve taken many of these and like them very much). Good tour – only 5 of us, plus the guide so we covered lots of ground and the warren of streets in Chelsea. He provided good historical info with other tidbits, like “Chelsea Tractors” – a term I’d never heard before but means Range Rovers and other large SUVs that the mothers use to pick up their kids from school a few blocks away. In fact, we walked past a nursery school and was amused to see a Bentley idling outside, next to an Aston Martin with a Mercedes SUV next to that. Royal Hospital, discussion of Duke of Bedford (I think that’s the one – extremely wealthy due to land), Albert Bridge, and much more.

    Then, went to Westminster Cathedral (not Abbey) to listen to their choir @ 5:00 and 5:30. Byzantine church with lots of mosaics; choir was good, but since it was a church service not a concert, there was a lot of standing and my feet were tired. So, bought a pasty and snacks at Sainsbury and ate at the flat.

    DAY 7 (Thur)
    Spent morning on Oxford Street, shopping. Then, off to St. Paul’s Cathedral: the Occupy London folks were camped outside and Paternoster Square was barricaded off; various protest signs, a few people interviewing/chatting w/the protesters and a camera crew, but generally very low key. Had read about the great café in the crypt, so went there for lunch. Very large seating area; had sausage pie (which was about £8 and served room temperature with a root veg salad). So so – wouldn’t make a special trip for it. Looked around the crypt and the memorials and then headed outside for another walking tour – the Blitz. Topic was very interesting to me, but there wasn’t much walking, lots of standing around listening to the guide which makes me antsy. I left half way through and took a bus to the London Transport Museum shop to buy tea towels of the tube lines. Walked through the food stalls at Covent Garden and discovered a fantastic cookie vendor (Elephant Cookies???) – great orange pecan shortbread cookies, owl shortbread cookies, oatmeal caramel w/sea salt cookies, etc. At 4 for £6, they were expensive but so good – really a treat. Went to TKTS booth in Leicester Square, but the construction and milling crowds turned me off so went home. Got a wonderful steak & stilton pie from EAT and enjoyed it in my flat watching BBC.

    DAY 8 (Fri)
    Took bus to the Imperial War Museum and saw lots of interesting things (I go every time I’m in London, so focused on some of the special exhibits this time: Lord Ashcroft Gallery, extremely well done exhibit of all Victoria Cross winners w/photos, mini-bio’s and recordings; Holocaust exhibition: interesting delineation of the progression of anti-semitism and the “just following what everyone else does” approach; Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: veddy, veddy good; photos, clear explanation of his war roles; Blitz Experience: surround side feeling of being in the midst of an air raid; this was really cool 10 years ago when it opened, but now seems low key and blah. Had lunch in their café – very good! Pork, apple & cabbage stew w/fruit, bread & cheese for £8; enjoyed my food looking out a window at their forecourt with the big guns and the clouds. Stopped in the gift shop for a “Keep Calm and Carry On” coaster.

    Off to Borough Market, but took a side trip to see the Canary Wharf tube station. When it opened, it was hailed as an architectural triumph, etc….so-so. To me, it looks like an airport terminal or new train station; yes, it’s very different from the existing tube stations but it’s cold and antiseptic…but serves its’ purpose of funneling thousands of commuters to/from their offices.

    Borough Market: interesting area and buildings, I like seeing old buildings being re-used. Lots and lots of stalls spread between 3 main areas, with some seating areas. Many cheese stands which I enjoyed sampling; various meat pies and pasty stalls but I couldn’t figure out how to use the oven in my flat and microwaving pies results in a soggy mess. Tried New Forest cider but it wasn’t like the Magners that I have on cruise ships (probably blasphemy to true cider drinkers!) and didn’t want to sit alone in the rain drinking my cider so passed on that. Ended up buying a roast pork & crackling sandwich with applesauce – tasty; then back home. Have to mention a great TV show ‘Come Dine with Me” – I love this! It’s four amateur cooks, each of whom hosts a dinner party for the group and each cook is rated by the others, with the winner getting £1,000. One person’s dinner party per episode, and you the interiors of various homes, meet all types of people, plus find out who really is a good cook – reality TV but so much more entertaining than others! It seemed to on multiple nights, multiple channels, so that, Doc Martin and Rosemary and Thyme were safe TV bets.

    DAY 9 (Sat)
    One of the Time Out books had a self-guided walking tour of various City buildings of architectural interest, so I did that first thing. Very interesting to use the author’s comments when looking at the bldgs; wish London Walks offered an architectural walk! So many new corporate edifices – some very attractive and others, not so much.

    Bussed to the Museum of Order of St. John (ambulance & emergency response group, plus historically similar to the Knights Templar). Very small museum (missed the 11:00 tour of the upper floor and more interesting areas) but glad I went. To and from, I passed groups of people dressed in various period clothing (mostly 1940’s but some later and some earlier) going into a nearby building – must have been some kind of social, historical group.

    Wandered over to St. Bartholmew the Great church (near Smithfield Market). Wonderful church and churchyard. Admission fee, but worth it. Almost bought a pamphlet about “weddings in St. Barts through the ages”. And, directly across from the church gate are public conveniences – with ornate, Victorian ironwork railings; very clean and well equipped.

    Over to Oxford Street tube for the start of a guided walking tour “Marylebone”. I really like tours of neighborhoods, since they usually involve a fair amount of walking and it’s a great way to delve deeply into a compact area. Not as interesting as the Chelsea walk, but still good. Zipped into the Wallace Collection for 20 minutes and walk ended in Regents Park.

    Bought another steak & stilton pie at EAT and back home to relax.

    DAY 10 (Sun)
    Bus ride to Spitalfields – top deck and front seat for great views! Spitalfields market is mostly clothing and mostly new (one or two vintage stalls). Youngish, small-scale designers showing their wares – coats (some amazingly well constructed and chic wool coats for £200); sweaters; skirts; leather goods; jewelry; photographs; etc – generally, funky stuff. Few food stalls but various restaurants. Clean and free toilets.

    Wanted to see St. Pancras station, since the press about it’s renovation has been so positive. Bus wasn’t running, tube too far away, so another lady offered to share a cab w/me since she was meeting her sister from York at St. Pancras. I would have walked to another bus stop, but it was clear she was nervous about walking so I agreed to share a cab. £15 later (plus tip), we arrived at St. Pancras. Fascinating building; I love the exterior which looks like a Victorian castle – all turrets and spires. Since the Renaissance hotel is there too, I walked through – their public rooms are very much in the style of an old railway hotel but don’t know what the guest rooms are like. On one hand, it would be convenient to stay there because of all the transportation links and any shops you want are in the adjacent station, but it’s a very busy area. The actual St. Pancras station is amazing- from the upper level, the support beams, lattice work and glass roof dominate; while I was there, a fellow was rope climbing among the rafters (with his Moss Brothers tux bag attached to his belt), since he was planning on rapelling down to propose to his girlfriend when she arrived on the Eurostar. He had a film crew with him and had done a test run the prior day – hope she said yes, after all his preparation!

    This station truly is a “hub of transportation” and conveys the sense of hustle & bustle, with a little glamour too. In my Time Out guide, I had read about the wonderful scotch eggs & pies at Peyton & Byrne…unlike any others and since they have an outpost in St. Pancreas, that was my lunch. The scotch egg was so much better than I thought (hard boiled egg, deep fried sounds nasty) that I tried two more times to get them again, but sadly, P&B in Heals was sold out by the end of the day. I also got a sausage pie – yum,yum, yum. Actually, either one would have been enough for lunch, but not knowing when I’d have another chance, I went for both. The pie crust was buttery and flaky (no sodden mess here) and the sausage was tasty. (it’s actually ground pork w/spices – not a hunk of sausage or paste.) Ate there and people watched.

    Then, off to the Courtauld Gallery – what a perfect museum! Not too big, neat building and just enough art with interesting descriptions. Liked the Fauvists and Impressionists. Nice shop and GREAT café downstairs. Had a slice of gingerbread cake w/lemon icing which was tremendous – dense w/strong spices and molasses flavor, nicely cut by the tart lemon; relaxed on a leather sofa. (Took home a piece of the lemon shortbread for £2.) The courtyard behind the gallery featured a skating rink sponsored by Tiffany so that was fun to watch.

    DAY 11 (Mon)
    Last day, so bought a notebook in Rymans (like the A5 size which we don’t have in US). Went back to Chelsea and walked across the Albert Bridge – it’s a confection – very Victorian and recently renovated in pastel shades. Bussed to Trafalgar Square…concert at St. Martins-in-the-Field which was sparsely attended; checked out their café which is written up quite often, but room was crowded with rows of tables & chairs and the menu didn’t appeal at all; so, went across the road to the National Portrait Gallery café and had a very so-so baguette sandwich. Went next door to the National Gallery to see the Boris Anrep floor mosaics – GREAT! Byzantine style but modern subjects, depicted w/humor. Bought a pamphlet about the mosaics in their shop.

    Off to West Ham for another guided walking tour on the Olympics. Lots of walking with super guide – she was a fountain of information about Olympics and sports in general, the funding process, branding, etc. Walked along the Greenway and got the sewer whiffs, viewed as many venues as possible and learned about Team GB and the plans for the venues after the Olympics (appears very well thought out).

    The last steak & stilton pie from EAT and back to the flat to pack.

    So, that was my winter break in Prague and London! I like travelling off season since crowds and prices are less. I love London and can always find new things to see and do, plus visit some of my old favorites. Had thought about a day trip to Hampton Court but my days were filled up; also wanted to go to Eltham Palace and Chartwell, but winter closings prevented those….so, perhaps a spring or fall visit will fit in!

    One other note, which isn’t surprising, is how expensive London is – everything, from food to clothing to books, et al. It’s never been an inexpensive city but now it seems higher priced than Paris, Stockholm or other large European cities. OTOH, most museums are free and the Travel Card is quite a deal. That’s why staying in a flat worked for me – no hotel tax and the freedom to eat many meals at home.

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    Nice trip report!

    We also loved using the buses in London. We had a senior with us so it was more convenient for her to use the bus than dealing with the escalators and stairs at tube stations. It was another great way to explore the city.

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    " but since it was a church service not a concert, there was a lot of standing and my feet were tired."

    So why stand? There's no law saying you have to mimic the rest of a congregation, and had you looked carefully you'd have seen a number of people neither standing nor kneeling.

    There's no law saying you can't leave when you want to either, and it's your choice. But churches don't have etiquette manuals, and are there to serve everyone - fully fit or a bit dodgy on their feet.

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    Would you mind sharing the details of your flat in London? The location sounds ideal for my 3-night visit in October.

    So enjoyed your trip report. Thanks for taking the time.

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    I don't know how I missed this first time around. Great report! London is my favorite European city and I loved hearing about places I've been and reading about some new ones.

    Thanks!

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    nice report, the New Forest has no real tradition of cider making (wrong part of the country, its like making wine in Cherbourg) at industrial scale (but great beer), most high volume ciders in the UK and Ireland are disgusting, I know I've carried out comparative tastings under lab conditions and you need to look out for the speciality types available in some supermarkets to get away from the children's coke type to something that tastes interesting.

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