Prague: Save vs. Splurge

070314_Veronsky_dumF.jpgPrague, the “City of a Hundred Spires,” answered the prayers of frugal travelers throughout the 1990s, but in the 21st century, the cobbled streets have become crowded, and the rise in tourist numbers has been matched by a rise in prices. Nevertheless, if it’s a bargain you’re looking for, it is possible to find luxury for less in Prague. Read on:

Suite Dreams
Booking a budget hotel in Prague can be risky because of the prevalence of noisy tour groups and contingents of beer-swilling “lads.” So you’re better off looking up-market instead of down. If you’re feeling flush, opt for the Aria Hotel (doubles from $475). Tucked quietly away in the Malá Strana, this boutique hotel with its stylishly-appointed rooms and unparalleled service offers a proverbial oasis of calm. For a lower-cost alternative, try the nearby Veronsky dum (Misenska 8, Malá Strana). The 14-room hotel, built in Baroque style in the early 1700s and completely overhauled in 2005, retains some of its period charm. Doubles start at $128.

Make Way for Dumplings
Food tends to be affordable in Prague, which makes this a good place to indulge in fine dining. Elegant, intimate U Modre Kachnicky, in the Malá Strana is a favourite amongst Czech dignitaries. But even regular types come for the walnut-stuffed duck or grilled pork with cabbage and dumplings (about $50). Of course, if you’re willing to forgo the antiques and upscale ambience, you can enjoy much the same meal for a third of the price at Baracnicka rychta, or one of the other side street pivnices (pubs) clustered around Castle Hill.

Coffee-Klatsch
070314_Kavarna_Oecni_dum_PragueFF.jpgCafé life is one of Prague’s greatest pastimes, and of course there are great cafés all over the city. At Kavárna Obecní dum (Republiky 5, Staré Mesto) you can have the full on café experience in one of the city’s most elegant buildings. The coffee is the real deal, the edibles quite delicious, but the experience isn’t cheap. The coffee at Meduza (Belické 17, Vinohrady) is just as good, and though the environment is more charming than it is opulent, you’ll pay less to be there (note: they don’t take credit cards).

Shopper’s Czech List
The Old Town’s well-traveled tourist route from Wenceslas Square through to the tangle of streets approaching the Charles Bridge is “souvenir central.” Overall, prices are relatively high and quality relatively low. However, you can find unique, inexpensive items (say a milkmaid marionette or a bottle of the popular herbal liqueur Becherovka) a few steps from the beaten path in the open-air stalls of Havelske Trziste. Also known as Havels Market, it’s located just off Melantrichova Street. If you’re after luxe gifts, like world-class Bohemian crystal, head instead for Swarovski Crystal, which also has a boutique here.

Rock Me Amadeus
Mozart is a civic obsession, so you simply can’t leave Prague without hearing the maestro’s music. The obvious first choice is to take in an opera at the glorious Estates Theatre, where Don Giovanni debuted in 1787. A full evening’s entertainment will set you back about $50. If you haven’t the money or time to spare, consider a shorter “best of” style concert at one of the city’s historic churches. St. Nicholas’s, a domed Baroque beauty in the Malá Strana, hosts heavenly musical events six nights a week April through October, and tickets are only $19.

070314_charlesbridge.jpgA River Runs Through It
One of the wonderful ironies of travel is that sometimes the less expensive option isn’t just a better value, it’s a better experience. Take Prague’s Vltava River cruises. There are numerous standard-issue sightseeing boats to choose from (air-conditioned, multi-lingual commentary). For about $21, they will take you out on the water for an hour, pointing out the major attractions en route. Conversely, you can sign on for a guided trip with Prague-Venice then tool around in a small 19th-century canal boat — complimentary Pilsner Urquell in hand — for the princely sum of $13.

Ticket to Ride
Compact Prague is an ideal place for walking. But when you get tired of crisscrossing the Charles Bridge or climbing Castle Hill’s formidable slope, remember there is always public transit to fall back on. It’s hard to say what a taxi might cost here because no tourist seems to be charged the same amount. The city’s subway, bus and tram system (www.dpp.cz/en/index.htm) is, on the other hand, a reliable bargain. You can purchase a regular ticket (good for 75 minutes) for less than a buck or a three-day unlimited use tourist ticket for $10.

Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb

Photo credits: (1) Courtesy of Veronsky dum; (2) Courtesy of Kavárna Obecní dum; (3) ©Istockphoto/ Tom De Bruyne.

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