Top Experiences in Prague
Mozart is a civic obsession, so you can’t leave Prague without hearing his music. The obvious choice is to attend an opera at the opulent Estates Theatre, where Don Giovanni (personally conducted by the maestro) premiered to an appreciative audience in 1787. Anyone who fears that opera may be a bit uppity can enjoy a more accessible performance—albeit with some strings attached—at the National Marionette Theatre. Tickets will cost anywhere from 290 Kč to 1,100 Kč at the former, about 600 Kč at the latter.
The king of beers in this part of the globe isn’t Budweiser—though Czech Budvar runs a close second—but Plzeňský Prazdroj (aka Pilsner Urquell). The word prazdroj means "source," and you can go straight to that source by visiting the legendary brewery complex and adjacent brewery-themed museum in Plzeň, 55 miles southwest of Prague. The world-renowned pale lager was invented here in 1842. One taste and you’ll understand why Czechs have an old proverb that goes, "Where beer is brewed, life is good."
A different kind of beverage is the drink du jour in Karlovy Vary. Accidentally discovered by Emperor Charles IV in the 1300s, the hot springs here provide water for sipping as well as spa-ing—which explains why most folks tote porcelain cups that they fill for free at thermal fountains. You can buy your own for a few bucks (the unique little handle that doubles as a straw makes it a fun spa souvenir). Even without one, though, you will remember the experience. The curative water’s sulfuric taste is unforgettably awful.
The Czech Republic is synonymous with fine cut crystal, and purists contend that the very best is created by Moser, a glassmaker that has been operating in Karlovy Vary since 1857. Moser also has two Prague locations: the flagship store at Na Příkopě 12 (itself a work of art) and a second shop on Old Town Square. Looking for something more modern? Function coupled with contemporary form makes Artěl, also in Old Town, a sound choice. Wherever you shop, be sure that pieces bear an official "Bohemia Crystal" sticker.
Paging all literature lovers! Czech-born author and existentialist poster boy Franz Kafka lived out his life in Prague, and retracing his footsteps offers a surprisingly comprehensive city tour. Former homes, for example, include buildings on Old Town Square and in Prague Castle (Dům U Minuty and 22 Golden Lane respectively). A suitably surreal bronze statue of him stands in the Jewish Quarter, where he worshipped; plus, there’s a whole Kafka museum in Malá Strana. Organized Kafka walks are also broadly touted.
Explore the Vltava River
The Vltava River (this country’s longest) slices through Prague, offering ample on-the-water opportunities in the process. That’s a good thing, because some people like standard-issue outings on big sightseeing vessels and some prefer a bit more quirkiness. Those who fall into the second category may sign on with Prague-Venice Cruises and tool around in a little 19th century–style canal boat. If you’re eager to break free entirely and paddle your own rowboat, there are several waterfront rental companies that can set you up.
Bordering Germany and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, Southern Bohemia long held a strategically important position that needed to be defended with a series of fortifications. Today that makes it a popular locale among castle connoisseurs. If you can see only one, make it Hrad Krumlov, which, in Czech terms, is second only in size to Pražský Hrad in Prague. Positioned high above the fairy-tale town of Český Krumlov, this fanciful castle comes complete with a tower, a dungeon, and a moat.
Christmas markets, which generally start four Saturdays before Christmas Eve and run daily until New Year’s, are hugely popular in Prague. One well-stocked market sets up on Wenceslas Square (named for the "good king" of carol fame). But Old Town Square’s wins the "most festive" prize, because St. Nick appears on the afternoon of December 5 to separate the naughty children from the nice. After stocking up on crafts, carp, and cups of mulled wine, revelers return to the square December 24 for a candlelit evening mass.
Spring International Music Festival
Since 1946 the Prague Spring International Music Festival has been the most noteworthy event on the Czech cultural calendar. Opening with a tribute to native composer Bedřich Smetana on May 12 (the anniversary of his death), it features three weeks of A-list performances. Musicians gather in concert halls and churches to play from the entire classical repertoire; hence the demand for tickets is high. So, too, are some of the ticket prices. The upside is that others are affordable and, on occasion, available the day of.
This country’s old-school comfort food is notoriously rich. On cool evenings, however, it’s hard to beat sustaining, stick-to-your-ribs dishes like vepřo-knedlo-zelo (a fatty roast pork and cabbage concoction served with dumplings) or vepřový řízek (a variation on schnitzel) with crisp deep-fried potato pancakes on the side. Cap your meal with a crepe-style palačinky or fruit-filled ovocné knedlíky. If you’re concerned about packing on pounds, just remind yourself that eating heavy food here is all part of the cultural experience.
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