Few cities in the world feel more like a fantasy-come-to-life than Prague, finds writer and photographer, Chris Wallace. He shares an insider's guide after months of scouring the Czech capital's best restaurants, shops and hidden spots.
BY CHRIS WALLACE | CABANA TRAVEL | 21 DECEMBER 2023
Few cities in the world feel more like a fantasy-come-to-life than Prague. Especially this time of year, with the winter snow frosting the halos of the saints on the Charles bridge, and the light from the streetlamps sparkling on the cobblestones, Prague feels like a setting for something out of the Grimms’ tales.
That magic has made the Czech capital a favorite location for the film industry looking to lean on its mystique and majesty. But the real culture and history is equally mighty, from the medieval court of King Charles and the astronomical breakthroughs of Tyco Brahe and Johannes Kepler, to Franz Kafka and the great Milan Kundera.
Where to stay
The Four Seasons: Prague is not short of great luxury franchise hotels, but it's hard to beat the location of the Four Seasons, at the southern foot of the Charles bridge. The terrace on the Vltava is a wonderful place to start or end the day.
The Julius: In the old town, near what might be called the museum district, there are a great many polished boutique (Boho Hotel, Cube Hotel) and classic-style hotels (The Andaz), aimed to serve both traveling professionals and holiday makers. If you are looking for a bit more independence — or are, say, an actor in town shooting a movie for a couple of months — the Julius is a sort of modern hospitality proposition with self-check in and communal kitchens, dining areas and workspaces.
The Grand Mark: Sometimes, though, you just want to go the full Poirot, and stay at a classically luxurious five-star hotel. The baroque-style Grand Mark, in a former palace downtown, is the best iteration of that in Prague.
Where to Eat
Café Savoy: Prague's cafés don’t get the fanfare of their counterparts in, say, Vienna, but they are pretty spectacular, and make for a fabulous window into the city’s history. The Café Savoy, in a former recruiting office for the police, is a newly built belle epoque and art nouveau fantasia (if you don’t mind queueing for a seat).
The Grand Café Orient: The Grand Café Orient, on the other hand, is a down-to-the-details recreation of a pre-secession era café on the site where it was first established in the 1910s (in a building beautifully called The Black Madonna). If a full café society tour is in order, the wildly baroque Café Imperial and Café Louvre are also worth a visit.
Kantyna: The relaxed atmosphere makes Kantyna an easy go-to for great Czech fare. The highlight is the steak, which you select and see cooked over an open fire.
Nase Maso: Another favorite for meat lovers, Nase Maso makes one of the most beloved hamburders I know of. Ditto their pastrami and Czech ham sandwiches.
Czech Slovak Restaurant: There is a pretty hearty community of forward-looking chefs in Prague, some playing with tasting menus and new imaginings of classic Czech dishes. The rather deliberately named Czech Slovak restaurant is among the best - I liked the unfussiness of the adjoining foodery (and their schnapps).
Bokovka: A wine club and shop tucked away in a semi-secret arcaded courtyard. Apart from the phenomenal selections of wines (and cheeses), the unfussy design, in perfectly patinated surrounds, may make Bokovka one of the best wine bars in Europe.
Alma: This wine bar, café, restaurant, and all-round neighborhood gathering spot, would not be out of place in Paris, Athens or Barcelona. In a space that housed an arthouse cinema up until the 1960s, the vibe is very warm (they’ll tell you Alma comes from the Latin for 'caring') and the natural wines, flowing.
Lokal: The best universally understood articulation of traditional Czech fare: Prague ham with creamy horseradish; unpasteurized beer; goulash with sausages; black pudding with sauerkraut. And of course, absinthe. It is very hard to go wrong.
Where to Shop
Vintage shopping: Apart from everything else, Prague might even be worth a visit just for the vintage stores alone. BOHO Vintage concept store, Bohemian Vintage, Prague Thrift, The Vintage Prague, Lula Vintage… it is a real cornucopia. If you only have time for one, maybe Bohemian Retro is the way to go.
Ones Prague: Great for concept stores, and showrooms for local designers, jewelers, and craftspeople of every stripe, Ones is a shoppable apartment, staged as a living space in which everything — from clothing garments to jewelry to beauty products, table top ceramics, glassware, and lighting — is available for sale.
The Globe Bookstore Prague: This book store has always had an enormous expat community, and a regular tide of visitors and students, many of whom speak English. Maybe because of that it has incredible English language bookstores, the best of which is probably The Globe (oddly, another is called Shakespeare) — which functions also as a kind of community hub and gathering point.
What to See & Do
Kafka Museum: What is Prague without Kafka, and vice versa? Maybe the most singular, sui generis - and somehow most emblematic - writer of the 20th century lived his whole life here. The collection of manuscripts, diaries, and letters on display make it a great place to commune with the spirit of the writer.
Prague Castle: This may just be the largest ancient castle (construction was begun in 870) in the world. It is also the official office of the president of the Czech republic, and open to you and me. The original royal residence, which was built out of wood, was subsequently joined by great gothic cathedrals and stone palaces in various stages, and all of them open to visits or tours. The Prague Castle complex is like a city unto itself, and an incredible picture of medieval times.
Astronomical Clock: But so many of these sorts of things still exist in Prague. See, for example, the Astronomical Clock, on the Old Town Hall, which dates back to 1410 (making it the oldest still-working clock of its kind). There is a whole fun capsule history of science (at a time when astronomy and astrology were not separate disciplines) and design and patronage in its many rings.
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Chris Wallace is a US-based writer and photographer, and the author of the recent biography, Twentieth-Century Man: The Wild Life of Peter Beard | Follow Chris on Instagram: @chriswallace4
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