A friend and I spent a few nights the other week in Prague, Czech Republic.
I’d heard endless good things about Prague. Truly, I don’t know a person who has not liked Prague, with the most common adjective being "dreamy." It’s clear why: the main old town square is a remarkable sight. Standing in the middle, to your right are enormous facades and old buildings; to your left is the Astronomical Clock. Leave the square, wind your way through cobble stone streets and you’re soon at the Charles Bridge. The bridge, especially at night as pictured above, is stunning. And the views of the city from the bridge are second-to-none. Walk across the bridge and continue up the hill and you see Prague Castle, a soaring, amazing architectural construction, with stone lions jumping out the windows.
We went to the Kafka museum after the Castle — it’s very well done. By reading some of Kafka’s diary entries it’s clear that he was absolutely obsessed with writing. He couldn’t do anything else. A sign of genius. (I read this set of Kafka stories beforehand to get oriented. A fine introduction to his work.)
Czech food is heavy (dark meat, yummy thick bread dumplings, beer) but good. Because my friend had a somewhat weak Italian stomach — sorry Massimo, couldn’t resist — we made a couple McDonald’s runs along the way, and stumbled upon the McWalk. The McWalk is like a drive-through window except it’s a walk-through. Why someone would use the McWalk instead of walking in the front door is beyond me. Apparently, there are only two McDonald’s McWalk windows in the world: Prague and Haifa, Israel. See my travel blog for more. Also – in McDonald’s they charge for ketchup!
The Soviet influence remains. I met a business professor in Prague who told me that many officials in the current government are there because of the old communist power structure. The communist ideology still has a grip on the national psyche, he told me, and this is problematic on many fronts including efforts to stimulate entrepreneurship.
We had bad weather for our visit, and weather always makes a difference. This probably contributes to why I feel like Prague is a little overrated. Its beauty is stunning, but many parts of Western Europe have beautiful old towns, churches which inspire, cute hole-in-the-wall shops, etc etc. I’m guessing that 10 years ago, Prague was a hidden gem for Western Europe tourists willing to venture a little more east. It’s changed big time. Charles Bridge teems with tourists every hour of every day. The whole old town is packed with foreigners, and the cheesy shops selling fake tourist trinkets line virtually every street. Sure, you can avoid the tourists and explore new town (which Massimo and I did and it was well worth it). But the fact remains: Prague is now a tier two tourist destination in Europe (if tier one is Rome, Paris, and London), drawing visitors from all over Europe, America, and Asia. To me, Kiev, Ukraine has more charm and is less crowded than Prague, and only slightly less beautiful.
The Bottom Line: Prague is well worth your time as something that has a bit more Eastern European vibe. But it’s no longer off the beaten path and therefore contains all the annoyances of other top European tourist destinations.
6 comments on “Impressions of Prague, Czech Republic”
Just to answer my rhetorically question on the McWalk — since it is open 18 hours a day, and presumably during hours when the rest of the store is not, I can see why people would use it during those off-hours.
One of my absolute favorite books is “Prague” by Arthur Phillips. The catch is, it’s not about Prague at all — it’s about Budapest in the early 1990s, which was the “new” Prague [then] after Prague had become saturated with ex-pats and tourists.
“Prague” is just excellent because Arthur actually WAS an ex-pat in Budapest in the ’90s, so all the places the characters spent time were real. This made my own trip to Budapest almost magical, as I had a loving familiarity with the city even though I had never set foot there before.
That book just made me crave my own “Prague” and I look forward to discovering it one day soon. (For the record, Budapest is lovely, and I would happily live there for awhile, but now that it has adopted the Euro, it’s going downhill fast.)
When I visited Prague in 1999, it felt much the same way. Partly I think it’s just a personality quirk because I don’t drink or eat meat. Those appeals of Prague just don’t grab me. But it still felt very touristy then. Charles Bridge was jammed and had vendors selling worthless trinkets. So, while I enjoyed Prague, I much prefer a “lesser” city like Krakow.
The Prague subway was one of the more interesting subways I’ve experienced, though. It’s the only system where I had to rely on reading the names of the stops to know that I’d arrived at my destination. Listening to the spoken destination name didn’t match the 2 days of “immersion” into the language. And I found the stations to be much more interesting than most subway stations.
A ‘5K Fun Run’ in Prague was the highlight of my 2003 visit. When the Romanian friend I was traveling with suggested we do the run, I exclaimed “But I only have jeans and sandals, how can I do a run?”
“But you get a free T-shirt if you come.” she replied. There was no arguing.
So there we were at the castle across the Charles bridge, lined up at the starting line. I was wearing jeans. She wore a skirt. The gun fired, and the hundreds of runners took off, leaving being a few elderly couples and us. We began walking.
We walked casually along the course, weaving through the heart of downtown. The hoards of usual tourists could be seen on other side of the ropes that marked the course, irritated at being kept back. We had the street to ourselves! We moved slowly; casually talking with the elderly couples, taking pictures, and stopping every half kilometer for drinks and snacks at the rest stops.
After 5K we came to the finish line, where we received a free lunch and watched an amazing acrobatic show. One of my favorite travel memories!
As your loyal Czech reader I feel compelled to comment.
You’re pretty much spot on with your assessment of the city. The key is to get out of the tourist-infested centre.
Yes, Budapest used to be “New Prague”. Now that title is claimed by Kraków and Lvov (western Ukraine) is hailed as the “next New Prague.”
Hope to see you next time you’re in Europe!
There is another McDonalds McWalk just next to my flat, in the City of London. So I guess its more than 2 in the world.
BTW: I am originally from the Czech Republic and your article is very fine. What is important though, next time you are in the Czech, to visit the countryside – you will see it is extremely different from Prague and might give you a more precise view on the whole country.
I think your note about entrepreneurship is very important. Being entrepreneur in the Czech Republic is actually considered almost a negative career path. In Czech minds “entrepreneur” is somebody who is willing to do anything for the profit. I guess it just is a consequence of wild privatisation in early 90’s.