Virtuoso Life May 2018 See Prague in Four Neighborhoods

See Prague in Four Neighborhoods

A bird’s eye view of Prague. 
A bird’s eye view of Prague. 
Photo by Stefan Fuertbauer
You need to get lost at least once in Prague. Only then does the Czech capital’s web of ancient streets turn full labyrinth and glow with an energy that makes alchemists, golems, and ghosts of headless Templars seem ready to step from the shadows. Scanning street corners and alleys for a familiar landmark draws your attention to more than a thousand years of rich architecture – Romanesque, medieval, baroque, art nouveau, deco, cubist – that somehow survived centuries of wars and revolutions.  

“It’s fascinating to imagine how many generations have walked through the same door and up the same steps to houses, churches, and towers,” says Jana Frintova, owner of Patriot Travel, Virtuoso’s Prague-based tour connection, who works with travel advisors on custom itineraries throughout central Europe. The city’s cost of living, excellent public transport, and liberal attitude lure numerous travelers, as well as expats like me – OK, the omnipresent beer gardens and a thriving social scene are pretty strong draws too.

For its 1.3 million residents, the tourist staples of Old Town, Mala Strana, and the Castle District are just postcard introductions to Prague. Surrounding neighborhoods such as Holesovice and Vinohrady reveal a more contemporary culture brimming with nouveau-Czech chefs, brewmasters, artists, fashion designers, and even circus performers, all of whom channel the city’s long-standing love of the avant-garde. Novelist and native son Franz Kafka got it right when he famously wrote in a 1902 letter to a friend, “Prague never lets you go ... this dear little mother has sharp claws.” Here’s to digging in.
Guarding Prague Castle.
Guarding Prague Castle.
Photo by Stefan Fuertbauer
Prague Castle/Mala Strana
First time visitors tend to fall for Prague with their introduction to Mala Strana. Set on the Vltava River’s west bank, the elegant and often quiet neighborhood may lack the in-your-face grandeur of Prague Castle or sections of the Old Town, but every stone, brick, and windowpane evokes romance, as if the city is sweeping you into its arms for a dip. Photographers with tripods abound, especially early, when the morning mist mingles with the rising sun’s rays, and late at night, as they capture the glow of antique gas streetlamps.

“This is one of the favorite parts of the city for both tourists and locals,” Frintova says, “with lots of parks, including some, like Vrtba Garden, hidden inside blocks of houses.” Enter Mala Strana through the western gate of the 660-year-old Charles Bridge and follow its streets’ twists and curves from one palace, abbey, and garden to another. Sixteenth-century Wallenstein Garden, a short walk north of the Charles Bridge, is a favorite for its albino peacocks, giant carp and koi pond, geometric hedges, and bronzes of Greek heroes. At its south end, artificial stalactites drip down a wall, forming grotesque faces, before wrapping around an owlery.

The majority of tourists stick to the “Royal Route,” which starts at Republic Square and leads west up the long, mostly straight slope to Prague Castle. Though crowded, the castle is a city highlight everyone should see, especially Saint Vitus Cathedral, where Czech kings and queens were crowned for seven centuries. The church houses the Bohemian crown jewels, locked away in a special chamber accessed via the amethyst-, jasper-, and gold-bedecked chapel of Saint Wenceslas, the spiritual founder of the Czech state. Don’t leave without climbing the bell tower, a workout that rewards with one of the city’s best views.

From the castle, follow Novy Svet, a peaceful cobblestoned street that winds through an almost perfectly preserved eighteenth-century neighborhood, where cannonballs from the Prussian siege of 1757 are still lodged in several buildings. This roundabout route a few blocks off the tourist track leads to the district’s other highlight, Strahov Monastery, home to a Catholic order since 1140. Strahov’s library remains its star attraction, with ornate frescoed and stucco ceilings and rooms connected by an antique cabinet of curiosities – stuffed dodo bird included.
Strahov Monastery’s library.
Strahov Monastery’s library.
Photo by Stefan Fuertbauer
Old and New Towns
East of the River, the Old and New towns are filled with “monuments built to demonstrate power, such as the Powder Tower or the Estates Theatre,” says Vlastimil Svaty, owner of Art & Food Had. “They take you back to the time of emperors.” At the heart is Old Town Square, home to Prague’s famed astronomical clock, which struck its first chimes in 1410. Timing is everything here: On the hour, a skeleton rings a bell to announce the Twelve Apostles’ procession through its cuckoo-clock-style doors. (The clock was recently stopped for restoration, but should start ticking away again by late summer.)

From the clock tower, put the map away and venture down the narrow streets that extend in every direction. Those heading south and east eventually flow to Wenceslas Square, a long, Parisian-style boulevard that slopes gently up to the famous statue of Saint Wenceslas astride his warhorse and the epicenter of Prague’s nightlife. For a one-stop evening out, the art nouveau Lucerna Palace draws a lively crowd to its restaurants, cafés, dance club, concert hall, and vintage cinema – as well as artist David Cerny’s tongue-in-cheek take on Saint Wenceslas astride the belly of his upside-down steed, suspended from its central dome.
Art & Food Had.
Art & Food Had.
Photo by Stefan Fuertbauer
Walking Wenceslas Square.
Walking Wenceslas Square.
Photo by Stefan Fuertbauer
Holesovice
North of the Vltava, the once industrial Holesovice neighborhood stood largely derelict and forgotten until floods inundated it in 2002. Landowners responded with renovations that attracted artists and entrepreneurs, who transformed it into one of the city’s coolest addresses. Holesovice Market, a huge nineteenth-century former slaughterhouse, anchors Holesovice’s southern border on the river with a hodge-podge of farmers’ and flea markets, high- and low-end restaurants, and art studios. One standout is Jatka78, where members of Cirk La Putyka perform an inspired combination of acrobatics, contemporary dance, puppetry, concert, and sport.

A few blocks west of Vltavska metro station, which essentially splits the district
in two, fill an afternoon at Veverkova Street’s buzzing cafés, bookshops, fashion boutiques, and showrooms for many of the city’s brightest young designers. Three favorites: Recycle Vintage Store’s upcycled jackets, sweaters, and T-shirts; Page Five, a one-room bookstore and publisher specializing in art books and original prints; and the showroom of world-renowned furniture designer Helena Darbujanova.
Holesovice Market.
Holesovice Market.
Photo by Stefan Fuertbauer
Vinohrady
Well-to-do prefessionals and expats favor Vinohrady, an elegant, upscale neighborhood named for the vineyards that once covered the slopes east of Old Town, which were later replanted with orchards and rose gardens. The district coalesces around two major squares: Namesti Miru (Peace Square) on its western side and Jiri z Podebrad (or “J-Z-P” as many call it) to the east, where Vinohrady merges with the traditionally blue-collar Zizkov neighborhood. Rapid gentrification, complete with artisanal doughnuts, wine bars, and design shops, makes it hard to distinguish the two. For classy French brunches, wait in line at Le Caveau Bakery on the north side of J-Z-P, while on its west side, Cafefin adds a Vietnamese flavor. From Wednesday to Saturday, the square hosts one of the city’s best farmers’ markets, with live musicians on weekends.

Among Vinohrady’s abundant green spaces and parks, the most popular by far is Riegrovy Sady, which comes alive during happy hour. Join the locals picnicking on the lawn, playing games, and sipping pints in the city’s largest beer garden. The northwest slope offers the best sunset views of Prague and fills daily for the spectacle.
Vinohrady Theatre.
Vinohrady Theatre.
Photo by Stefan Fuertbauer
Peace Square’s Church of Saint Ludmila.
Peace Square’s Church of Saint Ludmila.
Photo by Stefan Fuertbauer
Stay: 
Designer Olga Polizzi helped transform the thirteenth-century Saint Thomas monastery and its historic buildings between Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge into the 101-room Augustine hotel. Its interior garden (with a restaurant and the Refectory bar) is one of the city’s best-kept secrets and the only place you’ll find the dark, slightly sweet Saint Thomas beer, which craft brewer Matuska makes exclusively for the hotel according to the monks’ original recipe.

The 99-room Mandarin Oriental, Prague blends into the narrow lanes of a quiet section of Mala Strana. Step through the gate, however, and you’ll find a vibrant, sleekly designed hotel tastefully integrated into the medieval ruins of a Dominican monastery, portions of which are still visible beneath glass in the spa.

Perched on the east riverbank beside the Charles Bridge, the 157-room Four Seasons Hotel Prague provides impressive views of the Castle District across the river, particularly from its restaurant. After city explorations, refresh yourself in its Ava Spa with treatments inspired by the country’s famous spa towns of Karlovy Vary, Marianske Lazne, and Teplice.

Cruise:
On Viking River Cruises’ ten-day trip between Berlin and Prague, spend five days cruising the Elbe aboard the 98-passenger Astrild before wrapping up with three days in the Czech capital. Along with guided sightseeing, cruisers also receive special access to the sixteenth-century Lobkowicz Palace at Prague Castle to view one of the country’s most important art collections.
Old Town Square’s fourteenth-century Tyn Church.
Old Town Square’s fourteenth-century Tyn Church.
Photo by Stefan Fuertbauer

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