The narrow streets were packed with pedestrians. Not surprising for Prague, even in November. Throughout the year this bustling city that never seems to sleep maintains its fasciation for visitors young and old.
This civilized European city was a fitting location to cap off a Danube river cruise on Ama Waterways that had started in Budapest. River cruises can’t sail here so we did an overland bus transfer for a three-night stay in the famed Czech capital that has blossomed since the fall of Communism.
About 50 of the 110 passengers who had been on the cruise opted to take the post-cruise extension that was accompanied by Rade, who had been our affable cruise director on the AmaCerto. He was joined by local guides to lead the daily optional tours that were included in our stay at the Prague Hilton at the edge of the old city.
The city was setting up for the Christmas markets, but the weather was remarkably mild. Mid-November turned out to be a quite comfortable time to see this classic city in the way it was meant to be seen: on foot.
Here are five intriguing options to avoid the crowds:
Book a concert
There are many churches and concert halls that offer chamber music or opera performances and I found it’s a good strategy to buy a ticket for the performances at 5 or 6 p.m. if you buy the ticket earlier in the day to avoid lines before the performance. They tend to be rush seating and doors open about half an hour in advance of the concert, so that’s the time to arrive to have a choice of seats with good views.
My recommendation: The acoustics and surroundings are amazing at the concerts in the Baroque style, eighteenth century Mirror Chapel of the Klementinum. It’s part of a huge complex of academic buildings near the Charles Bridge in the Old Town. Information on booking performances on line is at Pragueexperience.com.
Meet the Lobkowicz Family
I found the Lobkowicz Palace a quiet and remarkable part of the Prague Castle complex. A tour is a stunning and a remarkable look at an aristocratic family’s fortunes over centuries. Self-paced audio tours are provided on head-sets that are part of the admission price. Narrations for attractions in each room are done by current members of the family that was so rich it owned five palaces in the Czech Republic.
They had to defend their holdings against usurpers in any number of political upheavals over the centuries and were finally stripped of everything by the Communist regime in the twentieth century. Their successful legal battles to finally take back ownership of the palace and other houses in 2002 was only the start. They’re still reclaiming the furnishings and artworks.
What they had to do makes a fascinating accompaniment to tours of rooms filled with family treasures that include portraits by Canaletto, Brueghel the Elder and Velasquez and a musical instrument collection that includes musical scores with annotations by Mozart.
There are concerts in a grand hall here at lunch hour and you can book one in advance. Just below the walls here are the Palace gardens, which are a quiet retreat as well, but only open in the warmer months.
Jump off the Charles Bridge
Nothing is quite as hectic as the crowd crossing the famous Charles Bridge. A lot of musicians and mimes and such create bottlenecks and of course the risk of pickpockets, so be wary. But it’s also a place where spontaneous parties happen. When I was there an organ grinder inspired an impromptu dance by teens on the bridge.
One of the most amazing attractions is the area around the bridge where any number of movies have been filmed.
Under the bridge there is the Kampa Island, which is also accessible from the bridge through the staircase. There are streets that look straight out of the eighteenth century which is why the areas around the bridge as so popular with film makers, who get a tax break for filming in the Czech Republic.
You’ve seen it in films raging from Mission: Impossible to Shanghai Nights. Wandering around the streets you can imagine you’re back in the days of horse-drawn carriages and powdered wigs.
Do it in the dark
There’s a calm that settles over the city after the day trippers go home or settle in for a few beers before thinking about dinner. It’s a time when many claim ghosts can be seen in the dark lanes and church belfries. One thing is obvious, though, there’s more room on the streets.
The starting point of any tour is Old Town Square. With its amazingly complicated Astronomical Clock that was first installed in 1410. It’s the oldest town clock still working anywhere, although so much of it has been rebuilt and improved so many times over the centuries that very little is original. There are always crowds on the square when the clock gets close to striking the hour to see the show the figures put on. I’ve found that it’s much easier to get a good spot after sunset.
The four figures flanking the clock represent things considered sinful or fearful. There’s Vanity, represented by a figure admiring himself in a mirror. Greed is represented by a miser holding a bag of money. Another figure represents frivolity and a skeleton represents death. As the skeleton rings the bell on the hour, all the other figures shake their heads, side to side, signifying their unwillingness to go. Statues of the 12 Apostles also appear at the doorways above the clock on the hour.
Have a beer and watch how it’s brewed
The Czechs drink more beer per capita than any other nationality—downing about 43 gallons per capita a year. There’s good reason of course, because even the big mass-produced brands use local hops and grains that make the flavors uniquely tasty.
A growing number of independent craft brew pubs let you watch the brewing in process while you drink the result and have a comforting meal. ll get in a crowded patio on the square, but some of the cellars are in buildings that hare more than 500 years old.
After a couple of local pints (and maybe an Absinthe as a nightcap) you’ll be ready to head back for a good night’s sleep and a chance to check out new corners of Prague the next day.