30 May 2014


I have wanted to visit Prague for awhile, ever since I had heard it was a great place to visit but it was probably too late since it had already been discovered by tourists as "the" place to visit.  After putting it off for a few years, and after having visited Budapest last fall, I decided this would be the year to go -- there would not be any good reason to put it off.  I hoped that the time I picked to go (late Spring) would help to avoid avoid the huge tourist crush.  I'm not sure it did.  Nevertheless, I discovered that Prague is not yet over-hyped and still worth the time and effort to visit.

My trip began with an early evening flight to Frankfurt.  After just about a full day of work, I stopped at home just long enough to pick up my luggage and head to the airport.  The usual plan was in play -- have a small meal's worth of food in the First Class Lounge and a late heavy dinner (for me) on the plane prior to sleeping most of the way to Europe.  We departed just a little late, which put us into Frankfurt about a half hour behind schedule.  We were fortunate enough to be able to disembark directly into the terminal (as opposed to a remote parking spot and a bus ride in), so that saved time, but not enough to allow for any significant time to be spent in the Lufthansa Senator Lounge.  The late-afternoon departure to Prague was on time, and with the flight lasting only an hour, I was on the ground in no time (even in that amount of time, Lufthansa still manages to serve a decently-sized snack).

I had only carry-on luggage, but before leaving the airport, i had to pick up my prepaid Prague Card.  I decided to purchase this online ahead of time to save a little transaction time and get a small discount.  Since April, the card now includes free public transport and the Airport Express bus.  This meant I didn't even have to stop at an airport ATM to get cash.  After a little wait, I boarded the next bus into Central Prague (along with several other people.  Fortunately, it's only about 35 minutes or so into town.  Inbound, the bus stops 3 times before reaching the terminus at the central railway station (Hlavani Nadrazi).  The first stop was at the transfer point to one of the subway lines.  Since my hotel was near the first central Prague stop, I stayed on.  At Namesti Republiky, I got off the bus, pulled out my phone to orient myself, and headed toward the Hotel Hilton Old Town.

Of the two Hiltons in Prague, the Old town location is best for a tourist visit.  It's at the edge of Old Town, within walking distance of many sights and on top of a subway station.

The room was nice enough, as was the Executive Lounge.  By comparison, the Hilton at Buda Castle was bigger and had a bigger Executive Lounge with more food offerings.  The Prague location had nice hours though, with the evening happy hour running until 8pm.

Check-in was fast and easy.  So after a quick stop in the room to freshen up and a visit to the lounge to fill up, I headed out on a little orientation walk and subway ride to get my bearings.  Daylight extended well into the mid-evening, so there was still plenty of time to locate anchor points for finding my way around.  In particular, I wanted to find out where I needed to be to take advantage of the free bus tour and walking tour that were part of the Prague Card benefits. Riding public transport is done on the honor system, so all I needed to do was carry around my Prague Card to ride the subways, trams, and buses.

It seems like everyone heads to the Charles Bridge, so I had to make it my first sightseeing stop for photos.  There were plenty of tourists about, I thought, and lost of the requisite souvenir shops that I had expected.  But it was still very picturesque.  As it started to get dark, I decided to meander a bit with an indirect route on my way back to my hotel.  I ended up at the Old Town Square, which was full of people enjoying a nice evening out listening to music performances.

For my first day of three full days on the ground, I decided to start with the 2-hour historic Prague buss tour.  The meeting point was a ticket booth just a couple of blocks from my hotel, right off of Namesti Republiky.  They use an open-air small bus, and there are headphones that provide narration with several languages from which to choose.  The first half of the tour covered major sights on this same side of the river Vltava (Old Town, New Town).  We then crossed the river and headed up toward the Lesser Town and then up the hill towards the Prague Castle area.  The bus stopped in the central area of Prague Castle, and we were allowed to get off.  The stop allowed for us to have 30 minutes to walk around the area (no time to go into any buildings).  Afterwards, we drove back across the river and were let out at the edge of Old Town Square.

Next up, I wanted to take advantage of the free 1-hour boat tour.  While the Prague Card booklet said that tickets needed to be obtained at a ticket booth near Wenceslas Square, the people at the booth redirected me to the dock where the boat would depart from.

The boat didn't cover a lot of distance in an hour, but it was still very scenic.  From the northern edge of the older part of town, the boat went under the Charles Bridge, turned around and then went back to the starting point, passing under several bridges and near both shores.

Afterwards, I strolled back to the hotel, taking in more of the sights.

At the hotel, I rested up a bit and then got ready for dinner at one of the two Michelin-starred restaurants in Prague.  The restaurant I chose was a molecular gastronomy restaurant, presenting Czech cuisine using modernist techniques for preparation and presentation.  I also stayed in because a storm front passed though that afternoon, with lots of wind, rain and lightening.  Fortunately, it was over by the time I had to walk out to dinner.

To read my full write-up of my dining experience at Le Degustation, click here.

For my seconds day, with chances of rain still in the forecast, I decided to start off with activities focused indoors.  First on the agenda was a return to Prague Castle and its many buildings. The #% tram took me across the river, and then the #22 tram took me up the hill (it is possible to walk up as well via stairs. I had free entry to the Old Royal Palace, St. Vitus Cathedral, the Golden Lane and the Basilica of St. George.  I also purchased a discounted ticket to the St. Vitus Treasury exhibition.

The stained glass windows were amazing and
 I am surprised at how well this photo came out.

Afterwards, I took the tram back down the hill and through the Lesser Town until I reached the funicular stop.  The funicular is part of the public transit system, so the Prague Card worked to ride it.  The funicular takes you up Petrin Hill where, amongst other buildings, is a reduced scale replica of the Eiffel Tower.  The Prague Card gets you free admittance to the tower to take the stairs up to the observation platforms (about 200 steps).  The elevator is an additional charge.

After all the stair-climbing, it was time for a break back at the hotel.  Then it was on to the City of Prague Museum (free admission with Prague Card).  I always like these types of places because they provide a history of the city, from before its founding to the present day.  This particular museum also housed a model of the city from the 19th Century entirely made of paper.

Afterwards, I went back to the hotel for some food and drink and to wait for the sun to go down.  My plan was to head back to Prague Castle for some nighttime photos.  I was not disappointed with the results.


For my third and final full day, I had planned to start out by taking the 3-hour walking tour.  But when I went to the designated booth to sign up, they told me that there was a mistake in the Prague Card booklet and that the walking tour was not included.  I was a bit disappointed, but I moved on quickly, as there was plenty that I could do on my own.

My stops included a trek up the Powder Tower (Gothic tower marking the entrance to Old Town), Old Town Hall Tower, Old Town Hall chambers, and watching the very old Astronomical Clock strike the top of the hour, as well as visit to the New National Building Museum (the impressive Old Building is currently undergoing renovation) and the old Jewish section.

The Old Town Hall chambers are visited by guided tour only, with English tours given at designated times.  The visit to the Tower is a separate entry, but both are covered by the Prague Card.

This is the oldest working astronomical clock in Europe.  At the top of the hour, the Apostles make their appearance above the mechanisms.

Old town Square

The Hilton Old Town from the Tower

The Apostles up close

The rooms underneath the Old Town Hall were actually dwellings at street level in olden times

A walk across the whole Charles Bridge

A section of the Jewish Cemetery
Visits to nearby synagogue buildings are included with the ticket,

The Old building of the National Museum

For the journey home, I started with a ride on the Airport Express bus back to the airport.  I walked over to the main train station since that was the only stop in Central Prague for pickup.  The bus was pretty crowded, but I still managed to get a seat for the half-hour ride.  I checked in via my phone using the Lufthansa app to get mobile boarding passes for both my flight to Frankfurt on Lufthansa and the connecting flight on United to SFO.  We had a slight delay departing Prague Airport due to thunderstorms at FRA.  We arrived about a half hour late, but I had a 2 hour and 45 minute layover buffer originally.  But even on just an hour flight, Lufthansa served breakfast on the flight.

After a stop at Passport Control and the Lufthansa Senator Lounge, I headed back to SFO.

I enjoyed my visit to Prague.  It's hard not to compare Prague to Budapest with their similar geography -- a castle hill on one side of the river and several bridges connecting it to the other, bigger section of the populated area.  Prague is a little bigger and maybe a bit more of the tourist infrastructure built out.  Prague has more tourists passing though it, I think. But while Budapest may have stunning buildings like the Parliament Building, Prague has a bigger section of older architecture mostly in the Baroque style (with some Gothic thrown in), making it a bit more picturesque overall.  Prague is a little more expensive on the tourist-related costs, but the food costs were still reasonable when compared to other major European cities.  While Prague is not as grand as Vienna, it is more casual and maybe a little edgier.  It feels more lived-in, which was nice.  Finally, the Czech drivers seem to be the most courteous to pedestrians than I have ever encountered in any European city, reminding me of how it use to be in California.

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