Prague: land of 10,000 spires; home of all foods thrown into a frying pan (all delicious, of course); and place where “la Vie Boheme” traces its roots. Sounds a lot like Disneyland, am I right? Minus a couple thousand years of war, violence, persecution, and oppression.
Prague felt like a time warp. I don’t even want to know how much effort it took to preserve flawless architecture this old. Excluding the thousands of tourists that wandered Prague’s cobblestone streets (I keep harping upon the Disneyland motif for a reason…honestly, there were more tourists than locals), I found myself transported to a medieval fairytale. Maybe coming directly from Berlin left this kind of impact. I guess I had adjusted to city life so much that being able to get around a place without having to get on a metro for 15 minutes made the city so authentically antiquated.
Our first day in Prague began with a walking tour from anyone on a budget’s top pick: Sandeman’s. Basically, Sandeman’s prides itself on leading high quality, budget-friendly city tours. You don’t pay up front. You pay after your tour is done, and there is no price to the tour. You pay what you want. Sounds like a steal. And our tour (and hilarious half-German tour guide) was excellent. The tour began in Old Town, ventured into New Town (the more modern part of Prague), and ended in the Jewish Quarter–which today is a high-end shopping district. It was absolutely a great idea to start our 3-day excursion in Prague with this walking tour. Not only did provide us with the historical context we wanted before seeing more of the attractions, but also it left us with a dying curiosity to learn more about some of the spots we visited during the tour. Because it was only a walking tour, we did not in fact enter any of the churches, museums, or monuments we passed. Which ended being alright because we got to prioritize the sights we wanted to see most later on in our trip.
If you’re on the kind of budget that forces you to settle for budget-friendly tours, fear not. Prague is definitely the city for you. Though a member of European Union, the Czech Republic maintains its national currency: the Czech Koruna. With an exchange rate of 20 to 1 U.S. Dollar, Prague is the most affordable city I’ve visited in Europe. For about the equivalent of 8 dollars, you can go to a nice restaurant, order a pint of beer, and a nicely-portioned entree. Speaking of food, it was a challenge to come by something unappetizing. Fortunately, our hostel was located in Lesser Town, which is crowded with locals instead of tourists. And the local restaurants had the most delicious goulash (meat stew). Plus, they didn’t charge a fortune like many tourist-trap restaurants in Old Town. But even in Wenceslas Square in New Town, street venders selling Smažený sýr (a Czech delicacy that literally translates to “fried cheese”) will charge you $1.50 at most. Imagine a piece of cheese fried like a chicken burger would be, then stuffed in between two pieces of bread. You’ve got yourself a Smažený. Now I know why studying abroad in Prague is a dangerous idea. If only the rest of Europe could be as cheap…well, a kid’s gotta dream.
My favorite attraction in Prague was, hands-down, the observatory on Petrin Hill, located in Prague’s Lesser Town (just on the other side of the Charles Bridge from Old Town). A short tram ride brings you to the top of the hill. You cannot miss this Eiffel Tower-looking structure on the hill. After climbing this observatory (probably out of breath and sweating), you get the most beautiful view of Prague, and it makes all the panting worth it. On a sunny day, you can see miles into the Czech countryside, for an incredible view of the rolling hills of rural Czech Republic. Though the observatory looks like an Eiffel Tower rip-off, I enjoyed this view more than I enjoyed the view on top of the the Eiffel Tower. Czech replication = 1; French ingenuity = 0.
What made Prague so different from other incredibly old European cities (I couldn’t help but think about Bruges while venturing through Prague) is that a livable city has developed around these preserved sites. Though tourists storm through Prague at all times of the year, offices and modern buildings have popped up around this Disneyland-like place. Unlike Bruges, Prague felt preserved for history’s sake, not to attract flocks of tourists. And that’s what makes it my favorite city in Europe.