Discovering Prague for the first time, ELENI PHILIPPOU is enchanted by the old, new and mysterious
Right at the heart of Europe, a Bohemian gem awaits. On a crisp winter morning, I found myself weaving through Prague’s cobblestone streets, armed with just three days to unravel the city’s mysteries. Prague, the Heart of Europe, beckoned with promises of its storied castle grounds, astronomical clock, and its golden brews beneath towering spires.
Among the enchanting alleys and lively squares, the expected landmarks were easy to find. In the Old Town square, which a first-time visitor will surely be led to unconsciously, is the celestial marvel of the Astronomical Clock. Every hour, when the clock strikes, crowds gather to watch the figure parade of the Apostles. A short – and free – sight not to miss.
Further into the old town, quite large but easy to explore on foot, is the National Library, housing a staggering six million documents (nearly). Its interior baroque elegance, antique furnishings and historic woodwork is a dreamy 16th century haven for lovers of architecture and books.
Almost as impressive the Book Tower in the Municipal Library offers a consolation prize. An Instagrammable spot, the tower is a mirage of books at the library’s entrance, with a mirror effect making it seem infinite. A tip from fellow travellers led me to a side door, bypassing the queue for a sneak peek.
A stone’s throw away awaited the iconic Charles Bridge, connecting the old town to the castle which for centuries was the only point of connection between the two parts. Now, there are dozens of other bridges yet Charles Bridge is still the best known. Thirty statues accompanied me along the bridge, as I occasionally stopped to admire busking musicians and street artists.
On the other side of the river, lies a whole other world of churches, restaurants and shops to explore. It is from where most river cruises begin – a recommended experience to take in more sights while resting your feet – and where the large castle complex begins.
To fully take in the castle grounds which span almost 70,000 metres, I dedicated a whole morning to this visit. Prague’s Castle is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and houses palaces, ecclesiastical buildings and gardens. Among the many sights two caught my eye – the stained-glass windows of the impressive Saint Vitus Cathedral and the Golden Lane with its tiny historic houses.
The Golden Lane alley was home to servants and people of the castle but also many famous names including writer Franz Kafka who lived in house no.22, a few doors down from the popular Prague fortune teller Matylda Průšová. Some of these houses are kept as they were, exhibiting the lifestyle of the period. Others have been turned into shops selling Czech souvenirs.
With the touristy checklist ticked, Prague’s gastronomic scene awaited. While a chilly beer offered a familiar embrace, it was the unexpected rendezvous with absinthe that left an indelible mark. My first absinthe experience in my teens was a blurry experience that ended badly yet absinthe bars are a cultural fixture in Prague and the traveller in me was ready to try again.
A Czech friend guided me through the two ways of drinking it. Either by pouring water over a sugar cube into a glass with absinthe or flaming the spirit to caramelise it. We opted for the first option and to my surprise it tasted smooth and instead of its usual mint-green colour, it was golden.
Cocktail aficionados, I discovered, could revel in hidden gems like the Black Angels bar—an underground time capsule enforcing a no-photos policy, preserving its mysterious aura. A memorable concoction, the Leave a Message cocktail, encourages patrons to inscribe notes in a journal the drink comes with, weaving a collective memoir.
As secretive is the Shrink’s Office by the Anonymous Concept, a bar without a menu. Instead of choosing your drink, you choose an inkblot based on the Rorschach psychological test with each image matching a drink. The experience was rather exciting, reached through a secret door and served by a masked waiter.
Trendy brunch spots dot the city yet it was two contradictory establishments that stood out for me. One was the all-vegan restaurant Lehká hlava (Clear Head) with delicious and colourful dishes and the other was the medieval meat tavern U Krále Brabantského, where candle-lit ambience, skulls pinned to the ceiling, wooden beams and hearty meat dishes eaten by hand transported diners back in time. Locals and travellers dined together, following in the footsteps of Mozart who is said to have had his fair share of drinks here.
With every step around Prague, old legends and new corners mesmerised. Curiosity led me to a narrow street for pedestrians so compact it uses a traffic light system and a wander in town revealed a statue of Sigmund Freud hanging from an unsuspecting rooftop. So, when you find yourself in Prague, do not forget to look up, for peculiar marvels may lie above your head.