Why Prague is a must-visit before the pre-pandemic crowds return

Shortly after arriving at Václav Havel Airport in Prague, a disembodied voice on the tannoy informs us that an FFP2 respirator must be worn throughout the terminal, on public transport and in all public buildings.

here are vending machines scattered around, offering respirators for those of us who need to upgrade our face coverings. Soon our blue surgical masks are discarded and replaced with the approved, sturdier specimen – resembling the rugged face masks worn by laborers – and we suddenly appear as a bunch of DIY enthusiasts who have just landed.

A large banner hangs in the arrivals hall. It is a stylized montage of the monumental buildings and spiers of the city of Prague; Charles Bridge, Týn Church, the National Museum and the Municipal House all clustered in unlikely proximity, while the statue of St Wenceslas, a Czech flag flying above his head, gazes at them from the left of the scene. “Welcome back,” it read.

Spared from the destruction of World War II and left untouched by the 40-year communist regime that followed, Prague is uniquely beautiful. Located in Central Europe rather than Eastern Europe (hint: it’s above Austria on a map), it enjoys four distinct seasons. Each offers its own charm: laid-back beer gardens in the summer; impressive opera productions in the fall; glittering Christmas markets in winter; and spring-blooming parks – the bohemian capital will captivate your heart, no matter when you visit.

This is my first trip back to Prague since moving to Ireland in February 2021. After seven years of living and working here, I look forward to reuniting with friends and spending time in a city I know and love, and I’m curious to see Prague’s version of the new normal.

Our first stop is Kulaťák Farmer’s Market (roundabout). This Saturday morning market is the biggest in town and is a must for any visitor wanting to see what the locals are really eating. Located in the upscale Dejvice district of Prague, it’s a culinary paradise. Stalls brimming with organic vegetables jostle for position with flower vendors, strudel stalls and beer tents, while queues form for coffees, raclette and stuffed meatballs.

The crowd is relaxed and is a pleasant mix of affluent locals, expats and students. Some people come here for their weekly shop – hitting the butcher, baker, greengrocer and woman-who-sells-organic-chicken in quick succession – while others just hang out, snack on the stalls and chat with friends with a coffee or beer in hand.

Browsing through the market, we decide we’re craving pancakes, so we opt for a traditional lokša – a savory pancake filled with a sort of red cabbage sauerkraut, topped with crispy fried onions – and a more contemporary affair with -duck, spring onion and jalapenos. I prefer duck, while my boyfriend (a Czech native) prefers sauerkraut, but we both agree it’s best washed down with a beer.

Leaving the market, we hop on the tram and head towards Prague Castle, entering the complex at the Královská Letohrádek (Royal Summer Palace). We undergo a quick security check and walk through the gardens. One immediately notices the few people, compared to the number of pre-pandemic tourists in Prague.

Even when one enters the courtyards at the heart of the castle, one senses that it is pleasantly busy, rather than crowded, and after a few minutes admiring the cathedral, one exits the courtyard by a staircase which brings us to the gardens in sunken.

Here, a magnificent view of the city suddenly opens up to us, with a jumble of spiers and terracotta roofs climbing the hill towards the castle, while the wind carries rising notes of classical music; somewhere at the foot of the hill (the Senate Garden, most likely), an orchestra is giving a free outdoor concert in the autumn sun.

After soaking up the view, we decide to descend the hill towards the medieval old town, located on the other side of the river. Out of habit, we avoid the Charles Bridge, a pre-pandemic tourist black spot. In 2019, more than eight million tourists crossed the bridge, turning it into a 700-meter obstacle course. However, when we take a look at it on a sunny Saturday afternoon, we are pleasantly surprised to see a clear space between people.

After lunch, we head to the National Museum, which frames the top of Wenceslas Square, the city’s main boulevard. The museum building itself is beautiful. It is a neo-Renaissance showcase, built by Czech nationalists in the late 19th century as they showed their growing confidence in their history and culture.

Although it had spent most of the last decade closed for reconstruction, the rejuvenated museum was unveiled in time for Czechoslovakia’s centenary celebrations in 1918. A symphony of polished marble, carved oak and gilded metal, the opulence of the building itself is simply breathtaking, but its new natural history exhibit “Miracles of Evolution” turns out to be the star attraction.

It tells the story of evolution through taxidermy. Starting with single-celled organisms, we walk through exhibits of corals, bivalves, and molluscs, as well as a case of Japanese crabs as big as greyhounds. We pass through halls with exhibits of fish – with huge manta rays hissing above us and menacing sharks above us – birds and reptiles, and finally mammals. The highlight here is the fin whale skeleton (the largest extant female specimen) which takes pride of place in the final hall of the exhibit.

The fin whale is the second largest animal in the world, second only to the blue whale. The complete skeleton was purchased by the museum from Norwegian whalers in 1888. With a mouth the size of a van and weighing over four tons, it is one of the museum’s most prized possessions. Suspended from the ceiling in a special harness, the whale dominates the entire space, while a giraffe, rhino and elephant trail below the tip of its tail, providing a useful reference point for this animal’s size.

The next day, I visit the old town hall, home of the astronomical clock, as well as the official reception halls of the town council. My admission ticket includes a trip to the top of the observation tower and an optional 90-minute guided tour in English, led by a stylish Czech woman named Lucie.

By way of introduction, she asks the group if we are all vaccinated. Nods of assent follow. She then tells us that she is going to remove her mask, as it is easier for her to speak without it, and we are welcome to do the same, if we wish. Respirators removed, the tour continues as if the coronavirus had never existed.

Lucie lights up when she discovers that a lady in the group, an American living on a military base in Germany, had visited Prague for the first time 20 years ago: “Ah, you saw the real Prague, not the sweets, Starbucks and babushkas”. she says.

After the visit, I stroll through the Old Town Square, where I take care to look at the menus of the various restaurants, noticing that they are now written in Czech rather than English, and that the prices have come down as traders mainly deal with the domestic market. I reflect on Lucie’s words, wondering if the pandemic will allow the real Prague to reappear, or if Disneyland Prague is simply on hiatus.

As darkness sets in that evening, I meet friends for a few beers in the beer garden Riegrovy Sady. We sit among the braziers, reminiscing about efforts by the Czech government during a previous lockdown to ban the sale of takeout beers. Beer gardens responded by simply serving the beers in coffee mugs instead; we laugh remembering our beer lattes.

Perhaps this is the way of the Czechs, overcoming occupation and adversity, gently overturning the rules.

Life in the historic center of Prague has certainly evolved since the start of the pandemic. It is a quieter, cooler and more pleasant place. There are fewer people, more space, more locals and no large tour groups. It’s a very nice and relaxed city, and I can’t wait to go back there soon. I just hope it doesn’t change too much before me.

The essentials of Prague

TO STAY

Mosaic House

The Mosaic House Design Hotel is one of the newest and trendiest places to stay in Prague. Once a bustling hostel that welcomed crowds, it has been completely transformed into a serene and elegant designer hotel. Located right next to Karlovo Náměstí and a short walk from the riverside, the hotel manages to balance coolness and comfort, and is the perfect place to unwind. Relax in the on-site café, find a cozy corner in the elegant library or hide in the peaceful secret garden. Rooms from €55. mosaic.com

TO EAT

Cerveny Jelen

This restaurant is worth a visit for the architecture alone. Once a bank, designed by famous Czech cubist architect Josef Gočar, it was transformed by modern architect Stanislav Fiala into one of Prague’s most remarkable restaurants. The Cervený Jelen (Red Deer) complex offers various dining experiences on several floors. Enjoy a meal in the old ticket hall, or perhaps descend a little deeper for something lavish in the old vault. Specialties include sharing dishes on the grill and modern versions of traditional Czech cuisine. cervenyjelen.cz

TO TREAT

Cukrar Skala

Feast your eyes on the creations of the Cukrář Skála confectioners, who prepare the most delicate and beautiful desserts right before your eyes. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls let you follow every step as master confectioner Lukáš Skála’s team of pastry chefs create these amazing edibles that are almost too good to eat. cukrarskala.cz

SEE

Narodni Divadlo

After a difficult year, the Národní Divadlo (National Theatre) has reopened its doors. All performances are live and take place in the three magnificent opera houses in Prague. Choose from opera, ballet and theater (sometimes with English subtitles). There are no capacity restrictions, although audience members must provide a valid Covid certificate on arrival and continue to wear an FFP2, KN95 or N95 respirator mask for the duration of the performance. narodni-divadlo.cz

TO EXPLORE

Take the tram

Prague is a city best explored by tram. Trams are clean, safe, fast, cheap and reliable, and are the preferred means of transport for locals. Save your legs and take number 22 to Prague Castle (get off at Královské Letohrádek and stroll through the castle gardens) and take number 17 for a scenic ride along the river. The system is completely integrated with Google Maps, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. Don’t forget to wear that respirator.

GETTING THERE

Ryanair and Aer Lingus fly direct from DUB-PRG. For Covid entry requirements, visit dfa.ie.

About John McTaggart

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