Old Town Square
Prague is said to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. If you ever have the slightest chance of visiting it, do so. It will be an unforgettable experience.
When visiting a country, I want to have the facts beforehand to prepare myself, and it is notoriously difficult to find all the practical info you need, even online at Tripadvisor, Travelwiki, etc. So I’ll just tell you exactly what you’ll need and what you can expect as a South African.
You will be needing Czech Koruny (CZK) to pay for things in Prague, since attempting to pay in Euros is often considered an insult and will not be accepted in most places. Buying Euros with the intent of exchanging it in Prague is foolish, there are exchange kiosks everywhere but they will always rip you off unless you exchange more than 5000 euros. Buying Czech Koruny in ZA will take a while for them to order it for you, and you will lose money on the exchange rate (ZA banks give you 1.6% less per rand than the actual international exchange rate on all currencies) and you’ll pay 1.5-2% commission on top of that.
Far easier and cost effective is to take your Visa/Mastercard and draw money at a Prague ATM when you need it. The service fee is about 75CZK per withdrawal and you will get the actual international exchange rate instead of the ZA banks ripoff rate.
If you just want to be able to SMS, enable SMS roaming on your Vodacom SIM by SMSing “ROAMON” to 123. You will be able to receive and send SMSes from ZA as normal.
Otherwise, buy a Czech SIM card at the airport for 200 CZK which gives you 200 CZK worth of airtime. You can ask the salesperson to switch you to a plan that’s more optimized for local calls/messages or more optimized for international communication. I asked the salesperson to load my SIM with a 100MB data bundle from the balance on the SIM, which worked out to under R1/MB. Not bad for mobile data in a European country. A data bundle is vital if you have a smartphone with a GPS. This will make navigation a pleasure.
Navigation and transport
Get yourself an iPhone, seriously. GPS + google maps + cheap Czech SIM is such an epic win combination it’s not even funny. If you have the 3G, take along a good old fashion analogue compass since it is sometimes hard to judge in which direction you are going in a cramped city. Pick up a map or two from your hotel and the subway stations, different maps show different information.
Prague has four major modes of public transportation: Trams, Trains, Bus and Taxis. Avoid taxi’s if you can, especially hailing one from the street. Czech taxi drivers are notorious for trying to rip you off, and a trip from the airport to your hotel could cost 750CZK where you could do it on 40 CZK using the bus/train. A public transport ticket available from dispensers at the subway entrances are valid for all Trams, trains and busses. A 18 CZK ticket is valid for 30 mins, 28 CZK for 75 mins, 100 CZK for 24 hours. If you have a large suitcase, you will need a “half-price” ticket for the luggage along with your own. The tickets must be stamped the first time you get on a tram/bus/train otherwise you could be fined 500CZK. It is easy to figure out how the trains and trams run from a decent map, so do that as soon as you get some time. To get from the airport to Prague, buy a 28CZK + 13CZK(luggage) ticket and take the 119 bus to Dejvicka. That’s the first terminal for the green subway line. From there you can take the subway into the city and onto other subways/tram lines using the same tickets.
Food and Drink
Maybe I just visited the wrong restaurants, but coming from South Africa, Czech food did not impress. Czech is big on pork, poultry, dumplings and more recently on fish. Even though I never had a bad meal, nothing really stood out and wow’ed me. Beware of non-itemized bills. Even though most eating establishments are friendly and honest, there are some tourist traps that will try to exploit you using sneaky methods. At some places, if you don’t ask the waiter to take the bread basket on your table away, you could be charged for it per-person. The one evening we ate at Staromacek restaurant near the old town square which is a “traditional czech restaurant” and they charged us 180 CZK for two bread baskets that we didn’t even eat of. We didn’t give the waiter a tip, because he tried to hide the charge from us by putting it in the middle of a list of non-itemized amounts and not notifying us of it.
As far as beer goes, Czech is big on Pilsner. Stay away from tourist traps that charge 50CZK for 500ml (50cl as they like to say), you can easily get it for 35CZK or less if you just walk a couple of meters towards Charles Bridge or away from the old town square. A good price for the same glass of beer is anything from 25CZK to 30CZK. The Pilsner was a little bitter at first, but I soon fell in love and was sad to leave it behind when I had to come back. Be sure to visit Novomestsky Pivovar (www.npivovar.za), they brew awesome dark beer and also light beer. Kozel is also very nice if you can find it.
There are three czech spirits you will most definitely read about: Becherovka, Fernet Stock and Slivovice (plum brandy). You might also see that Czech is one of two places that still legally sell proper absinth. The downside is that any absinth you buy in Prague that costs less than your left testicle is utter crap, so buy the “King of Spirits” brand with a picture of Van Gogh on the front if you can afford it, otherwise just don’t bother. Definitely try a shot of Becherovka, it is quite unique. You can buy a 700ml bottle at a tourist shop for 330CZK or in Tesco for a lot cheaper, like 260CZK. E.g. a 1l bottle costs 420CZK on the street and 320CZK at Tesco. Fernet Stock is like Jagermeister, except that it doesn’t dissolve your teeth. Slivovice is like our own “mampoer”. These spirits definitely impressed and is well worth trying out.
I don’t have much experience with backpackers/inns/etc, but I can say that the Czech people are very generous with their hotel star ratings. A night’s stay in a “four star” hotel is cheap enough and you’ll sleep comfortably but don’t expect too much. I stayed in Hotel Athena Palace and can definitely recommend it for its hospitality and location.
Unbelievable experience. Prague brings you closer to your own humanity in that it shows you more about who we are as a species and what we can achieve. If that doesn’t make sense, you’ll have to go and see for yourself. Apart from the obvious tourist attractions, the two most unique and special places I was in Prague is Reon‘s art gallery on Petrin Hill and the cathedral/park with giant statues at Vysehrad. Even though Prague is very obviously tourist oriented, you can still visit places where you’ll feel like a part of the land if you just go a couple of km’s by tram.
As always, questions/comments welcome.