Caiti Grove gives her guide to spending 48 hours in Prague, the city for all seasons. Visit in chilly January or sunny June – this European destination has a year-round cultural buzz.
The city of spires, Prague is a gothic delight all year round. St Matthew’s Fair has celebrated the beginning of spring for 400 years and brings out lots of families for an enormous funfair. Later, the Easter markets, from 28 March to 19 April, sell traditional toys and glassware. Summer is a scorcher, as tourists create a more raucous holiday atmosphere, while autumn is sunny and mild and the winter markets and snow-dusted architecture give a different perspective to this magical city.
Perfect for proposals and honeymoons, Prague is surprisingly lacking in true luxury. For super modern, the Mandarin Oriental is perfect. But this is a place for nostalgic escapism and old-fashioned romance, so it has to be Four Seasons Hotel Prague – get a baroque room for a careful ratio of charming historic decor and modern comforts. Marble bathrooms, deep pile carpets and swathes of dusky blue damask curtains make you feel like the country’s Princess Libuše. The hotel chain waited for this riverside location for 15 years and the long game has certainly paid off. Set among the cobbled streets and grand renaissance buildings of the Old Town, it is a short walk to all the main attractions but far enough away to feel quiet when the city is busy.
Czech art hangs everywhere – enormous oil originals in the spa and restaurant, prints in the bedrooms. A fitness room – superfluous if you walk around the city – lies in the basement and above it a light-filled spa, the speciality of which is the La Bohème massage with oil from the country’s signature Linden tree.
A few doors down from the Municipal House is Mincovna, a chic little snug of a restaurant with its own brewery. The rooms have low arched ceilings and it is panelled in one half with modern oak slats like an upturned boat. The chairs are all Danish mid-century in style and match perfectly with the industrial lighting. A few streets down is the House of the Black Madonna, a cubist house built in 1912, when architects revolted against 19th-century classicism. Even if you skip their prized cubist collection of pottery and glass, have a coffee in their museum-standard Grand Café Orient complete with its original geometric mahogany bar.
Between the Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square, Manufaktura sells beer shampoo, thermal spring salts and Dead Sea mineral products. Back in the Municipal House – seemingly an entire economy all by itself – is Art Shop Modernista, which specialises in replica glass, porcelain and jewellery covering different periods, from the Cubist movement right through to pieces by contemporary designers. Look out for amber too, especially in antiques that are more likely to be Czech than contemporary designs. Czech glass is also a national tradition. For a modern perspective, Rony Plesl is unmatchable. Huge mouth-blown vases and gorgeous wonky water glasses are his signature pieces. He must be a national treasure as he had Prague Castle to himself in the autumn for a solo exhibition. Closer to home, he supplies the drinking glasses for Tate Modern’s restaurant.
Walk the route of Bohemian kings as they went to their coronations – vintage convertible cars with sheepskin rugs are optional. Start at the Powder House, originally one of 13 15th-century gothic gates into the city, later used as a gunpowder store. Nearby is the Municipal House (Namesti Republiky 5), a fantastically decadent building which houses the Prague Symphony Orchestra’s rehearsal rooms, a concert hall and an art nouveau café that seems to have lost its tables, probably during its Communist period, but still has its original vast windows and tiered chandeliers that hang from its huge baby blue and gold ceiling.
Down the road you will reach the Old Town Square (Staromĕstské Námĕsti), home of the oldest working astronomical clock. On the hour, Death beckons with an hourglass, Vanity holds a mirror and Miserliness shakes a stick with a moneybag in the other hand. Meanwhile, models of the 12 apostles parade around, ending with the crow of a golden cockerel. The astronomical dial shows the earth under a blue sky in between a sun and moon. Three circles also show the Old Czech time, Central European time and – amazingly – Iraqi/Babylonian time.
Nearby is the Charles Bridge, where huge statues of saints adorn both sides. It was originally built in the 14th and 15th centuries and saints were added 200 years later. The eighth on the right is St John Nepomuk, a priest who refused to reveal the Queen’s confession to her husband King Wenceslas IV and was subsequently thrown into the river and drowned. The brass plaque beneath him depicts his fate and is as shiny as a mirror – apparently if you rub it, you will return to Prague one day.
Whatever you do…
Don’t call the country the Czech Republic – as of November, its new name is Czechia. Watch jazz in a floating barge bar. See some conceptual art at the city’s old abattoir. See traditional and modern art at Prague City Gallery. Interior design is not their strong point, but everyone goes to the newly opened Beergeek to drink craft beer.