Friday, Sep. 11, 2009


Nearly 25 years ago, demonstrators in Prague staged the "velvet revolution," a series of peaceful protests that helped bring down the communist regime. Since emerging from the somber shadows of one-party rule, the City of a Thousand Spires has become one of Europe's hippest travel destinations — a cosmopolitan city where culture buffs and pleasure seekers mingle happily in chic cafés and Gothic cathedrals. Whether you're sleeping at a former monastery turned five-star hotel or dancing in a onetime nuclear bunker, you'll quickly realize that in Prague, the unconventional is conventional: after all, this is Bohemia. Here's how to make the most of your stay.

1. La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise

At Czech restaurants, traditional frequently implies heavy. Fortunately, the chefs at stylish La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise prepare their Bohemian tasting menus with a lighter touch. Each of the seven courses is preceded with its own amuse-bouche, so allow at least three hours for a meal here. But time flies thanks to the original fare, which is based on recipes from an 1880 Czech cookbook. Expect the likes of smoked beef tongue with chickpea puree and pickled shallots, and garlic beef tartare under a crusty pastry. There are also real surprises, like a gelatinous tomato meringue that melts to release honey and balsamic vinegar.

2. Charles Bridge

Commissioned by King Charles IV in 1357, Prague's most stunning bridge spans 16 arches and is lined with 30 Baroque statues of religious figures. The bridge's 1,700 ft. (520 m) of cobblestone are used for wholly temporal purposes, however. Each afternoon, painters and hot-dog vendors fight for space with — and custom from — the hordes of tourists who are themselves elbowing one another for the best views of the Vltava River. If you arrive at dawn, you'll beat the crowds and enjoy a glorious sunrise.

3. Bunkr Parukarka

The Cold War ended two decades ago, but Bunkr Parukarka keeps the celebration going. Housed underground in what was a 1950s nuclear bunker, this quirky nightclub welcomes revelers through a graffiti-covered door that juts out from a hillside. Inside, the venue pulsates with avant-garde electro-pop and industrial tracks, spun by some of the city's top DJs. Claustrophobes needn't fret: two ventilation towers and a few emergency exits reduce the risk of meltdown.

4. U Medvidku Beer Hall and Restaurant

Serious beer drinkers should head straight to this 550-year-old institution to sample its infamous X-Beer 33. The dark, bittersweet lager ferments for six months in an oak barrel and has an alcohol content of 11.8%, making it the strongest brew in the Czech Republic. Be sure to line the stomach with hearty specialties like larded roast beef in sour cream with white bread dumplings — and remember to pace yourself.

5. Museum of Communism

Under communist rule, authorities arrested more than 200,000 Czechs and shot 327 others dead as they tried to flee across the border. The simple but stirring Memorial to the Victims of Communism captures that agony with six sculptures of a man in progressive decay. Just as moving are the literal depictions of state-sponsored terrorism, told through photos, propaganda and videos at the Museum of Communism — although here the story ends on a high note, with galleries on the peaceful "velvet revolution" that ended the nightmare.

6. Zizkov

When the sun sets, venture east to Zizkov, a former industrial suburb and the epicenter of Prague's rough-and-tumble nightlife. More than 300 bars dot the neighborhood's 2 square miles (5 sq km), which almost certainly represents the highest per capita concentration of drinking venues in any district in Europe. Leave your fancy dress at home. Zizkov is a place of convivial dives, replete with beer served in plastic cups.

7. Petrin Hill

For some fresh air, catch the funicular railway from Ujezd to the top of the 1,000-ft. (300 m) Petrin Hill, one of Prague's greenest spaces. The area's eclectic sights include landscaped gardens, a miniature version of the Eiffel Tower, a mirror maze and, quirkiest of all, the Church of St. Michael — a 17th century wooden building relocated here from a village in the Ukraine for national enlightenment.

8. David Cerny's Public Sculptures

The country's most famous sculptor has a knack for simultaneously amusing and offending the public. Many of his weird and controversial sculptures remain on display throughout the city, including Babies (10 enormous and rather creepy infants that crawl up the Zizkov Television Tower), Brownnosers (visitors climb ladders and peer into the backsides of two oversized statues outside the Futura Gallery to see videos of an actor resembling President Vaclav Klaus eating baby food) and Piss (two male figures that urinate in a puddle, spelling out quotations from Czech literature).

9. Prague Castle

Roughly the size of seven football fields, Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world. Built and renovated during 13 centuries, the complex includes churches, gardens, alleyways and royal residences that would take days to appreciate. Don't miss the St. Vitus Cathedral. In addition to Art Nouveau stained-glass windows and a wooden depiction of the crucifixion, it houses treasures like the tomb of St. John of Nepomuk — a blinding two-metric-ton vault that is held up by an army of silver angels.

10. Old Town Square

Despite a number of foreign invaders, Prague's Old Town Square has remained virtually untouched since the 10th century. Today's marauders consist largely of tourists who congregate to eat alfresco while admiring a hodgepodge of architecture — including the Rococo Kinsky Palace, the Gothic Tyn Cathedral and the Baroque St. Nicholas Church, to name a few. An ever-changing cast of musicians, protesters, dance troupes, punks and vendors make the square as colorful as the buildings that surround it.