Europe as a whole can be a shock to those expecting to travel around the continent on a shoestring, especially for first timers. Alongside the cobblestone streets and charming baroque buildings, restaurant meals and hotel rooms can burn a hole in your pocket. A very big one at that.
So I found myself in Prague in the Czech Republic towards the tail-end of a two and a half week trip around Central Europe last year. Contrary to what I expected, I managed to get by doing the things I wanted without spending a lot. In fact, I was able to get by with slightly less than US$25 a day. Here is how I did it.
Old Town / Stare Mesto
Each time I visit a new city, I make it a point to start at the most happening place. For Prague, the most
happening touristy is none other than the Old Town Square. Standing at the middle of the convivial public space for the first time, I could see why it is the most popular tourist attraction in Prague. The whole scene just exemplifies what is perhaps quintessentially European to outsiders. Baroque, gothic, neoclassical – the square is host to an array of architectural styles and is easily one of the most photogenic spots in the city.
the complicated looking astronomical clock
One of the must-sees in the area is the Astronomical Clock located at the outer wall of the town hall. While there are a number of such clocks around the Czech Republic, this one in Prague is perhaps the most captivating. At every turn of the hour, hundreds of people would gather nearby to see a show of animated figurines.
$5 to get up here for the view, but it was worth it!
The town hall itself is also open to visitors and this was one of the few spots where I paid the admission. It was $5 or 100 Czech Korunas well spent as the views from up there was just amazing with the Tyn Church and its spires in full view.
it was almost high summer, and the bridge was packed!
From here, it is not that long a walk to the Charles Bridge – again, another heavily trafficked part of town. Dating back from the middle ages, this stone bridge has been heavily trafficked for hundreds of years. For the longest time, it was the sole connection between the eastern and western part of town – a vital link between the city center and the Prague Castle which overlooks the old town from a hill.
Mala Strana and Hradcany
waiting at the lennon wall
Continuing on from where the bridge ended, I find myself in another district – the Mala Strana or the Lesser Town. There’s nothing “lesser” about this side of town these days. Many of the government buildings are located here, as well as foreign embassies and consulates. Walking through the still cobblestone streets, the change of pace compared to the old town was very evident, even though the architecture was still mostly baroque. The side of town is also filled with quirky sights, including a museum dedicated to Franz Kafka and a John Lennon wall.
From where I stand, Prague Castle continues to loom over the city, at spitting distance. I then climb up the hill to get there.
the glass windows at st. vitus cathedral
The castle is said to be the largest in the world. If you look at a map of Prague, you can practically see the castle occupying almost the entire upper left chunk. And it’s easy to spend an entire day getting lost there. The castle complex is much more than one medieval building – inside there are churches, a series of palaces, other residential buildings as well as a seemingly endless number of gardens. Despite the medieval look, Prague Castle to this day is a living complex and still serves the modern Czech government. The President of the Czech Republic officially calls Prague Castle home.
the gothic st. vitus cathedral in prague castle
Surprisingly, I do not have to pay to get to the castle grounds, to wander across the various sections, and even for entering the St. Vitus Cathedral! However, there’s an admission fee that needs to be paid for entering some of the buildings. But due to the palace fatigue I am having by this point of my trip around Europe, I decide to skip the palace tours.
the many bridges of prague, as seen from letna park
I then end the day by watching the sun set from Letna Park, roughly “next to” the castle. I find it refreshing not to be surrounded by tourists for a change. Letna Park is probably the largest parcel of green space so close to the city center. It also has pretty spectacular views of Prague, especially of the bridges criss-crossing the Vltava River. It’s a bit out of the way compared to the city’s main tourist sights, but a trip up here is definitely worth it.
great vibes at the novo mesto district
On the second day, I concentrate my walk within the newer part of the city – at Nove Mesto. This side of town is definitely a lot less touristy but equally charming. The buildings here do not in any way look more modern in appearance compared to the old town. It’s the same baroque and neoclassical styles. The biggest difference is that many of the commercial establishments here cater to locals, which is a welcome departure considering how touristy Prague appeared to me the day before.
From where I stay near a shopping mall called Palladium, it is an easy walk down south, past Prague’s major shopping street, until I arrive at Wenceslas Square. The oblong-shaped square at the time of my visit appear to be very trendy area – with boutiques like Zara, and patisseries like Paul filling the urban landscape. Nonetheless, it is a pretty historical place, with events leading to turning points in Czech history held here, including demonstrations that led to the fall of communism in the late 1980’s as well as the proclamation of Czechoslovakian independence in 1918.
enjoying a sunny day at the square – that’s the new town hall in the distance
Not satisfied with the distance I manage to cover in half a day, I continue south and head to Karlovo Namesti or Charles Square. Here, I could make out glimpses of the new town hall, which is only named as such because it was built several years after the one in the old town. Compared to Wenceslas Square, Karlovo Namesti is much quieter and is today has a pleasant park as its focal point. Beside it is a Jesuit church, the St. Ignatius Church which I make sure to check out. Coming from a Jesuit school myself, I am able to make out familiar motifs and symbols unique to this order. But it’s also disappointing to see how poor church attendance is. Czech Republic is said to be the most atheist country in Europe and while historically, the main religion is Roman Catholicism, barely anyone practices nowadays. The church is almost empty at the time of my visit.
the dancing house / gehry building
I cap off my day 2 walking tour of Prague by ending at the famous Dancing House or Gehry building. It’s hard to miss – as it’s the only radical looking construction in the vicinity. The building is shaped like it has been severely elbowed by a giant, but a closer look reveals some pretty sophisticated design. The shape is made possible due to a bunch of curved pillars that extend all the way to the sidewalk. Interesting stuff.
All in all, I really enjoyed my time in Prague. The city is just as grand as I thought it would be. It has so much history – it’s like a living museum with castles, and gothic structures that I would otherwise only see in fiction. And among the various destinations I’ve visited across Europe, I can truly say that Prague is up there, along with Paris and Rome, if there is ever a need to give a distinction for the “most beautiful city in Europe.”
What I Spent On
Hostel – $10 / night
Meals – approximately $10 / a day – Western meals would be slightly more expensive, at about $8 per meal or around $16 a day. Chinese food costs about $5 per meal
Admission Fees – $ 5 / a day – you don’t need to spend much to appreciate the vast majority of the sights!
Transport Fares – $ 0
Total: around $25 / a day
My daily expenses in Prague turned out to be lower than in my trips around Asia. I attribute this to three things – first is that Prague is a pleasant and walkable city, and going at the right season makes all the difference. Trust me, you wouldn’t mind walking 5 kilometers while being surrounded by all the impressive looking buildings. Second, the main attractions of Prague are very much visible and can be appreciated from the outside so one also gets to save much on admission fees. Third, like in most of Europe, there are plenty of cheap places to stay in and Prague is no exception.
Possible Itinerary For Prague
Day 1 – From Stare Mesto to Hradcany
Old Town Square
St. Nicholas Church
Day 2 – Around Novo Mesto
Municipal House (Obecni dum)
Charles Square (Karlovo Namesti)
St. Ignatius Church