I don't want to be just another tourist in Prague. Any suggestions for getting off the beaten path?
The cobbled Czech capital rapidly became the former Soviet Bloc's most popular vacation destination in the 1990s, and its charming Old Town streets were soon crammed with great opportunities to buy Charles Bridge T-shirts and Astronomical Clock fridge magnets.
But there are still ways to encounter the City of a Hundred Spires without feeling like a walking wallet or a backpacker ticking the boxes on a Europe-wide jaunt. To prove it, I've pried some personal tips from Prague-based Mark Baker, co-author of Lonely Planet's Prague and the Czech Republic guidebook.
He suggests starting with a tour that delves beneath the city's surface. "Insight Prague (insightprague.com) is kind of high-brow but they employ university lecturers as their guides. They really explain the city and its history in an informed way," he says, mentioning the operator's Beer and Baroque and totalitarian-themed tour options.
But guided walks are not the only way to get off the beaten track – especially for art-lovers.
"Tucked away in a quiet, little-visited corner of Old Town, the former Convent of St. Agnes now houses the National Gallery's collection of medieval art from Bohemia and Central Europe. It's an amazing and moving assembly of statuary and panel paintings dating back to the 14th-century," Baker says.
He also recommends the lesser-visited areas of the functionalist Veletrzni Palace building, which houses the National Gallery's 20th and 21st-century collections. Works by blockbuster artists from Munch to Picasso are displayed but there's also an "amazing floor of Czech early-modern painters working in styles like cubism, constructivism and surrealism."
Since art can only sustain you for so long, Baker also has suggestions for avoiding Prague's dining pitfalls. "It's vital to get out of Old Town Square, which is filled with mediocre tourist traps," he says. Before arriving, visitors should nibble some restaurant reviews online Prague Post (praguepost.com) and taste some local tips at the foodie blog Czech Please (czechoutchannel.blogspot.cz).
But what to eat? "Czechs are best known for pork and they cook it very well. Any dish with roast pork – usually served with sliced bread dumplings on the side – is going to be good," says Baker, adding that among his current fave dining spots is New Town's Sansho (sansho.cz), combining Asian-inspired recipes with locally sourced beef and pork.
If you need an after-dinner nightcap, don't join the laddish boozehounds drinking their body weight in Czech pilsner. Baker recommends Hemingway (hemingwaybar.cz/bar-prague). "It's a beautiful cocktail bar with the best drinks in town, decent prices and a lively crowd. Pre-booking is essential or you won't get a table – but it's filled with locals, not tourists."
A good day trip – around an hour from Prague by train or bus – is Kutna Hora, an attractive old silver mining town lined with 15th and 16th-century buildings.
"Walk around and admire the surviving Gothic and renaissance architecture," Baker says. "But the biggest attraction is the ghoulish Bone Church (ossuary.eu) in a monastery about a mile outside town. It's furnished entirely with human bones."
If you're not too traumatized, there should also be time for a little shopping on your return to the city. But that doesn't mean settling for an "I heart Prague" baseball cap. "The one thing Czechs do better than anyone is glass. Their classic crystal – glasses, vases, decorative glass – is top notch, but there are lots of fakes around. The traditional leader in terms of quality of materials and design is Moser (moser-glass.com). It's expensive but worth it, and they'll ship packages home for you."
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