Frank Gehry's 'Fred and Ginger'.
I recently had the pleasure of spending a weekend in Prague, which, besides being one of Europe's most beautiful cities, is also one of the most affordable. Along with a friend, I spent two days seeing the sights, drinking Czech beer and sampling the local cuisine — all for under $100.
We explored the city from our home base at the Hotel Casa Marcello, tucked into a winding street in Prague's old Jewish Quarter. The rate (about $100 a night) includes breakfast, and from the hotel all the destinations listed below are easily accessible on foot, if you don't mind walking a little. I'm betting you won't — Prague's gorgeous, twisting cobblestone streets are a big part of its appeal. (All prices are given in approximate US dollar amounts and will, of course, depend on exchange rates.)
• Our first stop was Prague Castle, across the river and up (quite a lot!) of stairs from our hotel. Tickets for the short tour (about $12.50) will get you into St. Vitus' cathedral and the old royal palace, where you can view the very window where the famous Defenestration of Prague took place.
• After you're through at the castle, it's a short walk to the Strahov Monastery, where monks have been brewing beer since the 17th century. Lunch and a couple of beers set me back $15. Reservations are reccomended; the brewery can get quite crowded.
• Bonus: The Strahov Monastery, besides serving some delicious beer, is also home to the gorgeous library where one of the dates on this season of the Bachelorette was filmed.
• Later that afternoon, we headed over to the Old Town Square to do some sightseeing and get dinner from a street vendor ($5). On the hour, you can watch the movement of the mechanical figures on the Astronomical Clock. The very ambitious can climb the 172 steps to the top of the tower in the Old City Hall to get rooftop views of Prague, although I passed on this, having climbed what felt like a million steps to get to the castle that morning.
• After dinner, we wandered towards the river to watch the sun setting from the Charles Bridge. Dating to 1357, the bridge is one of Prague's most picturesque spots, and has a great view of the castle.
• Crossing the river, we headed south to the Most Legii, another one of Prague's bridges, from which one can descend via staircase to the Strelecky Ostrov, a park-like island in the middle of the river. There, from a sandy beach (!) in the middle of the river, we watched boats go by — and heard five or six different languages being spoken.
• Later, we enjoyed a few beers ($5) at a beer garden by the river, while listening to live music and watching an impromptu fireworks show.
• Heading back to our hotel in the Jewish Quarter, we stopped by the Absintherie, right next to the town square. After some friendly Britons dissuaded me from ordering an absinthe mojito, I decided instead on a flight of 4 different kinds of absinthe (about $12.50). Some of the absinthes (a few of which contained thujone, an ingredient that's been banned in absinthes sold stateside, due to its supposedly hallucinogenic effects) were better than others. Sadly, I did not get a chance to try the absinthe ice cream.
• On the second day, we walked a few blocks from our hotel to the Old Jewish Cemetery, which for 300 years was the only place where Jews in Prague could be buried. In some places, the graves are up to seven layers deep. Admission to the cemetery ($15) also gets you into the Pinkas Synagogue, which has been transformed into a memorial for the victims of the Holocaust in Prague. The names of nearly 80,000 men, women and children are inscribed on the synagogue's walls.
• From the Jewish quarter we headed south to U Medvidku ("At The Little Bears"), a brewpub that has been making beer since 1466. Though they were out of the pub's signature beer, the unusually strong XBeer-33, we did get to try Czech Budweiser (or Budvar), which is entirely distinct from (and in my opinion, much better than) American Budweiser. I especially liked the Budvar dark, which had a chocolately, malty finish. Lunch and a couple of beers at the brewery cost about $15, including an appetizer (the drunken plums — plums soaked in plum brandy and cooked in bacon. Highly recommended.)
• Along the river, just a bit farther south than U Medvidku, is Frank Gehry's famous 'Fred and Ginger' building (or 'The Dancing House'). Since we stopped by on a Sunday, the bar was closed, but on most days, the purchase of a cocktail at the building's bar entitles you to view the city from the roof deck.
• Our next stop (and one of my favorites of the weekend) was a boat rental place on the Slovansky Ostrov, an island in the river just north of the Dancing House. For about $6 per person per hour, we rented a paddleboat and cruised around the river, where we had a spectacular view of Prague from the water.
• Tired from our boating adventures, we headed back in the direction of our hotel, stopping for dinner at Lokal, a beer hall specializing in traditional Czech specialties with a modern twist. While watching the finale of the Eurocup, we enjoyed sausage and Slivovitz, a very popular plum brandy. My friend didn't enjoy the plum brandy much, but we both agreed that the Pilsner Urquell there was the best beer we'd had in the city. The beer comes directly to Lokal from Pilsen, where it's made, about an hour away, and is stored in the beer hall's huge tank (seen in the photo at left), which ensures that it's super-fresh. The best part? Dinner, two beers, and a glass of plum brandy cost each of us only $10.
So there you have it — a weekend in Prague for under $100. If you're planning to be in Europe, why not stop on by? You'll be glad you did.
(Images: Nancy Mitchell)