Explore the cobbled streets or relax with one of Prague’s finest beers in this charming city, writes Nicola Brady
It must have been quite a feeling to discover Prague in the early 1990s. Before the Velvet Revolution liberated a nation, it was a city relatively off the tourist track. The streets were quieter, the restaurants filled with locals and the medieval squares devoid of sightseers.
Nowadays, things are a little different. Millions descend upon the city each year, which can make for a cramped experience in the peak season. But it is possible to have the city to yourself, if only for an hour. Walk over the romantic Charles Bridge as early as you can to avoid the crowds, and make the most of a hazy dawn glow over the river.
Just over the bridge, the gothic Prague Castle dominates the skyline, its mass of spires and turrets watching over the city. From mid-morning, it's packed with visitors, but if you get there before 9am you can walk freely among the extensive grounds.
It's worth getting an all-access ticket, which grants entry to some of the smaller sights. St Vitus's Cathedral is as impressive inside as it is out, but don't miss the romantic Golden Lane, a small alleyway of preserved houses you can take a peek into.
The gardens around the castle provide some of the best views to the city below. Follow the steep and cobbled lanes and you'll find yourself back in the midst of Lesser Town, with plenty of open squares where you can sit and watch the world go by.
Prague is famous for its beer, and as you would expect, there are bars around each corner. You'd be hard pushed to find a bad glass of Pilsner, but for the very best you need to go straight to the source.
At Pivovarsky dum (gastroinfo.cz/pivodum) you can enjoy beers that are brewed on site, while watching huge vats of the stuff ferment through the windows.
If you can't choose from the extensive menu, opt for the tasting tray. Varying from the pleasant (dark lager) to the more interesting (banana), the miniature glasses will cover all bases. After a taste of them all, I opted for the light lager. As I worked my way to the bottom of the glass, I was joined by Jan Suran, the owner of Pivovarsky dum and renowned beer aficionado. He's been making beer at this location since 1998, and the short journey from tank to glass means that the beer can remain unpasteurised.
"Which is why you can have four, five beers and feel fine," claimed Jan. I wasn't so sure, but the heaving bar around me showed that many were willing to test his theory.
While it's easy to find a good beer in the city, the cuisine has a less-than-stellar reputation. Known for stodgy dumplings and meats better left a mystery (the word "knuckle" abounds on menus), the food is not for the faint-hearted.
The best option is to avoid the restaurants around the main squares and head into the more serene side streets. There you'll be more likely to find a palatable meal, without the accordion players that always spring up in the tourist spots.
The old town is a tangle of streets, which can be confusing to navigate, but if you're in no hurry they make for pleasant exploration. The main squares of Wenceslas and Old Town have a habit of appearing after a few minutes of strolling in any direction, so it's hard to get lost. In the Old Town square, pick up a Trdelník, a sweet pastry cooked around a giant stick and served covered in sugar and walnuts.
It may mark you out as a tourist, but it's delicious and the perfect accompaniment to an amble through the city.
Further out of town, the Tower Park Praha (towerpark.cz) is an odd addition to the skyline. Built as a television mast in Zizkov, it looks considerably out of place against the gothic architecture of the city. But once at the top, the views are spectacular. Between three 'cabins', you are granted 360-degree access to the skyline, from futuristic sofas and unique bubble seats straight out of a Stanley Kubrick movie.
On the lower level, the stylish bar offers up a cutting-edge cocktail menu, as well as modern Czech cuisine in the restaurant, all with panoramic views. From here, you can look out at the city of a thousand spires, Thyme Manhattan in hand, and pretend that the bohemian vision below is your little secret.
Need to know
Sunway (01 288 6828; sunway.ie) will operate flights to Prague from Dublin between June 3 and September 23 from €112 return. A four-night package including accommodation and flights starts from €269 at the four-star Courtyard by Marriott Hotel.
• The Palace Hotel (palace.praguehotels.it) is a more central option, in a beautiful building next to the excellent Mucha Museum.
• Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) flies daily from Dublin.