How to spend 3 days in Prague
Prague is one of those cities that truly should be on everyone’s bucket list. It’s visually stunning, has a fascinating history that dates back to medieval times, and enough to keep you occupied for days. Its location also makes it a great base for exploring popular sights outside of the city. When planning a trip to Prague, don’t skimp on your time there. Here’s the perfect three day itinerary.
Hopefully you’ll arrive early enough in the day (whether via car, plane, or train) to take the most advantage of your time here. And no matter the direction you’re arriving from, once you catch sight of the banks of the Vltava River, you will undoubtedly fall in love with the city. Each side of the river is equally gorgeous but there’s something to be said about Prague Castle which looms mightily above. You can see from its strategic location why it’s been the bastion of Czech power for hundreds of years.
Once you’re checked in at your hotel, hit the streets! For a great and more local introduction to the city, head to the Náměstí Republiky, a square whose name means Republic Square (there’s a metro station with the same name). It’s home to a local farmers’ market that definitely has more locals than tourists (always a good sign). Handmade crafts abound along with locally sourced foods and of course pivo, the “national drink” otherwise known as beer. If an 10AM pivo and sausage aren’t your thing, then grab a trdelník, a sweet pastry that’s been cooked over an open fire, then rolled in a sugary/walnut mixture. While not Czech in origin (they were supposedly introduced by a Hungarian), their immense visibility (they can be found EVERYWHERE), would have you think otherwise. The best trdelník are those that come right from the fire and the stand in Náměstí Republiky has some of the best and freshest.
While happily munching away on your trdelník, head towards the beautiful massive structure that is clearly from another time, the Municipal House, or Obecni dum as it’s known in Czech. (But not Communist times that is; Lenin would have hated such a gaudy, over the top building and yet that’s what makes it so memorable.) Opened in 1912, it’s home to Smetana Hall, a music hall, along with numerous cafes and restaurants. Although you can (probably) count on better food, drink, and customer service elsewhere, this is definitely a once in a lifetime spot to sip that cappuccino in opulent surroundings.
Before you delve deeper into the heart of the Old Town, take a moment to gaze at the Gothic-era Power Gate. It’s one of the city’s original gates dating back to the 11th century and serves as the border between the Old Town and New Town. Instead of being strictly a defensive tower, it was actually meant to be an attractive entrance into the city. The gate was used to store gunpowder in the 17th century, which is how it got its name that’s still used today. When standing here, try to think of Prague from 500 plus years ago. It’s for sure a different sight from the Prague of today, whose streets teem with tourists from every country imaginable.
Prepare yourself for the madness that is Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí). You haven’t seen crowds until you’ve visited the city’s (tourist) heart and soul. It was founded in the 12th century and has been witness to countless historical events, including critical ones from the Protestant Reformation era. Like the Grand Place in Brussels, gaze in wonder at the stunning buildings before you-the Old Town Hall, the Church of Our Lady before Týn, the Baroque Church of St. Nicholas, and the monument to Jan Hus, the Czech people’s most important player in the Reformation who was burned at the stake for his beliefs.
I wouldn’t necessarily squander a meal opportunity at one of the overpriced, touristy cafes, but they are ideal when it’s time to relax with a glass of beer or wine (the Czech region of Moravia is famous for its wines).
Now that you’ve “fallen under the spell” of the Old Town Square, it’s time to do your touring and learning in earnest. Either set out with a licensed guide to lead you about or follow the Old Town walk found in Rick Steves’ Prague guidebook.
You don’t want to miss seeing the Astronomical Clock, perhaps the city’s most iconic monument. First installed in 1410, it’s the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still operating. On the hour, the four figures flanking the clock are set in motion and represent four vices that were loathed at the time of the clock’s making: Vanity, a figure is holding a mirror admiring himself; Greed, represented by a miser holding a bag of gold; Death, a skeleton; and lastly, Lust, a figure representing earthly pleasures). Don’t worry about needing a watch to remember the time. When you see the mobs converging here, you’ll know it’s nearing the top of the hour.
And in case you were wondering about the stones in the pavement in front of Old Town Hall, these mark the execution of 27 Czech lords who were killed in 1621 for leading the rebellion of the Czech Estates against the Habsburgs.
Be sure not to miss the Estates Theater. It doesn’t receive as much attention as some of the other attractions in Old Town Square even though this historic theater is considered to be one of the most striking in all of Europe. Still in use after more than 200 years, it premiered the world renowned Mozart opera, Don Giovanni on October 29, 1787.
Although you’ll come back here the next day, now’s also a good time to wander Josefov, the famed former Jewish Quarter. At one time, this section of Prague was the only area Jews were allowed to live in. The Emperor Josef did away with this law in the late 18th century when he emancipated the Jews with a series of laws including where they could live. Although much of the quarter was demolished in the late 19th/early 20th centuries (it had long since become a slum) to resemble Paris, numerous Jewish sites of importance survive to this day.
Even as you pass by the numerous designer shops on Pařížská (Paris) Street, take a moment to envision Josefov from five or more centuries ago, when it would have resembled a shtetl from Eastern Europe rather than the cosmopolitan look and feel it has today. (Czech Jews didn’t start to prosper until the reforms by Emperor Josef were enacted; many lived in poverty before).
And even though most people today won’t know of the name without context, keep on walking towards the Vltava River to Jan Palach Square. Palach was a university student who in 1969 immolated himself as a political protest against the end of Prague Spring following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact armies. Prague Spring had brought about a period of liberalization and other reforms. The invasion changed all that and Palach and millions of other Czechs were outraged. He was only 20.
There are no shortage of restaurants in Prague but just be sure to do your research so you leave impressed by your meal. Might I suggest the goulash (no, Hungary doesn’t have total claim to that) and anything with duck (that particular bird is huge in Czech cuisine).
Okay, call it a night. You’ve walked and seen enough since you still have two full days left.
Josefov, the city’s Jewish Quarter, is the perfect place to start your first full day in Prague. Most of the main sights comprise the Jewish Museum which opens at 9AM. Try to be there right when places open for as the morning goes on, the tour groups descend upon Josefov. You can save time standing in line to purchase your ticket by getting it in advance online. Tickets are 300 CK (around $12USD) and include a nominal service fee. Tickets are also valid for seven days (you select the day of your initial visit), and considering the ticket is for seven sites, it’s more than a bargain.
Just remember that sites in the Jewish Quarter close early on Friday and are closed entirely on Saturday-the Jewish Sabbath. They’re especially crowded on Sundays so plan accordingly.
It’s recommended to start your day at Pinkas Synagogue. This is the site of the country’s memorial to its 80,000 Jewish Holocaust victims with each of their names inscribed on the walls. Victim names are grouped by the communities they came from with their full names listed, along with date of birth and death if known. If their date of death wasn’t known, the date they were deported is listed instead. It’s one of the most visually difficult places you’ll ever visit but completely worth it. Come early because the mass tour groups will undoubtedly detract from the solemnity of such a place.
Next up is the Old Jewish Cemetery which is accessed by going through Pinkas. This is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe and fortunately remained completely intact during World War II (unlike countless others throughout Europe). For centuries Jewish people could only be buried here in Josefov, and so it’s believed there are around 12,000 tombstones in the cemetery. Space was constantly an issue and since Jewish custom forbids the moving of old graves, the dead were literally buried on top of the dead, in some cases twelve layers deep. Take a moment for it to sink in, that so many people could be buried in such a small space.
There are still five other sites you can check out in the Jewish Museum. You can (probably) make it to all of them if you do a quick run through at each of them. Otherwise, if you do want to have more meaningful visits, you’ll want to pick a couple of true and genuine interest to you. The Maisel Synagogue has a permanent exhibition on Jews in Bohemian lands from the 10th to 18th centuries, whereas the exhibit at the Klausen Synagogue focuses on Jewish customs and traditions. The Spanish Synagogue is the newest in Josefov (only dating from the 19th century) but is known for its opulent Moorish interior.
Even though it’s not part of the Jewish Museum, don’t miss out on the Old-New Synagogue. It’s Europe’s oldest active synagogue (yes, that’s right, a building dating from 1270 is STILL in use!) and being inside makes you feel as if you’ve gone back in time. Especially since to enter it, you descend from street level into what was street level back in medieval times.
If you’re looking for that quintessential quirky photo op, be sure to pose with “Franz” which is right outside of the Spanish Synagogue. Franz Kafka is one of Prague’s most famous sons and in 2004 a monument was finally erected in honor of him, only fitting since he spent most of his life here in Josefov.
Since you’re in the general area, head up to Perníčkův sen, a shop whose tantalizing aroma will tempt you even before you arrive at its doorstop. If you thought gingerbread was boring, think again. This shop sells an amazing variety of sweets to munch on as well as perfect souvenirs to take home with you since it’s safe to say no one else will have them. But do yourself a favor and buy a bunch of goodies to go. They’ll also make a perfect breakfast treat when paired with a coffee.
It has to be said, you’re in Prague and you truly need a food primer since there’s so much more to Czech cuisine than just beer and dumplings (all good but not all there is). Going with a food tour would be a wise choice since guides are always locals who are going to take you to the best and most authentic spots.
After your food tour, you’re probably going to want to walk off the thousands of calories you just consumed. Start the trek to Karlův most (Charles Bridge), the most crowded pedestrian bridge you’ll probably ever cross.
If you had dreams of getting an iconic picture of the bridge with Prague Castle in the background, well, think again. That or come back in the early morning hours or late at night. But the bridge is popular with both locals and tourists and standing there gazing at the spectacular scenery around you is one of the most vivid reminders on exactly where you are.
If you’re a bit hungry by now, grab a snack from one of the city’s most unique dining spots, the Grand Café Orient. It’s the city’s only cubist café, designed in 1912 where every detail inside the café, indoors and outdoors (there’s a small patio seating area), big and small is cubist themed. It’s certainly a conversation starter when you return home.
Okay, you’ve seen and done a lot. Call it a day because tomorrow you have the indomitable Prague Castle.
Today’s the day you’ll visit Prague Castle, the big kahuna of Prague sites. And don’t let the name fool you- it’s so much more than just a castle. Dating from the 9th century, it was built and renovated during 13 centuries and includes everything from churches, gardens, alleyways, and royal residences. All of this means it’s almost the size of seven football fields. Today it’s the residence of the Czech president.
There are a couple of ways of getting there including by foot (this is recommended instead for the return trip since then it’s just going down as opposed to climbing up-remember, castles back in medieval times were built high up for strategic vantage points), taxi (pricier than it needs to be), or tram.
Tram #22 will literally take you to the castle’s front door (well, one of them that is). You can catch #22 at a variety of spots; one of the easiest is Národní třída or “National Avenue.” Just remember to purchase your ticket before boarding as the driver does not sell them. Many hotels sell tram tickets, but you can also purchase them at the many Tabák or Trafika (newspaper/tobacco) stands around the city. Also be sure to validate your ticket at one of the machines once you board, otherwise there’s the potential of getting a steep cash fine on the spot. For more information on public transportation in Prague, click here.
The nice thing about Tram 22’s route is that you really get to see the city as it traverses through both famous spots and local neighborhoods. Prague’s trams have been in operation for decades now and they’re a beautiful ode to the past that are still going strong.
To make the most use of your time, get off at the Pražský hrad (Prague Castle) stop. The grounds of the castle complex open at 6AM. However, the buildings themselves don’t open until 9AM and unfortunately you can’t purchase tickets ahead of time. It’s not a bad idea to get there closer to 8AM to wander the grounds and take pictures that don’t feature masses of tourists and then start to queue up to purchase tickets at half after. There are three places to purchase tickets, so don’t stand in the first (long) line you see.
You have multiple ticket options to choose from, but opt for Circuit B as it gives you access to the most popular sights. Your plan of attack should begin with St. Vitus Cathedral. Home to the seat of the Archbishop of Prague, this Gothic cathedral is the largest and most important in the country. Founded in 930, the current cathedral dates from 1344 and contains the tombs of numerous Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors and was also the site of royal coronations.
The interior is breathtaking but its piece de resistance is its stained glass window by Czech’s most famous artist, Alfons Mucha, which depicts the origins of Christianity in the Czech Republic.
When you’ve tired of the mobs of people inside the cathedral (the tour groups are undoubtedly the worst), move on to your next stop which is the Old Royal Palace. There isn’t a ton to see inside here but its balconies offer prime views of the city. Don’t miss the portrait of Emperor Joseph II that was painted in such a way to resemble the first American president, George Washington. It was de rigueur apparently.
Next up is St. George’s Basilica, the oldest church building within the Prague Castle grounds. It was founded by Prince Vratislav in 920 (father to King Wenceslas of the famous Christmas song). The interior of the basilica resembles something out of biblical times, or more realistically, when Christianity was first spreading. Its ceiling is made of wood and beautiful frescos can be found in the dome. King Wenceslas’ dad and grandmother (St. Ludmila) are both buried here.
Okay, so a visit to Golden Lane is going to leave you feeling utterly disappointed because you haven’t seen crowds till you’ve seen Golden Lane, but you need to pass through this area anyway in order to exit. Golden Lane probably got its name from goldsmiths who were the street’s first inhabitants. Over the centuries craftsmen and servants at the Castle lived here. A famous Czech writer actually lived at #22 for a short period of time. Naturally, #22 today is a Franz Kafka themed gift shop.
Now that you’ve exhausted all there is of your Circuit B ticket, think of someplace to go to lunch. Numerous options abound close to the Prague Castle grounds or continue to climb upward to Strahov, home to two breathtaking 17th century libraries, a monastery, and numerous eateries. You’ve worked up quite an appetite with all of your morning touring exploits so be sure to indulge.
The best thing about Prague Castle’s location is that you have to pass through the Malá Strana (Lesser Town) neighborhood in order to return to Old Town. This means you’re going to walk by some beautiful buildings, many of which are painted in the loveliest of pastel colors. It should come as no surprise that many of these buildings today are home to foreign embassies (who wouldn’t want to live in one of them?).
If it’s open, stop in the U bileho jablka shop on Uvoz #1. It sells miniature hand painted reproductions of some of Prague’s most famous buildings. No “made in China” merchandise here.
You may have been wondering when you’re going to get some views from above Prague. Well, the answer is now. You’re in close proximity to the Church of St. Nicholas. A baroque church built in the early-mid 18th century, its tower is the real jewel here. Featuring a fraction of the crowds seen at the Old Town Hall for its observatory, the views here are just as spectacular. And fun fact-during Communist times, the church tower was off limits to most folks as party officials used it to spy on the American, British, and West German embassies.
Okay, the time has come to cross back over the Charles Bridge. Just prepare yourself and keep an eye on your belongings as afternoons can often be the worst in terms of crowds.
It’s not a bad time to return to your hotel for a little R & R since there’s still the evening to come.
You haven’t made it to any museums on this trip but now is the time to do so. There are plenty to choose from but perhaps go for two more unique ones-the Museum of Communism and the Mucha Museum (remember his name from earlier?). Both are located in New Town although an added bonus of the Museum of Communism is that it’s open until 8PM every night.
As easy as it is for visitors today to see a stunning Prague full of beautifully preserved historic buildings and other charming sites, don’t forget that it was also under Communist rule for 41 years and during that time life was bleak, hard, and oppressive. The Museum of Communism does a great job in educating you on this dark period in the country’s history.
For your final dinner in Prague, make it a special one. You can go the simple yet authentic route by getting street food from the stands outside of the Old Town Hall (haluski, the famous Prague ham, sausage) or if you planned in advance, a restaurant like Terasa U Prince, whose outdoor dining area almost 10 stories up offers you the most incredible views of Old Town Square.
Prague is one of the prettiest cities in the world and you will no doubt return again one day. But for now, relish the wonderful time you had here.
If you do have a fourth day at your disposal, definitely take a day trip, although if you only have three, stick to the above itinerary. Prague’s location makes it possible to visit places like Plzeň (home to the famous Pilsner beer), Kutna Hora (an ancient silver mining town), and Terezin (the Nazi ghetto/concentration camp). All of these sites are less than two hours away from Prague and can be accessed via public transportation or by tour groups.