Prague with Charles Bridge in the background, iStock

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My head was full of recommendations from friends, friends of friends, guidebooks, and the rabbit hole of internet suggestions. Visiting a place like Prague that was new to me, but that so many people have strong emotional connections with, became a balancing act of taking in received wisdom while also allowing for my own experience and discoveries. 

I stumbled through the Vaclav Havel International Airport after a long flight from Newark’s EWR to the heart of Central Europe for a week-long stay.

At the other end of the vast parking lot in front of the airport, I sought out a meeting point where I could catch an Uber (Never take a taxi! more than a few had advised). En route to downtown Prague, I wasn’t prepared for the spring delight of brilliant yellow blooms on either side of the highway – the driver informed me that what I was seeing were mustard flowers.

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This was my first indication that the common thread of recollections – Prague is beautiful! – would prove true.

Fields of Mustard flowers. Photo by Ellen Kahaner
Fields of Mustard flowers. Photo by Ellen Kahaner

I stashed my luggage at a youth hostel, since it was a few hours until AIRBNB check-in time, and revived myself with a double macchiato at the cafe across the street. 

Always one to get an overview, whether by hop-on hop-off bus or by foot with GPS on my phone, I recalled what a seasoned traveler told me: The best thing I did in Prague was I Like eBike! I found the office of I Like eBike and set off. 

The cobbled stone streets and uphill climbs of the city would have been a challenge without an ebike. And having a guide was important – not all the streets have marked bike lanes, and in many instances, crowds of pedestrians ignore the narrow sidewalks, walk in the alleyways, and stand in large groups in the squares. It was a big help to have a navigator leading the way.

Skirting the crowds of tourists over the Charles Bridge on bike was a feat. Photo by Ellen Kahaner
Skirting the crowds of tourists over the Charles Bridge on bike was a feat. Photo by Ellen Kahaner
View from the heights of Letenske Park. Photo by Ellen Kahaner
View from the heights of Letenske Park. Photo by Ellen Kahaner

An Exhilarating Ride in Letenske Park

I took an exhilarating ride up the serpentine paths of Letenske Park, to the giant metronome that stands above what the guide called “the largest beer garden in Prague.” The panoramic view of the Old City and the stone bridges crossing the Vltava River took my breath away. 

Also edifying were tidbits about life before the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and the peaceful overthrow after 41 years of Communist rule, plus practical advice, like don’t bother taking out big sums of cash from the blue and yellow ATMs – everyone takes contactless credit cards.

The 75 foot Metronome in Letenske Park, symbolizing the beat of freedom, replaces the giant statue of Joseph Stalin. Photo by Ellen Kahaner
The 75 foot Metronome in Letenske Park, symbolizing the beat of freedom, replaces the giant statue of Joseph Stalin. Photo by Ellen Kahaner

A Great Place to Get Lost

Back on foot for several days, I found that Prague is a great place to get lost. I was dazzled by the array of architectural styles that lined up next to each other: Baroque statuary, Gothic spires, Renaissance columns, and ornate Rococo stylings, as well as modernist construction like Frank Gehry’s Dancing House (inspired by the silhouettes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers). 

Czech Folk Music

I didn’t have to get advance tickets, go indoors, or pay money to listen to music. A sandwich board sign in front of the Senate palace announced a free afternoon concert. As I was serenaded by Czech folk music, my eyes wandered to the lush gardens of purple tulips and pale yellow daffodils, and the peacocks that strutted among the visitors to the Wallenstein Garden. 

Guess which building is the Dancing House. Photo by Ellen Kahaner
Guess which building is the Dancing House. Photo by Ellen Kahaner
Serenaded by Czech folk music. Photo by Ellen Kahaner
Serenaded by Czech folk music. Photo by Ellen Kahaner
Wallenstein Garden, in the baroque style, at the Senate palace. Photo by Ellen Kahaner
Wallenstein Garden, in the baroque style, at the Senate palace. Photo by Ellen Kahaner

Franz Kafka

My English major roots were stirred upon the discovery of a monument to Franz Kafka (Artist:Jaroslav Rona, 2003) riding piggyback on a headless figure, an image from Kafka’s only Prague-based story, “Description of a Struggle.” Kafka is celebrated with a museum and another striking sculpture: The Head of Franz Kafka (Artist: David Cerny, 2017), with mechanized rotating layers. 

Monument to Franz Kafka. Photo by Ellen Kahaner
Monument to Franz Kafka. Photo by Ellen Kahaner
The Head of Franz Kafka. Photo by Ellen Kahaner
The Head of Franz Kafka. Photo by Ellen Kahaner

Scores of people on the streets seemed to be eating the same kind of ice cream treat at all hours. What I learned was called a chimney cake resembles a churro wrapped into a cylindrical shape, filled with ice cream, and topped with whipped cream. I promised myself to have one for breakfast before I returned home.

The Jewish Quarter Is a Must-See

A tour of the Jewish Quarter of Prague was repeatedly mentioned as a ‘’must see”. For Eva Hnizdo, a retired doctor and longtime resident of Prague, it was also where she discovered she was Jewish. Hnizdo recounted a visit with her mother and relatives from Holland to the Pinkas Synagogue when she was 14.

The names of 77,297 Jewish Holocaust victims from Czechoslovakia are inscribed on the walls. Eva’s mother was pointing out the names of her father – Eva’s grandfather – and other relatives. 

“Are we Jewish?” Eva asked. Her mother had hidden this fact “to protect her.” Hnizdo’s 2021 book, Why Didn’t They Leave? tells the story of her Jewish Czech family. Little did I know that I would also find some of my own history in the Jewish Quarter.

I signed up online for a tour, and the guide, who had 30 years of experience, was a deep source of information. As the Jewish Quarter is so contained, it’s only a few minutes’ walk from one end to the other. The Spanish Synagogue, named for its Moorish design, is considered one of the most beautiful temples in Europe. 

The Old New Synagogue, which is the oldest active synagogue in the world, was completed in 1270. The Old Jewish Cemetery was in use from the early 1400s until 1789. New layers of soil were added to the surface many times because it could not expand in area, given that the Jews were only permitted to occupy a very small section of the city.

The gravesite markers are crowded together on the same spot. It is here that I found out that the Cohens, my father’s ancestral lineage, have a place of honor in the front of the cemetery. 

After grabbing a Lime bikeshare on the outskirts of Stromovka Park (It’s more beautiful than Central Park!), I cruised through the meandering lanes at a leisurely pace, observing locals walking their dogs without leashes and suited up women and men on their way to work. I inhaled the peaceful atmosphere. 

Leaving the park without a plan, I noticed the restaurant Lokál Nad Stromovkou, which was on one of the extended recommendations lists a friend had emailed to me. Patrons spilled out onto the sidewalk with tall mugs of Pilsner. 

Inside, a meal of goulash and bread dumplings satisfied every craving for a hearty meal without being too heavy. It was a perfect stop on my last day. I had seen the city in my own way, but also collected information to pass along to the next lucky friend who sets out to discover Prague.

Getting around Prague:

You can ride a tram (Tram 22 is particularly helpful) – remember to get your ticket validated – find a bikeshare, but mostly… pack your walking shoes!

Tram website: https://www.viewfromprague.com/prague-tram-22-route/?utm_content=cmp-true

If you go:

Tours:

Get Your Guide Walking Tour of Jewish Quarter

Maiselova 5, Stare Mesto, 110 00 Praha 1

Website: www.getyourguide.com

I Like eBike

Website: ilikeebike.com

Email address: [email protected]

Additional stops:

Safestay Prague Charles Bridge Hostel (Luggage stash)

Ostrovni15/131 Praha 1 – Nove Mesto, 11 00

Website: https://www.safestay.com/prague-charles-bridge/

Letenske Park

170 00 Praha 7 – Holesovice

Website: https://www.prague.eu/en/object/places/488/letna-parks-letenske-sady

Wallenstein Garden

118 00 Praha 1 – Mala Strana

Website: https://www.prague.eu/en/object/places/526/wallenstein-garden-valdstejnska-zahrada?back=1

Stromovka Park

Královská obora, Bubeneč, 170 00 Praha 7, Czechia

Website: https://www.praha.eu/jnp/cz/co_delat_v_praze/parky/stromovka/index.html

The Head of Franz Kafka

Charvátova, 110 00 Nové Město, Czechia

Website: https://www.quadrio.cz/en/franz-kafka-statue

Franz Kafka Monument

Next to the Spanish Synagogue:

Vězeňská 1, 110 00 Staré Město, Czechia

Kafka Museum

Cihelná 635, 118 00 Malá Strana, Czechia

Website: https://kafkamuseum.cz/en/

Lokál Nad Stromovkou

Nad Královskou oborou 232/31, 170 00 Praha 7-Bubeneč, Czechia

Website: https://lokal-nadstromovkou.ambi.cz/cz/

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Author Bio: Ellen Kahaner

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