Prague, often called The City of a Thousand Spires due to its magnificent architecture, has everything to seduce even the most exacting travelers: narrow cobblestone streets, misterious Jewish quarter, breathtaking modern boulevards, a rich variety of museums, cathedrals, towers, churches - not to mention the largest ancient castle in the world, the unique generous Czech cuisine and the intense nightlife. It’s always pleasant to stroll around this city, admiring spectacular coloured buildings, and a particular joy to discover suddenly those unexpected monuments and statues scattered everywhere: from a man hanging in the air between the roofs to the black babies climbing the TV Tower. Don’t forget to tour the beer pubs and absinthe bars, as the prices will definitely make you fall in love with Prague (1-1,5€ for a pint of great fresh beer) and to meet the sunset on the Charles Bridge!
Which season to choose and which to avoid?
Having so many things to offer, Prague has become a very popular tourist destination. Condé Nast Traveler has recently given it the third place in its Top 10 Cities in Europe: Readers’ Choice Awards 2014, right after Florence and Budapest. In order to feel the intimacy and elegance of Prague, it’s crucial to visit it at the right time - otherwise you risk finding yourself in the middle of the crowd slowly moving from the Old Town Square to the Charles Bridge - asking yourself whether it would have been better to stay at home and why on the planet one may love this overcrowded city.
Photo credits to amateur photography by michel via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
January and February are the calmest months in Prague: there are few tourists, and you won’t experience any queues at the touristic places. Hotels and tickets rates are the cheapest, and it’s probably the only time of the year when you can find yourself standing at the country’s main landmark - Charles’ Bridge - alone (okay, almost alone). The downside is that it may be quite cold in Prague these months, with a snow and cold winds, some outdoor sights (gardens or parks, few of them) may be closed and most tourist attractions have shorter opening hours.
March and April: tourists mostly start arriving around Easter, and Easter week itself is a very, very crowded period (though certainly a nice one). The rest of these months can be considered as shoulder season, with crowds mostly tolerable and not bothersome.
May is one of the peak months: relatively calm during the weekdays, the city receives huge waves of tourists for the weekends of the 1st of May and the 8th-9th of May. It’s very busy everywhere, crowds are almost inevitable (almost means we still have a solution, keep on reading) and hotel rates rise up to 3-4 times the average price. Most visitors try to spend more time in the city, so a day or two before (Thu, Fri) and after (Mon, Tue) those weekends also experience bigger crowds. After around May 11, the weekdays get calm again, though flocks of weekend tourists will be invading Prague on every weekend until around October.
June is a great option to discover Prague’s main sites under the sun in relatively calm atmosphere: there are usually less crowds than in May and much less than in the following busy summer months. A number of great outdoor activities is available, including the catamaran ride on the Vltava river just a few minutes away from the center, green parks to relax and cafe terraces to savour artisanal Czech beer or a glass of Moravian vine after a long day of sight-seeing. Enjoy!
July and August is the busiest period of the year, especially the month of August. Early booking is needed for hotels, tickets and tours. It’s common to arrive at a popular bar just to find out that all tables are booked for the evening! It’s still possible to enjoy the city, and the main clues are to get off the beaten track, include day trips to nearby cities and sites, and choose off-peak hours for visiting the main city attractions.
Once the summer crowds gone, Prague takes a sigh of relief. It’s still quite busy in September (the weather is ideal - pleasantly warm) though queues become times shorter. Consider it as alternative to the month of June. The rates won’t be cheap and on weekends the crowds are still present on the central places, but it’s quite easy to avoid those and enjoy your trip.
The colder it gets - the less tourists you’ll see in the city. November and December are quiet months, except for the Christmas Holidays’ period. With the lightnings and the Christmas markets it’s a great time to be in Prague, though in order to avoid crowds the best solution would be to arrive a week or two before the start of the holidays.
Photo credits to Monika Ďuríčková via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Being one of the city’s top attractions, the Charles Bridge can get really overcrowded during the peak hours.
Try to visit the Charles Bridge early in the morning, before crowds arrive. With the merchants coming on place around 9-9.30am the bridge is usually quiet until around 10am. After it gets more and more crowded, with peak hours falling between noon and 3pm.
Prefer leaving the bridge’s visit for a weekday, it’s always calmer, compared to weekends. Come mid-week to discover it when the tourists’ number is the lowest in the city.
Tip: You should consider that right after the stroke of every hour - about 5-10 minutes later - there’s a huge wave of tourists flowing to the bridge from the Old Town Square. Many groups are waiting to see the Astronomical Clock before heading to the Prague Castle through the Charles Bridge. Try to avoid visiting the Charles bridge at this time.
During high season you may feel a certain disgust following the crowds from the Old Town Square to the Charles Bridge via the tourist-infested and souvenir-engorged Karlova street. Know that you can cut the way (and avoid that tourist hell) through the Clementinum: enjoy a peaceful stroll through a 14th-century courtyard.
Photo credits to Joe Ross via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
On the bridge you’ll see a lot of tourists crowding in front on the Jan Nepomuk statue - he was a queen’s confessor who was thrown off the bridge for refusing to reveal the confessions to the king. As the legend says, he fulfills the wishes, but actually the process of wishmaking is not defined clearly, all guides tell different things, so here’s a complete instruction on wish-making:
Now, when you’ve crossed the bridge, you’ll probably want to visit the famous Prague Castle - another must-see place. As we’ve already said, it’s the largest ancient castle in the world occupying an area of almost 70,000 m2. Almost every tourist arriving to Prague visits it, and during peak hours that may make your visit rather unpleasant: queues for the tickets, queues to enter St Vitus Cathedral, crowds inside, having to wait even to make panoramic photos.. actually that’s what your visit may look like:
The main tip is to visit the Castle either early in the morning, or after 3pm. The biggest crowds are in place around noon, and actually in high season the castle area remains quite busy from 10am to 2pm.
To avoid the crowds, choose a weekday for your visit.
Study the plan of the castle and define places you want to visit in the area. The ticket you’ll have to buy will depend on what you want to see:
Circuit A (the big tour): it includes St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, exhibition, The Story of Prague Castle, St. George’s Basilica, Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower, Powder Tower, Rosenberg Palace.
Circuit B (the small tour): it costs cheaper and gives you access just to the main sights (St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower).
Circuit C: The Treasure of St. Vitus Cathedral exhibition and the Prague Castle Picture Gallery. For those two tickets may be bought separately.
Find the location of the ticket offices on the map before coming, there are many of them: in the second and in the third courtyards, in the Prague Castle Picture Gallery, in the Old Royal Palace and two ticket offices in the Golden Lane and in Lobkowicz Palace. The biggest queue to the ticket office is usually the one in the second courtyard.
The best way to avoid crowds is to come in the morning, right at the opening: the first hour sees the smallest number of visitors.
Fridays and Sundays are the busiest day of the week. Prefer coming mid-week for a quieter experience.
All the venues of the Jewish Museum are closed on Saturdays, consider it while planning your trip! For the weekend trippers the advice would be therefore to hit the Jewish museum on Friday afternoon: though it may also be crowded, Sunday tends to be much busier.
There is a number of ticket offices, where you can buy tickets for the Jewish Museum. We advise to buy them at the recently opened Resevation and Information Center at Maislova 15. There tend to be less queues, you can rent an audioguide, and get more general information about the Jewish quarter.
It may happen that you fall right behind a big and loud tour group or a group of schoolers. Better just wait 10 minutes before they pass farther for a quieter visit.
Photo credits to thomas via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Some of the venues are big enough to receive an important number of tourists, and crowds will not be of big importance. In other ones, however, they may bother you more. That’s why we advise you the following itinerary to avoid crowds at least where those are the most disturbing:
Start from the Pinkas Synagogue & Old Jewish Cemetery
If you come during the high season, on busy periods or on Sunday - start at the museum’s opening with these two. Pinkas Synagogue is the most touchy monument, along with its collection of children drawing. That will be much more comfortable and moving to discover it without being elbowed here and there. The Old Jewish Cemetery is another place where quiet and solitude will influence your visit - staying alone (or almost) here is striking. During peak hours you may feel yourself a herded cow - there is a constant flow of visitors in the cemetery’s alleys.
Then head to the Ceremonial Hall & Klausen synagogue
Ceremonial Hall also has narrow stairs and there may form queues to enter it, that’s why it’s better to visit it before the main crowds arrive as well. Klausen synagogue is rather big, so even with many visitors inside you’ll be able to discover the collection without any difficulties. If you want absolutely to follow the exhibitions in the chronological order - then visit the Klausen synagogue first before heading to Ceremonial Hall for the second part of the exhibition on Jewish customs and traditions.
Finish your visit at the Spanish Synagogue
It’s big and impressive: crowds won’t be a problem and the aftertaste of the visit will be memorable. This synagogue is located a bit aside of the other museum’s sites, so in order not to lose time it should be visited either first or last. We’d recommend to save it for last. The Kafka Monument is right by the side, and once the Synagogue is visited, that would be a great starting point to explore the Jewish quarter on foot.
Considering that this museum is really small (just a couple of rooms), coming when it’s not crowded is crucial to enjoy your visit. Dedicated to one of the most outstanding Czech artists, Alphonse Mucha, this venue hosts a beautiful collection of his posters, graphics, paintings and photos.
A tour of the rooms will probably take around half an hour, and in the last room you’ll be able to watch a film about Mucha’s life. A number of seating places is limited, and the film is quite long. It goes in loop, so ask at the ticket office when approximately will be the next session, and try to be there in time to take a place.
This museum is a bit off the beaten track, it’s generally calm and gets crowded only during peak periods. The best time to visit it is in the afternoon, an hour or two before the closing time. There are significantly more visitors on weekends.
Try not to leave the visit of this museum for the last day of your stay, as you may decide after the film to see the famous Mucha’s “Slav Epic” series, unfortunately hosted in another gallery - Veletržní palác. In case you’d like to see some more from the artist or you got in love with Art Nouveau during your visit - don’t miss the Municipal House, the best example of Art Nouveau’s architecture in Prague! The interiors are amazing, and tickets for the guided tour can be easily booked online.
If you arrive at this place incidentally, you will definitely be surprised at certain times by huge crowds who seem just… to remain standing in the middle of the place looking at the Town Hall! Actually, the highlight is the wonderful early 15th-century Astronomical Clock: each hour, it springs to life as the 12 Apostles and other figures appear and parade in procession across the clock face.
It seems to be the most crowded spot in the city: all tour groups seem to arrive to the place at the point of an hour, as well as all Prague’s pickpockets. Apart from the advise to keep an eye or a hand on your wallet all the time, here’s a couple of other tips:
1) Read the clock’s story before seeing it. That’s essential, otherwise you will probably have an “Is it all?” feeling.
2) Prague is all about walking, and the Old Town Square is a short walk from many city attractions. Don’t put the clock as a separate spot on your plan list, but rather check the time and if you’re around 5-10 minutes before the clock strike and you’re not far - consider going to the Old Town Square to assist it. The Jewish Quarter is right by the corner, so you may see the clock on your way there or back, for example.
3) There’s no sense in coming half an hour before the clock strike to take the best place for a one-minute show. You’ll lose time and will feel irritated with some imprudent tourists arriving at the very last moment and finding their place in front of you.
Photo credits to Gary Bembridge via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
4) The good spot for watching is right in front of the clock and not very close to the Old Town Hall. If you’re too at the left or at the right - there’s a high risk you won’t see the apostols’ figures in one of the windows.
5) Don’t even think of going in the direction of Charles Bridge right after the Clock stroke - you’ll see that most tourists on the place will do so, and the big swamp of people will slowly crawl there. Drink a coffee, or take a stroll in the opposite way.
Those are two main sites for the city views, and frankly, there’s no sense in doing both - visiting one would be enough. The Tower on the Petrin Hill looks like a mini Eiffel Tower, located on a green hill area, accessible on foot (around half-an-hour of walking) or a funicular ride. The TV Tower is a modern-looking building in Zizkov area, mostly known for sculptures of black babies crawling on it.
Both Towers are quite off the track, and make good destinations to escape the Old City’s crowds. There may however be long queues for the funicular ride at Petrin during the busiest periods.
Actually, if you come to Prague in spring or summer and the weather is good - we’d recommend the Petrin Hill, as you’ll be able to enjoy other activities as well: stroll through the park and gardens, seeing the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, the Observatory, visiting the Hall of Mirrors (a maze for children), and so on.
If the weather is not perfect, it’s cold, you plan to avoid crowds as much as possible, or you stay in Zizkov area - then the TV Tower will be better for you, as generally it has a lower visitors’ number.
If waiting even a little bit may take the shine off your trip - there’s nothing left but to encourage you take a walk through the city. Prague has tons of outdoor surprises: parks, monuments, markets, exceptional buildings facades - here’s just a small part of those:
Ruins of Trosky Castle during the busy weekend of May 1st - you have the place all to yourself
If you’ll happen to be in Prague on an August weekend or the 1st of May - we mean, during the busiest periods of the year, think of escaping the city and visit the ancient castles or go hiking. Of course, you may do it at any other time of the year, if that’s the kind of activities you like.
We highly recommend the Bohemian Paradise area - Prachovské rocks: a beautiful natural area with dramatic rock formations, deep shady valleys, meandering rivers and quiet ponds surrounded by forests.
The best thing: bye-bye the crowds! Even during the busiest periods once the area’s entrance passed - you’ll have an impression of being alone a couple of minutes later, in the middle of the alien-like landscape.
The difficulty is to get to the place: it’s very hard with the public trasport. Rent a car and go for an adventure! Close to the Prachovské rocks there are also the ruins of the Trosky Castle, that had once been a Gothic castle, founded at the end of the 14th century. Climb its towers for idyllic country scenes. There may sometimes form queues in August, but the visitors mostly arrive in groups, so it’s enough to wait about 10 minutes for the group to pass.
We’re waiting for your postcards, and šťastnou cestu! (Have a good trip!)