Century-Old Castles, Urban Renewal, and Czech Beer: The 4-Day Weekend in Prague

Prague at dusk
NaughtyNut / Shutterstock

Prague is a city of contrasts. Among the Gothic churches, Art Deco façades, and abundant Baroques are modern marvels—like Gehry’s deconstructivist Dancing House or the renewed business district rising from the city center. If you look toward the westward skyline, there’s the 1891 Eiffel-esque Petrin Tower, sprouting from the Malá Strana hills near the 9th-century Prague Castle. But across the Vltava River, looming over the city center, is the tripod Žižkov TV tower. Completed in 1992, it’s often voted the ugliest structure in the world, due to the naked alien babies that crawl up and down its sides.

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It’s these old and new contrasts that continually raise Prague’s profile against other European musts, like Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, or Barcelona. Prague has no shortage of tourists for this reason, and if you don’t budget enough days, you’ll spend the entire time in long lines or aimless crowds. Instead, you should slow yourself down, meander to the city’s graffiti-dotted haunts, and enjoy your Czech pints and wines at a fraction of the cost.

Here’s how to plan an awesome extended weekend in Prague—four days, to be precise—to experience all it has to offer.

The lobby of the Alcron Hotel Prague
The lobby of the Alcron Hotel Prague Courtesy Image

Where to Stay in Prague

The Alcron

The Alcron Hotel is a mainstay in Prague—erected in 1932 and still dripping with glorious Art Deco detail (think marble, suede, murals, statues). If you want to stay in the city center and be walking distance to the most essential stops—while also enjoying 5-star amenities and hospitality—then the Alcron is an obvious choice. You’ve got a fully equipped gym with saunas and a spa, plus three onsite eateries: the oft-Michelin-starred Alcron, with A+ presentation and pairings (and the most Art Deco room you’ve ever seen); La Rotonde for breakfast, fixe-prix lunch menus, and hearty fine dining come night; and Be Bop Bar, serving cheeky cocktails with a dash of good humor. There’s an old saying in Prague that anyone who cooks really well “cooks like the Alcron,” and you’ll take that adage home with you. But be warned—this is the kind of hotel you feel like you could live in.

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Mama Shelter

At the other end of the hospitality spectrum is Mama Shelter, a boisterous and colorful hot spot in Holešovice. That location is a big draw if you want to step out of the center and surround yourself with Prague’s young creative class. Mama Shelter fits the bill, with its colorful decor and equally vibrant food-and-drink menus. Their modern rooms accommodate any budget, and like any other Mama Shelter property, Prague’s is a great place to meet other travelers.

The Vltava river and the Charles bridge beside Old Town Bridge Tower in Prague
The Vltava river and the Charles bridge beside Old Town Bridge Tower in Prague Mistervlad / Shutterstock

What to Do in Prague

Day 1: Prague Castle, Letná, Holešovice

Give the first half of your day to Prague Castle. It’s more of a castle compound, with numerous attractions contained inside. Entrance is free, but many of the interior sites charge a small fee. Get there early, before the ticketed spots open at 9 a.m. (the grounds open at 6 a.m.), since tourism groups will clog the security line entrances to the museums and churches. Those crowds typically dissipate by midday, making the final hours another quiet time to visit (3-5 p.m.). Get there by hopping on tram No. 22, or fare the steep stairs if you want to walk your way up from the St. Charles Bridge.) Once inside, prioritize the Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, and St. Vitus Cathedral, all of which can be purchased together with a bundled ticket. The other must-sees are the various garden grounds, as well as the Lobkowicz Palace, a private collection of paintings, ceramics, artifacts, and composer manuscripts (from the likes of Beethoven and Mozart). There’s also a good cafe, if you need a pick-me-up.

Next, point yourself to the neighborhood of Letná, a few dollars away via taxi or a short tram ride. It’s also walking distance from the castle, and offers equally picturesque panoramas of Prague from atop the hilly Letná Park, where the city’s infamous Stalin statue once stood. In its place now is a giant metronome overlooking skater punks and musical buskers. Savor the views with a beer in hand, then make your way for lunch. You’ll be hard-pressed to stay hungry in Letná, with the number of bars, beer gardens and restaurants springing up from the city’s younger populations. Try Letná Beer Garden for drafts with a view; Mr. Hot Dog for a bevy of (you guessed it) hot dog varieties, sliders, and French fries; Alchymista for a coffee break within the Stromovka Park Japanese gardens; or Erhart Cafe to satisfy your sweet tooth.

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Letná is where you’ll get your first major contrast of the trip. The 9th-century castle grounds and pockets of the neighborhood feel almost as gritty as if it were 1989, when Letná was released from the grips of communism. But that’s not to imply it lacks grandeur and scale: Keep your eyes peeled for cultural staples like National Gallery Prague, National Museum Lapidarium sculpture grounds, and see what’s happening at the Výstaviště exhibition center—though its Art Nouveau Industrial Palace is worth seeing from the outside.

With a few hours left in your day, head to the neighboring Holešovice. You’ve got two key priorities: First, meander DOX Center for Contemporary Art, inhabiting an old factory and capped with the 42-meter-long “Gulliver Airship”. Secondly, settle into Vnitroblock and peruse its artist huts, record shops, and cafes. It’s here you’ll get a real taste of Prague’s 20- and 30-somethings who would prefer to avoid the city-center chaos. Instead, they meet over beers and music, preferring a more energetic and eclectic space.

The medieval astronomical clock at Old Town Hall in Prague
The medieval astronomical clock at Old Town Hall in Prague IvenSchloesser / Shutterstock

Day 2: Old Town and Karlín

Today, you’ll knock out the key central stops. At some point, be sure to catch the hourly bells from beneath the Astronomical Clock as it rotates a cast of religious characters. Your hour-long guided tour of the clock will show you the 15th-century mechanism up close, too, including its apostolic cast. Give yourself an hour to tour Old Town Hall, or book a tour to see even more of the site, including its underground cellars. Then, add another hour to meander the many side streets of Old Town, much of which is rendered gimmicky due to the high foot traffic and central location. Cross the St. Charles Bridge, which will surely be lined with tourists. (It’s much better from afar, in photographs.) This is a necessary part of your visit, as it leads to a few attractions on the other side of the Vltava River.

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Peacocks freely wander the Wallenstein Garden in Prague
Peacocks freely wander the Wallenstein Garden in Prague Viacheslav Kotov / Shutterstock

First, point yourself to the Wallenstein Gardens (free entry), where you can ogle regal peacocks; a stunning grotto-esque drip wall that wraps an owl’s den; and a beautifully manicured garden, complete with a koi pond. Next is your chance to walk over to the Lennon Peace Wall and the Kafka Museum. The last hours of your day will be spent in picturesque Karlín. It sits across from yesterday afternoon’s destinations, Letná and Holešovice, though it’s got far fewer cultural institutions. You’re here to get a feel for Prague’s recent history—a neighborhood devastated by the floods of 2002 and since reborn. In some ways, that flood is responsible for its renovations, as Karlín was previously seen as too industrial by visitors. Today, it’s bustling with locals and still showcases magnificent Art Nouveau and Baroque structures, in addition to foodie favorites like Manifesto Market, as well as cafes galore, like EMA Espresso Bar. Meander the former factory grounds of Forum Karlín, photo-ready Lyčkovo Square, and Invalidovna, which houses Czechia’s Ministry of Defense. Walk up to Vítkov Hill to see the Jan Žižka military monument. Stay in the area for dinner, and pick between the down-to-earth and delightfully Czech Lokál or the equally Czech, but slightly more posh Eska.

Day 3: Malá Strana and Vyšehrad

Today is not just a contrast of old and new, but also one of exertion and indulgence.

Start the day with a hike through Malá Strana, which you may hear referred to as “Lesser Town.” (This is extrapolated from its literal translation of “Little Side Town,” since it sits beside the castle hill and across the river from the city center.) You can hike up to the Strahov Monastery (complete with its own well-regarded brewery onsite); or, you can begin atop the hill and meander down the Petrin hillside, below the Petrin Tower (again, that’s the Eiffel-esque one). You can climb the tower’s 299 stairs if you want an uninterrupted panorama from the top.

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Here’s where yesterday’s trek across the Charles Bridge slightly overlaps with today’s agenda: Either day, spend some time at the base of the hill (near the river) browsing the shops along Mostecká Street. This is your second chance to see Wallenstein Gardens. Then, head south along the riverbank to the Legion Bridge. Cross here, then meander slightly south to Slovanic Island, which has a walkable inlet. Marvel at the Neo-Renaissance Žofín Palace, then block off an hour to rent a paddle boat. Hit the river and relax with a new perspective of the city.

David Černý's "Head of Franz Kafka" outside the Quadrio center in Prague
David Černý’s “Head of Franz Kafka” outside the Quadrio center in Prague Paul Carter Photography / Shutterstock

After, walk south along the east bank, past the famous Dancing House (nicknamed Fred and Ginger, after Astaire and Roger), a 1996 completion by architects Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry. Continue south to Vyšehrad, for lunch. Get the dumplings at häppies. Meander through the Vyšhehrad Cemetery, where numerous significant Czech artists are buried. Watch out for the magnificent Slavín tomb.

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Among Prague’s many architectural faces, Cubism stands out as one of the most prominent. You’ll see numerous examples of it outside the center, but Vyšehrad has it in droves. So look up! Make your way into Vyšehrad Gardens for city views, statues aplenty, and of all things, a fortress vineyard on the grounds of Vyšehrad Castle. Retire to the city center, making stops to see Wenceslas Square and the King Wenceslas monument; the shimmery, rotating Kafka head; or slip into Lucerna for a glance at the upsidedown equestrian statue outside Lucerna Music Bar. Head to dinner at The Alcron Hotel, at either La Rotonde (hearty fine dining) or The Alcron (for a special occasion, reservations necessary).

In Karlovy Vary, the embankment of the Tepla river in autumn
In Karlovy Vary, the embankment of the Tepla river in autumn Irina Papoyan / Shutterstock

Day 4: Vinohrady Half Day, or an Out-of-Town Day Trip

If you’ve only got part of the day to spare, then spend it in Vinohrady, a popular residential neighborhood just outside the center. Náměstí Míru is the square at the heart of it all, and home to the Church of St. Ludmila. Take detours to Na Švihance Street, Mánesova Street, and Římská Street to get your parting shots of Prague’s architecturally diverse façades. Hike up to the Valley of a Thousand Queens (yes, actually) for a hilltop view of the entire city. It’s optimal at sunset, but you can treat this as a metaphorical sunset on your visit. Grab beers or wine, which you can tote with you and drink in public—try Vinotéka Noelka for wine to-go—and toast to a job well done. If you’ve got time for lunch, have it at U Bulínů for a final taste of Czech cuisine.

Have a full day to spare? Consider a day trip. There’s Karlovy Vary with its mineral-rich hot springs, the quaint and churchy Kutná Hora, or the public baths at Mariánské Lázně (aka Marionbad).

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