Want some great Insiders’ Tips for traveling to Prague? I’ve got them. I’m not a Prague local, not at all. But I know one. And he led me to hidden spots and secret gardens I never would have found on my own. With these secrets of Prague, you can find them too.
Prague is a New Old City
A short 20 or so years ago, traveling to Prague still held a tinge of the exotic. The city and its people were just emerging from the shadows of foreign occupation and its Communist dictates. No more. Prague is now one of the hottest go-to spots in Europe. And for good reason. Its churches and monuments, squares and parks, twisty streets and beautiful buildings enchant the millions of tourists that now visit the city every year.
Everyone traveling to Prague wants to visit Prague Castle, walk across the Charles Bridge, and drink Czech pilsner in the famous beer gardens. A stop at the John Lennon wall, catching the changing of the hour on the Astronomical Clock, strolls through Old Town Square and Malá Strana—all but compulsory. And every guidebook can give you the information you need for all these Prague highlights.
But what are the secrets of Prague? What do the locals know about visiting Prague that the rest of us don’t? It was these kinds of non-touristy things to do in Prague I was looking for when I first visited this gorgeous city.
My Personal Guide to Hidden Prague.
I was lucky right out of the gate. When I decided I would be traveling to Prague, I booked an AirBnB room from a pair of guys, and one of them was a Tour guide! Guenther Krumpak, originally from Vienna, loves Prague and it shows. He has made it his personal mission to learn everything about the art, architecture, culture, history and quirks of his adopted city. And sharing that info with their guests is a labor of love.
Each morning after breakfast, he would spread a map of the city and ask, “What kind of experience do you want to have today?” Not “what do you want to see,” but basically “How do you want to feel?” His question opened my eyes to a new way to discover a city and led me to many experiences I would never have had on my own. I was so excited about his vision of Prague, that I hired him for a personal walking tour through this magical city. Best money I spent on my whole trip! Guenther’s insider information and knowledge of the hidden things not to miss in Prague led me up backstreets and into hidden gardens, to cups of coffee on almost deserted terraces and down stairways that Salieri might have traversed in the filming of Amadeus.
So with great thanks and a lot of credit to Guenther Krumpak of FunTastic Prague, here are the Prague secrets I discovered. I can’t wait to go back and find more of them. Because, as Franz Kafka wrote:
“Prague never lets you go… this dear little mother
has sharp claws. One has to yield, or else.”
The Hidden Garden of Květnice–a True Prague Secret
The Rose Gardens on Petřín hill are famous, and definitely worth a visit for anyone traveling to Prague. But there is another garden right next to them that few people know about or ever see. “Květnice” translates roughy as “Blossomarium,” a garden full of blossoms. A perennial flower garden planted to be beautiful at almost any season. Guenther told me how to find it. On the day I went, a sunny September afternoon, I was the only person there.
Walk or take tram 6, 9, 12, 20 or 22 to tram stop Újezd. From there you can get on the funicular up to Petřín Hill. When you get off, you will be almost in front of the famous Rose Garden. Do take a few minutes to enjoy the roses if they are in season and gaze at the lovely sculpture called “Kiss,” by Josef Mařatka from 1921.
Facing the Rose Garden, turn left and walk along the wall until you see a discreet entrance in it. Turn in there and a few feet further in, on your right, you’ll see the pretty wrought-iron gate into Květnice. Overflowing with flowering shrubs and water plants, lawns and white-rocked pathways and surrounded by a hornbeam hedge, it has a way of catching the spirit. Sit a spell on one of the white iron benches and enjoy the peace. And if you listen carefully enough, you just might hear the light tinkle of fairy laughter. It’s that kind of garden, a truly enchanted secret of Prague.
Černý’s Upside-Down Horse and Lucerna Gallery. What?
The Czech’s seem to have a penchant for black humor and no one does it better visually than the post-modern sculptor David Černý. There are several of his works you’ll want to check out when traveling to Prague. But this one, by far, is my favorite. I can’t even look at a photo of it without smiling, and I think I was giggling the whole time I was there photographing it.
For a more detailed story of the piece, check out my Photo of the Week post about the Upside-Down Horse. You’ll find this whimsical sculpture in the Lucerna Passage off Wenceslaus Square. The 1920s passage itself is worth exploring, a sort of cross between Arab bazaar and Art Deco/Nouveau hallucination.
To find the passage and it’s upside-down horse, begin in Wenceslaus Square. With your back to the National Museum and the original King Wenceslaus statue, walk along the left side of the square. The entrance to the passage, “Lucerna Pasáž,” is a bit before the entrance to the Mustek Metro station.
The Mucha Museum—a Paean to the Master of Art Nouveau
I’m a bit of an Art Nouveau freak, so of course Prague was the perfect city for me. It’s everywhere there, around every corner. And one place I really wanted to explore was the museum dedicated to the work of my favorite Art Nouveau artist, Alphonse Mucha.
The Mucha Museum in Prague is an ode to the master’s lovely Belle Epoque ladies with their diaphanous gowns and long sinuous locks of hair. (Those waves of Medusa-like hair came to be called “spaghetti” or “vermicelli.”) I loved his famous posters of Sarah Bernhardt, but I didn’t know they actually launched his stratospheric career.
The museum also has paintings, drawings, sculpture, jewelry, and some wonderful photos of Mucha’s atelier in Paris—which he shared for a time with Paul Gauguin.
The breadth of his versatility was truly astonishing and the Mucha Museum gives a very good overview of that.
Insider Tip: You can see more of Mucha’s work at the Smetana Theater, where he painted the ceiling in his prototypical Art Nouveau style. There is also a stained-glass window he designed in St. Vitus’ Cathedral.
For a more complete story on the Mucha Museum, Prague, and why you should visit it, read this post.
Choco Cafe U Cervene Zidle
You’re certain to be walking around Staré Město, Prague’s Old Town. A lot. At some point you’ll want a break, to rest your feet and your mind, maybe get out of the rain or cold or too much sun. You’ll need a chance to stop and process all you’ve seen and done.
My favorite spot to do that was the wonderful Choco Café on a nearby side street. I loved it so much I went back three times! It was the smell that caught me and pulled me through the door the first time—the heady scent of chocolate wafting sweetly on the air. It was the hot chocolate that brought me back—simply the best I have ever had, anywhere. It’s thick, almost pudding like. Think of the best chocolate bar you ever had melted into a mug with a little cream, then topped with whipped cream. Yep, that’s it.
Choco Café is casual, relaxed, with wicker and wooden chairs and comfy sofas. The staff is friendly. It was never over-run with tourists when I was there but is popular with locals. Prices are very reasonable. The WiFi is good. And the cakes are to die for.
Find Choco Café at Liliová 250/4, between Zlata and Naprstkova in Staré Město. Open daily, 10am-9pm (8 pm on Sundays). There is also a second location at Bethlehem Square #8. For more pictures, visit their web page. (in Czech).
The Sculpture Garden of Sternberg Palace
This is another garden oasis, one of the Prague highlights I never would have found without Guenther guiding me there. The Sternberg Palace is part of the National Gallery. It houses a superb collection of Dutch, German and Austrian art, among others. But saving that for another day, let’s check out the sculpture garden.
Although the former Baroque palace is only a few steps from the entrance to Prague Castle, it’s tricky to find it. It shares an entrance with the Archbishop’s Palace, and there is almost no signage. Go through the arch into a lane or alley. Walk down that passage where it curves to the left. You’ll see some large iron gates with the letters “n g” for National Gallery above them. If the gates are closed, just push on the small door on the right, and you’re in.
At the entrance, simply tell them you’re going to the café. You won’t have to pay the entrance fee and you can walk right past the café into the garden. A well-curated collection of 20th-century Czech sculpture is intriguing and well displayed among the green.
Despite being almost within spitting distance of the Castle, with it throngs and hordes of tourists, the small walled garden is quiet. We were the only people there for the half-hour or so we wandered its paths. If I’d been alone, I might have spent all afternoon. I would sit and listen to the breeze through the leaves, watch the light bounce off the water in the granite pool, feel the smooth bronze of the sculptures, and smell the green.
If you’re hungry or thirsty, do step into the café. It is better, cheaper and more comfortable than anything at the Castle itself.
Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm. To visit the collection of European Art–which is superb–inside the palace galleries, it’s best to use the combined ticket that gets you entrance into all the National Gallery properties.
Shop for Hedonistic Luxury at Botanicus
In the Týn Yard, in Staré Město, you can find my favorite shop in Prague. Botanicus now has outlets around the world–traveling to Prague is not absolutely necessary to buy their luxurious products–but this is the original.
The first thing that hits you when you enter Botanicus is the smell—earthy, fresh, spring-flowers-and-sweet-grass heady. The products here begin at Botanicus’ own farm at Ostra, about 35 km. from Prague. Everything is grown organically, using as many traditional methods as possible. No fertilizers, chemical sprays or growth stimulants are used. The manufacturing uses age-old recipes and traditional small-batch techniques. Flowers, herbs and fruits are processed raw, not dried, to get the best quality oils and extracts.
The result of all this attention to tradition and fine craft is a huge selection of hand-made soaps, cosmetics, essential oils, honey and marmalades, teas and candles and herbed vinegars. There are cordials and chutneys, syrups and spices. If you’re like me, you’ll need to keep reminding yourself of the limitations of your suitcase. But thinking ahead, this is perhaps the best place in Prague to buy gifts for those back home or for hosts and friends you’ll encounter later in your trip.
For more information about Botanicus, their mission, their farm and their shops, visit the Botanicus website.
Open every day, 10am-6:30pm
Find Your Journal at Skoba Bookbinders—or Make Your Own
The next stop on our Prague Secrets insiders tour is both a shop and a workshop. Something you might not know about me is that I am a bookbinder by hobby, so this was one of the unique things to do in Prague that I found really exciting.
At Skoba Bookbinders, in the interesting Žižkov neighborhood, you can browse the shop to find the perfect hand-made journal for your precious words, plans, and lists. But even better, if you time it right, you can take a 3-5 hour workshop and learn to make your own personalized journal.
Owner/master bookbinder Václav will teach you step-by-step how to make a “notebook with a soul” using eco-friendly paper and lots of vintage elements. And there’s cake and lemonade! It’s a great way to spend an afternoon in Prague.
You’ll find Skoba at Ševčíkova 4, Žižkov, and it is open Monday to Friday, from 10am to 7pm.
To find out more about the shop and the workshops, check out the Skoba website.
Get Dizzy in a Tower of Books at the Public Library–One of the Best Weird Things to do in Prague
Just a two-minute walk from Old Town Square brings you to the Prague Municipal Library for another of our non-touristy things to do in Prague—experience a work of art in a new way. Inside the foyer of the main building, which is right across the street from City Hall, is an art installation by Slovak artist Matej Kren. He has used some 8000 hardcover books decommissioned by the library and formed them into a tower. As you come through the library’s main entrance, the book tower is just ahead of you and up the stairs.
Dubbed “Idiom,” the installation reaches right up to the ceiling. Be sure to stick your head inside for the full effect. Kren has placed mirrors in such a way that the spiraling tower seems to go down into infinity. It’s a bit dizzy making, but quite wonderful. Have your camera ready. This thing is an Instagram photo op just waiting for you.
The Ride That Never Stops—the Paternoster Lift at Prague City Hall
Right across the street from the library and its magical tower of books, is Prague’s City Hall. Come on, we’re going for a little ride. And it’s one of the most fun free things to do in Prague.
Have you ever heard of “The Elevator of Death?” I hadn’t, and when I did, I wasn’t sure it was something I’d ever want to try. But actually, it’s fun! Picture an elevator, just big enough for one person, with no door. And it never stops moving. You stand there in front of the open elevator door until it slowly comes along and you step inside to get whisked (slowly) up or down. It sounds a bit weird, but really, it’s not much different than stepping onto a moving escalator.
Staff in the building use the paternoster elevator all day to move from floor to floor. If you’re going to try it, plan to make a “round trip.” Step into the elevator as it passes and ride it to the very top of the building, past the last “stop.” When it reaches the attic, it will turn in a circle, rumbling and shaking as it does so, (just hold on and keep our fingers away from the wheel) and then it will begin its descent. If you’re really adventurous, you can ride it all the way down to the basement, where it will once again turn in a circle before heading back up to where you began.
To find the paternoster elevator at City Hall, walk straight from the entrance to the back of the building. You’ll hear it rumbling before you see it.
Are you seeing it? Maybe this video will help you get what I’m describing. Obviously, this for people with significant disabilities. Only the sure footed should try. But if you’re game? I found it was my one of my favorite unique things to do in Prague.
Feed the Swans at Vltava Beach
There is a small, man-made sandy “beach” on the banks of the Vltava River between the Charles Bridge and the Manesuv Bridge in Malá Strana. It’s generally a peaceful spot. The great view of Charles Bridge makes for a wonderful photo op.
But mostly it has swans. There are ducks too, and quarrelsome seagulls. But mostly… swans. A lot of swans. They are very used to people so you can walk among them easily. If you bring some bread or pretzels, they will eat from your hands. But be careful, they do have a tendency to snatch.
And did I mention the views? Those beautiful bridges are right there, so do take your camera.
To get a better sense of what it’s like to feed, photograph or just watch the swans at Vltava Beach, check out this video.
Hopefully, it won’t be a gray, rainy day when you are there.
Have Coffee and Pastry at the Art Nouveau Municipal House Café
This has to be one of the most beautiful cafés in Prague. This is the kind of café I always imagine when I think of old Vienna. It’s the sort of place you can picture ladies in hats and fur wraps, men in well-cut suits with cigars. Refined. Glamorous even. It’s a pre-war movie come to life.
In high Art Nouveau style, the soaring ceilings, tall windows, mirrors, and crystal chandeliers of the Municipal House Café make you simply want to look and look, to take it all in. From the mahogany booths and leather-covered benches to the stained-glass details and marble-topped tables, every detail is perfect.
The coffee was rich and delicious; the pastry was flaky and flavorful; the service was impeccable. This is a must-see spot in Prague.
To get a better feeling of what to expect, take a virtual tour of the Municipal House Café. Municipal House is located right on Republic Square, next to the Powder Gate, at Náměstí Republiky 5.
Open every day from 7.30 am–11pm
A Discount at Prague Castle
Finally, here’s a little tip to save you some korunas.. You most definitely WILL want to visit the castle during your visit. It’s one of the highlights of Prague. So let me give you a quick tip that is perfect for you not-so-young Nomad Women travelers. When you buy your entrance ticket to the Castle grounds, tell them you are over 65 to get 50% off the price. If you are buying a combination ticket that includes all the Castle venues and exhibits, it’s a significant savings. I don’t recall if I had to show ID or not.
And here’s another insider’s trick: In high season the Castle can be unbelievably crowded, as in totally crazy making. BUT…most tourists are a bit lazy; hey, they’re on vacation…and don’t like to get up and out too early. But even if you, like me, are assuredly NOT a morning person, you might reconsider when you learn that the Castle complex opens to the public at 5 am in summer, 6 am in winter. If you go then, almost nobody will be there.
However, the cathedral and other parts of the castle requiring tickets do not open till 9 am. So my suggestion is to get to the castle grounds around 8-ish and wander around a bit–there is quite a lot to see–then head to the cathedral at 9. First in, least crowded.
Also note that your ticket is good for two days, which means the day you buy it AND the following day. The buildings and grounds are extensive. And don’t miss Golden Lane!
If you want to experience Prague with the best guide, as I did, you can find Guenther Krumpak at the Arcos Guest House website. Consider staying with Guenther and Jan, enjoying one of the best breakfasts of your life, every morning. And you get access to all that personalized information in the mix!
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