Explore Prague on foot or by boat for a close-up view of a fascianting city, writes Kate Wickers
It was two decades since I last visited Prague and back then, only a few years free of its Communist shackles, the airport was small and run down, hotels were basic and unless you liked goulash, it was a gastronomic disaster zone. How things have changed. The best address in town now is undisputedly the Four Seasons with its enviable Vltava river location and beautiful architecture – an impressive union of three historic buildings (Baroque, Neo-renaissance and Neo-classical) linked by a stunning contemporary central building. From the window of my River Suite, complete with four-poster, Cubist art and marble bathroom, I looked out on to Prague’s famous Charles Bridge, Petrin Hill and the imposing 9th century castle.
The city has embraced every architectural style from Art Nouveau cafes to Baroque churches to Cubist lamp posts and I was pleased to see that many have been restored. The city was positively gleaming in the spring sunshine. The Old Town Square, once the city’s market place, continues to be at the centre of the action. Criminals have been executed here, martyrs burnt at the stake, but today tourists gather on the hour below the astronomical clock, built in 1490, when gruesome figures appear to enact a tale of greed and death. To cheer yourself up pop in to Moser, which has been making exquisite Bohemian crystal glass since 1857.
I ventured out to district 17004 (Prague’s version of the New York’s meat packing district) where trendy Sasazu is hidden amongst warehouses. It’s a vast, sexy restaurant, all black lacquer and red walls, housed in a former abattoir, and the food is stylish too from sushi to flame-grilled meats. For after dinner drinks, Hemingway Bar is a sophisticated choice and cocktails are presented with great panache. Try the Eau de Nil cocktail, which comes served in an art-deco perfume bottle.
Charles Bridge spans the river from the old town of Stare Mesto to the quieter streets of Mala Strana. During the 17th century the Catholic Church constructed religious stone statues all along the bridge and it teems with tourists taking selfies. I wandered off the main tourist trail in Mala Strana, stumbling upon the John Lennon Memorial Wall – a vibrant patchwork of street art and feel-good graffiti – en route to lovely Kampa Park. You can’t miss the rather disturbing giant bronze toddlers that crawl outside Museum Kampa, home to the work of abstract artist František Kupka, known for his studies of music, motion and colour. Nearby is the funicular to the top of Petrin Hill, but if your calves are up to it take a slow walk to the summit through orchards and gardens awash with blossom. The views are wonderful but to get even higher, spiral up The Petrin Tower, a stubby replica of the Eiffel Tower built in 1891, for a giddy gander at St Vitus’s Cathedral.
On the terrace of the Four Seasons I watched Prague Castle set ablaze as the sun went down. It was humour that inspired me to order a Czech Me Out cocktail – a blend of Becherovka (a Czech herbal liqueur), peach liqueur, lemon juice, egg white and honey-maple syrup – and it was delicious. Italian restaurant CottoCrudo, considered one of the best in the city, has a menu to agonise over as everything sounds enticing. I chose oysters with mango, cucumber and yuzu soya sauce followed by saffron risotto with roasted seabass, marvelling at just how far Prague’s dining scene has come.
The Old Jewish Cemetery is a ghostly reminder of Prague’s once thriving Jewish community, which was almost entirely wiped out by the Nazis. In Hebrew the cemetery is known as Beth Chaim meaning House of Life and 100,000 bodies are piled under the 12,000 tombstones. The adjacent Pinkas Synagogue has the 77,297 names of every Czech man, woman and child who died in the Nazi death camps written on the walls. Katerina, Oskar, Erna, Anna, Alfred, Utyna, Josef, the list goes heartbreakingly on and on. Don’t miss the wonderful and very moving exhibition of paintings and drawings by Jewish children who were held in Terezin, a holding camp 60 kilometres from Prague.
By midday the Vltava is choked with river cruise boats, so for a really unique experience board the Four Seasons’ lovely 12-seat wooden canal boat, small enough to navigate the quieter channels that flow from the river in to Mala Strana where water mills turn lazily and willows weep. From an open window I heard an opera singer practising for one of the many classical concerts that take place daily around the city.
Prague gave me nothing to complain about this time. The airport was swish, the Four Seasons outstanding, and the food sublime. It was just my neck that suffered – stiff from staring up at all that magnificent architecture.
• EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies direct to Prague from Edinburgh from around £77 one way. Jet2 (www.jet2.com) flies direct from Glasgow from around £60 one way. A Modern double at Four Seasons Prague (www.fourseasons.com/prague) starts at €483/£400 per night , including VAT and breakfast.