I first visited the Czech Republic for a semester in the spring of 2006, and I've returned frequently ever since then, completing my English-language teaching certificate, enrolling in three summers of Czech language study, and vacationing there whenever possible. This does not, I think, give me any insight into the Czech soul, but it has given me a little perspective on how the country has changed in the last 12 years.
Now that I'm back from this summer's adventure, I thought I'd share a few reflections.
Central Prague is an amusement park
This has been true as long as I've been visiting, but the amusement park has been increasingly professionalized over the years. To give a very simple, very absurd example, there's a traditional Czech (or possibly Slovak) dish called a "trdelník," which is a grilled bread tube rolled in a crushed nut mix. When I first started visited Prague, trdelník was sold in the Christmas markets for a month or two every year. Today, trdelník is sold on every street corner, year-round, and is adapted in all sorts of ways for the tourist market, rolled in sugar, and stuffed with ice cream.
We had one very bad trdelník and one very good trdelník during the trip, so I'm not claiming the quality of trdelník has dramatically declined, only that the market for it has changed over the years as it has become more of an amusement park treat, so the mass-market trdelník today resembles a kind of Czech-inspired churro more than anything else.
The neighborhoods are still distinctive
The amusement park basically extends west from the main train station across Charles Bridge to Prague Castle, and I think the amusement park is well worth visiting. But stepping even a little bit outside of the amusement park gives you immediate access to a completely different vision of the city.
Minutes outside the city center we stumbled onto Štvanice island and walked around and relaxed by the river totally undisturbed by the city surrounding us on all sides, enjoying the 2018 Landscape Festival exhibits that had been installed there.
It's just a short hike up from the city to Letná, where you can sit all day at a sturdy beer garden overlooking the city.
Another hike up to the National Monument in Vitkov is a way to explore Czech history with barely another soul in sight.
Vyšehrad is the site of the Slavín, where prominent Czech artists and cultural figures are interred, and the cemetery surrounding it is well worth exploring, along with the grounds and statuary.
None of this is to disparage the amusement park at all, since I love it there, but rather to suggest that Prague is the kind of city where stepping just a few feet off the beaten track can be incredibly rewarding.
The National Museum is still closed
This is more of an inside joke for me, since as long as I have been visiting Prague the majestic main building of the National Museum has been closed for renovations. I take it they're finishing up soon.
However, the new building of the National Museum is open, and typically offers several exhibits, at least one of which draws on the collections of the National Museum. We enjoyed the current exhibit on the Celts, who apparently settled Bohemia long before they made their way to Britain.
Prague has always been hip, but it's getting hipper
Taking advantage of the fifth-night-free benefit of booking an award stay with Hilton, we stayed at the Hilton Prague Old Town for our last five nights in the Czech Republic. Out for a walk our first evening in town, we discovered just a few blocks away something called "Manifesto."
Literally a pop-up beer and food truck space built out of repurposed shipping containers, Manifesto wouldn't raise an eyebrow in Brooklyn, Austin, Seattle, or Portland. But here it was in the Czech Republic, constructed in the shadow of a freeway overpass.
Prague has featured hip institutions like Radost FX, the vegetarian restaurant and music club, almost since independence, and the city has attracted like-minded entrepreneurs and customers ever since. But it seems to me the pace has somewhat accelerated, with more farmers markets, local crafts, and microbreweries than existed even a few years ago.
Visit Prague, and give it some time
My main recommendation for any visit to the Czech Republic is to give yourself enough time to both enjoy the main tourist attractions and to explore further afield, either by foot, streetcar, or subway. You can pack a lot into a day or two, but I think Prague is a place that uniquely rewards stepping away from the tourist groups and letting yourself breathe in the myriad nooks and crannies of the city.