Prague is a city with old charm magic; a place where you can wander endlessly, live on beer, and walk around laughing in delight under a gentle snowfall that quickly whips up into a full on snow storm. We spent the perfect New Year’s week at Christmas markets and celebrating with 2 back to back nights of fireworks because New Year’s Day is their Independence day.
We arrived via a lengthy 11 hour train ride from Dresden, Germany, and trudged to the bus stop to discover that the ticket machine only takes coins or wifi credit cards, both of which we did not possess. We were exhausted and mildly frustrated, but as we glanced around and saw no stores where we might be able to get change for our bills, we decided to just risk it: and paid the price! The stop just before ours, personnel boarded the bus and asked everyone for their tickets. We ended up paying the penalty of 800 CZK per person. After months of traveling through Europe and it was the one time we didn’t get a ticket and the only time we’ve ever been checked. Despite this rough start and experience, we will admit that Prague has great public transportation: it was easy to get around with frequent times and mostly clean and new trains and buses.
After getting settled in our AirBnB, we headed out to Pho Vietnam Tuan & Lan, where stairs led us down into a cozy brick red cavern, the hard techno throbbed at odds with the elegant crystal chandeliers. A party of elderly couples took a table next to us, chatting over a bottle of wine unperturbed by the music. I sipped gingerly from the metal spoon (since when do metal spoons and scalding hot pho soup go together?) though the soup was a tad oily, adding fish sauce gave it the perfect zing. Though pho might not be synonymous with the Czech Republic, it was the perfect complement to our first winter night in Prague.
Old Town Square Christmas Market
Our first priority in Prague was heading over to the Old Town Square and exploring their Christmas Market. The heavy aroma of Prague Ham drew us quickly past the crowd surrounding the Astrological Clock. We followed our noses to a stall with a long line, fragrant smoke wafting from a giant ham turning on the black spittle. We weren’t quite sure how to order so the guy gives us a hefty piece – turned out pretty darn tasty but also pretty darn expensive: best to specify how much you want (by weight) if you don’t want to hand over your arm. We also got a big bowl of their potato sauerkraut, as I had mistaken it for pasta. The sauerkraut was quite flavorful (there’s ham chunks in it) and without the sourness I was anticipating, but very dense and filling. Both the Prague Ham and sauerkraut are worth a try, but opt for smaller portions if you’re watching your budget.
With our immediate hunger abated, we “Costco’d” the market and wound our way from one side to the end. As we strolled past stalls offering craft goods and beautiful ornaments, some guy crossed us singing “honey wine makes it shine” in the most ironic monotone voice. It was like a spell though and suddenly we were craving mead (honey wine). You’ll find mead offered at most stalls, but we opted to go to the stall that appeared to specialize in mead.
Unfortunately, despite their tantalizing menu of various meads, they only had one offered that day, luckily it was still tasty. There is no end to the festive drinks here, but our advice is stick to the hot ciders or mead – we tried some Lavender Rum and Hot Chocolate but they were watery and disappointing. Another thing to skip at the Markets is the trdelník (chimney cake) stalls, as you can find them anywhere in Prague and the prices are highest in the Markets. For cheese enthusiasts, make sure to try the grilled cheese – don’t forget to dollop a healthy amount of jam atop – for a delicious snack.
After a lovely afternoon of Christmas Market gallivanting, we headed back towards home for some grocery shopping at Albert Supermarket. We stocked up on some food (best to have something on hand in case of inclement weather) and a bunch of different beers – ranging from the wonderful price of $0.40-$1.00! Interestingly, we’ve learned that lots of European countries tend to have grocery stores within malls or shopping centers. Another surprise was the number of Starbucks, KFC and TGIF’s we’ve seen throughout Europe – there were even a couple of Hooters here in Prague!
Stroll through Petrin Hill for the Best Views
The next morning we “hiked” up Petrin Hill to scope out a good New Year’s Eve spot. We started from the Újezd station, passing the various monuments and sticking to the paved paths as the dirt paths were just too muddy to use at this time of year. We got all the way to the top where we saw the Petrin Tower and the St Lawrence Church but the peak was surrounded by trees, so we figured this spot wasn’t a good viewing option. We continued South and wandered through the dormant rose garden completely covered in pine branches, which made for a very unique experience. They use the pine coverage to protect the rose bushes from the winter cold, but it felt like the appropriate Christmas season decoration to have these carpets and structures of pine. We realized there wasn’t any view available from this side of the hill either and began to grow a little frustrated. Everyone online recommended Petrin Hill for New Year’s Eve fireworks viewing, but none mentioned any specific spots and it felt like we were completely missing something. We turned around and headed back the opposite way, determined to figure out this mystery. Following along the western edge of the park, we finally came upon the Strahov Monastery (Strahovský klášter).
Chalkboard signs advertising monastery brewed blueberry beer raised our spirits but as it wasn’t even 10 am we decided to keep exploring and perhaps make our way back after. As we walked down Strahovské nádvoří and wrapped past the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary On Strahov, we noticed a little gate: the entrance to the Strahov Garden Viewpoint (Vyhlídka Strahovské zahrady), which is the place to get the view on Petrin Hill. While the viewpoint isn’t very large, we finally found an unblocked view of the city. Essentially it gives you the same views you would from Restaurant Bellavista above without the price! Having found our spot for NYE, we headed down the hill victoriously.
From the North end of Petrin Hill we walked directly over to the famous Charles Bridge (Karlův most). By the afternoon the bridge is packed with people, but it’s also the best time to catch street performers, like the fantastically ethereal hang drum duo Planeta Vyplach: ethno from space: be prepared for a rather intriguing website and very awesome music. After fighting through the crowds just to get across the bridge, we realized we would just have to come back early in the morning to get any photos, so we headed to the next stop: National Library of the Czech Republic (Národní knihovna České republiky).
We never actually made our way inside the library, as we crossed through the various courtyards looking for the entrance, snow began to fall and we got distracted trying to take photos and video footage. Chasing the perfect shot brought us out of the courtyards and back toward the main street where Carl was holding a pose for me when the wind picked up and started whipping the snow into his face! We quickly put the cameras away and sought shelter under a nearby awning and decided to call it a day.
Where to Wander: Malá Strana
The sun shone the next morning, a good sign for the evening’s festivities. We roamed around the nearby neighborhood Malá Strana, known as the “lesser town”, is a quaint area just East of Petrin Hill. We strolled over to the Lennon Wall where a vibrant rainbow of paint coated the wall and even some of the nearby trees. The wall was primarily occupied by a younger crowd getting their selfies, so we quickly moved on crossing the little bridges over the Čertovka canal; a more picturesque area than the wall and with a better view of the Charles Bridge.
City Views and a Christmas Market at Prague Castle
Late afternoon we headed up the hill towards the Prague Castle. The grounds are gated and there was a significant line to go through security to get our bags checked. Dusk is starting to fall by the time we get in, so we make a quick visit of the small Christmas Market, grabbing a hot pear cider to warm the hands as we weave through the stalls. Just as we finish up we come across Prague Chocolate, a chocolate stand out by the edge that makes the best Hot Chocolate: thick and dark, it’s like straight up melted chocolate in a cup. The hot chocolate itself made the trip up worth it, but while you’re there, also check out the views of the city by the castle walls. The castle itself was closing at the time, but the night view makes for some excellent photos.
Get Your Gourmet & Ginger On
The following day we went around Old Town, swung by the “dancing building”, a neat architectural structure but easily skippable as it’s not much more than a glancing activity, and then got caught in a mini snow storm. To hide out, we got an early lunch over at Naše maso, which worked out well for us since the line wasn’t too long. We were a little bummed that we had waited so long to visit the well known butcher shop, as we no longer needed any groceries, but we happily dug into their cheeseburger and meatloaf sandwich. They were pricey burgers, but the quality was worth the splurge, so we enthusiastically recommend stopping by.
For dessert we made our way to the famous Gingerbread shop, hoping for an authentic taste of gingerbread – but sadly the shop was closed for the first two weeks of January. Disheartened we circled the block until we found Bake Shop, which did offer some gingerbread cookies and other fruity flavored goodies. Our favorites were their apricot tart and the gingerbread cookies – thin and crisp with a lovely gingery and nutty aroma.
Best place for Cheap Souvenirs in Prague
While wandering around the Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí) area, we stumbled upon Havelská Market (Havelské tržiště), a sort of flea market where you can find all kinds of souvenirs. There are also a bunch of souvenir stores along that street as well but shopping around we found that the prices were cheaper at the stalls. After a bit of browsing we head back home to get ready for the evening.
The Perfect New Year’s Eve in Prague
Bundling up and packing some snacks and beer into our bags, we trekked back out to Strahov Garden Viewpoint (Vyhlídka Strahovské zahrady) just before 10 pm and found a small number of others stationed in the alcove. We were hoping it would stay open, but come 10 o’clock someone came to clear it out and lock the gate. Luckily we’d anticipated this possibility and quickly made our way to the little intersection just below the fencing that was still part of the hill. We were able to to sit on the little ledge, set up our cameras and then pass the time with our snacks and beer. By the time 11 pm came around our corner got filled up and hill was in full activity.
Fireworks were going off throughout the city but folks around us also had their own fireworks: everything from modest fountains and sparklers to full on aerial rockets. The fireworks were literally happening all around us: all along the hill and up above all the plazas throughout the city. We had never seen such an endless display of fireworks. Fireworks in Prague definitely overshadowed either of our Independence Day and New Year’s Eve fireworks celebrations back in the States.
A zoom lens is recommended to capture the stuff from the city, but there was plenty of fireworks around us on the hill to capture with something shorter. We didn’t leave Petrin Hill until about 2 am, but the pops and booms could still be heard when we went to sleep around 4 am.
The Party Continues: New Year’s Day in Prague
Prague should definitely be on the top of your list for a New Year trip as both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day have firework celebrations. Unofficial citizen popped fireworks will occur on New Year’s Eve throughout the city and on New Year’s Day there is an official fireworks show at 6 pm in Letna Park.
The evening was chilly with scattered sprinkles when we arrived at the Mánes Bridge (Mánesův most). Just an hour before the show we were able to secure a spot against the bridge wall, which was an excellent spot to watch and film the show. Within the hour there was a crowd along the sidewalk, despite the surrounding bodies it was cold enough that despite using one of those silvery emergency blankets, the couple next to us ended up leaving just before the show. Which was kind of a relief, because every time she moved it made a very amusing but distracting crunchy sound. Stick it out though, because though the show is a continuous 10 minutes of stunning fireworks, it goes by faster than you’d think. The show is coordinated with some music, but on the bridge we weren’t able to hear it – though that didn’t subtract from the experience. It was definitely the most impressive fireworks show we have ever seen in our lives.
Oksana is a great host, very communicative. My fiancee and I really enjoyed our stay and made full use of the kitchen. Note that the apartment is quite small, there’s very little floor space so those with large luggage may find it tricky, and as the apartment requires stairs either way you enter, large luggage is not advisable.
Transportation passes were provided with our stay, which was very helpful and allowed us the freedom to explore.
As some others have mentioned, there’s not much of airflow in the bathroom/apartment in general, so if you’re visiting in winter that may be a slight issue as there’s also condensation gathering all the time. The bathroom is quite spacious though and there were never any smells. Highly recommend!
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The weather in Prague at the end of December to early January was very cold and windy, more so than in Germany where we spent Christmas. We did see some light snow and short snow storms during our stay, but there was never enough snow to cover the ground.
Throughout the Christmas Markets we noticed that some stalls would take Euros; check the prices, sometimes the price is better Euros. You’ll want to have cash on hand for most of the markets. For cheaper souvenirs, you should try the “flea market” off Havelská – there are a bunch of souvenir shops on that street, but the stalls on the street will have cheaper prices.
Vaccinations: Routine Vaccinations
Mosquito problems: None while there
Problems for tattoos: None
Traveling as a woman: Standard Precautions
Getting Around in Prague, Czech Republic
The public transportation in Prague is very convenient and very clean. We used the bus to get from the train station to our AirBnB but used the tram to move within the city. Getting a card or pass is much more convenient as not every station has a ticket machine, and if you find a ticket machine, they only take coins or wifi/tap credit cards.
This totally screwed us over when we arrived as we didn’t have any small change nor wifi enabled cards and there were no businesses near the stop we wanted to get on. Don’t do it: the one time we hopped on the bus without a ticket, but just before our stop we got caught. The penalty is 800 CZK, which isn’t the worst but it’s definitely not what you want to waste your money on.
Currency: 1 CZK = 0.044 USD
Apparently tipping is expected especially by foreigners in Prague, however we didn’t really have any formal sit down meals and so never had to. We found that we needed cash for the majority of the time we were there, very few places accepted credit cards.
$60-70/person: This was for a week in Prague surrounding New Years in a small studio apartment just south of Petrin Hill. The AirBnB host generously provided transportation cards, which was a real saver and made it convenient to get around as Prague is pretty spread out. Christmas markets foods were pretty expensive, otherwise your food budget wouldn’t need to be as high. Other than the markets and a couple meals out we primarily cooked our meals in and bought beer from the supermarket which is super cheap.
Some typical costs
- Bottle of beer from supermarket: $0.40-1.00
- Christmas Market Trdelník: 80-90 CZK
- Christmas Market Prague ham and sauerkraut dish: 872 CZK
- lunch at Pho Vietnam: 288 CZK
- 3 burgers at Nase Maso: 505 CZK
- AirBnB private room: $55/night
Pho Vietnam Tuan & Lan, facebook.com/photuanlan Anglická 529/15, $$ – A great spot for pho with an interesting vibe. Although the menu is a mix of Vietnamese and Czech, they do speak English. The soup is a touch oily but add some of their fish sauce directly to the soup for a balancing brightness.
Petrin Hill (Vrch Petřín) , muzeumprahy.cz/198-petrinska-rozhledna, Hradčany, 118 00 Prague 1 – A lovely expansive hill to for some light hiking and great views of the city (on the North side). There is a paid tram that takes you up to the Observatory but the hill is very walkable.
Strahov Monastery (Strahovský klášter), strahovskyklaster.cz, Strahovské nádvoří 1/132 – Set on the North side of Petrin Hill, the Monastery brews its own beer. We didn’t get to try but it they sure sounded delicious.
Strahov Garden Viewpoint (Vyhlídka Strahovské zahrady), Strahovské nádvoří – A small gated platform with a couple benches to look over Petrin Hill and out to the city. The only real view on Petrin Hill that isn’t blocked by trees and though it is locked up after 10 pm, the area around it is an ideal spot for viewing New Year’s Eve fireworks.
National Library of the Czech Republic (Národní knihovna České republiky), nkp.cz, Klementinum 190 – We didn’t quite make it inside, but it’s famously a beautiful library
Mánes Bridge (Mánesův most) – One of the many bridges in Prague. Ideal spot for viewing the New Year’s Day official fireworks show from Letna Park.
Charles Bridge (Karlův most), prague.eu/cs/objekt/mista/93/karluv-most – The most iconic of Prague’s bridges. Pedestrian only bridge that showcases religious statues and affords a great view of the river. Sure to be crowded during the day, even early in the morning you’re sure to find a ton of photographers trying to get their shot of the bridge.
Naše Maso, nasemaso.cz, Dlouhá 727/39, $$-$$$ – Reknown butcher shop, worth a splurge for their cheeseburger or meatloaf sandwich if you’re a fan of gourmet meats! Note that there’s limited seating inside.
Prague Astronomical Clock (Pražský orloj), Staroměstské nám. 1 – One of the iconic stops in Prague, there’s almost always a small crowd in front of the clock. We even saw some engagement photos being taken in front of the clock.
Havelská, Havelská 13-17, $ – Great area for souvenirs, the flea market stalls offer better prices than the shops on the street.
Lennon Wall (Lennonova zeď), Velkopřevorské náměstí, Malá Strana – Standing in a charming neighborhood of Malá Strana, the Lennon Wall is a vibrant mural where you’ll find a ton of hipsters and a younger crowd hanging out. The area is nice for a wander!
Prague Castle (Pražský hrad), hrad.cz, Hradčany – We opted not to go into the castle, but the castle grounds itself is worth a quick visit for their Christmas Market (best Hot Chocolate you’ll find) and the view of the city, especially at night.
Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí), New Town – A popular stretch of street spanning between the metro station and the museum. The square is another spot for NYE fireworks and is a bustling area to walk.