Prague is never more atmospheric than in the run-up to Christmas. It’s not just the city’s medieval and baroque monuments that make it memorable, or even the possibility that snow might dust its spires and domes. It’s the way that every square in the middle of the Czech capital seems to light up with a Christmas market and the biggest attract as many tourists as locals (known in the Czech Republic as the Prazaci). Like nearly all Czechs, the Prazaci are as nuts about Christmas as the English and embrace their traditions with genuine joy. Stay in Prague’s historic core, within walking distance of the Old Town Square, and chances are you’ll soon be glowing with festive spirit too. These are the best things to do in Prague at Christmas.
Main photo: a festive tram near Prague’s National Theatre (Alamy)
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1. Climb the castle stairs
First of all, an overview. For a proper sense of central Prague, head straight to Mala Strana — the “Little District” of cobbled streets and baroque palaces that huddles below Prague Castle. Then, climb Zamecke Schody — the castle stairs. The inner city’s jumble of historic rooftops and attic windows slowly reveals itself as you ascend and by the time you reach the top almost all of central Prague is visible. Domes, bridges, prickly gothic spires: you can see the lot, edged by high-rise apartments and the almost-rural hinterland of Petrin Hill. Sure, it’s changed a bit from when that Good King Wenceslas looked out sometime in the 10th century, but it still seems like half of Prague’s history is contained in that view. At the top of the stairs Prague’s castle and cathedral await. If you’ve got time, book a private, three-hour guided tour for a taste of their many stories, including the infamous defenestration that sparked the Thirty Years’ War.
2. Wander the Old Town Square’s Christmas market
Once you’ve got your bearings it’s time to get stuck into Prague’s essential Christmas experience: the markets. The largest is held each year at the Staromestske namesti (aka the Old Town Square) and even though it’s the most touristy and generally the most expensive, it’s your essential first stop. In part that’s because of its sheer size: with over a hundred stalls it’ll keep you snacking, sipping and shopping for hours — but it’s mostly down to the backdrop. Several of the city’s loveliest landmarks overlook the square, including the medieval Astronomical Clock and the superbly spiky towers of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn; wedding-cake-style baroque apartments fill the gaps. Prague’s tallest Christmas tree completes an enchanting scene. Book a guided tour if you’re pressed for time or simply want tips on what to eat and drink before striking out on your own.
3. Listen to a choir by the church of St Nicholas
Not surprisingly, given its size, the Christmas market in Prague’s Old Town Square has the busiest programme of festive entertainment. Free concerts of pop, rock and folk music all feature and draw enthusiastic crowds. Visit trhypraha.cz for updates on the musical programmes, which aren’t finalised until shortly before the Christmas season. However, the most charming musical moments come from visiting choral groups, especially during Prague’s annual Advent Choral Meetings which are usually spread over three weekends from the end of November and have previously attracted over 70 choirs from 22 countries. Many sing amid the market’s stalls as well as in the church of St Nicholas that overlooks the square.
4. Sip some svarak
Forget beer — at this time of year svarak is Prague’s favourite cup of good cheer. Essentially it’s mulled wine, stiffened with a plum brandy called slivovice or rum — and it’s a tad more citrusy (and less sweet) than we’re used to. As afternoon darkens into night, its smell swirls through every Christmas market, while the mood slowly swings from festive bazaar to giant outdoor drinks party. That said, these days the Czechs are experimenting with festive tipples. At the smaller Christmas market on Tylovo Namesti in the New Town you can even find hot mojitos. The non-alcoholic alternative is hot apple juice with cinnamon.
5. Seek out the markets the locals love
The Old Town Square market is open on both Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, but it isn’t the only market worth visiting. There are two other big markets on both Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske Namesti) and Republic Square (Namesti Republiky) operated by the same company and a host of smaller ones open daily or at the weekend. If you’re looking for lower prices and local flavour it’s these smaller markets you should target. The one at Namesti Miru (Peace Square) in Vinohrady is good for delicate little Christmas biscuits (vanocni cukrovi). Meanwhile at Marianske namesti in the Old Town, the city council runs a market of interesting charity stalls with a highly-regarded programme of live music. Bear in mind, however, that some markets close on Christmas Eve, which — from lunchtime to midnight — is the most Christmassy moment for the Czechs. You’ll find the city at its quietest as everyone goes home to eat Christmas dinner and to find out what presents Jezisek has left them under the tree.
6. Invest in Christmas baubles
The Czechs love their Christmas trees. The moment the lights go on to reveal Jezisek’s presents on December 24 is the most sacred moment for any Czech child (and many of their parents too) — so it’s no wonder they go the extra mile to decorate them. Their hand-blown and hand-painted glass baubles are things of beauty and are locked away like jewels when they’re not dangling amid the tinsel. There are all kinds of their Christmas crafts to buy in Prague’s festive market: candles, Advent wreaths, puppets, handmade toys, bobble hats, ceramics. But nothing quite evokes the season’s evanescent sense of magic like these fragile glass spheres.
7. Feast on Christmas street food
Always go to a Christmas market hungry. That way you can succumb to all the tempting smells from the food stands, and keep yourself warm too. Freshly cooked kloubasa is a favourite treat — a meaty Czech sausage that’s always served with a slice of sourdough and a dollop of mild mustard. And if that doesn’t hit the spot, try a sandwich made with spit-roasted pork or Prague ham. Roasted hazelnuts and chestnuts are widely available too, as are freshly cooked pancakes. You can then take your snacking to another level by visiting one of the farmers’ markets that turn festive at this time of year — notably at Tylovo Namesti and Naplavka, on the east bank of the Vlatava river, near Vysehrad castle. Amongst the must-try Czech foods is topinky. The combination of fried bread topped with garlic, egg, ketchup and raw onion will cut through even the coldest night.
8. Warm up in a beer bath on Rybna
Here’s another way to warm up as darkness cloaks the streets — in a bubbling beer spa. Prague’s newest wellness trend comes in an oak tub filled with hot water, brewer’s yeast and hops. The yeast is said to smooth wrinkles, the hops has a calming effect and, if that doesn’t relax you, then the beer on tap next to the tub may come in handy. Beer spas are popping up all over central Prague, and are usually private, providing either one or two tubs and a hay bed (some has saunas too). The Original Beer Spa’s treatment room on Rybna is just five minutes’ walk from the Old Town Square.
9. Shop for designer goodies
There’s a lot more to Prague shopping than Christmas crafts. For designer lighting and decorative objects check out Deelive at 4, Smetanovo nabrezi, near the National Theatre. Upstairs, you’ll also find a showroom of clothes by up-and-coming designers. At Artiseme on Velkoprevorske namesti in Mala Strana you can shop for artwork and ceramics and furniture, while Antipearle on Rytirska in the Stare Mesto specialises in photographer Marketa Marova’s edgy jewellery (see visitczechia.com/en-US/design-shops for more ideas). Anyone seeking to mine Prague’s rich and kooky vein of Communist-era retro, as well as more modern designer items, should visit Letna, just north of the city centre. Small-group guided shopping tours of this hipster district run throughout the year.
10. Skate on Strelecky Island
Careful now: ice skating in the Czech Republic is not like bumbling about on a British rink. This is a country where ice hockey is more popular than football, and you’ll notice the difference as soon as you venture onto indoor skating rinks such as the state-of-the-art Skoda Icerink in Prague 10. Far better, if your skills aren’t so advanced, to potter about on the little outdoor rink on Strelecky Island (which offers skates for hire). It’s right in the middle of the Vltava, beneath the stately Legion Bridge, and is an oasis of calm amidst the city’s bustle.
11. Catch a concert at the Rudolfinum
The country of Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek has strong classical music traditions. But you won’t get a proper sense of them at one of the many tourist-only performances of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The Czech Philharmonic — currently under the leadership of conductor Semyon Bychov — is where you go for excellence. And if you can’t get tickets for any of its pre-Christmas concerts, try for a performance by its little brother — the Czech Chamber Music Society, which shares the same magnificent Rudolfinum concert venue. It’s right in the middle of the city, so if you haven’t booked ahead it’s always worth popping into the ticket office to see if there are any returns on the day of concert. The warm glow of both lights and music is sure to light up the darkest midwinter night.
12. Scoff some kolace “cakes”
Forget all the Vienna-style cafés that have opened in central Prague. They’re not where you’ll get a proper sense of Czech baking’s brilliance. Head instead to an artisan bakery that’s aimed at the locals, and try stuffed or topped pastries such as kolace, satecky, buchty or vdolky s povidly. None is what a Czech family would know as “cake” and none is as sweet as a western bake. But when they’re done well, they’re sheer heaven — as light and fragrant as the air from a baker’s oven and just as comforting.
Crucially, each each one stands or falls on the freshness and quality of its dough or pastry. So you absolutely have to eat them as soon as they’ve cooled. The Vinohrady branch of Antoninovo pekarstvi (Antonin’s bakery) is a great place to start because everything’s made on site, and there are tables and chairs at which you can scoff them instantly. Bear in mind, however, that you may have to cancel dinner afterwards.
13. Cross the Charles Bridge at dawn
Even if it didn’t link Prague’s most atmospheric district — Stare Mesto and Mala Strana — the Charles Bridge would still be a wonder of the modern world. Built in Prague’s 14th-century golden age, it’s nearly double the length of London Bridge and bookended by a pair of shapely medieval towers. It would take a whole book to describe the significance of the view northwest, too. You are, after all, looking up at Prague Castle. During the last 700 years of rollercoaster history it’s been, by turns, a symbol of pride, oppression, despair and hope. The problem is, on any normal day in the city, you can’t see any of this on account of the solid mass of people inching along it; from 9.30am till long after dusk it’s packed with tourists. So come and walk it at dawn, while everyone is still at breakfast. At that time of day you’ll have just a handful of local Prazaci for company, and nothing to listen to but the rush of the weir on the Vltava just upstream. Join a dawn photography tour and you’ll also discover how best to frame it as an image.
14. Toast the season in by candlelight
Churches aren’t the only places where candles flicker in Prague. See that dark and mysterious archway at 37 Dlouha in the Stare Mesto? Wander through it and you’ll find the vaulted Bokovka wine bar, tucked into one side of a Renaissance courtyard. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric location, so it’s no wonder the owners have double down on its conspiratorial mood with a constellation of candlelight. Toast the season with a glass of sparkling Sekt Punkista Pinot Chardonnay — and remember that the cheese menu is almost as alluring as the wine list.
15. Pray for snow
It’s by no means a given these days in a Prague December. But if snow does fall then grab your phone and go for a walk. Snowy footprints on cobbled streets, young Prazaci tobogganing on Petrin Hill, baroque domes and gothic spires that glow white against the purple clouds: you’ll see things that by rights only belong in a fairy tale, while Mala Strana is the most atmospheric place to wander. If the sun comes out and you’re got robust footwear, catch the metro to to Petriny station, and take a walk around Obora Hvezda, a park that thinks it’s a forest and is based around a star-shaped 16th-century summer palace.
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