A weekend guide Few cities that were under communist rule have come out looking attractive, but Prague is a stunning exception.
Prague: the city of a hundred spires
Few cities that were under communist rule have come out looking attractive, but Prague is a stunning exception. Left relatively unscathed from the Second World War, it didn't suffer the communist construction booms that blighted other cities in Eastern Europe. The entire old town, including its imposing castle, Charles Bridge and St Vitus Cathedral, as well as the numerous large and ornate town squares, such as Old Town Square, was listed as a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1992.
You can learn about the city's long past at the City of Prague Museum (www.muzeumprahy.cz) and about how its citizens coped with everyday life under communism at the Museum of Communism (www.muzeumkomunismu.cz). For the more musical, Prague State Opera stages world-class performances all year round, including Verdi, Puccini and Bizet. North of Charles Bridge, literary fans can pore over Franz Kafka's letters and diaries at the Franz Kafka Museum (www.kafkamuseum.cz). If you love getting lost in beautiful, medieval cobbled streets and seeing where the wind takes you, Prague is your city.
Get your bearings in the "city of a hundred spires" by starting with a free walking tour (www.freepraguetours.eu), which commences in front of the beautiful Old Town Square. If you fancy wandering without a guide, take a stroll out of the old town over the famous 15th-century Charles Bridge. Keep going and you'll arrive at the funicular railway (US$1; Dh4) that takes you up Petrin Hill. The Lookout Tower on the top ($3, Dh12) is 299 steps away but well worth the effort, with a 360-degree view at the top across Prague.
Prague Castle (www.hrad.cz) is one of the largest castle complexes in the world and houses the Bohemian crown jewels. Commissioned by Prince Borivoj, the founder of the Bohemian Premyslid Dynasty, in the 9th century, it was built over such a long period of time that its architecture blends a millennium of different styles. Inside the complex you can enter the French Gothic St Vitus Cathedral and the Romanesque Basilica of St George.
The castle's symbolic importance and strategic location has also given it an interesting modern history. It has been the headquarters for the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, and a base for communist rule immediately afterwards. If silent contemplation appeals, have a look around the still-functioning Strahov Monastery (www.strahovskyklaster.cz), which includes the Basilica of Our Lady, beautifully decorated with 18th-century frescoes ($1; Dh4), and the Theological and Philosophical Halls, both packed to the rafters with over 60,000 books and other publications. The Cabinet of Curiosities, also inside the monastery complex, houses a range of natural science collections, from old ceramic weapons to insects, and even includes a well-preserved, albeit still very much dead, dodo.
For a little bit more peace - and love - head to the Lennon Wall in the Mala Strana area, a little bit further down the river on the castle side just after Charles Bridge. Dedicated to writing signs of peace in memory of the great Beatle, it continuously changes from one day to the next with contributions being written on it from all over the world. Be sure to bring a marker pen or even some paint if you want to write something.
Budget Perhaps the best hostel in Europe is HostelOne Prague, a conveniently located bolthole with a huge common room area, free internet access, excellent kitchen facilities, free lockers and ensuite bathrooms. It is within easy walking distance of one of Prague's main central stations, Hlavní Nádrazi. Dorm rooms cost from $27 (Dh100) per night, including taxes. HostelOne Prague, Cimburkova 8, 130 00 Prague 3 (www.hostelworld.com/prague; 00 420 222 221 423)
Mid-range K+K Hotel Central is conveniently located in the heart of Prague a short distance from the Powder Tower on the castle walls, and boasts a comfortable, modern interior. Each guest room has its own air conditioning, TV, free high-speed internet access and a sumptuous black marble bathroom. The classic guest room rate is $190 (Dh695) per night, including taxes. K+K Hotel Central, Hybernská 10, 110 00 Prague 1 (www.kkhotels.com; 00 420 225 022 000)
Luxury Czech architect Eva Jiricna is behind the 109-room Hotel Josef with its strikingly modern interiors and funky staircase. In the middle of the old town, the comfortable rooms have the prerequisite designer touches such as rainfall showers and flatscreen TVs. A double room costs from $234 (Dh860) including breakfast and taxes. Hotel Josef, Rybná 20, 110 00 Prague 1 (www.hoteljosef.com ; 00 420 221 700 111)
Breakfast A typically hearty Czech breakfast consists of dark rye bread with butter or jam, or alternatively served with a slice of cheese or different types of meat. Czechs are also partial to various types of cheeses, spreads and pastries. If this appeals, head down to Kavárna Obecní Dum (www.kavarnaod.cz; 00 420 222 002 763) in the centrally-located Namesti Republiky 5, a beautiful old Vienna-style cafe, complete with beautiful chandeliers. Breakfast costs from $10 (Dh37).
Lunch With influences from its German and Hungarian neighbours, Czech food tends to be a fairly solid affair, with a soup such as beef broth and liver dumplings to start, a large main course of beef, poultry, game or venison, and a small dessert if you can manage to fit it in. Whilst you tuck into some of this hearty but delicious cuisine, take an interesting ride coasting through the centre of town and under Charles Bridge on a River Vlatava Cruise for $36 (Dh130) including lunch, leaving from Na Prikope at 11.30am daily (www.cruise-prague.cz).
Dinner The terrace at Terasa U Zlate Studne (www.terasauzlatestudne.cz; 00 420 257 533 322) in the Golden Well Hotel at the foot of the castle, is the ideal spot from where to overlook all of Prague. Expect to spend at least $85 (Dh310) for the setting and the menu with dishes such as Scottish river salmon and milk-fed veal. Another impressive historical setting is offered by the Art Deco Imperial Hotel (www.hotel-imperial.cz; 00 420 246 011 600), which was built in 1913 and is still going strong. A main course costs $20 (Dh72), and includes interesting choices such as Chilean sea bass and truffle gnocchi.
Smartwings (www.smartwings.com; 00 420 255 700 827) flies from Dubai to Prague from $708 (Dh2,600) return, including taxes.
Kafka's Clothes by Mark M Anderson is an interesting study of the remarkable Czech writer, whose work brings us the term Kafkaesque.