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What’s the best way to get around Prague?

I hear this question posed in various ways by nearly every visitor. My answer is consistent as well: Prague’s public transportation system is a marvel, and should be seen to be believed.

In my own experience, there’s at least some kind of public transport stop (bus, tram, metro, local train) in a 500 meter radius from anywhere you are. Most places it’s a 250m radius. Which means that you can catch a bus/tram/metro and get from anywhere to anywhere quickly and easily.

A ticket on public transport costs 12 CZK (something around 40 cents US), and is good for 60 minutes with unlimited transfers in that time. So you can go from tram to bus to metro to bus if you need to, as long as your time doesn’t run out. You can also buy day passes or longer-term passes if you need them. Monthly, quarterly and yearly passes require you to stand in line and speak a bit of Czech, but mean that you don’t have to worry about one of the two drawbacks to Prague public transport. (The first is pickpockets, but they’re in every city.)

[Cue Darth Vader Music] The Control Guy [/Darth Vader Music]

These guys make money for themselves and for the Transport Authority by checking people’s tickets at random and in plainclothes. Since most locals know to buy their tickets, he usually harasses tourists who don’t know how to buy tickets and get on anyway – “riding black” in local parlance. If you don’t have a ticket, you have to pay a fine of 400 CZK (about $14).

So the best thing to do is buy a handful of tickets all at once and use them as needed. Another important point to remember is that you have to stamp your ticket. It’s not enough to carry around an unstamped ticket.

One of the great quality-of-life things about Prague is that the transport system goes 24 hours. So you can catch special night trams that run every 40 minutes. In winter months, though, 40 minutes is an eternity.

That’s why the newish Transport Authority webpage is a godsend. Not only can you see when the next tram is coming, but it will also make recommendations on the transfers you need to make (if necessary.)

If you have a WAP-enabled mobile phone, you can also get this info by WAP at http://wapdpp.datamobil.cz.

In recent years, many popular night tram stops have become magnets for late night fast food as well. Some major transfer points, like Lazarska (one block from the Narodni trida metro) have several fast food joints within staggering distance of the tram stop. Not a total necessity, but it sure comes in handy after a night of pubbing.

My favorite way to see the Prague at night, actually, is from the back of a night tram. Forget the poor mistreated horse-drawn carriages. Get on the 51 or 54 trams.

I got an email tonight from a friend of a friend asking on behalf of other friends:

Do you have any tips on cool things to do in Prague? They’re traveling wtih teenagers.

Hm. Don’t really know where to start with that one. I could write a guidebook. Maybe I could call it The Lonely Eyewitness In Your Pocket or something. Here’s what I wrote back:

Hi,

I guess a lot depends on what these folks are interested in. One suggestion would be to focus on the revolution of 1989, starting from Karlovo namesti, where the first demonstrations were held, heading toward the student dormitories near Narodni divadlo (National Theatre), then walking down Narodni trida toward Vaclavske namesti. On Narodni trida there’s a moving shrine to the 1989 revolution. You can’t miss it. It’s a series of hands, some making the V for victory, with only a caption reading “17.11.1989”

There’s a pretty good account of it in a sermon, of all places, at this address: http://home.att.net/~uustoughton/Sermons/Archives/199911281989.htm

Other cool things to do:

– Sip coffee (or maybe some Becherovka) at the Cafe Slavia, across from the National Theatre.

– Drink beer at one of many pubs. One of my favorites is “U Vejvodu” on Vejvodova street. Another great pub is “U Medvidku” just down the street from U Vejvodu. You never know what kind of people you’ll meet there.

– An excellent and not-very-well-known spot is the rooftop terrace on top of U Prince restaurant on the Old Town Square. It’s kinda touristy, but the views from there are spectacular.

– If you’re interested in art, there are museums galore, with everything from Gothic paintings to modern photography. Blogger Nicmoc says the current show at the Rudolfinum (across from Staroměstská metro), A Strange Heaven, spotlighting modern Chinese photography, is a must-see. The museums and galleries at Prague Castle tend to focus on the National Gallery’s permanent collection. Up at the castle, one of the cooler museums is the Toy Museum, which has a collection of nearly every Barbie ever made, as well as all kinds of cool toys from throughout history.

– Restaurants have gotten much better over the years, but generally it’s a good idea to avoid the restaurants on the Old Town Square, which are expensive and nothing special. If you’re interested in a good meat-eater’s meal, try U Sadlu (www.usadlu.cz), just off Revolucni trida at Klimentska (it’s actually down in a cellar at Klimentska 2.) It can be tough to get into, though, so you may want to make a reservation. Then again, you can drink Budvar while you wait, which isn’t so bad either.

If you have teenagers coming, it might be good to show them that the club in the movie “xXx” isn’t a club at all, but the ancient Gothic Tyn Cathedral. If you’re interested in clubs, you might want to check out the Roxy, on Dlouha trida near Revolucni, and the Central Lounge on Soukenicka also near Revolucni. Both clubs are within staggering distance of each other.

Other good clubs to check out would be Radost FX, near I.P. Pavlova metro. Radost has a vegetarian restaurant, which is still a bit of a rarity out here. Just remember that your pork levels have to be high enough in order to be allowed to exit the country ;-).

A bit further afield, (but depending on whether your tastes go to electronica or not it may be worth the trip) would be the Akropolis in Zizkov (disclosure: I’m a resident DJ there). It’s very close to the TV tower. Near there, at namesti Jiriho z Podebrad (the green line metro stops there), my good friend David Holeček has just opened his excellent bar, Černa kočka bilý kocour (Black Cat White Cat). Best mojitos in town, IMHO.

Prague has excellent public transport, and you should either buy a day pass or several metro tickets and avoid taxi drivers in general. Just watch out for gangs of pickpockets, who infest the touristed areas of town like Malostranske namesti. Generally, keep an eye on yourself and your stuff and you should be fine. Unfortunately, with so many beautiful sights in Prague, it’s easy to forget this.

Most of this stuff should be in the guidebooks. My favorite guidebook is still the “Eyewitness Guide to Prague” by Dorling Kindersley publishers. I usually have a couple of copies of this around the house to give to guests.

Hope this helps,

doug

Q: What’s the best place to change money in Prague?

A: Back in the day, you’d walk down Wenceslas Square and be accosted by shifty characters offering to “shenj manny? shenj manny?” Many were the horror stories of folks who’d get useless old zlotys or what have you.

If you can at all avoid it, don’t even bother changing money. Change booths are total ripoffs, and the banks aren’t that much better.

Nowadays there are literally thousands of Prague merchants who accept credit cards, and the big benefit of using a card (aside from not having to carry cash) is that you’re not charged for the currency transaction. Every gas station, department store, supermarket and hotel takes plastic, and most touristy stores take ’em too. It’s about 50-50 downtown with restaurants, so it’s better to have cash available there just in case.

There are certain transactions that require cash (both licit and illicit), however, and if you insist on having cash, I’d recommend using an ATM (or bankomat as the Czechs refer to ’em). Just about every Metro station has at least one ATM (many have one at or close to each exit), and there are at least ten I can think within 1km of the Old Town Square. Usually, the fee your bank charges for using a non-friendly ATM is going to be lower than what you’d pay to the change booths or to the banks.

One other ATM tip (aside from not pulling out more than you really need in a day) is that if you’re not careful, you’ll get 2000 crown notes. These are generally unloved in most stores and restaurants (at least the four-fingered-one-eyed putyky I frequent). So try pulling out 1600 CZK or some other variation.

By all means avoid the change booths. One friend here, a lovable swine (but a swine nonetheless) put himself through university in style with the money he skimmed off unsuspecting tourists.

Prague.tv’s forums are proving to be a good source of inspiration for the Prague F.A.Q. One person asks, “Is Prague still cheap to live in?”

Hm. The answer, as usual, is that it probably depends. It depends on your lifestyle in the place you’re coming from and the lifestyle you plan to live here.

It’s never really been true that you could live like a king on $100 USD a month. I know, because that was my first salary at Prognosis in 1992. For that, half of my salary went for rent, and the other half for food and drink. And when I say food and drink, I mean two hot dogs and a bowl of soup per day. But the lifestyle was excellent, and it was one of the few times in my life where I loved what I did completely. (My current employment’s not bad, btw. ;-))

When I left Prognosis to join an evil German ad agency, I was thrilled because I was going to get the princely sum of $1500 per month, and the difference was visible. I could afford taxis at night instead of waiting in the cold for the night tram, or to go shopping without really looking at the price tags. But the bargain was definitely Faustian, and for that salary, my employers believed they owned my soul.

Nowadays, the only people who are enjoying a truly decadent lifestyle are the ones who’ve always been in the priveleged class of Prague expats: employees of the diplomatic corps and multinationals. It used to be that you could get a cushy job at a multinational by just showing up. But nowadays the job market is much more competitive, and fluency in Czech, as well as having the skillz to pay the billz is important.

So is it affordable? Unless you get completely ripped off by your landlord, rent will probably be a substantially lower percentage of your monthly income. So will food and drink, if, like me, you tend to go to places offering “tepla jidla po cely den.” In other words, four-fingered-one-eyed joints.

But wait. Even when I lived in Santa Barbara, we always tried to make up stories to scare the tourists away. Hell, in Ventura there were beaches that were so strongly locals-only that you’d get your tires slashed for surfing there.

So yeah, it’s way more expensive. You can’t afford it. Stay where you are. 😉

UPDATE Wed Jul 16 16:35: Reader Michal points out that nowadays there are lots of Czech managers making salaries in line with their western colleagues. This is true, and I didn’t want to give the impression that the only people living well are the diplomats and multinational employees; the point was that there are lots of Czech white collar employees living very well now, but the ones who are making the really astronomical sums are still in the expat “bubble.”

Always good to check out Prague.tv, which has all kinds of useful news, info and comments. But especially good are the message boards. I just came across this one today:

I am going to Prague in August and i was wondering where the beautiful women of the city socialise. I have heard alot about them and wish to find out if this is true ?

What’s especially great is how the readers at Prague.tv tore him a new one in the comments. Click ahead to read the whole thing. Priceless.

For some time I’ve been meaning to put together a Prague FAQ. I think I’m gonna have to keep this question in mind for it.