Dedicating only two and a half days in a major European city can’t be recommended, but when you’re an ambitious student on a budget with a desire to see as much as possible in the shortest amount of time, sometimes it’s the only option. Oftentimes, events arise that you weren’t expecting; for me and my friends, in this case, it was the terrorist bombings in Brussels — which happened the same day we were supposed to have a layover in Brussels. Despite setbacks and mood swings, no functioning ATM card to withdraw money and no tour book (HIGHLY do not recommend), Prague still proved to hold a certain charisma that temporarily let us forget our troubles and allowed us to simply enjoy getting lost in a foreign city.
The Old Town city center, also known as Stare Mesto, was alive with excitement and packed with tourists because of Easter preparations. The main square was ornamented with miniature, hand-decorated papier-mache eggs hanging from trees and stands selling everything from trdelnik, a traditional pastry topped with cinnamon sugar, to the best bratwurst hot dogs I have ever tasted. I bought a few decorated eggs as souvenirs for my family from a man who I thought hand-painted them himself, only to later discover that his stand was part of a full-blown business that sells eggs throughout the streets of Prague — capitalism at its finest.
Crossing the Vlatva River via the Charles Bridge, we took the tram to the Prague Castle complex. Situated at the top of a hill, it offers the quintessential panoramic view of the city as well as a nice recluse from the hustle and bustle of the city center. We had the chance to see the changing of the guards in front of the palace just as a man nearby began protesting for the removal of the current prime minister. This juxtaposition of honoring tradition with the yearning for change in a country with a tumultuous history was perfectly embodied here.
Within the castle complex, St. Vitus Cathedral attracts the most tourists, mostly because of the floor-to-ceiling multicolored stained glass windows and breathtaking Gothic architecture. Personally, I preferred the nearby Strahov monastery, where the well-manicured lawn and peaceful atmosphere truly provided a needed respite from the stressful city life.
Painted over just a few years ago by art students trying to make a statement, the John Lennon wall was chock-full of multicolored graffiti art ranging from a detailed depiction of a snail to fraternity letters scribbled in bright blue spray paint to (of course) a triptych of John Lennon’s face. Because it took a while to find this semi-secluded edifice, the ambiance appropriately matched the messages of peace and love scrawled on the wall. The site wasn’t overwhelmed by tourists and everyone paid respect to Lennon’s memory by posing with peace signs in front of his face.
One place that I made sure to visit was the Jewish Cemetery in the old Jewish Quarter of the city. Comprising several synagogues, each with their own historical significance, it’s certainly a kind of Jewish mecca while simultaneously offering insight into the lives of Jews pre-Holocaust. I wandered the streets, stopping first at Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery. Most striking to me was the dilapidated, carefully detailed headstones overgrown with moss and the way in which they were piled one on top of the other. The somber tone permeating the site reminded visitors to respect the memory of those buried there. The Spanish synagogue, just a few blocks down from the cemetery, was especially ornate, with huge stained glass windows and gold paint adorning the walls — a sign of Jewish wealth of the early 20th century.
My friends and I often disagreed on where to go in the city — something that I did not expect, but seems to be a common trend among young travelers. Each person has their own interests; I like visiting museums and learning the history of the city, while my friends enjoy eating at more upscale restaurants and strolling through public parks. With little sleep and little time comes little patience, and Prague triggered this in our traveling dynamic. But Prague also offered a remedy simply by being the city that it is.