Before arriving in Prague, I had formed ideas of what I might find in the "City of One Hundred Spires." But nothing could have prepared me for all the wonderful surprises I discovered there. Here are just a few:
1. The kindness and hospitality of the people. From the driver who picked us up at the airport to the elderly woman in the subway who assisted us with directions, the locals never failed to offer a smile and helping hand. In the hotel, in restaurants, and even in the busiest tourist sites, people were friendly with over-the-top customer service.
2. The beauty. There are beautiful cities, and then there are BEAUTIFUL cities! Prague happens to fall into the latter category. From almost every vantage point, you capture glimpses of red-tiled roofs, gothic church spires, cobblestone streets, or beautiful gardens. Prague is so postcard perfect, it sometimes feels like the entire city was staged for a Disney set. Capturing photos makes even the most amateur photographer look like a pro!
3. The cleanliness. Seriously! Have you ever seen a city vacuum or mop their streets? I haven't. At least not the way Prague does it. LIterally, men walk the city (especially high-traffic tourist areas) with car-sized vacuum cleaners sucking up anything stray in their path. What's more, I found crews mopping cobblestone streets. Unbelievable! I turned the corner fully expecting a red carpet!
4. The number of public restrooms. Most cities I visit usually require planning restroom breaks around meal times or inside tourist attractions. Prague was filled with available and clean public restrooms. Some had attendants who expected a small tip for its upkeep and others required a small coin for usage. But all the same, it is nice to know restrooms are so readily available should the need arise.
5. The chochke shops. If I had to find one fault about Prague, it would be this. Although relegated to the high tourist areas, I found the sheer number of chochke and souvenir shops to be in abundance! How many Prague keyrings or miniature crystal knickknacks does one need? It requires some creativity and a few extra steps to avoid the throngs of people who horde these areas, but if chochkes aren't your thing (and they are not mine!), it can be done.
6. The amount of English spoken. Albeit limited, English is spoken and written everywhere. I was prepared with a few memorized words and my phrasebook in hand. To my surprise, I never had to use them!
7. The lack of cigarette smoking in public areas. I read somewhere that cigarette smoking was rampant in Prague and there were few non-smoking designations in the city. As a non-smoker (and someone who has breathing difficulties amid heavy cigarette smoke), I feared this would be a problem. Thankfully, it wasn't. Rarely did we encounter smoking in public. Our hotel was a non-smoking property, and most restaurants now designate a non-smoking section.
8. The food. Meat and potatoes? Not a problem for me -- especially if you add gravy! So, I knew I would enjoy Czech food. What I was most surprised by was the range of cuisines available, the fine dining options, and how good and inexpensive they all were. I will write more on this in a future blog.
9. Ease and cleanliness of public transportation. Whether you prefer the subway or the trolley, one ticket takes care of it all. Instructions and maps are easy to follow, making public transportation the most affordable and convenient way to manage the city. Subway stations are impeccably clean (they probably vacuum and mop them as well!), well lit and safe. One important note: validate your ticket. The city operates on the honor system. Purchase your ticket and then time-stamp it in the big yellow boxes found at gate entrances and trolley doors. Failure to do so can result in a hefty fine payable upon demand!
10. The drop-off in tourism. I broke all my rules about traveling to Europe during the peak travel month of July. Expecting crowds of people and long lines, I was shocked to find hotels and restaurants nearly empty. There were no waits to see major attractions and prime cafe seats in major squares were readily available. Truly, and sadly, a sign of the times. On the other hand, with much of the city seemingly all to myself, it made for a lovely summer vacation!
If you missed my daily photo posts of Prague, check them out for a glimpse into this beautiful city: