PRAGUE, May 14 — Mention Prague and everyone envisions the stately Charles Bridge and the formidable Prague Castle. But the old Bohemian capital is more than simply the sum of its bridges and castles.
Modern-day Prague is full of young Bohemians — in the sense of born-and-bred inhabitants of the city, rather than the artsy-fartsy free spirits of yesteryear — who enjoy it for its ordinary pleasures, not its tourist traps.
So why not make a day trip to Prague and see it as a local would? When you get off at the Praha Hlavni Nadrazi (the main train station), it’s but a five-minute walk to the National Museum, built by Czech Neo-Renaissance architect Josef Schulz.
While the tourists take selfies in front of the grandiose building, you could be a real museum visitor and enjoy its vast collections of natural scientific and historical artefacts, numbering almost 14 million items in total.
Or if the day is fine, head to the 750-metre long boulevard that makes up Wenceslas Square in front of the National Museum. While shopaholics go wild inside the big name brand outlets on either side of the boulevard (marring an otherwise beautiful and historic landmark, the site of the protest against the Warsaw Pact Invasion in 1969), you can have a more serene time in the middle where young Czechs enjoy the sun and the garden of flowers.
From here, head to the Jiřího z Poděbrad square, most famously the site of the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord. Strains of a tune from an electric guitar may greet you, coming not from the church but from street musicians who gather here four times a week, from Wednesday to Saturday, when the Jiřího z Poděbrad Farmers Market is held.
And what a farmers market this is! The wide-open lawn in front of the church is transformed into a bustling landscape of flower stalls and food trucks, offering produce from farms around the country such as local wines and cheeses, seasonal vegetables and herbs, free-range poultry and eggs.
The bread stall, looking like a miniature Czech bakery, is a must-visit with crusty breads such as šumavský (golden loaves), hostivařský (caraway seed bread), dýňový (pumpkin bread) and pletýnka (braided rolls) waiting to be devoured with some of the local jams and marmalades from the preserves stand beside it.
Those fancying a little boost of caffeine should look out for Kafe Karlín’s pop-up. The baristas are the pride of Prague’s coffee scene, pulling shots and pouring latte art with brisk efficiency. The charcuterie truck entices flocks of meat lovers with šunka (hams), cikánská pečeně (garlic smoked meat), poličan (fermented salami), tlacenka (headcheese) and vídeňské (beef and pork sausages).
From a makeshift market, saunter over to the Old Town Square where one of the oldest markets in the city is hidden. Havel’s Market (Havelské tržiště) has been around since 1232 and is a permanent, all-year-round market. The stalls here sell fresh produce, handmade wooden toys, ceramics and leather goods.
Because Havel’s Market was originally a produce-only market, fruits and vegetables are still the main draw. From deep trays full of juicy cherries to ripe-red strawberries, you can be assured of the freshest fruits here. Delicious Czech honey is another delight; why not buy a jar or two to bring home?
For more kitschy (and less perishable) souvenirs, there are wooden puppets and decorative birch boxes. If you aren’t afraid of accidentally breaking them, some delicate pieces of Czech crystal and glass jewellery may be right up your alley. All told, you can browse for hours as you wander from stall to stall.
If you’re lucky, you might see some real “Bohemian” street performers with their eclectic haircuts and outlandish costumes. Some beat away at their hand drums with their palms; others blow bubbles into the air, forming strange creatures that you can just about imagine. With such a Bohemian rhapsody, an afternoon at the market has never been more fun!
Looming large over the city is Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world. Built around 880AD, the castle attracts droves of tourists every day. However, nestled within the castle’s Royal Garden is a sanctuary that is revered by architecture students and horticulturists alike.
The Orangery, originally a tropical greenhouse commissioned by the Bohemian ruler Rudolf II in the 16th century, is now a contemporary, tubular structure of glass and steel. Designed by renowned architect Eva Jiřičná in 1999, this new Orangery elegantly balances the old and new worlds with its clever transverse beams that leave the Renaissance-era wall undamaged.
Beyond its careful integration of modern architecture, technology and historical surroundings, the Orangery is first and foremost a hub for tropical and Mediterranean flora — from the citrus trees that give this green conservatory its name to all manner of fan-leaved palms and alien-tongued anthuriums.
It’s incredible what can flourish here; one minute you may be admiring a ripe fig, the next you can smell the sharp tang of oranges.
There’s no better way to end your experience of this other side of Prague than watching the sunset, especially with Prague Castle marking the horizon. Young Bohemians gather at the park in Riegrovy Sady, near the edge of the city, with this in mind. (The park is also not far from the railway station, which makes it really convenient to catch your train home later.)
While hiking up the hill in search of the best viewing point, don’t forget to take in the view of the rooftops of the city’s many buildings. Prague has a canopy of rusty red tiled roofs that in some way is as iconic as the castle that takes its name.
Once you’ve found the perfect spot, all that’s left to do is to chill out with conversations and a late picnic (if you’ve packed one, from the various stalls in the markets earlier). There is a ragtag sense of community here as everyone is here for the same reason: to enjoy the Bohemian vibe and to catch the last rays of the sun.
You will discover, as many have before you, that this is one of the best sunsets you’ve witnessed anywhere in the world. Little wonder, then, that locals call this park Sunset Hill. And as the colours change slowly, then swiftly, in this golden hour, so draws a close to your day in Prague — your day in Bohemia.
Václavské náměstí 68, Prague, Czech Republic
Open daily 10am-6pm
Tel: +420-224-497 111
Jiřího z Poděbrad Farmers Market
Náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad 6, Prague, Czech Republic
Open Wed-Fri 8am-6pm; Sat 8am-2pm; Sun-Tue closed
Havelska Street 13, Prague, Czech Republic
Open daily 6am-6:30pm
Tel: +420-224-227 186
Orangery at Prague Castle
Královská obora, Prague, Czech Republic
Open daily April-October 12pm-6pm; closed November-March
Tel: +420-224-372 435
Admission: CZK20 (RM3.50)
Riegrovy Sady, Prague, Czech Republic