After years with a reputation as Europe’s leading budget destination, the Czech capital has emerged as a surprising home of luxury and culture
The drive into Prague’s old town from the Václav Havel international airport feels like a journey through time. I’m met in the present or near future by a driver in a sleek black Mercedes. The car has inbuilt Wi-Fi, seems to drive entirely noiselessly, and has giant, swallowing seats with little cushions on the headrests. Following an early start, it’s hard to stay awake with such comfort, but this is my first time in the city and I want to see what’s out the window in the cold autumnal air.
Leaving the modern world, the drive starts through the remnants of the decidedly unlovely Communist era. As it did across Europe, Communism ended here with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but huge tower blocks, resolutely focused on function over form, are a reminder of what is still a pretty recent past.
It was the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc and reformation of old nations, as well as the creation of new ones, that gave this part of the world a feeling of being new, even though cities such as Prague were founded as far back as the 6th century.
The dramatic political and economic shifts of the 1990s drove prices down, and attracted tourists from across the continent in search of cheap drinks and affordable party weekends. In the last years of the 20th century and the early part of this one, Prague became the de facto capital, not just of the newly formed Czech Republic, but of the budget traveller’s ideal destination.
A confession: I wasn’t really aware that much had changed in the intervening years, save for prices steadily rising with global inflation. However, looking out the window of the Mercedes, which had been sent by the Four Seasons Prague to collect me from the airport, I notice that the further into the city we get, the more beautiful the architecture becomes.
The embassy district is filled with grand mansions, scattered along old roads, offering tremendous views across the Prague below. Not far from here, on top of a hill and offering the most commanding vistas of all, the Prague Castle – or some version of it – has stood for over a thousand years.
I notice that the further into the city we get, the more beautiful the architecture becomes
I’m tempted to ask the driver to stop, but the Czech capital is one of Europe’s great walking cities, so I instead make a note to come back at some point during my visit here.
I’ve chosen to stay at the Four Seasons because of its enviable location on Prague’s eastern riverbanks. At first it looks like one grand structure from the outside, but it is in fact four: Baroque, neo-Classical, neo-Renaissance and modern, carefully married together to make one outstanding luxury abode.
Its restaurant, CottoCrudo, is regarded as maybe the finest Italian in the city, and its recently launched seasonal boat tours allow guests to explore the city’s beautiful waterways.
The largest of these is of course right outside, the mighty Vltava River. To this foreigner’s eyes, it looks as though it could do with an extra vowel, but there aren’t many other criticisms you can make of the colossal aquatic serpent making its way through the centre of the Czech capital. Only a tiny section of its 430km passes through the historic city, but its presence was key to the development of Prague. Today it continues to be an important feature of the city – for the thousands of tourists and locals crossing each day, and for the bevvies of swans casually paddling across its surface.
On both sides of the river there’s an abundance of art galleries. Some of these are palatial, ostentatious affairs, the likes of which you’d expect to find in any of Europe’s great capitals. The National Gallery has a collection so large that it’s split across several sites around the city. Grandest of these is the Kinský Palace, a 250-year-old beauty sitting on the historic Old Town Square. Inside its pink walls is the nation’s best selection of valuable Oriental art, which is interesting in itself but probably doesn’t draw quite the same size of crowds as the astronomical clock – the bombastic chimes of which have the square thronging with tourists every hour.
The National Gallery has a collection so large that it’s split across several sites around the city
While the famous galleries get a lot of the footfall, I choose to walk down Parizska Street on the way to the river. Its surrounding neighbourhood is home to some of Prague’s more niche galleries: Croatian artist Gordana Turuk’s spectacular glassworks; the 17-year-old Galerie La Femme featuring pieces ranging from classic landscapes to psychedelic pop art and the Knupp Gallery.
Many leading local fashion designers have set up their boutiques in the same area, too. And on Parizska Street I pass prestigious couture and fine jewellery brands such as Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Dior and many more that flank the tree-lined boulevard, which has a similar feel to Paris’ Champs-Élysées.
I head back to the western shore of the Vltava, making sure to pass over the iconic Charles Bridge. At over 600 years old, until 1841 it was the only way to cross the river – it should come as no surprise that the bridge is held in such regard that it now has its own museum.
When the city is at its busiest with visitors, crossing the Charles can be slow, which is a bit of a problem for me as I’m running late for an appointment at the Mandarin Oriental hotel’s spa.
Located in the labyrinthine and seemingly misnamed Malá Strana (Lesser Town), the hotel isn’t especially easy to find for a newcomer making their way on foot. The ancient buildings here seem built on top of each other, straddling crooked roads and climbing up foothills.
The hotel itself is built on the site of a 14th-century monastery and its spa is quite unlike any other I’ve ever visited before. As I’m lead into a side-room to begin the treatment, I walk over Plexiglas which guards remnants of the original religious house below. My therapist then points out what used to be the building’s pulpit.
By the time I walk back out into the frigid night air, cured like a prize roast, I’m fairly sure Prague is the greatest city in the world. Perhaps that’s the vapours from the essential oils used for my treatment talking, but unfortunately there’s not much time to enjoy the wooziness – I have a dinner reservation that needs to be kept.
Back once again on the eastern side of the Vltava, I make my way to Field (fieldrestaurant.cz). The Michelin Guide doesn’t have an edition dedicated to the Czech Republic, but Prague does feature in its Main Cities of Europe guide, in which three of the city’s restaurants have been awarded a star. Field was the most recent of these, having received its cherished etoile in 2016 and retained it this year.
Despite an unassuming exterior, inside Field looks like a cross between a modern art gallery and a sort of agricultural museum: the ceiling is painted with neon doodles; from the walls hang enormous pieces of farm equipment. It’s quite the scene, but none of the showiness would count for much if the food wasn’t first rate.
Field looks like a cross between a modern art gallery and a sort of agricultural museum
The menu has been inspired by Czech cuisine, which perhaps explains why so many of the ingredients seem so alien to me. Woundwort, modřenín, Horský cheese… Quite which is which remains a mystery through a sensational 10-course degustation menu. But every course is presented with imagination and flair, some with dry ice, some on beds of ferns, another in a miniature chest of drawers. Some may look at this sort of food and think that it’s not traditional enough – that it’s too fancy, but, I’d wager, they simply haven’t been lucky enough to taste it.
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