How does one experience a life of travel and adventure when money is scarce? Travelling does not have to cost an arm and a leg. This past December, wracked with the winter blues and anxious for a break from the Dam but managing light pockets, I decided to take a city break on a budget with the €250 I had to spare. Hey, I’m a creative freelancer who is still trying to figure out financial freedom. Determined to have a little getaway before I went back to the States for the holidays, I checked cheap travel options on Groupon NL and Holiday Guru’s page on FB. Most of the Groupon vouchers have a two-people minimum, so of course I asked my travel buddy, Steph, to join. As luck would have it, I found a deal for a stay at the Hotel Voyage in Prague for three nights for only €139. I also snagged a roundtrip flight on Easy Jet for €100 which was actually about the same as a train ticket. Next, I researched and made a list of all the places in Prague that were little to no cost, set a budget of €27 a day, and booked my Prague for pennies trip!
Luckily, there was plenty to see and do for next to nothing. We landed at Vaclav Havel Airport mid-afternoon with the rest of the day ahead of us. A taxi was out of the allotted budget, so we took bus and tram from the airport to our hotel in Zizkov. It was a relatively short and painless commute. After checking into our hotel in Prague 2, we headed out to Old Town to see the iconic Charles Bridge. Even though we were only about a 20 minute walk away, it was cold and dreary. We decided to take the bus since we had about 15 minutes left on our transportation tickets. One thing to note was how simple Prague’s commuter system was to navigate. The trams, buses, and subway were all somewhat aged but reliable.
Excited to finally be in the city that’s been on my longtime must-see list, we finally made it to Old Town and headed straight to the iconic bridge that’s the ubiquitous symbol of Prague. Joining the throngs of people crossing from Old Town to Mala Strana, I was struck with the impressive medieval Gothic structure that photos simply don’t do justice and all the Baroque Christian statues that lined the bridge.
As I looked out at the breathtaking view of the Vltava River, I took a minute of gratitude. Here I am, living the history of a lost Europe. For pennies! Once we crossed to the other side, Steph and I took a quick tour of Mala Strana, deciding to leave more extensive sightseeing until following day since we had limited time before sunset. Next up was a tour of Old Town and dinner. Old Town had a lot of little shops, and a vendor filled Christmas market that we purused before seeking out a place to eat. There were a lot of outdoor pop-up style restaurants in the Square, but we settled on one that was indoors. Did I mention it was freezing? We ate at Zlate Konvice, a lovely little spot that also had a live Latin jazz night. The food was so reasonably priced; I even had the fancy shrimp dish and a carafe of wine all for under €20.
After dinner we called it a night, and as we head to Zizkov Steph decides she’s feeling adventurous. I wanted to take a bus back to the hotel since again, it was colder than a witch's tit but she was insistent that we walk back. With Google maps in hand we headed down a super sketchy path that grew more ominous by the second until we finally decided to turn around and go a more populated route. So far so good until a few blocks away from the hotel we turned a corner, and everything went almost completely black for about two blocks. Feeling like I was in a Hostel movie, I prayed for the good Lord’s grace and high stepped it to safety as fast as I could, because being attacked on a dark, deserted street in a foreign country was not the way I wanted to go. The moral of the story? Don't go wandering around Zizkov at night all willy nilly. What a first day!
It’s day two, and we’re up early and ready to go. After taking advantage of the included breakfast at the hotel, we braved the freezing temperatures and decided to explore Zizkov. Steph remarked how the oppressive energy reminded her of the Communist era. Steph's no history buff but she was spot on, Zizkov was a former Communist stronghold.
Vitkov Hill was only a few blocks away and had promises of a beautiful panoramic view of the city. Trekking up the steep incline tested my athletically challenged self, but I made it to the top in one piece. We checked out the National Monument a statue of Jan Žižka, one of the largest equestrian statues in the world. The view of the city was in fact superb. After hiking the area for a while and taking in the stunning Prague skyline, it was time to head over to the Prague Castle Complex.
The Prague Castle complex, the official home of the President of the Czech Republic and UNESCO World Heritage site consists of a network of palaces with styles varying from Gothic to Romanesque. We declined a tour of the castle and opted instead to walk the grounds of the most extensive Castle Complex in the world. We spotted Golden Lane’s Street of Alchemist with its collection of quaint colorful 16th-century houses before we made our way to St. Vitus Cathedral.
St. Vitus Catherdral
Now St. Vitus Cathedral was the stuff fairytales are made of which is fitting since it’s the burial place of the former Czech kings and the home of the Czech Crown Jewels. Inside is just as extraordinary, with its high net vaulted ceilings and historic relics. One of the highlights to make sure to see is the chancel built by Peter Parler. And if you’re fortunate perhaps you’ll get serenaded by a choir like we did.
Our foray into the Prague Castle Complex ended and we found our way back to Old Town absorbing the views along the way. Sipping on mulled wine, we stopped to see the medieval Astronomical Cock. Unfortunately, it was under construction but we were still able to get a glimpse of one of the world’s oldest clocks. Repairs on the Astronomical Clock are slated to be completed late 2018.
We walked everywhere and certainly got a workout our second day. Day two’s excursions left me exhausted but thrilled that I got to take in so much of the city on foot. However, all that walking created a healthy appetite, and I was ready to eat. Prague has a lot of international foods choices, but we settled on Las Adelitas, a little gem that serves Mexican cuisine, hidden away from the hustle and bustle of Old Town. It was crowded, and all the remaining spots were reserved, but Steph finagled a table with her Spanish speaking skills.
It’s our final day and we’ve made our way through most of our list. I had a cousin in Prague studying architecture, so we arranged to meet him for lunch at Bad Jeff’s Barbeque in Prague 3. We ate, caught up with cousin Colinn then with full bellies began the hike to Vysehrad.
We arrived at Vysehrad complex, a historic fort on a hill overlooking the Vltava River, and beelined it to the cemetery as the sun was setting. Steph’s always had a thing for graveyards and Vysehrad was supposed to be especially noteworthy. It is the resting place of over 600 luminaries, including poets, scientists, artists, composers, and politicians. I’ve always thought her affinity for the dark side was weird, but this was one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been. I was absolutely blown away. Gorgeous is not a word I would typically ascribe to a cemetery, but with the Vysehrad it’s appriopriate. Slavin’s Tomb is particularly spectacular. I highly recommend adding it to your list of things to see, and it’s free!
The Basilica of St. Peter
One of the most important structures in Vysehrad, The Basilica of St. Peter is adjacent to the cemetery on a cliff overlooking the Vltava River. We snapped a few shots before leaving the grounds to continue our sightseeing around the city.
We almost found our way to Wenceslas Square in New Town, one of the main cultural and business centers in the city, by accident which was great because it was the last item on the agenda. There was a Christmas Market being hosted there with all sorts of food and vendors. The crowd was thick and the mood was jovial. There are a ton of retailers, cafés and clubs in the surrounding Wenceslas area, that shoppers and tourist milled around enjoying. It was a feel-good night. Moving on from Wenceslas Square, we strolled around New Town discovering parts of the city that weren’t destinations included from my internet search.
On our tour of the city, we made sure to take the route that would take us past the Dancing House; a modern building surrounded by historic architecture designed by Croatian-Czech architect Valdo Milunic and Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry.
On our final trek back to our hotel, in the middle of the block, we came across a random hallway in Prague 1 with various paintings lining the wall and ceiling. Curious about where this mysterious hallway led we entered and discovered the Podzemní Antikvariát bookstore tucked away in a cellar. The bookstore sells classic Czech literature, but a peek at the intricate artwork on the walls is of value on its own.
Well, there you have it, folks. I found Prague to be dark and brooding, cold, imposing, and filled to the brim with old world charm. Feeling the energy of the past, I felt like I was able to go back in time in some aspect. No, I couldn’t indulge in some activities considering my small budget, but I got to witness some of Europe’s most iconic architectural marvels, and I enriched my understanding of another culture, first hand. Sometimes, that’s enough.
Have you ever taken a trip on a shoestring budget? Where did you go? What was your strategy? We want to hear all about in the comment section!
Til next time, travel light travel bugs!