Prague - Czech Republic
Prague was hailed—in hushed tones—as one of the greatest European cities vacationers had yet to discover. Those days are gone, and the city is now well-known as a major destination for art, history, culture, and authenticity. Naturally, its prices have grown along with its reputation. With these insider tips for a freebie-filled vacation,the best of the Golden City without spending an ounce of gold.
The National Gallery boasts a varied collection that spans medieval to contemporary art. Entry to its permanent exhibitions, housed in eight different inner-city venues, is free from 3 to 8 p.m. every first Wednesday of the month. For a traditional art experience, peruse the medieval art in the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia, a site founded in 1231 and restored in the 1960s. For more conceptual, current installations, the museum's collection of contemporary art in Veletrzni Palace offers spectacular works by artists vying for attention in today's international art scene.
The Museum of Decorative Arts is free Tuesdays from 5 to 7 p.m. The neo-Renaissance building with lavish interiors has meticulously planned exhibits. On permanent display are textiles, toys, graphic arts, furniture, ceramics, and Bohemian glass.
As the city that raised David Cerny—the controversial artist who in 1991 illicitly painted a commemorative Soviet tank pink and in 2000 temporarily installed giant climbing babies on the Zizkov Television Tower—Prague has a rich history of provocative and progressive art. The babies are still visible today, as their popularity ensured their permanent place in 2001. The 720-foot (219-meter) tower has been met with local wariness and suspicion for most of its history, attributed to its communist-era completion in 1992 and a general distrust of the rays it emits. But the babies, free to view, seem to have softened its image.
The Kampa Museum, established in 2002 and housed in a building some scholars date to the tenth century, offers free entry to its permanent exhibition the first Wednesday of every month. The collection has works by Czech artists living in exile, and consists mainly of art acquired by Meda and Jan Mladek (whose biographies can be read on the museum's website), presented as a gift to the city of Prague.
Visitors can stroll through private collections in numerous venues free of charge. Most are located in the budding art district of Prague 7. Among them is Hunt Kastner Artworks, a gallery devoted to cultivating the careers of emerging Czech artists. It contains visually dazzling pieces that are often, at the very least, thought provoking. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday 1 to 6 p.m. and Saturday 2 to 6 p.m.
Other private museums include the Jiri Svestka Gallery, which displays its collection of contemporary and modern art free to the public Tuesday through Friday noon to 6 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Galerie Display offers free admission Wednesday through Sunday 3 to 6 p.m., and provides a lively experience thanks to events such as artist appearances and film screenings.
One look into the city's many glassware shops and it's easy to see why Bohemian glass has made a name for itself worldwide. For visitors who are able to venture outside city limits, the Moser Glass Factory in Karlovy Vary has a free museum open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturday until 3 p.m. For those who plan to stay within the capital, the Moser flagship shop is near Wenceslas Square. Inside is an incredible display of the talent and artistry that has made Moser famous since its start in 1857.
With free admission to the Church of Our Lady before Tyn, tourists can pay a visit to astronomer Tycho Brahe (or his grave, rather). Famed for pioneering a scientific approach to astronomy and for losing part of his nose in a sword fight, the Scandinavian moved to Prague in 1599 and became Imperial Mathematician to Emperor Rudolf II.
North of Old Town Square, the Jewish Quarter is where writer Franz Kafka spent the majority of his life. The six sites that make up the Jewish Museum charge admission, but anyone can walk around the tiny district that once was home to nearly all of Prague's Jewish population. Usually crowded with tourists, the area is significantly quieter on the Sabbath (Saturday), when the museums are closed and savvy sightseers can appreciate the architecture and contemplate the past in relative calm.
John Lennon didn't ever make it to the Golden City, but his spirit lives on in the wall that bears his name. Located southwest of Charles Bridge, the Lennon Wall goes back to communist-era Prague, where residents looking for freedom of speech and an artistic outlet wrote messages after Lennon's death. The site remains a noteworthy attraction, largely because everyone is free to contribute to the mural.
Vysehrad, the tenth-century castle ruins and accompanying graveyard, offers free entry to the historic grounds where some of the Czech Republic's most notable scientists, poets, playwrights, composers, painters and other visionaries are buried. The site is also recommended for families with kids, as it's comfortably removed from center-city crowds.
The Czech Museum of Music, located in the Church of Santa Maria Magdalena, offers free admission on the first Thursday of every month. Spend an afternoon admiring handcrafted instruments and original scores.
Known as one of Prague's most fun art galleries, Muddum holds regular events such as free film screenings, craft nights, workshops, and lectures. Many events are child friendly—as is the gallery itself—and some even feature free food and/or drink. The gallery is located in Prague 7 across from Letna Park. Check the gallery's website for the latest schedule and details of specific events.
The Franciscan Monastery near Wenceslas Square has gardens and a courtyard playground where throngs of local families come to relax and play. The comfortable benches, rows of herbs and flowers, and statues and fountains make it a haven that is both peaceful and conveniently located.
Certovka, a playground at the western end of the Charles Bridge, is ideal for families looking to let loose. The modest park is open from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The fence surrounding the small recreational area gives kids the freedom to run amok while staying safely in sight.
Sparkys Toy Store is a game-glutton's dream. The biggest toy store in Prague, it's worth the visit for the classic wooden toys and other authentic playthings.
Go Zlute lazne, an outdoor venue where visitors can swim in the Vltava River or relax on the grass, has free entry after 5 p.m. There is also a kiddie pool.
Free food and drink does not come easy in Prague; this is, after all, a place where fast-food restaurants charge for each ketchup packet. One of the best things bargain-seeking foodies can do is book a hotel with free breakfast, but there are, fortunately, a few hidden spots where patrons are treated to extras.
Italian restaurant Albar (Vezenska 4, Prague 1) offers free snacks when you purchase an afternoon drink at the bar. Located in Prague 1, the small Italian restaurant has an authentic ambiance. Be prepared to test your linguistic skills—the menu is in Czech only.
Bohemia Bagel offers free coffee refills, a service almost as unheard of in Bohemia as the bagel was before the arrival of this intensely popular spot. The bulletin boards—industriously used by the community—are prime spots for discovering deals and freebies. There are now five locations: two in Prague 1, one in Prague 7, one in Prague 2, and one in Prague 6.
These next two listings are only free if you can resist taking a chance on the card tables. If gambling is your thing, the Golden Prague Poker Room, located in the Casino Atrium Hilton, offers free drinks and cigarettes, as well as a free buffet starting at 9 p.m. every night. Casino Palais Savarin, the casino in Old Town, provides complimentary drinks to its patrons.
Tuesdays from 6 to 9 p.m., Bukowski's (Borivojova 86, Prague 3) offers free pitchers of sangria to ladies.
In 2006, a promotional Kofola Tram, named after the popular local soft drink, rolled down the streets of Prague like a party on wheels. It picked up city dwellers, giving free rides and free Kofola. Sadly, the Kofola Tram was a temporary highlight. Keep your eyes open for similar advertising campaigns—local companies are getting creative with their marketing, and this often means freebies, including food and drink, for potential customers.
Prague offers a myriad of free outdoor activities, thanks largely to the spacious urban parks spread throughout the city. From people-watching to soaking up panoramas of the city's skyline, nothing beats Petrin Hill. From the top, viewers are treated to a postcard-perfect picture of Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, the foreign embassies, and Prague Castle.
Prague's city parks, including Stomovka, Petrin, and Letna, offer scenic views and expansive greenery. In summer, the gargantuan Petrin Park is an ideal spot for picnics, lounging, and taking a break from hurried city life. In winter, it's a popular spot for sledding, and winter sport seekers are known to leave sleds and large plastic bags for tourists' sledding enjoyment.
Closer to city center is Stromovka Park, Emperor Rudolf II's former hunting grounds and a favorite of biking and Rollerblading locals. Letna Park, the site where Stalin's monument to communism once stood, is another preferred spot for fresh air and outdoor pursuits.
Don't be misled by the McDonald's hovering at the entrance; Divoka Sarka Park is a nature-filled paradise for water and wildlife lovers. Dotted with waterfalls and hiking trails, the park offers swimmers an opportunity to paddle around the park's lake for free (though use of the park's shower facilities comes with a charge).
The numerous open-air markets in Prague are another reason to spend time outdoors. These include Holesovice Market (food, clothes, and electronics), as well as the indoor/outdoor Pankrac Market (produce, dry goods, and home appliances) and the touristy but enjoyable Havelska Market (produce, jewelry, art, and toys) in the heart of Old Town.
For a stroll along the coronation route of Bohemian kings, begin at Mihulka Powder Tower, located on the north side of St Vitus's Cathedral. Cross Old Town Square and Charles Bridge. Head toward Prague Castle to complete this majestic walk called The Royal Way.
Free Prague Tours offers walking tours of both the left bank and the right bank, leaving from Old Town Square at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily (tips are expected).
Prague has plenty of theater—its famous black-light shows, opera, even Shakespeare companies. But the search for anything free inevitably leads to the place in Prague where all roads lead (metaphorically): Charles Bridge.
Quiet in the mornings and crowded during the day, the lively and authentic spirit of the bridge comes out in early evening, when organ grinders, violin aficionados, and even didgeridoo players show off their talents. Lucky visitors may catch a concert by glass-harp player Alexander Zoltan, whose gift for music and show has led to performances around the world and can be seen on video here.
Prague Castle occasionally hosts cultural events, often on castle grounds, including free jazz concerts and promenade concerts. Summer shows are often held in the castle's South Gardens. For free music at the castle every day, the noon changing of the guard features elaborate fanfare from a live band.
With a little planning, blues fans can treat themselves to a free concert by Stan the Man, the oldest-running blues act in Prague. The Louis Armstrong sound-alike plays every Monday night in U Maleho Glena, a tiny underground bar with a restaurant upstairs. The venue's limited capacity makes reservations a must; these are easily accomplished through the jazz club's website.
Film buffs can catch free screenings of independent and documentary movies at the American Center, part of the American Embassy in Prague 1. Films are shown Thursdays at 6 p.m.
Several nightclubs in the city offer free entertainment. Abaton (Na Kosince 8, Prague 8) features live bands at "Free Monday" parties. Mecca (U prohonu 3, Holesovice, Prague 7) pumps dance music throughout its themed rooms for free on Wednesdays. Radost FX (Belehradska 120, Vinohrady, Prague 2), workplace of many famous DJs, offers free entry for ladies every Thursday. Fans of trance and international music will enjoy Roxy (Dlouha 33, Stare Mesto, Prague 1), free every Monday. And you can't visit Prague without seeing the famous five-story megaclub called Karlovy Lazne (Novotneho lavka 1, Stare Mesto, Prague 1), with live music, a light-up dance floor, and free Internet access in the basement. The club hosts free entry nights about once or twice a month; keep your eyes on the bulletin boards and your ears open to find out when to go.