Is Prague one big tourist trap?

Prague – A Case of Too Much Success

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More than 15 years ago, one of my co-workers vacationed in Prague. The Czech Republic was only a few years out of communism at the time, and she described an Old Town Square with exquisite architecture and locals overflowing with gratitude for tourists. That image hung in my head like a ripe plum waiting to be picked, growing juicier and more delicious with every passing year, so when I finally arranged to visit Eastern Europe this summer Prague was my obvious first stop.

Crowds choke Old Town Square in Prague, making it hard to enjoy the exquisite architecture

Crowds choke Old Town Square in Prague, making it hard to enjoy the exquisite architecture

I wish I could say that it met my expectations. The architecture of Old Town Square was stunning, including the magnificent Disneyesque Our Lady before Tyn Church, whose twin spires peek over the square like a Gothic castle, and the equally beautiful baroque St. Nicholas Church. Off to one side of the square, the famous Astronomical Clock is mounted on the southern wall of Old Town City Hall. Installed in 1410, it is the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still functioning. Each hour, animated figures representing the twelve apostles, greed, vanity, pleasure and death emerge from doorways in the face of the clock while the skeleton (death) strikes the hour.

Unfortunately, Old Town Square is the place to be in Prague. From early morning until late at night, it was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists and crowds began to assemble in front of the Astronomical Clock a quarter before each hour. Though I spent two weeks in Prague, I could never get close enough to see the show due to the massive crowds.

Crowds await the animated figures that emerge from the Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall tower in Prague

Crowds await the animated figures that emerge from the Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall tower in Prague

The pedestrianized Charles Bridge is the second most popular attraction in Prague. It is, indeed, a beautiful structure, however not much of a pleasure to walk due to the mass of humanity streaming across and kiosks selling junk merchandise and caricatures along its entire length. On the far side I fought the crowds once again to see Lesser Town, and made my way up the hill to tour Prague Castle and St. Vitius Cathedral (you’ll have to pay if you want to see the front of the nave inside the cathedral). Here the legions were fewer, but still too large for my comfort.

Tacky vendors set up along the length of the Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic

Tacky vendors set up along the length of the Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic

In an effort to escape the crush, I did seek out alternative sights. I spend one lovely afternoon wandering through Petrin Park’s rose gardens and climbing Petrin Tower for a fabulous view of the city. Another delightful afternoon was spent investigating the nooks and crannies of the gardens on the southern slope of Prague Castle. And my visit to the John Lennon Wall was a very moving experience. But all-in-all, I found the city to be extremely touristy and incredibly overpriced. The day I tried to buy a small bottle of water in Old Town Square and was told it was $4 (double what I’d pay in the U.S.) was the day I hit my limit of patience with Prague. I handed it back to the vendor and said, “ridiculously expensive.” He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “This square is the most expensive place in all of Europe to buy anything.”

Frankly, I could have dealt with the crowds and the prices if I had been made to feel welcome, but I wasn’t. Though I tried mightily, very few Czechs were willing to have a conversation with me. Wait staff suffered me only long enough to collect my money and it took me ten days to coax a smile out of the woman in the shop where I bought my tram tickets each day; in the beginning she refused even to say hello, and I seriously doubt that my pronunciation of the Czech greeting was so bad she couldn’t understand me. With one exception, the only friendly people I met in Prague were from Poland. I broached the subject of unfriendly Czechs with my Polish tour guide one afternoon and he laughed. “Many Czechs go to Poland for vacation,” he said. “I’ve asked a few of them why and they tell me it’s because Poles are so friendly.” It seems even Czechs think Czechs are cold and unfriendly.

Archway leading from the Charles Bridge to Lesser Town in Prague

Archway leading from the Charles Bridge to Lesser Town in Prague

There was, as I said, one notable exception. One day I was feeling quite sick to my stomach and popped into a Bohemia Bagel shop to rest. The young man who waited on me could tell something was wrong and asked if he could help. When I explained, he said, “I know just what you need.” Within minutes he delivered a pot of tea with fresh mint leaves and honey, a bowl of soup, and a bagel. I returned several times to that shop and absolutely everyone who worked there was pleasant, the food was delicious, and the prices were reasonable. I later learned that this particular chain, which is a partnership between Americans and Czechs who wanted to bring a healthier menu to Prague, has a reputation for having the friendliest employees in Prague. They opened their first shop in 1996, featuring a variety of bread with a hole in the middle – thus the bagel was introduced to Prague – and the previously unheard-of policy of providing free refills of coffee. Today there are three Bohemia Bagel restaurants in Prague, all offering salads, sandwiches, soups, desserts and a variety of grilled options in addition to coffee and bagels.

At the end of my visit, I was trying to decide where to go next when I received an email from the town of Poznan, Poland, inviting me to their lovely city. I hadn’t planned to visit Poland on this trip and had never heard of Poznan, but based on all the friendly Poles I met in Prague I figured, why not? I departed Prague on the PolskiBus, bound for Wroclaw (pronounced VRO-shaf), where I transferred to a train for Poznan. As my bus pulled out of the station, I said a sad goodby to Prague, knowing that I would probably never return.

 

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44 Comments on “Prague – A Case of Too Much Success

  1. I am currently in Prague, planned on moving here to teach English and live for a while. Sadly I’ve had an experience these past few days that mirrors what you have put above, these people have a serious attitude problem! If you are going to travel here be aware its seriously pricey, water bottle story is the tip of the iceberg, also was followed around and watched like a hawk in almost every shop I was in, not even subtle about it they werent. My advice, steer well clear, not even that nice up close, looks run down and dirty.

    • It’s so sad that such a beautiful city has become such a tourist trap.Hopefully, they’ll figure it out soon and do something about the attitude of the locals. If they don’t, they’re liable to discover the hard way that there are lots of other destinations for tourists to choose instead.

  2. It was very interesting reading your thoughts and feeling about Prague and they made me keep strong on my decision never to go back to Prague.

    I first visited the city in 1980, when communism was still in place and the regime control over the population very strong and tough. Only a few people were visiting at that time, and the locals were hungry of contacts with the Western world, more than willing to talk although they had to be extremely careful since the police was everywhere, doing their best to prevent any contact. People were poor, oppressed and often sad, but the few I could approach were incredibly friendly.

    I went back 10 years later, right after the fall of the Berlin wall. The people had regained their freedom and their smiles, and what struck me most was the number of bookshops. Now that they could eventually chose which books to read, people were hungry for culture, There were already a few more tourists, but nothing comparable to the boom that the city experienced since then.

    The city has certainly been embellished and beautifully restored, but I feel it had lost its charm and I swore I would never go back. I want to remember Prague as it was. Even though these image exist now only in my memory.

    • Hi Simon! How very interesting. I wish I had been fortunate enough to see Prague back then. Sadly, I think you have mdae the right decision.

  3. Fortunately, when I was visiting Prague I had my friend who is Czech as a guide so I didn´t have any first hand experience with this cold behavior..One thing he told me though was that nowadays the Old Town is an area as if for tourists only, locals simply don´t go there if they don´t have to (the hordes of tourists being the obvious reason)..So this is what tourism can do, I guess. Banish the local spirit and atmosphere.

    • Unfortunately, Julie, that’s one of the downsides of becoming a popular tourist spot. Sometimes, when I find a wonderful place, I think about maybe NOT writing about it :-)

  4. One of my Georgetown classmates came back from Prague in 1996/1997 and told us she saw one of our favorite alums selling bagels in Prague! Lol I always wondered what happened to his business venture.

    I have the same feelings about Prague– we went to a restaurant in the center and my niece broke a cheap salt shaker. The restaurant tried to shake us down for $50 US. When my brother refused to pay, the waiter assaulted him. It was quite the debacle– my brother pressed charges and was successful but it spoke volumes about the city for me. My fellow travel blogger friend and I are setting off for a 4 city tour of Xmas markets this December– she’s heading on to Prague afterwards and I’m heading home!

    • Hi Kiki: It’s so sad – such a beautiful city and such cold and uncaring people who treat tourists as an imposition on their time rather than valued customers.

  5. I visited Prague in August. So agree on all the points. Prague is so beautiful! However, it is frustrating to see Old Town packed with tourists shoulder-to-shoulder. I also couldn’t get close enough to Astronomical clock to see Apostols… and Charles Bridge vendors… but still, Prague is one of the most beautiful cities of Europe.

  6. I’m planning a visit to Prague for two days in a month. I live in London which is rammed with tourists so in sure it won’t bother me too much but ill note your out of town recommendations!

  7. I love Prague. Thanks for the tips in this post. Can anybody give me the suggestion about tour operators to this place..If there is any operator I can visit this place.

  8. I was in Prague a few years ago over Thanksgiving weekend, just as the Christmas markets had started. It was when I first met Andy in person, so I can’t say that I paid any attention to the level of friendliness from the people around me. I do remember a fair number of tourists, but at the beginning of the Christmas markets, that was to be expected. Funny you mentioned Bohemian Bagel, Andy loved that place when he was in Prague at some point before our visit together, and he took me there. One of the few places in Europe with free refills! Anyway, sorry you didn’t enjoy Prague. I did think it was a pretty city, and if I ever do return it will be during spring or fall when hopefully there are less tourists.

    • Hi Ali: It is a gorgeous city – the architecture is simply stunning. So I think it’s worth seeing, but in off-season, as you suggest.

  9. The gothic architectures are stunning. I’d love to see the beauty of Eastern Europe. I also like to try the local food. I’ll consider the seasons of the year when we’ll go there in our future trips. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • You’re very welcome, Noel. I try to be as fair and honest in my stories as possible, in the hopes I can save others from disappointment.

  10. I couldn’t agree more with your post! I first visited Prague in 2006 and thought it was lovely. Then, we returned for a long weekend this May, and I felt the city was more crowded, more grimy than my first trip. Sadly, I was quite disappointed too.

    • Hi Joy: I expected readers to jump down my throat over this story but quite the opposite has happened. Like you and I, many people have had the same experience in Prague. So sad.

  11. The season has lots to do with it, I think, Barbara. Europe in summer can be demanding – lack of service, sometimes unbearably hot weather – and crowds. That’s especially true for the big tourist-magnet cities, incl. Prague. Old Town Square on a winter night, with the Christmas markets, well, it’s like walking through a different century, magical. Very cold, though, so warm clothes are essential. Look forward to hear about your experience in Poland. Were they friendlier?

    • Hi Sophie: I absolutely loved Poznan, Poland, as you’ll see in upcoming stories. I thought the people were genuinely warm and giving and hope to go back and see more of the country.

  12. Your candor regarding Prague is appreciated. I still want to visit, but perhaps in the winter. I’ll wear my mukluk boots and musher mitts from my time spent in Alaska!

  13. I thought it was funny how Prague had all its tourist sites in a straight line, so if you went perpendicular for a few blocks, the tourists were gone, and the prices dropped in half. When I was there, anyway.

    • Hi OC: I found the same thing. I was staying just outside the historic center and the restaurant prices there were about half of those being charged in the center.

  14. My memories are of Prague 15 years ago – an architecturally superb city and I found the people OK to speak and deal with – several keen to practice their English after years of Communism. It sounds like there may be too much of a good thing now…

    • Unfortunately, I think that’s it, Mark. I used to live in a lace that had a quarter million tourists descend each week. The local residents (one-tenth the number of visitors) quickly grew tired of the tourists each summer. But they need to remember that their higher quality of life is because of the tourists. If all the tourists suddenly disappeared, I bet they’d have a pretty rapid attitude adjustment.

      • I’m sure they appreciate that at some point, Barbara. Maybe the quick rise of Prague as a top destination hasn’t left the natives evaluate the whole situation yet. While the case with Sofia is different – people usually don’t flock in thousands at the same time to see the city, I have the feeling that it has much to do with the changed reality after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
        I do hope they’ll learn how to deal with all that attention. :)

  15. There is something about Eastern Europeans that makes them seem cold and unfriendly – I wonder if it was the reserve they had to build up when living under communism. However, I must say that it seems there are better places to visit than Prague – perhaps you would have fared better in other parts of the country.

    • Hi Heather: It has been interesting to try and connect with locals as I travel around Eastern Europe. I found people in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and now in Bulgaria to be quite friendly and always willing to help. It was only in the Czech Republic and Slovakia that the people seemed stand-offish and/or downright unfriendly. I suspect you’re right about things being much different in parts of those countries that are not such popular tourist destinations.

  16. I think it is one of the toughest things for a traveler to admit when she was disappointed with a place. You know, with the expense of travel, you almost want to lie and say “it was alright” even if it wasn’t. I just want you to know that I totally appreciate your honesty in your feelings with Prague.
    I actually felt very similar in Italy, and given that I spent an entire 3 weeks and 5000 USD (for 3 people) I really wanted to love it. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of aspects of Italy that I really did like, the history first and foremost. The people however, I found to be extremely unfriendly, the food average at best (and I love Italian food), and pretty much everything overpriced.

    • Thank you, Julio. I never WANT to write bad things about a place and it takes a lot for me to do so, but I feel I have an obligation to my readers to tell the truth. And I try to be as fair as possible, highlighting the positive as well as the negative. I really appreciate your comment.

  17. You make a lot of good points in this post. I did meet friendly locals, however it was clear in many respects that Prague has now become a very tourist focused destination. It happens to all spots that become popular eventually I suppose, especially if tourism forms such a big part of the local economy.

    • I’m afraid you’re right, Paul. It’s an interesting dichotomy that I’m always looking for places that haven’t yet been spoiled by tourism, yet my blog brings those very places into the public view.

  18. We’ve limited time while in Prague, but in the late 1990′s…the crowd wasnt bad, I was lucky to see the statues moving clearly, took pictures just like any tourists. Despite the war[s] in some parts of the world, recession and hardship, I noticed that there’s more people travelling now…blame it on modern technology and publicity. Hope you’ll continue to visit unknown places and you honest outlook on every places you’ve been too is a pleasure to read. feeling better already? take care

  19. I wonder if winter may have been a better time to visit… but then there are those harsh winters, maybe not!

    • I think the same thing, Anil. Off-season would be much better for anyone not bothered by cold and snow. And I suspect the exquisite architecture would be even more lovely topped by freshly fallen snow.

  20. Sadly Prague does suffer from success. Still a great place to visit but not like it was 15 years ago. If you want un-spoiled beauty try some countries such as Estonia, Latvia, etc. They have not yet become engulfed with the hoardes of tourists, but probably will.

    • Hi Gloria: The Baltic countries are high on my list! Hope to go there next summer.

  21. I love the Czech Republic. It’s a beautiful country and there is much to explore beyond Prague, and in the city itself, which is rich with history and has many worthy sights. I also love the Czech people. It’s true that the ones that deal with tourists in Prague are often not friendly, but they are a hospitable, fun-loving people. I think Prague suffered after communism because it became “the gem” of Eastern Europe very, very quickly. The mass of tourists was maybe too much for the people to handle well. That being said, I am glad you had a better time in Poland. Poznan sounds like a lovely city.

    • Hi Jenna: I have to admit that I was perplexed by the whole thing, and I do realize that I might well have had a much different experience in a more rural area. Who knows, maybe I’ll go back to the countryside one day and check that out.

    • Hi Kevin and Ruth: That’s a very good question and the answer has to do with my choice of lifestyle. Because the road is my office, I sometimes need to just stop somewhere and do nothing but work. By the time I got to Prague, I’d had a whirlwind month in the UK, followed by a 2.5 week tour in Morocco, and I was seriously behind in my writing. The fantastic apartment that GowithOh provided for the first week came with rocket fast wifi, so it seemed a very good place to catch up. I spent the entire first week in the apartment writing, leaving only to eat.

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