Hometown: Prague and Vienna - where beauty and history collide
These central European cities are brimming with character, culture and charm. We asked two locals to tell us just why we should visit this autumn/winter
Walking the streets of Prague or Vienna in autumn/winter reveals a lot about their beauty and the warmth of the inhabitants
European cities in winter are incredible places to see. Romantic, attractive and packed with activity, they are often even more spectacular than in the hotter months. For a really romantic and atmospheric winter break, look no further than two special cities in Europe, Prague and Vienna. Each has a distinct identity and whether being considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe in the case of Prague, or the best place to live in the case of Vienna, they have lots to offer.
We spoke to two city residents, who explained the charm of their home towns.
Praguers like to call it the smallest big city, but the Czech capital really has a bit of everything, says local man Martin Plocek, who works for the Czech Tourist Board.
“Prague Castle is the largest castle complex in the world, Prague’s urban area is the greenest and its public transport system is one of the best, most elaborate and affordable at the same time,” he says.
“Also, did you know that the top of the so called “small Eiffel tower” (Petřín tower) is actually higher than its French sister’s top,” he laughs.
In autumn/winter, all proper Praguers go to one of the beautiful historical cafés, he says. The most famous is Slavia, Cafe Savoy is considered to evoke the atmosphere of the first Czechoslovakian Republic, while the staff at Café Myšák don’t take bookings for their beautiful pastry shop but they say they will always find you a seat at a table.
“When visiting you should not only go to Prague Castle, Charles Bridge and the famous astronomical clock in the Old Town Square. I would recommend visiting three lesser-known places that provide the best views of Prague: Vyšehrad fort has a beautiful park inside its battlements and has a perfect view of Prague Castle; Petřín tower on top of the Petřín hill provides a stunning view of the other side of Prague. You can climb the hill on foot or take the funicular that is actually a part of the great public transport system so your tram tickets are valid there; the third is the Vítkov hill. It not only provides stunning views, but its WWI memorial hosts an interactive exhibition of former Czechoslovakia in the 20th century. It also has a lovely cosy café too.
Visitors should keep in mind that we are celebrating 100 years of independence this year, so this exhibition comes in handy when asked what you learned about the country. If you are a movie enthusiast, you should also know that the Hellboy movie was shot here.
There are also a lot of galleries and museums that are worth visiting. My personal favourite is the National Technical Museum which is full of trains, airplanes and cars. Spread over several buildings there is the Prague City Gallery for those who like art. It hosts the famous Slav Epic this year (a cycle of 20 large canvases painted by Czech art nouveau painter, Alfons Mucha between 1910 and 1928). So if you want to see 10-feet tall art deco paintings, this is your chance. The beautiful National Museum situated on the top of the busy Wenceslas square reopens on October 28th (the 100-year anniversary of independence) and holds 14 million items from natural history, arts and music.
Every December there are a lot Christmas markets that provide you with most of the things you need to enjoy a chilly day in Prague – mulled wine, ginger bread and sausages.
And do not forget to take tram number 23. It is the best “hop on, hop off” tourist ride there is.
My favourite places to eat include Cafe Imperial, a very good fine dining experience run by our Czech version of Gordon Ramsey, Zdeněk Pohlreich.
Podolka, under the Vyšehrad fort, has a range of vegan meals and beautiful views of the river. U Černého Vola is next to the Prague Castle and is one of the last original pubs there. It’s not a perfect place for dinner as it serves only beer and sausages, but it’s a great place to feel the atmosphere of old Prague. Newly opened Kuchyň is very good and quirky too and is also next to Prague Castle:
More local landmarks
Prague is famous for its art – don’t miss the giant babies climbing up the Kizkov TV tower, the statue of Sigmund Freud hanging by one hand from the roof of a building in an otherwise normal street in the Old Town, or the controversial Lennon Wall (pictured above) in Mala Strana.
Prague made beer its own a long time ago but most of it is now owned by international brands. Take a walking tour of small local breweries with beerprague.com and taste the difference.
Buy a book
Escape the winter chill at the Globe Bookshop and Café, the English language bookstore that also offers coffee and cocktails. It’s Prague’s meeting point for writers and artists and often hosts readings and events.
[Aer Lingus flies to Prague daily up to January 9, and four times a week from January 10. Book now and look forward to a happy winter]
Bettina Jamy-Stowasser, who works in media relations in the city, says that Vienna is an incredible winter destination.
“Winter in the city” at Haas & Haas in the first district is a small Christmas Market with a great pre-Christmas atmosphere. It is located in the cosy, weather-protected courtyard of the Deutsch Ordenskloster, directly behind St Stephen's Church. You can warm your hands at the open fireplaces and spend hours with a home-made hot punch or mulled wine, with all wines from the Haas & Haas Wein & Fein.kost wine shop. All products and ingredients are selected with love and are put together for the perfect pre-Christmas night out. It runs from November 9th until December 23rd, from 4-8pm daily.
For an extra special treat I also recommend the Christmas market that takes place on the roof-top terrace of The Ritz Carlton Vienna. It is the city’s highest Christmas market, revealing stunning views of the city and will start around mid-November with final dates yet to be confirmed.
“Of course there are some really special cafes in Vienna, and Vollpension is a cosy café where retired grandparents are employed part-time to bake cakes. You'll feel completely at home at the Vollpension, as it looks just like a grandmother's living room - only a bit cooler. The vintage furniture, floor lamps and pictures create a comfortable atmosphere and Grandma also stands behind the stove and serves home-made cakes and home-cooked dishes such as roast pork and Austrian Krautfleckerl, all while telling you her life story.
For shopping, a Christmas shopping tour with Lucie will take you off the beaten path from Vienna's famous shopping streets to the best, hidden shops and boutiques you otherwise may not find on your own. You will be shown some of the best in modern Austrian designer clothing, accessories, jewellery, home decor and more, all while enjoying a stroll through the charming streets of Vienna.
If you're looking for a traditional souvenir from Vienna, then ask for the original Viennese snow globes made by Perzy. These glass globes, with their lovingly created winter landscapes, have enchanted people for over 100 years.
Another good shopping tip I would give is to try some of the smaller side streets off Mariahilfer Strasse, such as Kirchengasse or Lindengasse.
There are some great jazz clubs in Vienna, including Porgy & Bess or try Jazzland the oldest jazz club in Vienna, where you will find excellent live music and sessions. We have a really lively scene here and Vienna has become a meeting point for international stars at several annual festivals, such as the Vienna Jazz Festival and Vienna Blues Spring.
More local landmarks
Many tourists appear to miss (or purposely avoid) the crypt at Stephansdom Cathedral (pictured above). The skeletal remains of some 11,000 people are on view in the series of catacombs and small crypts – including the remains of royalty. Guided tours unlock its secrets daily.
Supersense is a factory, shop and café in a Venetian palazzo at the heart of Vienna. Record a vinyl record, take a selfie with the world’s largest Polaroid photo and create a scent at the scent lab.
The Naschmarkt flea market is considered one of the biggest in Europe. Running every Saturday from 6:30am to 6pm it has become a cult event offering everything from clothes to food to anqtiques. You never know what you will find. It’s located at Kettenbrückengasse 1060.
[Aer Lingus flies to Vienna daily. Book now and look forward to a happy winter]