Travel Update: Prague is Overrated!

April 5, 2009 in Best Of, Travel by pacejmiller

prague-bridges1

Prague can look incredible from afar, but...

[Note: Travel Diary has been updated to include Munich (including Neuschwanstein Castle and Dachau Concentration Camp) and Berlin!]

I never thought I would say this, and undoubtledly it will be heavily disputed, but in my opinion it’s true: Prague is overrated!

When I first arrived in the UK, Prague was near the top of my list of travel destinations.  Not because I knew very much about the place myself, but because every tourism book I read raved about the place and every person I spoke to kept telling me: ‘you have to go to Prague!’

Hence when we planned our big anniversary vacation and an opportunity came up where we had a couple of extra days on our hands, I insisted that we go to Prague (even though my wife had been and said it was nothing special, a view that 2 of her sisters concurred with).  ‘But it’s Prague‘, I would say, ‘we have to go to Prague!’  And so we did.

However, out of all 12 cities we went to on this giant trip, Prague was by far the most disappointing.  If asked, I would say it’s ‘okay’ because the place is not without merit, but given its glittering reputation (or at least the reputation I thought it had), I had expected a lot more.  It’s one of those places that look good in postcards and photos and from afar, but when you are there and everything is up close it doesn’t live up to the hype.

Perhaps I don’t really know the city well enough to be making such comments – after all, I did only spend roughly a day and a half there, so it’s really not much more than a generalised first impression; or maybe my expectations were too lofty or unreasonable – either way, these were my main gripes:

1. Appearance – I was very surprised when we stepped off the train at Praha Holesovice station, one of the main stations for international trains.  It was old, dirty and looked incredibly runned down.  Not just on the platforms but even inside the small, no-frills terminal.  I expected that to change when we caught the subway to the central station, Praha Hlavni Nadrazi, but it didn’t.  It was bigger, but still old, dirty and runned down.  When we walked outside, more of the same – the roads, the buildings, the walls.  It wasn’t even in a kind of charming or romantic sort of way.  For some reason, it just felt dull and gloomy.

2. Tourist-unfriendly – the appearance of the city was unexpected but was something you could put down as a different experience.  However, Prague also turned out to be relatively tourist-unfriendly compared to all of the other European cities I’ve visited.  There are very few English signs around and the public transport system, though not dissimilar (to say Germany), was the most confusing.  But that’s not the main problem.  The main problem is the lack of help you can expect to get from locals.  If it were just one or two people I would have put it off as bad luck or coincidence, but pretty much every single person behind a counter we sought assistance from (with the exception of the hotel receptionist) had ‘I’m not going to help you’ written all over their face – and this includes the people from the Information office!

For instance, when we couldn’t figure out how to purchase subway tickets at the machine (no ticket office), the one guy working there in uniform quickly turned his back on us when he saw us approaching and had to be prompted by his friends to help us.  All he told us was that we had to break our notes as the machines only take coins, then ran off.  Funnily we saw the same guy on the subway asking to check our ticket.  Fortunately we did our research and bought a half-ticket for our luggage, or else we would have been fined!  Strangely, he only targeted touristy-looking people and the locals simply ignored him and the little badge he kept flashing.

Another example was when we tried to purchase train tickets to Vienna – though the woman behind the window spoke perfect English and we were perfectly polite, she acted as though she was doing us the world’s biggest favour.  If we didn’t keep prodding her with multiple questions, we would have never: (1) purchased 2 tickets instead of 1 despite there being obviously 2 people in front of her; (2) found out what time the trains departed; (3) gotten seat reservations (apparently compulsory for international travel); and (4) found out that the train actually departed from a different station to the one we purchased the tickets from!

3. Attractions – there are a few good attractions in Prague; after all, it does have a tremendous amount of history.  I suppose that’s what attracts the tourists.  However, there was nothing overly exciting about what I saw in Prague.  The number 1 attraction, Prague Castle, was just average in my opinion, but it was probably because I had seen much more spectacular places elsewhere.  The view over the city from outside the Castle walls was worthwhile though.  The next best attraction would be Charles Bridge, with its many sculptures along the sides.  Apart from those 2 I would struggle to find anything else worth recommending, maybe except a quick peek at the Astronominal Clock and Tyn Church.

4. Rip-offs – probably the most irritating thing about Prague is how the locals try to rip off foreigners.  This was something I had read before, but I didn’t expect it to be so prevalent.  All I will say is that when in Prague, you need to be extra careful.  Read every receipt, every bill, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Check prices beforehand and make sure there are no hidden costs or charges.  Ensure, even in what may look like a respectable restaurant, that the waiter has not tampered with the bill, ‘miscalculated’ or added things that aren’t supposed to be there.  Be very wary of ‘service charges’ that magically appear out of nowhere.  We were caught off-guard by that one at this recommended restaurant called Sherwood on Opletalova (food was very salty), where the waiter added a 15% ‘service charge’ to our bill as though it was restaurant policy (even though the amount didn’t even appear on the bill).

We were almost ripped off at Prague Castle too, where we were strongly recommended to purchase the audio guide (which actually cost more than the entry tickets!) because there were no English explanations anywhere (which turned out to be untrue) and because otherwise we would have to wait in line for up to an hour to enter St Vitus Cathedral (we waited for about 1 minute to get in).

I also read elsewhere that train conductors have a tendency to try and intimidate foreigners by pretending there is something wrong with their ticket and insisting further payment or a fine.  I thought it was an exaggeration before but now I don’t find it hard to believe.

On the plus side though the prices were relatively cheap compared to most other European cities I’ve visited, and the food was pretty good in general.

Anyway, that was my first experience of Prague.  Unfair?  Perhaps.  I’m sure there are many out there who absolutely adore the place and with good reason too, but I found the city rather unappealing.  Much of it probably has to do with the local attitude towards the tourists that keep invading their city!  Can’t say I blame them.