If you're on the lookout for vampires and all things creepy-beautiful, Prague is without fail your dream destination. In its pristine wintertime glory, the city lights up like a dark jewel revealing just enough of itself to keep you dreaming about it for months—or years—after you've returned to the safety of your home.
For nearly everything in life, I've rejected the notion of the "wisdom of the crowd"—see, for example, all pop music in the last five years of the 90s. And though Prague was packed with tourists jostling to get a view of the astronomical clock and the famous castle (even in the dead of winter), it was no worse for the hordes of people. For every overflowing square, there were hidden hills, streets, and courtyards containing nothing but history and my own imagination.
And it's easy to let your imagination run away with you in Prague.
It's a pristine Art Nouveau town, after all, with mind-bogglingly beautiful architecture straight from the end of the 19th century. (Before, *ahem,* the city was crowded with tourists...) Wenceslas Square contains several of the most iconic buildings, like the Grand Hotel Evropa. And, if you duck into a hidden arcade just off the main drag, you can see Wenceslas himself. Riding a horse. Upside-down.
The ultra-touristy sights are, despite what anyone tells you, still absolutely worth seeing. Grab a steaming cup of mulled wine and watch the danse macabre of the astronomical clock. (Bonus points if you can find a trdelník—a traditional Slovak pastry that's like a ribbon of sweet cinnamon dough roasted around an iron—to help warm you while you wait.) See Prague Castle and let your jaw hang open at the view of the city below. Steal a kiss from the one you love on Charles Bridge.
But go off the beaten track a little bit, too. Prague is a wonderful city in which to get lost.
1. Church of Saints Paul and Peter
I know: who really needs to see yet another "beautiful," "gorgeous," "stunning" church in Europe? This one is different. I promise. Remember what I was saying about how very Art Nouveau Prague is? Prepare to have your mind blown. The inside of this church is a pastel and gold fairy-land of gentle, beautifully rendered paintings and decorative art like nothing I've seen in my entire life. If you could pinpoint the opposites of the words "gothic" and "spartan" as related to architecture and design, you'd have this church. Plus, they say St. Valentine's shoulder blade is there.
2. A Nighttime Walk to the Magic Cave
It's hard for me to resist anything with a name like "the Magic Cave," so I explored it so that you don't have to. We visited the so-called cave—the studio of artist Reon Argondian—on an icy, moonlit night, climbing all the wrong ways up the big hill in the dark, only to discover the funicular off to our right. No matter: the climb and the quiet were the best part. When you arrive at the top of the hill, you see a crazy little house that beckons you in. Don't go. (Unless you like incredibly cheesy fantasy art, that is.) The walk, however, was truly magical—and will be all the more so if keep the mystery of the Magic Cave alive by only viewing it from the outside. (Like I said: Prague is a great place to exercise your imagination.)
3. Kutná Hora & the Sedlec Ossuary
Day-trip time! Want to take a train out into the middle-of-nowhere-Czech-Republic to see a church festooned with bones fashioned into garlands, a chandelier, and even a crown-topped crest? I DID!!! Tips: Make friends on the train there. Be sure that one is anglophone and the other is Czech. Take the cookies and sips of sweet Becherovka when offered. (It's cold outside!) Drink mulled wine, see some bones at the ossuary. (Try not to gawk.) Drink more mulled wine, see St. Barbara church. Drink the beer and eat the meat and potatoes you are given at lunch. (It may be the only thing to keep your blood from freezing on the train ride back.) Thank your new friends for helping you not get lost in the Czech countryside. (The beauty of getting lost only counts when you're in a city, after all.)
In what other locale can you go to an industrial/goth club in the wee hours of the morning, hang out the excellent Kafka museum the next day, and top it all off with the best Mexican food on the continent? As if the absolute glory of the city weren't enough, there's also an overwhelm of cool stuff to do. In my three days there, I hit about half of my major destinations, which means yes. I will be coming back. Perhaps in the spring or fall, next time...
Prague is a city with magic, art, and alchemy embedded into every brick and cobblestone, so there's no going wrong. In fact, sometimes going wrong is exactly what you're supposed to be doing there.