I see how their eyes shine with glee, how they’re happily sipping mulled wine from a cup and it makes me realize: Prague is incredible around Christmas time! Not just for tourists and travelers, but for us locals too.
Let me share what Christmas time is all about and what you should do in Prague if you decide to come during the holiday season. Rest assured you’ll be awe-struck by the sheer beauty of the Czech capital.
But, I’d love you to gain some insight as well into the local traditions and things locals actually do in Prague. So, if you’re with me on that, keep on reading
1. Visit Christmas markets
Usually, travelers don’t stray too far from the center, so they only get to see the most frequented markets. And if you have only a couple days, that makes sense. But, if you’ve got a week or so, do yourself a favor and explore Prague’s local markets as well – they just might surprise you!
The Christmas market in the Old Town Square of Prague is by far the largest and the most well known. It’s mostly for tourists, but the locals do love it as well. There are street stalls selling all kinds of snacks, including staples like Prague ham or cinnamon rolls called Trdelník. These pastries, sometimes called Trdlo, are sweet and tasty, but quite filling too.
A word of caution – the ham portions are large and extremely overpriced in the market. Locals tend to eat at nearby restaurants first, then just snack in the market. But DO try the mulled wine, called svařák in Czech. It’s usually quite sour but you can add as much sugar as you want.
If you have children with you, the market often stages a petting zoo of sorts with some sheep.
In December, there are usually some street stalls in Wenceslas Square as well. It might not be a prime spot for the markets, but it’s usually a little less crowded and you can find similar items to those in the Old Town.
A little further away from the city center, lie a ton of other Christmas markets found in individual city districts. Take Prague 2, for example. Placed right in front of a majestic church on Náměstí Míru, the market is relatively small but quite cheerful.
One metro ride away, you’ll find another market in Náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad. This spacious square is a hotspot for market-goers year-round, and come December is packed with locals strolling around, tasting the delicacies on offer. As in every market, you’ll find mulled wine, cinnamon rolls and all sorts of decorative items.
2. Go see the animals at the Prague Zoo
Did you know the Prague Zoo has been voted 4th best zoo in the world?
It’s true, and it’s easy to see why. The Zoo is managed incredibly well and there are loads of events held for the public.
In winter, the Zoo features a special Christmas program that is fun even without kids. All you really need is to be an animal lover.
This year, the Zoo has a number of events planned for Christmas 2015:
Dec 19: Relax at the Zoo making Christmas goodies, like Christmas cards and other Czech traditions
Dec 24: On the Czech Christmas Eve, you can bring little gifts to the animals and see what they’re getting for Christmas
Dec 27-30: Christmas with the animals
3. Do some winter activities in the Prague city center
What is winter in paradise without ice-skating? Prague actually has several places to tie-on some skates. For example, just a few steps away from Wenceslas Square is Ovocný trh – no one really knows when the rink will open except the organizers and the rink is rather basic, but the surroundings are gorgeous and the location is convenient.
If you’re serious about ice-skating, head to Prague 3. Right under the giant TV Tower with the babies crawling over it is a public ice rink – very popular among locals.
4. Follow tradition
If you’re in Prague on December 5th, don’t miss out on seeing the famous Mikuláš (St. Nicholas). He’s usually accompanied by devils and angels and they come to find out which children have been misbehaving throughout the year, and which deserve a treat. The kids usually recite a poem or sing a carol. It can be quite fun to watch.
A Mikuláš celebration is typically staged in every square with a Christmas market, including the Old Town Square on the evening of the 5th, starting around 5 p.m. Quite likely you’ll also see groups of Mikuláš’, devils, and angels roaming the streets as well.
If you’d like to dig deeper into the Czech Christmas traditions, you’ll like Toulcův dvůr (website in Czech only), an inner-city farm featuring traditional markets, Christmas exhibitions, and lots of activities for children, including farm animals the kids can play with. The farm is open every day from approx. Dec 20 until January 1.
The Czech Republic also has an unusual amount of diverse nativity scenes, and they can be found all over Prague – some of them are live, some are carved out of wood, while others are full statues. Perhaps the most unique is a live scene, staged each year in Prague Castle on December 25-26th.
If you’re lucky enough to know somebody in Prague, ask them if you could bake cukroví with them! These are traditional Czech Christmas cookies and a must-have in every Czech household. If you don’t know anybody, call us at Travelove for help. We have two lovely ladies who are cooking pros and would enjoy baking the cookies with you.
5. Don’t leave out the sightseeing
To the delight of locals, a thick blanket of snow brings even more magic to the city and its most beautiful sights. Charles Bridge is undoubtedly my favorite, but if you want photos without the crowds, come early in the morning!
I also adore the icy formations on St. Vitus Cathedral, on the grounds of the Prague Castle. Gargoyles with icicles hanging from their ferocious mouths! It certainly makes for impressive photos 😉
Make sure to dress warm though and don’t shy away from seeing all the stunning monuments just because it’s cold. You can always stop in a nice café or two to warm up.
6. Get warm in cozy cafés
Like I said, cuddling up in a pleasant warm café, sipping coffee or tea while relaxing and watching the world go by is quite a nice winter experience, and is truly deserving of its own number on our list. Really, it’s somewhat of a necessity here – and there are lots of options. For international coffee chain fans, of course, there’s Starbucks, Costa Coffee and the likes. But – to have a more authentic experience, you can try visiting one of the cafés below:
Café Level – A modern café where you can easily have a glass of champagne, too. It’s located on one of Prague’s new ‘squares’ with a massive statue of Kafka right in front of it. It’s just off Národní Třída.
Café Savoy – Located in an impressive building with large windows and a beautiful interior, this café might look like it’s only for high-society. However, the staff is perfectly friendly, and the coffee is good. Budget more if you want to eat there though, as it’s quite expensive.
Café Imperial – Art Nouveau dominates this classy café so you can expect to be absolutely amazed. The coffee and food is delicious and the central location near Náměstí Republiky is quite convenient as well.
Café Mistral – Located just off the Old Town Square, right at the metro station Staroměstská, Mistral is a spacious café with good food and high-quality coffee. Floor-to-ceiling windows let a lot of light in and make it easy for some people watching.
Café Slavia – If you find yourself around the National Theatre, you should totally stop at Café Slavia! The space is completely old school, and you’ll find yourself envisioning men in tuxedos around every corner. You might even be able to listen to some live piano music. Václav Havel, the former Czech president and a big supporter of human rights, would often frequent this café with friends as they wrote Czech history. Btw. You can even have a taste of Absinthe in Café Slavia!
7. Go skiing nearby
Just a short one-hour car ride away, you can hit the slopes with skis or a snowboard. Monínec is a high-quality skiing resort similar to what you’d experience in the Alps, just on a much smaller scale.
There’s snow throughout the winter season despite not being in the mountains – thanks to the wonders of artificial snow. It’s not expensive to rent equipment either, so you don’t need to drag your own skis all the way there.
8. Explore some of the great museums and galleries
Prague museums are open year-round, and only close on public holidays – December 24-26 and January 1. Some of the best museums we recommend checking out are:
- National Museum: The National Museum has some permanent exhibitions about the Environment, History, and Music, as well as temporary exhibitions.
- National Technical Museum: For some hands-on experience from the field of science and technology, the National Technical Museum is among the best in Prague.
- National Gallery: The National Gallery is an oasis within a busy city. Some famous European artists are featured and the gallery, spread over several buildings, is quite a lot to take in, but art enthusiasts will be thrilled.
- Museum of Communism: This relatively small exhibition of communism is rather dark but the tragedy is played down with occasional jokes and ridicule.
- Kampa Museum: Listed among the Guardian’s “Best Museums You’ve Never Heard of”, it focuses on Central European modern art
- Dox, the Centre for Contemporary Art: One of the most progressive art institutions in the Czech Republic features all forms of art including photography, film and new media.
9. Enjoy the festivities
Get into the Christmas spirit with the Czechs by singing some carols in the Old Town Square while enjoying the overall festive atmosphere that magically permeates the city during the holidays.
And if you’re here for New Year’s, you can always countdown the seconds in the Old Town Square or on the Charles Bridge. It gets very crowded, though, and pickpockets are at their most active on that night – so leave your valuables in the hotel!
10. Just stroll around and admire the beauty
It’s funny how a season can transform the people. You know, Czechs are rather stony-faced individuals and they aren’t ones for smiling more than they should. But their hearts melt a little when Christmas time comes around, and you might even catch them smiling at strangers. You can actually feel the change when you visit in the days leading up to Christmas and afterwards. You’ll experience a transformation from stressed out, rushing, nerve-wracked people to peaceful loving humans. (For the Czechs reading this post: pardon the honesty but that’s just how we are!)
I guess that by now you know Prague is my favorite spot on Earth. And despite the clouds and cold that settle here from November to March, Prague stays special year-round. Winter in Prague and, specifically, the Christmas season, is crazy beautiful and will easily leave one nostalgic and in love with it all.
Have you experienced Prague’s Christmas markets and the city during the Christmas season? How was it? Have you been to any other city in Europe over Christmas? Let us know how it went, we’d love to hear from you!