Prague is the great jewel of central Europe. Little damaged during World War II and mostly free of communist-era eyesores, it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Gothic spires and finial-topped domes punctuate the skyline of its oldest neighborhoods, Staré Město and Malá Strana, situated on either side of the Vltava River. And Nové Město, the “New Town” founded in 1348, has a wealth of extravagant historicist and art nouveau buildings. Presiding over it all is the largest castle complex in the world, centerpieced by St. Vitus Cathedral.
The Hideaway Report hasn’t covered Prague in some time, however, because its great beauty has led to a surfeit of tourism. In the shoulder season, Prague is crowded, and in summer, its most popular sites — Old Town Square, Charles Bridge and the castle — can be unbearable. But we couldn’t stay away forever. Prague remains a destination of great interest to members, so we resolved to visit in the winter off-season, hoping to find a city that felt true to itself, not one resembling a theme park.
I found friendly and attractive small hotels and a startling number of world-class restaurants and bars.
With the goal of adding to our longtime hotel recommendations — the Four Seasons in Staré Město and the Aria Hotel in Malá Strana — I made reservations at four properties, two on each side of the river. I also reserved tables at a dozen restaurants, ranging from traditional to cutting-edge, in order to get a sense of Prague’s current culinary scene. And I resolved to ferret out a range of compelling attractions to augment the most famous three.
This mission proved to be an unalloyed joy. I found friendly and attractive small hotels and a startling number of world-class restaurants and bars. More than one person expressed surprise at the length of my stay, wondering how I could fill more than three or four days in the city. But I discovered enough fascinating and uncrowded museums, galleries and historic sites to fill weeks.
The first choice to make is whether to opt for a base in Malá Strana or across the Charles Bridge in Staré or Nové Město. Charming, small-scale Malá Strana rises up to Prague Castle. Bustling with tourists during the day, it is very quiet at night, when it has more of the feel of a small town. The bulk of Prague’s restaurants and bars are across the river. But wherever you choose to stay, nothing in this compact city of about 1.3 million people is ever very far away.
With a location rivaled only by the Four Seasons, the Smetana Hotel stands a minute’s walk south of the Charles Bridge, overlooking the Vltava River in Staré Město. This 68-room property occupies the Pachtuv Palace, the various wings of which were built between 1628 and 1770. Both Mozart and Wagner stayed in the palace, but oddly enough the Czech composer Smetana does not feature on the list of notable guests. The owners renamed the property last year, deciding that “Pachtuv Palace” didn’t have enough international appeal.
From our suite, we could see the Vltava, the Malá Strana neighborhood, the stone arches of Charles Bridge and gothic spires of St. Vitus crowning Prague Castle.
The hotel’s neoclassical façade gives way to two courtyards surrounded by more-dynamic baroque architecture. Accommodations at the front of the building offer both period character and memorable views. From the bedroom of our Deluxe Suite River View on the fourth and highest floor, we could see the Vltava and red-roofed Malá Strana neighborhood, and if we looked a little to the right, the stone arches of Charles Bridge and gothic spires of St. Vitus crowning Prague Castle. It was an extraordinary panorama. A small triangular park provided some separation between the hotel and the busy Smetanovo Nábřeží embankment, while our suite’s double windows reduced the traffic noise almost to nothing.
A four-poster queen bed dominated the bedroom, which also had ample space for a gold-velvet chaise and two additional chairs, plus a dresser. The living room contained a sofa and love seat, a coffee table atop an oriental rug, a large wardrobe, a sideboard and a writing desk. However, the room was so big that it almost felt underfurnished. Its style was traditional, with herringbone hardwood floors, maroon walls and classic glass chandeliers. Only the harsh light of the eco-friendly bulbs served as a reminder of the contemporary world and its concerns. The main bath came with dual vessel sinks but lacked a separate shower.
In addition to a newly remodeled bar and a traditional Viennese-style café, the hotel contains Bellevue, an acclaimed Czech-French fusion restaurant that we have long recommended. (It moved to the Smetana Hotel in January and will remain there during the renovation of its permanent location next door, work scheduled to continue until 2022.) Our dinner in Bellevue’s formal dining room began with a hearty salad of frisée, bitter endive, sweet pumpkin purée and ginger-lemon dressing served atop a disk of goat cheese. Even better was the sea bass in celeriac purée, with a foam of sparkling wine and fish stock, brightened by shaved raw fennel. Breakfasts at Bellevue featured a cold buffet augmented by a tempting à la carte menu. (My favorite dish was scrambled eggs with truffle oil and chive.) The hotel also has a small spa amid the atmospheric brick vaults of its cellar, which includes a sauna and a couples treatment room.
Although the Smetana has much to recommend it, the service was disappointing (and certainly not comparable to that at the nearby Four Seasons). When we arrived, there was no bellman to greet us. And the man behind the front desk watched dispassionately as I struggled to drag our luggage across the carpeted floor of the lobby. Only when I asked for assistance did he emerge to lend a hand. Evening turndown was quick and perfunctory.
The hotel has no separate concierge desk, which was noticeable when another front desk staffer offered to make some sightseeing recommendations after being unimpressed with our plans to visit a new Czech glass museum. “Here is Prague Castle,” he suggested, pointing to a map, and then proceeded to explain the charms of Charles Bridge and Old Town Square. I’m sure he must have saved many tourists the trouble of looking at the first page of their Prague guidebook. But these are relatively minor quibbles. Overall, I enjoyed our stay, and I would be happy to return. My accountant would also probably prefer I opted for the Smetana rather than the Four Seasons. I compared prices on various dates, and a suite at the Four Seasons with a view similar to the suite we had at the Smetana usually costs about five times as much.
The setting in a historic palace; the ideal location near Charles Bridge; the pretty courtyards; the friendly staff; our suite’s large size and splendid views of the river and castle; the formal restaurant that served delicious food at both breakfast and dinner; the collection of antique maps displayed around the property.
The lack of assistance with luggage when we arrived; our suite’s small bath with a shower-tub combination.
Arrange an arrival transfer with the concierge in advance, since taxis seem to have trouble reaching the main door on a narrow one-way street; Deluxe Baroque Rooms have original frescoes on the walls and/or ceilings.
Our next stay was at The Grand Mark Prague, in the Nové Město neighborhood, just to the east of the gothic Powder Tower and art nouveau Municipal House. The 78-room property opened as a Kempinski in 2008 but was renamed after it changed management a few years later. The hotel occupies a historic building, and throughout the public spaces, period details accent an otherwise contemporary décor. As at the Smetana, we were obliged to battle to the front desk with our luggage, startling the doorman who had been chatting to the staff there. The front desk’s welcome was polite but cool. Since our room wasn’t ready, we headed out to lunch.
When we returned, the front desk sent us up, unaccompanied, to a Grand Deluxe Suite on the top floor. This had dormer windows, too small and high to see out of easily, and a small bath with a shower-tub combination. The doorman arrived with our bags, and I asked to move to a suite on a lower floor. He arranged for us to see one on the third floor, which was much more comfortable, with high ceilings and a bath with both a tub and a separate shower. The bedroom and the living room had tall street-facing windows, framed by raw-silk drapes; the living room was furnished with an armchair, a large sofa upholstered in gunmetal velvet and a plum-colored area rug streaked with silver. The entry hall contained a kitchenette with a microwave, stovetop and sink, as well as a compact closet. A second walk-in closet off the bedroom provided more storage.
We had a pleasant welcome drink in the cozy bar, adjacent to a conservatory-like lobby lounge decorated by dramatic arrangements of fresh flowers. Other amenities included Le Grill Restaurant, where the service was friendly and attentive at breakfast, but slow and rather perfunctory at dinner. There, we dined on unremarkable food while listening to a live pianist fumble through pop songs on an out-of-tune instrument. A spa provided a large (sometimes crowded) hot tub, as well as a sauna and steam room.
The Grand Mark Prague has potential, but its relatively impersonal feel, combined with service stumbles, prevent me from recommending it.
The convenient location a short walk from the Municipal House, just outside Staré Město; the attractive and art-filled contemporary décor; the cozy bar; the helpful doorman; our Grand Deluxe Suite’s spacious layout and separate shower.
The torn towel in our bath; the sometimes cool service; the mediocre restaurant; our accommodation’s lack of a sense of place.
The hotel has a large and quiet garden patio at the rear for drinks and dining in warm weather; avoid accommodations on the top floor.
From The Grand Mark, we headed across the Vltava River to Malá Strana and a hotel with personality to spare. The eight-room Alchymist Prague Castle Suites — not to be confused with the larger Alchymist Grand Hotel & Spa nearby — stands on a quiet little square just off the main tourist circuit. As our driver pulled up, a young man in tails emerged from the 15th-century mansion, introduced himself as our butler, and led us inside. The building opened as a hotel in 2009 following a major interior renovation during which the owners turned the property into a baroque fantasy.
This is not a hotel for the minimalist. Indeed, I was hard-pressed to find a room without a giant crystal chandelier. They glittered over the front desk, the lobby lounge, the elaborate library-lounge outside our suite and the fireplace lounge (site of a complimentary wine-and-cheese hour each evening). I even found them in the cellar fitness room, the couple’s massage treatment room and an adjacent vaulted chamber housing a private Jacuzzi. (We reserved the latter on our first evening and arrived at the appointed time to find flutes of Prosecco beside the two-person hot tub, which had been scented with aromatic salts.)
Service was consistently thoughtful and friendly. Even though our stay was for just two nights, the front desk and butler staff never failed to address us by name. The only disappointment was the lack of turndown service. Our Deluxe Room, Topaz, proved comfortable in spite of its over-the-top décor. A large crystal chandelier (of course) sparkled beneath a polychrome-wood-beamed ceiling, illuminating a four-poster bed with fluted gilt columns. Antique dressers of inlaid wood provided storage additional to the large walk-in closet. Seating was limited to two chairs beside a round dining table and a curule seat at the foot of the bed. The bath was small but attractive, clad in limestone inlaid with red marble. Crystal sconces flanked the single pedestal sink next to the shower-tub combination. A little table provided some storage space, but it was still a bit of a struggle to fit all of our toiletries around the vanity.
Breakfasts each morning were a communal affair, served at a large round table. (We met a delightful couple from Berlin for whom Prague was just a weekend excursion, three-and-a-half hours’ drive away.) A small but well-stocked buffet offered both hot and cold items, and a waiter fetched additional dishes selected from an à la carte menu.
I thought the extravagant décor of the Alchymist Prague Castle Suites was great fun, and I appreciated the warmth of the good-humored staff. But this idiosyncratic hotel won’t suit everyone. Travelers who ascribe to a more-international definition of luxury décor and service should consider one of our alternative recommendations in the city.
The warm and engaging service; our room’s ample storage space; the quiet location; the private Jacuzzi room.
The wall-mounted air-conditioner directly facing our bed; the awkward shower-tub combination; the lack of turndown service; the harsh lighting from the eco-friendly bulbs.
Not all accommodations are accessible by elevator; the unrelentingly flamboyant décor won’t suit everyone’s taste.
The nearby 101-room Augustine occupies part of a still-functioning monastery. We first recommended the property when it opened as a member of Rocco Forte Hotels. After a change of management we withdrew our endorsement pending a reinspection. It now belongs to the Luxury Collection, the top tier of Marriott Hotels & Resorts. I made our reservation hoping that it had retained its luster.
Check-in was not encouraging. The young woman at the front desk handed us our keys and sent us on our way, unaccompanied. I had reserved a Premium Castle View Room, but immediately regretted not having booked a larger Junior Suite. The view from our window was the side of a monastery building; only by leaning and peering to the right was it possible to see the castle. The room’s décor was attractive, with exposed wood beams, a gray linen wingback chair, a similarly upholstered chaise, a wrought-iron floor lamp and, in the vestibule, a copy of a Czech cubist chair by designer and architect Pavel Janák. The gray-marble bath had a heated floor, but although the single vanity provided ample counter space, I found the shower-tub combination, shielded from the rest of the bath by a curtain, to be less than satisfactory.
The hotel’s bar, the Refectory, a barrel-vaulted space, was once used by the monks as a dining room. A brewery, albeit off-site, still produces Svatý Tomáš (St. Thomas) beer according to the Augustinians’ original recipe, and only the Refectory offers the dark but lively brew. The bar’s creative cocktails are served with flair. The Augustine Restaurant has less personality; I liked its well-presented buffet breakfast, but our dinner was uneven. Some pikeperch in miso and cucumber water with yuzu and horseradish gel was excellent, but in my main dish of pork, only the trotter croquette was palatable. Both the loin and tongue were tough, and tough pork tongue ranks among the least pleasant of the world’s comestibles.
I rather wished I’d made time for a St. Thomas Beer Body Ritual in the cellar spa, but other than that, I didn’t have many regrets about checking out. The Augustine provided accommodation and service to an international luxury standard — for the most part — but there was an unexpected blandness to the property. For dedicated members of Marriott’s rewards program, the Augustine is the best choice in Prague, but I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for it. The contemporary Aria Hotel remains my preferred property in Malá Strana.
Period details including wood beams in our room and ornate plasterwork in the Refectory bar; our bath’s heated floors; the Czech cubist décor accents; the attractive garden courtyards.
The uneven food at dinner; the lack of a castle view from our Premium Castle View Room.
The concierge can arrange a tour of parts of the monastery not usually open to the public.