Prague is not an unsung city. Ten million travellers visit it each year, half a million of them from the UK, to drink inexpensive beer, take photographs on Charles Bridge and squeeze into crowds on the hour to watch the figurines of the 12 apostles circle the astronomical clock in Old Town Square. But I’m not judging.
Even though I was visiting the Czechia on a city-hopping rail tour, I was just as enchanted as other tourists by Prague’s cobbled streets and its collection of architecture, where Gothic stands next to Baroque or Rondocubist.
Despite its popularity, Prague manages to endure in its affordability. A double room in a three-star hotel can be as little as £50 per night and a four-star around £100. Consider that half a litre of beer (just under a pint) is about £2 and a two-course meal can cost less than £20, and, well, it is easy to see why Prague is still a favourite for low-cost city breaks.
But the rest of the country is even better value, and you don’t need a car to get around.
Despite good connections and low train fares (and even lower beer prices), only 13 per cent of UK arrivals to the Czechia leave Prague, according to the country’s tourism board. The rest are missing out.
The Czechia – only slightly bigger than Scotland – is well-connected by rail. My triangular journey took me between Prague, Brno and Olomouc, returning to Prague with a total of six-and-a-half hours spent pleasantly trundling along.
In Prague, I stayed just off busy Wenceslas Square. For as much as Prague stays the same, changes are always under way. The Almanac X Alcron Prague hotel reopened in March, following renovation. I was pleased to find well-preserved details from the hotel’s Art Deco heyday; the original marble staircase gleams as it must have in 1932.
The property is a well-situated base for sussing out Prague’s other old-meets-new offerings, including the recently opened Pilsner Urquell beer experience. I had been to the original brewery museum in Pilsen and wasn’t sure a futuristic version in the middle of Prague could do it justice.
My scepticism wasn’t entirely unwarranted – as part of the experience, visitors wear a pair of headphones activated by different sensors while moving through the exhibit. Overall, it was more auditory than visual.
Adding on the Tapster Academy workshop, however, was fun. I learned how to administer the three Czech pours (hladinka, a standard pour; šnyt, a smaller pour with more foam; and mlíko, a milky-looking pour highlighting Pilsner Urquell’s signature dense, creamy foam) correctly.
I later found myself shaking my head in establishments that dared to pour a Pilsner Urquell into a dry glass when the beer’s essential foam relies on a wet surface for its structure.
Structure may also have been helpful when boarding a Ceské dráhy train to Brno. Nearly everyone, including me, managed to enter the wagon from the side opposite their seat location. The first-class carriage was nearly full.
There will be exceptions, but I found Czech trains to be clean, punctual and spacious – as well as good value. My first class ticket between Prague and Brno aboard the state-owned train was £21 for the two-and-a-half-hour journey. It didn’t take long to reach the forests and meadows just outside of Prague.
Brno, the Czechia’s second-largest city, is home to just under 400,000 people and most of its visitors are domestic. As such, Brno caters to its own – you won’t find tacky tourist shops or generic restaurants with 15-page menus here.
Adam Vodicka, a Brno local who runs a very niche boutique hotel called Anybody (each room features a different role play for couples), reported that his business is 95 per cent booked by Czech visitors.
Just as lively is the city’s bar scene. I started my evening at The Whiskey Bar That Doesn’t Exist (its soft, amber-hued glow indicates otherwise), moved on to 4pokoje cocktail bar (early risers may appreciate the 8am opening hour), then finished at Super Panda Circus, a speakeasy with unusual cocktails and theatrical presentation.
I may have been bleary-eyed the following morning as I toured the restored Špilberk Castle, but I perked up for Brno’s Museum of Applied Arts, a treat for design, fashion and ceramics enthusiasts.
Boarding another journey – this time an almost empty regional train without aircon – for £9, I made my way to Olomouc in one-and-a-half hours. Here, Baroque architecture was most prominent, but wandering the quiet streets revealed a variety of facades and a fascinating archdiocesan museum in front of Saint Wenceslas Cathedral.
Despite its elegance, Olomouc does not receive many international visitors. Štefan Blaho, an Olomouc resident and tour guide, told me that he thinks a deeper understanding of a country comes from beyond its tourist-filled streets.
I returned to Prague aboard a České dráhy SuperCity train, on which a seat in first class with a complimentary glass of Bohemian sekt, a coffee and a snack of my choice cost £25. All told, I travelled between three Czech cities – in relatively low-carbon comfort – for just £55.
As Blaho says: “If you want to discover the Czechia, it’s really easy to do it by train.”
Several airlines offer direct flights from the UK to Prague. Rail tickets are available through České dráhy, cd.cz/en
Almanac X Alcron Prague has doubles from £215 a night, almanachotels.com/praguex
Barceló Brno Palace has doubles from £88, barcelo.com/en-gb/barcelo-brno-palace/
Long Story Short Hostel & Café has private rooms from £85, longstoryshort.cz/