This year the Czech Republic celebrates 100 years since it gained its independence as Czechoslovakia. After that, the period of the First Republic – the 20 years between the two world wars – was an amazingly rich period in Czech history and it became one of the main centres of modern European life. Today, Czech’s capital, Prague, is still the fifth most visited city in Europe and major tourist attractions can be crowded. But there are still lots of amazing places in the city and nearby countryside to visit and get away from the crowds.
The city’s historic attractions are mainly centred in the UNESCO protected 13C Old Town. Make the requisite tourist stops – like the Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, and Astronomical Clock, then wander to the charming Lesser Town neighbourhood with its cafes, outdoor patios and folk art shops.
While there, stop at Art Cz Gallery to check out the famous Vamberk bobbin lacework, a patented Bohemian folk craft. Bobbin lace shoes were made to present to Jacquie Kennedy at Expo ’67 and it is still what Czech dignitaries take abroad as gifts.
Next door at Art Studio Genetrix workshop, you can marvel over porcelain replicas of 8-10 century Prague Romanesque buildings, up to the current-day architecture, hand-made by a family team. Then to learn about old Czech Republic relics and folk costumes, pop into adjacent Antique Ahasver.
Go for a drink
Wine may be called the nectar of the gods, but for the Czechs its beer that provides divine sustenance. A couple of blocks from the Prague Castle, through the Castle District (keep an eye out for closed streets here, as filmmakers frequently use the setting – like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol or Amadeus) visit the Strahov Monastery brewery for an Anti-Depressant Dark Lager St. Norbert beer to see why Czechs call beer “liquid bread."
More of a hankering for an espresso? Head to New Town (don’t be fooled by the name, it was established in the 14th Century) where the main streets can also be extremely crowded with tourists, but just a street or two back will get you away from the masses. In the 19th and early 20th Century, Prague was a hotbed for intellectuals and artists as Bohemian culture swept Europe (the word “bohemian” came from this western region of the Czech Republic, Bohemia). Café culture flourished as guests met to debate, write or sketch for hours for the price of a cup of coffee. Today, the city still has a hipster meets renaissance vibe, and the café culture is experiencing a rebirth.
To check it out, visit Café Louvre, which opened in 1902 and went strong until the communist coup in 1948 when the café fixtures were thrown out the windows onto Narodni Avenue. The café was completely restored in 1992, after the Velvet Revolution, and it once again looks much as it did in its heyday when the likes of Karel Capek, Franz Kafka and even Albert Einstein hung out.
Get out of town
The Czech Republic is so much more than Prague, so to learn about the rich history between world wars, venture just an hour away to the Skoda car factory, one of the best-selling Czech brands in the world, located in Mlada Boleslav, where the factory takes up a third of the town. At the museum, learn how its two founders, Laurin and Klement, started with bicycle manufacturing before joining forces with Skoda, heavy equipment manufacturer.
Don’t miss a tour of the factory – it’s fascinating (yes, even if you’re not a car lover), especially if you’ve never seen a production line before; a car can be completed in a 24-hour day.
Continue a bit further through countryside filled with picture-book half-timbered houses, pastures and pretty barns to Ajeto Glassworks. This area in the foothills of the Jizera and Luzice mountains is the cradle of Bohemian glass-making started back in the 1300s because of the special sandstone found here, perfect for glass-making. At Ajeto, you’ll be wowed watching the glass blowers melting the glass in the 1200 degrees Celsius ovens (they burn for months at a time to stay hot enough), before they blow it into perfectly-shaped glass products.
Next, visit the Museum of Glass and Jewelry in Jablonec, established in 1904 as an imperial centre where people came from all over the world to buy glass. Here you can see highlights like the black jet jewellery, so popular with Queen Victoria and samples of costume jewellery throughout the centuries.
After learning all about glass, no doubt you will be ready to buy glass jewelry to take home, so save time to stop at Palace Plus in Jablonec where you can pick up high-quality costume jewelry and Christmas ornaments at amazingly low prices.
On the way back to Prague, stop at the Sychrov Chateau, an aristocratic home-cum-castle where you can see how mobility lived in the late 19th Century. Incredibly, Czech Republic has 2,000 castles – about one every 15 kilometres – more than any other country.
When you go
In the country, at Liberec, stay at Clarion Grand Hotel Zlaty Lev with its historical furnishings and crystal chandeliers.
While in Liberec, visit Radnicni Sklipek for a traditional town hall dining experience, or drive up to the spaceship-looking Jested Tower and watch the sunset from the highest mountain in the region, while eating elegant Czech food.
From Toronto, Lufthansa and Air Canada have seasonal direct flights to Prague (about an eight-hour flight).
From Vancouver, flights usually have one stop in Munich or Frankfurt.
Call your travel advisor to make it easy.