"Praha" is Czech for "threshold": a reference to medieval trade taxes, but in many ways still an apt name today. My favorite city in Europe sits on the threshold between East and West, past and future.
By the time you see what I mean you'll be on a threshold of your own, about to embark on your Czech Republic & Austria biking trip. Or maybe it's the Czech Republic & Austria hiking adventure. Either way, grab your 24-hour Metro ticket (110 crowns or around $4.50), hop on the excellent subway or light rail... and go Czech it out!
10 a.m.: Begin your journey by beating the crowds to Prague Castle (Pražský hrad). Entering the sprawling complex is free, but you pay to enter each of the various sites on the premises. The most popular sight is the towering St. Vitus' Cathedral and its Royal Treasury (300 crowns/around $12). For only 50 crowns ($2-ish) more, you can get a "Circuit A" ticket, which includes basically everything else. The Old Royal Palace is another highlight.
11:30 a.m.: Phew! Time to relax. A few blocks away you'll enter Petřín Park, where Prague hides its best-kept secret: beneath all the soot and splendor is a slower pace. The park is crowned by Petřín Tower, a miniature Eiffel-replica, next to which is a neat mirror maze (50 crowns). If you didn't already grab a bite to eat, a leisurely meal awaits at Petřínské terasy, surrounded by greenery and amazing views. If your relaxed afternoon involves channeling Kafka and Kundera over your travel journal, grab the funicular to the bottom of the park and cozy up inside Kavárna Mlýnská, where you can find a caffeine fix as well as Czech café specialties like pickled camembert.
3 p.m.: Prague's history isn't all mystical saints and murdered princes. The Lennon Wall is Prague's most iconic symbol of resistance to communism. The original portrait of John's head is gone, but the wall remains as psychedelic as it was in the 1980s, when its persistent graffiti quietly reminded the city that behind the brutal dictatorship, the Czech artistic spirit was still alive. Down the street is the Absintherie, where the staff might disappoint you by explaining that absinthe doesn't actually cause hallucinations. Still, choosing between over 60 kinds of the Czech specialty and then checking out the free museum is sure to cheer you up.
3:30 p.m.: You've arrived at the foot of Charles Bridge! Don't worry--it's this crowded all the time. Just enjoy the many street performers, the 30 statues of saints, and the view over your shoulder towards the castle, which only gets better as you reach the far side of the Vltava. You're now nearing...
4 p.m.: Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) is the starting point of Pařížská, Prague's most elegant shopping street. Stroll up Pařížská, and the glitzy windows eventually give way to Prague's historic Jewish quarter. The streets off to the left hide Klausova Synagogue, today partially a museum, and the Old Jewish Cemetery, whose strangely beautiful forest of crooked tombstones recall silent reflections on the past.
5 p.m.: Be back at the square in time to grab a place in the crowd underneath the Astronomical Clock. As the clock strikes the hour, wooden clockwork figures parade through the open window of this towering Gothic confection--a cherished symbol of the city.
7 p.m.: One well-deserved stop at the hotel later, dinner is calling! For a warm, classic, traditional tavern, Plzeňský restaurace Anděl is one of my favorites - or there's quirky Restaurace Na Výtopna, where drinks chug to your table on a maze of model trains.
9 p.m.: Evening options abound. If Prague whets your appetite for the arts, check what's playing at the Rudolfinum concert hall or the National Theater. Bar-hoppers: head to the lively young neighborhood around Jiřího z Poděbrad subway station, or "JZP" to Prague's substantial expat community. And for people-watching, Wenceslas Square, Prague's modern heart, throbs with outdoor bars and snack counters that fry up fresh sweet pastries as you watch. Plus, the Absintherie is open until midnight. But remember what you learned about absinthe, and don't panic. Nope--this dreamy city is no hallucination.