Travel Guide: Prague

Vítejte v Praze! One of the most unexpected places in our recent Europe trip turned out to become one of the most wonderful places to visit. I don't profess to be an expert (I could barely speak Czech!), but I highly highly recommend you add this to your list of places to visit. Prague is a wonderful, underrated place with a violent but beautiful history. It doesn't get much better than medieval buildings with radical WWII history, Art Noveau, several years of communism and religious upheavals. If you're not quite convinced yet, read on! I wish I could write everything down here!

Going around

Getting around Prague is relatively easy--their trams are always on time and simple to navigate, and everything a tourist would ever want to see is walkable. But there are a lot of gimmicky ways to go around--most people are buying into segway tours, and more tourists love that they can rent a vintage car with a driver for 2,000 crowns (roughly Php 1,000) for for people for a whole day.

Malostranské

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We stayed in the St . Nicholas Residences, part of the St. Nicholas Church in Prague 1. It is still one of the best places we stayed at on our trip--lack of air conditioning aside. It doesn't get more central than Malostranske, and the walk home was always beautiful!

Sights: St. Nicholas Cathedral, Charles Bridge, Lennon Wall, Cihelna for the view/ cool drinking place, The Kolonada Cafe across Kafka Museum, LOKAL!!!

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Our favorite eating place/pub was definitely Lokal! It was always filled with expats and local, drinking cool Czech beer from the tap (with reserves in the ground floor!). Their food was pretty good too--I was a big fan of their Prague Ham with Whipped Horseradish Cream. And beer with orange soda is fantastic! Who knew?

Another cool place to hang out in is Containall, a lot with a single container van that serves drinks. It's located in a parking lot by the river, giving you a small beach, a fantastic view of the Charles Bridge, and an ultimately cool place to hang out.

Old Town

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Every tourist's first place to visit. When I came here, I looked around and asked my sister just how dark Prague's history was. There are medieval buildings right across each other, with a smattering of Swiss-style murals and French art deco. Add really weird (and I'm talking a black man in a tutu without a shirt not dancing to music) performers and a lot of tourists, and you've got yourself a pretty unforgettable place.

Sights to See: Old Town Square, Chrám Svatého Mikuláše (the protestant Church), the Mucha Museum (STILL CAN'T BELIEVE WE DIDN'T GO IN!!), The Astrological Clock, Church of Our Lady before Týn,

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Before I digress too much, I HIGHLY recommend you joining the Free Sandeman's Old Town Tour, which starts every 2pm at Old Town (look for the red umbrella!). We got Sarah and her adorable Charles II puppet doll, possibly the best tour guide I have ever encountered. She really loves Prague, and was so knowledgeable! She was able to give us all the history without being too overwhelming. Our three hour tour was worth every second and extremely extensive--everything in the Old Town made sense, and I finally discovered why Prague was the way it was. Plus she was very helpful in finding places to eat and how much things were. :)

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In an effort to escape the heat, we went into Coffee Lover's Cafe on Kaprova street (from the Kafka Cafe, turn left), for really good coffee and honey cake, and the best white chocolate/coconut cake of all time. It's based on a Prague chocolate bar whose name I can't remember, but make sure you don't miss this cool cafe!

THE JEWISH QUARTER

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It is with a happy note that I say that the Jewish Quarter is alive and kicking (if you join the walking tour you will find out why), and is in fact one of the most expensive places in Prague. Almost all of the synagogues are owned by the Jewish community, and every spot you visit is steeped in history.

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If you're interested in the Jewish experience in WWII, our tour guide highly recommended the museum. There's a gallery there that hung up the artworks of kids from concentration camps, which is heartbreaking as it is sad. And hearing the story of the Jewish cemetery alone makes you want to curl up into a ball.

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One of the most beautiful synagogue in Europe is right in the heart of Prague. The Spanish Synagogue had the most gorgeous details, and they had concerts there of hits like Bohemian Rhapsody, Fiddler on the Roof and Hallelujah. It made me fall in love even more.

Prague Castle

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Don't be fooled by the beautiful Gothic cathedral in the distance---the St. Vitus Cathedral is only part of the massive area of Prague Castle. It's the biggest castle complex in the world, and we spent an entire day going around its nooks and crannies. We accidentally got off on the wrong train stop (or was it the right one?) and we ended up strolling the Royal Gardens before entering the main complex. We recommend doing the same.

We suggest going as early as possible! The influx of people is no joke, plus you still need to buy tickets from the office across the Cathedral. We also recommend grabbing an audioguide--there's a deposit required, but there's rarely information posted, so it helps make sense of things in the castle complex.

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Here's a sad fact about Prague--despite their strong starts in Christianity, Protestantism and Jewish reiligions, most of the churches are losing money because everyone's becoming atheist. So they do a lot of things to raise money. One of those includes having classical concerts. We caught one at St. George's Basilica late in the afternoon, and it was AMAZING. It was such a wonderful experience! Plus students get discounts, yes!

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We recommend you start from the Golden Lane, have lunch at the Lobcowicz Palace Cafe (for fantastic views!) Visit the Women's Orphanage, and make your way to St. Vitus. You're saving the best for last, essentially.

Hard to believe that this church was made around the same time as the Notre Dame. Vitus is MASSIVE and scary from the outside, but the inside is cool and bright. With the audio guide, there's a lot of information to find out.

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Make sure you Czech this wonderful city off on your bucket list (see what I did there?)

See and Eat: Rome

Benvenuti in Roma! Our last stop in the tour was the craziest so far. In the city of Rome, we encountered loud demonstrations, ran away from aggressive merchants, danced in the streets and walked along the side of the Tevere slightly drunk and happy to be alive. There's no resisting the urge to share some of the things to see and eat in Rome! DSC09520

see: VATICAN CITY

The smallest country in the world is much smaller than I thought it would be! Our group got into the Vatican museum bright and early at 8am, and we took a leisurely walk through the Tapestry and Map rooms of the museum. The walls and ceilings alone are a treat (I loved the gold calligraphy in the map rooms, made almost entirely of mosaic tiles), but our tour guide reminded us to save our necks for the Sistine Chapel. The Catholic schoolgirl in me was in awe.

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EAT: bAR IL POSTIGLIONE CLAUDIO & EWA

The name is a mouthful, but trust me when I say that your stomach will thank you. There's nothing better than sitting al fresco after jostling tourists in the St. Peter's Square with a good sandwich and pasta. The underpass to get to the restaurant is pretty too. We recommend the ravioli and the prochetta panini, plus a glass of cool beer as you finally catch your breath.

Getting There: Facing St. Peter's Basilica, head left to Via Paolo VI. Walk down Via Della Fornaci and go under the underpass. Emerge on the other side and turn left.


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See: the Spanish Steps, Villa Borghese and Piazza del popolo

Our tour guide told us a joke (was it a joke?) about the public transportation in Rome. He said that the reason why the subways are sparse is that because every time they dig underground to make way for new lines, they accidentally dig up old artefacts of significant importance. Uhm. Go Rome?

But for the most stunning views of the city, we looked no farther than the walk from the top of the Spanish Steps to Piazza del Popolo. The views there are breathtaking the higher you walk up. Just make sure you walk up any ramp you see, and you'll be pleasantly surprised!

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Eat: La casina dell' orologio

Admittedly, we only found this place because we were hopelessly lost. We were looking for the entrance to Villa Medici when we saw the beautiful park on Viale del Belvedere, right off the short uphill climb beside the Villa. Walking past the obelisk, we found ourselves in a park with kids, street performers and well dressed Italians, sitting around and gesticulating loudly.

In the middle of all of that is an emerald green greenhouse,  with al fresco seating and indoor seating. It was just so quaint, and the maitre'd could speak a bit of Tagalog! Unfortunately, eating inside the dining room is double the price of just grabbing takeout from the cafe they set up beside the dining room, so we bought our treats and sat outside. Not bad for getting lost!

 

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See: Arco de COnstantino and Colosseum

It's huge, it's the oldest thing you'll ever set foot in and the stairs are crazy high. Need I say more?  Oh yes. Prepare yourself to jostle crowds, but seeing the Colosseum is a breathtaking, essential tourist experience.

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See: Piazza navona

If there was ever a city center in Rome, Piazza Navona would only be one of them. Filled to the brim with bag merchants (watch where you're stepping!!!!!!), street artists and performers, it's a fun and lively place to explore and hang out with your fellow travelers.

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eat: Ristorante domiziano

Given that the Piazza is such a tourist area, expect that anything you eat here will be pricey. But if you were only going to eat one thing, make sure it's the Tartufo al cioccolato (around 10 euros) from Ristorante Domiziano. It's actually a ball of moist, gooey chocolate cake with creamy smooth gelato bursting from the inside!


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Eat: OPERA

On the last night of our tour, we tucked into the basement of this small restaurant right off the Ponte Sant'Angelo in Via Paola (the restaurant with the fake flowers in the veranda). BEST MEAL EVER. The photo above is just of the fantastic antipasto plate we were individually served! Plus there was an accordion player to set the mood, unlimited wine, delicious pizza and a lovely tiramisu to top off the meal. Ugh. Molto bene!


 

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See: Ponte Sant'Angelo and Castel san'tangelo

When I close my eyes, I can still see that beautiful walkup along the Ponte Sant'Angelo and looking up at the Castel. This castle from the 2nd century is a beautiful place to take a moonlit walk after a heavy meal. There were couples along the Tevre stealing last minute kisses before parting, and of course, street musicians. Even cooler, the Rocky Horror Picture Show was playing along the side of the castle for outdoor viewing! It was the best way to say goodbye to the tour. DSC09777 DSC09797 DSC09803

Florence Photo Guide

Welcome to Florence, or as the locals call it, Firenze (say that with the accent, it rolls off the tongue)! This is the city that inspired artists like Michaelangelo, Da Vinci and Botticelli. This is the capital of the Italian region of Tuscany, and the place where the Medicis first came into power. Florence is a big city compared to the sleepy countrysides of Tuscany, but it doesn't lose its charm at all. As far as Italian cities go, Florence is surprising, beautiful and almost endless in the way the streets twist and turn. Read below for a walking guide and photo diary!

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il Duomo - Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral

One of my favorite experiences during my Europe trip was walking along the small, crowded streets of Florence, and suddenly coming into a near collision with the breathtaking facade of Il Duomo. All cliche words apply here. There's a reason why I added such a closeup photo of the cathedral--save some of the magic for your trip!

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Palazzo Vecchio

Just when you thought the Duomo had all the wow factor, you duck into little roads again only to find...a castle. The age of some of the structures in Europe just continue to boggle the mind. The Palazzo Vecchio, still used today as the Florence's City Hall, is worth a walk through for the pretty portico inside. It's on the leftmost side of Piazza Della Signoria, a massive open space in the middle of the political center of Florence.

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Don't miss the Fountain of Neptune up front--the iron statues look even more creepy after the rain. And the David you see in front of the entrance is a replica of the original Michaelangelo.

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Loggia de lanizi - the portico

Just beside the Palazzo and the Uffizi gallery is an interesting looking garage filled with statues. I only say garage because it looks like a carpark next to the massive castle next to it. But this portico is lines with wonderfully detailed statues. Benvenuto Cellini's statue Perseus With the Head of Medusa greets everyone at the entrance, but my favorite is The Rape of the Sabine Woman.

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Signum

Heading through the narrow roads behind the Neptune Fountain is a blink and you'll miss it store--Signum. This is the only place in the world where I've seen wonderful leather bound notebooks--made in the way they used to in the 15th century. They're being sold at insanely high prices, but everything else in the store is worth a look too. For all the notebook addicts out there, this is a place worth checking out! Be careful of the finicky owner though.

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Borgo de Grechi STREET

Walking down the street has a lot of blink and you'll miss it stops, and this street in Florence had quite a few. Everyone talks about how you should buy leather and gold here, but we found ourselves looking at a Pinocchio themed store, a street called Via Filippina, and the Ristorante Francescovini--easily the second best meal we had the entire trip, with cute waiters to boot!

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Before you stumble upon the Santa Croce, take a detour to Vivoli first! The gelatos are creamy and smooth, and any flavor you get is just...amazing. We didn't even mind the rain!

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