With its elegant buildings, beautiful river and pretty squares, Prague is a lovely city at any time of year, but visit in the festive season and there’s definitely magic in the air. As we joined the happy throng in Old Town Square for the official opening of the Christmas market, it was clear that something special was about to happen.
And sure enough, as the hands of the ornate astronomical clock crept round towards 6pm, friends and families gathered together began an enthusiastic countdown. No sooner had the last chime rung out from the bell tower above us, than the dimly lit square was transformed into a sparkling wonderland of white lights round a glittering Christmas tree.
It’s the perfect opener for a month of festive fun which starts this year on 26 November and runs until 1 January 2017. The city’s Christmas markets are amongst the largest and most atmospheric in the world, with decorated trees and wooden stalls springing up in several of the city’s most attractive squares.
But the hub of the festivities is always Old Town Square, surrounded by an impossibly pretty mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings. For an unforgettable view of the festive illuminations, take the lift up to the balcony surrounding the top of the bell tower. Or climb aboard a horse-drawn carriage and snuggle under a blanket whilst your driver strikes up a rhythmic trot along the cobbled streets.
Czech Christmas customs vary from our own, their big festive day being 24 December. Families sit down to a big feast of soup, fresh carp and potato salad, and apple strudel, and after dinner, everyone opens presents but we do have a very strong connection through our favourite carols.
Good King Wenceslas ruled over Bohemia, the historic region around Prague, in the 10th century, and today his statue stands at the far end of Wenceslas Square. Once the scene of political demonstrations, this vast square now hosts a small part of the city’s festive celebrations.
Prague is easy to explore on foot, so you can pack plenty into your day before darkness falls. Cross the Vltava by the famous Charles Bridge, founded by Empreor Charles IV in 1357. The most direct route beneath the Old Town and Prague Castle, it is lined with 30 statues as well as artists, musicians and craft sellers.
Prague’s hilltop castle was begun in the 9th century and added to by successive Princes and Kings of Bohemia. Today it’s the largest castle complex in the world and official residence of the President. We loved the fabulous stained-glass windows of St Vitus Cathedral within the castle precincts, and the lifesize nativity scene outside the main door.
Don’t miss the panoramic view across the river to the Old Town from the castle terrace, nor Golden Lane, a row of tiny 16th boutiques, all dressed in their Christmas best. Here we stocked up on traditional blue and white ceramic tree decorations, neatly boxed up and easily portable as gifts to take home.
Watch out too for authentic gifts with an Art Nouveau flavour. Home town of artist Alfred Mucha, Prague has many exquisite Art Nouveau buildings including our stylish base at Hotel Paris – one of a number of atmospheric hotels offered by Kirker Holidays. A short walk from Old Town Square, Hotel Paris is also close to the Mucha Museum and the Municipal Hall which features the artist’s designs in the cafes and concert auditorium.
Music is an integral part of this beautiful city and many of the churches stage concerts of Christmas music. For a spine-tingling musical moment, head for Prague’s largest Baroque Church, St Nicholas, beneath the castle walls, where Mozart once played the organ.
For details of all festive events, ask at the Tourist Office beside the Astronomical Clock or consult the website www.prague-info.cz.