Travel Guide: Prague

ept-thumb-promo.jpgChristmas is near, and that means it's time for the European Poker Tour to head back to Prague once again. The season 8 visit to Prague begins on Monday, hosting 21 events at the Hilton Prague. The Main Event runs from December 5 through 10. A direct buy-in will dent you for €5,300.

This event has a history of producing strong champions. In 2007, Arnaud Mattern topped a field of 555 players to win the inaugural event and the first prize of more than €700,000. In 2008, Salvatore Bonavena took the trophy, and both of those men have since joined the Team PokerStars Pro family. Jan Skampa and Roberto Romanello have won the last two years respectively, and the player turnout has remained fairly consistent over the years.


As you'll find out below, Prague is a city filled with tradition and winter charm, and you might want to venture out of the hotel's four walls for a little history lesson.

Located in the region of Eastern Europe known as Bohemia, Prague--or 'Praha' in the local parlance--is the capital of and the largest city in the Czech Republic. It was founded in 885, and it has well over a millennium of world history tucked safely under its belt. It's been an important seat in two World Empires, and the entire historical district is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Prague is widely regarded by Europeans as one of the most charming cities, and they've made it the sixth-most popular travel destination on the continent. Czech is the official language, but if Slovak is your speciality, you should be able to manage just fine. English is also widely understood and spoken, particularly among the younger crowds.

As for the cash, the Czechs use a currency called the Koruna (CZK)--or 'Crown'--and you'll get about 25 of them for every Euro you exchange. You'll get about 19 if you're converting from U.S. dollars. Many of the hotels and restaurants accept Euros, but don't expect to get change in anything other than Koruna.

Geographically, the city is located on the banks of the Vitava River, and about 2.3 million people make their home in the metropolitan area. You'll sometimes hear the locals giving locations in relation the "left bank" or "right bank" of the river. The city proper is divided into ten districts for easy navigation, and you'll often see addresses attached to district designations such as 'Praha 5'. In the center, District 1 encompasses Old Town (Staré Město), the most historically dense and captivating area of the city, but more on that later.
The weather is cold, and, in all likelihood, snowy. Temperatures tend to hover right around zero degrees Celsius. But, then again, no other city seems as well suited by the cold as Prague.


Getting Around
Being the global city that it is, travel into and out of Prague is fairly straightforward. If you're coming from the sky, you'll be landing at the city's International Airport, Ruzyně. Once you collect your bags, you'll be faced with several options, as the city center is about 20km to the southeast. The cheapest mode of transport is the bus, and you can catch a ride into the city for between €1 and €2. The Airport Express (AE) is on the upper end of that range, but it's well worth the extra coin for the non-stop trip to Dejvická metro station, a total ride of about 30 minutes. The popular Cedaz buses go a bit further into the city center, and those fares will run you about €5.

Of course, taxis are prevalent too, but you'll have to keep your wits about you. You'd do well to negotiate the fare in advance. From the airport to the city center, the price should not exceed 700 CZK. If you need a taxi to get around town during your stay, it's generally best to have your hotel call one for you rather than trying to hail one in the street. Once you've made your way into the city itself, things get much easier. One of the great things about Prague is its walkability, and if you can handle the cold, you should make it a point to spend some time wandering around. If you've got to go a bit further (or your legs are getting tired), Prague has a fantastic network of public transportation. A system of subways, buses, trams, and ferries will get you pretty much anywhere you need to go cheaply and reliably.

Note that the bus system does not penetrate the historic districts of the city. Instead, you'll need to switch over to one of the Porce-designed, electric-powered trams that whoosh their way through the cobbled streets. As a bonus, the trams and buses within the city center run until almost sunrise through the Lazarská station.

Staying Put
Of course, if you have your druthers, the Hilton is the preferred place to stay. It's just upstairs from the tournament venue, for starters, and it's also within walking distance of some of the city's most must-see sights. It has WiFi and 24-hour room service, as well as a gym, spa, pool, and sauna. And breakfast is included.

If you're on a tighter budget, or you're looking for a place in a different part of the city, EPT Hotels has done a wonderful job of putting together a list of alternative places to stay.


Out and About
For those of us accustomed to pre-fabricated houses and cookie-cutter commercial buildings, Prague is a welcomed escape to another world. A world filled with ornate cathedrals, ancient bridges, and the smell of ham roasting on the street. If you can only see one thing while you're in Prague, make that thing be the Charles Bridge. The most iconic monument in the city connects the Old Town and the right bank with the area known as 'Lesser Town'. It's been around since the 14th Century, and it's still a hub of street music, merchants, and food and drink, day and night. If you venture all the way across the bridge and into Lesser Town, go ahead and check out Prague Castle, the old home of Charles IV, et al. You can't miss it. Guinness says it's the largest of all the ancient European castles, and it's a great place to watch the changing of the guard and catch an overlooking view of the city.

On your way back across the bridge, take a look to your right and look for the neon lights. If you see them, you've spotted Karlovy Lazne, Central Europe's largest indoor music club. That's the first mention we've made of the music scene in Prague, but it's worthy of a whole article itself. Opera and classical music are huge in Eastern Europe, and where there's opera, there's underground music.

On any given night, you'll hear live music coming from a half-dozen places around you as you walk through the city center, and the ska, punk, and alt-rock scenes are particularly robust. If Karlovy Lazne isn't your thing, hunt down Chapeau Rouge and grab yourself a pint, or several pints.

If Prague is famous for any one thing, it's beer. Budweiser Budvar might just be the best beer you've ever tasted, and you can find a big stein of it for just €1 to €2. Our favorite place to chug down a Budvar is at U Medvidku, a small hotel/restaurant/brewery in the Old Town. It's the kind of place where you can eat some wild boar, scope out the giant copper brewing kettles, and drink one of the freshest, tastiest beers you can find. When you're done with your meal, take a left out of the door and head back into the heart of Old Town for a little desert. Among the stalls of the Christmas Market, you'll find the occasional one with a sign for Trdelnik. We'll advise you not to pass it by, but it's likely your nose will do all the convincing.

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Trdelnik are coils of fresh dough wrapped around a metal rod and baked over an open fire. Still piping hot, they're finished with a generous shake of cinnamon-sugar, and the smell of fresh dessert bread spreads farther than you'd think. If you're still hungry, the street stalls are full of good finds. You should certainly make it a point to try a slice of Old Prague Ham, a local street specialty. If you stumble across a big, old clock on the side of a building there in Old Town, you've probably found the Prague Astronomical Clock. Built in 1410, it's the third-oldest clock in the world, and the oldest one still functioning. Once you're done with Old Town, there's still New Town and another half-dozen districts to explore.

Other sights worth seeing include Wenceslas Square, the National Museum, the Dancing House, and the Metronome, which is exactly what it sounds like. It's a giant, fully-functional metronome overlooking the river, and it's just another in a long list of quickly and interesting sights and sounds Prague has to offer.

If you're not frantically trying to book a ticket after reading this travel guide, then nothing will convince you. You'll just have to follow the tournament updates on PokerStars Blog and live vicariously through our live reporting team.

Eric Ramsey
@PokerStars in PokerStars news