When a friend and I decided that we needed to experience Christmas markets in December 2014, we asked around about which ones are the best. Everyone had different opinions, and for a wide variety of reasons, but we eventually narrowed it down to Prague because we were told it was charming and classic European market (and also because I wanted to visit the Mucha Museum- see below). We did in fact love the markets, as well as the city at Christmas time.
One of the primary reasons I wanted to visit Prague? Two words: Alphonse Mucha. I've been a big fan of his artwork for years, and even contemplated a tattoo of one of his pieces (only to discover that it's been done- a lot). I had heard there was a museum dedicated to his work, as well as other sites designed or decorated by him. And I was not disappointed! If you love the art nouveau style, the city of Prague is steeped in it! Everywhere you turn, there are hotels, apartment building, shops, and churches decorated in that distinctive style. Some photos below:
The museum is small but contains many original pieces by Mucha. There is also a gift shop with an extensive collection of prints for sale. I bought two and had them framed back home; I still get effusive compliments on them both!
7, Panská 890, 110 00 Nové Město, Czechia
more information about Mucha Museum
Three words to describe Prague at Christmas Time:
festive cold! historic
Views & Sites
Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti)
more information about Old Town Square
more information about Prague Castle
When we arrived in Prague, we were not aware that the city virtually shuts down for several days over Christmas. Luckily, we purchased tickets in advance to Swan Lake on Christmas Day! We got dressed up to witness an incredible performance. And the opera house itself was a stunning work of art! We marveled at neo Rococo decor and the rich red velvet details. Perfect for those who celebrate the holiday.
State Opera/ Statni opera (currently under reconstruction)
Wilsonova 4, 110 00 Vinohrady, Czechia
more information about the State Opera
One of the best things about Prague at Christmas: trdelnik! It's a delicious strip of pastry wrapped around large wooden posts, covered in cinnamon and walnuts, and then roasted to a delicious golden brown. Perfect on a freezing cold, windy afternoon of shopping at the Christmas markets.
Though it has been several years, I haven't forgotten our dinner at Delice, which is now called Santini Gardens. We had the most amazing dinners and glasses of wine. If you're in Prague during the summer, their back garden looks divine... We also highly recommend dinner and drinks at the Dancing House and the Beer Monastery (see below in the Ultimate Experiences section).
Jánský vršek 323/13, 118 00 Malá Strana, Czechia
Prague is a very walkable city. Plan to stay downtown, and you can see most sites easily. If you stay further out, the metro is easy to use and runs very regularly. We felt safe using the metro even in the evenings.
Three of my favorite experiences:
III. nádvoří 48/2, 119 01 Praha 1-Hradčany, Czechia
more information about St. Vitus
The Dancing House
more information about the Dancing House
Strahovské nádvoří 133/3, 118 00 Praha 1-Hradčany-Hradčany, Czechia
more information about Pelko
Real world details
If you plan to go to Prague over Christmas, the city really will shut down from December 23rd to December 26th. Many restaurants and even the markets aren't open, or for limited hours. My friend and I were warned and made sure to get an Airbnb with a stocked kitchen, and shopped for the groceries we'd need for several days. It turned out to be an adventure... we made a full Christmas dinner of roast pork, scalloped potatoes, green beans, and baked apples on Christmas Day! We made sure to have some movies downloaded and had the chance to Skype with family back home... super cozy.
Here are a few other blogs to check out:
Something that Prague is well known for is their folk art, puppetry. This are a wide variety of marionettes for sale in the Christmas markets, but these are generally more generic. In the speciality marionette shops, you'll find traditional, modern, and artistic puppets of every shape and size. I spent much of my time in Prague checking out all the cool puppets and debating which ones to purchase for others and myself. I found Loutky Michael's my favorite. Eventually, I decided on a traditional Czech female puppet for myself and a postmodern, roughly carved male puppet for my brother. Both were unique and are pieces to display with pride. You can even buy them online here.
Cape Town is a town of dichotomies: beautiful yet run-down, chill but tense, modern yet steeped in history, rich but poor. It's a town that can challenge visitors but also enthrall them. I struggle to fully explain the sense of passion- for good and for bad- that pulses through this coastal city with stunning views and political undercurrents. It's a city you simply must visit.
I visited Cape Town in March 2015 for a conference about child protection. I was fortunate to have a few days to travel on my own before the conference began, and then to spend time with co-workers experiencing the city together.
In the floor above the thoroughly sobering Iziko Slave Lodge Museum, one is shocked into modern life with a curving wall made entirely of brightly colored CDs. There is a sense of escape in the form of music and the passing of time. Another super cool discovery were the many upcycled crafts; I was delighted by sculptures of safari animals made of old soda cans, plastic bottle caps, or old flip flops glued together (pictured). And finally, the National Gallery housed a host of collections and temporary exhibits that confronted fear, racism, classism, and sexism (I found it emotionally wrenching and compelling... but was ready for a drink afterward! I ended up taking a walk in the Company Gardens to take a breather).
Cape Town in three words:
colorful breathtaking striving
Views & sites
The Labia Theater
One of my favorite places in Cape Town is the unique and vintage movie theater, the Labia. Named after founder Princess Labia, the theater was converted from the former Italian embassy ballroom in 1949. The theater not only shows art, historical and recent films, but also has a coffee shop, snack bar, and full bar! And it's located across the street from the Company Gardens, so it's a perfect stop after a day touring around.
Handspring Puppet Company
I couldn't get tickets when I visited, but this puppet theater for adults gets rave reviews! The photos from their FB page are intriguing, as well. The theater features massive puppets (and works of art in their own right!) and story lines to appeal to adults rather than children. I would definitely try to get tickets, if they are still up and running.
There were some great restaurants in Cape Town, but they may have changed in the past two years. Here's a list of foods and drinks to try:
Top three recommended modes of transportation:
3. Go on foot. If you don't need a lot of sleep, I recommend staying near Bree and Long Streets. They have an active nightlife that go into the wee hours. Many of the tourist sites are within walking distance, and the path through the Company Gardens might be one of the most beautiful urban walk ways in the world. Be safe and don't walk alone at night, even in these areas; take a taxi or Uber instead.
2. Uber. If you decide to stay further out (an excellent way to cut costs), then Uber is a quick and easy way to get to destinations efficiently. I've traveled to many cities, and this is one of the best (besides San Francisco) because there are so many drivers available. Tip: if this is your first time using the service, download the phone app before you go.
1. City Sightseeing bus. I have used hop on/ hop off buses in various cities, and the City Sightseeing buses in Cape Town have been- by far- the most efficient. They stop at all the neighborhoods and tourist sites you'll want to check out, and they run regularly and on time. I got a 48 hour ticket and used it to travel all over the city for one price- a great deal in my opinion! They have three routes from which you can choose, one taking you around the city, another exploring the peninsula (including penguins and Kirstenbosch Nature Reserve), and another focusing on the historical downtown area. I took the red line and was pleased at how much I was able to explore!
There were a lot of places to shop around Cape Town, but Heartworks was simply charming. The owner travels all around South Africa, collecting arts and crafts to sell to tourists. You'll find colorful wire baskets, hand-stitched dolls and elaborately embroidered pillows, gorgeous necklaces and earrings dripping with beads, and so much more! I purchased items for my own home, but many more items for friends back home- and everyone loved what I gave them! There are three locations. Be sure to visit at least one!
Table Mountain Cafe
We happened to visit the infamous Table Mountain in the afternoon. We headed up in a cable car, though those with more time and lung capacity could certainly hike, and decided to sit at the cafe with a few adult beverages to enjoy the amazing view! It was a highlight of my trip to sit back, relax, chat with locals, and drink in the sunset. But be warned that the last cable car down is at 6pm! Highly recommended experience... and one I will certainly never forget.
Real world details
Poverty and racial inequality are real and in-your-face even for tourists in Cape Town (I hear that it is worse in Johannesburg, though I have not been... yet). Be prepared to have children and adults approach you, and even follow you, asking for food, money, physical assistance, etc. I was approached for money for taxis and shelter by several adults, and at one point had a sandwich snatched out of my hand by a rough looking little guy (I figured he needed it more than I did). When I went to a book shop that has great reviews, I discovered a locked metal door and was only allowed entry once a bookshop worker had come to look me over. While I browsed, I saw him refuse entry to several visitors- all of them black (maybe that was a coincidence, but...). Another time, I stopped for a coffee at a crowded outdoor cafe near the crowded Greenmarket stalls. Several young children approached me to ask for food, and an older couple reprimanded me when I ordered something for them, saying I was encouraging street kids to be lazy and annoying (I gave them the food anyway). Be prepared for uncomfortable encounters and decide beforehand how you'll respond if such things happen to you.
For solo travelers, you may experience the dichotomy of good and bad encounters. For the most part, I found that traveling on my own meant that people were extremely friendly! Many waiters and customers would sit and chat with me for long stretches, and several invited me along with them to other bars and public places. I found it easy to chat with people and felt comfortable dining on my own in restaurants or visiting tourist spots. I did, however, feel the need to be wary when traveling on foot in the evening, and I was careful to keep valuables locked away when walking through Company Gardens and on Long Street. Take the usual precautions and be aware of your surroundings, and you'll have a great time.
I was only in town for a few days, so I didn't get a chance to explore Boulders Beach (famous for penguins), the vineyard tours, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, or Robbin Island. Check out these websites for more info on Cape Town:
One of my favorite memories from this trip was having dinner at a tiny little restaurant featuring local sausages on boerie rolls. The restaurant was right around the corner from my AirbBnB and the Company's Garden. I don't think the place exists anymore, but the main point of the story is about the staff at this place. I rolled in late at night, starving after arriving from the airport. The waiters were all very busy (the place was hopping), but they each took turns coming to sit down and chat for a few minutes. I didn't know them from Adam, but they were fascinated that I worked in Qatar and had a job that paid for me to visit a conference thousands of miles away. They recommended that I try the springbok sausage and a couple local beers, and then suggested what I should see and avoid around Cape Town. I didn't stay in touch with any of them, but their kindness made a positive impression on me. I spent the rest of the trip encountering more friendly people, which marks Cape Town as a warm and welcoming place to me.
Go! It has stunning views, delicious food and wine, friendly people, and an intriguing mix of dichotomies. You won't regret it.