For a traditional festive holiday, there’s nowhere quite like Christmas-card-perfect Prague. This month, it’s all about mulled wine, seasonal cuisine and seeing in 2014 in style
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While it’s true that the Golden City has its appeal in any light, the month of December sees Prague at its most storybook perfect. Throughout the Unesco-protected, historic quarter of the Old Town, the streets twinkle with white lights strung from trees and rooftops, and the Christmas markets that dot the main squares are ideal for last-minute gift shopping. After that, check out the myriad seasonal concerts that take over many of the city’s famed churches and theatres.
The eve of St Nicholas Day, on 4 December, is a special celebration in the Czech Republic, when the streets come alive with children dressed as one of three characters: St Nicholas, a Devil or an Angel. The biggest gathering takes place on Old Town Square, home to the largest market and also the biggest Christmas tree in the country. Warm up with a mug of hot mulled wine, or svařák, and browse the stalls selling handmade wooden ornaments, gingerbread hearts and wrought-iron crafts. Book a table at nearby Kalina, where executive chef Miroslav Kalina presents his New Prague cuisine – a sort of fusion of local talent, French inspiration and seasonal fare – before indulging in a stiff hot chocolate infused with chilli at Choco Café, just off the aptly named (for this time of year) Bethlehem Square. It’s a short walk from here to the gilded National Theatre – if you can, catch the much-loved, combined adaptation of The Nutcracker – A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve.
There is no better place to experience the first snowfall of the season than on Charles Bridge on a winter’s evening, with the glow of Prague Castle in the background. Wander the cobblestone alleyways of Malá Strana and the Old Town – at their most beautiful when bathed in lamplight. Stop by the tiny Vinograf wine bar, close to the bridge, to sample the produce of the South Moravian region’s burgeoning wine country, or try to get one of the few tables at U Hrocha (The Hippo), a characterful, stone-walled pub that is one of this beer-loving city’s oldest public houses. Eat like a local at the buzzing Lokál, which prides itself on a Slow Food approach to classic Czech cuisine – there’s no better time to appreciate a hearty goulash or roast duck with sauerkraut than just after coming in from the cold.
Many of the restaurants in Prague – which now boasts two Michelin-starred venues and numerous places with Bib Gourmand recognition – host all-inclusive evenings of dinner and entertainment for both Christmas and New Year’s Eve. For example, the noteworthy Kampa Park – which with its views over Charles Bridge and the Vltava river is perfect for watching the fireworks at midnight – is putting on a black-tie New Year’s Eve gala. Alternatively, take up the Bohemian Christmas package at Mandarin Oriental, Prague, or dine in festive style in the hotel’s elegant Essensia restaurant. Whatever you choose, there’s no better way to ring in the New Year than in a city that is more than a millennium old.
Fiona Gaze is a travel writer, editor and food critic based in Prague; Twitter @FionaGaze