One of the few Central European capitals to survive the bombs of World War II, Prague stepped into the 21st century looking, more or less, as if it were stuck in the Middle Ages. “Tourism thrives in Prague because of its history. Her old towers, bridges, and churches tell a story,” says Karin Líšková, manager of Hotel U Zeleného Hroznu. “Visitors want to experience Prague as it was before, in the old times.”
Following the collapse of communism in 1989, dozens of boutique hotels took advantage of this widely held sentiment, moving into the Czech city’s ornate Renaissance houses that dot the medieval Staré Město (Old Town) and the winding streets of the Malá Strana (Little Quarter). Most hotels are in protected heritage buildings, ensuring that their treasures remain intact for generations to come.
Czech Mates: Tucked down a quiet side street in the city’s tony Little Quarter, Hotel U Zeleného Hroznu (meaning “at the green grape”) makes you feel as if you stumbled upon an insider’s secret. At the foot of Prague Castle’s main entrance, this peach-colored, 17th-century Renaissance house blends right in. The storybook neighborhood setting of tile-roofed coffeehouses, grand palaces, and cellar cabarets has been attracting luminaries from Mozart to Einstein for centuries.
Each of the eight guest rooms is dedicated to a prominent historical figure. Thumb through Franz Kafka stories from an antique writing desk in a room honoring the author. Listen to old recordings in the Ema Destinnová suite, styled with the Czech opera star’s own gilded 1920s bedroom and salon furniture, or relax in the sitting room in the spacious ground-floor suite named for composer Antonín Dvořák. French doors open onto an intimate summer courtyard, where breakfast is served daily.
Medieval Manse: Hidden in the shadow of the great Týn Church in a narrow alleyway off Old Town Square lies Hotel Černý Slon (“black elephant”), a modest abode dating to the 14th century. The wood-beamed attic guest rooms, among the best spots in the hotel, feature floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the Ungelt, a cobblestone courtyard filled with shops, restaurants, and pubs.
One of the city’s oldest houses, the building itself has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Old Town. While much of its interior has been upgraded over the past decade (the baroque-style ceilings in some rooms, for instance, are fancy imitations), the hotel still maintains its charm with delightful details from the past, including a faded wall mural in the downstairs lobby and a brick wine cellar.
Palace Atelier: Outside the city center in the trendy Vinohrady district, Le Palais Hotel sits along a tree-lined street, surrounded by stylish cafés and a theater. Built as a private residence in the late 19th century, the 72-room estate is covered with dozens of elaborate frescoes by Luděk Marold, a renowned realist painter who lived on the top floor for in 1887.
The Marold suite has a stunning faux-bois ceiling with delicately painted flowers, while the fresco in the Belle Époque suite features angels. Both suites offer wood-burning fireplaces and furnished living rooms. Downstairs, guests can enjoy a nightcap or homemade chocolate pralines in the elegant wood-paneled library.
Reverent Rooms: Combining two 13th-century Gothic houses and their gardens, Hotel Casa Marcello was once the dormitory for the nuns of St. Agnes Convent, the site of numerous purported miracles during the Middle Ages. Situated on the edge of Prague’s Old Town, this four-star retreat offers 32 standard rooms and suites decorated with eclectic artwork and connected by a maze of echoing hallways and staircases.
But what’s special here is Casa Marcello’s deep connection with the ancient convent, which can be glimpsed from the windows of several guest rooms. The massive city landmark along the south bank of the Vltava River is now an exhibition space for the National Gallery.
This piece, written by Julie O’Shea , appeared in the August/September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler.
[Related: National Geographic Travel's Prague City Guide]