It's always fun for me to see how border crossings are handled. The last time I crossed into the Czech Republic on the train was when my sister and I were going from Italy to Czech via Austria, and it was when there was an outbreak of
Prague was the only city on my itinerary that I'd been to before, and I'd been twice. The first time was in 1998 with an old boyfriend, and the second time was in 2001 with my sister. The city is so different from what it was like during my first trip. Within about five minutes of walking around town, I noticed that I heard more people speaking English than I do in New York City. Prague is full of American and British expats, and a hell of a lot more tourists than there used to be.
I love Prague and I would say it's the very first place a traveler new to Eastern Europe should go. The wow-factor is beyond the bigger, flashier cities, in my opinion. The streets are narrow, lined with cobble-stones, and curvy. Every store, restaurant, every inch of that city has ambiance to spare. I spent some serious time in the very cute and brand new Angelato, which has the best gelato in town. I also got a few Thai foot massages at Sawasdee on the way to Wenceslas Square. I visited Gehry's Dancing House, (I actually visited another Gehry site in Berlin - the bank he designed with such a wonderful interior; someone's great video here), the Charles Bridge, which I just love, the Lennon Wall, the amazing Jewish Quarter, and more. I stayed right in the center of Old Town, and spent lots of time under the famous Astronomical Clock. (I visited non-touristy places, too, but these flashy sites are the crowd pleasers.) I also had the great luck of catching a Chick Corea and Bela Fleck concert! Can you believe it after the Mika concert in Berlin?
Really the only scary event during my entire trip involved a cab ride in Prague. (And actually, the only real scary thing that's ever happened to me during all of my solo travel involves a cab ride in Paris years ago. I'll tell that story another time.) Prague (and most of Eastern Europe) is notorious for crooked cab drivers, and I could tell from the minute I got in the car with this thug that I was going to be ripped off. I was actually hoping I would only be ripped off.
The train arrived at the station after dark, and there were no official taxis, only four guys standing around smoking by the taxi stand. Against my instinct and Rick Steves' advice, I asked one guy if he had a meter, and then got into his (meter-less) car when he said he did. He drove me the long way from the station to my hotel in the center of Old Town, and during the entire ride I could sense that he was tense and about to rip me off. When we arrived at my hotel, he told me the amount I owed, which was $45 for a trip that should have been less than $5. I laughed and said, "You're out of your mind if you think I'm paying that." Twenty minutes and a lot of yelling and swearing later, he won. He had my bag in the trunk of his car, or I would have thrown $5 at him at left (something I did later in Bratislava, Slovakia). At one point during the argument, I had the door open and my foot on the street when he quickly started to drive off, yelling that he was taking me back to the train station. But, alas, I can yell, too. After a while I could tell he was getting more nervous and more angry, so I finally told him he could have (the equivalent of) $35 after he handed me my bag from the back. It turned out to be a deal he was willing to make, probably just to shut me up. (One humorous note is that he was disgusted with my swearing. He was totally ok with riping me off and intimidating me, but a woman using foul language was crossing the line.) I told my hotel staff about the incident and they seemed genuinely sorry, but not surprised. I didn't let it ruin my time in the city, but it did shake me up.
One let down about Prague (and a change from my first visit) is that I felt I had to be on constant alert for rip-offs and scams. I almost had my backpack stolen once, and saw several scumbags perusing the tourists during my time there. I'm a fairly seasoned traveler, and outside of two taxi trips, I've never felt unsafe during fifteen years of mostly solo trips to over 25 countries. That to say I don't think I'm particularly paranoid. It's a bit of a drag that it's come to that in Prague. I'm always alert, but in Prague I felt like it was just a matter of time before the next scam. It's also expensive as hell, as expensive as Italy or the UK. That was a definite change.
I had a wonderful time, did a lot of walking, found great, cheap meals and fun bookstores, but after four days I was ready to head to my next destination - Krakow, Poland.