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Escape to Prague without the summer hordes

By Shann Fountain
Travel + Leisure
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(Travel + Leisureexternal link) -- Remember the romance of Prague in the early nineties -- the faded façades, the atmospheric bars, the thrill of discovering a secret city? During the summer, when you're elbow-to-elbow with beer-swilling tourists in the Old Town, those halcyon days seem far away. But fairy-tale Prague is there, especially if you visit in winter, when the crowds have dispersed.

Stroll down the quiet cobblestoned streets and explore the castle and churches. Spend an afternoon reading Kafka or Kundera in a café, and an evening sampling Czech cuisine (dumplings, cabbage and Budvar beer), preferably served at a candlelit table on a frosty night. (Prague destination guideexternal link)

Where to stay

Book a room in the heart of the Mala Strana, arguably the city's most charming quarter, in the new Mandarin Oriental (459/1 Nebovidská; 420-2/3308-8888; www.mohg.comexternal link; doubles from $269). The 99 guest rooms, designed by London-based architect Khuan Chew (who's also responsible for the interiors of Dubai's Burj Al Arab), incorporate modern amenities (high-definition TVs) with the building's historic architecture (high ceilings; parquet floors). Don't miss the spa lobby's transparent floor, set above the ruins of a medieval church.

Where to eat

At Pravda (17 Parízská; 420-2/2232-6203; lunch for two $100), one of the city's best restaurants, the space is minimalist, and the dishes are anything but. Try the rich tagliatelle with Parma ham and artichokes. For a cozy atmosphere and Czech classics (pork tenderloin stuffed with plums, rabbit in garlic and spinach with potato dumplings), head to the antiques-filled U Modre Kachnicky (6 Nebovidská; 420-2/5732-0308; dinner for two $120). Though the dining room has hosted its share of celebrities, the restaurant maintains a low profile, which keeps the place convivial and decidedly local.

What to do

The often-overlooked Müller Villa (14 Nad Hradním Vodojemem; 42-2/2431-2012; www.mullerovavila.czexternal link) is a must-see for fans of Modernism. Designed by architect Adolf Loos, the perfectly restored home is a window into another era.

What to buy

If you're looking for something other than the ubiquitous beer stein, visit Ungelt Courtyard, behind the Tyn Church, where small shops sell wooden toys and marionettes. Better yet: Pick up some Art Nouveau antiques from Antique Ungelt (1 Tyn; 420-2/2489-5454).

What to read

Prague's literary history is a long and rich one. First on the reading list: Franz Kafka's "The Trial," which takes its setting from the Old Town. Next is Milan Kundera's "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting," on the descent of the Iron Curtain, followed by Myla Goldberg's "Time's Magpie: A Walk in Prague," which observes the city's recent progress. The best place to find these books (and more) is among the 10,000-strong volumes at The Globe (6 Pstrossova; 420-2/2493-4203).

Insider tip

Café Slavia (1 Národní Trîda; 420/224-218-493; breakfast for two $15) is a city landmark (built in 1887) and an anachronistic holdout in quickly changing Eastern Europe. Though the café is often packed, if you arrive in the morning you can grab a prime seat overlooking the Vltava River. Another way to avoid the crowds: Bundle up and stroll the Charles Bridge at night for a postcard-perfect glimpse of the city.

(More mini-vacation ideasexternal link)

Planning a Caribbean getaway? Don't miss Travel + Leisure's new Ultimate Caribbean Hotel Guide.

Copyright 2006 American Express Publishing Corporation . All rights reserved.

A couple walks across Prague's Charles Bridge January 28 following a heavy snowfall.




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