I Traveled to Prague During the COVID-19 Pandemic — Here's What It Was Really Like
Prague continues to enchant visitors who arrive from around the world in overwhelming numbers, especially on weekends, to hit the streets of one of Europe's best-preserved medieval cities. The Czech Republic's capital oozes romance with graceful bridges and squares, a hilltop castle from the ninth century, and a spire-laden skyline cut in two by a slow river that naturally keeps the urban pace a little less hectic — even during a pandemic when tourist crowds are reduced.
If you haven't heard much about the Czech Republic or Prague lately, consider it a good thing. The country and capital city had a good summer with relatively low cases and positive vaccination turnouts, but numbers are expected to rise again in the fall. Whether you're simply daydreaming or have already started the planning process, here's everything you need to know about traveling to Prague right now.
(Author's Note: I am fully vaccinated and staying in Prague for six weeks. Traveling during COVID-19 is still a risk, and conditions can change rapidly at any time, but here's everything I can share based on my experience, research, and conversations with locals, so you can decide what's right for you.)
Is Prague safe to visit right now?
It has been a confusing time for Americans considering travel in Europe during COVID-19. Confidence increased during the height of vaccination efforts, but then the mysterious Delta-fueled surge hit. Countries opened, closed, and opened again. The Czech Republic has had its share of lockdowns and reopenings, just like the U.S. The virus peaked here in October 2020 and again in early 2021, but during the summer, even with a sharp rise in tourist crowds, the country saw case numbers lower.
A recent study from Recetox, a research center at Masaryk University, monitored antibody production in 30,000 Czech participants, and found that half of the population already had COVID-19 by March 2021. Many of these people experienced the disease asymptomatically, but the news was clear: Half are carrying antibodies.
Now, what about vaccinations? The first Czech jab went to the prime minister on Dec. 27, 2020. As of Sept. 20, 2021, about 54.9% of the Czech population had received both vaccines and that number is climbing, though too slowly some locals argue — even though there's even an effort to get the homeless vaccinated at Prague City Hall. The most popular vaccine is Pfizer-BioNTech, followed by AstraZeneca and Moderna. Children ages 12 and older were able to start getting vaccinated on July 1, and people from COVID risk groups are starting to get a third dose.
According to a local production worker named Tereza, younger adults are the ones choosing not to get vaccinated as they figure their immune systems can handle it. The 40 and up crowd, however, has a higher percentage of vaccinations.
What happens this autumn is anyone's guess, though local experts are predicting a surge after residents come back from their summer holidays and kids return to school, but that it won't be extreme. It looks like this may already be occurring. As of Sept. 20, case numbers are rising slightly and I've noticed more people — both tourists and residents — wearing masks outdoors than I did a week ago. You'll want to bring plenty of PPE, since masks are required to enter airports, shops, public transportation including platforms and stops, post offices, taxis, and rideshares. The KN95 or FFP2 masks are mandated in airports and on public transportation, whereas I've seen other types of masks (fabric and paper) worn in other indoor settings. If you don't have a KN95 or FFP2 mask upon landing, you can look for them at the airport or a duty-free shop.
How can American travelers enter Prague?
Americans are currently allowed to visit the Czech Republic for tourism, despite being on the list of "Very High Risk Countries for COVID transmission," according to Czech government guidelines (Aug. 23, 2021). If you are fully vaccinated, though, you'll only need to fill out a digital Personal Locator Form and prove your vaccination (bring that card), plus have a negative test result within three days of returning to the U.S. Unvaccinated travelers must adhere to pre- and post-arrival COVID testing and self-isolation until receipt of a negative test. Also, there are currently no direct flights between the Czech Republic and U.S., so travelers should stay cognizant of requirements and regulations in transit countries.
Keep that vaccination card and negative recent PCR test, or medical proof of recovering from COVID, handy while you're at the airport and out and about. Though few Czech establishments request proof of vaccination at the moment, it's best to keep it on hand in case things change (and to avoid fines). Another local told me that residents were not apprehensive of foreign tourists because of the strict guidelines to get into the country.
What happens when you're in Prague and need to get back to the U.S.? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website states that anyone entering the U.S. will require testing before departure. "If you plan to travel internationally, you will need to get a viral test no more than 3 days before you travel by air into the U.S. and show your negative result to the airline before you board your flight."
PCR and antigen tests are available for U.S. citizens in the Czech Republic and results are reliable. Check the Ministry of Health for a map of testing sites and keep in mind that prices fluctuate depending on the location and required turnaround time. It's best to reserve ahead to avoid delay and potential long waits. Test results are available via email and text message.
What is it like staying at a hotel in Prague right now?
Prague, under normal circumstances, is a popular year-round tourist destination with no shortage of hotels in every shape and size. I recently stayed at the Augustine, part of the Marriott brand, in the Mala Strana neighborhood with views of Prague Castle. During check-in, I was only asked for my passport, not my vaccination card or a negative PCR test. I inquired about this, and the front desk clerk responded, "We do not have guidelines for checking those documents since they are required to enter the country."
In the hotel's lobby, hallways, and restaurants were touchless hand sanitizers. Staff wore masks, and tables at the restaurants were spaced out according to social distancing regulations. Enhanced cleaning procedures were in place, per the company's guidelines listed on the hotel website. The only downside was the limited room service menu, which seems odd considering more people are avoiding busy restaurants. Perhaps the most notable change related to the pandemic, though, was the absence of crowds in the hotels. One staff member said, "It's quieter this summer. We do not even have half of the travelers that we used to."
I stopped into another property across the river, called Hotel Josef, and they also said that vaccination cards and test results were not required to check in, only to get into the country. Here, masks (either of the two mentioned above) must be worn inside public areas, and the hotel staff disinfects menus between use, washes linens on high heat, and offers contactless breakfast and room service delivery.
There are also smaller hotels like the Golden Well, which is currently closed to overnight guests. Their lovely outdoor terrace garden, however, is open (with reservations only) for lunch and dinner, offering stunning views of Prague.
Booking an Airbnb is another great choice — and there are thousands of options in Prague — if you prefer more privacy and a kitchen to prepare your own meals, especially in cooler months when outdoor dining is not an option.
What can you do in Prague right now?
Luckily, for travelers who want to see and do it all, Prague is open as of now. Visitors are free to peruse the city streets, landmarks, museums, and other attractions as long as they have a mask for indoor settings. Even cultural events that were once banned are back on the roster with a limited capacity.
I perused some spots around Old Town and Lesser Town and found that St. Nicholas Church was without a line on a Saturday morning and had plenty of space to wander around. The Spanish Synagogue and Jewish Museum, though, had long queues, as did Prague Castle, so I decided to skip them. The Charles Bridge, meanwhile, was saturated with tourists stopping to take pictures. Tip: Come early around sunrise and you'll practically have the place to yourself — a great opportunity to slow down and snap photos.
Other outdoor spaces were pleasantly free of tourists and admission fees. The Wallenstein Garden offers plenty of benches, where you might even catch a glimpse of one of the resident peacocks. And the Franciscan Garden provides a peaceful respite from the crowd surges in Wenceslas Square. For a $5 fee, the gardens below the Prague Castle offer some great exercise, thanks to a maze of terraces, steps, vineyards, and fountains. At the enormous Petrin Gardens, visitors will find dozens of trails, a funicular, and a viewing deck atop the cast-iron Petrin Tower. Explore Prague Castle's immense grounds as soon as they open in the middle of the week before groups start arriving midday. The same goes for all the museums, historic monuments, and landmarks. You can always escape the weekend crowds and boat tours by renting your very own paddleboat off the Charles Bridge for a few hours while observing the views from the Vltava River.
For more COVID-friendly activities, make sure to check out the public art, like the famous sculpture by David Černý outside the Franz Kafka Museum and the rotating metallic head of Franz Kafka outside the Quadrio shopping center. Open-air events in the form of celebrations, concerts, and cultural events are back in action, too (just look for the posters around the Jewish Quarter, pictured above). In September, for instance, the Prague Sounds festival takes place on a floating stage in the Vlatva River. And let's not forget about the stunning architecture around town, from Gothic, baroque, and art nouveau styles to countless cobbled lanes, stairwells, and hidden courtyards.
What is the restaurant, bar, and cafe scene like in Prague right now?
What's an adventure in Prague without taking in the restaurants, cafes, and pubs? Thankfully, all dining and drinking outlets are currently open with updated hygiene conditions from the government. Indoor dining is also not a problem, as long as tables do not seat more than six people. Just make sure to mask up before you enter and leave, and when you use the bathroom, even if locals aren't doing the same (they seem a bit relaxed at times).
Establishments are making their own judgement calls when it comes to bringing in fresh air. For instance, the Strahov Monastery Brewery, which sits in a 17th-century space, has installed air purifiers to welcome back indoor diners. Marina Ristorante, located in a covered riverboat, has been packed with office workers each night, but the windows remain open, allowing the river breeze to come in (heaters will come on once the weather cools down).
As long as the weather is pleasant, outdoor seating is preferable and you won't have to walk far to find a cafe, pub, restaurant, or rooftop serving espresso, beer, or Aperol spritzes. Many outdoor tables come with blankets in case it gets chilly (on request). Upscale restaurants along the river, like Marina and Kampa Park, have space heaters to keep guests cozy. You can also visit a sausage stand and find a bench, or pack up some provisions and have a picnic. Grassy perches can be found at Kampa Park and Strelecky Island with views of boats gliding by.
It's said that Czechs drink the most beer per capita than any other place in the world, so keep an eye out for hidden beer gardens and frequent beer festivals. Practice yelling "na zdraví," which means "to your health." You won't have to walk far to find a beer spot — they even sell Pilsner Urquell at Starbucks.
Tips for Planning Your Trip to Prague During the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Purchase travel insurance before booking your trip.
- Bring comfortable shoes and an umbrella. You'll likely be walking a lot, especially during the pandemic, and many streets are quite hilly and made of cobblestones. Plus, rain showers can pop up out of nowhere.
- Start a conversation with the concierge, a staff member at your hotel, or your Airbnb host via e-mail, and touch base with them in the weeks leading up to your visit. Ask for pandemic updates and travel tips. They are locals and happy to help.
- Visit the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the country's COVID portal in advance of your trip for details and travel requirements. Also, make sure to check transit measures for all the countries you'll fly through on your journey to and from Prague.
- For information on returning to the U.S., visit the CDC's website.
- Lastly, we are used to dealing with COVID-19 on a daily basis, which has hopefully prepared us to travel more safely. Though some of the entry requirements are a nuisance, especially the paperwork leading up to the trip, they'll easily be forgotten when you're sipping a beverage and listening to the bells from various churches. Mask up and have fun.