Lay of the Land
The only other city in Europe that comes close to being as perfectly beautiful as Prague is Venice. Thanks to various enlightened rulers, Prague enjoyed a number of golden eras, during which magnificent squares and cultural institutions were built. It all started with Charles IV, who during the Middle Ages established the first university of Central Europe. Only in 1918 did Prague become the capital of an independent Czechoslovakia, and from the end of World War II until 1989, it was ruled by the Soviet Union. But since the Velvet Revolution, when liberation came peacefully, Prague has seen great changes, and at times with so many of its buildings being restored, its beauty seemed hidden beneath scaffolding. Ian Fisher, Prague bureau chief for The New York Times, wrote of walking Prague during the time of its major restoration as “like watching a black-and-white movie turn into color. Whole blocks of buildings were reconstructed, painted, reinhabited, not just downtown but in regular neighborhoods.”
Prague is divided by the Vltava River: on the west side is Mala Strana (Lesser Town), which is close to Prague Castle, and on the east is the Nové Mesto (New Town), founded by Emperor Charles IV in 1348, and Staré Mesto (Old Town), which encompasses such landmarks as the Old Town Square and the Jewish Cemetery. The famous Charles Bridge connects the two banks of the river.
Deciding which bank of the river to stay on depends largely on how you plan on mapping out your Prague itinerary. The Four Seasons is located right on the banks of the river in the Old Town (Staré Mesto). If you want uninterrupted city and river views, this is the only luxury hotel to book. The Mandarin Oriental and The Augustine are located on the opposite side of the river, tucked into the Mala Strana district that holds Prague Castle. Both hotels are situated in former monasteries and tucked into the red-roofed houses of this beautiful neighborhood (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). While more removed from the restaurants, museums and shops of the Old Town (you have to cross the river to get there), these properties have a destination-specific vibe and the crowds of tourists are more easily avoidable in the small Mala Strana streets. If, however, you know that you will be doing a lot of sightseeing and shopping and want to go out at night, being based on the Old Town side is a better bet.