3. February 2008

Call it the travel quivalent of contrarian investing: Prague, a famously beautiful city in spring, summer and fall, can yield big dividends for travelers in the winter off-season. Teeming crowds? Gone. Prices? Much lower. Overbooked hotels? Not for now. Picturesque spires and cobblestone lanes? With a gentle dusting of snow, perhaps even more so. But beyond merely freezing out the stag groups and dropping the occupancy rates, Prague’s winter weather gives curious travelers a chance to take in the city’s attractions at a leisurely pace and, this season at least, discover some of the city’s newest developments before they make it into the guidebooks.

Take the Meet Factory, a vast industrial building currently being turned into artists’ studios by David Cerny, a Czech sculptor whose two immense fiberglass cars hang from the building’s crumbling facade. Situated in the down-at-heels Smichov neighborhood, Meet Factory is opening its ground-floor public gallery, bar and performance space in several stages this winter. “It’s a bit colder here,” said Mr. Cerny. “And one thing you don’t get in New York are seven straight days of gray. But otherwise it’s not that bad.” In fact, for a New Yorker it is often very much like back home: Prague’s daytime highs in early February average 36 degrees Fahrenheit, only a few degrees lower than the average in Manhattan. Lows are often about the same in both cities, around 27. The biggest difference, as Mr. Cerny noted, is Central Europe’s often overcast skies, meaning you can probably leave your sunglasses at home.

Instead, enjoy the city’s dusky glow and a similar low intensity at new destinations like Gordon Ramsay’s Maze (V Celnici 7), which opened here in November. The menu makes a nod toward Central Europe with glazed pork belly and spiced lentils (700 koruna, or about $38.25 at 18.29 koruna to the dollar), not far at all from a Czech recipe, though in much smaller portions. With no trouble getting a short-notice reservation in the off-season, I found Maze to be surprisingly low-key for such a high-profile address, with several tables remaining empty all night, despite the outstanding fare.

And yet it was not out of sync with the rest of the city in winter. A walk down historic Nerudova street in Mala Strana, for instance, may be a daunting trek in the height of tourist season, but come winter, no large groups block the views over the rooftops, no tourist buses obscure the Gothic and Baroque facades of the buildings. On a recent stroll, the few people I encountered seemed far more relaxed and friendly than anyone would rightly consider normal in Prague. The city seemed to be exhaling, finally calming down over mugs of mulled wine and pints of lager in cozy pubs that would be overflowing in busier months. Winter feels like a time for Praguers to reclaim their favorite spots, like the sturdy old pub U Kocoura (Nerudova 2) at the bottom of Nerudova, or the outstanding pan-Asian restaurant Angel (V Kolkovne 7), just a few steps from the Spanish Synagogue.

Even near Prague Castle, the tiny photogenic lane known as Novy Svet was devoid of shutterbugs on a recent visit and each shot of its antique street lamps and broad doorways was completely unobscured. The Castle remains the seat of government today, and while searching for the bureaucratic approval of some personal documents that brought to mind the work of the city’s most famous writer, Franz Kafka, I walked across the castle’s wide, snow-filled Deer Moat and passed by the Romanesque Basilica of St. George and the wedding-cake-like Archbishop’s Palace without hearing so much as a single tour guide.

It is worth noting here that the Czech word for January, Leden, means something akin to “icy.” The combination of slush, cobblestones and Prague’s many hills can make for precarious walking: bring sturdy boots to do your exploring. Regardless, some of the most breathtaking views anyone will ever have of the city will be in winter, like the scene from the top of Petrin Hill overlooking Mala Strana and Old Town, a romantic site for strollers in all seasons made even more spectacular when the low-hanging winter sun rests just above the rooftops.

In the evening, shake off any remaining chill with a cocktail in a new bar that is quickly becoming a favorite among locals. Many New Yorkers might know that Prague is home to a sister branch of Manhattan’s two Bar and Books cigar bars. However, very few will have heard that there is a new addition to the overseas line: Corner Bar and Bistro (Manesova 64) became the group’s second Prague location last year, serving many of the same great cocktails, single malts and fine cigars with an expanded line of snacks, sandwiches and salads in the Vinohrady neighborhood, east of the city center.

Prague’s cultural life is still very much alive in the winter. This week marks the celebration of Masopust, the Czech version of carnival, which climaxes in Prague’s old working-class Zizkov neighborhood on Tuesday. Another festival, this weekend’s so-called Bohemian Carnevale, has a more convenient location for tourists in Old Town.

Throughout the winter, opera, ballet and orchestra programs are in full swing, with a coordinated set of special events known as Prague Winter having taken place in early January, as well as excellent regular performances almost nightly throughout the season. This month, the State Opera celebrates its 120th anniversary with a gala concert of Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Nuit Persane” and “Hélène” having a premiere on Feb. 13. A premiere of a combined ballet program of “La Sylphide” and “Napoli” takes place at Prague’s National Theater on Feb. 21.

Prague has no shortage of wonderful hotels, with several high-profile arrivals from Rocco Forte, Kempinski and Le Méridien expected within the next year or so. But winter means that even the city’s coolest rooms are much more likely to be available, and often at rates that invite a longer stay. Just one block south of Wenceslas Square, the new Icon Hotel has 31 stylish rooms and suites with such high-tech touches as Skype phones, iPod docks and biometric safes that open with a fingerprint. In 2008, a standard double averages 180 euros ($273.60 at $1.52 to the euro) in high season, but that starts in March. Through February, the room hovers at just 120 euros. The thin crowds even have one of the city’s highest fliers offering a nice winter special: stay two nights at the Mandarin Oriental and get a third night free, as well as a 50-euro voucher for the hotel’s spa. The double rooms that count toward this deal begin at 319 euros, including breakfast, and the offer continues through March 31.