The Czech Republic is no consumer paradise. Some things (read: alcohol and cigarettes) may be much cheaper here than at home, but when it comes to that other vice – shopping – expats and visitors are often disappointed, along with the new generation of Czech shoppers who expect choice, value for money, and service on par with that in other European capitals.
Retailers here still have some way to go before they can meet these demands. High consumer prices are blamed on a lack of competition and growth in the Czech market, with high operating costs preventing retailers from offering bargains. The situation isn’t set to improve any time soon after this year’s VAT increase from 10% to 14% on “lower rate” goods and services, such as food, medicine, books and newspapers.
It comes as no surprise to hear that as many as one-third of Czechs shop abroad on average three times a year, according to a survey earlier this year by the International Business & Research Services. Historically, shopping abroad is nothing new; designer labels were (and still are) more widely available at better prices in neighbouring countries, and so shopping trips were once mainly about clothes. Today though, it’s no longer about luxury goods and labels. Shoppers are just as likely to fill their cars with tinned food and washing powder, making big savings even after the fuel costs.
As a result, Prague’s shopping centres are increasingly being abandoned by shoppers in favour of trips to neighbouring countries, most notably to what is now the number one shopping destination for Czechs – Dresden.
The nearby German city is so popular with Czech shoppers, in fact, that many banks and shops there offer services in the Czech language. With prices on average 20% lower than in Prague, the two-and-a-half hour journey can be well worth it. Combining a shopping trip with sightseeing is a great way to spend a long weekend, but Dresden has plenty to offer even just for an overnight stay or day trip.
The train can get busy on a Friday or Saturday, so unless you don’t mind standing, those few extra crowns for a seat reservation are well worth it. Try www.cd.cz – cheap tickets, if you can navigate the bizarre setup. You can expect a return ticket to cost around 1000 CZK by train, or 900 CZK by bus at www.studentagency.cz.
The bus drops off at the main train station, and from here most of the main shopping areas are within walking distance. If you want to save your feet, a single ticket for the tram costs €2. They’re valid for one hour within the central zone and can be bought onboard the tram. Biking is very popular in Dresden, and hire starts at €5 from Nextbike.
Walking towards the centre from the station, you’ll come to the suitably-named Prager Strasse. This modern shopping stretch looks as if it was built yesterday, in ersatz-East German style, though what it lacks in character it makes up for in shopping potential. All the usual suspects (Mango, New Yorker, C&A, H&M) can be found here; many of the chain stores lining Prager Strasse are bigger and better versions of those found in Prague, along with some other German and European favourites. There are two shopping centres along here – Centrum Galerie and Altmarkt, both worth a look. The shopping centres and stores on and around Prager Strasse are open from 08:30-21:00, Monday to Saturday.
Prager Strasse leads to Altmarkt, the old market square, where the modern shopping area gives way to reconstructed sandstone architecture in contrast with the DDR’s “Kultur-palast”, offensively straddling both Altmarkt and Neumarkt squares. Around the Frauenkirche in Neumarkt square you’ll find an endless array of restaurants (we liked the Saxon food at the Kurfürstenschänke) and a nice atmosphere on summer evenings, when old-style wooden barrels of Augustiner are untapped to a lot of shouting and applause. The prices for eating out aren’t bad, even in the touristy locations, though in comparison to Prague it will never seem cheap.
From here, you could take the tram #8 across the river to Louisenstrasse, and visit the more alternative Äussere Neustadt (Outer New Town), where you’ll find small independent boutiques, cafes, and bars along with the Kunsthofpassage (Artist’s Court Passage), a labyrinth of small courtyards where you can find all kinds of small artsy and designer stores. It can be reached from Alaunstrasse No. 70 or by Görlitzer Strasse No. 20-25.
Nearby, the Markthalle (close to Albertplatz) is good for gifts – a local indoor market hall with a supermarket as well as small shops selling children’s toys, bath products, sweets, spices and German and Polish specialties. Bargain hunters will want to check out the flea market under the Albertbrücke bridge at Käthe-Kollwitz-Ufer, every Saturday and Sunday from 07:00 – 16:00.
If you’re staying overnight, there’s everything from backpacker hostels like the €14-a-night A&O Hostel Dresden Hauptbahnhof, to the city-centre Swissotel, with rooms starting at €176 a night. Wherever you stay, forget the hotel buffet and breakfast like a Saxon queen at Café Dulce, on Seestrasse. Their “Schlemmer” breakfast at €8.90 per person is a continental feast.
The one and only currency exchange in Dresden (located in the main train station) closes at 18:00; the exchange rate wasn’t bad, but to get the best value it’s a good idea to change your cash before you travel. One last, but very important note – save your sightseeing for Sunday, because almost all of the shops in Dresden will be closed.
OK, so it doesn’t have a Primark (or Target, for my American friends!) but you don’t have to go all the way back home for decent shopping. Dresden is a fascinating city with a lot to see and do – and buy. What better excuse do you need for a weekend trip?