Prague is the equal of Paris in terms of beauty. Its history goes back a millennium. And the beer? The best in Europe. Thirty years ago, Prague was a mystery to travelers in Europe; now, however, it is one of the most popular destinations on the continent, drawing about 4 million visitors each year. Prague offers a compact city center, a fascinating centuries-long history, splendid examples of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and Art Nouveau architecture, scores of palaces, churches, parks, and squares, delicious local Czech beer, and food and reasonable prices.
I was in Vienna in August 1968 for a meeting of the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies, of which I was co-founder, and we wanted a 20th country to join. They asked for a volunteer to go to Prague to get Czechoslovakia to do it, and my hand always goes up first.
– via Shirley Temple
Prague’s maze of cobbled lanes and hidden courtyards is a paradise for the aimless wanderer, always beckoning you to explore a little further. Just a few blocks away from the Old Town Square you can stumble across ancient chapels, unexpected gardens, cute cafes, and old-fashioned bars with hardly a tourist in sight. One of the great joys of the city is its potential for exploration – neighborhoods such as Vinohrady and Bubeneč can reward the urban adventurer with countless memorable cameos, from the setting sun glinting off church domes, to the strains of Dvořák wafting from an open window.
Where Beer is God
The best beer in the world just got better. Since the invention of in 1842, the Czechs have been famous for producing some of the world’s finest brews. But the internationally famous brand names – Urquell, Staropramen, and Budvar – have been equaled, and even surpassed, by a bunch of regional Czech beers and microbreweries that are catering to a renewed interest in traditional brewing. Never before have Prague’s pubs offered such a wide range of ales – names you’ll now have to get your head around include Kout na Šumavě, Svijanský Rytíř, and Velkopopovický Kozel.
Don’t Miss Top Attractions in Prague
One of the original gates into Old Town Prague, this tower was first built in the 11th century and rebuilt in the 15th century. During the 17th century, the tower was used for storing gunpowder, which is where it gets its name. The royal route, the coronation route of the Bohemian kings, started at the tower, through Old Town, across the Charles Bridge and up to Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral where the kings were crowned.
Powder Tower is connected by a covered bridge to what used to be the palace of King Vladislav II who rebuilt the tower in 1475. The former palace is now the Municipal House and remains connected to the tower. Inside the tower is a spiral staircase with 186 steps leading up to the gallery where visitors can get a great view of Old Town.
Prague is known for its centuries-long span of architectural styles, with the end of the 20th century exemplified by the deconstructivist building Dancing House, created by Czech architect Valdo Milunic and Canadian Frank Gehry. This remarkable structure contains both dynamic and static elements and resembles a female dancer swaying in the arms of her male partner, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers of the architectural world. Located on the bank of the Vltava River and Resslova Street, Dancing House is a private office building except for a restaurant on the 7th floor, the Celeste, which is open to the public.
Dancing House stands in strict contrast to the classical architecture surrounding it, which includes buildings in Art Nouveau, Neo-Gothic and Neo-Baroque styles. Its ultra-modern design created public outcries and controversy during its construction; years later, Prague is proud to show off its splendid Dancing House.
Old New Synagogue
In Josefov, Prague’s former Jewish Quarter, is the oldest active synagogue in Europe, the Old-New Synagogue. Legend tells that stones from the Second Temple in Jerusalem were brought to Prague by angels to build the walls of the synagogue. Prague’s first gothic building, the Old-New Synagogue was completed in 1270 and has held divine services ever since, except for the Nazi occupation of 1942-45. The synagogue became the heart of the Jewish Quarter.
The Old-New Synagogue is also the home of Prague’s Golem, or so legend has it. In the 16th century, Rabbi Jehud Löwa created the golem from clay and animated it with breath and a parchment bearing instructions placed in its mouth. When the Golem went mad and became aggressive, the Rabbi returned it to clay, stating that when hard times for Jewish people came again, the Golem could be re-awakened.
The Church of Our Lady before Tyn graces the Old Town Square. Among the most well-known attractions in Prague, the church’s Gothic towers soar 80 meters (260 ft) into the sky and can be seen from all parts of the city. Like many other Prague churches, the site’s original building was an 11th-century Romanesque church built for foreign merchants who came to Tyn Courtyard for trade. The present church was constructed in the 14th century, although the roof, towers, and gables came years later. Inside, Tyn Church holds many works of art in Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance styles. Our Lady before Tyn’s architects was Petr Parler and Matthias of Arras, who created many of Prague’s Gothic buildings.
On the other end of Charles Bridge from Old Town Square lies the Malá Strana or Lesser Town district. Baroque architecture is the rule in Malá Strana, although its history dates back to 1257 when it was founded as a royal town. The Baroque St. Nicholas Church and the extensive Wallenstein Palace dominate the area.
The district hosts palaces, churches, squares, parks, gardens, and many other attractions. Surrounding Lesser Town Square are pubs, shops, restaurants, and international embassies, housed in grand old Baroque buildings. Towering over Malá Strana is Prague Castle, which can be reached by a hike up picturesque Nerudova Street. Houses on the street boast heraldic emblems and beasts such as the White Swan, the Golden Horseshoe, and the Red Eagle. Travelers longing for a quiet walk in a park should head for Vojan Park or Petrin Hill.
One of Prague’s two main squares, Wenceslas Square is a shopper’s paradise and haven. Set off as Prague’s horse market by Charles IV in 1348, Wenceslas Square is more of a boulevard than a traditional square. Located in New Town, the square is home to bars, clubs, restaurants, hotels, shops, and banks, making it the city’s entertainment, nightlife, and commercial district. Much of Czech’s 20th-century history happened in Wenceslas Square as political movements and gatherings met at the statue of St. Wenceslas to parade down the square. Wenceslas Square is central to most of Prague, as Old Town Square and Charles Bridge are but a five-minute walk away, and all three metro lines meet in the square. Wenceslas Square is home to the grand National Museum and the Prague State Opera.
Prague Astronomical Clock
A highlight of Old Town Square is Prague’s astronomical clock, a complicated, ancient “orloj” that reveals Babylonian time, Old Bohemian time, German time and sidereal time, as well as sunrise and sunset, phases of the moon and the sun’s position in the zodiac. Crafted in 1410 by a clockmaker and a professor of mathematics, the clock has been repaired and maintained for over 600 years, making it the third-oldest clock in the world. The figures of the Apostles, which are shown in the two upper windows every hour, were added in 1865.
When the clock strikes the hour, bells ring, the Walk of the Apostles begins, the Gothic sculptures move, a cock crows and a trumpeter blast sets off a tourist-pleasing show, a sight everyone should see at least once. For the most fanfare, catch the display at noon or at midnight.
Towering above the city is Prague Castle, more of a sprawling complex than a single defensive building. The castle buildings span centuries and consist of a royal palace, a cathedral, and three churches, a basilica, a monastery, defensive towers, royal stables, a tiny lane where craftsmen worked, and magnificent gardens. Prague Castle began as a wooden fortress with earthen bulwarks in the 9th century; by the 11th century, it included a royal palace and the 14th century saw the beginning of St. Vitus Cathedral. The cathedral in the castle complex is a jewel in Prague’s crown, a superb example of Gothic architecture. Kings and emperors are buried here.
Old Town Square
Located between Wenceslas Square and the Charles Bridge, Prague’s Old Town Square is often bursting with tourists and locals in the summer. Czech’s long history is exemplified in the medley of architectural styles: Romanesque, Baroque, Rococo, Gothic, and Renaissance are all represented in the superb buildings around the square. Soaring Gothic towers that rise from Tyn Cathedral contrasts with the Baroque style of St. Nicholas while Old Town Hall consists of a collection of Gothic and Renaissance buildings. Entranced visitors wander through the square, stopping for a spot of people-watching at one of the outdoor cafes or studying the square’s central statue of Jan Hus, church reformer and martyr.
Connecting Old Town and Lesser Town over the River Vltava is the 600-year-old Charles Bridge, Prague’s most iconic landmark. King Charles IV commissioned the bridge in 1357, replacing the Judith Bridge which was destroyed by a flood in 1342. Thirty Baroque statues line the sides of the pedestrian bridge along with myriad vendor’s stalls, musicians, performance artists, and beggars. A bustling, busy area, the bridge is almost never empty of people, although seeing it at dawn or in the evening will mean fewer crowds. Prague Castle, looming above, is lit at night and provides a dramatic vista that enchants all visitors. On each end of the Charles Bridge rests a tower that offers a great view of the bridge to those who climb the steps.
Prague’s art galleries may not have the allure of the Louvre, but Bohemian art offers much to admire, from the glowing Gothic altarpieces in the Convent of St Agnes to the luscious art nouveau of Alfons Mucha, and the magnificent collection of 20th-century surrealists, cubists, and constructivists in the Veletržní Palác. The weird and witty sculpture of David Černý punctuates Prague’s public spaces, and the city itself offers a smorgasbord of stunning architecture, from the soaring verticals of Gothic and the exuberance of baroque to the sensual elegance of art nouveau and the chiseled cheekbones of cubist facades.
Why I Love Prague
How can you not love a city that has a pub with vinyl cushions on the wall above the gents’ urinal, so you can rest your head while you ‘go’? Where you can order a beer without speaking, simply by placing a beer mat on the table? And where that beer is probably the best in the world? But it’s not just exquisite ale and a wonderfully relaxed drinking culture that keep bringing me back to Prague – there are wit and weirdness in equal measure: a public fountain where two figures pee in a puddle, spelling out literary quotations; a 1950s nuclear bunker hidden beneath a city-center hotel; and a cubist lamppost. Quirky doesn’t even begin to describe it.