Nicknamed the “Golden City” and the “City of a Hundred Spires,” the Czech capital of Prague is one of Europe’s most well-preserved cities, having somehow managed to escape the bombs of last century’ wars.
Straddling the Vltava River, also known as the Moldau, Prague is not just a huge museum telling the story of it’s at a time glorious and turbulent past, but a lively city where the old and the new blend in perfect harmony.
With its exuberant architecture and Nouveau Art; with music spilling onto the streets; and pubs serving up some of the best beer in Europe, and indeed the world, Prague is thriving with visitors and holidaymakers.
Back in the day, up until 1800, Prague was basically four separate fortified towns:
The Castle Town which served as the home of the Czech ruler for centuries; the Little Town, just below that, where nobles lived in close proximity to the king; the Old Town with its magnificent market square; and the New Town and its sprawling Wenceslas Square, which has been the stage of many an uprising in the country’s recent turbulent past.
Four dismal decades of Communist control is a distant memory now, like a bad dream – if not a nightmare. The city’s vigorous entrepreneurial energy; the vibrant crowds of locals and tourists thronging the streets, squares, landmarks, and marketplaces; and the visible sense of happiness on people’s faces all seem like a continuing celebration of Czech freedom.
Some of Prague’s most famous attractions and landmarks, such as Wenceslas Square, the Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, and the Prague Castle up the hill are all within an hour’s walking distance from each other.
However, an efficient and economical network of tramways, crisscrossing the old-world cobbled streets of the city, can always be taken advantage of by those averse to walking. No wonder, many locals don’t bother to learn driving.
Let’s take in some of Prague’s magnificent sights ranging from the iconic Charles Bridge, the most famous of all bridges across the Vltava, to the redolent Jewish Quarter, or Josevof, sandwiched between the Old Town Square and the Vltava.
Commissioned by the Roman Emperor Charles IV in the 14th century, Charles Bridge was once called the Royal Way owing to the fact that it was part of the historic coronation route. Coronation processions had to pass this way on their march up to the cathedral for the king’s crowning ceremony.
Of all the bridges across the Vltava River in Prague, Charles Bridge is the most famous. It connects the Old Town of Staré Mesto with the city district of Malá Strana.
Musicians, painters, and souvenir sellers occupy the entire 516, or so, meters of the bridge, competing for the attention of passersby and tourists.
The thirty Baroque statues that adorn the bridge on both sides were added in the 18th century, designed to blend harmoniously with the medieval surroundings.
This impressive stone structure, with well-preserved fortified towers at both ends, served as the city’s only bridge for four centuries.
The first look, out at the city from one of the towers, underscores the magnificent beauty and grandeur of Prague with its tiled rooftops, church towers, golden domes, and the ubiquitous spires, to which Prague owes its nickname, atop most buildings.
Josevof – The Jewish Quarter
Living in enclaves throughout the Western world for 2000 years after the Romans dispersed them, Jews have held on to their culture over the centuries.
Located between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River, the Prague Jewish Quarter boasts a total of six synagogues – including the Old New Synagogue – the Jewish Ceremonial Hall, and the Old Jewish Cemetery.
Fortunately, these monuments not only survived the ages but also the Nazi occupation last century. While Hitler was on a mission to destroy everything Jewish, he decided to preserve the Jewish Quarter as a “Museum of an Extinct Race”.
Today, with the exception of the “Old New Synagogue,” all the aforementioned monuments in the Jewish Quarter together make up the “Jewish Museum in Prague.”
Having made Prague their home in the 10th century, Jewish settlers built their first synagogue, the “Old New Synagogue,” or “Altneuschul”, in the 13th century.
For almost eight centuries now, generations of devotees have worshipped within the venerable walls of the Altneuschul, with only one unfortunate gap in the centuries-old daily ritual, and that was during the Holocaust.
The old cemetery, a compelling sight just next door, bears testimony to the fact that Prague was home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish community. Owing to the paucity of space in the burial ground, layers atop layers were added over the centuries to accommodate new graves, making it one of its kind in the world.
Old Town Square
Located between Wenceslas Square and Charles Bridge, the Old Town Quarter’s evocative narrow lanes are brimming with the historic ambiance of a bygone era.
In the center of the Old Town is the Old Town Square surrounded by houses and churches, their colorful facades a blend of several architectural styles.
The 1100-year-old heart of the city is a favorite rendezvous among locals and tourists alike, who congregate here to admire the old houses and buildings surrounding the square.
The Astronomical Clock, or the Prague orloj, is a 600-year-old wonder of the Old Town which tells you everything you could possibly want to know –from sunset and the phases of the moon to the current sign of the Zodiac and the day’s dedicated saint, and yes, it does tell the time of the day too.
With every completed hour, Death tips his hourglass and pulls the cord while the windows open and the apostles march by, followed by the rooster’s crow and finally the bell heralding the top of the hour while a crowd of onlookers gawk in amazement.
Church of Our Lady of Tyn
Bordering the Old Town Square, the Church of Our Lady of Tyn is a dominant feature of Prague’s Old Town. It towers over everything, reminding visitors of its long rich religious history.
This was Prague’s leading Hussite Church at the time of Roman Catholic dominance in the 15th century.
Hussites were the followers of Jan Hus, a local preacher, who got on the wrong side of the Vatican a hundred years before the reformation. His statue still graces the square.
Church of Saint Nicholas
On the opposite corner of the square stands the imposing Church of St. Nicholas, built between 1704 and 1755 on the site of a former 13th-century Gothic church, which was also built in honor of St. Nicholas.
An abundance of ornate Baroque, along with the largest Fresco on the European continent, dominates the interior.
Towering above the town, the Prague Castle is the most dominant structure west side of the Vltava River.
This 9th-century complex of ancient churches, noble palaces, and grand banqueting halls is the largest of its kind in the world, with the front of the building measuring more than a half kilometer, surrounded by lush gardens laid out upon its fortified walls.
For a thousand years it has served as the seat of power in Prague, and even today, the President of the Czech Republic runs the country from behind the hallowed walls of the Prague Castle. The changing of the guard is still an impressive daily event much popular with tourists and locals alike.
While it may take you a full day to appreciate all that the massive complex has to offer, one not-to-be-missed stop is the St. Vitus Cathedral.
St. Vitus Cathedral
The largest church in the country, St. Vitus Cathedral is also considered the most important church in the Czech Republic.
Housed within the Prague Castle, it is a proud testimony to the Gothic style of architecture. The church was started in the 1300s but remained unfinished for centuries, earning it the nickname, “Unfinished.”
From the inside, the soaring architectural style and vast windows create a truly inspiring Gothic space full of light, dwarfing visitors by its sheer scale and stunning them with its beauty and grandeur.
A dramatic 1931 Art Nouveau window adorns the nave. However, the real significance, both religious and cultural, is overwhelming in the intimate and extravagantly decorated Wenceslas Chapel, home to the tomb of Wenceslas
Just up the hill from Prague Castle, overlooking the castle complex itself, and the city beyond is the Strahov Monastery – a centuries-old center for learning.
The Theological Hall and the Philosophical Hall are the most notable parts of the library.
Built between 1671 and 1679, the Theological Hall proudly houses more than 200,000 books along with works from famous printers, including Christoffel Plantin.
17th-century geographical and astronomical globes are also part of the Theological Hall’s valuable collections. Frescoes depicting the librarian profession, adorn the ceiling of the hall.
The Philosophical Hall is a later addition to the monastery, built a century after the Theological Hall. In 1794, Austrian painter Franz Anton Maulbertsch created the ceiling frescoes, which depict the history of humankind. The two-storied hall is home to a collection of books retrieved from an old monastery in Moravia.
Petřín Lookout Tower
Built in 1891, the 378-meter-high cast iron Petřín Tower not only resembles the Eiffel Tower in Paris but is also higher than its French counterpart. Back in the day, it served the dual purpose of an observation deck as well as a transmission tower.
Today, the tower is a popular attraction for tourists who take the trouble of a tiring half-hour uphill walk to the tower and more climbing to reach the observation deck. However, those averse to that kind of physical activity can opt for the funicular to reach the tower. The tower has an elevator service as well, but only for the disables.
Needless to say, the view from the deck is mind-blowing.