Prague is the equal of Paris in terms of beauty. Its history goes back a millennium. And the beer? The best in Europe.
The 1989 Velvet Revolution that freed the Czechs from communism bequeathed to Europe a gem of a city to stand beside stalwarts such as Rome, Paris and London. Not surprisingly, visitors from around the world have come in droves, and on a hot summer's day it can feel like you’re sharing Charles Bridge with half of humanity. But even the crowds can’t take away from the spectacle of a 14th-century stone bridge, a hilltop castle and a lovely, lazy river – the Vltava – that inspired one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of 19th-century classical music, Smetana’s Moldau symphony.
Art All Around
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 chiselled cheekbones of cubist facades.
Where Beer is God
The best beer in the world just got better. Since the invention of Pilsner Urquell 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 equalled, 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 Czech pubs offered such a wide range of brews – names you'll now have to get your head around include Kout na Šumavě, Primátor, Únětice and Matuška.
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 – neighbourhoods 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.
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Strolling across Charles Bridge is everybody’s favourite Prague activity. However, by 9am it’s a 500m-long fairground, with an army of tourists squeezing through a gauntlet of hawkers and buskers beneath the impassive gaze of the baroque statues that line the parapets. If you want to experience the bridge at its most atmospheric, try to visit it at dawn. In 1357 Charles IV commissioned Peter Parler (the architect of St Vitus Cathedral) to replace the 12th-century Judith Bridge, which had been washed away by floods in 1342 – you can see the only surviving arch of the Judith Bridge by taking a boat trip with Prague Venice. The new bridge was completed in 1390, and took Charles’ name only in the 19th century – before that it was known simply as Kamenný most (Stone Bridge). Despite occasional flood damage, it withstood wheeled traffic for 500-odd years – thanks, legend says, to eggs mixed into the mortar (though recent investigations have disproved this myth) – until it was made pedestrian-only after WWII. The first monument erected on the bridge was the crucifix near the eastern end, in 1657. The first statue – the Jesuits’ 1683 tribute to St John of Nepomuk – inspired other Catholic orders, and over the next 30 years a score more went up, like ecclesiastical billboards. New ones were added in the mid-19th century, and one (plus replacements for some lost to floods) in the 20th. As most of the statues were carved from soft sandstone, several weathered originals have been replaced with copies. Some originals are housed in the Casements at Vyšehrad; others are in the Lapidárium in Holešovice. The most famous figure is the monument to St John of Nepomuk. According to the legend on the base of the statue, Wenceslas IV had him trussed up in armour and thrown off the bridge in 1393 for refusing to divulge the queen’s confessions (he was her priest), though the real reason had to do with the bitter conflict between church and state. The stars in his halo allegedly followed his corpse down the river. Tradition says that if you rub the bronze plaque, you will one day return to Prague. A bronze cross set in the parapet between statues 17 and 19 marks the point where he was thrown off. At the Staré Město end of the bridge, look over the downstream parapet at the retaining wall on the right and you’ll see a carved stone head known as Bradáč (Bearded Man). When the river level rose above this medieval marker, Praguers knew it was time to head for the hills. A blue line on the modern flood gauge nearby shows the level of the 2002 flood, no less than 2m above Bradáč! In the crush, don’t forget to look at the bridge itself (the bridge towers have great views) and the grand vistas up and down the river. Pickpockets occasionally work the bridge, so keep your purse or wallet safe.
This museum consists of six Jewish monuments clustered together in Josefov: the Maisel Synagogue; the Pinkas Synagogue; the Spanish Synagogue; the Klaus Synagogue; the Ceremonial Hall; and the Old Jewish Cemetery. There is also the Old-New Synagogue, which is still used for religious services, and requires a separate ticket or additional fee. In one of the most grotesquely ironic acts of WWII, the Nazis took over the management of the Prague Jewish Museum – first established in 1906 to preserve artefacts from synagogues that were demolished during the slum clearances in Josefov around the turn of the 20th century – with the intention of creating a ‘museum of an extinct race’. They shipped in materials and objects from destroyed Jewish communities throughout Bohemia and Moravia, helping to amass what is probably the world’s biggest collection of sacred Jewish artefacts and a moving memorial to seven centuries of oppression. An ordinary ticket gives admission to all six main monuments. You can buy tickets at the Reservation Centre, the Pinkas Synagogue, the Spanish Synagogue and the shop opposite the entrance to the Old-New Synagogue. Queues tend to be shortest at the Spanish Synagogue. If you are pressed for time, the highlights are the Old-New Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery. Completed around 1270, the Old-New Synagogue is Europe’s oldest working synagogue and one of Prague’s earliest Gothic buildings. You step down into it because it predates the raising of Staré Město’s street level in medieval times to guard against floods. Men must cover their heads (a hat or bandanna will do; paper yarmulkes are handed out at the entrance). Around the central chamber are an entry hall, a winter prayer hall and the room from which women watch the men-only services. The interior, with a pulpit surrounded by a 15th-century wrought-iron grill, looks much as it would have 500 years ago. The 17th-century scriptures on the walls were recovered from beneath a later ‘restoration’. On the eastern wall is the Holy Ark that holds the Torah scrolls. In a glass case at the rear, little light bulbs beside the names of the prominent deceased are lit on their death days. With its steep roof and Gothic gables, this looks like a place with secrets, and at least one version of the Golem legend ends here. Left alone on the Sabbath, the creature runs amok; Rabbi Loew rushes out in the middle of a service, removes its magic talisman and carries the lifeless body into the synagogue’s attic, where some insist it still lies. Across the narrow street is the elegant 16th-century High Synagogue (Vysoká synagóga), so called because its prayer hall (closed to the public) is upstairs. Around the corner is the Jewish Town Hall (Židovská radnice), built by Mordechai Maisel in 1586 and given its rococo facade in the 18th century. It has a clock tower with one Hebrew face where the hands, like the Hebrew script, run ‘backwards’. It's closed to the public. The handsome Pinkas Synagogue was built in 1535 and used for worship until 1941. After WWII it was converted into a memorial, with wall after wall inscribed with the names, birth dates, and dates of disappearance of the 77,297 Czech victims of the Nazis. It also has a collection of paintings and drawings by children held in the Terezín concentration camp during WWII. The Pinkas Synagogue contains the entrance to the Old Jewish Cemetery, Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish graveyard. Founded in the early 15th century, it has a palpable atmosphere of mourning even after more than two centuries of disuse (it was closed in 1787). Remember, however, that this is one of Prague’s most popular sights, so if you’re hoping to have a moment of quiet contemplation, you’ll probably be disappointed. Around 12,000 crumbling stones (some brought from other, long-gone cemeteries) are heaped together, but beneath them are perhaps 100,000 graves, piled in layers because of the lack of space. The most prominent graves, marked by pairs of marble tablets with a ‘roof’ between them, are near the main gate; among them are the graves of Mordechai Maisel and Rabbi Loew. The oldest stone (now replaced by a replica) is that of Avigdor Karo, a chief rabbi and court poet to Wenceslas IV, who died in 1439. Most stones bear the name of the deceased and his or her father, the date of death (and sometimes of burial) and poetic texts. Elaborate markers from the 17th and 18th centuries are carved with bas-reliefs, some of them indicating the deceased’s occupation – look out for a pair of hands marking the grave of a pianist. Since the cemetery was closed, Jewish burials have taken place at the Jewish Cemetery in Žižkov. There are remnants of another old Jewish burial ground at the foot of the TV Tower in Žižkov. You exit the cemetery through a gate between the Klaus Synagogue (Klausová Synagóga) and the Ceremonial Hall (Obřadní síň), both of which house exhibitions on Jewish forms of worship, family ceremonies and traditions such as birth, circumcision, bar mitzvah and marriage. A block to the southeast lies the neo-Gothic Maisel Synagogue, which replaced a Renaissance original built by Mordechai Maisel, mayor of the Jewish community, in 1592. It houses an exhibit on the history of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia from the 10th to the 18th centuries, with displays of ceremonial silver, textiles, prints and books. Finally, about two blocks east of the Maisel is the Spanish Synagogue. Named after its striking Moorish interior and dating from 1868, its exhibit continues the story of the Jews in the Czech Republic from emancipation to the present day.
Prague’s most exuberantly art-nouveau building is a labour of love, with every detail of its design and decoration carefully considered, and every painting and sculpture loaded with symbolism. The restaurant and cafe here are like walk-in museums of art-nouveau design, while upstairs there are half a dozen sumptuously decorated halls that you can visit by guided tour. You can look around the lobby and the downstairs bar for free, or book a guided tour in the information centre. The Municipal House stands on the site of the Royal Court, seat of Bohemia’s kings from 1383 to 1483 (when Vladislav II moved to Prague Castle), which was demolished at the end of the 19th century. Between 1906 and 1912 this magnificent art-nouveau edifice was built in its place – a lavish joint effort by around 30 leading artists of the day, creating a cultural centre that was the architectural climax of the Czech National Revival. The mosaic above the entrance, Homage to Prague, is set between sculptures representing the oppression and rebirth of the Czech people. Other sculptures ranged along the top of the facade represent history, literature, painting, music and architecture. You pass beneath a wrought-iron and stained-glass canopy into an interior that is art nouveau down to the doorknobs. First stop on the guided tour is the Smetana Hall, Prague’s biggest concert hall, with seating for 1200 beneath an art-nouveau glass dome. The stage is framed by sculptures representing the Vyšehrad legend (to the right) and Slavonic dances (to the left). On 28 October 1918 an independent Czechoslovak Republic was declared in the Smetana Hall, and in November 1989 meetings took place here between the Civic Forum and the Jakeš regime. The Prague Spring music festival always opens on 12 May, the day the Czech composer Smetana died, with a procession from Vyšehrad to the Municipal House followed by a gala performance of his symphonic cycle Má vlast (My Country) in the Smetana Hall. Several impressive official apartments follow, but the highlight of the tour is the octagonal Lord Mayor’s Hall (Primatorský sál), the windows of which overlook the main entrance. Every aspect of its decoration was designed by Alfons Mucha, who also painted the superbly moody murals that adorn the walls and ceiling. Above you is an allegory of Slavic Concord, with intertwined figures representing the various Slavic peoples watched over by the Czech eagle. Figures from Czech history and mythology, representing the civic virtues, occupy the spaces between the eight arches, including Jan Hus as Spravedlnost (justice), Jan Žižka as Bojovnost (military prowess) and the Chodové (medieval Bohemian border guards) as beady-eyed Ostražitost (vigilance).
Every hour, on the hour, crowds gather beneath the Old Town Hall Tower to watch the Astronomical Clock in action. Despite a slightly underwhelming performance that takes only 45 seconds, the clock is one of Europe's best-known tourist attractions, and a 'must-see' for visitors to Prague. After all, it's historic, photogenic and – if you take time to study it – rich in intriguing symbolism. Four figures beside the clock represent the deepest civic anxieties of 15th-century Praguers: Vanity (with a mirror), Greed (with his money bag; originally a Jewish moneylender, but cosmetically altered after WWII), Death (the skeleton) and Pagan Invasion (represented by a Turk). The four figures below these are the Chronicler, Angel, Astronomer and Philosopher. On the hour, Death rings a bell and inverts his hourglass, and the 12 Apostles parade past the windows above the clock, nodding to the crowd. On the left side are Paul (with a sword and a book), Thomas (lance), Jude (book), Simon (saw), Bartholomew (book) and Barnabas (parchment); on the right side are Peter (with a key), Matthew (axe), John (snake), Andrew (cross), Philip (cross) and James (mallet). At the end, a cock crows and the hour is rung.
Malá Strana is dominated by the huge green cupola of St Nicholas Church, one of Central Europe’s finest baroque buildings. (Don’t confuse it with the other Church of St Nicholas on Old Town Square.) On the ceiling, Johann Kracker’s 1770 Apotheosis of St Nicholas is Europe’s largest fresco (clever trompe l’oeil techniques have made the painting merge almost seamlessly with the architecture). The building was begun by famed baroque architect Kristof Dientzenhofer; his son Kilian continued the work and Anselmo Lurago finished the job in 1755. Mozart himself tickled the ivories on the 2500-pipe organ in 1787, and was honoured with a requiem Mass here (14 December 1791). Take the stairs up to the gallery to see Karel Škréta’s gloomy 17th-century Passion Cycle paintings and the scratchings of bored 1820s tourists and wannabe Franz Kafkas on the balustrade. See the website for the church's program of classical music concerts. You can climb the church’s bell tower via a separate entrance on the corner of Malostranské náměstí and Mostecká. During the communist era, the tower was used to spy on the nearby American embassy – on the way up you can still see a small, white cast-iron urinal that was installed for the use of the watchers.
Its distinctive twin Gothic spires make the Týn Church an unmistakable Old Town landmark. Like something out of a 15th-century – and probably slightly cruel – fairy tale, they loom over Old Town Square, decorated with a golden image of the Virgin Mary made in the 1620s from the melted-down Hussite chalice that previously adorned the church. It takes some imagination to visualise the original church in its entirety because it’s partly hidden behind the four-storey Týn School (not a Habsburg plot to obscure this former Hussite stronghold, but almost contemporaneous with it). The church’s name originates from the Týn Courtyard located behind it. Though impressively Gothic on the outside, the church’s interior is smothered in heavy baroque. Two of the most interesting features are the main altar with its Virgin and the Holy Trinity by Baroque master Karel Škréta, and the tomb of Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer who was one of Rudolf II’s most illustrious court scientists (he died in 1601 of a burst bladder following a royal piss-up – he was apparently too polite to leave the table to relieve himself). On the inside of the southern wall of the church are two small windows – they are now blocked off, but once opened into the church from rooms in the neighbouring house at Celetná 3, where the teenage Franz Kafka once lived (from 1896 to 1907). As for the exterior of the church, the north portal overlooking Týnská ulička is topped by a remarkable 14th-century tympanum that shows the Crucifixion and was carved by the workshop of Charles IV’s favourite architect, Peter Parler. Note that this is a copy; the original is in the Lapidárium. The entrance to the church is along a passage from the square, through the third (from the left) of the Týn School’s four arches. The Týn Church is an occasional concert venue and has a very grand-sounding pipe organ.
Prague’s Old Town Hall, founded in 1338, is a hotchpotch of medieval buildings acquired piecemeal over the centuries, presided over by a tall Gothic tower with a splendid Astronomical Clock. As well as housing the Old Town’s main tourist information office, the town hall has several historic attractions and hosts art exhibitions on the ground floor and the 2nd floor. The main entrance is to the left of the clock; beyond that is the House at the Minute (dům U minuty), an arcaded building covered with Renaissance sgraffito – Franz Kafka lived here (1889–96) as a child just before the building was bought by the town council. Visitors take a guided tour that proceeds through the council chamber and assembly room, with beautiful mosaics dating from the 1930s, before visiting the Gothic chapel and taking a look at the inner workings of the 12 apostles who parade above the Astronomical Clock every hour. The tour includes the tower and is rounded off with a trip through the Romanesque and Gothic cellars beneath the building. The area outside the town hall is one of the most crowded corners of the Old Town Square, especially during the hourly show put on by the Astronomical Clock. Around the corner to the right, a plaque on the building’s eastern face lists the 27 Protestant nobles who were beheaded here in 1621 after the Battle of Bílá Hora; white crosses on the ground mark where the deed was done. Another plaque commemorates a critical WWII victory by Red Army and Czechoslovak units at Dukla Pass in Slovakia, and yet another, the Czech partisans who died during the Prague Rising on 8 May 1945. If you look at the neo-Gothic eastern gable, you can see that its right-hand edge is ragged – the wing that once extended north from here was blown up by the Nazis the day before the Soviet army marched into the city in 1945.
One of Europe’s most beautiful and busiest urban spaces, the Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí, or Staromák for short) has been Prague’s principal public square since the 10th century, and was its main marketplace until the beginning of the 20th century. Today it's where all tourists converge, some coming from Charles Bridge, some from the start of the Royal Way. There are busking jazz bands and al fresco concerts, political meetings and fashion shows, plus Christmas and Easter markets, all watched over by Ladislav Šaloun’s brooding art-nouveau statue of Jan Hus. It was unveiled on 6 July 1915, the 500th anniversary of Hus’ death at the stake. The brass strip on the ground to the south of the Hus statue is the so-called Prague Meridian. Until 1915 the square’s main feature was a 17th-century plague column, the shadow of which used to cross the meridian at high noon.
This 318m-high hill is one of Prague’s largest green spaces. It’s great for quiet, tree-shaded walks and fine views over the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’. Most of the attractions atop the hill, including a lookout tower and mirror maze, were built in the late 19th to early 20th century, lending the place an old-fashioned, fun-fair atmosphere. Once upon a time the hill was draped with vineyards, and you can still see the quarry that provided stone for most of Prague's Romanesque and Gothic buildings. The huge stone fortifications that run from Újezd to Strahov, cutting across Petřín's peak, are called the Hunger Wall. It was built in 1362 under Charles IV, constructed by the city's poor in return for food under an early job-creation scheme. In the peaceful Kinský Garden (Kinského zahrada), on the southern side of Petřín, is the 18th-century wooden Church of St Michael (kostel sv Michala), transferred here, log by log, from the village of Medveďov in Ukraine. Such structures are rare in Bohemia, though still common in Ukraine and northeastern Slovakia. Petřín is easily accessible on foot from Strahov Monastery, or you can ride the funicular railway from Újezd up to the top. You can also get off two-thirds of the way up at Nebozízek, where there is a good restaurant.