Prague's central boulevard and largest public square, Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske namesti) has been the social and political heart of the city for hundreds of years and is home to some of the city’s finest works of architecture. Originally laid out in the 14th century as the centerpiece of King Charles's Nové Město (New Town), the square was used as a horse market until being renamed after the patron saint of Bohemia, Saint Wenceslas, in the 19th century.
Today Wenceslas Square is the commercial center of the city, dominated by grand monumental buildings and making the perfect starting point for walking tours of the city’s attractions. At the top of the square looms the striking neo-renaissance façade of the Prague National Museum, with its iconic dome marking an important strategic landmark.
Even when it's groaning under the weight of sketch artists, jazz musicians, trinkets and tourists, there's no resisting the charm of the Charles Bridge ('Karlův most' in Czech). Its 500 meters (1,640 feet) link the Old Town with Castle Hill and provide some of the best views of the city and of the graceful river Vltava. It was built in the 15th century to replace the older Judith Bridge, which had been swept away by floods. The Charles Bridge (originally called the Stone Bridge - the name was changed in the 19th century) has proved remarkably resilient. Some say it's down to the eggs mixed into its mortar. What makes the bridge so special is its rows of blackened baroque saints, each attended by angels and lions and followers. The statues emerging from the mists of a Prague dawn is one of the loveliest sights of the city. If you want to make sure you come back to Prague, touch the statue of St. John of Nepomuk (he was martyred by being thrown into the river from the bridge).
What is called Prague Castle (or Pražský hrad) is actually a huge complex containing museums, churches, palaces, and gardens. The immense Gothic cathedral of St. Vitus is dominant on the skyline. The Castle complex, high on its hill above Charles Bridge and the Vltava River, is the focal point of Prague.
You can just go to wander - it's free to enter the Castle, even at night - or you can pay to enter some of the buildings and get a more in-depth view. Either way, the grandeur of the place will keep you busy for at least half a day. After all, this is the biggest castle complex in the world.
The buildings range from the Romanesque to the Gothic. The Royal Palace itself was home to Bohemian kings during the 9th century. The Basilica of St. George dates from the 10th century. You can also visit the Riding School, the gardens (open in the summer only), and Golden Lane, a charming row of medieval houses from the old goldsmith's district.
The magnificent headpiece of Prague’s historic Wenceslas square, the Prague National Museum (Národní Muzeum) is the largest museum complex in the Czech Republic, encompassing five specialized departments. The History and Natural History museums are the most sizable, housing an enormous permanent collection of prehistoric remains, archeological artifacts, rock specimens and other items from all over the world. The National Museum Library, Czech Music Museum and the National Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures, are also part of the complex.
It’s not only the exhibitions that warrant attention – the museum itself is a glorious homage to the Czech National Revival, adorned with the busts of Czech historical figures and fronted by a commandeering statue of St Wenceslas on horseback. The inescapable domed structure is an elaborate feat of neo-Renaissance architecture, featuring over 10 adjourned buildings designed by famous Czech architect Josef Schulz.
Twice as large as the Old Town area, Prague’s New Town (Nove Mesto) is sprawled across one of the banks of the Vltava River. Despite its name, the New Town was founded by Charles IV back in 1348 following his coronation under the Holy Roman Empire. It was later redeveloped during the late 19th century.
The New Town features a mix of historic buildings and squares with more modern developments. Wenceslas Square lies at the heart of the area. This was originally built as a horsemarket and is now a popular place for visitors due to its variety of hotels, shops, restaurants, and nightlife. Other notable squares in the New Town include Charles Square and Republic Square, which also hold plenty of appeal for visitors. The main attractions and historical buildings within the New Town include the Dvořák Museum, the National Museum, the National Theater, the Dancing House, and the New Town Hall.
St. Vitus (or Katedrála svatého Víta) is the biggest and most important church in Prague, the pinnacle of the Castle complex, and one of the most knockout cathedrals in Europe. It's broodingly Gothic, with a forest of spires and a rose window to rival that of Notre Dame.
Enter by the Golden Portal to take a look at the stunning Last Judgement mosaic. Inside you'll find the final resting places of both Charles IV (who gave his name to Charles Bridge) and Saint Wenceslas. The chapel containing Wenceslas' remains is a stunner, encrusted with semi-precious stones.
The cathedral also contains the crown jewels of the Bohemian kings and an Art Nouveau window by Mucha. Climb the tower for a stunning view of the Castle District.
Malá Strana is the area that meanders down from the Castle Hill to the Vltava River. A literal translation of its name would be 'Small Side' but its most often called the Lesser Side. Unfair? Well, while it might not have the grandeur of the Old Town across the river, many find it more charming.
Because the area was razed by fires in the 16th century, the architecture here is mainly baroque. Its finest site is the Wallenstein Palace with its fabulous walled garden full of fountains and statues. There's also the Church of Saint Nicholas and, high on Petřín Hill, a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower.
The Strahov Monastery in Prague was established in 1143. It has survived fires, wars, revolutions, and communist regimes, though it has occasionally been rebuilt. Even when the monks were unable to remain in the monastery, they waited in a safe place until they could return. Today it is still a place of learning, meditation, and tranquility, and approximately 70 monks live there. The impressive spires of the basilica are a famous part of Prague's skyline, but the library is the monastery's most important feature. The library contains thousands of volumes, including 3,000 original manuscripts. The Theological Hall contains mostly literature of a theological nature and thousands of editions of the Bible.
The monastery's location on Petrin Hill near the Prague castle is a good place for views of the city due to the higher elevation. The monastery has also been the backdrop for several major films, such as the horror film “From Hell” starring Johnny Depp.
Starting life as a tribute to music icon John Lennon after his untimely death in 1980, Prague’s John Lennon Wall quickly became a symbol of peace and free speech for young Czechs angry and disillusioned with the county’s communist regime (western pop music was banned under the regime). The original painted image of Lennon was soon surrounded by political graffiti and Beatles lyrics, becoming an important part of the non-violent rebellion of Czech youth and a constant source of annoyance for the police, who repeatedly painted over the wall, only to have the graffiti reappear just days later. The wall hit the headlines again on 17 November 2014, the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, when it was painted over in white by a group of art students, and adorned with the simple statement ‘wall is over’.
The Rudolfinum is a prestigious music and art venue located on Jan Palach Square on the bank of the Vltava River in Prague. This impressive neo-Renaissance building was built between 1876 and 1884, opening in 1885 to serve as a multi-purpose cultural center combining concert halls and exhibition rooms.
Today, the Rudolfinum is home to the Galerie Rudolfinum and hosts a varied programme of classical music concerts and art exhibitions. It is the home venue of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, which was founded in 1896. The Philharmonic Orchestra holds world-class classical performances throughout the year from the building’s largest hall, the Dvořák, which is one of the oldest concert halls in Europe and is noted for its exceptional acoustics. As well as being able to buy tickets for various performances and exhibitions at the Rudolfinum, guided tours are available for those interested in the history and architecture of the building.
Kampa Park is on the west bank of the Vltava River in Prague. The park is famous for three giant baby sculptures designed by controversial artist David Cerny. Cerny purposely made his art with the intention to provoke people, and you can find his art throughout the city. He also made 10 other baby sculptures which can be seen crawling up the Zizkov TV Tower. The ones on the TV tower are made of fiberglass, but the ones in the park are bronze. The babies don't have normal faces. Instead they have alien-looking heads with long rectangular slots where the face should be.
The sculptures in the park were supposed to be part of a temporary exhibit, but they were so popular that they are now a permanent part of the scenery. They are located near the entrance to the Kampa Museum, which is the Museum of Modern Art from Central Europe.
Much more than just a pretty façade, the Prague National Theatre (Narodni divadlo) is one of the capital’s most important and culturally significant buildings, celebrated as a symbol of Czech cultural and political independence. Completed in 1883 while the country was under Austrian rule, the National Theatre was originally refused funding by the government of Vienna but after a nationwide appeal and a flood of financial contributions from Czech citizens, building commenced in 1865. It’s unique funding means that, more than any of the city’s historic buildings; the Prague National Theatre really does belong to the people.
Taking 16 years to finish, the theatre is the masterwork of Czech architect Josef Zítek, who crafted a dramatic neo-Renaissance façade reflective of the artistic liberation of the Czech National Revival.
One of Prague’s most visited attractions and the largest ancient castle in the world, Prague Castle (Pražský Hrad) is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, but the vast complex is made up of much more than just the castle. A distinctive part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Prague, the Hradcany, or Castle District, includes some the city’s finest works of architecture.
The hilltop castle stands proud in the center, a 7-hectare complex that includes the magnificent gothic St Vitus Cathedral, the Royal Riding School, the 10th century Basilica of St George and the medieval houses of Golden Lane, the former goldsmith’s district. A collection of grand palaces are also dotted around the castle district, including Archbishop's Palace, the Czernin Palace, the Martinez Palace and the Tuscan Palace, along with the Sternberg Palace, now the Museum of Military History, and the Scwarzenberg Palace, now home to part of the National Gallery.
The Jewish ghetto in Prague grew up in Josefov around the Old-New Synagogue, which was in use as early as 1270. It has the distinction of being oldest functioning synagogue in Europe – for over 700 years services were only halted during Nazi occupation between 1942–45 – and today it is once more the heart of Jewish worship in the city. A Gothic oddity, the whitewashed synagogue is topped with brick gables and its interior is starkly simple and little changed since the 13th century, with one prayer hall for the men and an adjoining gallery for women, who originally were only allowed to witness services from behind a glass screen. An elaborate wrought-iron grill encases the pulpit and the Torah scrolls are contained in a plain Ark on one wall.
The Estates Theatre is one of the most beautiful historical theaters in Europe. Built in less than two years, it opened in 1783, making it Prague's oldest theater. The site, known by locals as Stavoske divaldo, is famous for its connection with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who spent quite some time in Prague working on operas that would later be performed here. His Marriage of Figaro was played here in 1786, and the next year, Mozart personally conducted the world premiere of Don Giovanni in this space. Don Giovanni is still the theater's most prized opera performance.
While the building’s exterior has become an architectural icon, it’s the interior that leaves visitors truly breathless. Ornate gilded ceilings, glowing hallows of light and classically inspired design make the Estate Theatre’s environment almost as impressive as its performances.
Prague was largely spared from the bombing that scarred other central European cities during World War II, but was attacked in error by the US Air Force on Feb. 14, 1945; many historic buildings were destroyed and several hundred Czechs were killed. The undulating, curvaceous Dancing House now stands on one of the former bomb craters, at the corner of a street overlooking the Vltava River. Designed by the architectural duo of Czech-Croatian Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry (of Guggenheim Bilbao fame) and completed in 1996, the glass-and-concrete construction stands out among the city’s elegant Neo-Renaissance townhouses and was initially highly controversial in Prague for its extreme post-modern styling.
Prague’s imposing Municipal House is the city’s most famous Art Nouveau civic buildings and many Czech artists of the time, led by Osvald Polívka and Antonín Balsánek, had a hand in its creation. It was built between 1905 and 1911 and fast became a potent architectural and cultural symbol of Czechoslovakia’s newly found independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The state of Czechoslovakia was declared here in 1918 and the building now houses the Smetana Concert Hall, several restaurants and temporary art exhibitions.
Part of the joy of a visit to the Municipal House is its design and decoration; externally it is a vision of complex patterned stained-glass windows, ornate stonework and frescoes flecked with gold. The mosaic Homage to Paris by Karel Spillar glitters underneath the decorative cupola and is tucked between sculptures representing the oppression and independence of Czechoslovakia.
Like many old European cities, Prague once had city walls and gates. The Powder Tower is one of those gates, and it dates back to the 11th century when it was one of 13 entrances into Prague's Old Town. It was originally called the New Tower, but its name was changed in the 17th century when it was used to store gunpowder. This is the gate future kings of Bohemia used to pass through on their coronation parades along the traditional Royal Way to the Prague Castle.
Today the tower houses a permanent exhibition called Prague Towers. The tower is 213 feet high, and there is a viewing platform at 144 feet, accessible by 186 stairs, where visitors can see the city from above. The Powder Tower and the Old Town Bridge Tower are the only remaining parts of Prague's former old town fortification.
The Jewish Museum (or Židovské muzeum) operates over several sites, including the Old Jewish Cemetery, the Spanish Synagogue and the Maisel Synagogue. Together this cluster of sites - which you can visit as a tour with an English-speaking guide - gives you a rounded picture of the history of the Jewish people in Prague.
The various exhibitions center on Jewish customs, artifacts such as Torah covers and synagogue silver, and memorials to those lost in the Holocaust. The Old Jewish Cemetery, with its ancient tombstones all packed in together, is a reminder of the ghettoization of Jews in the medieval city.
The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is located in the Josefov area, which was once the Prague Jewish Town. The Jewish name is Beth Chaim, which means House of Life. It is the second oldest cemetery in Europe and was founded in the 15th century. The oldest existing gravestone is dated April 23, 1439. There are around 20,000 graves in the cemetery with headstones of varying styles from different time periods, such as Baroque, Renaissance, and Gothic.
Throughout the cemetery, pieces of paper can be seen weighed down by rocks in front of graves. Legend has it that the dead can fulfill wishes written on these pieces of paper. However, the rock used to weigh down the paper must be from where you live, not from the cemetery. You'll also notice overlapping headstones crowded together. This is due to a lack of space, resulting in graves being stacked on top of each other. The last person buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery was in 1787.
Located in Hradčany near Prague Castle, the ornate, gleaming white Loreta is a Baroque jewel constructed around several arcaded courtyards and surrounded by cloisters and chapels. Topped with a copper spire, the monastery was built between 1626 and 1631 at the behest of Baroness Beligna Katherina von Lobkowicz; it was designed by Bohemian architects Kryštof and Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer and is still occupied today by an order of Capuchin monks. The complex is one of the foremost pilgrim destinations in Bohemia, thanks to its replica of the Holy House (Santa Casa) of the Virgin Mary, copied from the original humble abode she occupied in Nazareth, which was moved from the Holy Land to Loreto in Italy for safekeeping in the 13th century. The Loreta’s Santa Casa shrine is made of simple brickwork on its interior and is encased in carved stone bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.