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.
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’.
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).
One of Prague’s biggest visitor attractions, the ornate 15th-century astronomical clock is found on the southern side of Prague’s Gothic Old Town Hall. Gilded and complex in design, the clock was made by Czech master clockmaker Mikuláš of Kadaň in 1410 although it has been repeatedly restored and added to over the centuries. Its upper face shows the time and day of the week, the lower one reveals delicately painted signs of the zodiac. Every hour, on the hour, hundreds of tourists gather around the clock to witness the figure of Christ emerge from tiny trap doors above the upper dial of the clock, followed by a collection of wooden Apostles, to act out a mini-medieval morality tale, while the skeletal figure of Death strikes a bell, Greed counts out his money and Vanity worships his reflection.
The Old Town Hall itself was built in 1338 and is today a popular venue for Prague weddings as well as home of the city’s main tourist information center.
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.
Golden Lane, often referred to as the Street of the Alchemists or Alchemist’s Alley, is a little alley situated at Prague Castle and one of the most famous and picturesque streets in the city. Golden Lane and its tiny colored houses were constructed in the 15th century as an alley between the Roman and Late Gothic walls in the northern part of the castle. At first, it housed the castle guards who patrolled the fortification, but since there were more guards than space, the resulting buildings seem to be more fitting for dwarves than for humans. A century later, the tiny alley with the cozy houses apparently became popular with artists and among them, a number of goldsmiths. According to legend, some of these goldsmiths were in fact alchemists, tasked by Emperor Rudolf II to find a way to turn common metals into gold and find the philosopher’s stone.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
Petrin Tower is a TV tower that looks like a mini Eiffel Tower located on Petrin Hill in Prague. It was built in 1891 for the Jubilee Exhibition. The tower is 200 feet tall, but because Petrin Hill is 1,043 feet high, the top of the tower is about the same height as the top of the real Eiffel Tower in Paris. You can reach the top by climbing 299 stairs, and once you're up there, you will have wonderful views of the city from the viewing platform. On a clear day it is possible to see Snezka, the highest peak in the Czech Republic, which is 93 miles away.
The tower is surrounded by a grassy park and several other attractions, making this a fun place to spend a few hours. To reach the top of Petrin Hill, you can drive, walk, or take the funicular.
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.
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.
On Jan. 16, 1969, a student named Jan Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. Today, a truly unique memorial comprised of a horizontal weather-worn wooden cross rising up from cobblestone streets pays homage to Palach and his friend, Jan Zajic, who killed themselves as an act of political protest.
Today, visitors can stop at this quiet square and reflect on the changes that have taken place in this Eastern European country. While travelers agree that the memorial isn’t well marked, or very well-explained, its significance in Czech history is great and certainly worth a visit.
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.
Cutting a swathe through the Baroque beauty of Prague’s historic heart, Nerudova runs uphill through Malá Strana (Lesser Town), forming a link between Charles Bridge and Prague Castle on the west banks of the Vltava River. In the days of the Czech monarchy, the street formed part of the Royal Way, which the king followed from the Old Town Square to the castle on ceremonial occasions.
Now named after the famous 19th-century poet Jan Neruda, who lived at no. 47, the street is composed of brightly colored and gabled Baroque townhouses and palaces, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries and today bursting with boutique hotels, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants; as the street wends up towards the castle it becomes the province of several overseas embassies.
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.
The Vltava is the Czech Republic’s longest river, starting its life in southern Bohemia before meandering 270 miles (430 km) northwards through UNESCO-listed Český Krumlov on the way to Prague before it joins the River Elbe in Mělník. The very location and formation of Prague has been decreed by the Vltava over millennia; the river provided water for irrigation and drinking as the city grew up on its two banks, splitting the Baroque Malá Strana (Lower Town) in the west from the Gothic Staré Město (Old Town) and the modern city to the east.
Although it is dammed upstream, the Vltava is now largely a river dedicated to pleasure craft and watersports. Its most famous sight as it runs through Prague is the Charles Bridge, built in the 14th century and awash with statues, buskers and souvenir sellers. Most river cruises start from underneath Charles Bridge, which is the perfect vantage point for views of Prague Castle high on Hradcany Hill.
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.
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.
The center of ancient Prague, the Old Town (Stare Mesto) makes a popular starting point for walking tours of the city, sprawled along the eastern banks of the Vltava River and connected to the Lesser Town by the grand Charles Bridge. A key part of the UNESCO World Heritage city, the Old Town’s medieval churches, ancient buildings and maze of cobblestone lanes is historic Prague at its most picturesque, with many structures dating back to the 13th century.
The Old Town Square is the focal point of the district, presided over by the Lady Before Tyn Cathedral, the central Jan Hus statue and the Old Town Hall with its Astronomical Clock tower – one of the most iconic landmarks of Prague, dating back to the early 15th century. The square’s mix of distinctive pastel-shaded buildings and fine Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture has long provided the backdrop for city life, and the public square, once a medieval market, is a popular venue for national celebrations.
Originally called St. Nicholas Street, but renamed in 1926 to pay tribute to France for helping free the Czechs from Austria-Hungary during World War II, Paris Street is one of Prague’s most prestigious. Also called Parizska Street, it runs between the Old Town Square and the Cechuv Bridge. Lined with trees, it is home to some of the top designers in the world, including Louis Vitton, Hermes, Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Prada and Gucci. The street’s architecture is also an attraction, with examples of neo-Baroque neo-Renaissance and Secession styles. Buildings feature richly decorated balconies, elegant moldings, busts, statues, turrets and towers.
In addition to clothing boutiques and shops, Paris Street boasts some of the top makers of watches and jewelry, such as Rolex and Cartier. It is also home to some of the best restaurants and cafes in Prague, including Barock, widely considered the best restaurant in the city.
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