When I am pressed to name the city that I think is the most beautiful in the world, I always say Prague. My preferences in architecture and ambiance run along spires that pierce the skies, bridges spanning the rivers, narrow streets, a medieval jumble of roofs, and delightful little details around every corner. Elaborate façades of buildings of later-than-medieval eras do not hurt either.
Prague – Praha in Czech – has all of that and more, with almost all of its architectural delights in pristine renovated shape.
The city is more or less divided into two parts by the river Vltava. The left bank is where the Castle, the district around it (Hradčany), and the atmospheric Little Quarter (Malá Strana – it is actually the second largest of the five main areas of the city) are. On the right bank, the historic core of the city consists of the Old Town (Staré Město) and the Jewish Quarter (Josefov); to the south of the two, the larger New Town (Nové Město) has a few points of interest as well.
The focal point of the historic Prague center is the vast pedestrian Old Town Square ♥♥♥ (Staroměstské Náměstí). Several important sights are located here, starting with the Jan Hus Monument which commemorates the religious reformer and Czech hero. Among the colorful array of Romanesque and Gothic buildings surrounding it, the Church of Our Lady before Týn (open only for services) and the lovely Rococo Kinský Palace (a venue for temporary art exhibitions, so probably not worth much of an in-depth visit) stand out. The dramatically white Church of St Nicholas ♥ (Kostel Sv. Mikuláše) exhibits a huge crown-shaped chandelier in its nave.
The southwest corner of the square is taken up by the Old Town Hall ♥ (Staroměstská Radnice). Its most famous feature, the Astronomical Clock (Orloj), is a remarkable piece of engineering that attracts large crowds for its hourly mechanical figure performances, which are mildly curious, but also very short, and may not actually be worth the effort of enduring the crowds. (If you prefer, you can have a meal with a view to the clock at a café opposite the Town Hall – see below in “Places to Eat”.)
Old Town Hall Tower ♥♥♥ is open for a climb to its high gallery for a fine view of the city. If you also want to see the workings of the clock mechanism from the inside, you can get that as part of a guided town-hall tour; while it is definitely of the kind that can be skipped, there is still a number of interesting rooms and exhibits.
To the north of Old Town Square lies the historic Jewish Quarter. One of its main streets, Pařižská ♥♥ is an impressive treasure trough of renovated 18th- and 19th-century buildings.
There are a handful of synagogues in the Jewish Quarter that are worth a visit. Foremost of them is the Old-New Synagogue (Staronová Synagóga) ♥♥, one of the oldest in Europe. Unlike other synagogues in Josefov, this is less of a museum exposition and more of a true place of worship look-in. The other synagogues all exhibit ceremonial and domestic artifacts from Jewish life of past centuries: Klausen Synagogue (Klausová) ♥, Maisel Synagogue (Maiselova) ♥, and the Ceremonial Halls ♥ near the cemetery. There are several others, as well as the Old Jewish Cemetery (Starý Židovský Hřbitov) for those who want a bigger fill.
Not far from Josefov is a mildly interesting Museum of Decorative Arts (Uměleckoprůmyslove Muzeum), with exhibitions of glass, crystal, porcelain, clocks, wedding dresses, etc.
Attending a classical-music concert is a widely available diversion in Prague – seemingly every other church hosts one every night. If you happen to go to one at the beautiful Chapel of Mirrors at the Clementium ♥♥, you will be able to enjoy more than music. The impressive complex is now the National Library, and you would not be able to see the chapel except when it hosts a musical performance.
The Powder Gate (Prašná Brána), a severe-looking tower, and the Municipal House (Obecní Dům), one of the most prominent Art Nouveau buildings in the city, on the edge of the Old Town, are visually impressive and potentially worth stepping into.
The narrow and winding Charles Street ♥♥♥ (Karlova Ulice) is home to many attractive Gothic and Renaissance buildings with fascinating house signs. In this area of Prague, matching house names with their signs is a never-ceasing delightful activity for children and adults alike. The street runs from Old Town Square directly onto Charles Bridge.
Charles Bridge ♥♥♥ (Karlův Most) is undoubtedly the main symbol of Prague. The pedestrian bridge is busy with revelers, street vendors, artists, and performers from morning hours until well after midnight, so if you want to experience it at a quiet moment, you have to come here at sunrise. But even at its busiest, the 650-year-old bridge is still a wonder. It is lined with 30 statues, many of which are copies of the originals now displayed at various museums. One statue, that of St John Nepomuk, near the middle of the bridge, is always a cause for pedestrian traffic on account of all people who want to rub it for luck.
The bridge is guarded by towers on both sides of the river. You can ascend to the top of each tower for great sweeping views over the city and the river. I personally liked the view from the Old Town Bridge Tower ♥♥♥ slightly better than that from the Little Quarter Bridge Tower ♥♥.
On the left-bank side of Charles Bridge, the Little Quarter is the part of Prague that has been least affected by recent history. It is probably the most atmospheric and romantic area because of that. Bridge Street ♥ (Mostecká Ulice) is a picturesque entryway to the area.
Right under the bridge on this side of the river is the district of Kampa ♥, one of the most happening areas in Prague, with plenty of good eateries and some points of interest.
The main square of the Little Quarter, Little Quarter Square ♥ (Malostranské Náměstí) is a former marketplace now surrounded by fine Baroque buildings. It is dominated by the Church of St Nicholas ♥♥ (Kostel Sv. Mikuláše – yes, there are two churches of the same name in Prague). In this resplendent cathedral, you get a rare chance to ascend to the balcony for a good view of the church interior from an upper level.
Not far from the square is Wallenstein Palace (Valdštejnský Palác), open only on weekends (the gardens are accessible every day).
Vrtba Garden ♥♥ (Vrtbovská Zahrada), also nearby, is a beautiful Baroque concoction of steps and balustraded terraces. From the top terrace, there are magnificent views both of the castle and of the Little Quarter.
Similar to Charles Street, the picturesque and narrow Nerudova Street ♥, which runs from Little Quarter Square up to the castle, has a splendid selection of fine houses adorned with magnificent heraldic beasts and emblems.
There are several other churches, parks, and gardens in the Little Quarter. The southwest part of it is taken up by the vast Petřín Park ♥, with grand panoramas of Prague from different vantage points. There are several minor attractions at the highest point of the park, served by a funicular railway (Observation Tower, an imitation of Tour Eiffel of sorts; Mirror Maze ending with a room of curved mirrors; an Observatory).
Prague Castle ♥♥ (Pražský Hrad) is where the history of Prague started. It has several points of interest. First of all, of course, is the St Vitus Cathedral ♥♥♥ (Chrám Sv. Víta) whose towers and spires soar above the city. The Gothic cathedral is richly decorated and impressive both on the exterior and inside, with brilliant stained-glass windows and magnificent bas-reliefs around its perimeter.
A small alley with brightly-painted tiniest of houses, Golden Lane ♥ (Zlatá Ulička) is a picturesque sight, a former residence of castle guards and later goldsmiths. In 1916, Franz Kafka stayed in No. 22 for a few months. All of the houses are now souvenir shops. There are also a couple of small expositions – medieval arms and clothes, and a torture chamber.
The Royal Palace (Královský Palác) is only marginally worth a visit. Its dozen or so rooms open for visitors fail to truly impress. St George’s Basilica ♥ (Bazilika Sv. Jiří) keeps remnants of some impressive frescoes. There is also a reputedly strong collection of paintings at St George’s Convent (Klášter Sv. Jiří), and the Czech history museum at the Lobkowicz Palace (Lobkovický Palác) within the castle complex. Also, there is a small but curious toy museum ♥, which is very popular with kids. Its thousands of exhibits are arranged in a series of thematic displays, and the upper floor is given to a huge collection of Barbie dolls and their friends.
The Royal Garden ♥ (Královská Zahrada) outside the castle walls is as pleasant as such gardens can be and is home to the Belvedere, one of the finest Renaissance buildings north of the Alps (open only for special exhibitions).
Outside of the castle gates, at Sternberg Palace (Šternberský Palác), you can find the Gallery of Old Masters ♥. It is a level below the foremost painting collections found elsewhere in Europe, but worth a look nonetheless.
A town called Hradčany was founded in the early 14th century around the castle. In this elevated area of the city, there are several charming streets and attractive sights to explore. Schwarzenberg Palace (Schwarzenberský Palác) and a couple of other imposing buildings could be worth visiting. Loreta ♥ is an opulent complex devoted to the legend of the Santa Casa de Loreto. Its treasury contains a large number of valuable jeweled liturgical items.
Strahov Monastery ♥♥ (Strahovský Klášter) is another magnificent sight, boasting a couple of grandiose halls, the libraries, and the splendid Church of Our Lady.
To the south of the Old Town lies the area that is younger in appearance, the New Town. While dating from the mid-14th century, this district was largely redeveloped in the late 19th century. There are several potentially interesting churches located in various corners of it, the resplendent National Theater (Národní Divadlo), which can only be visited for a performance, and a few museums, such as the National Museum (Národní Muzeum) whose collection is said to be much less impressive than the building it inhabits. Some blocks in Nové Město consist entirely of adjoined Art Nouveau buildings, with mosaics, sgraffito, ornamental balconies, bas-reliefs, etc. All are in well-preserved condition.
The two major squares in Nové Město are Wenceslas Square ♥ (Václavské Náměstí) and Charles Square ♥ (Karlovo Náměstí). The former is really a wide street surrounded by hotels, restaurants, clubs, and shops. The latter has a peaceful retreat in a park and projects the academic environment of the city university.
The most fetching quays are along the edge of the New Town. It is here that you will come upon the quirky “Ginger and Fred” office building, for instance.
Of the attractions outside of the city center, Vyšehrad is the legendary first seat of Czech royalty; the area has several interesting sights, including the twin-spired Church of St Peter and St Paul, but may appear deserted in the evenings.
At the advice of our personal guide in 2004, we went one evening to the Exhibition Ground to see a light-show performance of Křižík’s Fountain ♥ (aka “Magical Fountain”). Although I have been told by later visitors to Prague that this attraction no longer exists, it is apparently accessible in the summer season.
In any city situated on a river, a boat excursion needs to be considered. There are many offerings of this type on Vltava. While the different perspective on main city sights is always fascinating, not all boat rides are born the same, so research your options before buying tickets.
On our first try, we were given a true cruise of the river, going some distance away from the Charles Bridge. If you pick one of those, you’ll agree with a ♥♥ rating. Unfortunately, on another occasion, we fell prey to one of the many ticket-sellers dressed in sailor’s costumes that patrol Knights of The Cross Square at the Old Town end of Charles Bridge. The cruise they offer does not really take you anywhere, entering the mouth of the Kampa canal for a few minutes and going no further than one bridge away from the Charles Bridge. The 45-minute floating around the central part of the river includes an entrance to the nearby Museum of Charles Bridge (we skipped it), as well as a choice of beer or Sprite and of ice cream or gingerbread. That was not worth it, really.
The subway system of Prague is only marginally convenient in the city center, with only a few stations within walking distance of the main sightseeing areas. The trains, nonetheless, run very frequently. The tram network is a lot more extensive and is a prevalent mode of public transport.
Accommodation-wise, any location in Old Town or Little Quarter will put you within walking distance of most of the points of interest. The extensive transport options make staying somewhere outside of the city center workable as well.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Prague. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards.
Worthy of specific recommendations are: U Modré Kachničky (“At the Blue Duckling”, on Nebovidská), famous for its variety of duck dishes; Tři století (“Three centuries”, on Kampa), offering a large traditional-modern fusion menu; V Zátiší (“In Stillness”, on a corner of Betlémské Náměstí), offering exceptional Bohemian cuisine in a refined environment.
Well-connected with the rest of the country by the train network, Prague can serve as a springboard for visiting other destinations. The towns of Český Krumlov or Kutna Hora are among the most well-known options.
The grand Karlštejn Castle ♥ is located some 30 kilometers away from Prague, fairly easily accessible by car or public transport. I do enjoy the freedom of moving at my own pace, but it should be noted that on my trip to Karlštejn, the actual sightseeing took just a bit over an hour, while the overall journey from Prague and back took most of the day. Joining a group tour with the pick-up and drop-off at your hotel will likely reduce the total time allocation to about 4 hours.
Once you get inside the castle at your designated time, you will visit six or seven halls along with lively commentary, but not much of the interior is going to bowl you over. The views from the ramparts are quite nice, but some of the higher points of the castle are off-limits for the visitors. If you are a true aficionado of the Middle Ages history you might find this place quite enchanting. The average visitor might be disappointed.
The village spread out along the road leading to the castle entrance is full of souvenir shops and eateries, complemented by a couple of nice art galleries.