By Maureen Bruschi
If your time in the Czech Republic is limited, here are the top historic attractions you won’t want to miss. Start your day early, put on your favorite walking shoes and let Prague’s past surround you.
My husband and I had a little help wandering the streets of Prague. We toured with my son and his wife who live in Germany and had spent a weekend in Prague three weeks earlier. They knew exactly where to go.
By the end of the day we had witnessed dancing marionettes in the Old Town Square shops, observed the Astronomical Clock’s hourly show, explored Prague Castle, and visited cathedrals, towers, historic streets and a bridge filled with statues, artisans, and musicians. We even had time for a relaxing drink at our hotel before we headed off to dinner.
We stayed at the Cloister Inn, a medieval monastery complex founded in the Middle Ages by the Jesuits and located in the oldest part of the ancient city. Nestled in one of the cobblestone lanes of Prague’s Old Town, the hotel is within walking distance to key attractions, shops, and restaurants.
Classical Concerts and Culture Rule
With map in hand, we headed for the Municipal House which hosts some of Prague’s best classical concerts and regular exhibitions. The building’s Art Nouveau decorations include gold trim, elaborate stone work, marvelous frescos and stained glass windows. The Municipal House is home to the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and Smetana Hall, one of two main concert halls in Prague. Works from leading 20th century Czech artists decorate Smetana Hall.
Watch Out for the Gunpowder
Powder Tower is adjacent to the Municipal House. In the 13th century, this Gothic Gate was one of thirteen entrances into the Old Town. In the 17th century it stored gunpowder. Wander through Powder Tower to cobbled Celantá Street, and you’ll be strolling down one of the oldest streets in Prague.
Continue down Celantá Street and you’ll discover Prague’s Old Town Square. It’s easy to imagine horse drawn carts filled with an assortment of foods and wares clomping by as you explore the Old Town. You can’t miss the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn and its towering spires that rise above the main square.
The square also showcases a number of Gothic houses renovated during the late Renaissance and Baroque periods, producing an unusual mix of architectural styles.
Take a Step Back in Time
One of the dominating features of Old Town Square is the Old Town City Hall built in 1338 which houses the Town Hall Tower Astronomical Clock. It is one of the oldest European clocks of its time, complete with astronomical and calendar dials.
On the hour during the day, crowds gather to see the pageant and hear the chiming of the Astronomical Clock. A parade of 12 Apostle figures march across two open windows. On the sides of the main dial are a number of animated wooden figures, including Death in the form of a skeleton, and two of the Seven Deadly sins — Vanity admiring himself in a hand mirror and Avarice waving a bag of money. After the Apostles glide by, the two doors close, a cock crows and a bell chimes the hour.
A favorite clock legend claims that the aldermen of Prague blinded the astronomical clockmaker who added the figures of the 12 Apostles so that he could never duplicate his work of art anywhere else. But the blind clockmaker got his revenge. He climbed to the top of the tower where the mechanics of the astronomical clock were located. He ran his fingers over the mechanics of the clock, causing the clock to come to a standstill. It remained that way for a century until the town aldermen found a skilled clockmaker who was able to repair the clock.
Modern shops and ancient architecture line Old Town Square’s medieval passageways. Here you’ll discover shops filled with Czech Republic’s famous wooden toys, puppets, art galleries, and Bohemian crystal, glass and porcelain. No trip would be complete without stopping at a puppet shop. It’s a treat to admire Czech hand carved wooden marionettes representing all kinds of characters from kings and princesses to devils and clowns.
Good Luck Waits for You on the Bridge
If you take Karlova Street past the Old Town Hall you’ll find the entrance to the Charles Bridge. Originally called the Stone Bridge, construction for the bridge over the Vltava River began in 1357. The oldest bridge in Prague connects the Old Town to the Lesser Town and offers a spectacular view of Prague Castle and the city’s domes and cathedrals.
As you cross over the bridge, you’ll pass souvenir vendors marketing their merchandise, musicians entertaining and artists displaying magnificent watercolors and prints of Prague. But the highlight of the Charles Bridge is the 30 Baroque statues of saints lined up on either side of the bridge. These statues were placed along the bridge during the 17th and 18th centuries.
St. John of Nepomuk’s statue is the most popular. He was a Czech martyr executed during the reign of Wenceslas IV. St. John refused to tell the King the confession confided to him by the Queen. As a result, he was tortured and tossed off the Charles Bridge.
On the base of St. John‘s statue are two small plaques. According to legend, touching the plaque on the right brings good luck and guarantees your return to Prague.
Once over the bridge take Mostecká Street to Lesser Town Square. In the center of the square you’ll find the baroque styled St. Nicholas Cathedral. Peek in and enjoy its pink marble and frescoes. For music lovers, this is where Mozart played the 2,500-pipe organ in 1787.
Hike to the Castle
Continue to Prague’s most famous landmark and current presidential palace and national seat of power, Prague Castle. Here your walk becomes a bit of a challenge. Veer to the right and trek up the New Castle steps (Nové zámecké schody). After a steep climb (a tram is also available) you’ll reach Hrad?any Square and Prague Castle. If your timing is good, you’ll see the hourly Changing of the Guard which takes place during the day at the entrance leading to the castle’s outer courtyard.
Once inside the castle, head to St. Vitus Cathedral and enjoy dramatic stain glass windows, relics and works of art from Renaissance paintings to modern statues. The cathedral also houses the St. Wenceslas Chapel where you can visit the tomb of Good King Wenceslas and other Bohemian kings.
Directly behind the cathedral sits the Romanesque St. George’s Basilica, one of the oldest church buildings in Prague. Here you’ll discover the tomb of St. Ludmila, the first Bohemian Christian woman martyr, as well Czech Prince Vratislave, founder of the basilica.
You could easily spend a day at Prague Castle strolling through galleries, museums, churches and shops. Time permitting, you may want to explore the Old Royal Palace, the seat of Czech princes and later kings; and Golden Lane, a colorful assortment of tiny 16th century houses belonging to former castle gunmen.
St. Vitus Cathedral is the only part of the castle where you won’t need to purchase a ticket. If you have more time, you can take a 1½ hour castle tour for CZK 130 (about $6.00) or a 3 hour castle tour for CZK 360 (about $16).
Theology, Philosophy and Beer
When you leave the castle, continue up the hill past a number of palaces, churches, and statues, including the statue of the first Czechoslovak Republic President T.G. Masaryk. At the top of the hill you’ll experience a stunning view of Prague at the Strahov Monastery. This monastery is famous for its more than 800 year-old library housed in the Theological Hall and the Philosophical Hall.
Other highlights include the Basilica of Our Lady. Again, if time permits, it’s worth a visit inside. Check locally for times and admission fees.
Next, take a deep breath (and maybe grab a Czech beer at the Monastery Brewery) before heading back to the Charles Bridge via Nerudova Street. (Follow Uvoz Street to Nerudova Street.) Take a close look at the embassies housed in palaces, quaint restaurants, souvenir and craft shops, and hotels lining Nerudova Street.
Above the main doors, you’ll see hand painted house signs that identified homes before house numbers were used. The emblems on the houses usually represented the family’s trade or craft. Although numbers were used after 1770, these exquisite hand painted signs remain etched on the buildings along Nerudova Street today. Continue down Nerudova Street to Mostecká Street and back to the Charles Bridge.
All In A Day’s Work
Can you do this all in a day? Absolutely. Will you be tired? Absolutely, but it’s worth every minute. You won’t see everything, but you’ll have a good grasp of the sights and sounds of Prague. And, if you touch the small plaque on the right below St. John of Nepomuk’s statue on your way back across the Charles Bridge, maybe you’ll return to the Czech Republic’s magnificent capital sooner than you think.
Prague Ruzyne International Airport is located about 12 miles to the west of the city.
You never want to drive in Prague. Narrow cobblestone streets jammed with trams, buses and taxis make for very difficult driving. We drove from Germany, but parked our car immediately for the duration of our visit. The best way to experience Prague is by walking. However, to save time and conserve energy, metros (subways), trams and buses are easy to use and inexpensive.
Where to stay:
Hotel Cloister Inn, Konviktská 14, 110 00 Praha 1.
Enjoy excellent service, clean rooms, and a lavish buffet-styled breakfast at reasonable prices. We were able to safely park our car in their private off the street courtyard.
Where to eat:
The alleyways and cobblestoned streets of Prague are lined with a number of excellent pubs, cafes and restaurants for lunch and dinner. I’d recommend staying away from restaurants on the main squares where prices are a little steep. Check out restaurants and pubs on Prague’s side streets for the best deals.
If you’re in the Old Town, I’d recommend Restaurant Století, Karolíny Sv?ltlé 21, 110 00 Praha 1. You’ll experience delicious Czech food and wine at affordable prices.
Maureen Bruschi, a freelance travel writer and photographer from Hunterdon County, New Jersey, has written articles for a number of publications including BootsnAll Travel, TravelLady Magazine, Offbeat Travel, 40plus Travel and Leisure, Travel Post Monthly, Budget Travel.com blog, and The Writer.