With more than one million inhabitants, Prague lies on both sides of Vltava River. Its origins date back to the Paleolithic age, but it was in the 800’s when the Prague Castel was founded. From that moment on Prague was ruled by several Bohemian Kings until it fell under Habsburg rule, thus becoming one of the most important cities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
At the end of the First World War, Prague became the capital of Czechoslovakia until 1993, when the country was split in two – the Czech Republic with its capital in Prague and Slovakia with Bratislava as its capital.
Since then, Prague has flourished and has become one of the most important economic, cultural and touristic centers in Central Europe. In fact, it’s the fifth most visited city on the old continent, after London, Paris, Istanbul and Rome. Though during the Second World War Prague went through several bomb raids, the majority of its historical buildings remain intact and to this day they are still perfectly conserved.
Prague Castle is one of the most important and largest buildings in the city, lying above the entire metropolis. Actually, according to the Guinness Book of Records Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world.
The Old Town is also a very popular spot in the Czech capital with some of the oldest buildings in the city still standing. Actually, the entire city is a great touristic destination for architecture buffs, since Prague is an eclectic blend of Gothic and Romanesque architecture with Baroque, Rococo and Renaissance styles and modern influences.
Czech Republic is also famous for its beer and the most famous breweries are located within the walls of the capital. As a cultural center, Prague boasts hundreds of galleries, concert halls, a large number of world class museums and several famous theaters.
All in all, Prague is the perfect destination for a unique vacation that will take you on a journey through some of the most important moments in Czech Republic’s history.
1. Old Town
Prague is divided in ten large districts, each with its own charm and unique history: Old Town (Stare Mestro), Lesser Town (Mala Strana), Castle (Hradcany), Jewish Quarter (Josefov), New Town (Nove mesto), Vysehrad, the Northern District, the Southern District, the Eastern District and the Western District.
The Old Town is the heart and soul of Prague, and also the place where some of the most important events in the city’s history took place.
As its name says it, this is the oldest part of the city and, despite the fact that a number of tourists swarm its narrow cobbled streets on any given day; most ancient buildings that are housed here are still perfectly conserved. As soon as you step on these tiny streets you’ll feel like you’ve travelled back in time.
Actually, in the Old Town district there are some of the most important buildings in the entire city, from the City Hall tower with the famous Astronomical Clock and the breath taking Tyn Cathedral, to the glamorous Kinsky Palace and the Baroque St. Nicholas Church.
The first thing you should see is the Old Town Square, the spot where every major event in Prague’s history took place. The plaza is lined by some of the most incredible buildings, making it a true open air museum, a perfect spot for any architecture buff. As soon as they arrive into the square, tourists get to see the incredible Astronomical Clock perched on top of the City Hall’s tower. Those who venture to climb all the way to the top will discover an amazing view over the district.
This intricate clock was installed at the beginning of the 15th century and it’s the oldest working clock in the world. Throughout the years, the calendar dial was added, but also numerous decorations including gothic sculptures. Also, throughout the centuries, the clock broke down or it was damaged several times, but each time it was fixed. The actual clock has four moving parts: the zodiacal ring, two symbols representing the sun and the moon and an outer rotating ring. The clock is flanked by four statues, including a skeleton, which start moving at the hour. It’s definitely worth to wait until the clock strikes another hour in order to see this strange spectacle.
Another imposing building in the Old Town Square is the Tyn Cathedral, one of Prague’s symbols. Its massive spires dominate the entire city and it’s very easy to spot from almost all main streets. This Gothic church was erected during the 14th century and its towers are 80 m tall, both of them decorated with four spires each. Though at first it might be difficult to locate the main entrance of the church because several houses and smaller buildings were erected around it, visitors should look for a small passageway between the two main buildings right in front of the church.
There are many other incredible edifices around the Old Town Square, so it’s worth taking some time to explore every single one of them, particularly the Rococo style Kinsky Palace, now an Art Museum. From this square walk along the Celetna Street and make sure you spot all the colorful buildings lining this pedestrian alley that leads to the famous Powder Tower. Most buildings here have strange names like At the White Lion, At the Three Kings or At the Vulture. Also you can’t miss the House of the Black Madonna with its striking cubist façade.
Right at the end of Celenta Street a 65 meter tall tower draws every visitor’s attention. This is the Powder Tower which used to be one of the 13 entrances in the city when it was built during the 15th century. Is peculiar name comes from the fact that it used to be a gunpowder storage facility.
Right by the Powder Tower tourists will be surprised to discover one of the most beautiful decorated buildings in Prague – the Municipal House. This Art Nouveau building was erected at the beginning of the 20th century on the site of The Royal Court Palace. Now the Municipal House is one of the main concert halls in Prague, but also one of the most stunning buildings in Czech Republic.
Each narrow street in the Old Town has a number of interesting edifices just waiting to be discovered, from the House at the Two Golden Bears with its beautiful Renascence portal to the Knights of the Cross Square right by the Old Town Bridge Tower. It will be a tough choice to make.
2. Prague Castle
One of the most famous buildings in the Czech capital, Prague Castle occupies most of an entire district simply called Castle. Built in 870, the Guinness Book of Records named Prague Castle the largest ancient castle in the world. And it’s no wonder! The impressive edifice takes up about 70,000 square meters and it is 130 meters wide and 570 meters long.
The Castle district encompasses almost any architectural style ever created with four palaces, four churches, three halls, five gardens and many other impressive buildings.
The very first edifice that was erected here was actually the Church of the Virgin Mary, one of the oldest ones in Bohemia, which today is no longer standing. By the end of the 10th century, two more churches were built in this area: Basilica of St. Vitus and Basilica of St. George. Two centuries later, a Romanesque castle was also erected which was enlarged and rebuilt several times throughout its history.
Until 1918, this was the place where most of the royal families lived. Afterwards it became the official residence of the president of the newly founded Czechoslovakia, until it fell in the Nazi’s hands during the Second World War. When that tumultuous period in Prague’s history was over, the castle became the communist government’s main headquarter. After the Velvet Revolution, Prague Castle became the official residence of the president of the once again newly formed Czech Republic.
Visitors can explore the majority of buildings within the castle’s walls, especially since most of them were turned into museums or galleries.
The main attraction is the actual Royal Palace, and, just like similar buildings throughout Europe, it has an hourly changing of the guard ceremony. However, the actual treasures are hidden inside – there are several art galleries with masterpieces from the Renaissance and Baroque period just waiting to be discovered.
Afterwards, tourists prefer to visit the most important cathedral in the country – St. Vitus Cathedral. Dating back to the 14th century, this church was the place where every royal coronation happened. Among the most important highlights inside the cathedral are the beautiful stained glass windows and the tomb of St John of Nepomuk made out of pure silver. Those brave enough to climb almost 300 stairs to reach the top of the Bell Tower will be rewarded with some of the most incredible views of the entire city.
For those in search for other beautiful views can admire the city from the Royal Gardens, a huge park dating back to the 16th century commissioned by Ferdinand I.
The castle district also has many beautiful cobbled streets lined with colorful houses. The most famous one is the Golden Lane, named after the goldsmiths who used to live there four centuries ago. The street is mostly popular for the colorful houses embedded into the arches of the Castel’s walls. The most famous resident here is the famed writer Franz Kafka, who used to live in number 22.
Among the other buildings in this district that are worth exploring are the Summer Palace, the most authentic Italian building outside Italy, dating back to the Renaissance period, the Toy Museum, a truly unique museum, the Archbishop’s Palace and the Loreta, a gorgeous church built in 1626.
3. Charles Bridge
Prague is mostly famous for its large number of bridges connecting the banks of the Vltava River, one more beautiful than the next. However, the most famous one is the haunting Charles Bridge. The main connection between the Old Town and Prague Castle, the bridge took almost a century to be finished. When the bridge was finally inaugurated in 1402, after it was commissioned by King Charles IV in 1357, it was called the Stone Bridge. Only 400 years later its name was changed into what is today – Charles Bridge.
The construction is over 600 meters long and almost 10 meters wide. It rests on 16 arches and is guarded by three towers.
The bridge is one of the most gorgeous examples of Baroque style civil building in the world, especially because of its 30 statues which line the bridge. These statues were placed alongside the bridge in the 18th century, but since then they were replaced with replicas. They all represent various saints, the most famous being the statue of St. John of Nepomuk.
Throughout its long history, Charles Bridge suffered from many disasters including floods and bombing and it was reconstructed several times. Nowadays, the bridge is exclusively pedestrian and gathers hundreds of visitors at any moment of the day, alongside street performers and food vendors.
The best time to admire this beautiful bridge in all its glory is at dawn or at dusk as the sunlight reflects in the still waters of the Vltava River and the imposing statues become almost alive.
For a closer look at the history of Prague, tourists should definitely take a trip to the Vysehrad district. Though it’s further away from the Old Town, it’s definitely worth the trip. The actual Vysehrad is a 10th century fort which is believed to be the place of the first settlement which turned into what today is the great city of Prague.
Vysehrad used to be the official royal palace for about a century, until King Vratislaus transferred the royal residence to Prague Castle. Since then the fort was destroyed and rebuilt several times, and, despite the fact that Vysehrad never reached the grandeur of Prague Castle, it’s still an emblematic building in Prague. In this area, tourists will be surprised to discover a huge park, the Vysehrad cemetery and the Church of St. Peter and Paul.
Some of the most famous inhabitants of Prague are buried in the Vysehrad cemetery, including prolific writer Karel Capek, poet Jan Neruda and actress Olga Scheinpflugova.
The large park around the fort is striking not just during summer, but also during fall and winter, when a thick blanket of snow covers the grounds.
The name Vysehrad translates into “Castle on the heights” which means that the fort is perched up on one of the rolling hills that surround the Czech capital. That is why most tourists choose this location not only for the beautiful architecture and the outstanding park but also for the great views over the city.
If you travel to Prague during winter holidays, make sure you spend the New Year here. Vysehrad is the place to be when celebrating the beginning Sylvester.
5. Dancing House
Though Prague is famous for its Baroque and Gothic buildings, there are many fine examples of modern architecture mixed among the classic buildings. The most unusual and popular modern edifice is the Dancing House. It is actually named the Nationale-Nederlanden building, but it got its nickname because of its strange shape.
The edifice was finished in 1996 and it was designed by Czech architect Vlado Milunic in partnership with a Canadian-American architect, Frank Gehry. Though the modern design did not exactly match the rest of the Gothic buildings around, it soon became one of the most popular buildings in Prague.
The Dancing House is located riverfront, on the corner of the embankment Rasinovo nabrezi and the street Resslova. Before the construction of this magnificent building, on this site there was a Neo-renaissance style house, dating back to the 19th century, which was destroyed by American bombing in 1945. For almost half a century, the site was just an empty plot until 1992 when construction for the Dancing House begun.
The architectural style used for this building is called “deconstructivism” and the actual building portrays two people dancing. That is why the original name of this edifice was Fred and Ginger after the famous Hollywood actors Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This name was actually the idea of one of the architects, but he thought that it would be too American so, in change, the building became the Dancing House.
When the building was inaugurated, it was very controversial because of its nontraditional design – it is made out of 99 panels of concrete, each with a different shape and size. However, a decade later, the house actually became a symbol of Prague and a beloved landmark.
6. Mala Strana
The Mala Strana district, also known as the Lesser Town or the “Little Side”, is one the most historic areas in Prague. For ten centuries from the 5th to the 15th century this area was mostly populated by German ethnics and featured a large number of palaces. Mala Strana was a royal town founded by the king by combining several settlements round Prague Castle.
Though the district was devastated by several fires, most buildings are still intact to this day. The predominant architectural style on the streets of this district is Baroque style, even though Mala Strana dates back to several hundred years before this style became popular in the city.
Mala Strana doesn’t necessarily have the glamour and grandeur of the buildings in the Old Town, but that should not discourage visitors to spend some time exploring these beautiful old streets.
The most interesting building here is the Wallenstein Palace with its exquisite gardens. This Baroque Palace was built at the beginning the 17th century by Bohemian military leader Albrecht von Wallenstein. Though he died just a few years after the palace was completed, the building remained in the Wallenstein family until it became state propriety right after the Second World War and it was turned into house government offices. Nowadays, the Wallenstein Palace is home of the Czech Senate.
The design of this palace was inspired by the exquisite Italian architecture and it encompasses five courtyards, several gardens, the Avenue of Sculptures, a large Riding School and several stables. The interior is also richly decorated with several paintings and frescoes. Most of the decorations can still be admired to this day.
Another important edifice in Mala Strana is definitely the St. Nicholas Church. A Baroque church, which took almost half a century to be built, at the beginning of the 18th century, St. Nicholas is often described as the most beautiful Baroque building in the entire city of Prague.
The St. Nicholas Church was erected on the site of a former 13th century church, dedicated to the same saint. Today, St. Nicholas is almost 50 meters high and has a 70 meters high beautiful decorated dome. This dome is not just impressive to look at but also offers breathtaking views over Mala Strana to those daring to climb all the way to the top.
The St. Nicholas Church is not only famous for its design and decorations, but also for the fact that this is where famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played at the impressive 4,000 pipes organ housed inside the church. What is more, Mozart’s renowned masterpiece, Mass in C, was performed for the very first time inside this church.
Mala Strana also boasts several exquisite squares, like Malostranske namesti, the largest one in the district which leads to Charles Bridge, or Mala Strana Square, which used to be a large market. Tourists should also make time to walk alongside the striking Nerudova Street, which leads to Prague Castle. The street was named after Mala Strana’s most famous resident – the Czech novelist Jan Neruda who was born and spent most of his life here. Neruda found his inspiration on this street, featuring it in several of his books.
7. Petryn Hill
Right in the center of Prague, surrounded by narrow cobbled little streets, the Petryn Hill is a welcoming oasis. Petryn is an actual hill which rises 130 meters high right on the left bank of the Vltava River. The peak of the hill is connected with Mala Strana by a funicular, which was installed in 1891.
The most striking structure in this park is the Petryn Lookout Tower which happens to resemble the famous Eiffel Tower in Paris. It can be spotted from most places in the city, just like Prague Castle. The tower is over 60 meter high and it was erected in 1891 and used as an observation tower.
Nowadays, the metal structure is a very popular touristic attraction and offers two observation decks form where visitors can admire a 356 degrees view over the entire city and its suburbs. Though the view is truly spectacular, visitors should know there are exactly 299 steps to the top of the tower.
However, Petryn Tower is not the only highlight of this area. There’s also a former stadium, the Great Strahov Stadium, which is now used for concerts. Near Petryn Hill tourists can visit the beautiful Strahov Monastery grounds. The monastery dates back to 1143 and belongs to the Premonstratensian Order.
Petryn Hill also has several beautiful gardens and a large park. Those who decide to climb the hill by foot instead of taking the funicular will have the chance to feed the many squirrels which roam the grounds but also to enjoy the quiet atmosphere. Also make sure to visit the Rose Park and the Mirror Labyrinth, a miniature castle with an amazing hall with distorting mirrors.
Another peculiar building is the Church of St. Michel. This 17th century wooden church was actually relocated from the village of Velke Loucky in what today is Ukraine, to Kinskeho garden on Petryn hill. The building, which is over 17 meter tall and has three towers, was taken apart and put together in Prague in 1929.
8. Jewish Quarter
A very interesting part of Prague is the Jewish Quarter also known as Josefov. Completely surrounded by the streets of the Old Town, this area used to be called the Jewish Ghetto. Though the quarter has a very tumultuous history, nowadays it’s peppered with gorgeous buildings and a beautiful cemetery.
The Jewish community first settled in Prague during the 10th century, but three hundred years later the Jewish people were forced to abandon their houses and move into this area. For many centuries, they were banned from living in any other part of the city, until the middle of the 19th century, when the Jews were emancipated and were permitted to move wherever they wanted. From that moment on, the city went under major reconstructions and before the First World War started, most streets and buildings in the Jewish Quarter were destroyed. Only the Old Jewish Town Hal, six synagogues and a cemetery survived this reconstruction program.
However, this community’s most tumultuous times were during the Second World War. Though it was expected that the Nazi would demolish every single Jewish building in Prague, they decided to build here a museum dedicated to “an extinct race”. That is why Nazi troops actually brought here the most important Jewish artefacts that they came across throughout Europe. Since then the quarter was remodeled and now is one of the most beautiful areas in Prague.
Tourists who venture to explore this part of Prague will have the opportunity to admire some of the most striking streets in the city but also to learn more about Prague’s history.
The most important building in the Jewish Quarter is definitely the Old – New Synagogue. Though the building was erected during the 13th century, the synagogue was originally named “new” so it could be easily distinguished from another synagogue in the quarter, a much older one. Dating back to 1270, this is one of the city’s first Gothic buildings and the oldest active synagogue in Europe.
On the site where the former old synagogue was built, another similar building was erected in 1868 – the Spanish Synagogue. Inspired by the design of Leopoldstadter Temple in Vienna, this building is now a museum, but it has kept its impressive interiors.
The Jewish Town Hall is one of the symbols of the Jewish Quarter and one of the oldest buildings in the area. Built in 1586, in a Renaissance style, the building was the main meeting point for community leaders. Though today is closed for the public, its high tower still draws many tourists in Maiselova Street.
However, the most important part of the Jewish Quarter is the Old Jewish Cemetery. Used since the 15th century, the cemetery has about 12,000 tombs with more than 100,000 burials. The oldest preserved tomb dates back to 1439 and since then many notable personalities found their final resting place here, including the chief rabbi of Prague David Oppenheim, philanthropist Mordecai Meisel and Rabbi David Gans.
9. Sample Local Breweries
The Czech beer is one of the most popular one in Europe and a great reason for Czech people to be proud of. There are a plethora of breweries and microbreweries, most of them right in the city of Prague. In fact this “liquid bread” as the local affectionately named this beverage, is a true national treasure and Czech Republic is the land where Pilsner was created.
Beer has been brewed in this country for the past millennium and it still remains the most popular beverage in the Czech Republic. That is why no tourist should leave without sampling the famous Czech beer. There are plenty of types of beer to choose from, with different percentiles of alcohol content, from the regular 4 percent to the stronger 10 degrees called desitka and 12 degrees known as dvanactka. Or you can always try the unpasteurized beer which is only available in certain places. Some pubs offer beer straight from the tank and they are called tankovna pubs.
Much of Prague’s brewing history is actually connected to its many monasteries throughout the city. In fact, the first recorded beer was brewed in 993 AD at Brevnov Monastery. Nowadays, though the most popular beer in Prague is Staropramen, there are a large number of breweries or bars, which specialize in brewing beer, spread through Prague.
One of the most well-known breweries in the Czech capital is U Zlateho tygra, close to the Old Town Square. This was a popular spot for writers and artists, and in its recent history, Czech president Vaclav Havel invited his American counterpart, Bill Clinton, to a beer at this spot.
Another place worth visiting is U Cerneho vola, close to Prague Castle. This brewery is one of locals’ favorite. Tourists who are curious to find out more about the process of brewing beer can take a tour of one of the old breweries where they can discover mountains of oak barrels in which beer is fermented. Many of these places offer the opportunity to sample different types of this beverage, much like a vineyard.
Some bars have become actual microbreweries and they offer their thirsty patrons a number of new and interesting varieties of brews created right on the premises.
Tankovna pubs offer unpasteurized beers. Any normal beer that is usually sold in bars and shops is pasteurized, but some bars in Prague specialize in fresh brews. Of course, this type of beer goes bad very quickly so it’s only available in certain pubs. The unpasteurized beer is served straight from massive steel tubes or tanks.
Those interested in exploring all of the important breweries in Prague can join one of the many organized tours which take curious tourists through the main breweries in the city and also gives them the opportunity to see up close how this beverage is made.
10. Northern District
Though it’s further away from the city center, the Northern district has some very special attractions from the largest park in Prague to one of the best Zoological Gardens in the world.
The most important part of this district is Stromovka Park the largest one in Prague. A beautiful green oasis in the Northern district of the city, this park’s name means simply “place of trees” and it is a perfect destination especially for families with children. The park dates back to 1268 when Ottokar II of Bohemia used this area as his hunting grounds. Less than five centuries later the park was opened for the public, though its large number of deer was replaced by beautiful lanes and ponds, large meadows and even some horse stables.
Since it was opened for the masses, Stromovka Park has become a popular place for locals and even tourists who are willing to take the trip to the northern part of the city.
Stromovka, which occupies a 95 hectares piece of land, is perfect for a relaxing trip especially during summer and autumn, when the park is even more colorful.
Nearby, there are three other important highlights of Prague – the Troja Castle, the Prague Zoo and the Prague Botanical Garden.
The Troja Castle is a breathtaking Baroque palace which was completed in 1691. The building was created by a French architect and its design was inspired by French and Italian architecture. The palace’s gardens are well worth a visit especially for its large number of statues and the main terrace decorated with a rare collection of vases. For the past decades, the Troja Castle has been used as an exhibition center.
Tourists who love the outdoors will particularly enjoy a trip through the massive Botanical Garden. Located on the tight bank of Vltava River, the gardens have a tropical forest, a Japanese garden and several vineyards. The most popular part of the Botanical Garden is the “Fata Morgana” exhibit, a modern building embedded into the rocky terrain which houses a large greenhouse.
Visitors must take a stroll through the Japanese meditation garden and, in the end, enjoy some of the local Prague wine made in one of the several vineyards here.
One of the best zoos in the world is right next to Stromovka Park. Prague Zoo houses over 5,000 animals from 674 species from all over the world and it’s a true paradise for nature enthusiasts.
The zoo was opened for the first time to 1931 and since then it has contributed to conserving several endangered species including the Przewalski’s horse, a rare subspecies of the wild horse. In the past few decades, Prague Zoo was the first zoological park in Europe who managed to breed several rare species including the gharial, the red panda, Texas turtles and Chinese giant salamanders.
All in all, Prague Zoo is a great option for children and adults alike who would love to discover some of the most fascinating animal species in the world, most of them still on the endangered list.