I recently made my second foray to Prague and fell in love all over again. It’s hard to believe a city so beautiful actually exists in real life. Throughout its 1,100-year history, Prague has been influenced by major European powers, including the Holy Roman Empire and the Hapsburg monarchy, which each left its unique cultural stamp on the city while maintaining the original urban layout. Fortunately, despite being bombed during World World II, most of Prague’s historical architecture survived unscathed. In fact, Prague has so many medieval buildings that it’s impossible to admire them all in one short trip. Some, however, are not to be missed. Here are a few of my favorites, along with some tips I gleaned along the way:
When you hear the word “Prague,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For me, it’s the Charles Bridge. Yes, it’s crowded with tourists and vendors, musicians and beggars, but none of that detracts from the bridge’s ethereal beauty or marvelous views. Some might even say that it adds to the bridge’s charm, giving it a “lived-in” feel. The effect is magnified by the rows of saints peering down from their pedestals. Commissioned in the 14th century by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, the cobblestone bridge was once the only link between the two halves of the city.
St. Vitus Cathedral
Prepare to be gobsmacked when you enter this towering Gothic palace of worship. I found myself gasping at every turn! Construction on St. Vitus Cathedral, the largest in the Czech Republic, began in 1344 when Charles IV laid the foundation stone. The exterior is a riot of flying buttresses while the interior ornaments positively gleam thanks to a profusion of stained glass windows. The cathedral contains many tombs, with pride of place going to Ferdinand I. Though it’s the tomb of St. John of Nepomuk that truly impresses – it was made with two tons of silver!
Tip: The perfect time to visit St. Vitus Cathedral is at noon, when many other tourists will be watching the changing of the guard ceremony at the castle’s front gate. Otherwise, prepare to wait in line.
Touring this impressive chateau just might be my favorite thing we did during our time in Prague. We purchased package tickets which gave us admission to the palace museum and the 1pm classical music concert, as well as a 10% discount coupon for the excellent cafe. Although located within the extensive grounds of Prague Castle, Lobkowicz Palace isn’t included on any of the castle combination tickets. That’s because the palace and all its treasures are owned privately by the Lobkowicz family. They were able to reclaim much of their confiscated property and furnishings – at considerable personal expense – thanks to the restitution laws enacted by the Czech government. It’s a fascinating story that you can read more about here. The audio guide for the museum exhibits (included with admission) is narrated by Prince William Lobkowicz, along with his wife and mother, and it’s this personal connection which makes the visit so special.
Prague Castle is said to be the largest medieval castle in the world, although it doesn’t look like a castle in the traditional sense of the word. But what it lacks in medieval fortifications, it makes up for with palatial sprawl. The “castle” is actually a collection of palaces and churches surrounding wide courtyards and flanked by lush gardens. The center piece is St. Vitus Cathedral, which towers above all the other buildings, but there is plenty more to explore. We purchased a combination ticket (CZK 250) that gave us entry to the cathedral, as well as the Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica and Golden Lane. We began our explorations inside St. Vitus at noon and managed to stay one step ahead of the hordes at each subsequent stop.
The Dancing House
This whimsical structure was built in the mid-1990s on a riverfront plot that had been left vacant since the WWII bombings. The gracefully curved building is said to resemble a pair of dancers – specifically Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire – and stands in stark contrast to the heavy Baroque and Art Nouveau styles next door. Though the Dancing House was originally controversial with the locals, it’s now hard to imagine Prague without it!
The Astronomical Clock
This stunning piece of art adorns the Gothic tower of Prague’s Old Town Hall and dates to the 15th century. The colorful dials chart the progress of the moon and sun as well as which zodiac signs they are in. At the top of every hour, the two windows open and the 12 apostles parade past. They don’t extend out at all which makes them very difficult to see unless you’re standing directly in front of the clock. Just know that you will have lots of company.
Old Town Square
Sure, it feels a bit like Disneyland, but no trip to Prague would be complete without a stop by Old Town Square. The fantastical architecture is a mix of extravagantly painted Baroque and spiky-topped Gothic spires, with some Rococo and Art Nouveau thrown in for good measure. Jazz bands and costumed buskers compete for the crowd’s attention, while horse-drawn carriages add an air of romance. For a birds-eye view of the action, you can pay five dollars to climb to the town of the Town Hall tower; for one dollar less you can enjoy a refreshing mug of Czech beer on the rooftop terrace of the U Prince Hotel. Which do you think we did?
There are still plenty of worthwhile places that we didn’t get to explore during this visit. We really wanted to see the Old Jewish Cemetery, but the line for tickets was long and unmoving and we decided we didn’t have enough time to wait. I also want to stop by Stahov Library and the Clementinum the next time I’m in town. Because there most definitely WILL be a next time!
Have you been to Prague? What do you think are the can’t-miss spots?