If there was ever a fairy-tale city, Prague is it. There’s a castle on a hill, UNESCO-protected Easter egg-hued architecture, stone bridges spanning a river, and sculptures galore. The gently rolling cityscape is a sea of red tile roofs and spiky church spires. Music and the sweet scent of freshly baked trdelniks waft in the air. In short, I don’t think there’s another place like it on earth.
The trouble is, the secret is most definitely out. Flag/umbrella/plastic rose/silver ladle-wielding guides herd groups of tourists through the old town in an unending stream. I visited in the middle of October – supposedly the off season – and the place was still heaving with people. But take a few steps into one of Prague’s many gardens and parks, and all the craziness disappears. It’s almost as if you’ve entered another world.
While every visitor to Prague should absolutely spend some time admiring the historic architecture and marvelous sights, it’s also important to stop every so often to soak up the city’s unique atmosphere and sweeping beauty.
Prague Castle is at the top of every visitor’s agenda, and for good reason. But it’s the Palace Gardens Below Prague Castle that really shouldn’t be missed. These are different from the Gardens Under the Ramparts, the green space running along the southern edge of the castle. The Palace Gardens, once the private backyards of 17th century aristocrats, are now a series of interconnected and steeply terraced gardens that anyone willing to pay the small entrance fee can wander through. Amazingly, I had the gorgeous and winding pathways nearly to myself!
I spent hours meandering through the terraces, relishing the shifting views of Prague from level to level. There are many stairs in the Palace Gardens, but also plenty of benches and hidden alcoves, places I could have happily sat reading or sipping a glass of wine. (If only the gardens had a wine bar!)
If you don’t want to pay the Palace Gardens admission or are unable to climb down the stairs, the Gardens Under the Ramparts is a great alternative. This public park on the grounds of Prague Castle is free to explore and offers spectacular views from its walls. You just might have to elbow some other visitors out of the way first.
Another terraced wonderland is the Vrtba Garden, which was designed in 1720 for the Count of Vrtba, an important court official. Thanks to Vrtba Garden’s tucked-away location in a private courtyard, I once again found myself almost completely alone in a city that receives over four million visitors annually.
Vrtba Gardens are wonderfully ornate, with fountains and sculptures interspersed with manicured box hedges and ivy-covered walls. Birds chirped from the confines of the large aviary while neighborhood cats patrolled the grounds. I could see a family enjoying a leisurely lunch on their patio while dogs played at their feet. The atmosphere was so warm and inviting that I sat on a bench and read for an hour!
The serene expanses of Wallenstein Gardens belie their callous benefactor. The gardens were designed for Albrecht von Wallenstein, a brutally successful general in the army of the Holy Roman Empire. Wallenstein reportedly had 26 houses razed to make way for his vast palace, now home to the Czech Republic’s Senate. The interior gardens have been painstakingly restored and are now a free public park.
Notable features of Wallenstein Gardens include a loggia painted with scenes from the Trojan wars, a grotto with an artificial stalactite wall, an aviary, multiple fountains, bronze sculptures of Greek gods, a large carp pond and a family of peacocks that roams freely around the grounds.
The Strahov Monastery gardens flow down the hill below the cloister between Petrin Hill and the Hradcany neighborhood. What was once the monastic vineyard is now a public park boasting some of the best views in the city. I watched the sunset from atop the hill with a handful of locals and like-minded tourists, an experience infinitely more enjoyable that jostling for space with thousands of others on the Charles Bridge!
The path through Strahov Monastery gardens leads directly to the Questenberk Hotel, which I was happy to call home during my stay in Prague. Dating to 1620, the Questenberk building was originally the home of Sir Caspar Von Questenberg, the German Abbott of Strahov Monastery. The neighborhood was free of crowds and blissfully quiet at night.
Which of Prague’s gardens would you most like to explore?