Prague is often referred as the ‘Golden City’. The Czech capital on the Moldau River gets this name for its rich history. There are countless buildings in baroque, gothic, jugendstil or brutalist style.
The city has hardly had to deal with wars or natural disasters and Prague has notably few new building developments in the centre. Narrow streets, impressive squares and small towers. The small towers are the decor of a modern, trendy city, with a surprising number of legends.
The city feels like one large open-air museum. The Royal Route is famous, with the Old Town Square, the Astronomical Clock, the Small Side, the Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle, which the Czechs are rightfully proud of. However, Prague particularly illustrates how smoothly the past flows over into current life. There are many bars, restaurants around the city and there is a vibrant nightlife.
There is a remarkable history behind the name Prague – Praha in Czech -, as supposedly is a derivative of the word práh, which means threshold. These thresholds were used everywhere in the Moldau River in the past. The water cascades down these thresholds with a lot of noise, giving the city an extraordinary character. At least, this is the version of the first Czech historians. The famous Austrian author Gustav Meyrink thinks differently. He said it is not a coincidence, because Prague is threshold between this life and the next. And in this city the transition is much quicker than in other places.
In fact, this part of the Czech Republic has been inhabited much longer. But it is not until long after the Bronze Age that the city gains any significance. Actually it is not a city, but the Prague Castle. This enormous building was built in the year 880, constructed for the purpose of protecting Bořivoj I. He is the oldest sovereign of the Přemysliden, who ruled over the Bohemian Empire from the 9th century until the 14th century.
The castle gradually grew into a city. Within the walls, various Christian churches were built at the end of the 9th and through the course of the 10th century. On the banks of the Moldau (currently called Malá Strana), small settlements arose and Prague slowly grew to become the political and economic centre of the country.
On the other side of the Moldau, a second castle is built in the first half of the 10th century. The Vyšehrad gains in stature when Vratislav II takes up residence in the castle around 1070. He also founds numerous churches, including the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, which undergoes a number of changes through the years. A lot of German and Jewish merchants settle in between the two castles in the 11th and 12th century.
The city gradually grows in the centuries that follow. Remarkably enough it is shielded from wars, large fires and other natural catastrophes. However in the 20th century, the capital of the former Czechoslovakia is the scene of political confrontations. On 25 February 1948, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia seizes political power.
After twenty years, the population held mass demonstrations against the oppression, leading to the Prague Spring. The revolt was knocked down by the government with extreme force, aided by the Soviet Union and neighboring countries like Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall was taken down, Czechoslovakia was also released from communist rule.
Prague flourishes yet again. Even though after 1992 it was no longer the capital of Czechoslovakia, but only of the Czech Republic. It does not alter the fact the Gothic Age, Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo and modern day life are intertwined.
In Prague it is difficult to choose what to go and see. The city has countless characteristic houses, squares, churches, palaces and obviously, the fortresses. The centre is compact, all the sights to see are no more than 2.5 kilometers apart, which is ideal to start your own quest into the history of this city. It is not necessary to see everything; perhaps ‘catching’ the atmosphere is what is most important. This is quite possible to do on a city trip.
Best things to do in Prague:
Take time for the Royal Route
It is by far the most popular route of Prague. It passes all the famous sites scattered across the town. It is best to leave early in the morning, to avoid the bigger crowds of tourists. Start at the Powder Tower in the east and walk by the Municipal House, the Old Town Square, the Astronomical Clock, across the Charles Bridge to the St. Nicholas Church, to end up at the wonderful Prague Castle. It’s an intriguing route which can easily keep you occupied all day. As long as you have time for a walk, go for it.
Taste the ‘forbidden’ alcoholic drink Absinthe
It’s green and can be of 70% alcohol. It is supposedly very addictive. Therefor it was forbidden in several countries for quite a long time. Prague has many Absinthe bars, ideal for tasting. Most of them are fittingly in green, the color of the drink.
Celebrate the famous Spring Festival
The inhabitants of Prague really celebrate the Spring season. There are many music shows, both indoors and outdoors. The festival started in 1952 and aims to give young performers an opportunity to present themselves. It opens on May 12th, the day that Czech composer Bedřich Smetana died. It usually ends in early June.
Meet the spirit of Kafka on a ghost tour
It is a bit obscure, but Prague has a real history of ghosts and other matters of the occult. One example is Kafka’s spirit, who still seems to be wandering around here. During the special ghost tour you will hear of the many strange events that occurred in this city. Stories even involving the likes of Mozart and Albert Einstein. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, you will definitely hear some interesting tales.
Walk through the Golden Lane in the evening
The Golden Lane at Prague Castle is certainly worth a visit. But the best time for a stroll is in the evening. When streetlights create a yellow glow on the small houses. The many shops add to the ambiance even if there is little left of the legend.
It is hard to imagine King Rudolf II once ordered alchemists to produce gold out of metal here. The famous author Franz Kafka used to live at number 2 for some time. His former home is now a Kafka bookstore and museum.
Enjoy the stories of a Jewish guide
The Jews were among the first settlers in Prague. Nowadays, it is a smaller community, but still one that likes to share their history. Learn all about their past during a walk through the Jewish quarter with a Jewish guide. He will guide you past the Old Jewish Cemetery and the various synagogues. You will also pass the house where Franz Kafka was born. Most extraordinary is the legend of the ‘Golem’. During the 16th century, rabbi Jehoeda ben Betsalel Löw created this legend.
Walk across the Charles Bridge
The Charles Bridge is the most famous bridge in Prague. A visit is a must. Even more so is a look at the bridge tower on the south side of the bridge. This structure is considered to be one of the most beautiful Gothic buildings in the world. Go there early in the morning when it’s not too crowded yet. Or catch a more crowded sunset. Ideal to take photos, especially when the sky sets. But you will never be by yourself…
Drink or have a meal at the Municipal House
The Municipal House (also referred to as the Representative House) is a good place to have lunch or a cup of coffee. This Jugendstil house is beautiful on the inside but don’t forget to check out the facade before entering. The house is a Prague variant, which several artists were given the privilege to put their stamp on.
This is still apparent in the art deco café, in particular. Have a seat and take it all in. You can also attend a concert of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, which plays in the Smetana hall.
Discover all the building styles in the Prague Castle
If you walk around the Prague Castle, you will notice the different building styles belonging to the era the relevant section was built in. This largest castle in the world, took a total of 600 years to be built. Therefore you can clearly see Roman as well as Gothic influences and Classicism in and around the castle. Some of the influences (Gothic, late-Gothic and Viennese classicism) can be seen in the St. Vitus Cathedral, while the St. George Basilica is a prominent Roman monument.
Go on a romantic stroll on the island of Kampa
Kampa is a peninsula in the Moldau river, less than a kilometer in length. It is located right in front of the Malá Strana (Little Quarter) district. This is a nice place to go for a stroll amid the picturesque houses and the remarkable, English-style park. Especially at sunset you will see many couples in love walking here. The island is easy to reach by the famous Charles Bridge. From the bridge there is a staircase leading to the island.
Learn the Bohemian, Moravian and Slovakian history
The National Museum displays the role of this part of Europe in history. Which was an important role, although not many people are aware of this. One prominent person was Maria Theresia, the Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia. The museum is on Wenceslas Square. Look also at the beautiful palace that the museum is located in.
Read the scribbles of the prisoners
They are recollections of the dark history of the Black Tower. Written on the wall. The scribbles of the prisoners who have spent their lives here. You can still see them in some places, so look on the walls. It’s one of many conspicuous characteristics of the tower that stems from 1135. It’s name is not from the past however, but was given to the building after a fire had blackened the walls. The Black Tower is still part of the Prague Castle.
Attend a classical concert or the opera
Prague is a city of opera and classical concerts. There are plenty of opportunities to attend a performance. The National Theater is the most famous theater of the Czech Republic for ballet, drama and opera performances. However, if you love opera, you actually should go to the State Opera or the Estates Theater, where many concerts of Mozart are held. This is the venue where Don Giovanni was first performed.
Gaze at a monstrance with 6,220 diamonds
It is the absolute Pièce de resistance of Loreto. A place of pilgrimage in Prague, which in part is a copy of the Italian Catholic place of pilgrimage Loreto. The treasure chamber is famous for its many museum pieces, including the monstrance. The metal holder with the consecrated host is decorated with 6,220 diamonds and weighs 12 kilos. Furthermore, there are valuable robes, jewels, bowls and vases on display.
Taste the local beer at U Fleku
Beer is part of the Czechs. The relatively unknown U Fleku is one of the oldest beer breweries in the Czech Republic. They have been producing beer the traditional way since 1499. You can learn more in several ways, like on a brewery tour. But U Fleku also has a restaurant and bar here as well. The stories are literally on the wall here.
Besides this, Prague has plenty of nice pubs you can visit, where you will find the slightly better-known Urguell and many other types of beer. Go ahead and have a taste.
Learn to understand the Astronomical Clock
It is one of the greatest attractions of Prague, but few people understand how the Astronomical Clock works. The clock indicates five different kinds of time:
- the local time in Prague.
- the time, measured in a division of 12 ‘hours’ between sunrise and sunset, the so-called ‘unequal hours’; from day to day these will be longer or shorter, provided that the period between sunrise and sunset is different every day.
- the time, measured in a division of 24 hours, indicating how long the sun is away from the moment (24) of setting, also referred to as the Bohemian or Italian hours.
- the position of the sun in the zodiac.
- the star time.
It’s not really easy, but if you take your time to look into this a bit more, you will be able to see when the sun will set and how long it will stay light today. Every hour, Christ and His apostles come out, which often creates waiting lines of tourists.
See the miracle of Jesus at the Maria de Victoria church
It is an extraordinary sight. Many residents stand before the ‘Infant Jesus of Prague’ calling for a miracle. For parents who are very ill, or towering debts or other types of problems people may sometimes be faced with. Around the statue in the Maria de Victoria church a lot of gifts are spread out, many of which are jewels. The church was built in 1611 and the statue has been here since 1613.
The statue is alternately dressed in one of 39(!) robes, specially made. Even Maria Theresia of Austria embroidered a robe with gold thread for the Infant Jesus. The church (and the statue) are in Malá Strana.
See the peace graffiti at the John Lennon wall
It is an ultimate expression of ideals at the time of the communist regime. In the 1980s the former Republic of Czechoslovakia was under control of the former USSR. Following the murder of John Lennon in 1980, an ordinary wall transformed into a living call for peace and love. People from all over the world have filled the wall with graffiti inspired by Lennon and with lyrics from Beatles-songs. A very impressive statement. You can find it on Kampa Island.
Climb the Petrin Lookout Tower
Petrin Park is a green haven in the city. On top you will find the Petrin Lookout Tower. Sometimes jokingly referred to as the small Eiffel tower. Indeed the 60-meter high tower is a look-alike, but it is particularly famous for its view of the city. The tower was built in 1891 in honor of the national exposition. You can climb Petrin hill yourself, but you can also take the tram to go up.
Ride in a carriage
It looks a bit old-fashioned, but a ride with a horse and carriage befits this city. Especially the Old Town, where you will have plenty of time to take a good look around. The driver may help you to find the various attractions even if the route is fixed in advance. You will find horses and carriages at several locations in the city.
Best time to visit Prague
Prague can be visited all year long. Only in winter temperatures may drop below zero and there may be a lot of snow, which in turn, adds a lot of character to the city.
Late spring, summer and autumn are the most popular times. The peak of the tourist season is in July and August.
Prague, like many other big cities, has a problem with pickpockets, who mainly target tourists. Look after your belongings, especially on public transport.
How do I get there?
From many cities in Europe, it is easy to drive to Prague. The airport Prague-Ruzyně is at 17 kilometers northwest of the city center. There are many airlines, including low-budget ones from all over the world, that fly into Prague.