Jo Castro recently completed our Europe Jewel tour. Here she gives her insights into the incredible city of Prague. Read on for top tips!
City of a hundred spires
Prague is situated in the heart of Europe. It’s a magical place of spires, turrets and medieval history where if you arrive as the moon is rising and light is growing dim you could be forgiven if, like me, you feel that you’ve been deposited firmly into the middle of a fairy tale.
A magical city
Horses with carriages clip-clop beneath imposing buildings, vintage cars toot as they round tight corners, trams whizz down the paved streets, and musicians play to rapt mini audiences on the famous Charles Bridge, their notes winging out over the gracious Vltava River (The Moldau).
Paris of the East
We visited in Springtime and found al-fresco kerb-side restaurants decorated with candles. There were tulips and daffodils in small tubs and baskets beside cafe chairs draped with bright red blankets for customers to wrap around their shoulders to ward off the night time chill. There was music in the air and I began to understand how Prague has also garnered the name, Paris of the East.
To a large extent, the history of the Czech nation is mirrored in the rich cultural heritage of Prague. The city at once exudes Baroque gloom, Renaissance prettiness and an Art Deco sexiness. Architectural styles are a fusion Cubist, Revivalist, Renaissance, Neo-Renaissance, Gothic, Neo-Gothic, Norman and some evidence of what could be described as Communist utilitarian.
The Old City
Prague’s history dates back to the 8th Century when it was first formed as a permanent settlement on a high rocky outcrop above the Vltava River. The fabulous castle, which you can visit today, was built here, and this area is the oldest part of Prague.
Capital of central Bohemia
King Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, was the main influencer in Prague’s development from around 1348, building the city to become what was then, the third-largest in the world. He built the Charles University of Prague, the first university in Central Europe and so attracted artists and thinkers, and Prague became a cultural centre, known as the Rome of the North and capital of central Bohemia.
Charles IV’s influence is everywhere
We were shown around on a guided architectural tour by Rob, who’s half Czech and half Nigerian. His knowledge is superb, and his wit had us chuckling – even more so after a large pint of Prague’s pale beer at lunchtime.
The tour took us on a journey through the city’s history from its beginning through to the present and we were awed by the imposing Gothic churches that stand alongside Baroque and flamboyant art deco buildings, some of the most expensive and sought after real estate in Prague.
Occasionally intermingled with the old, you’ll find sombre square lined 1960’s communist utilitarian architecture (InterContinental Hotel is an example) which paints another aspect of Prague’s evolution as a city.
Fun Fast Facts
Rob told us that Prague consists of five cities: Old Town, Lesser Town, New Town, The Castle, Jewish Quarter.
Many ‘free’ guided tours set off from around Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock. Tour Guides have bright umbrellas in different colors. Around the corner, paid tours and hop on/off buses, vintage car excursions, and horse-drawn carriages are evident by the roadside.
The Astronomical Clock was built in 1411 and at the time was a technological wonder. Its working parts and moving characters are ancient so although a tourist guide classed it as ‘the most overrated tourist attraction’, you have to see it and be impressed by its age and the fact that the moving display, a spectacle on the hour every hour, was even possible back in those days. So go watch the Procession of Apostles, as small statues on the clock do their thing and see if you can pick out the allegories depicting four virtues and the four sins.
Medieval copyright protection consisted of burning people’s eyes out – especially if they had knowledge that was not to be passed on.
Many people throughout Prague’s history have been thrown off the tall bridges and buildings to their death. “The last was a Government Minister in 1948,” Rob our Prague guide told us.
Prague’s buildings are deceiving because what you see is not always what you get. Ground-level has become steadily higher due to silt build up because of destructive floods over the centuries and many buildings have 2 – 6 floors of cellars beneath them. Ground floors have become basements and flooding is still a major concern.
“The Jewish quarter houses a cemetery where due to lack of space 140,000 bodies with just 12,000 visible gravestones, are buried 12 to 13 layers deep,” Rob told us.
Adolf Hitler intended to retain Prague’s Jewish Ghetto as an exotic museum of an extinct race. “Prague houses the richest collection of Synagogues and Jewish artefacts in the Western World,” Rob told us. You’ll find the Jewish Museum dotted around the Jewish quarter in six different places (within walking distance).
Franz Kafka is Prague’s most famous writer. He lived from 1882 to 1924 and died of TB. A manic depressive, his writing is heavy, often depressive and deeply philosophical.
On Charles Bridge and also on a small bridge below it you’ll see a selection of padlocks. “These are love locks. Couples engrave their names on the locks, attach them to the railings and then throw the keys into the river hoping that according to myth their relationship will then last forever,” Rob told us. “These days, the more savvy, use combination locks!” he joked.
Things to Do in 24 hours
Visit the Everlasting Markets in the Old Town Square (these change according to events and seasons). Old Town Square is the thriving heart of old Prague and it’s choc-a-bloc with historical sights.
Visit the Jewish Quarter and the old synagogues dating back to around 1868.
Visit the 12th Century Old Town Hall and climb the tower for magnificent views across the rooftops. Get down in time just before the hour strikes to watch the Astronomical Clock display.
Rise early and visit Charles Bridge before the crowds get there. “The Bridge had its genesis at 5.31 on 9th July 1357, an auspicious date decreed by Charles IV on the advice of astronomers and it was completed in the early 15th century under the reign of Wenceslas IV,” our city guide Rob said. It connects the Stare Mesto and Mala Strana districts.
Walk up to the Castle (or take the funicular) through quaint paved streets where there is a myriad of small restaurants, curio shops and scenes to photograph. “It’s the biggest castle in the world, and it’s really a town with a castle in it. Once upon a time it was surrounded by farmland, and had a thriving monastery where beer is still made,” Rob told us. For your exertion you’ll be rewarded with a fabulous view, a daunting Gothic cathedral (The Cathedral of St Vitus, that took one thousand years from 925 to 1928 to build) cafes, shady squares and courtyards and a plethora of imposing architecture.
What to do at night in Prague
On your free night in Prague, you could just walk around and soak up the atmosphere, or perhaps take in a musical concert or show. Other options would be to do a Beer and Brewery Tour or a Prague Castle after-dark tour, or a dinner cruise on the river. There are several places along the Vltava River from where boat tours depart and quite a few different options. Going on a tour at night gives you a very different view of the city.
Have you visited Prague? What would you suggest visitors see or do?