Historical, whimsical, hedonistic and cynical, Prague bewilders its visitors and charms them. Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, tourism and investment has poured in, turning the previously ramshackle Communist capital into a buzzing Western metropolis.
Flowing from the east towards Germany, the Vltava divides Prague in the centre. Hradčany and Malá Strana, once home to the Austro-Hungarian elite, sit primly on the left bank, faced by the noisier commercial quarters, Staré Město, Josefov and Nové Město. Hradčany, which houses the castle and St Vitus’ Cathedral, tumbles into Malá Strana (Little Quarter), a maze of cobbles, carved doorhandles and stickleback roofs. Over the river is Staré Město (Old Town), a delicate web of alleys and passages running towards Staroměstské náměstí, the old market square. Within Staré Město is the old Jewish quarter, Josefov, which now encloses a luxury shopping district. Nové Město (New Town), the most central part of the modern city, spans the largest area of old Prague, with blocks stretching south and east of the old town in long strides.
Prince Bořivoj, an early Christian, founded the first Czech dynasty in 870, and his grandson, Prince Václav (the Good King Wenceslas of the song), became the Czech patron saint before being offed by his younger brother Boleslav I. Prague experienced a golden age under the urbane emperor, Charles IV, a polylingual patron of the arts whose court was the heart of fourteenth-century Europe. Charles founded the university and as well as an entire new quarter, Nové Město, built the Charles Bridge and St Vitus’ Cathedral. A long period of Austro-Hungarian rule gave Prague its Teutonic facades and high-minded coffeehouses, while the National Revival reasserted the Slavic identity of the city and the onion dome rose again. The short-lived First Republic, modelled on American democracy, crashed when Nazi troops marched into Czechoslovakia, and President Beneš’s decision to accept German “protection” was a dark moment in the nation‘s history, but saved the city from decimation. In 1948 Communism arrived in a wave of stained concrete, bringing a few architectural pearls along with the swine. The period since ’89 has seen rapid construction, but with a few exceptions, such as Jean Nouvel’s Golden Angel mall and the playful Dancing House, it’s been conservative and timid. Not so the restaurants, hotels, bars and clubs, which have re-awoken Prague’s slumbering decadence.
Prague has hundreds of hotels and hostels, and prices are similar to any other European capital. The central hotels are located in Staré Město, Nové Město and Malá strana, or you can go further out to pay less. Vinohrady is picturesque, with great wine bars and restaurants, Žižkov is down at heel but lively at night, Vyšehrad is pretty and sedate. There are plenty of travel agencies, but it’s cheaper to book direct. You can find apartments and rooms on wwww.prague-city-apartments.cz, wwww.happyhouserentals.com and wwww.city-info.cz. The Charles University offers student rooms over the summer; contact the booking office at Voršilská 1, Nové Město (Mon–Fri only; t224 930 010; beds July to mid-Sept; from 350Kč).
The Basilica of St George (Bazilika sv Jiří), with its beautiful Romanesque interior, was originally built in 1173. Concerts are often held here. The nearby Convent of Saint George houses a collection of sixteenth- to eighteenth-century Czech art.
Lying at the heart of central Europe, Prague has a continental climate: winters can be bitterly cold, summers correspondingly baking. The best time to visit Prague, in terms of weather, is either late spring and early autumn.
Summer in the city can be stifling, but the real reason for avoiding the peak season is that it can get uncomfortably crowded in the centre – finding a place to eat in the evening, let alone securing a room, can become a trial.
If you’re looking for good weather, April is the earliest you can guarantee at least some sunny days, and October is the last warm month.
The city looks beautiful under winter’s snowy blanket, though it does get very cold, and it can also fall prey to “inversions”, which smother the city in a hazy grey smog for a week or sometimes more.
Linking Malá Strana to Staré Město is Prague’s most celebrated landmark, the Charles Bridge (Karlův most), built in 1357. At the centre is Czech patron saint John of Nepomuk, thrown off the bridge by Wenceslas IV for refusing to divulge the queen’s confessions. It’s best seen at dawn, or late at night, when the crowds are gone.
Dox showcases modern painting, sculpture, architecture, design and photography. Though still a newcomer, it’s hosted the likes of Andy Warhol and Damian Hirst, as well as Czechs like sculptor David Černý and émigré architect Jan Kaplický.
Prague is renowned for its pubs and bars though things can get hectic at weekends as stag dos descend on the city. Pub crawls are a good way to cover a lot of ground – the best is Prague Underground (wwww.pragueunderground.com), which meets at the Astronomical Clock at 9pm Mon–Sat, or try market leader Prague Pub Crawl (wwww.pubcrawl.cz). Pubs close between 11pm and 2am, so for late-night drinking head to the city centre’s bars and clubs. All-night bars with gambling (herna) are dotted around Prague, but are grubby and unsafe.
There was a time when Prague food was limited to meat and dumplings, but now you can find anything from French to Korean to Mexican. Restaurants are affordable, especially at lunchtime (11.30am–1.30pm) when pubs and bistros run cheap daily offers. Prices soar in the tourist district but quality lags behind. Prague has a thriving café culture, and watching the city slip by from an old-fashioned coffeehouse, with a slice of strudel or honey cake and a book, is one of the city’s great pleasures.
You can find full entertainment listings on the Prague Events Calendar (wwww.pragueeventscalendar.cz), Prague Experience (wwww.pragueexperience.cz), or in the Day&Night section of the rather overpriced English-language paper the Prague Post (sold in the kiosks on Wenceslas Square). Small classical concerts are held in churches in the tourist district every night – you’ll be pelted with fliers as you walk through town, or you can find listings online.
Franz Kafka was born in 1883 to middle-class Czech Jewish parents who ran a haberdashery in Old Town. His ambivalent relationship with Prague is reflected in his trademark tone of anxious claustrophobia – “A cage went in search of a bird”, he once jotted in a notebook. You can see the building where he slaved away as a clerk at na poříčí 7, and his homes on Golden Lane (no. 22) and Old Town Square (Oppelt building). Kafka went to fortnightly meetings at Café Louvre and also frequented Café Savoy in Malá Strana, where he first met the actor Isaac Lowy, who re-awakened his interest in Jewish culture. At the Kafka Museum at Cihelna 2b you can see first editions and manuscripts, personal letters, diaries and drawings – a peephole into one of the most intriguing minds of the twentieth century.
Golden Lane (Zlatá ulička), round the corner from the basilica, is a street of toy-sized tradesmens’ cottages, as bright and compact as a watercolour box. Franz Kafka briefly lived at no. 22, his sister’s house, during World War I.
Aristocratic palaces lie across Hradčanské náměstí like a pod of beached whales. A passage down the side of the Archbishop’s Palace leads to Šternberg Palace, home to a European art collection that contains pieces by Rubens, Cranch and El Greco. At Jiřská 3 is Lobkowicz Palace, full of aristocratic bric-a-brac. A passage at Pohořelec 8 leads to Strahov Monastery (Strahovský klášter) with its exquisite Baroque library, which displays peculiar and sublime artifacts from illuminated manuscripts to dried whale penises.
Northwest of Old Town Square is Josefov, a mixture of narrow cobbled streets – the remains of the old Jewish ghetto, and wide Art Nouveau boulevards – the legacy of 1890s slum clearance.
The Old Jewish Cemetery is a poignant reminder of the ghetto, its inhabitants overcrowded even in death. To the south is the Pinkas Synagogue, inscribed with the names of 80,000 Czechoslovak Jews killed by the Nazis. The Old–New Synagogue, Europe’s oldest synagogue, is the heart of Prague’s Jewish community. Opposite is the Jewish Town Hall (Židovská radnice), with its distinctive anticlockwise clock. East of Pařížská is the gorgeous neo-Byzantine Spanish Synagogue (Španělská synagoga), which hosts classical concerts.
The Mucha Museum, at Panská 7, is dedicated to the Czech Art Nouveau designer and painter Alfons Mucha.
Situated, with delicious irony, above McDonalds, the Museum of Communism at Na Přikopě 10 draws a detailed picture of life behind the Iron Curtain in all its grim monotony, from propaganda and labour camps to shopping and TV.
The Museum of Decorative Arts, a neo-Renaissance palace opposite the Rudolfinum, shows a splendid collection of glass, clothes, pottery, clocks, dresses and other ephemera of daily life spanning a thousand years.
Squatting ponderously on one edge of náměstí Republiky is Obecní dům (the Municipal House), a delightful example of Czech Art Nouveau containing a concert hall, restaurant, café and frescoes by Mucha. You can get in by taking the overpriced guided tour, or drink tea in the gilded café for rather less.
The Old Royal Palace (Starý královský palác), across the courtyard from the south door of the cathedral, was home to Bohemian royalty from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries. The massive Vladislav Hall (Vladislavský sál) where the early Bohemian kings were elected, is now used for swearing Czech presidents into office.
Head south down Karmelitská and you will see Petřín hill rising above, a bucolic spot ideal for a picnic. Above the funicular railway is Eiffel Tower lookalike Petřín Tower, which you can climb or ascend by lift.
With a population of just one and a quarter million, Prague (Praha to the Czechs) is relatively small as capital cities go. It originally developed as four separate self-governing towns and a Jewish ghetto, whose individual identities and medieval street plans have been preserved, to a greater or lesser extent, to this day.
Almost everything of any historical interest and many of the best places to visit in Prague lie within these compact central districts, the majority of which are easy to explore quickly on foot. Only in the last hundred years has Prague spread beyond its ancient perimeter, and its suburbs now stretch across the hills for miles on every side.
Prague is divided into two unequal halves by the River Vltava. The steeply inclined left bank is dominated by the castle district of Hradčany, which contains the city’s most obvious sight: Pražský Hrad or Prague Castle (known simply as the Hrad in Czech), home to the city’s cathedral, and the old royal palace and gardens, as well as a host of museums and galleries.
Squeezed between the castle hill and the river are the picturesque Baroque palaces and houses of Malá Strana – a neighbourhood of twisting cobbled lanes and secret walled gardens – home to the Czech parliament and some of the city’s embassies, and dominated by the green dome and tower of the church of Sv Mikuláš.
At the southern end of Malá Strana, a funicular railway carries you away from the cramped streets to the top of Petřín hill, the city’s most central leafy escape, with a wonderful view across the river and historical centre.
The city’s labyrinth of twisting streets is at its most bamboozling in the original medieval hub of the city, Staré Město – literally, the “Old Town” – on the right bank of the Vltava. Karlův most, or Charles Bridge, its main link with the opposite bank, is easily the most popular historical monument, and the best place from which to view Prague Castle. Staré Město’s other great showpiece is its main square, Staroměstské naměstí (Old Town Square), where you can view Prague’s famous astronomical clock and its lively hourly show.
Enclosed within the boundaries of Staré Město is the former Jewish quarter, or Josefov. The ghetto walls have long since gone and the whole area was remodelled at the turn of the twentieth century, but various synagogues, a medieval cemetery and a town hall survive as powerful reminders of a community that has existed here for more than a millennium.
South and east of the Old Town is the large sprawling district of Nové Město, whose main arteries make up the city’s commercial and business centre. The heart of Nové Město is Václavské naměstí (Wenceslas Square), focus of the political upheavals of the modern-day republic.
Further afield lie various suburbs, most of which were developed only in the last hundred years or so. One exception is Vyšehrad, which was among the original fortress settlements of the newly arrived Slavs more than a thousand years ago and is now the final resting-place of leading Czech artists of the modern age, including composers Smetana and Dvořák.
To the east is the eminently desirable residential suburb of Vinohrady, peppered with gentrified parks and squares, and neighbouring Žižkov, whose two landmarks – the Žižkov monument and the futuristic TV tower – are visible from far and wide.
Nineteenth-century suburbs also sprang up to the north of the city centre in Holešovice, now home to Prague’s main modern art museum, Veletržní palác. The area boasts two huge swathes of greenery: the Letná plain, overlooking the city, and the Stromovka park, beyond which lie the chateau of Troja and the zoo. Further west, leafy interwar suburbs like Dejvice and Střešovice, dotted with modernist family villas, give an entirely different angle on Prague.
Prague’s outer suburbs, where most of the population lives, are more typical of the old Eastern Bloc, dominated by bleak high-rise housing estates known locally as paneláky. However, once you’re clear of the city limits, the traditional, provincial feel of Bohemia (Čechy) makes itself felt.
Many locals own a chata, or country cottage, somewhere in these rural backwaters, and every weekend the roads are jammed with folk heading for the hills. Few places are more than an hour from the city by public transport, however, making day-trips relatively easy.
The most popular places to visit are the castles of Karlštejn and Konopiště, both surrounded by beautiful wooded countryside. Alternatively you can head north, away from the hills and the crowds, to the wine town of Mělník, perched high above the confluence of the Vltava and Labe (Elbe) rivers.
Further north is Terezín, the wartime Jewish ghetto that is a living testament to the Holocaust. One of the most popular day-trips is to the medieval silver-mining town of Kutná Hora, 60km to the east, which boasts a glorious Gothic cathedral and a macabre ossuary.
Once the heart of the Holy Roman Empire, Prague Castle is home to the Czech president and crown jewels. Wandering is free, but to enter the buildings you need to buy a ticket at the Castle Information Centre, opposite the cathedral entrance.
North of the castle walls, you can cross the Powder Bridge (Prašný most) to reach the Royal Gardens (Královská zahrada), and enjoy the view over Little Quarter surrounded by fountains, sloping lawns and almond trees.
Staroměstské Náměstí (Old Town Square) has been the city’s main marketplace since the eleventh century. On the west side is the medieval astronomical clock (Pražský orloj), which gives a mechanical show featuring saints, deadly sins and Jesus every hour 9am–9pm. Opposite are the dour Gothic steeples of Týn Church; if you look closely one steeple is slightly bigger – they represent Adam and Eve. In the centre of the square is the Jan Hus Monument, built in 1915 to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformer’s execution.
Medieval St Vitus’ Cathedral, which broods over the Prague skyline, is scarcely visible close up; the Third Courtyard surrounds it too tightly. The Chapel of sv Václav, by the south door, was built in the fourteenth century to commemorate the Czech prince Saint Wenceslas (Václav), murdered by his brother Boleslav I. A door in the south wall leads to the coronation chamber, which houses the crown jewels.
Malostranské náměstí, the main square in Malá Strana, forms a ring around the flamboyant church sv Mikuláš, a triumph of Baroque whimsy.
Prague’s busy showpiece square, dominated by the Old Town Hall, and best known for its astronomical clock.
Take the funicular up the wooded hill of Petrin, home to a mirror maze, an observatory and a miniature Eiffel Tower, as well as spectacular views across Prague.
Hidden behind the palaces of Mala Strana, these terraced gardens are the perfect inner-city escape.
Six synagogues, a town hall and a medieval cemetery survive from the city’s fascinating former Jewish ghetto.
The largest and most impressive Art Nouveau building in Prague houses a cafe, a bar, two restaurants, exhibition spaces and a concert hall.
With the best beer in the world on tap, Prague’s pubs are unmissable.
The city’s main modern art gallery is housed in a functionalist masterpiece.
Experience the theatre of the high Baroque in this Mala Strana landmark.
Stylish applied art museum highlighting the country’s cultural heyday.
The city’s most spectacular landmark, home to the cathedral, royal palace and a host of museums and galleries.
Enjoy window-shopping in the covered malls, or Pasaze, on and around Wenceslas Square.
Prague’s exquisite Medieval stone bridge, lined with Baroque statuary.
Leafy, riverside fortress boasting an important cemetery and cubist architecture.
Fabulous treasure trove built by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV.
From DJs to Dvorak, Prague boasts a surprisingly varied nightlife.
Sip your coffee in one of the city’s grandiose cafes, and be swept back to the turn of the twentieth century.
The central tower here provides the best viewing gallery in the Stare Mesto.
No visit to the city is complete without a ride on one of its cute, efficient red-and-cream trams.
Relax and watch the city’s main sights float by aboard a lazy paddle steamer on the slow-flowing River Vltava.
Take tram #12 from outside Malostranska to Veletržní palác, a stately piece of 1920s functionalism housing works by Klimt, Picasso and the French Impressionists.
The greasy axle of modern Prague is Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí), a mass of shabby gift shops and strip clubs. It was here that protesters gathered to topple Communism in the Velvet Revolution. At the top end is a statue of St Wenceslas on his horse. Below is a small memorial to 21-year-old student Jan Palach, who burnt himself to death in protest against the Russian invasion of ’68, becoming a symbol of Czech resistance.