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.