Old Town Square
At the heart of Prague’s medieval Old Town is the expansive Old Town Square. Originally the site of an eleventh century city market, today it is best known as being the location of some of Prague’s most iconic attractions. Within the perimeter of the square’s cobblestone floor is the gothic skyscraper of Town Hall, the baroque aquamarine domes of St. Nicholas and the twin towers of Tyn Church, along with a cluster of cafes and shops.
Although Old Town Hall is actually a sprawling complex of buildings, what most people notice is its legendary clock tower. The tower was erected in 1410, but it stood without a tic or a tock until 1572, when the astronomical clock was finally installed. The clock itself is a testament to medieval scientific and technological achievement. Not only does it tell the time, it also measures the movement of the planets as they spin in their celestial orbits. The clock’s face is a mirage of geometric shapes, colors and symbols, all safely guarded by a deep, dark frame of stone. On the hour, a mischievous looking skeleton rings its little chime, calling forth the wooden apostles, each of who appear through the clock’s miniature windows before quickly spinning back into the tower’s cavernous confides. Another must do is to take the out-of-place modern elevator up to the tower’s viewing gallery, where one is treated to a panoramic view of Prague.
While in Old Town Square, visitors should check to see if the Church of St. Nicholas is hosting a choir or organ concert, which are a regular occurrence. For a romantic evening, hire one of several horse and carriages patiently waiting along the pedestrian path running between Old Town Hall and St. Nicholas Church.
Old Town Hall is open every day except Mondays, April – October: 10am to 6pm; November – March: 11am to 5pm.
The Jewish Quarter
Little remains of Prague’s once vibrant, if not humbling, Jewish Quarter. Yet within these cramped and shaded blocks one can discover the enduring history of Prague’s once prominent Jewish population.
One of the main attractions is the Alt-Neu (Old-New) Synagogue. Recognized by its jagged, pyramid roof that looks to be sawing its way towards the heavens, it was once the center of Prague’s Jewish life. This seven hundred year old Synagogue, which the city’s Orthodox Jewish population still uses for services, is the oldest in Europe and is reportedly constructed of stone brought from Jerusalem. The entire building is enshrouded with an air of eerie history. Legend has it that within the mystery that permeates the musty air of the Synagogue, stashed away in the chain-bolted attic, are the remains of the Jewish Frankenstein known as The Golem.
From the synagogue, it is just several blocks along a craft-shop lined promenade to the black iron gate of the Old Jewish Cemetery. As city rules once forbade Jews from being buried outside the strangling confines of the ghetto’s boundaries, the cemetery is overfilled with 12,000 bodies, sometimes buried twelve deep, which cause the earth to swell like the tide of a dead sea. The slim stone tombstones lean and tilt, stretching for the filtered beams of sunlight that occasionally make their way through the canopy of trees hanging above. Within these sacred grounds lay some of Prague’s most revered Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Loew, Mordecai Maisel and David Gans.
For more information on the Old Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery is open Sunday through Friday 9am to 6pm from April through October and 9am to 4:30pm from November through March. The grounds are closed during Jewish Holidays.
Prague Castle is a truly majestic site that witnesses all that occurs within the city. Perched atop a hill on the far side of the Vltav River, its plethora of palaces, towers and spires can be seen from almost any open vantage point in the city. The castle grounds are free and open to the public, but admission is charged for entrance into its many museums and buildings. However, the spectacular twelfth century St. Vitus’s Cathedral, with its robust, kaleidoscope stained glass windows and towering vaulted ceilings, can be seen for free. The best way to reach the castle is via a steep climb up the New Castle Steps, located just off Nerudova, one of the district’s main thoroughfares.
At least an entire day is needed to see everything the castle has to offer. However, if one is short on time and is looking for an abbreviated tour, be sure to put the Old Royal Palace, White Tower, Golden Lane and The Story of Prague Castle on your agenda.
Old Royal Palace is impressive in its bare simplicity. Its main hall is an open and rather dull stone and wood affair brightened by coats of arms, jeweled chandeliers and an intricately woven web of trim that races across its vaulted ceiling. Be sure to step outside onto the hall’s balcony for royal views over the castle’s gardens and stretching well past Old Town.
Golden Lane, running between the Royal Palace and the White Tower, is filled with colorfully painted houses tucked into the castle’s wall. Originally they were home to goldsmiths looking to avoid having to pay the dues required for those living in town. Today these homes sell an assortment of crafts, foods and souvenirs.
The White Tower and its adjacent halls, which run along the back of Golden Lane, were the castle’s source of protection and served at its jail. Within the halls, where archers once guarded the premises from invaders, are replicas of medieval weapons, suits of armor and even an opportunity to test your aim at the crossbow. The dusty, stale-air filled tower itself, where many prisoners met their untimely deaths, contains replicas of the era’s creatively grotesque torture machines.
The Story of Prague Castle is a fascinating museum that chronicles the history of the complex from B.C. to modern times. Although the castle complex is still home to the Czech Republic’s president, nobility and leaders have occupied it since 3200 BC. Today the castle is the accumulated result of a building spree that transported it through Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and modern times. Here history is heaped on top of history, burying the ghosts of its collective past with the treasures and bones just now being unearthed from the castle’s most inner vaults. Within this collection of artifacts unearthed through the castle’s ongoing archeological excavations are the crown jewels of St. King Wenceslas, the skeletal remains of royalty, art works expanding the breadth of art history, and an encyclopedia-worth of information on the cultural evolution of Prague. Also worth the trip is the chance to see exposed sections of the former castles, long buried under the current structures.
For more information on visiting Prague Castle, go to http://www.hrad.cz. Although the castle grounds are open until midnight, most buildings close by 5pm.
Stretching across the expanse of New Town, this former horse market’s modern buildings and art nouveau highlights offers a stark contrast to the city’s otherwise medieval facade. Wenceslas Square is most likely etched into our memories as being the stage for Prague’s Velvet Revolution, which caused the topple of Communist rule in 1989. Today the square stands to honor the past while looking towards the city’s encouraging future.
At the far end of the square is the parliament-like building which houses the National Museum. Inside is an interesting collection pertaining to mostly the natural sciences, although most visitors consider the mocha-colored marble, statute-lined stairway as being the building’s main attraction.
Saddled to his horse, standing just outside the National Museum, is the statute of St. Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia. The area around the statute is considered a traditional meeting place and in fact is where many anti-communist protesters held court. Directly in front of the statute is the Communist Memorial, a testament to the courageous acts of the many victims of Communism’s cruelty.
Besides the memorials, museums and unique architecture, Wenceslas Square is also the place to shop. All of the main brand-named outlets can be found either in the square or within its vicinity.
Franz Kafka Museum
Although Franz Kafka once described his native city of Prague as “a dear little mother with claws” who never let him go, today Kafka’s entrapment in Prague is greater than ever. Declaring itself the “City of Kafka”, Prague has associated itself with the author’s now iconic, brooding face. Gift shop shelves are cluttered with Kafka mugs, Kafka books and screen printed Kafka t-shirts. There is a Kafka memorial near the Old-New Synagogue, several Kafka cafés, and a Kafka bust standing guard in the Mercure Hotel’s lobby, located in the office Kafka once worked at as an attorney. And, with the newly opened Franz Kafka Museum, it seems ensured that Kafka will now forever be trapped in what he called the “bird cage” of Prague.
Located near the bottom of the steep Old Castle Stairs, the Franz Kafka Museum is guarded by a ghostly moving, abstract sculpture of two men urinating into a pool. Strange as the entrance may be, this comprehensive museum does an excellent job of capturing both the facts of Kafka’s biography and the creative genius that occupied his mind. Within the museum visitors can traverse Kafka’s life through hallways and corridors enshrouded with shadows, muffled with white noise and distracted by flowing water. Along with rare copies of Kafka’s letters and books, the museum also has displays specifically focused on each of his major works.
Exiting the museum, one comes face to face with a giant black K. Despite the fact that during his life Kafka only thought of escaping, today there is no escape. Franz Kafka now permeates throughout the city of Prague, defining both what the city was and who it has become. Nothing seems to summarize this complicated and shared history better than the poignantly simple yet somehow complex “K” logo of the Franz Kafka Museum.
The Franz Kafka Museum is located at Cihelna 2b and is open daily from 10am to 6pm.
In describing his country’s marquee beer, Czech Emperor Franz Josef I commented, “It is indeed curious that no brewery has yet succeeded in replicating the distinctive gourmet flavor of the pilsner beer.” Prague, the centerpiece of the golden genre of beer known as pilsner, was built, destroyed, and rebuilt on a foundation of beer.
Therefore, when in Prague, one must sample at least one of its many pints of pilsner. No matter what part of Prague you find yourself in, there are plenty of great places to quench your thirst for a cold Czech beer.
U Zlateho Tygra: A crowded, standing room only, smoke filled dive of a working class bar. Here Czech beer is enjoyed in the most classic tradition. The bar is famous for being the haunt of writer Bohumil Hrabal, a place President Bill Clinton paid homage to, and for serving the best Pilsner Urquel in Prague. (Husova 17, 222-221111)
Literarni Kavarna: It may be a bit hard to find as there’s really no sign revealing its hiding behind an arched wooden door, but this intellectual hangout is a great find. The interior’s courtyard is the place to relax, eavesdrop and, most importantly, sample a new variety of beer. (Tynska 6, 420-2-2482-7807)
U Cerneho Vola: Here’s a concept you cannot refuse: a chance to drink for charity. A portion of all sales goes towards a local school for the blind. The bar also offers a good, local feel and relatively cheap draws. (Loretanske Namesti 1)
Hospuda na Schodech: Conveniently located at the crest of the Radnicke Schody steps, this quaint bar is a cheap pit stop that also offers an outstanding view. (Radnicke Schody 5)
U Fleku: Perhaps the world’s most famous beer hall, this sprawling restaurant and brewery is everything a beer hall is suppose to be: crowded, loud and over priced. Yet, one literally cannot say no to the constant onslaught of oncoming mugs filled with caramel-dark U Fleku Lager. (Kremencova 11, 420-224-934-805)
Pivovarsky Dum and Pivovarsky Klub: Whereas Pivovarsky Dum is the city’s original brewpub and brews Prague’s most original flavors, Pivovarsky Klub, a beer boutique, has over 200 beers for you to choose from. (Pivovarsky Dum: Lipova 15, 420-296-216-666; Pivovarsky
Klub: Krizikova 17, 420-222-315-777).
The Big Breweries
Staropramen: Located in a working class part of town, this is Prague’s only brewery. It brews an excellent pilsner and a tasty dark variety. Tours are available but must be arranged beforehand. (Nadrazni 84, 420-257-191-402)
It’s hearty, it’s meaty and it has more carbohydrates than one can count, but Czech Gulas should be a staple in any visitor’s diet. Unlike the goulash most people are accustomed to eating, Gulas is not a pasta dish. In fact, there are no noodles and no tomato sauce present on the plate. Instead, the Czech species consists of juicy strips of beef smothered with a gooey gravy and served over bacon and beer-based dumplings.
Gulas is served in most traditional Czech restaurants, including the many beer halls. U Medvidk, a restaurant and brewery, serves one of the city’s best plates of gulas and at a surprisingly affordable price. (Na Perstyne 7, 420-224-211-916).
Other Prague staples include such fried, gravy and bread fares as Smazeny Syr (deep-fried cheese), Utopence (pickled sausages), Pivni Syr (beer cheese), and Veprokendlozelo (pork, dumplings and sauerkraut).
During the day, crossing the Vltava River via the gothic statue lined Charles Bridge is akin to being a pinball, bouncing your way through obstacles of tourists. This being said, the ideal times to enjoy the suspended cobblestone alleyway of this six hundred year old bridge is during the morning or evening. At these times you can take in the architecture of the bridge’s two bookend towers, the detail of its statues and the beauty of its setting in near solitude.
Starting from the Old Town side of the bridge, one begins by passing through the shadows of Old Town Bridge Tower, a royal-crown capped behemoth of stone and sculpture. Visitors can climb to the top for one of Prague’s most prized views.
While walking across the bridge, one is watched by the eyes of over thirty statues, all depicting saints and other religious figures or events. One of the most famous is the Calvary statue, a depiction of the Crucifixion of Christ holding the words “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts” written in Hebrew. The Statue of St. John of Nepomuk is recognized by the shiny brass color protruding from the surrounding darkness. Legend has it that rubbing the depiction of the saint diving into the river will bring good luck.
Between the statues are a collection of private art vendors, craft makers and music players. Everything from magic flutes to personal portraits and photographs of Prague can be purchased. Some of the most notable performers are the Dixie-land band known to set up impromptu shows along the bridge’s path. Another most-see is Antonin, a local artist who specializes in painting self-portraits taking the persona of Satan.
Museum of Communism
Don’t let this museum’s location next to a Casino and above a McDonald’s or its late-night hours deter you. This is not another gimmick museum along the lines of the Museum of Torture Instruments or Sex Machine Museum. The Museum of Communism is an excellent portrayal of the “dream, reality and nightmare” of the Czech Republic’s communist experience.
The curators of the museum put together a well-researched and comprehensive collection of artifacts that chronicle the rise and fall of Communism. Starting with the end of World War II, the museum ushers one through a timeline that includes Sputnik, Stalin, the Warsaw Pact, the Velvet Revolution and the ultimate crumbling of the system.
Not only does the museum contain in-depth historic information, it also has a wide-ranging collection of memorabilia and other historic artifacts. From bearded busts of Marx to silver cosmonaut space suits, school books, propaganda posters, hammer and cycles, an authentic interrogation room and a graffiti-washed slab of the Berlin Wall, the museum does an excellent job at capturing the philosophy, ideals, culture, life and failures of this fascinating period of Czech history.
The Museum of Communism is located at Na Prikope 10, on the first floor. It is open daily from 9am to 9pm. For more information, call +420 224 212 966.
Prague’s Left Bank
Known as The Little Quarter, the arts-orientated and café cluttered Mala Strana is a peaceful stretch of green running along the Vltava River, just under Charles Bridge. Within the solitude of this neighborhood one can enjoy the hippie-created John Lennon Wall, Kampa Park and its galleries, and the lush hill that is Petrin Park.
Located within walking distance of Prague’s main attractions while at the same time retaining its “off-the-beaten-track” charm, Mala Strana is an ideal place to call home while in Prague. The crème-de-le-crème hotel of this neighborhood is the Mandarin Oriental. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Prague stands out from other chain hotels in that it excels in blending into its historic surrounds by creating a modern, luxury hotel within the structure of an old baroque and renaissance Dominican abbey.
The hotel’s rooms are of two general designs: the baroque, with grand arches and exposed wooden beams, and the renaissance, with its long, geometrical halls speckled with hints of frescos worn away with time. Each room is characterized by a unique touch of original abbey trimmings and unearthed artifacts.
The hotel has one main restaurant, a café and several bars. Essensia, serving both Asian and international fare, is located within several adjoining rooms stretching along an arched renaissance hallway highlighted with Asian inspired wall hangings. Afternoon tea is offered in the comfortable, vaulted ceiling and baroque-styled Monastery Lounge, while drinks can be shared in the ultra-cool yet highly sophisticated atmosphere of Barego, a glass and mirror cocktail lounge. The wine cellar, located down in the musty stone interior of the abbey’s floors, is available for private dinners and wine tastings.
The real treat here is the spa, located on the far side of the inner garden. The reception area encompasses the recess of the abbey’s chapel and contains a glass floor revealing the structure’s original foundations. The spa utilizes a holistic approach with an Asian twist. There are seven treatment rooms, two specifically for couples, making the hotel and spa an ideal romantic, urban retreat from the non-stop action of Prague.
The Mandarin Oriental is located at Nebovidska 459/1. For more information, call +420 233-088-888.