Prague is one of my favorite cities in Europe. It’s cheap, and it’s got a great atmosphere. Prague has the hallmarks of most European capitals— old town, new town, castles, cathedrals, great architecture, occupations, etc. The best part? It’s not on the Euro yet, so it’s still a relatively inexpensive destination.
The name Prague comes from a Slavic root, praga, which means “ford”. It refers to the city’s location at a crossing point of the Vltava River. Prague was founded in the 9th century when the Bohemian tribal Princess Libuše married a commoner named Přemysl. This was the beginning of the Czech Přemyslid dynasty that ruled until 1306. That’s the fairy tale anyway. Historically, the first recognized leader was Czech Prince Bořivoj Přemyslovec. He and his wife were baptized and brought Christianity to the land.
The Bořivoj’s grandson, Prince Wenceslas, wanted great things for Bohemia and began a positive relationship with the Saxons. His brother was not happy about this and had him assassinated. The people canonized Wenceslas and he became Bohemia’s patron saint, hence the Christmas song, “Good King Wenceslas”. The Saxons eventually took over and Czech lands became part of the Holy Roman Empire.
Over the next hundred years, cathedrals were built, the castle was improved and added to, and the city thrived. The Germans were invited to immigrate to the land in the 13th century and the two cultures lived harmoniously together for centuries. Even more improvements were made during the Renaissance, Prague’s “Golden Age”. It became the capital of the Holy Roman Empire during this time.
Things got a little rough when the Pope called for a crusade against some Czech heretics in the 15th Century and the Hussite Wars began, but that’s life. As a result, many historical buildings are artifacts were destroyed and the castle fell into disrepair. Afterward, Prague got in on the Habsburg craze, (see: tips for Vienna) and under the reign of Rudolph Habsburg II, it was again in its heyday. The castle was restored and many of the main attractions we see today were built in beautiful Renaissance style.
The Protestant uprising began in 1618 and brought about Prague’s Thirty Years War and the “Dark Ages”. The castle again deteriorated and the city lost importance in Europe. But, don’t despair! At the end of the 18th century a nationalist movement under the leadership of Joseph II began. The language, culture, and history of the Czech people are revived again.
The 19th and 20th centuries brought the industrial revolution as well as more trouble for the citizens of Prague. After World War I the Czech Republic became independent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and took the name of Czechoslovakia with Prague as its capital.
Prague was taken by Nazi Germany in WWII and was occupied until the Prague Uprising on May 5, 1945. The Red Army liberated the country two days later. Under Soviet Control, the citizens of Prague suffered great oppression. Creativity and freethinking were stifled. Several uprisings were squelched by the Soviet Union, but the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 paved the way for democratic parties to come to power.
The country split in 1993 becoming the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Prague is now a major European city again and even put in a bid for the 2016 Olympics.
To Do and See
Prague is a heavily trafficked tourist destination. You’ll want to try to steer clear of certain areas after you’ve seen them once. Charles Bridge is one of those places. You’ll walk across packed shoulder to shoulder with people trying to take photos or sell you something. I’m not sure you even need to experience it at all. It used to be the only way to get to and from the castle, but now you have lots of other options. You can view it easily from the either side of the river for a great photo, skip strolling across with tour groups.
Old Town Square
Another congested area is the Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock . While you shouldn’t miss seeing this place, it can be a bit overwhelming in high season, but not as bad as the bridge. The clock, or the Prague Orloj was built in 1410 and has gone through many repairs and refurbishments since then. Three parts make up the clock, which is mounted on a tower in the Town Hall. The first is an astronomical dial, representing the position of the Sun and Moon in the sky and displaying various astronomical details. The second is “The Walk of the Apostles” in which figures of the Apostles move hourly. The third is a calendar dial with medallions representing the months.
Watch out for the teams of pickpockets in the square. They are pretty easy to identify if you look for them. They are usually in groups of three or four, dressed in casual street clothes, and spread out a little. They will be the guys nonchalantly standing and looking around at the crowd as the tourist around them look up at the architecture or their maps. Sometimes one will ask you a question, or offer to sell you something, but that is usually just to distract you from the other guy swiping the money from your pocket. It’s an interesting process to watch. We didn’t see any successful pockets picked (unless the guys were just that good), but they definitely tried.
Built in the 9th century, the iconic castle has been the home to the Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, and presidents of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. It is located in the part of Prague across the river that is now referred to as “Lesser Town”. It is free to enter the courtyard and look around. The six gardens are also free. You can view the changing of the guard every hour, with a little extra fanfare at noon.
Guided tours are available for individual sights, or a complete package. Prices range from 3€ for just the powder tower to 14€ for the long tour. You have to be under the age of 26 with a valid ID to get 50% reduction for students. We didn’t take any of the tours, so I can’t give an opinion about their quality. We usually opt to see the sights ourselves with a guidebook unless there is something inside that we are interested in.
The most impressive building on the property is the St. Vitus Cathedral which was built in the 14th Century. The outside of the church is stunning with Gothic detail all around. You can enter the Cathedral for free, but you won’t be able to view the entire cathedral. Tickets cost about 10€ to see the whole building.
The square is a main shopping area in “New Town”. There is a lot of hustle and bustle on this street. It is also lined with Wurst stands, so it is a good option for a cheap dinner and beer. There is a magnificent view of the National Museum at the end of the long, long road.
Many of the demonstrations that changed Prague’s history occurred in the square including the famous Prague Uprising and the Velvet Revolution. You can also see memorials to Jan Palach and Jan Zajic who committed suicide by self-immolation in protest to the communist regime.
The Communism Museum
This tiny little museum is chock full of information about Prague’s history and communism. The timeline is just detailed enough to keep your attention and every plaque has an English translation. The video near the end of the museum is definitely worth watching. They offer lots of satirical posters and cards in their gift shop as well prints of actual propaganda. The entry fee is 7€ or 5€ with student ID (no age requirement).
The Dancing House
This interesting building is a design by Czech architect Vlado Milunić with the aid of Frank Gehry (Disney Concert Hall in L.A., Pritzker Pavillion in Chicago, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain). Its flowing curves are meant to remind the viewer of a dancing couple. It was originally called “Fred and Ginger”. Definitely take as troll by this building. You’ll also get a nice view of Prague from the Jiráskův bridge.
TIP: You’ll find cheaper food around the Dancing House, outside of the main tourist area. It’ll also be a LOT less crowded.
The Lennon Wall
This wall LINK was an annoyance to the communist command in 1988. Young Czech poets and artists wrote and drew peaceful graffiti on the wall in protest. John Lennon’s death and the peaceful lyrics of The Beatles inspired most of the original artwork. It is now a permanent memorial to Lennon as well as a symbol of peace.
The Jewish Quarter
Josefov is located right in the middle of Old Town. Jews settled in Prague in the 10th century and by 1096 were forced to live in a walled in ghetto in the center of the city. Their movement and trade in the city were restricted. Inside the ghetto they had everything they needed to live a Kosher life. The name “Joseph’s City” comes from Emperor Joseph II who passed the “Toleration Edict” allowing Jews to live and work outside of the Ghetto.
It is an area full of history and is worth a pass through, even if you don’t pay for the tour. There are six synagogues, Jewish town hall, Old Jewish Cemetery, and The Jewish Museum (about 12€). Prices vary with the seasons and the Old-New Synagogue requires a separate ticket, expect to pay between 5€-15€ for different tour options.
There is “eis” available around the city but the quality is not anywhere close to Vienna or Rome. The best we found was a place with two locations called “Cream & Dream” . You can get a couple of scoops for around two or three euros.
A day trip to this little town is a good idea. It takes about an hour by train to get there. The little village has a lot of cute little houses, shops, and churches. Its main attraction is the Bone Chapel. You can read all about it in Clark’s post. I highly recommend the trip. The Sedlec Ossuary (Bone Chapel) is something that you just have to see for yourself.
DAY 1: Old Town, Jewish Quarter, River Walk
- Begin in Old Town, look around the square, see the clock, and take in the atmosphere. Have a coffee in any of the shops lining the streets (You’ll pay more, but it’s a good view)
- Walk north out of the square up Parizska st. Take a left on Cervena st. and you’ll find the Jewish Museum and Josefov. Stroll around here for a while and go on the tour if you like.
- Now make your way east until you hit the river, probably near Manesuv bridge. Some of the best views of Prague are along the Vltava river. Here you’ll have a view from the north of Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle.
- Walk south until you get to the towers of Charles Bridge and enjoy the view (and the crowd).
- Continue south along the riverfront taking in the sights. You’ll pass some restaurants and a few little islands along the way. The Legii bridge offers a good view of the castle to the North.
- Continue south and stop at Jiráskův bridge. You’ll know you’re there because you’ll see the dancing house in front of you. Take in the view here and take a few photos.
DAY 2: Wenceslas Square and the Castle
- Head to Wenceslas Square, shop, eat, enjoy the sights. Don’t miss getting a wurst and beer at one of the many stands scattered up and down the street.
- Here you’ll also find the small Communism museum. If you’re interested, step in and have a good couple hours worth of information.
- At Wenceslas Square, grab the Mustek green line train to the Malostranska stop on the other side of the river in “lesser town”.
- Stroll west and follow the signs to the Castle. It can be a bit confusing, but keep looking at the signs and you’ll find your way. Once you are up inside the courtyard, spend as much or as little time and money as you’d like!
- Hang out in Lesser town for the evening.
DAY 3: Day Trip: Kutna Hora or Pilsner Urquell brewery
- Kutna Hora is a much cheaper day trip than the brewery. Depending on how much you want to spend, pick one and head out.
- We chose to do Kutna Hora. I think that this was a much better experience. I like Pilsner, but the bone chapel is something more memorable.