Prague is a city with so many remarkable places to visit, it’s hard to know which to choose. Plan your trip well, and you can fit an awful lot into a short time
In recent years Prague has built up a reputation as a bit of a party town, with hen and stag weekends invading in some numbers. As one of Europe’s most historic capitals, with a wealth of outstanding buildings, beautiful squares, and relaxing gardens, it has often made me wonder why this market developed here. Luckily, apart from some rowdy groups on the plane, I encountered nothing but friendly, courteous, and helpful locals.
Prague is an amazing city by anyone’s standards, and one that is conveniently laid out for tourists, with most of the main sights within walking distance of the centre. The Old Town area, with many centuries-old buildings, is overlooked from across the river by the imposing cathedral and castle, with the two banks being linked by the magnificent medieval Charles Bridge. Begun in 1357, it’s not only one of the most iconic images of Prague, but is also the ideal place to begin my tour.
To start with, it’s a photographer's dream. It affords one of the best views of the castle and cathedral, has great river panoramas in both directions, and provides an enticing array of spires and sagging rooftops across the old town area. The bridge is also alive with people, no matter when you come here. I was surprised to find, early on my first morning, that traders were setting up stalls along the walkways. Later, as the local population and tourists began to fill the crossing – almost to bursting point at times – these keen salesmen were doing a roaring trade. I asked one a question I often use when chatting to locals wherever I go: “What are the three best places to visit here?” He replied, in excellent English, “This bridge, at dawn, midday, and midnight.”
Much as I enjoyed it there, I had plenty more to see on my whistle-stop tour. Immediately next to the bridge, on the west bank of the Vlatava river, is the district known as the Lesser Quarter – or Mala Strana. Elegant 18th-century Baroque buildings line roads and squares that date back much further. I stopped for a snack in one of the cafes that have neatly placed tables and brightly coloured umbrellas on the main square. The snack was pleasant, but both the aura and the surrounding architecture were superb. The Liechtenstein Palace fills one complete side of the square, although I was told it was originally five houses that were combined with a lavish new frontage in the late 18th century. A bit of a fraud it may be, but its looks are very impressive, and it’s now used as a concert venue.
Anything but a fraud is the nearby Church of St Nicholas (aka Father Christmas). Expecting a fairly ordinary, if large, Baroque church, I was stunned by its breathtaking beauty as I walked into the huge nave. The intricate paintings on the 230ft-high domed ceiling are nothing compared to the vast fresco by Lucas Kracker, which totals more than 16,000 square feet! Mozart played the organ above the main door in 1787.
A fairly steep walk up, past the once grand buildings of Nerudova Street, took me to the entrance to the castle. After pausing to admire the views back across the city, I began to explore this large hilltop complex, which has been the seat of power for over a thousand years. If I’m honest, the castle itself didn’t impress me greatly, as in reality it’s no more than a series of stately buildings, and not a fortified stronghold. But there were certainly some highly impressive sights within its boundaries. St Vitus’ Cathedral is the most notable, being the largest Gothic cathedral in the Czech Republic. As well as holding the Bohemian crown jewels – not on show to the public – it also houses the Hapsburg Mausoleum and the Royal Crypt, where many Bohemian kings and queens are laid to rest.
Until the 16th century, they would have ruled from the Royal Palace in the next courtyard, before it was handed over to become the parliament buildings. I was intrigued to see a ‘rider’s staircase’, with enough headroom for a knight on horseback to ride unhindered.
Perhaps my favourite part of the castle grounds is hidden away behind the convent, and under the great walls. Golden Lane is a row of tiny cottages, once used by the castle guards and later by goldsmiths. The pretty street is now home to souvenir shops, but the façade is still that of a medieval row of cottages. After I’d finished my explorations, I relaxed for a while in the neatly manicured castle gardens before heading back down the hill. A visit to the Wallenstein Palace and Gardens was a worthwhile diversion before I crossed the river to the old town.
The historic heart of the city is centred on the Old Town Square, which has understandably become a magnet for tourists and locals alike. It was certainly the highlight of my visit, and I could fill pages just on this one area. Every one of the predominantly Baroque buildings is a marvel in its own right, but together it comprises one of the most remarkable architectural panoramas in Europe. Storch House, White Unicorn House, the Goltz-Kinsky Palace, Tyn Church, and the Church of St Nicholas, are all excellent examples of what makes Prague great.
The Old Town Hall dominates the scene, and I was fortunate to be in the square on the hour to watch the celebrated 15th-century Astronomical Clock swing into action. It’s one of the must-see attractions of the city, and draws a crowd each hour to witness the various characters and movements of this incredibly beautiful and complicated timepiece.
It was a fine way to end my tour, and as I headed back to my hotel, my only regret was not having time to see the rest of the city. If it’s anything like as good as that which I’d already experienced, my next visit will be even more memorable.
Where to eat
Zlaty Byk Restaurant: Melnicka 13, Prague 5 (+420 224 53 75 44)
Cerburus Bar and Restaurant: Soukenicka 19, Prague 1 (+420 222 310 985)