Oh, Prague, so charming, historical, and romantic. It is impossible to mention you are going to Prague and not be inundated with people telling you how amazing the city it, how it is their favorite city in Europe and how they fell in love with it instantly. I must admit, I was skeptical of the enthusiasm of Prague wondering how it could really check all the boxes until I stepped foot in the glorious capital city. Prague is a dream. Winding cobblestone streets, cafes, and pubs serving cheap and delicious Pilsner, gothic churches and bridges, and, a rich history that dates back thousands of years. It has an old-world charm with a modern twist to welcome foreigners from all over the world to share in the beauty of one of Central Europe’s most gorgeous cities.
My previous post on the Czech Republic focused on connecting with the family I had never met and drinking our way through Prague. This post is going to focus on the city itself and all the places we explored during our stay. You really can’t go wrong in Prague, no matter how you chose to spend your days, you will leave with a whole new appreciation for the city so I will just give an overview of our itinerary.
One of the main reasons Prague has retained its rich history is because it survived the violence and destruction of 20th-century Europe. Prague was never at the center of a war-zone, has never been destroyed by any major natural disasters, and is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With 2.6 million inhabitants in the greater-Prague urban zone, the city is one of the cultural capitals of Central Europe.
The architecture of the city is what makes Prague so spectacular and without suffering major damage during WWII, most of the original architecture is true to form. There is a large variety of architectural styles within Prague from Romanesque to Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Cubist, and ultra-modern. We learned a lot about each style on our tours and I encourage you to do the same if you visit, it really helps you grasp the history of Prague in an accessible, visible way. By understanding the different styles, you will be able to tour the city and see how it changes from street to street, church to church and it makes your time exploring a lot more engaging.
While not in Prague, you cannot miss Karlštejn Castle while visiting. The village of Karlštejn is about 30 km (19 miles) southwest of Prague, we spent our first day in Czech exploring this huge gothic castle. We took an English speaking tour of the castle, while Petr and Lenka took the Czech tour and we obviously started out with a beer, as there is no activity in Czech complete without a nice cold brew.
This gothic castle was founded in 1348 by the Czech king and Roman emperor Charles IV as a place to store the royal treasures, collections of holy relics and the crown jewels. What makes this castle stand out from the rest (Czech is the castle capital of the world) is the fact that it is built on a high hill so you can see it the entire 30-minute walk up. It was a special place to visit as it was the place of Petr and Lenka’s first date, thirty years ago. We had a wonderful time spent exploring the village and castle, a great first day in the Czech Republic.
Private Tour through Prague
Since Petr made all of our sightseeing arrangements, we got totally spoiled! We ended up having a private tour guide for our first tour through Prague so for three hours, we were able to customize the tour for exactly what we wanted. It was perfect because our guide took the time to get to know what would be the most beneficial for us, in our case, it was more valuable to get the more broad overview and see more of the city than it was to spend the time inside individual buildings. We knew we had two more weeks to spend time in the different churches and castles so we were grateful we were able to learn as much as we did in a short three hours.
I found the tour fascinating because our tour guide was the exact same age as my mom (and has the same name) so she told stories and shared her experiences of communism throughout the tour. It was as though I had an exact recollection of what life would have been like for my mom if her parents didn’t escape communism in 1968. Hana, our guide, provided very detailed and honest insight into life growing up in Czechoslovakia and it was what made this day unforgettable for me.
Prague Astronomical Clock (Orloj)
Unfortunately, the clock was being restored when we visited but this is a major attraction for millions of tourists, it is set to reopen in August 2018. The Orloj is mounted on the southern side of Old Town Hall in Old Town Square. The oldest working parts of the clock date back to 1410 when clockmaker Mikuláš of Kadaň and University Professor Jan Šindel designed the mechanical clock and astronomical dial.
The Orloj, for over 600 years, has been considered one of the greatest treasures of the city and when in full operation, still draws hundreds, sometimes thousands of people from around the world every hour. From 9A to 11P, every hour on the hour, the clock is set into motion and the Twelve Apostles appear. Apparently, the “show” only lasts 13 seconds but if that is something that interests you then by all means, join the others but watch for pickpocketers!
The Prague Castle is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the Czech Republic, bringing in over 1.8 million visitors annually. One of the main reasons the castle is so popular to visit is the sheer size of the complex. Occupying over 750,000 sqft, Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world!
Although the castle dates back to 9th century when it was the seat of power for the kings of Bohemia, today it remains the official office of the President of Czech Republic. The first to be built in the complex was the Church of the Virgin Mary in 870, followed by the Basilica of St. George and the Basilica of Vitus in the first half of the 10th century. Prague Castle is a must-see on any visit to Prague, and is pretty hard to miss! Across the Charles Bridge, the Prague Castle can be seen from almost anywhere in Prague and shapes the iconic picturesque backdrop of the city.
Charles Bridge (Karlov Most)
Charles Bridge is a historic bridge that crosses the Vltava River in Prague and was the only means to connect Prague Castle with Old Town until 1841. The construction of the bridge was commissioned by King Charles IV in 1357 but was not completed until the beginning of the 14th century. The bow bridge is over 2,000 feet in length, 33 feet wide and includes 16 arches shielded by ice guards. The bridge is decorated by a continuous alley of 30 statues most of them baroque-style, originally added around 1700 but now all replaced by replicas.
Walking across Charles Bridge and admiring the statues is one of the most popular attractions in Prague so be prepared to be surrounded by vendors, artists and street performers the entire length of the bridge. The Charles Bridge is the encapsulation of Prague as a medieval city and despite the crowds is a gorgeous piece of history you must see.
If you want a lifetime of good luck, you cannot leave Charles Bridge without touching the infamous statue of St. John of Nepomuk. It is easily distinguished from the other 29 statues by the shiny spot at the bottom, polished from millions of people touching it for luck. Legend has it that if you make a wish and touch the statue you will have good luck and return to Prague soon! A wish I sure hope comes true.
Petrin Outlook Tower
On our last day, we finally worked up the energy to walk up Petrin hill to visit the observation tower of the Eiffel Tower-esque structure. The walk up the hill took about 30-minutes and we opted for the more rugged walk up which was steep and in the trees but there are paved paths that wind up as well. There is also a funicular that takes you straight to the top but I enjoyed the tiring climb instead.
Once at the top, we were excited to take in the views of Prague from the 63.5-meter tall steel tower but just our luck, it was closed for the day for renovations. Even though we didn’t get to see Prague from the highest point, it was still a beautiful walk up and down the hill with views over the city center.
Prague’s Poker Scene
One of the first things Devin does in every new city we visit is scope out the local poker scene. Prague has quite a few casinos and low stakes so he was in heaven! The first time he went was after our tour and I could watch Nadal in the semi-finals of the French Open, so I was a happy girl. Although he didn’t come away with much, he still came out ahead.
The second time he went it was a rainy, gloomy day so it was the perfect opportunity. This time, after about 4 hours he tripled his money and came out one happy guy! So as always, we went out for a delicious dinner and drinks to celebrate! Needless to say, the poker scene in Prague agrees with Devin and I know when we go back, he will return to the casino.
Day Trip to Liberec
Another day trip we took out of Prague was to a city named Liberec, about an hour from Prague. Paul had to spend the day there for work and offered to take us along. Liberec is synonymous with Ještěd Tower, a 94-meter-tall communications tower at the top of Ještěd mountain. After a couple of weeks in the city, we were ready to get back in nature and get in some hiking.
We were dropped off about a 30-minute hike from the top, where we spent some time walking around the observation deck, eating our picnic breakfast and taking in the 360-degree views. From the top on a clear day, you can see three countries, Poland, Germany, and Czech. It was absolutely breathtaking!
All was perfect with our day other than Devin’s little accident. Right as we were heading down (it was a steep climb down) Devin accidentally stepped off the narrow path, rolled his ankle and fell down the mountain. Luckily, some bushes caught him and he didn’t break his ankle but he did end up with a pretty bad sprain. Somehow he managed to hobble down the mountain, which took almost 2 hours and made it back in time for it to swell up. With a lunch break, a trip to the pharmacy and a break in Town Square, we were ready to head back to Prague.
An hour drive east of Prague is the city of Kutná Hora. Petr and Julie spent the day with us and took us all around this beautiful and historic city. In the 1200s, silver was discovered in the area bringing in a lot of money and making it a wealthy royal city. Today, Kutná Hora is famous for two UNESCO World Heritage sites, Church of St Barbara and Cathedral of Our Lady at Sedlec which we visited on our day trip.
Also referred to as the “Bone Church”, Sedlec Ossuary was an experience I will never forget (even if I wanted to)! The Sedlec Ossuary is a small Roman Catholic Church located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints and lays on the land of the abbey cemetery. The church has a long history beginning in the 13th century when the Abbot of the Sedlec Monastery brought a handful of earth back from a journey to the Grave of the Lord in Jerusalem. He scattered this “holy soil” across the Sedlec cemetery, securing its place as one of the most desired burial sites for people all over Bohemia and the surrounding countries.
With over 30,000 people buried at this site, there was no longer enough room so the skeletons were moved to free up space. In 1870, a woodcarver was assigned the morbid task of artistically arranging the bones where he bleached the bones and decorated the entire church with the infamous bone chandelier, coat of arms and six bone pyramids. Although an incredible work of art, this ossuary creeped me out, gave me the chills and made me lose my appetite. It is a very disturbing but interesting experience and the young kids we saw while there thought it was the coolest thing they had ever seen! You can judge for yourself.
The Church of St. Barbara’s
Founded in 1388 by the city’s wealthy mine owners, St. Barbara’s Cathedral is a roman catholic church that remains one of the most famous Gothic churches in Central Europe. Even though the wars and financial issues delayed the completion of the church (which took over 500 years to complete), the residents of Kutna Hora continued to pray in the unfinished church. St. Barbara and the church were viewed as a symbol to protect the town and its miners.
The inside of this cathedral is incredible. It is an architectural masterpiece and with a mixture of Baroque and Gothic styles. The interior is illuminated with the glass stained windows, slim elegant pillars, and motifs depicting the city’s past. It was incredible to walk through this huge structure, take in the beautiful art and take time to admire every detail.
Josefov is the Jewish Quarter of Prague and occupies the smallest amount of real estate in the city. Formerly the Jewish ghetto of town, Josefov is now completely surrounded by Old Town. Most of the Jewish quarter was demolished between 1893 and 1913 as part of an initiative to model the city on Paris. What was left were only six synagogues, the old cemetery, and the Old Jewish Town Hall which are all now part of the Jewish Museum of Prague.
Today, the majority of the Jewish Quarter is filled with buildings and shops built in the 20th century so it is hard to imagine what the Jewish ghetto used to be. While walking through the Jewish Quarter you will notice these brass plaques set into the pavement along the sidewalk. These plaques were laid in front of the apartment blocks and houses of those persecuted or murdered by the Nazis. Each tile represents one individual lost and includes their name, date of birth, place (name of the concentration camp) and date of death.
Never Done Exploring
Prague is so rich in history with so much to see, we did not even scratch the surface in the twenty days we visited. There are so many places throughout the Czech Republic that I want to explore but didn’t have the time. This may have been our first time visiting the motherland (way overdue) but it most definitely won’t be the last.
I left a piece of my heart in Prague and I know that I will always have the yearning to be back there, walking the ancient streets and spending more time with my beloved Czech family. Goodbye to Prague, you will be greatly missed but I promise, I will be back.