“With almost a thousand years of architecture virtually untouched by natural disaster or war, few cities anywhere in Europe truly compare to Prague” – Marc Di Duca, Rough Guides (2011)
I fell in love with Paris the first time I stepped foot in the French capital over thirty years ago. I thought I’d never find a city more romantic and beautiful than Paris until I met Prague. In my opinion, few cities in the world compare to the magical architecture of these two cities, both equally loved in my eyes. I first saw Prague while I was living and studying abroad in Paris back in 1993, just four years after the Velvet Revolution. With over 40 years of communism, much of Prague’s beauty had been shroud in mystery and wasn’t unveiled for the world to see until 1989 with the fall of communism.
Prague’s history is long and deep which makes this charming city even more fascinating. Founded around the end of the 9th century at the crossroads of Europe, Prague became the seat of the Kings of Bohemia with a thriving marketplace alongside the River Vltava. Feuding kings, bloody wars, and the building of the Old Town Square surrounding the immense Prague Castle defined this prospering city that reached its glory in the 14th century during the reign of Charles IV. Charles IV commissioned the building of New Town, the spectacular Charles Bridge, the Gothic masterpiece Saint Vitus Cathedral and the Charles University, the oldest in Central Europe. Thanks to Charles IV, the “golden age” inspired much of the beauty you see in Prague today.
Prague is made up of five independent municipalities: Hradčany (Prague Castle), Lesser Town (Malá Strana), Old Town (Staré Město) and New Town (Nové Město) were unified in 1784 and Josefov (the Jewish district) was added in 1850. Although Prague was one of the few European cities untouched by WWII, the Nazi occupation lead to the demise of the Jewish population who either fled or were killed in the Holocaust. The Germans who had formed the largest ethnic group in the city were expelled after the war. Then came 40 years of communism followed by freedom and an opening to the world.
Today, Prague relishes as one of the top major tourist destinations in all of Europe where people from all over the world come to take a step back in time and marvel at this masterpiece of architectural delight. Prague’s multi-layered history of architecture takes us back to her founding 1,100 years ago in the Romanesque era to her flourishing by the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras, all within 3.34 square miles.
With only 1.3 million inhabitants, Prague sometimes can feel overrun with tourists blocking its tiny, winding cobblestone streets and filling up its squares. But despite the hordes of tourists, the magic of this city is spellbinding and is bound to take your breath away.
Stop at the astronomical clock, built in 1490 on the side of Old Town Hall. If you are there with everyone else at noon, you can see a surprise come out of the clock.
Finally along the way be sure to take lots and lots of pictures looking up at all the colorful, spectacular buildings. I have to admit that I have over 1,000 photos taken in my four short days in Prague.
The historical center and sites that every tourist must see in Prague is rather compact and is best suited for walking. But be forewarned, there are many cobblestone streets that are uneven and difficult on the bottoms of your feet so wear very sturdy and solid walking shoes. Your feet will hurt by the end of the day but thankfully there is an endless supply of outdoors cafes, restaurants and bars to rest your feet and watch the world go by.
To see all five neighborhoods of Prague, it will take at least three full days, and I highly recommend beginning right after breakfast before it gets too crowded. We began our walk in Old Town around nine o’clock and had the place relatively to ourselves until 11:30 when the tours began and the buses arrived. From noon on, expect massive crowds throughout the city until very late in the evening when the last of the partygoers crawls into bed.
Prague is busy year-round yet particularly busy in the summer months which can be very hot. We went in May which was still busy, a bit rainy but overall very pleasant. Fall is also a recommended time to visit.
There are many options for accommodations but I recommend staying in a central location as you will be doing a ton of walking. We stayed at the Hotel Salvator which is excellent, affordable, nice and only a ten minute walk to Old Town Square. I highly recommend this hotel.
This is the first of a series of posts on Prague where I will explore each distinct neighborhood.