“Prague. A city imbued with the quiet magic of something intimately familiar, as if from a distant past. A city which serves as a living textbook of ten centuries of European architecture.” – Radomira Sedlakova, author of Prague an architectural guide
There is no bridge in Prague that is more symbolic than the sensational Charles Bridge (Karlův most). Completed in 1402 by court architect, Peter Parler, the iconic Charles Bridge is a feat of medieval engineering that was the only link connecting Old Town and the Prague Castle across the River Vltava, for over 400 years. Lined with a never-ending collection of magnificent baroque statues against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Prague Castle and terra-cotta rooftops of Malá Strana (Czech for “Little Quarter” or “Lesser Town”, the Charles Bridge is a must-see for any visitor to the city.
The Charles Bridge and Old Town Square are the two places I remembered vividly in my head from my visit to Prague over 20 years ago in 1993. Visiting them again in detail did not disappoint. My only regret was not making the walk down to Charles Bridge at night to see the city ablaze with shimmering lights. That will have to be for another visit.
We began our walking tour of Prague from our hotel in Old Town and continued on to visit Charles Bridge before the afternoon rush. Along the way, we learned from my historian uncle (who was teaching as a Fulbright scholar at a neighboring Czech town for the year) that the Charles Bridge played a critical, strategic role in linking the castle to the rest of the town and until 1841 the Charles Bridge was the only link between the two halves of the city.
The Charles Bridge was built to replace the earlier “Judith Bridge” that was destroyed by one of Prague’s notorious floods and was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, in 1357. The bridge was originally named the “Stone” or “Prague” bridge but was renamed the Charles Bridge in 1870 as a tribute to the leader who transformed Prague into imperial glory and greatness. Charles IV selected German-Czech architect Peter Parler to design and build the Charles Bridge. Parler had also designed the stunning Saint Vitus Cathedral at the Prague castle, another famous landmark.
At each side of the bridge stands two enormous gothic gateways – “Old Town Bridge Tower” and “Little Quarter Bridge Tower”- that instantly sweep you into medieval times. The entire length of the bridge is adorned with 30 statues erected between 1683 and 1714, mostly of Baroque architectural style and featuring various saints and patron saints who were important at the time. Charles IV commissioned the most prominent Bohemian sculptors of the time to create the works of art.
As you leave Old Town meandering through the winding cobblestone streets, you know you have arrived at the Charles Bridge when you see the massive Old Town Bridge Tower standing proudly before you. Built at the end of the 14th century, the tower was an integral part of Old Towns fortifications. You can enter the tower and apparently get a magnificent view of the Prague Castle but we didn’t have time. I am sure it would have been stunning and worth the visit.
The first important sculpture you reach is the “Madonna, St. Dominic and St. Thomas” that was created in 1708 by created by Matěj Václav Jäckel. Like most of the statues, the original is resting safely inside a museum and was replaced by a replica in the late 1950s.
The next major work of art you see is the Statuary of the St. Cross with Calvary. Dating back to 1629, this statue was the only one on the entire Charles Bridge for over 200 years. It has quite an impressive history that can be read in full here (this website also contains historical information on all the statues on the bridge).
The views only got better and better and we thought it was a great place to grab a family shot. Here I am with my mom and sister enjoying the beauty of Prague along the Charles Bridge.
We continued our leisurely walk stopping at each statue and checking the impressive view that only got better the closer we got to Lesser Town. It was only modestly crowded when I snapped this photo below. By the afternoon, it was mobbed with tourists so it’s a good idea to see the Charles Bridge early unless you want to fight the crowds in all your photos.
The next notable sculpture we saw was the Statue of St. John of Nepomuk. This statue was placed on the Charles Bridge in 1683 by the Jesuits who were trying to create a Bohemian martyr. The Jesuits claim that the real Jan of Nepomuk was thrown off the bridge for political reasons and that five stars arose in the water where he drown.
Below is a popular tourist spot. Legend says that if you touch the brass figurine of St. John of Nepomuk whatever you wish will come true. Of course the brassy figurine was well-worn with hands. Apparently this is the place where he was thrown into the water in was in 1393. I couldn’t resist rubbing his belly and wishing for the lofty goal of world peace.
Another noteworthy sight is the Statue of St. Anthony of Padua with baby Jesus. This lovely sandstone statue was created by Jan Oldřich Mayer in 1707 and is adorned by two vases on each side.
The sandstone statue of St. Adalbert, the Bishop of Prague, was created in 1709 by Michal Jan Josef Brokof and stands near the end of the Charles Bridge at Lesser Town (“The Little Quarter”).
I also enjoyed stopping to look at the impressive Statue of St. Cajan, Statuary of St. John of Matha, St. Felix of Valois and St. Ivan and the Statue of St. Vitus.
Every single statue of the 30 that line the bridge are awash with history and significance. I only included some of the very basic information that I found in guide books and on this amazing sight, Kralovska Cesta, the provides very detailed information on each statue in case you want to learn more.
As we continued to the end of the Charles Bridge, the crowds got heavier and heavier with tourists and passerby. I was relieved we had come early!
It was hard to imagine the days when the bridge was crossed by horse and carriage. Apparently in medieval times the Charles Bridge could fit four carriages across and today it is used only for pedestrians. Tourists and locals alike love to stroll along the Charles Bridge.
Alas we arrived in lovely, quaint Malá Strana or Lesser Town. I could hardly wait to escape the crowds for a bit and check out this beautiful, historical part of town. We would then head up to the breathtaking Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. If only I could stop taking pictures!
If you go:
Be sure to get up bright and early as the crowds begin forming in masses in the early afternoon and peak at sunset. There are walking tours that will take you across the bridge for free or a paid service. Also, beginning in 1965, all of the statues have been systematically replaced by replicas, and the originals have been exhibited in the lapidarium of the National Museum. The statues are still exquisite and stunning. However, if you want to see the real things then you need to go to the museum.
Here are some excellent guidebooks and resources I used to help research this post:
Rough Guides to Prague, 2015 edition, written by Marc Di Duca
DK Eyewitness Travel 2016 Prague, Vladimir Soukup
Radomira Sedlakova, author of Prague an architectural guide
Discover Prague Guide – provided by most hotels in Prague
This amazing sight, Kralovska Cesta, the provides very detailed information on each statue in case you want to learn more.
This article is also available for download on the iTunes app GPSmyCity. You can download by clicking this link. GPSmyCity provides a GPS-assisted downloadable version of this blog post.