While Paris has always been my first love, little did I know that I’d also fall madly in love with the old world charm and beauty of Prague. In my opinion, few cities in the world compare to the magical architecture of these two cities, both equally adored 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.
When to Go
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.
The best time to go to Prague if you want to avoid tourists yet take a little bit of a chance on weather is during the shoulder season meaning either Spring or Fall. We went in early May and had fairly good weather with a little spring rain. It wasn’t too unbearably crowded or hot like it gets during the busy summer months. I imagine September would be lovely in Prague.
Neighborhoods to See
Prague is made up of five independent municipalities: Hradčany (Prague Castle), Lesser Town (Malá Strana), Old Town (Staré Město) and New Town (Nové Město) 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.
In this guide, I will focus on the top touristic neighborhoods to see first for old world charm and architectural bliss: Malá Strana (Lesser Town), Old Town (Staré Město), Malá Strana (Lesser Town), and Hradčany (Prague Castle). We stayed in Nové Město (New Town) which despite its name, is not new as it was founded in 1348 by Emperor Charles IV to link Old Town with other parts of Prague. There is plenty to see in Nové Město as well in terms of stunning architecture, the Wenceslas Square, department stores, shops, restaurants and more. Another district you must visit is Josefov, Prague’s old Jewish ghetto filled with beautiful synagogues, an old Jewish cemetery and the Jewish Town Hall. We only had time to briefly visit the Old New Synagogue (Staronová synagoga), one of the oldest and most valuable European and world Jewish monuments, and the oldest synagogue in Central Europe. We simply ran out of time. I would highly recommend spending at least half a day in Josefov if not more. If you like to shop, then you could also easily spend a half to full day in New Town as well. The itinerary below is meant for at least 2-3 full days to explore at a leisurely pace.
Staré Město (Old Town)
Old Town Square
Prague is a delightful city to explore on foot with its extraordinary architecture, charming cobblestone lanes and enchanting churches, squares and buildings. Prague’s rich history can be seen upon every building, decorative windowsill, doorway and even through a layer of chipped paint. Founded near the end of the 9th century at the crossroads of Europe, “Praha” or the “doorstep” became the seat of the Kings of Bohemia with a thriving marketplace alongside the River Vltava in what today is known as Old Town Square. Merchants and craftsman from all over the world would meet here to trade and by 1234 Prague’s Staré Město “Old Town” was founded.
Old Town revolves around Old Town Square which is laced in history and architectural genius and remains the historic heart and the soul of the city. Many believe it is the grandest, most magnificent square in all of Eastern Europe with its intricate pathways of cobblestone streets reminiscent of medieval times and its brightly-hued pastel buildings each with a history of its own right.
Every way you turn, there is an architectural treasure as one building seems to outshine the next. The styles of architecture range from Romanesque (characterized by semi-circular arches that was prevalent in medieval Europe) to Gothic (with its characteristic pointed arches, ribbed vaults and the flying buttress that occurred after the Romanesque period in the 12th century) and Baroque (began in the late 16th century and includes dramatic use of light, oval shapes, grandeur and large ceiling frescoes).
What makes Old Town and much of Prague itself so utterly spectacular is that much of its treasured architecture from medieval times remains untouched by war or natural causes. There were floods that inundated the city in Medieval times that caused immense destruction but architects simply built over and restored the buildings in a new style of architecture. Many buildings of Gothic style were restored with Baroque facades.
As you enter Old Town, the first thing you see and pass through it the Powder Gate. Built in the 11th century, the Powder Gate was one of 13 entrances into Prague’s Old Town and still stands tall today. It was reconstructed in 1475 during the reign of King Vladislav II in 1475.
Walking through the gates, feels like stepping back in time. Despite the masses of people and tourists, if you look up and peer at the stunning, elaborate buildings you are bound to be awestruck by their pure magnificence. Several walking tours and guide books will give you detailed history on each building because of course every single one has a story. Also pay close attention to the detail of the doors, windows and the unique signs decorating each building. You could literally spend hours just walking around Old Town Square.
It is best to get up and going early in order to beat the crowds of tourists. These photos above were taken in early May before noon. By lunch time, the square is typically filled with people enjoying the sights and dining at one of many outdoor restaurants and cafes.
A must-see in Old Town Square is the Astronomical Clock. It is the oldest and most elaborate functioning astronomical clock in the world and a main attraction in the square especially on the hour when you can watch “The Walk of the Apostles”, a moving procession of the 12 Apostles. The first clock was built on the town hall building at the beginning of the 15th century and was completely operational by 1572.
Another experience that cannot be missed is to climb the Bell Tower at the Town hall for an amazing bird’s-eye 360 degree view of Prague. It is definitely worth the effort! On a clear day, you can see for miles on end and get some spectacular photos. The views on a cloudy day are still impressive.
There are two magnificent churches that dominate Old Town Square. St. Nicholas’ Church is at one end and the Church of Our Lady before Týn at the other side of the square. Both are equally impressive and quite different in architectural style and design. The Church of Our Lady before Týn is what you would envision of medieval Prague with its spectacular Gothic style. The church was built from the mid-14th to the early 16th centuries and the Baroque interior replaced its Gothic roots at the end of the 17th century.
Nearly every building in the square is absolutely exquisite. The colors and decoration are extraordinary and it is hard to stop taking pictures of them. You could literally go building by building and admire each one while looking for its unique decorative sign.
On the other side of the Town Hall and Astronomical click lies the lovely Baroque Saint Nicolas’ Church. Completed in 1735 replacing an original church dating back to 1273, the interior of St. Nicholas’ Church is a masterpiece with stunning ceiling frescoes, pearl white stucco walls and a 2,500-pipe organ that fills the room with sound. If you have time, buy a ticket to attend an evening concert at the church and it will not disappoint. Gaze up at the beautiful ceiling while the melodic music bounces off the walls and arches of the church, and you will be in awe.
The south side of Old Town Square displays an array of gorgeous Romanesque and Gothic buildings that are filled with mystery. Some host restaurants at the bottom that date back hundreds of years. There are even hidden wine cellars in the basements.
The Storch House is perhaps the most elaborate in the row which has a 19th century painting of St. Wenceslas an horseback. St. Wenceslas was a duke of Bohemia from 921 until his assassination in 935 and continues to play an important role in Prague’s history.
As I walked around the square and continued my exploration to other parts of Old Town, I was mesmerized by how much beauty surrounded me. I loved every single building and could never consider a favorite. It amazed me that such a place continues to exist in today’s modern world. (Want to read more? Check out my post “A Walking Tour of Prague: Old Town Square”).
Charles Bridge to Malá Strana (Lesser Town)
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 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. 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.
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 Charles Bridge is 1692 feet (516 m) long and contains 16 pillars, 30 beautiful sculptures, and three bridge towers. Every single statue of the 30 that line the bridge are awash with history and significance. It is pretty amazing! (To see more of the statues, check out my post “Prague: A Walk across the Charles Bridge to Lesser Town”).
You can’t cross the Charles Bridge without stopping at the most beloved tourist spot (see photo below). 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.
Malá Strana (Lesser Town)
As you cross the iconic Charles Bridge, you arrive in Malá Strana or “Lesser Town, a charming, picturesque part of Prague that peacefully lies beneath the Prague Castle and is known for its delightful winding cobblestone streets, its array of lovely restaurants, shops and cafes, its beautiful buildings and homes, and best of all, its lack of crowds giving this part of town a quieter, peaceful feeling.
Despite it’s name “Lesser Town” (Malá Strana is also referred to as the Little Quarter), Lesser Town is by no means a less beautiful or fascinating place to explore. In fact, it got its name because it was originally the smaller part of town where the king lived which in those days was away from the hustle and bustle of the Old Town markets and square.
Slowly the crowds dissipate and you can wander the charming eighteenth century cobblestone streets – many of them tucked behind gorgeous buildings and jetting uphill – in lovely solitude. In many ways, you will find Lesser Town to be Prague’s most enchanting part of town. Despite its intimate size of only 600 square meters, it is easy to get lost within its narrow streets and loose the hordes of people in Old Town. Home to such gems as the Church of St. Nicholas, the Little Quarter Square, the Kafka Museum, Petrin Park, and the Wallenstein Palace and Garden (which sadly was closed when we were there for a private event), you could easily spend a late afternoon or evening enjoying this intimate neighborhood.
We only had a short amount of time as we strolled up to visit the Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral before the crowds arrived. Yet I was still able to capture a feel for Lesser Town’s eternal beauty of rich Baroque architecture, red tiled rooftops and exquisite grand homes and of course I easily fell in love with it.
According to Rough Guides Prague, the first people to settle in Lesser Town were people of Jewish descent, merchants and monks who flocked to the beautiful, steep landscape below the Prague Castle. The district of Lesser Town was founded in 1257 by a German community under the rule of King Otakar II who was a member of the Přemyslid dynasty and reigned as King of Bohemia from 1253 until 1278.
Like other parts of Prague that often suffered from terrible floods, Lesser Town had its own set of issues and a huge part of the area was destroyed by a massive fire in 1541. After the Protestants were pushed out of the area in the early 1600s, a powerful group of Catholic nobility took over and began building the exquisite grand palaces and homes you can still see today. In fact, hardly any new building has occurred in Lesser Town since the late 18th century making this part a highly, sought-after place to live. Many of the old mansions have turned into embassies and flats.
The lovely Nerudova Street is a place that cannot be missed in Lesser Town for viewing its elaborate array of house signs. Named after the famous Czech poet Jan Neruda who lived at the house called “At the Two Suns” (number 47), Nerudova Street has perhaps the most fascinating decorative house signs in all of Prague. House signs were used until 1770 when a new way of house numbering was introduced in the city. However, many house signs remain as part of the beautiful decor today like this one below named “The Three Fiddles”.
St. Nicholas’ Church is the centerpiece of Little Quarter Square and is an incredible example of Baroque architecture. It was build between 1704 and 1755 on the site where a 13th century Gothic church stood. Its cupola and bell tower are dominant landmarks in this area and can be seen from many streets in Lesser Town.
We didn’t have time to go inside the church of St. Nicholas but apparently it is definitely worth the visit with its extraordinary frescoes, paintings and sacred statues. It took 100 years and three architects to complete the masterpiece.
If you continue on towards the hill up to the Prague Castle, you pass one beautiful set of buildings after another. You could spend hours just admiring the architecture and lively colors of the homes. I was constantly looking up to catch it all on film. By the end of the trip, my neck was incredibly stiff but it was worth the effort.
A set of enchanting stairs lead you up to the Prague Castle affording stunning views of the city along the way. At the top of the stairs, is an entirely new world with the glorious French Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral and the Prague castle to explore.
Hradčany (The Prague Castle)
Soaring majestically atop the hillside overlooking the glorious city of Prague, lies the Prague Castle (Pražský hrad) in the district of Hradčany. It’s stunning mass of spires, towers and palaces dominate Prague like a magical, fairy-tale fortress. Known as the largest ancient castle complex in the world, covering an area close to the size of seven football fields (70,000 square meters in length and 130 meters wide) this network of towers, churches, museums, halls, gardens and palaces is like a city in itself and is a must-see for anyone visiting Prague.
Scholars estimate that the Prague Castle was founded around 880 by Prince Bořivoj of the Premyslid Dynasty. It was also around this time that merchants from surrounding lands began trading in the area and formed a marketplace that would eventually become Old Town Square in the heart of Prague. The first building to be constructed in the Prague Castle was the church of the Virgin Mary which only has a few stones remaining today. Over the next couple of centuries, the immense complex of palaces and ecclesiastical buildings were constructed and modified in various kinds of architectural style, beginning with the 10th century St. George’s Basilica, the St. George Convent, the impressive St. Vitus Cathedral, and the glorious palaces and gardens.
Since its founding, the Prague Castle has held an important role in history as the seat of power for the kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman emperors, and presidents of Czechoslovakia. Today, it is the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic and has been opened up to the public since 1989.
You can reach the castle a number of different ways however we preferred to take the long hike up from Lesser Town on foot. Leaving Nerudova Street, we walked up the picturesque Malostranské náměstí to the top of the hill and the main entrance to the Castle. The views along the way were stunning and definitely worth the steep walk up.
The panoramic views of the brilliant, terra cotta rooftops of Lesser Town were stunning despite the threat of rain. You can get a real feel for how large Prague is and how much of it has remained relatively unchanged for centuries.
After a ten minute walk up the hill, you reach the Hradčany Square, the main square that surrounds the entrance to the castle. It is filled with musicians, street artists and traditional and not so traditional food for sale. There of course are also lots and lots of tourists.
The highlight of any visit to the Prague Castle is watching the Changing of the Guards. The Changing the Guards ceremony takes place in the first courtyard of the Prague Castle at 12 o’clock daily and is the formal handover carried out with marching, music and military precision. It is best to arrive early as the crowds and lines start forming around the Changing of the Guards making your visit to the cathedral and castle quite challenging.
To enter the Castle, you must pass through a gate adorned with sculptures of Titans, which were made by I. F. Platzer in 1770. Then you will have a series of three courtyards that take you through the inside of the Castle complex.
The masterpiece inside the Prague Castle is by far the glorious French Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral. The St. Vitus Cathedral is the largest and most important church in the Czech Republic and its chapels, frescos and spectacular stained glass make it one of the most incredible churches I have ever seen. (It is so magnificent that I dedicated an entire post to the cathedral). Its construction took over a thousand years and its origins date back to the end of the 9th century.
You can easily spend an entire day visiting the castle, St. Vitus Cathedral and all the beautiful buildings around Hradčany. There is so much to see and so much history it is almost overwhelming. Since our time was limited, we did not do the castle tour but did tour the St. Vitus Cathedral and walked around Hradčany. I enjoyed taking photos of all the majestic buildings and palaces.
The weather in May can be unpredictable and it was clouding up again looking like it was going to rain. We cut out visit short and headed back to town feeling a little bit disappointed as I can only imagine how Hradčany would look with the sun shining down upon it. I’m sure the colors of the buildings would be brilliant.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to walk through the Palace Gardens which are supposedly quite lovely and are a wonderful option for getting back down to the center of town. Instead, we returned the way we came and arrived just in time to have lunch at one of the many outdoor restaurants in Old Town Square (many which have umbrellas and even offer blankets to keep you warm in case of cool Spring weather or rain). I realized there are both good and bad things to going in the Spring. You chance the weather however beat the unbearable crowds (which were already getting to be annoyingly large by early May) and the scorching heat of summer. Maybe a Fall visit to Prague is in order.
Tips to Plan your Visit
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.
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 in Nové město (New Town) which is excellent, affordable, nice and only a ten minute walk to Old Town Square. I highly recommend this hotel.
Here are some great resources I found on planning your visit.
Prague Castle for Visitors (website gives you opening hours, map of the castle, information on each palace, ticket information and more).
My Czech Republic (website gives extensive history on the founding of the Prague Castle).
Rough Guides to Prague, 2015 edition, written by Marc Di Duca
DK Eyewitness Travel 2016 Prague, Vladimir Soukup
Discover Prague Guide – provided by most hotels in Prague
Radomira Sedlakova, author of Prague an architectural guide
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