One of Europe’s most beautiful capital cities, Prague is undoubtedly the highlight of a visit to the Czech Republic. Away from this bustling, cosmopolitan city, however, the tranquil Bohemian countryside is home to dozens of castles and historic towns, whose appearance has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. Most of the main sights of interest can be visited on a day trip from Prague, and are easily reached from the capital by good public transportation and road networks. Slightly farther afield, Český Krumlov merits at least a couple of days’ exploration.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The history of Prague begins with the castle, founded by Prince Bořivoj in the 9th century. Despite periodic fires and invasions, it has retained churches, chapels, halls, and towers from every period of its history, from the Gothic splendor of St. Vitus’s Cathedral to the Renaissance additions of Rudolph II, the last Habsburg to use the castle as his principal residence. The courtyards date from 1753–75, when the whole area was rebuilt in Late Baroque and Neoclassical styles. The castle became the seat of the Czechoslovak president in 1918, and the current president of the Czech Republic has an office here.
ST. VITUS’S CATHEDRAL
Work began on the city’s most distinctive landmark in 1344 on the orders of John of Luxemburg. The Gothic cathedral replaced an earlier Romanesque basilica that stood on the site of a small rotunda dating back to the time of St. Wenceslas (c.925). The first architect of the new Gothic structure was the Frenchman Matthew of Arras. After his death, the Swabian Peter Parler took over. The eastern end of the cathedral dates from this period. The original entrance was the Golden Portal on the south side of the building. The present entrance, the western end of the nave, and the façade with its twin spires were added in 1873–1929. The chapels house many saintly relics, the Bohemian crown jewels, and a number of royal tombs. The tomb of “Good King” Wenceslas stands in the St. Wenceslas Chapel, which is decorated with Gothic frescoes. Another spectacular memorial is the huge silver tomb (1736) of St. John Nepomuk, whose cult was encouraged during the Counter-Reformation.
OLD ROYAL PALACE
From the time Prague Castle was first fortified in stone in the 11th century, the Royal Palace was the seat of a long line of Bohemian kings. The building consists of three different architectural layers. A Romanesque palace, built around 1135, forms the basement of the present structure. Over the next 200 years, two further palaces were built above this – the first by Přemysl Otakar II in 1253, and the second by Charles IV in 1340. On the top floor is the massive Gothic Vladislav Hall, with its splendid rib vaulting. Designed for King Vladislav Jagiello, it was completed in 1502. The Riders’ Staircase, just off the hall, is a flight of steps with a magnificent Gothic rib vaulted ceiling. It was used by knights on horseback to get to jousting contests. Under Habsburg rule, the palace housed government offices, courts, and the old Bohemian parliament. The Bohemian Chancellery, the former royal offices of the Habsburgs, is the site of the famous 1618 defenestration (see p675). In 1619, the Bohemian nobles deposed Emperor Ferdinand II as King of Bohemia, electing in his place Frederick of the Palatinate. This led to the first major battle of the Thirty Years’ War.
ST. GEORGE’S BASILICA AND CONVENT
St. George’s Basilica was founded by Prince Vratislav in 920. Enlarged in 973 and rebuilt following a fire in 1142, it is the best-preserved Romanesque church in Prague. The huge twin towers and austere interior have been restored to give an idea of the church’s original appearance. However, the rusty red facade is a 17th-century Baroque addition. Buried in the church is St Ludmila, who became Bohemia’s first female Christian martyr when she was strangled as she knelt at prayer. Throughout the Middle Ages, the convent and the basilica formed the heart of the castle complex. The adjacent former Benedictine nunnery is the oldest convent building in Bohemia. It was founded in 973 by Princess Mlada, sister of Boleslav II.
Built in the 16th century for the Count of Lobcowicz, the noble Schwarzenberg family acquired the palace in 1719 by marriage. It is considered to be one of the best-preserved Renaissance buildings in Prague. Its facades are decorated with black and white scraffitto dating back to 1580; inside, preserved ceilings have valuable examples of Renaissance figurative painting. The palace houses the National Gallery permanent exhibition, Baroque Art in Bohemia. Sculpture and paintings from the late Renaissance and Baroque periods include Petr Brandl’s Simeon and the Infant Jesus (1725) and works by Matyáš Bernard Braun and Ferdinand Maximilián Brokof.
Named after the goldsmiths who lived here in the 17th century, this is one of the most picturesque streets in Prague. The tiny, brightly painted houses that line one side of it were built in the late 1500s for Rudolph II’s castle guards. A century later, the goldsmiths moved in. By the 19th century, the area had degenerated into a slum, populated by Prague’s poor and the criminal community. In the 1950s, the area was restored to something like its original state, and most of the houses were converted into shops selling books, Bohemian glass, and other souvenirs for the tourists who flock here. Golden Lane has been home to a number of well-known writers, including Franz Kafka (1883–1924), who stayed at No. 22 for a few months between 1916 and 1917.
ROYAL GARDEN AND BELVEDERE
Prague’s well-kept Royal Garden was created in 1535 for Ferdinand I. The garden contains some fine examples of 16thcentury architecture, including the Belvedere, a beautiful arcaded summerhouse with slender Ionic columns, and a blue-green copper roof. Also known as the Royal Summer Palace (Královský letohrádek), the Italian Renaissance building was commissioned in the mid- 16th century for Ferdinand’s wife. It is now used as an art gallery. In front of it is the Singing Fountain, which owes its name to the musical sound the water makes as it hits the bronze bowl. Also in the garden is the Ball Game Hall (Míčovna), built in 1569, and used primarily for playing a form of real tennis. At the entrance to the garden, the Lion Court was where Rudolph II had his zoo (now a restaurant).
Franz Josef Sternberg founded the Society of Patriotic Friends of the Arts in Bohemia in 1796. Fellow noblemen would lend their finest pictures and sculpture to the society, which had its headquarters in the early 18th-century Sternberg Palace. Since 1949, the fine Baroque building has been used to house the National Gallery’s collection of European art. The palace has an impressive array of exhibits, including some particularly fine examples of Italian medieval art, Neapolitan works of the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch and Flemish masterpieces, and Austrian and German art of the 15th to 17th centuries. The 19th- and 20th-century exhibits, including works by Klimt, Picasso, and Miró, were moved to the Veletržní Palace, northeast of the city center, in 1996. The palace boasts many masterpieces; among the highlights are Albrecht Dürer’s The Feast of the Rosary (1506), Head of Christ, painted by El Greco in the 1590s, and Rembrandt’s Scholar in his Study (1634). Visitors can also see art from ancient Greece and Rome, a collection of Renaissance bronzes, as well as the fascinating Chinese Cabinet, a richly decorated chamber, which combines the Baroque style with Far Eastern motifs.
This narrow picturesque street is named after the 19th-century writer Jan Neruda, who wrote many short stories set in this part of Prague. He lived in the house known as At the Two Suns (No. 47) between 1845 and 1857. Before the introduction of house numbers in 1770, the city’s houses were distinguished by signs. Nerudova’s houses have a splendid selection of heraldic beasts and emblems. Ones to look for in particular are the Red Eagle (No. 6), the Three Fiddles (No. 12), the Golden Horseshoe (No. 34), the Green Lobster (No. 43), and the White Swan (No. 49). Nerudova Street also has a number of grand Baroque buildings, including the Thun-Hohenstein Palace (No. 20) – now the Italian embassy – and the Morzin Palace (No. 5) – home of the Romanian embassy. The latter has an interesting facade featuring two massive statues of Moors.
CHURCH OF ST. NICHOLAS
Dominating Little Quarter Square, at the heart of Malá Strana, is the Church of St. Nicholas. Begun in 1702, it is the acknowledged masterpiece of architects Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, who were responsible for the greatest examples of Jesuitinfluenced Baroque architecture in Prague. Neither lived to see the completion of the church – their work was finished in 1761 by Kilian’s son-in-law, Anselmo Lurago. Among the many works of art inside the church is Franz Palko’s magnificent fresco, The Celebration of the Holy Trinity, which fills the 50-m- (165-ft-) high dome. A fresco of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music, watches over the church’s splendid Baroque organ. Built in 1746, it was played by Mozart in 1787. Another star feature is the ornate 18th-century pulpit, lavishly adorned with golden cherubs. The impressive statues of the Church Fathers, which stand at the four corners of the crossing, are the work of Ignaz Platzer, as is the statue of St. Nicholas that graces the high altar.
WALLENSTEIN PALACE AND GARDEN
The first large secular building of the Baroque era in Prague, this palace was commissioned by the imperial military commander Albrecht von Wallenstein (1581–1634). His victories in the Thirty Years’ War made him vital to Emperor Ferdinand II. Already showered with titles, Wallenstein started to covet the crown of Bohemia. He began to negotiate independently with the enemy, and in 1634 was killed on the Emperor’s orders by mercenaries. Wallenstein’s intention was to overshadow even Prague Castle with his vast palace, built between 1624 and 1630. The magnificent main hall has a ceiling fresco of the commander portrayed as Mars, riding in a triumphal chariot. The palace is now used by the Czech Senate, but the State Rooms are open to the public. Dotted with bronze statues and fountains, the gardens are laid out as they were when Wallenstein resided here. The Grotesquery is an unusual feature – an imitation of the walls of a cave, covered in stalactites. There is also a fine frescoed pavilion. The old Riding School is today used for National Gallery exhibitions.
One of the most familiar sights in Prague, the Charles Bridge (Karlův Most) connects the Old Town with the Little Quarter. Although it is now pedestrianized, at one time it took four carriages abreast. The bridge was commissioned by Charles IV in 1357 after the Judith Bridge was destroyed by floods. The bridge’s original decoration consisted of a simple wooden cross. In 1683, a statue of St. John Nepomuk – the first of the many Baroque statues that today line the bridge – was added. The vicar general Jan Nepomucký was arrested in 1393 by Wenceslas IV for having displeased the king. He died under torture and his body was thrown from the bridge. A number of finely worked reliefs depict the martyrdom of this saint, who was revered by the Jesuits as a rival to Jan Hus. Between 1683 and the latter half of the 19th century, several more statues were erected. Sculpted by Matthias Braun at the age of 26, the statue of St. Luitgard is regarded as one of the most artistically remarkable. Another splendid piece of decoration, the 17th-century Crucifixion bears the Hebrew inscription “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord,” paid for by a Jew as punishment for blasphemy. At the Little Quarter end of the bridge stand two bridge towers. The shorter of these is the remains of the Judith Bridge and dates from the early 12th century. The taller pinnacled tower was built in 1464. It offers a magnificent view of the city, as does the late 14th-century Gothic tower at the Old Town end.
Built around 1270, this is the oldest synagogue in Europe, and one of the earliest Gothic buildings in Prague. The synagogue has survived fires, the slum clearances of the 19th century, and many Jewish pogroms. Residents of the Jewish Quarter have often had to seek refuge within its walls, and today it is still the religious center for Prague’s Jews. It was originally called the New Synagogue until another synagogue was built nearby – this was later destroyed.
OLD JEWISH CEMETERY
Founded in 1478, for over 300 years this was the only burial ground permitted to Jews. Because of the lack of space, people had to be buried on top of each other, up to 12 layers deep. Today you can see over 12,000 gravestones, but around 100,000 people are thought to have been buried here – the last person, Moses Beck, in 1787. The most visited grave in the cemetery is that of Rabbi Löw (1520–1609). Visitors place hundreds of pebbles and wishes on his grave as a mark of respect. On the northern edge of the cemetery, the Klausen Synagogue (1694) stands on the site of a number of small Jewish schools and prayer houses, known as klausen. Today, it is home to the Jewish Museum, whose exhibits trace the history of the Jews in Central Europe back to the Middle Ages. Next to the synagogue is the former ceremonial hall of the Jewish Burial Society, built in 1906. It now houses a permanent exhibition of children’s’ drawings from the Terezín concentration camp. Also bordering the cemetery, the Pinkas Synagogue was founded in 1479, and now serves as a memorial to all the Jewish Czechoslovak citizens who were imprisoned at Terezín. Excavations at the synagogue have turned up fascinating relics of life in the medieval ghetto, including a mikva, or ritual bath.
OLD TOWN SQUARE
Free of traffic, except for a handful of horse-drawn carriages, and ringed with historic buildings, Prague’s enormous Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) ranks among the finest public spaces of any European city. Dominating the east side of the square is the Church of Our Lady before Týn, with its magnificent Gothic steeples. Begun in 1365, from the early 15th century until 1620 it was the main Hussite church in Prague. Also on the east side of the square, the House at the Stone Bell has been restored to its former appearance as a Gothic town palace. The splendid 18th-century Rococo Kinský Palace, with its pretty pink and white stucco facade, was designed by Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer. Today, it houses art exhibitions by the National Gallery. At the northern end of the square, the Church of St. Nicholas stands on the site of a former church dating from the 12th century. The present building, completed by Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer in 1735, has a dramatic white façade, studded with statues by Antonín Braun. In summer, evening concerts are held here. A colorful array of arcaded buildings of Romanesque or Gothic origin, with fascinating house signs, graces the south side of the square. Among the most attractive are the house called At the Stone Ram and the Neo-Renaissance Štorch House, also known as At the Stone Madonna. At one end of the square stands the huge monument dedicated to the reformist Jan Hus, who was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1415. In addition to historic buildings, there are also many shops, as well as restaurants and cafés, whose tables and chairs spill out onto the pavements of the square in summer.
OLD TOWN HALL
Standing at the southwest corner of the Old Town Square, the Old Town Hall is one of the most striking buildings in Prague. Established in 1338 after King John of Luxemburg agreed to set up a town council, the Town Hall grew in the course of the next few centuries, and today consists of a row of colorful Gothic and Renaissance buildings. The Old Town Hall Tower is one of the building’s star features and dates from 1364. The gallery at the top provides a magnificent view of the city. Located on the first floor is the 14th-century Oriel Chapel, with its ornate restored ceiling. Another famous sight is the Astronomical Clock, built by the clockmaker Hanuš in 1490. The mechanism of the clock we see today was perfected by Jan Táborský between 1552 and 1572. The clock records three different kinds of time, Old Bohemian time, time as we know it, and so-called Babylonian time. It also shows the movement of the sun and moon through the 12 signs of the zodiac. Every time the clock strikes the hour, mechanical figures perform above the zodiac signs, drawing crowds of spectators. The lower section of the clock consists of the Calendar.
Prague’s most prominent Art Nouveau building occupies the site of the former Royal Court Palace, the king’s residence between 1383 and 1484. The exterior is embellished with allegorical statuary, and above the main entrance, there is a mosaic entitled Homage to Prague by Karel Špillar. Inside is Prague’s principal concert venue, the Smetana Hall, which is also used as a ballroom. The interior is decorated with works by leading Czech artists of the early 20th century, including Alfons Mucha, one of the most successful exponents of the Art Nouveau style. On October 28, 1918, Prague’s Municipal House was the scene of the momentous proclamation of the newly independent state of Czechoslovakia.
Originally a medieval horse market, today Wenceslas Square remains an important commercial center, with shops, hotels, restaurants, and clubs. At one end of the square is the National Museum. This grand building, with its monumental staircase and rich marbled interior, was completed in 1890 as a symbol of national prestige. The museum’s collections are devoted mainly to mineralogy, archaeology, anthropology, and natural history. The huge equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas that stands in front of the National Museum was erected in 1912, the work of the 19th-century sculptor Josef Myslbek. At the foot of the pedestal, there are smaller statues of Czech patron saints. Also worth seeing are the Art Nouveau-style Hotel Europa (1906) and the Church of Our Lady of the Snows. This towering Gothic building is only part of a vast church planned in the 14th century but never completed. Wenceslas Square has witnessed many important events in Czech history. In November 1989, a protest rally against police brutality took place here, leading to the Velvet Revolution and the overthrow of Communism.
The National Theater has always been an important symbol of the Czech cultural revival. Work began on the building in 1868. The original Neo-Renaissance design was by the Czech architect Josef Zítek. After it was completely destroyed by fire – just days before the official opening – Josef Schulz was given the job of rebuilding the theater, and all the best Czech artists of the period contributed toward its lavish decoration. During the late 1970s and early 80s, the theater underwent restoration work and the New Stage was built. The theater’s auditorium has an elaborately painted ceiling adorned with allegorical figures representing the arts. Equally impressive are the sumptuous gold and red stage curtain, and the ceiling fresco in the theater’s lobby. The fresco is the final part of a triptych, painted by František Ženíšek in 1878, depicting the Golden Age of Czech Art. The theater’s vivid sky-blue roof, covered with stars, is said to symbolize the summit all artists should aim for.