While Paris might often be voted one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in the world, in my opinion there’s another close contender for the title – Prague. Situated in the north-west of the Czech Republic on the Vltava river, Prague is steeped in history, sights and culture.
As the historic capital of the romantic sounding ‘Bohemia’ region, Prague is rich in reminders of years gone by even with its some-what turbulent past, with a sight that makes you stop in your tracks around almost every corner. In fact, since 1992, the historic centre of Prague has been on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites.
At the heart of the city is the Old Town, or Staré Město. Its 12th century square was the base for my visit, and a great one at that; edged by churches, cafes and restaurants designed for people watching with a cold pilsner, and the odd souvenir shop. This is also not forgetting of course one of the main draws on the square, Prague’s Astronomical Clock. First installed in 1410, this masterpiece is the third oldest astronomical clock in the world, and is in fact the oldest still in operation. At the turn of every hour, it marks the occasion with the figures of 12 apostles passing by the window. A piece of art in itself, it is well worth finding a spot in the crowd and waiting to see the chimes.
For a true sense of past history, head towards the river and visit the Jewish quarter, or Josefov. Dating back to the 13th century when the Jewish community in Prague were ordered to vacate their homes and settle in one area, it became known as the Prague Jewish Ghetto. For an idea of the scale of the number of inhabitants, visit the moving cemetery where people had to be buried on top of one another because of lack of space. With roughly 12 layers and more than 12,000 gravestones, a huge 100,000 people are thought to have been buried here. Today, many visitors flock to discover more about its most famous inhabitant, the famous author Franz Kafka.
Still heading towards the river, you hit Prague’s arguably most well-known sight, the world famous Charles Bridge. Uniting the Old Town and Prague Castle, this important river crossing is the featured in many a postcard or even film scene, and as such, heaves with artists, vendors and of course tourists. However, it is undeniably beautiful, edged by a series of ornate statues. If you can, arrive early to beat the crowds and take home some classic photos.
Also up the list of ‘must-sees’ is Prague’s impressive castle. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Prague Castle is the largest coherent castle complex in the world, with an area of almost 70,000 m². With a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list, the jumble of buildings and complexes in a vartety of architectual styles reflects its expansion and strengthening over many hundreds of years. At its heart is the stunning St Vitus Cathedral, the largest church in Prague and home to the coronations of Czech kings and queens.
A tiered level of tickets are available each covering different areas of the castle. With the expanded ticket, as well as the main castle buildings, you are given access to a number of interesting exhibitions and galleries which easily allow a visit to turn into a full day trip. If you are there, don’t miss the ceremonial Changing of the Guard at midday daily in the first courtyard, including a fanfare and flag ceremony. One important point to bear in mind: if you wish to take interior photographs, you will need to indicate so and pay for a photo permit at 50 koruna (just over £1.)
On the castle side of the Vltava River you will also find Petrin Observation Tower. At first glance, you might be struck by its similarity to the Eiffel Tower, just on a smaller scale! Built in 1891 for the Jubilee Exhibition, the tower only stands at 60 metres high, yet its strategic position on top of Petrin Hill gives it a superb view down over all the red roof tops of Prague. Take the time to visit the Tower, but save your legs by taking the unusual funicular up to the top of the hill which runs every 15 minutes in the summer, or 20 minutes in the winter.
Finally, for a truly hidden treasure in Prague, discover the walled Wallenstein Garden, hidden behind a collection of buildings just below Prague Castle. Built in 1630, it is hidden behind enormous walls, accessible through unassuming doorways that mean you often see very few tourists other than those who stumble across it, as we did!
At one end is the Wallenstein Palace which houses the Czech Senate. At the other is an enormous stalactite gray ‘grotto’ wall. Admittedly not to everyone’s taste, see which creatures you can see hidden amongst the wall sculpture. Take a good book, find yourself a seat, and easily while away a few hours, only interrupted by the occasional free-ranging peacock!
Worried about fitting all these sights and more into a short period of time? Don’t be; Prague is one of the easiest cities to travel around I have had the pleasure of visiting. The public transport system of trams, metro and buses is frequent and affordable, but my experience was that, at least in the heart of town, the city is compact enough that if you have got your walking feet on, these sights are all a pleasant stroll away.
Whether you have just a weekend or time for a longer stay, Prague provides a perfect city break. It mixes history, culture and great food all at affordable prices. Why not ‘czech’ it out?
My top tips for Prague
- To really experience Prague, try and stay as central as possible. To have the Old Town Square right on your doorstep, try our hotel of choice, Hotel U Tří Bubnů. While it may not be the top of the ‘trip advisor listings’ for Prague, this hotel is literally steps away from all the action, has cosy, comfortable rooms and is itself on the UNESCO heritage list! An added bonus, internet enabled laptops and DVDs are free to borrow.
- If like me you appreciate fine art nouveau architecture, Municipal House is not to be missed. Home to Prague’s biggest concert hall, the building stands next door to the Powder Gate, one of the original entrances to Prague’s Old Town.
- Wenceslas Square is not so much a square, as the shopping central of Prague so might be worth a visit. For the more ‘high-end’ amongst you, just off the Old Town Square is a road that my partner and I affectionately called ‘Millionaire’s Row’ (or more officially, Pařížská) with your Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Cartier etc.
- Voted amongst the world’s best zoos, Prague Zoo is well worth a visit. Reachable by a tram and bus combination, the zoo makes for a great family day out. Entry is a very affordable at 200 koruna per person at the time of writing, or approximately £6.45.
- If you are looking for a gift to take home, you cannot go wrong with some of the beautiful Bohemian Crystal, a well-known export of the Czech Republic. Alternatively, for a more fun gift, try the famous Czech puppets!