One of the most magnificent cities in Europe in the middle ages, Prague only emerged from four decades of communist rule just over 20 years ago and once again offered its treasures to the world. Since then it has become one of the world’s top tourism gems and one of Europe’s liveliest cultural destinations. Rhonda Bannister was utterly captivated by the city’s many charms and shares her top 15 reasons to visit.
1. A Unique Cityscape
The heart and soul of Prague is found in its magnificently decorated architecture which includes fine examples from the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Art Nouveau and Cubist eras. The best way to appreciate these treasures is to walk the streets in the quiet of early morning, before they’re jam-packed with day-trippers, so you can admire the frescoes, statuary and artistic renderings that adorn almost every building.
Don’t miss the Grand Hotel Europa in Wenceslas Square, one of Prague’s most valuable architectural landmarks. This Art Nouveau beauty from the belle époque era has played host to many luminaries over the years including a starring role in Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible movie. Enjoy a cup of coffee in its lounge if only to see its over the top interiors. And, for something completely different there’s the very non-traditional Dancing House designed to look like two dancers – hence its nickname ‘Fred and Ginger’!
2 .The Astrological Clock
Every day hundreds of tourists gather under the Town Hall clock to await the striking of the hour when the procession of the Twelve Apostles begins. Under the apostles, the clock shows the movement of the sun and moon through the twelve signs of the zodiac and under that is a calendar with beautifully rendered pictures of Bohemian peasant life. Apparently the town councillors were so enraptured with their clock when it was built in 1490 they didn’t want it re-created so they blinded the poor clockmaker!
3. The Charles Bridge (Karluv Most)
The bridge is 516 metres long and almost 10 metres wide with wonderful bridge towers at either end. The 30 statues that decorate both sides aren’t the originals which are stored away for safekeeping, but are wonderfully authentic replicas used to ensure the originals survive the ravages of time. At night when it is lit up it’s one of the most romantic sights in Prague. You can climb the towers at either end for a stunning view of the city.
4. Churches, Chapels and Cathedrals
With one of Europe’s least religious populations, it seems a contradiction that the Czechs have some of the most beautiful chapels and churches. The Old Town Square is dominated by the majestic, Gothic spires of Our Lady before Tyne church and on the other side of the square is the beautiful Church of St Nicholas. ‘Good King’ Wenceslas, Bohemia’s patron saint, is buried in the Chapel of St Wenceslas in St Vitus’s Cathedral, Prague’s most distinctive landmark. The facade of the Church of the Holy Saviour which faces the entrance to the Charles Bridge is adorned with myriad statues of religious figures plus there are numerous other beautiful churches scattered around the city.
5. Prague Castle
One of the world’s biggest castles it’s also the major tourist drawcard in a city that has so many and positively dominates the skyline. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this is one of the country’s most important cultural institutions and every hour you can witness the ceremonial Changing of the Guard. Although you can only visit the state rooms on two days a year, you can spend hours wandering through the courtyards, gardens and towers surrounding the main building.
6. The Old Town
This is the oldest of the city’s towns and the heart of Prague. It only became known as the Old Town in the 14th century when the New Town was founded, but its beginnings go back to the 11th century. Historically and architecturally important houses, churches and buildings abound here, especially around the Old Town Square where executions used to be held and where the royal procession passed through on its way from the Powder Gate to the castle on the other side of the Vltava river.
7. The Jewish Quarter
Before World War 11 and the German occupation, over 50,000 Jews lived in and around Prague’s Jewish Quarter, but today there are only a few thousand. The Old-New Synagogue which has been a house of prayer for over 700 years is still there as is the incredible Old Jewish Cemetery where, due to lack of space, around 100,000 people are buried up to twelve layers deep. Today you can wander through the small cemetery and see over 12,000 gravestones! Truly a unique sight.
8. Jazz and Blues
Bill Clinton enjoyed the atmosphere at the famed Reduta Jazz Club so much that he got on stage to dazzle the crowd with a couple of hot tunes from his sax when he paid a visit in 1994. Jazz clubs are an institution in Prague and the quality of the music is great. It’s a good idea to book a table with most shows starting around 9 pm and a cover charge of around ten euros.
9. Street Markets
Markets are a European tradition and you’ll find a couple of good ones in the city centre where you can buy local handicrafts, fresh fruit, clothing and jewellery. The Old Town Square started out as a market in the Middle Ages and although there aren’t any weekly markets there now, they still have the Easter and Christmas markets where you can pick up handmade gifts such as their famous painted easter eggs and porcelain dolls.
10. Day Trip to Cesky Krumlov
If you can only afford the time to do one day trip from Prague then the medieval city of Cesky Krumlov has to be it. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this gorgeous little city is easy to walk around in one day, is home to the second largest castle in the Czech Republic and is bursting with beautiful examples of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Situated on the winding banks of the Vltava River, this is a picture-perfect day out.
11. Nightclubs & Bars
The locals take their night life seriously and you’ll find them wildly bopping away in the numerous dance clubs sprinkled around the city from late at night until the early hours. There’s no shortage of trendy bars and good old beer halls either, so however you prefer your entertainment you’ll find a place that appeals.
12. Romantic Dining
I don’t know if it’s the magical atmosphere of ancient, Gothic stone walls, the flickering candlelight reflected on vaulted ceilings, the ambience of a roaring fireplace, the gentle strains of classical music or the sparkling silverware and crystal glasses, but dining in one of the city’s impressive, fine dining restaurants is just so charming it's almost other-worldly.
Just about every second shop in the Old Town and Little Quarter gleams with the refractive brilliance and inimitable sparkle of Bohemia crystal. Take a wander around the Swarovski gallery and I dare you not to purchase some precious bauble. For serious shoppers, all of the designer names are represented here and probably at a better price than other European cities and for those whose aspirations aren’t so lofty, there’s some great shops in the streets off Wenceslas Square where you can buy clothing, leather handbags and shoes much cheaper than at home. Don’t wait until you get to the airport as there’s not a lot there and it’s no cheaper than in town.
14. Culture Vultures
Even if you don’t know your Verdi from your Vivaldi, as a visitor to one of Europe’s leading cultural destinations it’s almost mandatory to witness a world-class operatic or ballet performance amidst the regal glamour of the State Opera House or the National Theatre. For a more laid-back cultural experience, classical concerts take place every day from around 4pm in many concert halls and churches in the city, and tickets are readily available from vendors in the street for around 30 Euros.
15. Couples Will Love
As the sun descends over the city of one hundred spires, and the sky is awash in eventide’s golden glow, the tourist buses leave and romance returns to the streets of Prague. Couples stroll arm in arm, heads bent together laughing and kissing while others find a place to sit and watch one of the world’s loveliest sunsets over a glass of wine or an aperitif. For the best spot to enjoy this heavenly spectacle, head to the Roof Terrace Bar at the U Prince Hotel opposite the astrological clock in the Old Town as it offers a perfect viewing deck over the ancient rooftops of the old town and beyond to Prague Castle.