What to see
You’ll be sure to pass through Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) many times on your visit to Prague, and along with Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí) in the New Town, it’s one of the city’s most important, most impressive squares. Old Town Square has been known by several names over the centuries, but has been called Staroměstské náměstí since the 19th century. The square is surrounded by some terrific examples of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture, and it’s where the city’s main market would be held during the Middle-Ages. You’ll find markets are still held here over Christmas and Easter. The Old Town City Hall, Astronomical Clock, St. Nicholas Church, Tyn Church, and old-style houses are just some of the incredible buildings which surround it. A statue of the reformist Jan Hus, who in the end died for his beliefs, stands proudly in the middle of the square. Its air is heavy with the sense of a grand yet turbulent history, and you can spend hours admiring the square before you even realize it. Old Town Square really is the heart of the city, and just being there will put you on your way to soaking up Prague’s expansive history and unique atmosphere. There really are few other places where the past contrasts so interestingly with the modern day. There are plenty of places in and around the square to stop for a bite eat, and indulge in a little people watching too.
Church of Our Lady before Týn
One of Prague’s most iconic buildings, construction of the Church of Our Lady before Týn (Kostel Matky Boží před Týnem) began in the 14th century, though it wasn’t completed until 1511. While its exterior is distinctly Gothic in design, its interior is in more of a Baroque style. The church’s statues, paintings, high vaulted ceilings and other adornments and decorations have made it one of Prague’s leading tourist attractions. Make sure you see the church at night, when it’s illuminated in quite spectacular fashion – the lighting adds a completely new element to its extravagant charm. It’s as if you’re standing in front of a building straight out of a fairy tale, so be sure to walk around and appreciated it from every angle – the longer you look, the more of its intricate little details you’ll see.
Prague Castle (Pražský hrad) is a large complex of buildings constructed atop a tall hill on the bank of the River Vltava, and it’s one of the city’s most exciting attractions. Built over various historical periods, the castle complex exhibits a whole host of different architectural styles. The first of its buildings to be constructed was the 9th-century church. Then in the 10th century, the Basilica of St. George and the Basilica of St. Vitus were established here, followed by Bohemia’s first convent. In the 12th century, a grand Romanesque palace was built. However, in the 14th century, Charles IV ordered the rebuilding of the palace in the Gothic style, and had the fortifications reinforced. There are many other buildings to see within the castle complex, all of which photograph superbly. If it’s views of the city you’re after, then make the climb to the top of the Basilica of St. Vitus, where you’ll be treated to some breathtaking panoramic vistas of Prague.
The Astronomical Clock (Pražský orloj) is one of Prague’s most popular attractions, as visitors crowd round it each hour to see its display of animated figurines. This intricately designed and detailed clock is the world’s oldest astronomical clock which still works. The first part of the clock was made in 1410 by clockmakers Mikuláš of Kadaň and Jan Šindel. The calendar dial and Gothic sculptures were added sometime around 1490. There’s a myth, now dispelled, that the clock was made by the master clockmaker Jan Růže (also known as Hanuš), and that Prague’s administrators had him blinded so he couldn’t repeat his work. From 09:00 to 21:00, a hatch above the clock opens every hour, and the figures of the twelve apostles hidden behind come out and perform for the crowds below. There are also two figures on either side of the clock, the total of which represent the four most despised things at the time of the clock’s making. The skeleton represents death, the Turk represents opulence and excess, the miser holding his bag of gold represents greed, and the figure holding the mirror to his face represents vanity. When the clock strikes the hour, death rings his bell and the other three shake their heads in protest. At the base of the clock stand sculptures of an angel, historian, astrologer and philosopher, though these remain stationary. The display only lasts a matter of minutes, so be sure to have your camera at the ready if you want to capture this whimsical tradition.
Basilica of St. George
After being established in 920, by 973 the Basilica of St. George (Bazilika Sv. Jiří) had been substantially enlarged with the addition of the St. George’s Benedictine Convent. However, the Romanesque design we see today came about after a fire severely damaged the building in 1142. In the first half of the 13th century, a chapel dedicated to St. Ludmila was installed, and the magnificent Baroque façade we see today was constructed between 1671 and 1691. In the early 18th century the architect F.M. Kanka added the Baroque Chapel of St. John Nepomuk to the church. The building now houses the collection of old Bohemian art of the National Gallery.
Alfons Mucha Museum
Kaunický Palace is right in the heart of Prague, and it displays over a hundred pieces by Mucha, including paintings, photographs, charcoal drawings, pastels and lithographs, in addition to some of his personal memorabilia. Alphonse Mucha catapulted himself onto the international stage with his drawings of the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt, as well as his graphic design work and jewelry. As you follow the artistic progression of this amazing artist at the museum, you’ll also come to learn about his personal life as you watch the half-hour documentary shown there – it will certainly help you understand his artistic vision more clearly. There are plenty of things in the museum gift shop to remind you of the artistic genius of Mucha, as well as your trip to enchanting Prague.
Prague Museum of Decorative Arts
The building of the Prague Museum of Decorative Arts (Uměleckoprůmyslové muzeum v Praze) was designed by architect Josef Schulz and established in 1885, and is home to a vast collection of Bohemian art and design. Along with these Bohemian pieces of art and craftsmanship, you’ll find pieces of European origin which have survived since Late Antiquity, and decorative and applied arts which give an insight into the country’s creative past. As you explore the museum, you’ll see the history of decorative arts and how it has developed, discover the techniques used in working with glass, ceramics, graphic art, design, metal, wood and other materials, as well as enjoy a collection of jewelry, clocks and watches, textiles, fashion, toys and furniture.
Metropolitan Cathedral of Sts. Vitus, Wenceslaus and Adalbert
The construction of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Sts. Vitus, Wenceslaus and Adalbert (Metropolitní katedrála svatého Víta, Václava a Vojtěcha) began in 1344 – before this, a church built in around 925 stood in its place, which was subsequently converted to a basilica in 1060. The building has been the project of many architects – it was started by French architect Matthias of Arras, and after his death in 1352, it was continued by Peter Parler. It saw no less than three architects during the 19th century – Josef Kranner, Josef Mocker and Kamil Hilbert. Because of constant additions, the building wasn’t completely finished until 1929. Of course having been built over such a long period and having had so many hands involved in the process means the building reflects several different architectural styles. The tower in cathedral’s southern section, built between the 14th and 15th centuries, is quintessentially Gothic, whereas the two towers either side of the western main entrance are distinctly Neo-Gothic. The cathedral holds important historical significance, not least of all because it’s been where many Bohemian kings and queens have been crowned. On your visit, be sure to climb to the top of the cathedral’s bell tower. Here you’ll find Žikmund, the Czech Republic’s largest bell, which was made in 1549. You’ll need to climb 287 steps to reach the top of the 90-meter-tall tower, but it’s worth it – the views of Prague from here are outstanding.
Sternberg Palace (Šternberský palác) is a masterpiece of 17th-century Baroque architecture, and was built for Vaclav Vojtech, the Count of Sternberg. Today, it’s a museum home to paintings by European artists from the 14th to 18th century. If you have an interest in art from this period, you’d be missing out if this wasn’t on your list of places to visit while in Prague. The museum’s collection includes paintings by seminal artists like Goya, Rembrandt, Rubens, El Greco and Breughels, as well as a huge collection of miniatures created in Bohemia. Perhaps the most interesting piece in the museum is Albrect Dürer’s Feast of the Rose Garlands, which he painted in Venice in 1506. The painting depicts a crowded scene in which the Virgin Mary places a crown of roses upon the head of Emperor Maximilian I. Be sure to look at the painting closely – Dürer included a portrait of himself on the right-hand side of the scene.
What to eat
Even though Trdelnik is a Slovak sweet, it’s enjoyed all over the Czech Republic. Sugary dough is cut into strips and wrapped around a tube, on which it’s then cooked, resulting in a tunnel of sweet pastry delight. It’s then covered in honey and sprinkled with crushed hazelnuts, or dipped in caramel and covered with almond pieces. Another popular variety of trdelnik is made with hazelnut cream.
Knedliky is ubiquitous in Czech cuisine, and can be sweet or savory. The casing can be made from wheat flour or potatoes, and is usually left quite thick. Rather than the dumplings being prepared individually, the filling is placed in long stretches of dough and then rolled closed. Fillings can include anything from meat and potatoes, to fruits and jams. Once rolled, individual dumplings can be pulled off one by one, or the roll can be sliced. The dumplings will then be boiled or fried, depending on the recipe.