More than a thousand years old, throne of Bohemian kings and birthplace of the Velvet Revolution that overthrew communist rule, Prague is one of Europe’s great eternal cities
Story and Photos by Chris Mitchell
I arrived in Prague late at night, on one discount European airline or another, armed with a small backpack that contained just under 10 kilograms of what I deemed to be the travel essentials—I can’t even remember if a bar of soap managed to make the cut. Exiting the metro, I began walking in the direction I believed my hostel was in—using the term “believe” rather lightly, as the enveloping darkness made it difficult to distinguish what direction I should actually be taking.
That was the moment I learned that narrow, cobblestoned European streets, while lovely to look at, tend to feel eerie when you add Gothic architecture to the mix.
I was careful not to hold my map up in front of my face like an extra large newspaper, essentially screaming, “I am a vulnerable tourist!” Instead, I kindly asked a Czech gentleman where I could find the Old Town, known as Staré Město. He stopped and peered at me as if he was asked the question about 600 times a day, and grunted towards the east.
As I had no way to discern what direction was or wasn’t correct, I decided east was as good a way to go as any. Walking down the street, I began to feel like I had travelled a few hundred years back in time, half expecting a horse and carriage to offer me a ride to my destination. The presence of electricity, though, and the lack of lanterns and candles, brought me back to reality, as lights in the distance beckoned. I followed, and soon entered an enormous plaza, which I quickly understood to be Prague’s famed Old Town Square.
What an appropriate name, I remember thinking. My tired eyes were suddenly wide open, scanning all sides. It was magnificent, and despite the late hour, the square was bursting with commerce. The buildings, meanwhile, were illuminated in such a way that they almost seemed to glow—had I been a poet, I would have taken out a notepad, right there and then, and began to write.
Bright, powerful lights were strategically placed around the perimeter of the square, which accentuated the charm of it all, placing shadows in all the right places. I walked across to the other side and headed up a side street, where I found my hostel waiting for me. My initial glimpse of one of Europe’s ancient cities was certainly enticing, and, as it turned out, set the stage for what was to follow: my magical, incredible week in Prague.
Old Town Prague, the Place to Begin
I began my wanderings where every visitor reasonably should—in the city’s Old Town. I advise every first-time visitor to head straight to Staroměstské náměstí, the Old Town’s famed and magnificent square. If you’re carrying a list of must-see-things in Prague, you’ll be able to check off at least three with just a 360-degree spin around it, where you’ll be dazzled by an array of baroque facades. I’d recommend you start at Old Town Hall, more aptly known as Old Town Hall Tower.
The building itself adds an unmistakable enchantment to the square, which is not surprising, considering it was constructed in the 14th century. What should be noted is that you can walk up a long, rising ramp through the narrows of the structure to its peak, and take in the kind of view that only an approximately 200-foot-tall tower can offer (for a small fee).
Breathtaking is often too-cliché a word to use—but I have to say it was that: from the top of the tower you have unobstructed views from all sides, and the height affords visual access to Prague’s famous rolling orange rooftops as far as the eye can see. It also gives an unparalleled view of two of the square’s most iconic churches: the Church of Our Lady before Týn, and St. Nicholas.
Apart from the magnificent view, the tower houses Prague’s legendary and medieval Astronomical Clock, one of the square’s top attractions. As you might guess, the 15th-century clock displays information about the sun, the moon and other infinities of space—but it’s the fusion of mythology and religion that makes it particularly unique: every hour, figurines of the 12 Apostles jolt to life as the tower’s bells begin to chime. Just below this, near the top of the clock, a skeleton holding an hourglass rings his own bell, counting time, as death is wont to do.
This small but delightful piece of theatre runs from eight in the morning until eight at night—but the best time to visit the clock is morning when the crowds at the tower are leaner. Perhaps this is just folklore, but a Czech gentleman I met there told me Master Hanuš, the clock’s creator, was violently blinded by locals after he constructed it, just to ensure he couldn’t replicate his masterpiece. Prague is full of these compelling myths—I guess as any city this ancient would be.
Maybe not so ancient as other cities (Athens comes to mind), but being founded in the ninth century means it isn’t so young, either. Modern Prague, or Praha, has its origins as a simple hilltop settlement, when Prince Bořivoj built what is today the famed Prague Castle (truly magnificent!) in the central European country once known as Bohemia. (Bořivoj was a Bohemian prince). Located in the heart of Europe, Prague’s geography was enough to ensure it an illustrious history—the settlement gained prominence as an important stop on a well-developed, burgeoning trade route, and the city became a hub of power through the centuries.
From the top of Old Town Tower, I can see the almost fantastically strange Church of Our Lady before Týn. The extravagant towers of this gorgeous Gothic church demand your attention, and it wouldn’t be out of character to find yourself (as I did) in a kind of building-induced trance as you stare at them. (On an aside, I would have to say the spires that define Prague’s skyline are emblematic of the Gothic architecture that make this city so noteworthy.)
Built in the 14th century on the remains of a Romanesque church in dramatic Gothic style—perhaps more than any other building in Prague—Týn’s prickly and slightly irregular towers point 80 metres skyward. If you wake up early and catch the sunrise, you can get a stunning shot of Týn from the balcony of Old Town Hall Tower, as it glows almost eerily in the golden light.
It would be careless to move from Old Town Square without mentioning the St. Nicholas Church—with so much going on here, it can be easy to overlook Prague’s finest baroque church. Its striking white curvy facade serves as a notable contrast to the rest of the predominantly Gothic square; but it’s really notable for its remarkable, highly ornate interior that so defines the baroque style. I’m told summer concerts are often held here, and I can just imagine how mystical the experience would be.
(To read Chris’s story on why you should not underestimate the dangers of a road trip in Georgia, click here.)
In the middle of the square lies an imposing statue that has never lost its relevance: the Jan Hus Memorial, whose symbolism goes far beyond one individual, and could be said to embody the entire city, indeed the whole nation. Hus was born in approximately 1370, and in his short life gained enormous popularity as a religious thinker and academic of his day. Many of his ideas, however, were in direct conflict with both the state and the Catholic Church, and ultimately it led to his execution in 1415.
Hus rallied against the excesses and extravagance of the Church, and his teachings represent the earliest Reformist tendencies that eventually gave rise to the Protestant movement in Europe. Strangely, he was especially perturbed that only priests were allowed to drink the consecrated wine that represents Christ’s blood at mass—as Christ had sacrificed his blood for all, Hus thought all people deserved to partake in the ritual.
Images of the chalice are ubiquitous in Prague for this reason; it’s the emblem the Hussites fought under during the Hussite Wars against the Roman Catholic Church, which erupted a few years after Hus was put to death. Inscribed on the memorial are Hus’s own words: Pravda Vitězí, which roughly translates to “truth prevails.”
From the 1500s onwards, Prague found itself dominated by foreign powers—the Habsburgs, the Germans, the Russians. And through the centuries, Hus became a symbol of the common people’s struggle to rise up and rally against oppression—something that became poignantly important in 1989 with the Velvet Revolution, which renewed Czech independence.
I Walked Everywhere
To suggest Prague is merely walkable doesn’t do it justice. Prague is an absolute joy to walk around because for every large square there are dozens of narrow passageways that shoot off it, each with its own bundle of surprise. I didn’t feel the need to use the transit system once while there—and my legs certainly felt the workout. My friend Vicki and I were exhausted after each respective day, but only in the best of ways.
Prague is recognized for having one of the most comprehensive transit systems in Europe, though as I suggested, you may not need to use it all that often. In some ways the city operates like a maze, but where getting lost is actually beneficial to your experience. While it’s smart to have some pre-thought itinerary for shorter tours of the world’s great cities, there’s something to be said for giving yourself up to Prague and seeing what might happen. During the week, Vicki and I made a point of operating under the motto “open eyes, open wallet.” That is, we were willing to view anything or try anything in a city that is known for being inexpensive.
It isn’t entirely uncommon to stumble across a music festival in full swing in the streets, or friendly Czechs who insist you join them in the tavern for a frothy beer. Like most travel experiences, even trivial events spark a smile when you reminisce about them later.
One day, Vicki and I were strolling just outside of Old Town, somewhat unsure of our next destination. We asked a Czech gentleman if he wouldn’t mind taking a photo of us, for which he politely obliged. Yet with little knowledge of how to use a camera (or so I’m surmising), he pointed the lens in the wrong direction and instead took a close-up of his face. The photo is delightful, and it never fails to provoke a smile: not an intensely nostalgic moment, but a consequential one for its unexpected humour.
On another sunny afternoon, just while walking around the city, I decided to get my hair cut at the most random of barbershops. No one there spoke a word of English. I communicated in elaborate gestures, using my hands to create a pair of faux scissors, then putting them next to my head to indicate the length I wanted. Three tries at cutting my hair and many laughs later, Vicki and I were back on the street, and I was walking with a new swagger, showing off a hairstyle I would never have requested in Canada.
I’m lucky to have many friends from Prague—my friend Leigh, who lived there for seven years, told me what she loved most about the city was how every now and then it could surprise her just by turning a corner. “I would turn down a side street I had never noticed before, and let it take me somewhere. Sometimes that meant finding a neat little courtyard in the middle of the city; sometimes it was a new shortcut that helped me bypass hoards of tourists. Every time I did that, the experience was different.”
Getting lost in Prague is something every traveller should do (though perhaps only in daytime!). Wherever you’re headed, it’s more than likely you will cross the Charles Bridge, which is generally the consensus pick for the city’s most famed attraction. Despite the hype, there isn’t the slightest chance you’ll be disappointed.
Charles IV commissioned the construction of the bridge in 1357, though it didn’t bare his name until the late 19th century. King Charles IV, of the House of Luxembourg, was a charismatic ruler, who reigned during a golden age of growth in Prague. Impressive Gothic churches aplenty were built, as Charles aimed to make the city the epicentre of Bohemia. During his reign in the mid-to-late 14th century, he founded the city’s first and one of the world’s oldest universities (in 1348), fittingly named Charles University, and continued to transform Prague into a Paris-like, cosmopolitan city. In 1355, Charles was also named Holy Roman Emperor, solidifying it as an epicentre of European power.
As Vicki and I approached the Charles Bridge for the first time, taking note of its cobblestoned overpass and adornments, we both gasped aloud, it was so magnificent. Known more for its decorative detail than simply its construction, the bridge is adorned by several full-sized, evenly-spaced statues of religious figures, added centuries after the inauguration of the bridge itself. Primarily depicting Catholic saints coveted at the time, the statues helped signify the state’s religious agenda.
Of course, it was also practised to display the severed heads of opponents on the bridge as a deterrent to resistance—the fate of many Protestants during the early 17th century. Most of the statues you see today are not originals but replicas—though it’s likely the throngs on the very popular people-only bridge (no cars or bikes allowed) are not aware of this.
The most famous statue on Prague’s most famous bridge is St. John of Nepomuk, the patron saint of the Czech Republic, and one of Prague’s most beloved martyrs. (Quite a feat, in a place where there’s no shortage to choose from!) There are a variety of tales of how he came to be drowned, but legend has it that when a mistrusting King Wenceslaus IV pressed St. John, who was the court priest, about the Queen’s confessions, he refused to divulge any information and was drowned in the river, where a cluster of stars appeared on the water’s surface. The statue depicts a ring of stars around St. John’s head.
Though you’ll find no shortage of conspiracies about St. John here, this is the tale you’ll likely be told. Wenceslaus was Charles IV’s son and heir, making him the third King of Bohemia. Unlike his father, he is remembered historically for a reign of relative unrest, a comparatively weak grasp on the throne, and of course this very story. Yet the truth of the story appears to be that St. John sided with an archbishop who was the king’s sworn enemy—though some say the two versions aren’t mutually exclusive. When you hear this, you remember that the stories of Prague are as vital to its culture and character as its architecture and history.
With its almost panoramic view of the city, the bridge also shows that despite Prague’s intimate, maze-like qualities, and its collection of narrow passageways, the city has fantastic quarters. Whatever area you happen to be in, another always seems to beckon and entice, as an endless sea of colourful roofs and church spires stretch across the horizon. Certainly, its photogenic quality has helped define Prague as a world-class destination.
The Best Deep-fried Cheese Sticks and Boutique Beer
My friends say I eat like a small walrus —luckily, food is everywhere in Prague, just waiting for my consumption. Prague food has a reputation for being heavy—and yes it is—but it goes down well with a cold Czech beer. It also goes down better with each subsequent beer.
Many of the most popular and traditional entrees feature a meat dish served with some starchy and delicious sides. This suits me perfectly. One of Prague’s most famous dishes, Vepřo knedlo zelo, is a meat (generally pork) and dumplings affair, with a healthy side portion of sauerkraut. Other entrees not to be missed include Svíčková na smetaně, which roughly translates to beef with cream sauce and definitely translates into a delicious meal. If you want something different, try Utopenci, a tangy pork sausage that just might steal your heart.
A few of my friends who have lived in the Czech Republic insist I mention Smažený sýr. Not totally unlike a North American mozzarella stick, it is fried cheese at its finest. On average, I’m sure I consumed more Smažený sýr than anyone in the city during my time there. By my tenth portion, I imagine Vicki was simultaneously impressed and repulsed. I, of course, was beyond content, and conceivably a little heavier around the waistline. I fondly recall wandering through Old Town Square later than I should have one night and finding stalls everywhere selling food so good I ended up eating a smorgasbord of Czech delicacies. I highly recommend walking to Old Town Square every day you’re in Prague just to sample what’s on offer.
If you’re a beer drinker, Prague will be your candy store. Beer, known as pivo, is as plentiful here as any city I’ve ever visited. The Czech Republic is always in the conversation when it comes to the world’s best beer, and rightfully so. No country in Europe consumes more than this one, and it has actually been noted that the average citizen consumes more than 300 pints a year. Pilsner Urquell is Czech’s most well known commercial beer, but for me, it’s all about the craft beers in Prague. It’s typical that when you enter any restaurant a server will ask if you’re in the mood for the light or dark option, and you can’t go wrong either way.
Want to know the best part? It’s cheap, wonderfully cheap, and so is the food. “In a city where beer is cheaper than water,” says my friend Leigh, “it’s hard not to dive right in.” If you’re in the mood for something stronger, Absinthe bars are aplenty here. Beware, though: tourists primarily consume it, and it’s generally in the Bohemian style, which means it’s not made quite like the original French beverage. I did try some, and it does the trick. For my dollar though, or at least a Czech koruna, I’ll stick to sampling some of the best and cheapest beer I’ve ever had.
Prague Castle and the Royal District
As we walk along down Thunovská street, I’m stunned with how both modern and ancient the city feels at the same time. Hradčany, or the castle district, is visible from almost every corner of the city, and even at night, the area tends to be lit up like a Christmas tree.
Hradčany is absolutely immense, and it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that it’s a city within a city or at least a city above the city. It’s possible to see Hradčany in half a day, but dedicating a full day or more is better. Colloquially, it is referred to as the Prague Castle area—but it doesn’t really house one castle in the traditional sense (that is, one grand building). In this area of approximately 70,000 square metres there are a host of courtyards, cathedrals, gardens and palaces, and nowadays you’ll even find a cafe or two. The place has tremendous importance to the country: its establishment in the ninth century as a settlement in the heart of Bohemia lay the foundation for what became the city of Prague itself.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, and said to be the largest of all the world’s ancient castles, Prague Castle was the seat of power and where the kings of Bohemia sat, and still serves as the royal (so to speak) headquarters: the current president of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, calls it home.
Walking up to the entrance, Vicki and I couldn’t help but notice the armed guards in full attire (but no medieval armour!), ensuring the Bohemian Crown Jewels stored and hidden on the estate remain in Czech hands. There are several palaces and enticing courtyards on the grounds, but I felt most enchanted strolling down Golden Lane. It has to be one of the most charming and quaint walks in Prague, if not all Europe. Folklore has it that the small multicoloured cottages that dot the lane belonged to alchemists, but it’s commonly accepted they were servants’ quarters. You’ll find the lane laden with tourist shops now, but it doesn’t take from the magic. I also adored the fact that one of the more famous Czechs, Franz Kafka, is said to have spent much time on Golden Lane.
Although I loved the lane, it’s important to investigate other sites around Prague Castle. St. Georges Basilica, for example, is the oldest surviving Romanesque church of the complex, dating from the tenth century. Don’t be fooled by its strangely bright red doors and exterior, which were completed hundreds of years later. And Vladislav Hall, in the Old Royal Palace, cannot be missed—its elaborate rib-vaulted ceiling was an engineering feat of its day.
I don’t know if I saw anything that left me more awestruck than St. Vitus Cathedral. Not unlike the rest of Hradčany, the St. Vitus of today isn’t the original building but the result of a series of reconstructions. The amazing Gothic exterior for which it is so famous was begun under Charles IV, who allowed it to become one of the most coveted buildings in Prague. Its colossal exterior makes the skyline of the Prague Castle area so visible and notable, and its towers and spires are recognized across Europe. Of all the buildings at the castle complex,
St. Vitus is the most fitting and impressive.
Inside, it’s equally spectacular. The tombs of some of Prague’s most important people are found here, including former Kings and the remains of St. John of Nepomuk. I was most stunned by the stained glass windows perfected by the renowned art nouveau Czech painter Alfons Mucha, which is a fairly recent addition. I stood in adoration for minutes, until Vicky poked me.
Prague Gems, Just Before We Go
Not far from Old Town is Prague’s legendary Jewish Quarter or Josefov, and I highly recommend you check it off your list. Dominated by the Jewish Museum, which is not one building but the sum of most of the neighbourhood’s museums, buildings and monuments, the Quarter dates back several centuries, providing invaluable information on the history of Prague.
There are a number of ancient synagogues, which I wouldn’t miss by any means, and modern shops and cafes and restaurants in the Quarter, too. But it’s the Jewish Cemetery, established in the 15th century, that will unquestionably move you. About 12,000 ancient tombstones jut out of the ground in all different directions (the Museum states that thousands more are actually buried here, stacked one on top of the other!), and somehow it’s as impressive as anything in Prague.
With a storied past that has at times been both tragic and triumphant, it may be too easy to ignore Prague’s equally storied present. Nové Město, or New Town, proves the future is now in Prague: look no further than the iconic postmodern Dancing House, an art gallery commissioned to celebrate the city’s most recent liberation, that graces the area—you can’t miss its intertwined towers.
The cold of winter makes Prague’s buildings seem bolder, and the hot of summer allows for its green spaces to be slowly savoured. Prague is timeless. When I arrived here, I felt as if I had been transported hundreds of years back in time; when I left, I was content to try to imagine the city hundreds of years in the future—though in truth, really couldn’t. *