As it emerges from hijacking by Russian communism for 43 years, the travel wonder of Prague remains the glittering diamond of architectural and cultural Europe. A millennium’s worth of magnificent and stylish buildings must deep down be the envy of every city in the world. Rich in culture with an inspiring history of kings, writers and musicians, royal palaces, cathedrals, theatres, art galleries and opera houses sit among smoke-filled bars (after all, the Czechs invented beer), buzzing nightclubs and a general youthful exuberance for life.
This quick tour will try to capture this extraordinary gem and one of my favorite European cities in a few short words. But Prague needs time to wander the ancient streets, feel the lively atmosphere and experience this burgeoning Czech capital.
Standing aloft of Prague and dominating its skyline, Prague Castle (hrad) is a vast mind-boggling collection of churches, palaces, gardens and statues built in a variety of architectures linked by courtyards and narrow alleyways. The Gothic St Vitus Cathedral is characterised by gloriously colorful stained glass windows.
The nearby Old Royal Palace includes a massive hall with vaulted ceilings large enough to host indoor jousting tournaments. The staircase at one end is designed as an entrance for mounted horses with broad steps.
Check out St. George Basilica on the way to the old goldsmith street called Golden Lane. Lined with colorful 16th century cottages, today this narrow cobblestoned street is packed with tourists and souvenir shops but remains worthy of a visit.
Around dusk, enjoy a stroll across the Vltava River on Charles Bridge which has connected the Castle area to the Old Town (Staré Mešto). Bedecked with 30 religious statues, this 600 year old bridge was the only passage across the river until the 19th century.
End your day with a cooling beer (the Czechs have the highest per capita consumption of beer) in one of Prague’s numerous great pubs or microbreweries. Indeed, the only word I can remember from the bewildering Slavic-based Czech language is pivo (beer). One great custom is that a new beer arrives at your table just as you finish the previous one. You only need to tell the waiter when you want to stop by simply putting the beer mat on top of your glass.
One uniquely Czech liquor worth trying is the smooth, flavorsome and slightly bitter Becherovka, with its numerous secret herbs and spices -many more than KFC – and much tastier and more enjoyable to boot. It makes for a great pre-dinner drink.
Start your next day in the historic Jewish Quarter (Josefov) includes an evocative, emotional museum area (including five synagogues) memorializing over 600 years of suffering and oppression. Two poignant memories from this area will remain with me forever. To the humble background reading of the victims’ names, the Pinkas Synagogue (now a memorial) is inscribed with the handwritten names of 77,297 Czech (and Slovak) Jews who were killed (primarily in concentration camps) in World War 2, along with their date of birth and disappearance date. Upstairs is a display of artwork from children held in the Terezín concentration camp.
Out the back of this synagogue, experience the mournful atmosphere of over 12,000 tombstones in the tiny Jewish cemetery. Being the only location for Jewish burial for some 350 years until 1787, tombs were piled on top of each other – over 100,000 graves are estimated to lie in this small melancholy setting.
Refresh with an over-priced coffee in Prague’s historic Old Town Square. A market area for over 900 years, this thriving square of hawkers, buskers, horse buggies, tourists and locals is encased with elegantly architected pastel buildings of a past age and is overlooked by the towering gothic Týn church.
The mesmerising Astronomical Clock has been keeping time in the Old Square for over 500 years. On the hour, Death turns his hourglass, the twelve apostles parade by and the rooster crows. The time is shown in a 24-hour clock (midday is at the top and midnight is at the bottom), along with the phase of the moon and the zodiacal sign of the sun and the moon. The lower clock reveals the day of the year (along with the associated saint) and twelve seasonal rural pictures.
There is so much more to see and enjoy in Prague. More like a boulevard, the New Town’s (Nové Mešto) Wenceslas Square is where over quarter of a million Czechoslovakians gathered every night for two weeks in 1989 to see the end of communism during the so-called Velvet Revolution. With its cultural traditions, it was appropriate that the new president was a poet. Nearby and sometimes lit with candles, is a moving memorial to Jan Palach who burned himself to death in 1969 in protest of the Soviet invasion of his country.
The fortress area of Vyšehrad, the beguiling Municipal House and a number of churches, gardens and museums all add to the wonderful experience of this golden treasure of travel wonders, the incomparable Prague.