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Since the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia and the creation of the Czech Republic, Prague has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Known as 'Praha' in the Czech language, it is without doubt one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, full of life, beer, music and puppets. But we'll get onto those later.
The city is an architectural jewel, with buildings of all styles from medieval to Art Nouveau. Classical music abounds, from buskers on the street to the concerts which seem to take place every night in just about every church and hall. There are galleries of original art everywhere.
Prague is also a place for some more unusual styles of performance art, including marionettes and Black Light Theatre.
Most of all, Prague is a place to relax, eat and drink beer. This guide reveals all.
Prague is now the capital of the Czech Republic, but it has been many things over the years, including the capital of Czech Bohemia, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the second city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the capital of Czechoslovakia.
The city came into existence in about 800 AD, when two castles were built, one on either side of the River Vltava. The Old Town (Staré Másto) and the Malá Strana quarter date from this time. By 900 AD, a Czech-speaking dynasty called the Premyslids ruled Prague and the surrounding countryside (Czech Bohemia). Kings had names like Wenceslas and Boleslav. They continued to rule until about 1300, when the area was taken over by a group called the Luxembourgs. These controlled a great empire. Charles IV chose Prague as the capital of his 'Holy Roman Empire', a political unit which was neither holy nor Roman. This was Prague's golden age. Charles greatly expanded the city, founded a University and laid out the New Town (Nové Másto) south of the Old Town (Staré Másto). Prague became a German-speaking city.
The 15th Century saw an outbreak of protestors against the corruption of the Christian Church. These were the Hussites, followers of the religious reformer, Jan Hus. At that time, any opposition to the Church was considered heresy and was punishable by death. These people had to fight for their religious freedom, and became an efficient fighting force, holding Prague against enemy troops for most of the century.
Normality was restored at the start of the 16th Century. The Hapsburgs became rulers of Prague, making it part of an enormous empire with the capital at Vienna. This became known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire and took in most of Eastern Europe. As second city of the empire, Prague became immensely rich with beautiful buildings, music and art. The Hapsburgs ruled until the end of the First World War in 1918.
After the war, the empire was in ruins and separated into numerous small countries. Prague became capital of the newly-created state of Czechoslovakia. But by 1938 it had been dragged into the control of Nazi Germany; Europe soon became plunged into the Second World War.
Czechoslovakia was liberated from the Nazis by the arrival of the Russians in 1945, but this gave the USSR a stranglehold on the country. They established a communist government in 1948. During this period any remaining German-speaking people were encouraged to leave the country. To show their domination, in 1955, the Russians constructed the biggest statue ever seen of Stalin on a hill in Prague1. In 1968, a new political movement, the Prague Spring, led by Alexander Dubcek, attempted to liberalise the laws. The Russians responded by sending in the tanks; the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia, quashed all opposition, and administered retribution against those responsible. This state continued until 1989, when in the general collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the people of Prague assembled in massive demonstrations around the city in the so-called 'Velvet Revolution'. They demanded that the government should step down. The communists left quietly.
The two nations of Czechoslovakia (the Czechs and the Slovaks) disagreed on the running of the country, the Czechs favouring privatisation of all state-run industries. This, together with re-emerging nationalism among the Slovaks, led to the decision that they would be better off as two separate countries. By 1993, a peaceful separation had been carried out and the Czech Republic was established, once again with Prague as its capital.
There is one airport, which is north-west of the city. Within the airport, all signs are in English, but if you are getting a bus to the airport, you should be able to recognise the phrase Letiste Ruzyne, which is the name of the airport in Czech.
Public transport is very cheap. For example, the combined bus and metro journey from the airport to the centre of the city, which takes about 30 minutes, costs only 15 Kc at the time of writing (about 50 cents), although you will have to pay extra for large bags and suitcases. Trams, buses, the Metro (underground railway) and even the funicular railway on Petrin Hill are all run by the state transport company. This means that if you buy a 'transfer ticket' (přestupní jízdenka2) you can use any means of transport for 90 minutes, even if it involves changing from one form to another along the way. The 90-minute factor also means that if you go somewhere and spend an hour there, you can still use your original přestupní jízdenka to travel to your next location - this, combined with the fact that they're so cheap, means that it's not worth buying any sort of unlimited travel card.
You buy the tickets in shops, at ticket machines or in the Metro stations at cash desks. When you start the journey, you should stamp your ticket in the machine marked with the triangle. After this, there are no barriers or ticket collectors, but you should hold on to your ticket - the system relies on occasional spot checks by inspectors with heavy fines for defaulters.
From airport to the centre, take the 119 bus as far as Dejvická (pronounced 'dayvitska'). This is the terminus of the underground Metro. You can take a train from here to Mústek, the centre of Prague.
Public transport is so cheap in Prague that taxis may seem like a rip-off. But in comparison to taxi prices in other European countries, they seem like great value! So by all means take a taxi if you want to avoid the trouble of public transport.
Czech is a Slavic language, related to Bulgarian, Polish and Russian. It looks off-putting because it has lots of accents on it and very few vowels. Nevertheless, Czech is actually quite easy to pronounce, so there's nothing to stop you from being able to read the signs you see around Prague and from using a few simple phrases to say 'please' and 'thank you' to the locals.
The entry on the Czech Language gives all the details.
While most things in Prague are cheap, accommodation is very expensive. So many tourists visit the city each year that all hotels are booked out and can charge inflated prices (by Czech standards). Make sure you book your accommodation well in advance of your trip.
There are a number of backpackers' hostels which provide basic accommodation at budget rates, for example the Travellers' Hostel in Dlouha in the Old Town. These are very central and perfectly adequate. Gone are the days when hostelling meant you had to mop out the toilets in the morning and clean the room. You will be expected to carry your plate to the wash-up after breakfast, but that's about it as far as duties. Even in the hostels, you should book your accommodation in advance.
Food and Drink
Czech food is traditionally based on meat and dumplings (knedlíčky) - the guidebooks politely describe Czech cuisine as 'robust', and it's true3, there isn't a lot beyond meat and dumplings. So you tend to know in advance what sort of thing you're going to get - but if good, hearty grub floats your boat, you're not going to be disappointed. The meat is usually pretty high-quality, and the knedlíčky (based on either bread or potato) are extremely welcome on a wintry day in Prague.
Other Czech staples are smazený sýr (cheese deep-fried in breadcrumbs, not unlike the Italian mozzarella in carrozza) and bramborak (a kind of fried potato pancake).
The majority of restaurants in Prague base their menus on traditional Czech cuisine, but there are many that serve the kind of international food available pretty much everywhere, including Italian-style pastas and pizzas. If you look hard, you will find Indian, Vietnamese and other world cuisines.
If you are a vegetarian, there is a good self-service vegetarian restaurant called 'Country Life' just off the Old Town Square.
Czech beer is delicious and there seem to be places serving it everywhere. It's also cheap - a half-litre in a restaurant will typically set you back about 30 Kc (1 Euro) and it is cheaper in pubs. The most popular beers are lagers: Staropramen, Pilsner Urquell and Krusovice. Also of note are Gambrinus and Budejovice Budvar, also known as Budweiser. This last one comes from the town of Budweis and should not be confused with the American beer of the same name. All Czech lagers have a good strong taste.
There are also dark Czech beers which are almost black in colour and have a much stronger taste. Krusovice, for example, comes in dark and lager forms.
The Main Sights
Prague is clearly divided into a number of areas. Every street sign bears the name of the area as well as the street name, so you can't be mistaken. The main tourist area is the Old Town (Staré Másto) on the east side of the river.
The Old Town Square
The centre and focal point of the Old Town is the Old Town Square, which is surrounded by amazing churches, baroque buildings, restaurants and the Old Town Hall. There are markets in the square where souvenirs can be bought.
The Old Town Hall and Clock
Most prominent in the square is the Old Town Hall, a giant building with an enormous tower. You can climb the tower to a viewing gallery.
The biggest attraction of the tower, however, is the Astronomical Clock which dates from 1410. As well as telling the time in three different formats and showing the position of the Sun and Moon, it has animated wooden figures which perform on the hour.
The Church of Our Lady before Tyn
The skyline of the square is dominated by the multiple spires of the church of Our Lady before Tyn. This church is just off the square, behind a line of houses, but the pointed roofs are very visible. High up on the front of the church is a golden statue of Our Lady standing in front of a sunburst motif.
This church was the main church of the Hussites during their control of the city. They put a golden chalice on the front of the church. After the Hussites were ousted, the chalice was melted down to make the present statue.
The church contains the tomb of the famous astronomer, Tycho Brahe. Tycho perfected the art of observation and he recorded everything meticulously. It was based on his measurements that his student Kepler came up with the theory that the planets revolve around the Sun in ellipses. Kepler's laws are still used today as a model of the solar system for all but the most precise work.
Heading west from the Old Town Square, a succession of small streets infested with souvenir shops leads down to Prague's most famous sight: Charles Bridge (Karluv Most). This was originally the only bridge across the Vltava River, so it has a massive defensive tower at each end. At some point in its history, defence became less of a priority and statues were erected at intervals along the bridge, showing heroes of Czech history and mythology. The whole thing is very pretty. Atmospheric photos of the bridge surrounded by mist are available in all the tourist shops. These are misleading, as they show a deserted bridge - in reality it is packed with tourists, souvenir vendors and artists all the time.
On the other hand, if you find a quiet seat in a bar near the Bridge, drink a beer and watch the sunset; it is extremely impressive.
When John Lennon died, some artists in Prague created a memorial wall for him, just off Charles Bridge on the west side of the river (turn left immediately after crossing the bridge and walk along the riverside for about 200 metres). The wall has a big picture of Lennon's face in the middle, and the whole thing is smothered in artwork and graffiti from all round the world. Lennon's face should not be confused with Lenin's face, which has considerably less hair altogether and wasn't responsible for the song 'I am the Walrus'.
Prague Castle and the Cathedral of St Vitus
On the west side of the river is the area known as Malá Strana (the Little Quarter) which lies at the bottom of a steep hill. This is a pleasant spot to stop for coffee and cake or for a beer. On the top of the hill stands Prague Castle (Prazský Hrad). This is not a defensive fortress, although it started out that way. The castle is now a series of palaces and grand mansions built around squares, with the Cathedral of St Vitus in the middle.
This is still the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic, so there are ceremonial sentries standing guard at both entrances. You will often see groups of guards marching around.
The insides of the palaces, the street of the artisans (Golden Lane) and about half the cathedral are cordoned off and you must pay to see them. Golden Lane is a street of artisan's cottages which were occupied until the 1950s. It is said to be the most picturesque street in Prague. The writer Franz Kafka lived there for a few months.
The cathedral is worth a visit even if you don't want to pay to see all of it. The modern stained glass windows fit in very well with the gothic architecture. The window designed by Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha is well worth a look.
The Jewish Quarter
Just north of the Old Town, on the east side of the river, is the Jewish Quarter (Josefov). The tale of the Jews of Prague is a sad one. Reviled by the Christians who controlled the city over the last thousand years, they were forced to live in this one small part of the city. Every night, the gates of the ghetto were locked, with the Jews inside. When they died, they had to be buried within the ghetto, so over time, the cemetery became crammed with bodies. Unable to expand outward, it grew upward. It is estimated that over 100,000 people were buried over the years in this tiny cemetery, although there are only about 12,000 gravestones. The cemetery was in use from 1478 until 1787. After that, a new cemetery outside the ghetto started to be used.
The most famous resident of the Jewish Quarter was Rabbi Löw. He was a scholar of Hebrew scripture. According to the legend, he used his knowledge to build a man of clay, which he brought to life by placing the name of God inside its head. This golem was immensely strong and could carry out simple repetitive tasks. Like most stories of artificial humans, it ran amok. The golem lives on to scare children who can't sleep at night, but Rabbi Löw's grave can be seen in the cemetery.
The buildings of the ghetto also grew up on top of each other into one giant slum. At the end of the 19th Century the authorities decided to demolish the ghetto and move the Jews to a new location. The old buildings were knocked down and replaced with modern multi-storey apartment-style housing. Some of this is noted for its 'cubist' style but in general it is very bland.
After the destruction of the ghetto, only the synagogues, the graveyard and some ceremonial buildings were left intact. In the mid-20th Century, Adolf Hitler decided that the Jews were an inferior race and most of the Prague Jews were shipped off to the concentration camps, from which they never returned. But in a bizarre twist of history, Hitler decided it would be a good idea to keep a record of the culture of the Jews, a 'Museum of an Extinct Race'. He ordered all Jewish artefacts to be collected up, catalogued and stored. For many Jews, their last task before heading to their deaths was the cataloguing and sorting of their sacred artefacts.
Much of the items associated with Judaism were thus preserved although the people themselves died. This was all returned to Prague after the war and is on display in four of the synagogues around the Jewish Quarter (the Maisel, Pinkas, Klausen and Spanish Synagogues). The Museum of Prague manages the exhibition, and a combined ticket will give you entry into all of these, as well as the cemetery. All these are closed on Saturday.
The most important synagogue is the oldest one in Europe. It bears the strange title of the 'Old-New Synagogue' (Staronová); originally this title distinguished it from another called the 'New-New', but this one no longer exists. The Old-New Synagogue is managed by the Jewish Community of Prague and is still used as a place of worship. It also is closed to the public on Saturdays.
A short walk south of the Old Town lies the New Town (Nové Másto) which is really the centre of modern-day Prague. Here the buildings are much newer and more like any other modern European city. The centre of the New Town is Wenceslas Square (Václavské Námestí). This is not a square at all but a wide boulevard. Here you will find all the shops and boutiques of a modern city.
At the south end of Wenceslas Square is an imposing building4, which is the Czech National Museum. In front of it stands an enormous statue of Saint Wenceslas (sv Vaclav) on horseback. This man was one of the first kings of the land that is now the Czech Republic. By all accounts, he was not quite the Good King of the song; the popular carol was made up in the 19th Century and featured Wenceslas merely because the name sounded good.
In 1969, in protest at the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, a philosophy student called Jan Palach burned himself to death in front of the statue of Wenceslas. Three-quarters of a million people turned up for his funeral. This spot is thus an important symbol of political protest in the minds of the Czech people. There are still fresh flowers marking the spot where he died, a monument to the victims of the communist regime.
Another sign of the fall of Communism is the names of the shops along Wenceslas Square: Tesco, Marks and Spencer, McDonald's. You will find some home-grown successes as well, such as the Bata shoe store.
For a piece of bizarre Roman Catholicism, visit the Loreto on the hill behind the Castle. It was built as a place of pilgrimage in the 17th Century. The centrepiece of the complex is a replica of the supposed room in which Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she was to be the mother of God. This stands in a stucco-encrusted building in the centre of the courtyard.
Around the courtyard are cloisters (covered walkways opening onto the courtyard), with small chapels set into the outer wall dedicated to various saints, such as Saint Starosta, the bearded lady.
In the big chapel at the back of the Loreto you will find the most gruesome exhibits. Four saints in particular are remembered here. You will see an altar to Saint Agatha, who was tortured for her beliefs by her husband, but refused to renounce her religion. There is a portrait of her carrying her severed breasts on a plate.
Opposite Agatha is Saint Apolena, who had her teeth smashed in, also with the aim of persuading her to abandon her beliefs. She is now the Patron Saint of Dentists. She is accompanied by a statue of a cherub carrying a vicious-looking set of pliers and a bloody molar.
On either side of the altar are glass cases which tourists are told contain the skeletons of Saints Felicissimus (which means extremely lucky) and Marcia. The corpses have been dressed in clothes and wax replicas of their faces cover the skulls, so you can't actually see the skeletons except for Marcia's bony hand.
Upstairs is an impressive collection of treasure - there are various gold and jewel-encrusted items associated with the rites of Roman Catholicism. One of them, the Sun of Prague, is said to contain 6,222 diamonds.
The Municipal House
The Obecni Dum (Municipal House) is an enormous building in Republic Square. It was built in 1912 as a centre for Czech official and social gatherings. The building is a masterpiece of the Czech Art Nouveau style, although it embraces many other styles as well, such as Neo-Baroque. Today it is home to the French & Pilsner Restaurant5 and the Smetana Hall6, as well as many smaller reception halls.
Vyšehrad - the Other Castle
South of the New Town lies the Vyšehrad - the High Castle. This was one of the two original castles of Prague but there's not much left of the castle itself except the ramparts. Within the ramparts stands the Church of St Peter and St Paul. This is done up in Art Nouveau style - all the religious figures are depicted in the style of the classic French 1920s cigarette adverts. A cemetery was created around the same time as the church, and all the greats of the nation are buried there - Smetana, Dvořák, Mucha and Jan Neruda to name but a few. Not too much else has survived the ravages of history, but the gardens are pleasant and it's a good place to get a view of the city.
To get there, take a number 3, 16, or 17 tram along the River Vltava and get off at 'Vyton', just before the big railway bridge. As the Vyšehrad is at the top of the hill, it's not hard to find; if you aim for the top of the hill, all roads feed into the one that takes you there. Walk under the railway bridge, turn left and then right after about 100 yards and head up the hill. There's a pretty good pub that does reasonable food on the junction by the right turning - much cheaper than the restaurant opposite the church in the Vyšehrad. Alternatively, take Metro line C (the Red one) in the direction of Háje and get off at Vyšehrad. Again, if you aim for the top of the hill you can't go far wrong.
At the bottom of the hill, near the railway bridge, you will see houses in the Cubist style. You'll pass some of them on the walk up to the Vyšehrad, but if you don't turn left just after the railway bridge, there are a couple of others further along. These were designed by Josef Chochol in 1912-1913.
Prague was always an important centre of Classical Music. In the time of Mozart, Prague was the second city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was here that Mozart's greatest opera, Don Giovanni, was first performed. Mozart also gave a first performance of one of his symphonies here. Ever since, it has been called 'The Prague Symphony'.
In the 19th Century, Czech composers tried to establish themselves as a distinct voice in the tapestry of European music. Both Smetana and Dvořák are world-renowned. There are museums dedicated to each of them in Prague. These are very much designed as exhibits for the Czech people and do not have much in the way of explanatory texts in English, but are worth a visit if you know any of their music.
Other Czech composers who are well known in the musical world are the 20th Century composers Janacek and Martinu, although their names would not be known to the casual listener.
To cater for the tourists, modern day Prague has countless music concerts. Every church and major hall has posters outside advertising a concert tonight. Most these are of the 'Classic FM Easy Listening' style, featuring a few of the most popular works by Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi, with a small group of musicians. They are good value and a great way to spend an enjoyable evening in this beautiful city.
Bigger concerts with a symphony orchestra are more expensive, as they are anywhere else in Europe. The Rudolfinum is a full-scale concert hall and home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, the Prague Conservatory and the Academy of Performing Arts.
According to one Researcher, you should make sure you check out a live country band while in Prague: by all accounts country music in the Czech Republic incorporates yodelling, Czech lyrics and American bluegrass. Allegedly this is a good thing.
Black Light Theatre
In a darkened theatre with black backdrops, the only illumination is ultraviolet lamps (black light). These cause certain items to glow brightly while others remain invisible. Ballet dancers dressed mainly in black have some portions of their costumes glowing. The result is a surreal dance with bizarre creatures floating above the stage and sometimes above the audience.
There are several black light theatres in Prague, so you should take the opportunity to experience this uniquely Czech form of entertainment.
You'll want to bring back some mementoes of your trip. There is no shortage of kitsch, particularly in the area between the Old Town Square and Charles Bridge: Russian nested dolls, decorated eggs (particularly around Easter), puppets, and pictures of Charles Bridge. Getting away from the kitsch, the Czech Republic has a very good crystal glass industry and you can get beautiful cut glass.
Puppets? Oh yes, the puppets. Check out the National Marionette Museum for traditional handmade puppets - they're ugly. Really. And they perform too: the museum even has a production of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, which has to be seen to be believed.
Another marionette theatre, near to Charles Bridge, shows a reduced performance of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni every day. This lasts about an hour and a quarter and is very entertaining, but it would help if you were reasonably familiar with the plot before you go. The fire exits in this theatre leave a lot to be desired.
If you just want to buy a puppet, you will find them on sale everywhere in Prague. They range from traditional ugly 'kitchen witches' (used to bring good luck to your kitchen) to Harry Potter and Gandalf.
Day Trips Out of Prague
For one of the most macabre sights you'll ever see, take a day trip to Kutna Hora and look for the Gothic chapel with the incredible underground ossuary, or room for the bones of the dead. The tens of thousands of skeletal remains are creatively arranged on every available surface. A huge bony chandelier hangs from the ceiling, four enormous bells of bones fill each corner of the crypt and the Schwarzenberg coat of arms that you'll see all over Bohemia takes on a whole new perspective. All this cadaverous display is because some medieval cleric claimed to have sprinkled the graveyard with holy soil from Golgotha7, thus creating a hugely popular final resting place and a surplus of skeletons built up over the following centuries. The town also has an old silver mine and a nice cathedral, making it a highly recommended day trip if you can work out the bus timetables.
For a similar sort of outing, go to Melnik. There is an ossuary there as well, but the bones are placed in even more interesting and aesthetically-pleasing patterns. One wall has the skulls arranged in the shape of a heart, one wall spells INRI8, and another is decorated in a rather fetching cross-hatch pattern. To cap it all off they play really eerie music in the ossuary. Melnik is also known for its wine, which is excellent, and is on a hill overlooking a beautiful river.
Both these links point to the front page of Czech-language sites, but if your Czech isn't up to it yet, click on the Union Jack and you'll be taken to the English version.
This Czech map website will help you find your way around - it has maps of Prague, as well as the Czech Republic in general.
The Prague Public Transit Co website has everything you'll need to get around the city, including maps of the integrated transport system and full details of fares.