Prague has been nicknamed the “city of a thousand spires.” As you glance over its 1,100-year-old skyline you’ll be rewarded with countless splendid views of lovely domed churches and soaring old towers that combine to make Prague one of Europe’s architectural gems. Everywhere you look, fine examples of Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance, and Art Nouveau styles dot the city, providing a dramatic contrast to the sturdy ancient Prague Castle. Possessing one of the best-preserved historic city centers in Europe, Prague’s narrow laneways open up onto spectacular squares, each home to fine old homes and historical buildings just waiting to be explored. Must-sees include the famous Charles Bridge over the Vltava River, the splendid Jewish Quarter with its old synagogues, and the many historic churches. As one of the largest cities in Europe, Prague continues to be an important political, cultural, and commercial center, roles it has played for centuries as the former capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Today, this important UNESCO World Heritage Site serves as a major tourist draw, luring visitors from far and wide for its lively entertainment as well as its rich theatrical and music scenes.
In Prague’s Hradčany neighborhood, Prague Castle (Pražský hrad), once the home of Bohemia’s kings, is today the official residence of the Czech Republic’s President and one of the city’s most visited tourist attractions. Originally built as a walled fortress around 970 AD, the castle has changed dramatically over the years and contains examples of most of the leading architectural styles of the last millennium. Within the castle walls are a number of Prague’s most popular tourist sites, including St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, the Powder Tower, the Old Royal Palace, and theGolden Lane. The largest ancient castle in the world, this vast complex requires considerable time to tour, but it’s time well spent (particularly rewarding are the excellent views over the Vltava River with the old town and its countless spires in the background). Highlights include the Old Royal Palace’s main hall, the Vladislav Hall, so large it could be used for jousting tournaments, and staircases wide enough to allow mounted knights to use them. Be sure to also spend time in the Royal Garden, dating back to 1534 and home to a number of superb buildings including the Ball Game Pavilion, the Royal Summer House with its Singing Fountain, and the Lion’s Court.
Connecting Old Town and Lesser Town over the River Vltava is the 600 year-old Charles Bridge, Prague’s most iconic landmark. King Charles IV commissioned the bridge in 1357, replacing the Judith Bridge which was destroyed by a flood in 1342. Thirty Baroque statues line the sides of the pedestrian bridge along with myriad vendor’s stalls, musicians, performance artists and beggars. A bustling, busy area, the bridge is almost never empty of people, although seeing it at dawn or in the evening will mean fewer crowds. Prague Castle, looming above, is lit at night, and provides a dramatic vista that enchants all visitors. On each end of the Charles Bridge rests a tower that offers a great view of the bridge to those who climb the steps.
Old Town Square
Located between Wenceslas Square and the Charles Bridge, Prague’s Old Town Square is often bursting with tourists and locals in the summer. Czech’s long history is exemplified in the medley of architectural styles: Romanesque, Baroque, Rococo, Gothic and Renaissance are all represented in the superb buildings around the square. Soaring Gothic towers that rise from Tyn Cathedral contrasts with the Baroque style of St. Nicholas while Old Town Hall consists of a collection of Gothic and Renaissance buildings. Entranced visitors wander through the square, stopping for a spot of people-watching at one of the outdoor cafes or studying the square’s central statue of Jan Hus, church reformer and martyr.
Old Town Hall
You can find the Old Town Hall right in the heart of old town Prague. You’ll know you’ve found it by the gathering crowds at the base of its gothic tower where every hour between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. the 12 Apostles appear on the astronomical clock. The appearance only lasts a moment, but the crowd will roar with applause for the amazing mechanical show. It’s made all the more impressive by the fact that this building was first established back in 1338 and served as the seat of the old town administration. Take a guided tour of its tower and underground areas for a small fee.
Crafted in 1410 by a clockmaker and a professor of mathematics, the Old Town Hall’s astronomical clock has been repaired and maintained for over 600 years, making it the third oldest clock in the world. The figures of the Apostles, which are shown in the two upper windows every hour, were added in 1865. The ancient “orloj” reveals Babylonian time, Old Bohemian time, German time and sidereal time, as well as sunrise and sunset, phases of the moon and the sun’s position in the zodiac.
When the clock strikes the hour, bells ring, the Walk of the Apostles begins, the Gothic sculptures move, a cock crows and a trumpeter blast sets off a tourist-pleasing show, a sight everyone should see at least once. For the most fanfare, catch the display at noon or at midnight.
Jerusalem Synagogue in New Town Prague
Whether or not you visit Old Town’s Jewish Quarter, you’ll want to swing by New Town Prague’s Jerusalem Synagogue. The facade of this structure is colorful and delights with detail – stripes, scrollwork, and pillars make the Jerusalem Synagogue a remarkable example of early 20th-century architecture.
The Dancing Building in New Town Prague
Also known as “Fred and Ginger,” the Dancing Building simulates movement while maintaining its functionality. Its innovative design and surprising use of curvature have given it notoriety. If you would like to enjoy views of Prague from the Dancing Building, reserve a table at the top-floor restaurant, Celeste.
Petrin Hill Observatory
The Petrin Hill Observatory is nothing much to look at from the ground but will give visitors panoramic views of Prague.
The Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square is one of Prague’s most popular sights. The original parts of the clock date back to the 1400s, but the clock has been updated throughout the centuries. Figures emerge from the clock upon the hour. Be prepared for crowds eager to watch the clock’s mechanisms if you’re trying to snap photos.
Prague’s home to the best opera, drama and ballet, this 19th-century marvel is worth a visit – and even more worthy if you can get tickets to one of the performances hosted here. The original building was heavily damaged by a fire in 1881, just a few months after its opening. It was then reconstructed and reopened in 1883.
Located right under Charles Bridge, Kampa Island is home to a museum of modern art, David Černý’s giant sculptures of crawling babies, and the Werich Villa, the former home of Czech actor Jan Werich. The Lennon Wall – a memorial wall where everybody is allowed to add words or art – is also located here. The artificial Devil’s Stream canal cuts through the island and allows for short but picturesque boat rides.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Prague
Sightseeing: For first-time visitors, taking a tour of the city is a great idea. This is a good way to see the layout and learn some of the history. A worthwhile introductory tour is the Prague in One Day Sightseeing Tour, a popular 3.5-hour guided tour with coach transport and a walking tour of some of the city’s most famous landmarks, including the famous Prague Castle.