Visitors flock to Paris for its romance and light, to London for its influence and renown, and to Rome for its ancient roots and history. But Prague, unlike other major European cities, has something even more to offer: authenticity.
Since its beginnings in the 9th century, Prague has survived architecturally for more than 800 years unscathed by the ravages of war. Early-on holding the status of Center to the Holy Roman Empire, and serving for centuries as a European cultural and business hub, Prague has much to offer visitors today.
Thriving in a laid-back atmosphere, Prague straddles the Vltava River in modern day Czech Republic, shrouded in alluring mystique and shining with rich history. What follows is a rundown of five “must-see places” in Prague, and the authentic experiences to go with them.
1.) Old Town Square: The open cobblestone square began as an 11th century marketplace for merchants from all over Europe. A place of King’s processionals and elaborate palaces, public executions and widespread rallies, every nook and cobblestone in this Great Square has a story to tell. The great Astronomical Clock built in 1410 tells more about the stars than the time of day, and chimes somewhat humorously on the hour with a performance of figurine characters. At Christmas and Easter and other special times of the year, market stalls dot the Square with merchants selling traditional crafts and foods like Trdlo (warm cinnamon pastries) and roast pork pulled from an open-air spit, and drinks like the famously Czech beer and mulled wine.
What to do: Venture up the Old Town Hall belfry for a fantastic rooftop view over Prague’s Old Town.
2.) Josefov, the Old Jewish Quarter: Little more than a stone’s throw from Old Town Square, the Old Jewish Quarter stands near the Vltava River as an inseparable part of the city’s fabric. Though the Jewish presence in Prague dates back for more than one thousand years, Hitler’s drive to exterminate the Jews severed much of the thousand-year legacy within four years’ time. Josefov and nearby concentration camp, Terezin, hauntingly depict the epic struggle. The small patch of ground of the Old Jewish Cemetery contains over 12,000 tombs on the surface, with tens of thousands more entombed in countless layers underneath — making the sea of tombs seem to ride on unsteady waves.
What to do: Tour the many Synogogues and the Old Cemetery in the Quarter — especially memorable in the bleak light of winter.
3.) Charles Bridge: For centuries the Charles Bridge served as the only bridge across the Vltava River, and was rebuilt in stone in 1355. Thirty-one statues line up like sentinels on the darkened stone bridge, each carrying a story and a message from thickly religious times gone by. Ironically today, despite the countless crucifixes mounted in their country, the people of Prague claim to be predominantly atheist.
What to do: Walking the Charles Bridge at daybreak or dusk is an experience like no other. Cross the dark cobbles watched over by countless statues and gargoyles and feel the mystery of the others who walked the same path for almost a thousand years. Views of the majestic Prague Castle from Charles Bridge are breathtaking in the evening, as the Castle sparkles on the hill in the fading light.
4.) The Libraries of Strahov Monastery: Experts claim the two libraries of Strahov Monastery to be among Europe’s most beautiful libraries. Both libraries boast countless collections of books filling carved walnut bookcases beneath elaborate ceiling frescoes.
What to do: Meander through the gates along the Monastery’s east wall, and enjoy one of the finest panoramic views over Prague.
5.) Prague-style entertainment: Soaking in centuries of cultural richness, Prague serves opera, symphonic, and performing arts experiences from its wealth of gorgeous theaters at an inexpensive price. As well, dining in Prague is an experience in itself, with many excellent emerging restaurants from which to choose. Reservations and tickets booked ahead-of-time are highly recommended.
What to do: Reserve an evening to dine at Terasa U Zlaté Studně (Terrace at the Golden Well), with a superior view. Laden with Prague mystique, the restaurant is reached via a worn-cobblestone lane tucked into the hillside just below the Castle. Seated on the Terrace, red-tiled rooftops ripple out like waves below the glistening spires of Prague’s skyline. Also, plan to see a ballet in the National Theater, worth the cost of the ticket just to sit in the beauty of the theater. At Christmastime, the National Theater offers a gorgeous rendition of the Nutcracker with a Dickens-style twist.
Jennifer Lyn King, a native Texan, lives in the Czech Republic, where she writes from her home near Prague. She is the author of The One Year Mini for Busy Women. Read her blog on Red Room. All the photos above are copyright Jennifer Lyn King.