By Jim Ferri
Amid a torrent of tourism hype from several other destinations, Prague turned out to be the real thing.
I’ve seen no other city in Europe that can provide such a wealth of stunning, original and authentic architecture, all, for the most part, untouched by war.
It’s so stunning that it’s long been a hotspot for directors seeking authentic Old World ambiance. If you’ve seen Amadeus, Les Misérables, Mission: Impossible, The Bourne Identity, and several other blockbusters, you’ve already had a sampling of the city.
Of course, those samplings have also helped draw crowds to the Czech capital, something that’s anathema for many travelers. But the great thing about Prague is that it’s a city that’s exceptional in all seasons, not just the crowded summer months. And since it’s eminently walkable, there’s a lot you can see and do in just two days.
Need coaxing? Here’s a sampling of what I enjoyed in just 48 wonderful hours.
The Royal Castle
Sitting on a hill high above the Vltava River and the city (you can reach it via Tram #22), you can’t help but see Prague Castle. What you can’t see from below is that it’s not one castle, but a huge complex of buildings, about the size of seven football fields.
Once home to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, the fairytale-looking complex includes churches, gardens, alleyways and the Royal residence, making it the largest ancient castle in the world. Inside its walls are the Old Royal Palace (the seat of Bohemian kings since the 11th century), St. George’s Basilica (the city’s most beautiful Romanesque monument) and numerous other buildings, including the beautiful St. Vitus’ Cathedral.
Much of the castle complex is free (although you must purchase a ticket to view the interiors), and the guards change every hour, with special fanfare at noon.
St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle
The Cathedral, with its distinct spires easily seen from all over the city, is the focal point of the castle complex.
Before you enter, however, first walk around to its right side to see the “Golden Portal,” that originally was the main entrance. Named for the beautiful 14th-century Venetian mosaic of “The Last Judgment” above it, it’s still used as an entrance on special occasions.
Inside you’ll find one of the most spectacular churches you’ll see anywhere. When I first entered, I stood for a moment in total awe, just absorbing the beauty of its Art Nouveau stained-glass windows. Few people realize that Art Nouveau was introduced during the church’s construction; although work on the cathedral began in 1344, it wasn’t completed until 1929.
In addition to the magnificent windows, the church is also the repository of the Crown Jewels of Bohemia and the remains of Good King Wenceslas.
After leaving St. Vitus my wife and I strolled about the castle grounds for an hour or so, and then took one of the ancient narrow streets down to 13th-century Malá Strana, the city’s “Little Quarter.” Once home to craftspeople and merchants who served the royal court, we meandered about the area for a while before crossing the Charles Bridge back to the Old Town.
The Charles is a 600-year-old, 1700 foot-long Gothic-cobblestone-bridge, built by King Charles IV and lined with Baroque statues of 30 religious figures. It’s one of the most famous bridges in the world, and also one of the most popular. As you might expect, more often than not it’s crowded with tourists, musicians and all sorts of vendors.
If you want it to yourself and to see it in a beautiful setting, visit it very early in the morning as the sun rises.
The Astronomical Clock
Once on the other side of the Charles we found it was just a short walk to the Old Town Hall to see its famous medieval Astronomical Clock.
It’s both beautiful and ingenious, a 15th-century mechanism that not only tells time but also shows the movement of the planets around the earth, the sun, and the moon via signs of the zodiac.
Every day, on the hour, small statues dance, bells ring, and cocks crow above the crowd that gathers to watch the little spectacle. It’s really not much at all, but if you don’t see it, you’ll kick yourself later.
Do as we did: watch it and then grab a beer at one of the adjacent cafés. In fact, you may want to watch while you’re having a beer.
Old Town Square
When you finish your beer, you’ll find you’re literally only steps away from Old Town Square, the heart and soul of Prague. It’s also one of the most beautiful public squares in the world.
Originally a marketplace, it miraculously has remained pretty much untouched since the 10th century despite numerous foreign invaders, as well as World War II.
Like most city squares, we found it was a stage for an ever-changing cast of characters, including musicians, protesters, vendors and others. It was also quickly evident that the buildings surrounding the square were a pleasant hodgepodge of architecture, including Rococo (Kinsky Palace), Baroque (St. Nicholas Church), and Gothic (Tyn Cathedral). Adding to the architectural cacophony was the row of small Renaissance-style houses that stand in front of the Cathedral.
If you look closely you’ll see that the church’s architects made the south tower larger than the north one, the custom of the time.
Old Jewish Ghetto
Behind Town Hall we later walked through Josefov, the old Jewish Ghetto dating from the 12th century, a place where writer Franz Kafka spent most of his life.
It’s a nice area today, although it was razed at the end of the 19th century after many Jews had left and the area had turned into a slum. It was replaced with a bourgeois district, preserving only four synagogues (including the oldest in Europe, the 13th century Old-New Synagogue (Staronová synagóga), which is still used for religious services, and the Old Jewish Cemetery.
Dating from the 15th century, the cemetery was one of the few places available for burial of Prague’s Jews. When it ran out of room graves were added on top of one another; today it’s estimated that about 200,000 are buried here, even though the final burial place took place in 1787.
The area can get quite crowded with tourists although it is significantly quieter on Saturday (the Sabbath) when the Jewish Museum is closed.
After wandering about the warren of little streets in Old Town, we walked over to the Municipal House, a place two shopkeepers told us we shouldn’t miss. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the city.
Built 1905–1911, it remains the most beautiful Art Nouveau building in Prague, thanks to restoration in the 1990s after decades of neglect during the Communist era, despite it being where Czechoslovakia was declared an independent state in 1918. You’ll find few places like it anywhere in Europe, or the world, for that matter.
At its heart is the beautiful Smetana Concert Hall, home to the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. But it was its exuberant Art Nouveau restaurants and bar that really caught our attention.
In the basement, we found Plzenska, a beautiful Old-World Czech beer-hall-style restaurant with tile walls and stained glass windows. Next to it was the American Bar, a real old-style American bar where they’ll whip you up a Manhattan, Gin Fizz or another cocktail of choice. It’s the oldest bar in the Czech Republic and, it claims, the second oldest in Europe.
But the real standout was the elegant restaurant Francouzska, a veritable dining museum of Art Nouveau exuberance, serving French, Czech, and International cuisine.
I’d happily go back for another 48 hours just to enjoy a leisurely dinner there.
If you go:
1109 Madison Avenue
New York NY 10028
Tel: (212) 288-0830