By Jim Ferri
Few cities in Europe are as stunning as Prague. That’s because no other city in Europe can provide you with 600 years of stunning architecture, all untouched by war.
But it’s this very overabundance of beauty that’s problematic; there are so many remarkable buildings that it’s very easy to overlook things that would be a standout in any other city.
I visited Prague in winter, which to me is a perfect time to visit many Eastern European cities, since it’s then that the real city comes to life. In the off-season it’s also easier for me to become unglued in time, rather than when I’m sharing a city with hundreds of thousands of tourists and tour buses are clogging the streets.
My wife and I didn’t have a lot of time to spend in Prague, unfortunately only two days, so we needed to make the best use of our time. On our first day we boarded tram #22 to Prague Castle and when we arrived were met by a beautiful view out over the city.
The castle was originally built back in the ninth century and it continued to be added onto over the ensuing centuries. Now, according to Guinness World Records, it’s the largest ancient castle in the world, covering an area larger than seven football fields.
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, the most famous being St. Vitus’ Cathedral. It houses, among other things, the tomb of Good King Wenceslas.
Before entering the cathedral we first went around to its right side to see the “Golden Portal,” originally the main entrance (and is still used as such on special occasions) and so named for the beautiful 14th-century Venetian mosaic of “The Last Judgment” above it.
But the real surprise was inside. There we found a treasure trove of magnificent stained glass, unlike any I’d ever seen before, in any church, anywhere. It was not only the intricacies of the colored glass but also the number of panels that flooded the interior with color. It was all incredibly beautiful.
After leaving St. Vitus we continued strolling about the castle grounds for an hour or two, in-between stopping in a little café for coffee and a slice of plum cake that I found delicious. Then we set out down a narrow walkway to 13th century Malá Strana, the city’s old quarter that was once home to the craftspeople and merchants who served to royal court.
It runs along the river below the castle and when we reached the river we headed towards the iconic Charles Bridge, the subject of countless Prague postcards. To get to it from the riverside we had to first turn up a street to get to the roadway that crossed the bridge. On the way we came upon Marionety Truhlář, a marionette shop.
Praguers love marionettes and the place was overflowing with an incredible number and variety of them – beautiful and whimsical knights, animals, fairies, all sorts of things – that were hanging from the ceiling, walls and every conceivable spot. They were incredibly well crafted and not cheap, of course, and the saleswoman was enthusiastic about showing us some of the newer ones.
Leaving the shop we crossed the pedestrian-only bridge, a spectacular link between Malá Strana and the Old Town on the far bank, which retains its allure despite being so touristy. Not surprisingly, it was lined with artists and jewelry vendors all lined up under the bridge’s famous black statues. Every once in a while we came to a statue that had a spot where its tarnish had been rubbed smooth by people wishing for good luck, showing the bright brass beneath.
It was a short walk from the Charles to the Old Town Hall with its famous Astronomical Clock. Like many visitors we spent a lot of time in the adjoining Old Town Square, since it’s a beautiful place where most tourists eat, drink and mingle in the cafés that pepper the square’s periphery.
If you’re hungry and want to forgo the cafes, or just want to sample one of the traditional sugar-and-cinnamon trdlo buns cooked over coals at an outdoor stand, there are a number of food stands along the Town Hall side of the square that are relatively good. Grab a bite from one of them and eat while you walk about watching the sideshow of mimes and musicians that come and go all day long.
Behind Town Hall is Josefov, the old Jewish Ghetto that dates from the 12th century. At the end of the 19th century, after many Jews had left and the area had turned into a slum, the ghetto was razed and replaced with a bourgeois district, preserving only a handful of synagogues (including the oldest in Europe, the 13th century Staronová synagóga, the Old-New Synagogue) and the Old Jewish Cemetery intact.
While in Prague we stayed at the Jalta Hotel, a boutique hotel that turned out to be quite good both in comfort and service. The hotel didn’t have a restaurant and when we asked at the desk about a good place to eat, the clerk suggested we just go through the door off the side of the lobby.
We did and found ourselves in the Como Restaurant & Café that we assumed was associated with the hotel but later found out it was privately owned. The last thing we expected to do in Prague was dine in an Italian restaurant, but it was so good we had dinner there twice.
The other good thing about the Jalta was its location on Wenceslas Square, an easy five-minute walk (down the square and through several medieval lanes) back to the Old Town Square. On our second day in the city we wandered down to the Old Town Square once again, this time deciding to walk about the old streets behind Tyn Church whose imposing Gothic steeples are the landmarks of Old Town.
In the numerous lanes that seemed to run in every direction, we wandered about dropping into any little shop that attracted us. In one antique shop we started chatting with the owners and when I asked for directions to Republic Square they told us we had to be sure to visit the Municipal House, an old government building there. “It’s a beautiful place,” they both said, leaving us wondering just what it could be. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the city.
Built 1905–1911,Obeccni düm (Municipal House) is a beautiful Art Nouveau building, Prague’s finest. After decades of neglect during the Communist era, it was restored in the 1990s. 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 other 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.
Municipal House was another of Prague’s incredibly beautiful buildings, and there were many. And many more we did not see.
But that’s the problem with Prague: there are so many remarkable buildings that it’s very easy to overlook things that would be a standout in any other city.
If you go:
1109 Madison Avenue
New York NY 10028
Tel: (212) 288-0830
Václavské náměstí 45/818
110 00 Praha 1
Tel: +420 222 822 111
U lužického sem. 5
Malá Strana, 118 00 Praha 1
Tel: +420 602 689 918