(View of Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral from Petrin Hill)
This is a continuation of my blog on Prague; you can find part 1 by clicking this link.
2) Castle Quarter (Hradcany). The first castle in Prague was built on the west bank of the Vltava in the 9th century. This region has been the home to Prague’s ruling class for almost a thousand years – kings and noblemen in the past, now it has the offices of the President and foreign ministers. Prague Castle is one of the largest castle complexes in the world. Explore the grounds of the castle, including statues, fountains and displays. The changing of the guard occurs on the hour. It’s worth renting a portable audio-guide to aid with your exploration of the castle.
(Entrance to St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague)
(Beautiful Mucha stained glass window, St. Vitus Cathedral)
A highlight of any trip to Prague will be a visit to St. Vitus Cathedral which is at the heart of Prague castle. It's one of the most magnificent European cathedrals I've had the privilege to visit. Just as Westminster Abbey is the spiritual heart of England, so too is St. Vitus the spiritual heart of Bohemia. The exterior is classic Gothic, complete with gargoyles and flying buttresses. Highlights inside the cathedral include the graves of most of Prague’s famous rulers (such as Charles IV who built Charles Bridge), the beautiful silver grave of Bohemia’s St. John of Nepomuk, the Chapel of St. Wenceslas (the walls lined by semiprecious stones and containing the saint’s grave), and a lovely stained glass window by famed Czech art nouveau artist, Alfons Mucha. Take a few hours to explore the small chapels and examine each of the wonderful stained glass windows in this beautiful house of worship. Also be sure to visit St. George’s basilica on the Castle grounds, one of the oldest churches in Prague dating to the 10th century.
(Royal Gardens, Prague Castle,)
The Royal Gardens immediately adjoining the Castle complex are very pleasant and quiet to walk in. It’s a lovely park that for centuries was closed to commoners — only open to the ruling elite (including during the Soviet era). You might even be lucky enough to see hunting falcons, eagles and owls, as did we. They are magnificent birds!
(The beautiful interior of Strahov Monastery, Prague)
Just up the hill from the castle is the historic Strahov Monastery. This medieval monastery has a history dating back to the 12th century. The Library at the Monastery features two halls filled with ancient hand-written books, as well some displays of these ancient texts. Also present are some displays of "scientific curiosities”, including a young pickled dodo bird.
3) Little Quarter (Mala Strana). A merchant settlement on the west bank of the Vltava burned in the 1540s and was replaced by a Baroque town and gardens. The elegant homes in the quarter were often built by noblemen; these buildings now house embassies and fine restaurants. A part of the lesser town is on Kampa island, a pretty place which features riverside parks and a modern art museum. Kampa Island provides wonderful views of the Charles Bridge and the east bank of the Vltava River. There are many great restaurants in this part of town many of which cater more to locals and embassies than to tourists.
(Church of St. Nicholas, Prague)
The Little Quarter is home to the lovely Baroque St. Nicholas Church which is well worth a visit. Rarely will you see a more elegant use of marble than in its interior. Also popular but not nearly as dramatic is the Church of our Lady Victorious — Infant Jesus of Prague, which features a small wax infant which is perhaps the city’s most famous religious relic. Some of the faithful make a pilgrimage here to see the “bambino”.
(Petrin Tower, which you can climb for beautiful views of Prague)
The Little (Lesser) Quarter is also where Petrin Hill is located, a large park which offers great views of the city, especially from its version of the Eiffel Tower, the Petrin Tower, atop the hill. On a clear day it’s a lot of fun to be at the top of the hill, to climb Petrin Tower, and to enjoy the incomparable view. Also be sure to look up the Monument to the Victims of Communism at the base of Petrin Hill. It’s an unusual and moving art work, showing how repression eats at the person leaving only a fraction of a human alive.
(Monument to the Victims of Communism, Prague)
No visit to the Little Quarter is complete without a stop at “John Lennon Peace Wall”. This colorful graffiti decorated wall popped up after Lennon was killed by a madman in 1980. Communist officials repeatedly painted over the graffiti but it would always reappear. The wall became part of the defiant struggle against Totalitarianism.
(John Lennon Peace Wall, Prague)
4) New Town (Nove Mesto). Extends south from the Old Town and is centered on Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske namesti –named for the Good King of Christmas carol fame). The square was at one time a horse market and was very important in the Czech Republic’s recent history as a site of the people rebelling against Soviet oppression. In 1968 it was the site of demonstrations suppressed by the Soviets. In 1989 some 300,000 Czechs and Slovaks celebrated their freedom here.
(Wenceslas Square, Prague_
At one end of Wenceslas Square is the National Museum. Look at the large pillars on
the exterior to see the botched repair of bullet holes left after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion; these holes were purposefully filled with off color plaster by craftsmen to remind people of that day.
(National Museum, Prague)
Stop by the museum of Czech artist Alfons Mucha. While its collection is not extensive, it is representative of the artist and shows his development and roll in Czech culture and history. We weren't that familiar with his art before our visit and found it to be extremely appealing and like-able.
The New Town also features the National Theater, a great place to see a performance of classical music or opera. The cost of a performance here is small fraction of what you’d pay in Vienna. There are dozens of venues available for musical performances in the town including the Municipal House and many of the old churches.
Food and drink:
Czech beer is among the best in the world and the Czech people per capita are world champion beer consumers. So as part of your experience here try some of their beer with your meals or in a pub or beer garden. Pilzner beer is very popular, especially Pilsner Urquell (Pilzen is town in Czech Republic which invented the technique to make Pilsner beer). Many like the wine of Moravia, which we didn’t sample to any degree so we can’t comment on it.
(Entertainment at the Folklore Garden, outside Prague)
The food was very tasty and “hearty”. Most restaurants feature meat and potato dishes often served with a vegetable and dumplings. Soup is popular and very tasty. Among entries we noted that roast duck and pork seemed very popular and many restaurants featured roasted “pork knee” — a massive joint that we didn’t try.
Most of the food was very good but without question the best restaurant we ate was David’s. For a complete cultural show I’d recommend going to the Folklore Garden where you’ll be served a traditional Czech meal, as much beer as you want and be entertained by musicians and dancers.
(Rock and Gem merchant, Prague market)
Prague is a good place to shop. We like getting small handicrafts as gifts and souvenirs and some of the best of these were found on the Charles Bridge. It is also a great place to buy the world renowned Czech crystal and glassware, and ceramics. Garnets are deep red gemstones that are native to northern Bohemia and are featured in many stores. Amber is also popular in making jewelry . Clever wooden toys and marionettes, textiles and old-fashioned Christmas ornaments are popular gift items as well.
We really enjoyed our time in Prague. It’s a small enough city to walk around in but if you want there is an efficient system of trams and also a fairly extensive Metro system. Be cautious on the Metro. I had my wallet cleanly picked by a very talented thief, which was really our only negative experience in town. Otherwise we encountered helpful friendly people.
Beyond that I found the entrepreneurial energy and palpable sense of optimism in the Czech people to be contagious. The city has come far in the 20 years since the Soviet empire collapsed and I think its future is bright.
While Prague is great to see in the day, it's also fantastic after dark so do at least one walk at night. You’ll find a different atmosphere and less busy city. Even if you don’t drink much (we don’t either) stop by a pub or open air beer garden and take in the ambiance of the city. Also I’d recommend taking a river cruise at dusk. It’s a great time of day to cruise through the city and under the Charles Bridge.
For an extended high resolution slide show of Prague, please go to this link. The slide show is at the bottom of the post. Click on the right sided icon of the slideshow's toolbar for full screen enlargements.