City of One Hundred Spires
Prague‘s historic centre is classified as UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. This area includes several neighbourhoods of great historical relevance — almost all of the city itself — representing an architectural heritage of immensurable value.
The epicentre is the Old Town (Staré Město). These medieval-like streets are concentrated between Wenceslas Square and the Vltava river. And it’s probably where you’ll find the greatest number of emblematic spots, apart from the Castle.
Starting inevitably with the Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí), which proudly holds 900 years of history. Besides the statue of Jan Hus, the great name of the czech Protestant Reform, two other major icons stand out.
Over one side of the square, there’s the Old Town Hall building: the 66-metre tower dating from the 14th century offers one of the best panoramic views. Closer to the ground, the astronomical clock (Orloj) attached to the wall of the tower attracts packs of tourists daily. Especially when the bells chime and the several little statues start “dancing”.
On the other side, you’ll recognise the gothic towers of the Church of Our Lady Before Týn. The inside of the church, however, is clearly inspired by Baroque lines and features the largest pipe organ of Prague. No wonder this is a privileged venue for classical music concerts — just like other churches in Prague.
Leaving the square means taking one of the narrow streets of the Old Town. You’ll easily spot the clock of the Old Synagogue tower of Josefov, discreet but remarkable. The Old Synagogue is not open to the public, but the jewish district of Prague has many other points of interest: the Jewish Museum, the Old-New Synagogue and the 40,000 tombs of the old cemetery.
Also in Josefov, you'll spot the statue of Prague’s greatest celebrity, Franz Kafka. It stands just a few steps way from the house where the Jewish writer was born. But this is not all — across the Vlatva, you can visit the Franz Kafka Museum!
Think we’re done in Staré Město? Think again. Walking towards the river, the white walls and green dome of the Astronomical Tower (68 metres) reveal yet another relic. It's integrated in the Klementinum complex, where the extraordinary Baroque rooms keep the more than 20,000 volumes of the Czech Republic’s National Library.
We’re now close to reaching the famous Charles Bridge (Karlův most), the oldest of all Prague’s bridges, carrying the name of the emperor-king who brought prosperity and culture to Czech lands. But before staring the 30 statues that decorate it, it’s impossible to ignore the Powder Tower (Prašná brána). Historically used in the ritual coronation of kings, it also marks the limit of the Old Town.
Keep going up…
On the other margin of the Vltava, we’re welcomed into the Lesser Town (Malá Strana) by two romanesque-style towers. The differences start becoming evident. There’s a new imperial tone given by the more elaborated facades, cafés, restaurants and luxury hotels, gardens and Castle surroundings.
One giant dome with a 20-metre diametre stands out in the skyline, even when seen from the Old Town. It belongs to the Church of St. Nicholas, a Baroque jewel dreamt by Jesuits and built by three generations of architects. The interior is absolutely grandiose, as well as the organ, which was once played by Mozart. Just like in Týn, St. Nicholas is also a stage for almost daily classical music concerts.
After climbing the 215 steps to the church’s bell tower and enjoying the city from another perspective, we take the way to the Castle, located on the Hradčany hill. This means we’re now finally heading for Prague’s greatest landmark and seat to the Czech Presidency. Make sure you come with time on your hands, because this one is no mere castle.
Founded on the 9th Century by a prince of unpronounceable name (Bořivoj Přemyslovci), today it is an enormous complex of palaces, military structures, churches and much more. The towers of the monumental St. Vitus Cathedral are the element that dominates the whole landscape of the city. The Castle is so omnipresent that many believe it was the inspiration for a Kafka novel named… “The Castle”. And it’s the largest in the world, according to the Guinness World Records.
Apart from its many attractions, the Castle is unquestionably where you’ll get the best view over Prague. But our journey doesn’t end here.
And now for something completely different
Before we return to the other side of the Vltava, a surprise is waiting for us. On the Petřín hill, we stumble upon a 64 metre-high lookout tower. Clearly inspired on Paris’ Eiffel, with 299 steps to climb up to the top. But the reward is great: not only a great view over Prague, but also over much of the Bohemia region.
Time to go back! This time, taking the Legion Bridge, and headed to the New Town (Nové Město). Which is not “new” at all: it was founded in 1348 by king Charles IV. And it all began with the New Town Hall building, famous for the Gothic tower with 70 metres and for the association with a set of unusual historical episodes: the defenestrations of Prague.
The first defenestration took place in the New Town Hall, in 1419. Fifteen people were thrown out of the window, following a popular uprising caused by the authorities’ refusal to liberate hussite prisioners (supporters of Jan Huss’ theology). The second defenestration, also for religious purposes, would take place in 1618 at the Royal Palace of the Castle.
Finally, we meet at Wenceslas Square, the true commercial, cultural and administrative centre of Prague. Two treasures stand out on the south end. The monument of Wenceslas riding the horse, the city’s most important statue, and on the background, the great neo-renaissance dome of the National Museum.
Enough? No. Keep on walking these charming streets and discover a new story at every corner. You’ll probably end up facing the 216 metres of the Žižkov Tower, the tallest building in Prague tranformed into a centre of arts, restaurants and entertainment.