Massive St. Vitus Cathedral was barely visible in the damp, early morning fog as we passed through the formidable stone gates of Prague Castle. For more than a thousand years, Czech leaders — from kings and emperors to Nazis, Communists and presidents — have ruled from this sprawling compound.
The centuries-old Gothic cathedral — 600 years in the making — appears dark and brooding in the mist. Inside, a stained-glass window by Czech artist Alfons Mucha delivers an uplifting burst of color and light.
The Art Nouveau masterwork, completed in 1931, honors Vaclav I, the patron saint of the Czech Republic. A duke, he brought Christianity, unity and hope to the region in the Middle Ages. Better known as “Good King Wenceslas,” he’s an icon of Czech nationalism and piety, and a central figure of local lore.
Back outside the cathedral, the veil of fog lifts, revealing a bright and beautiful day. Welcome to 21st century Prague.
This 1,000-year-old city, capital of the Czech Republic, is a mind-boggling treasure chest of history, architecture, art, culture and tradition. And now, a renaissance is underway. After a half-century of Nazi and Communist oppression that ended in 1989 on the heels of the Velvet Revolution, Prague is once again coming into its own.
“Thirty years ago you would have found a drab and deteriorating city,” our Czech guide notes as she speaks of emperors, regimes, conquests, defeats and days of glory in Prague’s storied and complex past. It’s more than a recitation.
Our Rick Steves’ Europe tour guide, Jana Hronkova, grew up under Communist rule. She was 12 when the student demonstrations in Wenceslas Square on Nov. 17, 1989, set a revolution in motion. Hronkova’s insight and personal anecdotes would enrich our four-day Prague walking tour just two weeks before the 30th anniversary of the uprising.
Here are highlights of exploring on foot (sometimes 8 miles a day) and feeling like a temporary local in one of Europe’s best-preserved, most-visited cities last October.
Old Town Hall Tower, Stare Mesto (Old Town). Prague is called the “Golden City of a Hundred Spires.” I’ll bet it’s a thousand. Our best bird’s-eye view was from atop the Old Town Hall (with the world-famous astronomical clock) on the Old Town Square. The red-tiled roofs and black-and-white mosaic sidewalks below are classic Prague. The astronomical clock draws astronomical crowds on the hour, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, for the little glockenspiel show that’s been a tradition since the early 1400s. Yes, it’s a shoulder-to-shoulder selfie fest.
The iconic view of Charles Bridge with Prague Castle high on a hill in the distance is found along busy Smetanovo Nabrezi on the right bank of the Vltava River. Our first look was a dream come to life. Prague already was more than we imagined.
Prague after dark is mesmerizing, especially in the historic core. Strolls along a four-block stretch of Smetanovo Nabrezi to Charles Bridge and then to either Little Quarter or Old Town are must-dos. Have dinner in one neighborhood and dessert in the other. The later the hour, the more you’ll feel like a local in a postcard come to life.
Arts & culture
The interior of Municipal House near the black-stained Powder Tower, an original gate in the Old Town wall, is an Art Nouveau masterpiece decorated with patriotic Czech themes. Prague’s largest concert hall is housed here, and after a daytime tour, we bought tickets for a chamber orchestra concert that evening. The program and acoustics, enjoyed from velvet seats, lived up to the hype.
There are countless opportunities around the city to enjoy Czech classical music for free. A favorite experience on the tour was an evening parlor concert featuring best-loved arias from operas by Mozart, Dvorak and Smetana at the Bedrich Smetana Museum. No pictures, please. Or risk being embarrassed by an accompanist’s piercing glare.
I adored small but significant Alfons Mucha Museum, one of Prague’s hidden gems. You may not recognize the name, but you’ve likely seen Mucha’s work. The Czech artist (1860-1939) wowed the world with his theater posters in the emerging Art Nouveau style, and a series of huge nationalistic paintings depicting epic events in the life of the Slavs.
Black light illusion can be found around the world, but it’s said to have originated in Prague. When we asked locals which theater company does it best, we got the same answer: They’re all good. We caught a show at Black Theater of Jiri Srnec, a tiny art house. Envision a small stage with a black velvet curtain. Puppeteers are behind the curtain, manipulating objects on the front. Meanwhile, actors in front of the curtain are interacting with the objects. The illusion is great fun. And perfect for an international audience. It’s all done in mime.
Our favorite free-time walk was from Strahov Monastery down through the heart of Mala Strana or the Little Quarter to Charles Bridge. Before the introduction of house numbers, buildings in Prague were identified by a unique symbol such as a star, a fleur de lis, a coat of arms. We had fun collecting photos of gilded examples on the stately embassies that line the streets of this former diplomatic enclave near Prague Castle. Our two-hour route took us through Little Quarter Square and the domineering Church of St. Nicholas. Shops selling marionettes and gingerbread confections drew us in; the free Wallenstein Palace Garden did too.
The John Lennon Wall, a meaningful Prague attraction near Charles Bridge, was under renovation. A disappointment, but a nearby graffiti-covered building wall captured the spirit of the real thing and made for a fun selfie.
An afternoon on our own found us walking a steep path to the summit of Petrin Hill for a panoramic view of the city from Petrin Lookout Tower, a 200-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower. The view from the 1891 attraction was stunning, even on a hazy day. If only the funicular had been in service.... Goulash and rye bread from the snack bar provided energy for the long trek down the hill.
Food & spirits
Dinner the first night of the tour was at an Austrian restaurant called Kocar z Vidne in a cobblestoned courtyard near Charles Bridge. The food was wonderful, but the live music was the highlight. Czech folk tunes and a little Mozart, performed by a mustachioed flutist and an accordionist from the Prague Castle Orchestra, filled our corner of the restaurant for about a half-hour. The late-evening walk back to our hotel took us across the iconic 14th-century bridge — sans crowds. It was rather romantic under that starry sky with Prague Castle illuminated in the distance and the statues of saints lending a watchful eye.
History & lore
Prague Castle is reputed to be one of Europe’s largest. A visit to it in Hradcany, the Castle Quarter, offers a meaningful overview of the country’s complex history. The compound sits prominently above the city. The grounds and gardens are beautifully maintained, the plazas are built for scores of visitors and the vistas of Charles Bridge and Old Town are memorable. We had a half-day castle visit, then hopped a tram to Mala Strana for a casual lunch at 17th-century Strahov Monastery Brewery, known for its craft brews. We copied the locals and ordered Czech spreads with bread to enjoy with that first round. After lunch we walked to the monastery’s terrace for one of Prague’s most picturesque red-roofed, spire-filled city views.
Czechs love French architecture and the best examples of Art Nouveau with overtures of Paris’ Champs Elysees are in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter, just off the Old Town Square. Deeper into the neighborhood, the mood turns somber at Pinkas Synagogue. The alcove walls are hand-inscribed with the names and birth and death dates of some 77,300 Czech Jews, all victims of the Holocaust. In another space, Jewish children’s renderings tell the story of life in a Nazi concentration camp. The Old Cemetery — with some 12,000 tombstones — dates from 1439 to 1787, when this was the only burial ground for the city’s Jews. Graves stacked seven or eight deep bring the total to 85,000 buried here — a possibility difficult to fathom in such a small space.
Cross the moat — actually a street called Na Prikope that follows the line of the Old Town wall — and you’re in Nove Mesto, the New Town of malls and high-end shops and the home of Art Nouveau art and architecture. Good King Wenceslas stands grandly in the square, framed by the National Museum. No doubt relishing all that Prague has come to be.