After the Velvet Revolution, the city of a thousand spires has emerged from behind the iron curtain to become one of Europe’s most-visited cities.
Prague, the largest urban historical centre on the UNESCO Heritage List, should be on everyone’s bucket list, whether you’re passing through or staying a week. Last year, more than four million people wandered the labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets in the Bohemian capital.
Crowds gather beneath the Astronomical Clock. Legend has it that Master Hanuš, who was believed to be the clockmaker, was blinded after its completion, so that it would not be duplicated. In revenge, Hanuš took a pupil to the clock, who, upon his instruction, stopped it. It remained so for a century. Ascend the clock tower—don’t worry there is a lift—to admire the patchwork of burnt orange roofs, the Church of Our Lady before Týn, St. Nicholas Church and the Old Town Square’s Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture.
A five-minute walk away is the New Town—which was actually laid out in 1348—as well as the lively Wenceslas Square. Yes, ‘tis he of the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’: the Duke of Bohemia, who was slain by his brother and posthumously became King and Prague’s patron saint. The square is actually a 750-meter-long boulevard, lined with hotels, restaurants, fashion stores and the National Museum on one end.
To get to another of the city’s most popular landmark, Prague Castle, you’ll have to cross the 500-meter-long Charles Bridge, which is adorned with 30 statues. Buy a memento of your stay and be entertained by buskers along the way. Their music will remind you to look left, once you’ve crossed the river, at Lennon’s Wall. His image was painted on a wall, in a secluded square opposite the French embassy, along with political graffiti and Beatles lyrics, after his assassination on December 8, 1980. The wall never remained whitewashed for long, while most western pop was banned during communism, citizens continued to pay tribute to the peace activist with inspiring messages. Today, while his image is no longer visible, the graffiti wall is a palimpsestic symbol of pacifism. Nearby, lovers seal their love by securing locks to a bridge.
Steep stairs lead to the hilltop where the largest ancient castle in the world—570 metres long and 128 metres wide—nestles on an area larger than seven football fields. Each ruler made additions to the 9th century castle, which attributes to its eclectic architectural style. The gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Prague, is also part of the castle complex. Watch the changing of the guard at noon and if you’re here in the summer, stroll around the imperial gardens.
Explore the museums, with their engraved façades, churches and cafés in the nearby Malá Strana district. Take a 30-minute walk or the funicular up Petřín Hill and use the same ticket to enter the 63.5 meter-high Petřín Tower, or the ‘Little Eiffel Tower’ as it is known.
A scenic way to get between tourist attractions during the summer months, besides the subway or restored trams, is a bicycle or Segway tour. Perhaps the most memorable way to explore the city is in an open-topped collector’s item: a Praga. A cruise along the Vltava River gives you the chance to sip on the world’s first pilsner beer, Pilsner Urquell, while admiring landmarks, such as the functioning 23-metre-high metronome. Otherwise, hire a paddleboat and go in search of the river’s hundreds of swans.
Heading south along the riverfront you’ll marvel at the deconstructivist architecture of the Dancing House, named after Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Further along, regally perched on a hilltop is the citadel at Vyšehrad, which was the former seat of the Czech royal family and is the city’s spiritual home. Permanent inhabitants of the Vyšehrad cemetery include composers Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana as well as art nouveau artist Alfons Mucha. Another cemetery, which receives much attention is the New Jewish Cemetery, where literati flock on the anniversary of Franz Kafka’s death on June 3.
As dusk falls, the city’s 4,000-odd monuments light up chronologically, according to the centuries in which they were built. At dinner, indulge in Czech food: dumplings, soups, Guláš and fried potato pancakes. From the many roof top restaurants, you can trace the city’s timeline. Be sure to set an evening aside for the Prague State Opera.
An hour east of Prague, in Kutná Hora, is the Bone Ossuary (Kostnice), which contains the artistically arranged skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people. It became a sought-after burial ground after the abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec sprinkled earth from Golgotha, in the Holy Land, on the cemetery in 1287.
If that’s too far out though, take a ‘Ghost and Legends Tour’ by night. Hopefully, meeting a few specters, like the headsman Jan Mydlář, won’t scare you out of recommending this romantic destination to others.
The best place to start: www.praguewelcome.cz/en/
This article was published in the April issue of Forbes Africa Magazine.