My first visit to Prague was in 2004. I was with my son, Chris, and my sister Mary Helen and we were visiting over Easter. At that time, Prague was just fifteen years past the Velvet Revolution and the city wore its new-found status as a tourist destination lightly. It was all fairy-tale castles and churches, cobblestone streets, and a wonderful astronomical clock that beat Disney to the punch by about 600 years. Prague had a village-like feeling, even in the heart of the Old Town.
John had never visited Prague and I was excited to introduce him to this special and very romantic city. Imagine my disappointment when we hit town on Sunday, the morning of the Prague Marathon. For the entire day, every inch of the Old Town was crammed with runners wrapped up in mylar blankets, proudly sporting their medals, along with blaring music from the Old Town Square. To make matters worse, American fast-food restaurants are now seen all over the Old Town of Prague: KFC, McDonald’s, and so many Starbucks you would think it’s New York.
The Old Town did quiet down substantially by the next morning and, over the week, we found that the good news is that it’s still possible to find that sense of wonder and authenticity in Prague, it just takes a little more effort. One suggestion is to take to the streets early in the morning. Another is to wander the streets and alleys just beyond the Old Town Square, where the city is still beautiful, but the crowds drop substantially.
Our first full day in Prague, we got together with Greg and Joanne, a couple from Vancouver Island we met on our river cruise. Our time in the city overlapped with theirs by one day and we enjoyed seeing them again before their return to Canada.
We went to the Jewish Quarter to tour a number of the buildings open to tourists, including the Pinkas Synagogue, which has inscriptions around the walls of the 78,000 names of Moravian and Bohemian Holocaust victims. Names are arranged by the origin of the victims to make it easier for names of loved ones to be found, and an audio recording plays the names in a continuous loop. Upstairs, artwork is on display created by the children of Terezin, a ghetto and concentration camp. I had seen a video on these children and their art some time ago and it was touching to see the art itself.
Other exhibits in additional buildings, mostly old synagogues made into museums, featured displays of Jewish life, including customs surrounding birth, marriage, death, education, and medical care.
We visited the Maisel Synagogue, now a museum which traces one thousand years of history of Jewish history in Moravia and Bohemia. Most of us are aware that it was common practice in Europe over the centuries to confine Jews to ghettos and to forbid ownership of land. The exhibit in the Maisel Synagogue deepened our knowledge of what the Jews experienced. A series of stations traces a history of the actions of rulers through the ages. Although Jews were protected for their ability to contribute financially to the empire through taxes, they were at various times, expelled from the region, relocated to various places in the countryside, or restricted to city ghettos. There were also restrictive laws placed on Jews including “The Familiant Act” in which only the eldest son in a Jewish family was permitted to marry, taxed with the humiliating “personal toll” tax, and required to wear a “compulsory badge of shame” such as a yellow armband or circle sewn to the clothing. Given this, it’s easy to see why the Nazis had such an easy time making Jews comply with their demands and why the general population did not object. Literally, for centuries, Jews had lived with restrictions, humiliation, and exploitation – the Nazi regime must have looked like more of the same.
The Prague Castle is one of the top sights in the Czech Republic and at 750,000 square feet in size, is also the largest ancient castle in the world. It is a remarkable place but can also be so overrun with tourists that it becomes difficult to enjoy.
The Prague Castle area is also a draw for a hot trend over the past couple of years that we just learned of. Brides from Asia travel to major destinations in Europe and, dressed in their bridal gowns with groom, photographer, and stylist (or maybe their mom) in tow, strike coy poses in iconic European settings for an extended photo shoot. The photos are then shown as part of their wedding ceremony back home. We must have seen a dozen of these brides around the Castle complex.
My advice for the Prague Castle visit is to start out at the Golden Lane, which has a charming museum made up of the small dwellings, formerly inhabited by Castle workers in the 18th century, eventually housing others in later years, including Franz Kafka. It is now a museum depicting 19th century life, including a seamstress’s shop, an herbalist, a tavern, etc. Since these are very small areas, crowds make it quite tight to get around and see, hence the importance of visiting at a low-crowd time of day.
Left to right, interior of St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Hall which formerly housed jousting matches, and a modern structure known as the Dancing House.
Next stops should include the magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral, which is larger than Notre Dame. It’s possible to walk into St. Vitus without a ticket, but a ticket is required to see sights, such as the Mausoleum and Wenceslas (as in good King Wenceslas) Chapel.
Next, visit the Old Royal Palace. The great hall is large enough that it was used for jousting in the middle ages. The Palace is also home of land roll records dating back to the middle ages, and also features the “Czech Office,” the room in which four Catholic lords were defenestrated or thrown from the window (it was historically legal to take care of differences in this way in Bohemia) in 1618, an act that started the Thirty Years War in Europe. Oh, and the Catholic lords’ fall was softened as they landed in horse manure, so they survived the fall.
And there’s so much more….
The Czech Republic is rich in history, including Jan Hus, the 14th century theologian who challenged the Catholic Church by preaching in the vernacular and opposing indulgences and was eventually burned at the stake by the Catholic Church.
Also interesting are the stories of the WWII “Butcher of Prague” Reinhard Heydrich, who was called “the man with the iron heart” by Hitler and who, after being put in charge of things during the war, sought to mold the Czech Republic into another Germany. Legend has it that Heydrich went to the Prague Castle and ‘tried on’ the crown jewels. There is a Czech legend that says that anyone who puts on the crown jewels and is not king will die, and his son will also die. Within a year of trying on the crown, Heydrich was assassinated and his son died in a car accident.
On a lighter note, we hopped on a tram this afternoon and visited the Dancing House, aka, the Fred and Ginger building. Designed and built in the 1990s by Canadian-American architect, Frank Gehry, the building was originally office space but in 2016 was converted to become the Dancing House hotel.
Our top 10 experiences in Prague
- Visiting the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square – it’s easy, fun, and free – just gather near the clock just before the hour. If you want to see more, a ticket to the Town Hall will give you a behind-the-scenes view.
- Enjoying a Czech beer – Beer in the Czech Republic is famously cheaper than water (and if it isn’t this is a tip-off that you’ve fallen into a tourist trap) and the first Pilsners were brewed here. In addition to the ubiquitous Pilsner Urquell, there are good brew pubs. We enjoyed U Tri Ruzi in the Old Town.
- Visiting the Jewish Quarter – some impressions above, and there is so much more – this is one of Prague’s most fascinating spots and is generally free of annoying visitors jostling to take a selfie in front of a grand site.
- Taking a walking tour – We took a free walking tour of the Old Town and Jewish Quarter (sights mentioned above were not part of that tour) and enjoyed the stories and seeing more of the city. We used http://www.freetour.com/prague and they did a nice job. There are many others as well.
5. Strolling across the Charles Bridge – The bridge is both remarkably beautiful, rich in history, and a fun place to people watch.
6. Visiting Petrin Park – Across the Vltava River from the Old Town, Petrin is a beautiful park with tons of walking and hiking trails. The park extends high up a hill from the Vltava river. At the top, you will find an Eiffel Tower replica with great views of the city below. Choices to get up to the top are riding the funicular, walking up, or walking up halfway and then taking the funicular to the top. The latter was our strategy since the line to the funicular at the bottom was quite long. We opted to pick up the funicular halfway (no line) to save our legs for the 400 steps to the top of the tower.
7. Enjoying a trdlenik from a street vendor — What on earth is a trdlenik, you ask? It is dough, wrapped around a stick, then cooked on a spit and rolled in sugar and walnut mixture, sometimes with chocolate or caramel around the center, sometimes with ice cream in it. I always say that every culture has its own form of fried dough with sugar. This one just happens to b cooked on a spit
8. Taking a tram ride tour – Tram 22 goes from Narodni Trida, one of the main streets, across the river to the Little Quarter and up to the Prague Castle. Check the Rick Steves guidebook for sights along this route
9. Touring some of the glorious churches and other buildings in Prague – In addition to St. Vitus Cathedral, the Tyn Church and St. James church, which features the remains of an arm removed from a local thief who stole from the church.
10. Listening to the music of Czech composers, Dvorak and Smetana – There are many opportunities to go to concerts in beautiful venues around the city and hear the music of Dvorak and Smetana, in addition to Mozart, who lived here and was a popular composer in Prague. We were content to pull out our little speakers and listen in our Airbnb apartment.
We are leaving for Italy in the morning, Cinque Terre, followed by Florence and Tuscany. We have loved all the places we have visited so far but are looking forward to a warmer climate. We’ve had scarcely a day here that we haven’t donned wool, vests, and jackets.