Praha Train Station
Once the historical capital of Bohemia, Prague is now the capital and largest city in the Czech Republic with 1.3 million people. We arrived in the fifth most visited European city via bus from Nuremberg which was the fastest mode of public transportation. The bus dropped us off at the main train station, Praha, which interestingly used to be called the Wilson Station, after American president Woodrow Wilson!
Woodrow Wilson was a leading supporter of Czech and Slovak independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He recognized the sovereignty of a defacto government modeled after the US constitution which was set up by Masaryk who was in US exile. Soon the Czechs and Slovaks joined together to form the independent Czechoslovakia in 1918.
Masaryk became the first president of Czechoslovakia, and in gratitude for Wilson’s support, he named the train station for him. Ten years later, a bronze statue of Wilson was erected outside the station. It remained until 1941 when the Nazi party tore it down. During the Nazi occupation, the name of the station was also changed.
In 1990, however, for the first anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the Czech Republic’s freedom from communism, a new statue was erected and the train station’s name was restored, though the train schedules still say Praha.
Where to Stay
Hotel Kings Court
From the station, we walked in the darkness of winter at 4:30pm to our hotel located only 15 minutes away on the edge of Republic Square. Hotel Kings Court is a five-star hotel for a three-star price and it is absolutely spectacular!
The staff is friendly, the lobby always with free snacks and drinks is nice, the rooms and bathrooms are large, and the breakfast buffet is one of the best I’ve seen! The buffet takes up two rooms and includes fruits, cooked to order omelets, hot items, pizza, sushi, breads and pastries, yogurts, meats and cheese, five types of mustards, a variety of salads, pancakes with all sorts of topping options and the list goes on!
In addition, its location, just on the edge of Prague’s Old Town and new town, next to a Christmas market, and not far from the train station makes it a perfect choice.
Hotel Kings Court is in walking distance of several excellent restaurants. They say in Prague, if greeted by someone friendly at a restaurant, it is probably in a tourist area. Accordingly, I’d say we were in a tourist area, and the food was quite good. We enjoyed some lovely dinners and drinks at surrounding establishments.
Where to Eat
First, we tried Kolkovna Celnice. Kolkovna owns a handful of restaurants in Prague, thus it appears to be a local chain. It’s Celnice location across the square from our hotel was one of its firsts. The restaurant’s menu featured its famous smoked sausages, so I tried the lamb. They were on the salty side, but very good. The side plate of grilled vegetables was a treat! Kristin enjoyed her meal with sauerkraut and of course a Pilsner, the Czech beer.
The following night we ate at Nostalgie Restaurant. The tiny place was full the previous night when we stopped by, so we made an unnecessary reservation for Monday night. I felt like I needed to taste a pork knee before I left Eastern Europe, so that is what I ordered. It was huge! Kristin enjoyed her rabbit ragout pasta. We loved the quaint atmosphere of our upstairs table too.
For our final night in Prague, we had dinner at Cacao Prague which is located next to the Museum of Communism. I was leery of eating at what seemed like a coffee shop from the outside. Much to my surprise, we enjoyed a nice light dinner. My salad, oddly drizzled in mustard, was a good choice. The service was quick too, so we had time to check out the oldest bar in Prague across the way.
Americky Bar is tucked in the basement of the historic Municipal House which hosted Czechoslovakia’s proclamation of independence in 1918. The beautiful building also hosts concerts, exhibitions, fashion shows and congresses. If a tour doesn’t fit in the schedule, at least make time for a drink in the art nouveau bar. We loved it and wished we had found it sooner given it was across the street from our hotel. Years ago, Americky Bar was once the only place a woman could be served a drink without the accompaniment of man.
Good Food Coffee Shop and Bakery
While we sat for breakfast and dinner, our lunches tended to be snacks along the way. Christmas markets make this easy, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Good Food, a coffee shop and bakery that features chimney cakes. Chimney cakes have a variety of names depending on each Eastern European country. They are also known as Kürtöskalács and Tredelník. Whatever the name, the flaky grilled dough cake dusted with cinnamon sugar is yummy!!
The Good Food Coffee Shop and Bakery goes many steps further. They added ice cream, brownies, whipped cream, nuts and other sweets to make a giant sundae of your choice. Believe it or not, there are also savory options. The cake isn’t rolled in sugar, but maybe nuts and it is stuffed with bacon and eggs, macaroni and cheese, or salad. Good Food is a franchise that has a handful of locations worldwide, including in the UAE and China. Maybe one will make it to the USA.
Places to Visit
Enough about food, there are many things to do and places to see in Prague. From the Hotel Kings Court, I’ve outlined an excellent walking tour to see the main sites.
Náměstí Republiky (Republic Square)
As I mentioned earlier, Hotel Kings Court is on the edge of Republic Square, so naturally, this is the easiest place to visit first or last. The square sits on the former moat and is the delineating point between Old Town and new town. Stores and restaurants surround the north and east side of the square while the Municipal House and Powder Gate line its southern side. The Museum of Communism is also another popular attraction on the square as is the Christmas Market.
Museum of Communism
While I wandered around the city, my friend Kristin visited the Museum of Communism. The museum is open from 9am to 8pm and costs 290 CZK for adults to enter. It takes about two hours to learn about the life of a Czech during the communist era from 1949-1989.
As I previously mentioned, this magnificent building is worth a visit. Tours of the Municipal House are available, but if time doesn’t permit, at least drop into the Americky Bar for a drink or have lunch one of the restaurants inside.
The Powder Gate
The Powder Gate is an ancient Gothic tower that once served as one of the original 13 city gates. The tower construction began in 1475 and was a coronation gift to Vladislav II. Vladislav II lived in the tower until riots forced him to relocate. The tower wasn’t used again by kings until coronation ceremonies began again in 1836. The coronation route passed through the tower to St. Vitus Cathedral. The tower is known as the powder gate because it was used to store gunpowder in the 17th century.
From the Powder Gate, I followed Na Příkopě, a pedestrian street, southwest to Wenceslas Square. The lovely street is lined with shops and restaurants. For those who shop, it might be best to save this area until the end of the day, but I went this way first to avoid crowds while waiting on other attractions in Prague to open.
After five blocks, I reached the northwest corner of Wenceslas Square which is named for the patron saint of Bohemia. Wenceslas Square is more like a giant boulevard than a square. The rectangular square spans multiple blocks to the National Museum. It is lined with hotels, offices, retail, fast food chains as well as strip clubs. I didn’t walk here for its present day features, though I suspect the National Museum housed in a lovely neoclassical building is likely nice.
Instead I visited the square due to its history which dates back to the mid 1300’s when it once served as a horse market. Many historic events have taken place at the square, including Nazi marches, hockey celebrations and most significantly, the Velvet Revolution. The Velvet Revolution was part of the Fall of Nations or the Revolutions of 1989. The Velvet Revolution began as a peaceful demonstration by students in Prague who protested the single-party government. In three days, the number of protestors grew to 500,000. In less than a month, Czechoslovakia’s president appointed a non-communist government and resigned.
From the northwest corner of Wenceslas Square, I continued northwest to Staroměstské Náměstí or Old Town Square. Along the way, I stumbled across Havelské tržiště, a market in Prague dating back to 1232. It offers vegetables, fruits and tourist items on the weekends. It is only a block or two from Old Town Square.
Staroměstské Náměstí or Old Town Square
Old Town Square is the heart of Prague, in my opinion. It hosts a very lively Christmas market which sells all sorts of food. In fact, it seemed like specialties from every Eastern European country I had just recently visited were all available at this market which is considered one of the top ten in Europe.
The Old Town Square is lined with several historic buildings including Church of St. Nicholas, Church of Our Lady before Týn and Old Town Hall, just to name a few. The center of the square features the Jan Hus Monument.
Jan Hus Monument
The Jan Hus Monument was erected in 1915, 500 years after Jan Hus was burned at the stake for heresy against the doctrine of the Catholic church. The Czech religious reformer was a key predecessor to Protestantism. His execution led to the Hussite Wars when his followers defeated five consecutive papal crusades. Today, the Czech Republic celebrates the public holiday, Jan Hus Day, on July 6.
Church of St. Nicholas (Old Town Square)
The Church of St. Nicholas (on Old Town Square) was constructed between 1732-37. Since 1920, it has been the main church for the Czechoslovak Hussite Church and its Prague diocese. In 1945, during the Prague uprising, the church was used as a hidden site for Radio Prague as the main radio building was under attack.
Church of Our Lady Before Týn
Across the square from Church of St Nicholas stands the Church of Our Lady before Týn. Its Gothic steeples make it a distinctive landmark in Old Town Prague.
Old Town Hall
Probably the most interesting building on Prague’s Old Town Square is Old Town Hall. The Old Town Hall was established in 1338. As it expanded, several nearby houses were put together to comprise the building. Its biggest draw is its astronomical clock which comes to life every hour with performing figurines.
Watch for the small skeleton (figure of Death) near the top right to strike the time for the 12 apostles to rotate into the windows above the clock. The clock includes a zodiacal ring, an old Czech time scale, a sun and a moon. Along with the time, the clock indicates the sunrise, sunset and phase of the moon.
A tour of Old Town Hall is also an option and includes the underground, tower, halls and cloisters. With the variety, the 250 CZK is worth the admission.
The Charles Bridge
From Old Town Square, I headed west across the Charles Bridge. The Charles Bridge might be Prague’s most iconic structure. The bridge was built by Peter Parker for Charles IV in 1357 to replace the Judith Bridge which was destroyed by floods. The bridge, which connects Old Town to Little Quarter, was the only bridge across the Vltava until 1741.
Statues of different materials by a variety of sculptors depict revered saints. Most were erected on the balustrade between 1683-1714. One of the most artistically remarkable statues on the bridge, St. Luitgard, portrays the crucified Christ appearing to a blind nun.
Church of St. Nicholas (Little Quarter Square)
On the opposite end of the bridge, I reached the Little Quarter Square in Lesser Town Prague. Little Quarter Square is home to another Church of St. Nicholas. Two churches with the same name was a source of confusion to me at first. Construction on Church of St. Nicholas took place between 1703 and 1761. The church is considered a masterpiece of father and son architects Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer. An entrance fee is required to see the ornate inside.
One an interesting side note, despite all the churches, the Czech Republic is one of the least religious countries in the world and its neighbor Poland is one of the most religious countries!
Just north of St. Nicholas Church is Nerudova Ulice. This picturesque street leads up to Prague Castle. The street is named for poet and journalist Jan Neruda who lived in Lesser Town Prague at the house called At the Two Suns.
Until the introduction of house numbers, in 1770, houses were distinguished by signs. The houses, turned retail stores on Nerudova, still feature these symbols. They often represent a profession or interest of the occupant. Some examples are Three Fiddles (no 12) the Golden Horseshoe (no 34).
The Prague Castle and
Nerudova Ulice climbs up to Hradčany Square at the west entrance of Prague Castle. The Prague Castle complex dates back to the 9th century and includes Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, Romansque Basilica of St. George, a monastery, and several palaces and gardens. The castle houses several museums including the National Gallery and Toy Museum among others.
In addition, once the seat of power for kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman emperors, and presidents of Czechoslovakia, it is also the official office of the President of the Czech Republic. As such a few parts of the castle are off limits to tourists.
Also included inside the castle walls is Zlatá Ulička, a street of artisan cottages built in the late 16th century for the castle’s guards and gunners. I thought I could simply walk down this street, but the Golden Lane requires a ticket for an hour-long tour. The ticket office is by the entrance.
St. Vitus Cathedral
Most of the places in the Prague Castle complex required a ticket to enter. The only place that allowed a partial free entry was St. Vitus Cathedral. I say partial as free entry only allows visitors into the nave. Paid entry lets patrons into the jewel studded Chapel of St. Wenceslas, considered the highlight of the Cathedral as it houses his tomb.
I enjoyed many features of St. Vitus Cathedral including its Rose Window, Gargoyles that act as gutter spouts, the intricately decorated flying buttresses, and the Golden Portal which used to be the main entrance into the Cathedral.
Prague Castle Complex
The complex, which also included a Christmas market, is an extremely popular attraction among visitors to Prague and as a result gets crowded with tour groups quickly. I recommend arriving at 9am when it opens. If this means skipping Old Town Square in the morning, do so, as the square is on the return path as well. While I only wandered through the complex, it could easily take an entire day or more to explore with tickets to all the attractions inside, so it is best to make a suitable plan for visiting.
After passing through the complex, I exited the eastern side and enjoyed some magnificent views of Prague before descending the Old Castle steps. From here, I crossed the closest bridge (Manesuv) back toward Old Town but turned northeast into the Jewish Quarter.
The Jewish Quarter
Jewish Town Hall
Highlights in the Jewish Quarter include the Jewish Town Hall, the Old-New Synagogue, and the Jewish Museum. The Jewish Town Hall, built between 1570 and 1577, is one of the few buildings to survive the Holocaust. Its green steeple features a clock on each of its sides. One clock displays Hebrew figures so it operates in a counter-clockwise direction.
Next to the Jewish Town Hall is the Old-New Synagogue. It was originally called the New Synagogue until another synagogue was built nearby. The Old-New Synagogue, built in 1270, is the oldest synagogue in Europe. It has survived five fires, slum clearances and more.
Just down the street from the Old-New Synagogue is a complex of four synagogues which make up the Jewish Museum. The synagogues include Maisel Synagogue, Klausen Synagogue with the Ceremonial Hall, Pinkas Synagogue, and Spanish Synagogue. In between the synagogues is the Old Jewish Cemetery which is also part of the Jewish Museum.
I really wanted to see the Old Jewish Cemetery and couldn’t figure out how to enter the premises until I realized the museum encompassed the entire complex. Tickets to enter were available around a long block at the ticket office.
Being soley interested in the cemetery and not the exhibitions of the manuscripts and silver among other historic items, I skipped the line and kept circling the outskirts of the complex. Eventually, I stumbled upon a cemetery gate with a small window which provided a decent view of this historic burial ground.
Old Jewish Cemetery
The Old Jewish Cemetery, founded in 1478, was the only area permitted to Jews for burial for over 300 years. As a result, an estimated 100,000 people were buried on top of one another 12 layers deep. Today, 12,000 tombstones pepper the small graveyard.
Upon returning to Old Town Square, a few blocks out of the way near Spanish Synagogue is Kafka Monument depicting a man riding on the shoulders of a person without a head. A bit unusual, its feet shine as visitors rub them in order to return to Prague.
Old Town Square
Back in Old Town Square, crowds amass by late morning/early afternoon. It is a very lively, atmospheric place with many cafes and shops to browse.
Leaving the square and continuing on down Celetná Ulice back toward Hotel Kings Court leads visitors along an old trading route in Eastern Bohemia. This street also served as the coronation route in the 14th century. Now the street is lined with tour companies, retail and museums.
In fact, Prague seems like the museum capital of the world. Here is a list of a few: the LEGO museum beneath the store, the Wax Museum, the Chocolate Museum, the Sex Machine Museum, the Alchemist Museum, the Torture Museum, and of course all the museums at the Prague Castle complex.
Amazingly, anyone who is familiar with Prague can walk past all the above listed attractions at a moderate pace in one morning. However, it can also easily take a day for someone unfamiliar with the city to meander around with time to get lost.
Of course, with the exception of a few churches, the walk does not include entering any buildings which may require at least a week to explore. Regardless of how fast or slow this walking tour is taken, watch out for aggressive drivers. It is necessary to play chicken in the crosswalk with oncoming vehicles.
Side Trip to Kutná Hora
While visiting Prague, it is worth taking a side trip to Kutná Hora, so plan on an extra day to see an incredible chapel elaborately decorated in human bones, Sedlec Ossuary and a cute surrounding town.
Prague is a very pretty and interesting city with lots of history. I can see why so many tourists say it one of their favorite European cities. ETB
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