Prague: Exploring the Castle and Hradcany
Prague Castle and Hradcany
Visitors to Prague are spoilt for choice by the vast number of interesting places to see in the city. But no visit to the fascinating Czech capital would be complete without venturing up the hill to inspect at close quarters Prague Castle and the immediate area around it, Hradcany, which dominate the Prague skyline.
First founded in the 9th century by Prince Borivoj, Prague castle is located high above the River Vltava on its west bank. Within the castle walls, there was a palace, three churches, and a monastery. Around 1320 a town, by the name of Hradcany was founded in the outer bailey. Over the years the castle has been remodeled and rebuilt many times. It has been the seat of the president of the Republic since 1918.
Several of Prague's main tourist attractions are located in this area.
There are several routes leading to Prague Castle. The most popular appears to be following the tourist trail from the Old Town, over Charles Bridge and up through Prague's Little Town (Mala Strana) to the main palace gates at the top of the hill. This is the Royal Route, referring to the coronation procession, taken by Bohemian kings and queens from the Royal Court (now the site of the Municipal House in Prague Old Town) to Prague Castle.
The route we took was walking from Malostranska metro station, up Stare Zamecke schody, entering at the eastern end of the castle complex.
An alternative option is to take the tram, which runs along Marianske Hradby and approach the castle from the north.
Whichever way you get there, the castle area is slightly remote from public transport and involves walking up a hill, unless you can get a taxi to drop you a little nearer.
Walking does have its advantages, as you can pause en route and take in the view of the city which unfolds below the castle hill.
Whichever way you go, be prepared to queue at the security checkpoints before entering the castle compound.
These are the top sights that we saw while exploring Prague Castle and Hradcany, followed by a few we missed and also some all-important refreshment opportunities.
- Prague Castle.
- St. Vitus's Cathedral.
- The Old Royal Palace.
- St. George's Basilica.
- Golden Lane.
- The South Gardens.
- Hradcany Square.
- Strahov Monastery.
Don't be fooled into thinking that you will have to pay to see everything up by the castle. We were pleasantly surprised to find that what we thought were queues for pay booths, turned out to be security checkpoints by the main entrances to the castle. Visitors can wander freely through many of the main outside areas. A ticket office within the courtyard sells entrance tickets for the various attractions.
1. Prague Castle
Prague Castle was not quite what I expected. Coming from the UK, I am accustomed to seeing ancient fortifications set upon a hill and dating back many years. Many of them have fallen into disuse, or at least have had little done in terms of modifications for hundreds of years. Prague Castle differs in that it has evolved over hundreds of years, with the addition and development of royal palaces to cover a significant area. Indeed, it is said to be the largest coherent castle complex in the world, covering an area of almost 70,000 square meters.
Prague Castle is a UNESCO world heritage site. Within its walls are the remains of Romanesque style buildings from the 10th-Century, Gothic modifications from the 14th-century, Renaissance style rebuilding after a fire in the 16th-century and extensive renovations (1918-1938). In recent years there has been a programme of ongoing repairs and renovation.
There are three courtyards in Prague Castle. The first and the smallest courtyard is by the main entrance. The second courtyard is overlooked by the Picture Gallery and the President's Office and contains the Church of the Holy Rood. The third courtyard is dominated by St. Vitus's Cathedral. Beyond lies St. George's Basilica and smaller streets with a line of royal palaces stretching along the frontage, overlooking the River Vltava and the city of Prague.
There are ticket offices located in information centers in the second and third courtyards. Changing of the guard takes place on the hour at the main gate, but we found this a crowded and over-rated affair. Better to wait a while and get photos of the guards at a quieter time.
Short Tour Versus Long Tour
I was unprepared for the bewildering amount of choice in the ticket office at Prague Castle. It is well worth considering the options before you go and, unlike us, having a good idea of which ticket you want to buy. I found the ticket office experience quite pressurized. It was crowded and not easy to make a quick decision based on the information we gleaned from the notice boards.
Prague Castle - Circuit A (Long Tour)
St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, Exhibition 'The Story of Prague Castle', St. George's Basilica, Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower, Rosenberg Palace.
Prague Castle - Circuit B (Short Tour)
St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George's Basilica, Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower.
Prague Castle - Circuit C
The exhibition "The Treasure of St. Vitus Cathedral", Prague Castle Picture Gallery.
Optional Separate Tickets
- The exhibition "The Story of Prague Castle"
- The exhibition "The Treasure of St. Vitus Cathedral"
- Prague Castle Picture Gallery
- Great South Tower with a View Gallery.
- The Powder Tower (when it reopens later in 2019 after refurbishment).
After some deliberation, we selected circuit B, which, luckily, worked well for us, as it gave us a flavor of what Prague Castle had to offer, without overloading us with too much to take in.
2. St Vitus's Cathedral
Towering over the castle area and visible from many parts of Prague, St. Vitus's cathedral cannot be missed. The outside is just as impressive when viewed close up as it is from a distance. I used to think the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which is still not finished, had taken a while to build, but St. Vitus's Cathedral puts it in the shade. Work began in 1344 and the completed cathedral was finally consecrated in 1929.
For free you can wander around the outside of the cathedral. Facing the main entrance of the castle area, the west front, between the twin spires, is now the main entrance to the cathedral. If you walk round to the bell tower, you will find the golden portal and the original main entrance, which is still used on special occasions. Stop and admire the mosaic of The Last Judgement above it by 14th-century craftsmen from Venice.
If you continue walking, you come to the impressive flying buttresses, which support the vaulted interior and are richly decorated. The one drawback is that close up you struggle to get the whole cathedral in a single camera shot, but at least you can appreciate some of the detail and the craftsmanship that has gone into it over hundreds of years.
The long tour and the short tour tickets for the castle compound both include entrance to St. Vitus's Cathedral. As you enter through the west portal, you will be struck by the height of the nave, which is very impressive. The west end is the most recent part, having been built in the 19th-20th-centuries and you will notice stained glass dating from the 20th-century. But, as you wander further, you come to the main area, dating back to the 14th-century and you will pass many side chapels.
At the far end, the chancel, dating from 1372, has an impressive high vault. Below, in the center of the choir, lies the marble Imperial Mausoleum from the 16th-century, where the Habsburg Ferdinand I is buried with his wife and son, Maximilian II.
Most visitors head for St. Wenceslas Chapel, by the south door. The Czech Republic's patron saint, Wenceslas, or sv Vaclav, was killed by Boleslav the Cruel, his pagan brother. After later repenting and converting, the story goes that Boleslav moved Wenceslas's remains to this spot. The walls of the chapel are gilded and inlaid with many semi-precious stones. There are 14th-century frescoes of the Passion and 16th-century paintings depicting the tragedy of Wenceslas.
Another sight not to miss is the Tomb of St. John of Nepomuk, located in a chapel towards the top of the chancel. After being arrested and thrown off Charles Bridge by order of Wenceslas IV in 1393, Jan Nepomucky, vicar-general of the Archdiocese of Prague, achieved cult status in the eyes of the Jesuits in the years following his drowning. He was canonized in 1729 and the elaborate solid silver tomb dates from 1736.
The Bit We Missed
Whether it was the angina-inducing 287 steps or that it was closed during our visit, I now look back with regret that we did not climb up the south tower of the cathedral. The views from there over the castle compound and the city of Prague below must be stunning. There is an additional charge for access to the south tower.
Tip: Prague Cathedral is closed to visitors when services are held there. If you find this happens to you, it might be worth checking out the other sights, before returning to see the cathedral later. It is worth noting that castle tickets are valid for two days, should you wish to return.
3. The Old Royal Palace
This collection of royal apartments in the middle of a stretch of the castle overlooking the South Gardens and Prague below is also on both tour tickets. The earliest part of the construction (the cellars of the present building) dates back to around 1135. Subsequently, other layers have been built on top. The top floor contains the Vladislav Hall, a Gothic rib-vaulted structure, where early Bohemian kings were elected and where presidents since 1918 have been sworn into office.
The Bohemian Chancellery is the location of a defenestration, when, in 1618, 100 Protestant nobles threw two Catholic governors out of the window. Both survived the 15-meter drop, by landing in a dung heap. Their survival was attributed by Catholics to the intervention of angels.
Tip: While you are walking around the palace, stop and take a look through the windows at the view of the South Gardens and Prague below.
4. St. George's Basilica
The rusty red facade of the Basilica of sv Jiri (to give it its Czech name) is slightly misleading, as it dates back to the 17th-century Baroque style. The basilica actually pre-dates the cathedral, as it was founded in the 10th-century. The interior has been restored to re-create a Romanesque building that replaced the original church in 1173. Throughout the Middle Ages, the basilica and the adjoining convent were at the heart of the castle complex. Admission is included on the short tour ticket.
5. Golden Lane
This row of small cottages, built into the castle walls, dates back to the 16th-century when it was used by Rudolf II's castle guard. It takes its name from the goldsmiths who lived here in the 17th-century. By the 19th-century it had degenerated into a slum. Amongst its more famous occupants, Franz Kafka stayed here with his sister for a few months in 1916-1917 and wrote some short stories. In the 1950s, after the remaining tenants were moved out, the area was restored to a semblance of its former state.
Tourists now flock here to visit the shops selling souvenirs. It came highly recommended as one of the most picturesque streets in Prague and it appears to be the most popular sight in the palace compound. Admission is via a short tour ticket.
6. The South Gardens
Our approach from Malostranska metro, up the old castle steps, left us with the choice of walking down Jirska, through the heart of the castle compound or heading to the left and through the South Gardens. We chose the latter route, along the narrow stretch overlooking Mala Strana (The Little Quarter) below. Several small gardens have been linked up. Paradise Garden, the oldest was laid out in 1562. The Garden on the Ramparts is from the 19th-century and is the location of the dung heap where the two Catholic governors landed after the defenestration of 1618.
All the gardens are well-maintained. We saw gardeners constantly working on them and also robot lawnmowers in use to keep the gardens in pristine condition.
Other Sights in the Castle Area
There is never enough time to cover all the attractions, so inevitably we missed out on some. Here are a few we didn't visit, but which you might want to consider.
Although our ticket included this, I have to say that we did not inspect it closely. It served as a prison and is named after its first inmate, a young knight, Dalibor of Kozojedy. While awaiting execution for sheltering some outlawed serfs, he was kept in an underground dungeon. Legend has it that he learned to play the violin whilst in captivity. People came to listen and lowered food and drink down to him. Part of the old prison, disused since 1781, has been opened for viewing. Daliborka Tower is located in the far northeastern corner of Prague Castle compound, beyond Golden Lane.
This features on the Long Tour ticket (Circuit A). After a big fire burned down several houses in 1541, the Rosenberg family, who owned the land, decided to build a palace to the east of the Old Royal Palace. In 1600, Emperor Rudolph gained possession of it through an exchange. After being rebuilt, from 1756 to 1919, Rosenberg Palace was used to house unmarried women from poor noble families. Visitors have access to rooms redecorated in the 18th-Century style. It overlooks the South Gardens.
Prague Castle Picture Gallery
Located in the second courtyard of Prague Castle, this gallery was set up in 1965 to hold the remainder of art collected by Rudolph II. Most are paintings from the 16th - 18th-centuries, but there are also some sculptures. There are paintings by Rubens, Titian, Tintoretto and also Jan Kupecky and Petr Brandt, Czech Baroque artists, as well as many other works of art.
Like the Rosenberg Palace, just along from it, the Lobkowicz Palace was built after the fire of 1541 and dates from 1570. The Lobkowicz family inherited it in 1627 and most of what can now be seen dates from a 17th-century reconstruction. The occupying Nazi forces took possession of the palace in 1939. It was returned to the Lobkowicz family in 1945, only to be confiscated by the Communist government in 1948. After the Velvet revolution of 1989, laws were passed to return confiscated properties to their owners. After a 12 year process, the Lobkowicz family received their palace back in 2002. Since 2007 it has been open as the Lobkowicz Palace Museum, housing part of the family collection and also hosting events and concerts.
The Royal Gardens
Outside the castle walls and located to the north of Prague Castle, these landscaped gardens are missed by many, ourselves included, but offer a welcome respite from the tourist crowds and the chance to view the castle and cathedral from another perspective. The Belvedere at the east end of the gardens is an arcaded summer house, dating from the 16th-century and sometimes described as Prague's most celebrated Renaissance building.
7. Hradcany Square
We found Hradcanske Namesti, the area just outside the main entrance to Prague Castle, to be a vibrant hub of activity. While we were there part of it was being set up for an outdoor concert, which added to the busyness of the area. Inevitably crowds were drawn to the castle gates, where enterprising entrepreneurs offered tourists the opportunity for a photo in costume.
The area to the south of Hradcanske Namesti was occupied by a throng of food stalls selling all manner of food and drink, some local meals as well as cuisine from further afield. All of this played out against the backdrop of a scenic vista of Mala Strana and the city of Prague below.
There is an impressive collection of palaces around Hradcanske Namesti, many of which are best viewed from outside, as we did, for their striking architecture.
This very grand cream building is located on the north of the square, next to the castle. Ferdinand I had this residence built in 1562 for the Catholic archbishop after the previous palace was burned down in Mala Strana. It has been used ever since as the seat of successive Catholic archbishops in Prague and it is the headquarters of the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic.
Consisting of four wings and four courtyards, the original Renaissance building was remodeled in the 18th-century, with the spectacular cream Rococo facade that we see today. Stop and marvel at the beautifully decorated gable, but tourists can go no further, as there is no admission to the public.
Set back just along from the Archbishop's Palace, on the north of Hradcanske Namesti, is the early 18th-century High Baroque Sternberg Palace. The Society of Patriotic Friends of the Arts in Bohemia was founded by Franz Josef Sternberg in 1796 and the pictures and sculptures lent to the society were displayed here in its headquarters. After a succession of various uses over the intervening years, in 1947 the palace was acquired by the National Gallery.
Sternberg Palace now houses a collection of European art, spanning the 14th to 18th-centuries, with a range of Old Masters. The artworks are spread over three floors around a central courtyard.
Not quite as grand as its neighbors on the north of Hrandcanske Namesti, Martinic Palace is on the western side of the square and has a mixed history. The original building on this site dated back to the mid-16th-century, but its name and a tale to go with it come with Jaroslav Borita from Martinic, who bought it in 1583 and set about enlarging it. It is said that he wanted a half-sized replica of the Royal Palace, as a symbol of his political power. Work was halted on the palace when Jaroslav Borita was one of the Catholic councilors thrown from a window of the palace in the second defenestration. Saved by landing in a dung heap below, he was forced to go into hiding.
Martinic Palace was later finished in early Baroque style. In 1788 the Martinic family died out. Rooms were subsequently let out by the owner and many lived there until the building was badly damaged early in the 20th-century. In the 1960s-1970s, workmen renovating the building found ornate cream and brown sgraffito decoration on the facade and also in the courtyard. Old Testament scenes such as Joseph and Potiphar's wife are on the front of the palace. In the courtyard, Samson's story and also the Labours of Hercules can be viewed.
Martinic Palace has been re-opened to the public in recent years. Guided tours are available and events are hosted here.
To the south of Hradcanske Namesti, lies the eye-catching Schwarzenberg Palace. Some might view the facade of this Renaissance palace as slightly over the top, but we found that our eyes were drawn to it from a distance and the unusual sgraffitoed design was of great interest. The stonework appears to be pyramid-shaped, but upon closer inspection, we realized that this was an illusion created by sgraffito patterns on flat walls.
The Schwarzenberg Palace was built in the second half of the 16th-century for the Lobkowicz family by Agostino Galli, an Italian architect. The style of the gabled exterior is more Florentine than Bohemian. The name, Schwarzenberg comes from the family who, after several previous owners. bought it in 1719. The National Gallery's collection of Baroque art is now displayed here.
8. Strahov Monastery
Strahov Monastery is located up the hill on the southwestern edge of Hradcany. We avoided the uphill walk and came upon it by chance one lunchtime while walking down from Petrin Park to the south, which we had earlier traveled to using the funicular. Unfortunately, the disadvantage of arriving at lunchtime was that the monastery and library were closed and, reluctant to hang around outside, we decided that this was a sight we were going to have to admire from outside and come back another time to view inside.
There has been a monastery on this site since 1140, but the building we see today dates from after 1258 when the original was destroyed by fire. Hence the Gothic style with later Baroque additions. Now a working monastery and museum, many come to view its stunning library with ceiling frescoes and also the highly decorated Church of Our Lady, which we were only able to sneak a look at through the barred entrance.
Other Sights in Hradcany
No matter how long you stay in a city, there is never enough time to cover every sight. Here are a few we missed in Hradcany, in the area west of Hradcanske Namesti and north of Strahov Monastery. You might want to consider them when you visit Prague.
As its name suggests, the Loreto owes its origins to an area outside Bohemia. The Czech aristocrat, Katerina of Lobkowicz, had The Loreto built because she was so taken with the tale of the Santa Casa of Loreto.
There was a belief that the house in Nazareth, where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary, telling her about Jesus's future birth, was taken by angels in 1278 to Loreto, a small town in Italy, following threats from infidels. Catholics promoted the tale and after 1620, 50 replicas of the Loreto were built in Bohemia and Moravia. This was the grandest. It became the most important Loreto in Bohemia and has been a place of pilgrimage ever since.
The Santa Casa, at the heart of the complex, was built in 1626. The cloisters enclosing it followed in 1661 and the Baroque facade was added in the 1720s by Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer. There are six chapels around the edge of the complex, as well as the Church of the Nativity behind the Santa Casa. The centerpiece of the facade is a bell tower containing a carillon of 27 bells.
Across from the Loreto, the square, Loretanske Namesti, is dominated by the Cernin Palace. The 30 Corinthian half-columns along the upper storey of its 150-meter length make for a very grand building. Begun in the 1660s, by an Italian architect, the palace was eventually sold to the Austrian state in 1851 by the nearly bankrupted Cernin family. It was used as military barracks, before housing the Ministry of foreign affairs in 1918. It was the Nazi Reichsprotektor's residence for a while during World War II.
Prague's third defenestration occurred here on 10th March 1948, days after the Communist coup. Jan Masaryk, son of Czechoslovakia's founder and the only non-Communist in the cabinet, fell from a top floor bathroom window of the Cernin Palace. No one ever knew if it was suicide or murder, but it marks a sad point in Czech history.
Prague Castle and Hradcany
Exploring the sights mentioned above is a pleasant and rewarding activity, but a key component of any sightseeing excursion is the opportunity to take a break and recharge your batteries with food and drink. Here are a few of the refreshment stops we took while wandering around Prague Castle and Hradcany.
Stare Zamecke Schody
On our way up from the metro at Malastranske to Prague Castle, we came across a small cafe with tables on terraces, tucked away at the side of this uphill walkway. Although we were not long into our sightseeing day, we were tempted to stop for a lager and to take in the view over the terraced gardens and Mala Strana below. We were so taken with it, that we stopped here for a drink the next time we passed by.
One of the advantages of coming upon Strahov Monastery at lunchtime (despite it being closed to visitors) was that it gave us the opportunity to have lunch at the monastery brewery. Others had also had the same idea, but we didn't have to wait long before we spotted diners leaving and grabbed a table in the courtyard. There was an indoor area, complete with brewing equipment and also, across the courtyard, dining rooms for tour parties. Luckily the weather was reasonable for outside dining and we enjoyed a good meal of soup, goulash with dumplings and apple strudel with cream all washed down with a monastery-brewed beer (of which there were a few to choose from) all at a reasonable cost.
It happened that we were in Prague for a National holiday. St. Wenceslas Day, the Day of the Czech Statehood falls on 28th September. We noticed that there was a wine festival on this day in the St. Wenceslas vineyard, up by Prague Castle. It was being held in the grounds of Villa Richter, just at top of Stare Zamecke schody, to the east of the castle, so we decided to investigate.
For a fee, we were given an engraved glass each and two tokens to choose wine samples of our choice. There were food stalls (at extra cost) and wine stops along the paths as well as musical entertainment. It all had a very festive feel to it and, combined with views over Prague, it was quite an experience. If, after two samples, you wanted more wine, you could purchase more tokens.
On-site, there are restaurants serving a range of food. The Piano Nobile serves classy dishes at high-end prices, while the Piano Terra serves standard Bohemian food at slightly more reasonable cost. We opted to check out the tea and cake offer in the Panorama Pergola, from where we could also take in the views over the vineyard and Prague below.
We didn't try out the cafes in Prague Castle or the street food near Hradcanske Namesti. We preferred instead to look for a meal in Mala Strana as we walked towards Charles Bridge. There is a range of cafes and restaurants in this area.
Tip: Whatever your food and drink plans, it's a good idea to put bottled water and a few snacks in your bag, when you are out sightseeing.
What is top of the list for you when sightseeing
With a little planning, it is possible to cover a lot of the main sites of Prague Castle and Hradcany in one trip. My advice, if time is limited, would be to research and work out your priorities first, so that you can plan a route accordingly. If you have time to spare, you might want to spread the load. The two-day admission tickets at Prague Castle are helpful for this. We were fortunate in being relatively free of time constraints and ventured up to the Hradcany and Prague Castle areas three times while we were staying in Prague. Even then we didn't cover everything.
However you choose to visit Prague Castle and Hradcany, you will be well-rewarded for the walk up the hill by the picturesque buildings at the top and the views over the rest of Prague below.
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© 2019 Liz Westwood