Prague's Mala Strana, Exploring the Little Quarter
Many visitors to Prague walk through Mala Strana, Prague's Little Quarter, on their way from Charles Bridge up to Prague Castle. But whilst appreciating the unspoiled nature of the area as they pass by and climb the hill, a lot of people don't have time to explore further.
Mala Strana was founded in 1257 on the slopes below the Castle hill. It was damaged by fire in the 15th and 16th centuries, and much of it was rebuilt in the Renaissance style. It has changed little since Mozart visited the city in the late 1700s and has much to offer the interested explorer.
10 Sights Worth Seeing in Mala Strana
Here are 10 of the sights we visited in Mala Strana, as well as a few we missed and a handy restaurant.
- Little Quarter Square
- Church of St. Nicholas
- Wallenstein Palace
- Furstenberg Garden
- Maltese Square
- John Lennon Wall
- Memorial to the Victims of Communism
- Observation Tower, Petrin Hill
- Vrtba Garden
1. Little Quarter Square
After crossing Charles Bridge from Prague Old Town into Mala Strana, you will soon find yourself on Mostecka, which feeds into Malostranske Namesti, the Little Quarter Square. This square was originally a marketplace in the outer bailey of Prague Castle. It has since been split in half by buildings in the middle, dominated by the church of St. Nicholas and the building next to it, a former Jesuit college.
Although most houses were rebuilt in Renaissance and Baroque times, many around the square still have a medieval core. Opposite the Baroque church of St. Nicholas on the upper square stands the Lichtenstein Palace with its Neo-Classical facade. Visitors can buy tickets to listen to classical concerts here. A column in honor of the Holy Trinity stands in the square outside to mark the end of a plague in 1713.
The lower part of the square has its fair share of impressive buildings with the Little Quarter Town Hall, along with three palaces, the Sternberg (not to be confused with its larger namesake, an art gallery in Hradcany), Smiricky, and Kaiserstein. It was in the Smiricky Palace that the perpetrators of the second defenestration of Prague are said to have met. The group of Protestant Bohemian noblemen made their plan here to throw Catholic councilors out of the Old Palace window in 1618.
2. Church of St. Nicholas
Not to be confused with its namesake in the Old Town, the Church of St. Nicholas in Mala Strana not only dominates the Little Town Square but its dome and tower also stand out on the Mala Strana skyline. Entry is inexpensive and access is gained from the upper square side. Although renovations were taking place when we visited, these now appear to be finished.
Regarded as the most beautiful and famous Baroque church in Prague, the Church of St. Nicholas was built by the Jesuits between 1703 and 1761. The architects were Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, the father and son team responsible for the design of many other buildings across Prague, including the Loreto, Church of St. Nicholas in the Old Town and the Kinsky Palace amongst others. The Church of St. Nicholas in Mala Strana is their masterpiece. Neither lived to see its completion and the church was finished by Anselmo Lurago, Kilian's son-in-law.
The west facade is relatively plain compared with the High Baroque interior. The following sights are worth noting as you marvel at the ornate interior.
The dome or cupola of the church is 70 meters high. It is filled by "The Celebration of the Holy Trinity" by Frantisek Palko, which dates from 1753–1754.
In addition to the frescoes, there are many paintings in the church by leading artists of the time.
There are many statues of interest, including those of the four Church Fathers at the corners of the transept. These great teachers were created by Ignaz Platzer.
The Baroque organ was built in 1746 and played by Mozart in 1787. Above it, there is a fresco of St. Cecilia (patron saint of music). Concerts take place regularly in the Church of St. Nicholas.
Adorned with golden cherubs, the pulpit was completed in 1765 by Richard and Peter Prachner.
If ornate church interiors are not really your thing, then the museum of musical instruments in the tower might be of interest. Certainly, the view from here over Mala Strana and Charles Bridge should be a good reward for the climb. I am only sorry that we were not able to access this when we visited.
If you follow the royal procession route, as many tourists do, from Charles Bridge to Prague Castle, you will find yourself walking up the cobbled street of Nerudova. The shops and restaurants along this narrow street are now aimed at the passing tourist trade. But in the past, Nerudova was home to craftsmen, artisans, and artists. The street name comes from a famous Czech poet, Jan Neruda, who lived at number 47 (At the Two Suns) 1845–1857.
House numbers were not introduced in Prague until 1770. Many houses on Nerudova Street still have the signs which distinguished them prior to this time. There's an impressive selection of heraldic beasts and emblems in these pictorial house signs. Notable amongst them are the Red Eagle (number 6), Three Fiddles (number 12), the Golden Horseshoe (number 34), the Green Lobster (number 43) and the White Swan (number 49).
Some former palaces on Nerudova are now foreign embassies. At number 5, the Morzin Palace is the Romanian Embassy. The Thun-Hohenstein Palace (number 20) houses the Italian Embassy.
4. Wallenstein Palace
As can be seen from Nerudova, Prague Castle and Hradcany do not have the monopoly on palaces in Prague. There are plenty scattered through Mala Strana along with some picturesque gardens as well. A little off the beaten track between the Old Town and Prague Castle, but not to be missed, Wallenstein Palace was one of the first and largest Baroque palaces to be built in Prague.
The Original Owner
Wallenstein Palace owes its construction to an over-ambitious military commander, Albrecht von Wallenstein (1581–1634). Having made himself indispensable to Emperor Ferdinand II, with a string of victories in the 30 Years' War, Wallenstein, not content with the titles already bestowed upon him, began to eye up the crown of Bohemia itself. After discovering that Wallenstein was negotiating with his enemies, the Emperor had him killed.
Wallenstein Palace was built between 1624–1630. Wallenstein intended it to put Prague Palace in the shade. He bought 23 houses, three gardens and a brick kiln on a site in Mala Strana below Prague Palace. The two-floor high main hall has a ceiling fresco with Wallenstein, as Mars, the god of war, in a triumphal chariot. Having traveled in Italy Wallenstein employed many Italians to work on his ambitious palace project.
Wallenstein Palace After the Death of Its Owner
Wallenstein's widow sold the palace to his nephew. The family kept it until 1945 when it became the property of Czechoslovakia. It was used for government offices and the Senate of the Czech Republic is now based here. The palace and gardens have been renovated.
Look out for the programme of free summer concerts at Wallenstein Palace.
Free Summer Concerts
We were drawn to visit Wallenstein Palace after picking up a leaflet about a series of free concerts late on Thursday afternoons over the summer months. Our time in Prague coincided with the last two of the series. We were unsure what to expect when we entered the gardens through the Letenska Street entrance. We discovered an ornate Italian formal garden, hidden from the street by a high wall. It was an oasis of calm after the tourist-filled streets of other parts of Mala Strana.
At the far end of the garden, we came upon a large ornamental pond, populated with fish and dominated by a large statue of Hercules in the center. An old Riding School stands behind the pond. Retracing our steps past the neat borders, hedges, statues, and fountains, we followed the crowd to find chairs and benches laid out in front of the sala terrena. This was the garden pavilion, once used by Wallenstein for dining, but now used by an orchestra. Spectators gathered early to hear the rehearsal before the orchestra reappeared at 5.00pm to begin the concert properly.
I would highly recommend a visit to the gardens, but if you get the opportunity to catch a concert for free, take it. The atmosphere was very relaxed and people came and went as they pleased during the performance. The easiest way to access the gardens is to take the metro to Malostranske and go in via the Valdstejnska entrance.
5. Furstenberg Garden
The terraced gardens of the Furstenberg Palace, laid out on the site of a former vineyard offer a very different experience to those of the Wallenstein Palace. We came upon them by chance on our first walk up to Prague Castle. As we headed up Stare Zamecke Schody we saw the entrance to a cafe in the wall. When we went in, we found that it was located at the top of the terraced garden, offering good views over Prague and a great location for a refreshing drink. It became a favorite refreshment stop. We never had trouble finding a free table.
Most recommend entering the terraced garden via the cafe, although on one occasion, whilst walking from Malostranska metro, we noticed an entrance at the bottom end of the gardens, where we paid the small fee to walk up the terraces. It gives an interesting perspective and there's always the rewarding prospect of a drink in the cafe at the top.
If you are looking for a quiet interlude in a hectic sightseeing schedule this might be just the place for you. The gardens are at their best in the spring. There is no access to the Furstenberg Palace, as this is now the Polish Embassy.
If you enter via the cafe and buy a drink, you can sit on the terrace, admiring views over Prague and the Furstenberg Garden without paying an admission fee.
6. Maltese Square
This square takes its name from the Maltese Knights, formerly known as the Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, who founded a nearby church, St. Mary below-the-chain. Little is left of the original church, apart from two Gothic towers. It was the job of the Maltese Knights to guard the Judith Bridge. The Knights used to have a priory in the area.
A statue of John the Baptist in the Maltese Square is from a fountain erected here in 1715, marking the end of a plague.
Renaissance buildings in the area were originally owned by prosperous townspeople until the 17th-18th centuries when the Catholic nobility took over. Renaissance housing became flamboyant Baroque palaces. The Nostitz Palace on the southern side of Maltese Square was built in the mid-1600s, with a balustrade added in 1720. The Ministry of Culture is now located here and summer concerts take place in the palace. The pink Rococo Turba Palace, dating from 1767, houses the Japanese embassy.
7. John Lennon Wall
I had read about the John Lennon wall before traveling to Prague, but It was harder to find than I expected. It is located on Velkoprevorske Namesti, a little square with the garden wall of the Grand Priory of the Maltese Knights on its northern side.
Following John Lennon's death in 1980, young people in Prague paid tribute with graffiti on this site, much to the dismay of the society of Maltese Knights. The police fought a battle with the graffiti artists for over a decade, but this ad hoc shrine to the former Beatle has now been legalized.
This site was not quite the respectful location of homilies to a popular musician. The original intention of paying tribute to John Lennon was quickly taken over as a platform for young people to voice political views and discontent. Hence the communist regimes efforts to stop the practice in the early years. The political point-scoring continues to this day and I had to be careful in selecting a photo to avoid the strong language of the modern graffiti artists.
8. Memorial to the Victims of Communism
History is all around you in Prague. Gazing at the buildings dating back hundreds of years, it is easy to forget the upheavals the city experienced after the Second World War, during the Communist era (1948–1989). We combined a visit to the observatory on Petrin Hill with a visit to the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, as it is located at the base of the hill, near the station for the funicular railway.
A series of self-portrait statues by Olbram Zoubek, a Czech sculptor was set here in 2002. The statues are in varying degrees of disintegration, representing different phases of a human figure's destruction. Starting from the bottom, the bronze statues are arranged on steps at the base of Petrin Hill. Gradually more of their bodies are missing, symbolizing the effect of imprisonment on political prisoners during the communist regime.
The figures are stark: "205,486 convicted, 248 executed, 4,500 died in prison, 327 annihilated at the border, 170,938 emigrated."
The memorial is summed up by the words on a bronze plaque: "The memorial to the victims of communism is dedicated to all victims not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism"
9. Observation Tower, Petrin Hill.
From day one of our visit to Prague, our eyes had been drawn from afar to the Eiffel Tower lookalike, all be it on a much smaller scale, on Petrin Hill. There is so much of interest to see in Prague that it was several days before we made it here.
As its appearance suggests, the Observation Tower in Petrin Park is an imitation of the larger version in Paris. It was built for the Jubilee Exhibition in 1891. At 60 meters high, the tower is only a quarter of the height of the Eiffel Tower, but its hilltop location makes up for this lack of height.
For the energetic, there is a spiral staircase of 299 steps, but there is also a lift for a slightly higher admission charge. We queued for around 30 minutes for the lift, but it was worth it for the views and to avoid the steps.
We took the funicular railway up Petrin Hill from Ujezd, after we had viewed the Memorial to the Victims of Communism at the foot of Petrin Hill. There is a halfway stop at Nebozizek, where there is a restaurant with views over Prague.
The funicular railway was originally installed for the 1891 Jubilee Exhibition for visitors to the Observation Tower. Since then it has been converted from water power to electricity (between the wars) and was closed for 20 years (1965–1985) while the slope and railway were rebuilt after subsidence from earlier mining nearby caused part of the hill to collapse.
For the more energetic, there are paths through Petrin Park and up the hill. We chose to walk back down Petrin Hill, ending up at the Strahov Monastery in Hradcany for refreshments.
There are two theories about how the 318 meters high Petrin Hill acquired its name. Some think it is linked to sacrifices made on the hill to the Slavonic god Perun. Others think the Latin Mons Petrinus (rocky hill) is a more likely explanation.
Today, the area is a wooded park crisscrossed with paths, located on the western edge of Mala Strana. It is the largest area of green space in Prague and a great location to escape the crowds.
Our main focus was the Observation Tower, but in addition to this visitors to Petrin Park can see evidence of the Hunger Wall (marking the southern perimeter wall of the old city, dating from the 15th century). Stefanik's Observatory has housed telescopes since 1930 and also has an exhibition of astronomical instruments. Opening times are limited, the exhibition does not get great reviews, but a look through one of the telescopes on a clear night is worthwhile.
There is a mirror maze located in a mini neo-Gothic castle, which might interest younger visitors. This is another remnant of the Jubilee Exhibition. There is also a diorama in here, which might be of interest to older visitors, showing 'The Defence of Prague against the Swedes'.
The Baroque structure of the Church of St. Lawrence, located near the Mirror Maze, dates back to the 18th century, but it is thought that there has been a place of worship on this site since the 10th century. The church is open for concerts. The nearby Calvary Chapel dates from 1735.
Not far from the base of the Observation Tower, there is a rose garden. This was not at its best in late September, but in full bloom would have been worth seeing.
Our main reason for heading up Petrin Hill and the Observation Tower was to take in the views. Even on a cloudy day, we were not disappointed by the 360-degree views from the top of the tower. We were able to look over towards Prague Castle, trace the course of the River Vltava and gaze across at Prague Old Town and the New Town on the opposite bank. We could also view a stadium over the other side of Petrin Hill.
If you have time while you are in Prague, the Observation Tower is well worth a visit. Pick a clear day and get there early to avoid the queues.
10. Vrtba Garden
We visited Vrtba Garden towards the end of our time in Prague. Located on the lower slopes of Petrin Hill, the entrance to this terraced garden took some finding, but it felt like we had saved the best until last when we found this hidden gem. I have seen it described as "the most beautiful Baroque garden in the whole of central Europe" (Prague.CZ). Indeed it is one of the most beautiful gardens in Prague and worthy of its inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
When we arrived we were unable to enter immediately as a wedding was taking place in the sala terrena, but as a result, the admission charge was reduced. Once inside, we could understand why Vrtba Garden is in demand as a wedding location. Though smaller than the garden pavilion of Wallenstein Palace, the sala terrena of Vrtba Palace is covered with ornate frescoes and decorated with statues, with its open side looking out onto the terraced garden.
The terraced garden was laid out in the early 18th century on the site of former vineyards. We headed up the balustraded terraces to the observation terrace from where we could look down on the garden below and also get a spectacular rooftop view of Prague.
Prague's Little Quarter
The Sights We Missed
I often think that the sign of a good trip is when you come towards the end and realize that there are still plenty of sights that you just did not have time to explore. So it was with our time in Prague. These are just a few of the ones we missed out on in Mala Strana.
Church of St. Thomas
There are so many churches in Prague, that it just is not possible to cover them all in one visit. The Church of St. Thomas is located on Josefska. A church has existed in this location since 1285. At one time the church had strong links with the court of King Rudolph II and it is the burial place of several members of his entourage. The church suffered fire damage and, after being struck by lightning in 1723, it was rebuilt in the Baroque style by Killian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, the architect of many churches in Prague from this period. The ceiling frescoes in the nave and the painting inside the dome are eye-catching.
The church is used for Catholic services in various languages, including English. As a result admission times are restricted.
Church of Our Lady Victorious
With much longer opening hours, the Church of Our Lady Victorious is located on Karmelitska and is visible from Vrtba Garden. As the Church of the Holy Trinity, it was the first Baroque building in Prague. It was finished in 1613 for the German Lutherans. After the Battle of the White Mountain and the persecution of non-Catholics which followed, the church was handed over to the Carmelites. They rebuilt it and renamed it in reference to the victory.
The church has played host to one of Prague's greatest religious treasures since 1628 when it was brought from Spain. The wax effigy, Holy Infant Jesus of Prague (better known as Il Bambino di Praga) is highly revered in the Catholic world with its record of miracle cures. A museum next to the church traces the history of this effigy and there is a display of its various robes, changed according to the Christian season.
Czech Music Museum
Located south of the Church of Our Lady Victorious, on Karmelitska, below Petrin Hill, this museum is housed in a former Baroque church. The National Museum is responsible for this collection of musical instruments with listening posts in the rooms. The museum also looks at popular 20th-century music, the handcrafting of instruments and the history of musical notation.
The Devil's Stream (Certovka) branches off the River Vltava to form this island. This area has become known as 'the Venice of Prague'. It is the largest of Prague's river islands. Watermills were located here, of which one still remains, and it was the city's main wash-house area. The northern part of the island was developed in the 16th-17th centuries. The main square, where pottery markets were held, is cut through by Charles Bridge, which can be accessed by a flight of stairs. The south of the island is a park, where you can escape for quiet riverside walks.
This museum is located near the River Vltava, in a quieter area between Charles Bridge and Manesuv Most (the next bridge to the north). Franz Kafka, the writer of "The Trial", The Metamorphosis" and "The Castle", amongst others, was born in Prague in 1883. The museum houses mementos from the author's life, as well as exhibitions examining the backdrop to his visionary writings and how Prague was portrayed in them. The museum is also known for the 'Pissing Figures' statue in the courtyard outside. David Cerny created a pool shaped like the Czech Republic with two men urinating into it.
Across two roads to the west of the Kafka Museum and hidden behind high white walls, Vojan Park is easy to miss, as we did. If you are looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city to the peace and quiet of an area of lawns and fruit trees, this might be the place for you. In the 17th century, this was the garden of the Convent of Barefooted Carmelites. Two chapels remain. The Chapel of Elijah, who was considered the founder of the Order, as he was associated with Mount Carmel, is a stalagmite and stalactite cave. The Chapel of St. Theresa dates from the 18th century in gratitude for the convent's survival during the Prussian siege of the city in 1757.
Favorite Sightseeing Experience
Mala Strana has something for everyone. Which would you pick on an ideal sightseeing trip?
A Favorite Place to Eat
It can often be a challenge to find suitable places to eat when sightseeing in an unfamiliar city. Not because there are too few choices, but often because there are too many eating places to choose from. Sometimes it's the ones that you come upon by chance that turn out to be the best. So it was for us with Zlata Hvezda.
Having spent half a day in Prague Castle and having dismissed dining options nearby, we made our way down into Mala Strana and came upon Zlata Hvezda at the top of Nerudova. There was a reasonably priced three-course tourist menu at lunchtime and we managed to find a table outside on the terrace, with views down Nerudova. The Czech food washed down with a locally brewed lager was so good that we returned for lunch again.
It would have been easy to miss out on many sights in Mala Strana, while just using it as a thoroughfare between Charles Bridge and Prague Castle. I am grateful that we had time to explore the Little Quarter. Around every corner, it seemed that there was a point of interest to discover in this area, so well preserved and steeped in history. I hope that this article has drawn your attention to some of the sights worth seeing and that one day you will be able to visit Mala Strana yourself.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2019 Liz Westwood