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Walking Through Prague's Old Town

Having spent twelve days in Prague, Liz and her husband are keen to share their experience and help others planning a visit to the city.

Prague Old Town Square.

Prague Old Town Square.

Hitting the Tourist Trail

My knowledge of Prague and the Czech Republic was fairly limited prior to our visit in the Fall of 2017. It had been highly recommended as a very picturesque city. I had been told about the beautiful buildings and the Old Town Hall clock, so we headed over to the Old Town to start exploring. As capital cities go, Prague is fairly compact. The Old Town, with its several pedestrianized areas, lends itself to walking more than to any form of transport.

Places to See in Prague Old Town

  1. The Municipal House.
  2. The Powder Gate.
  3. Old Town Square.
  4. Kinsky Palace.
  5. Church of Our Lady Before Tyn.
  6. St. Nicholas Church in Old Town Prague.
  7. The Old Town Hall.
  8. The Astronomical Clock.
  9. Towards the river.

Continue scrolling for more information about these must-see sites. At the end of this article, you will also find information about other sites in the Old Town as well as a few of the city's traditional refreshments.

1. The Municipal House

As we headed towards the Powder Gate to get into the Old Town, we were struck by the stunning architecture of the Municipal House. This iconic building is on the edge of Prague Old Town and located on the site of the former Royal Court Palace. The present Art Nouveau building was built from 1905 to 1911. The Smetana Hall inside is Prague's main concert venue, with ticket prices that reflect this.

Tip: It is possible to book a guided tour of the ornate interior, but if time or finances are limited, you can try entering to look at the restaurants inside. You are unlikely to make it into the Smetana Hall, but you will get a sense of the opulent interior. Be warned, however, that food and drinks here are on the pricey side.

The Municipal House's stunning art nouveau exterior.

The Municipal House's stunning art nouveau exterior.

2. The Powder Gate

The Powder Gate is on the site of one of the 13 entrances to the Old Town dating from the 11th Century. In 1475, Vladislav II laid the foundation stone of what was to be called The New Tower as an addition to the next door palace of the Royal Court. In 1483, the king fled because of riots. When he returned two years later, he chose to live in Prague Castle on the other side of the Vltava river.

In the 17th Century, the gate was used to store gunpowder, which is why it was named The Powder Gate. It is now one of a number of viewpoints that visitors can access for an admission fee.

3. Old Town Square

Celetna Street links the Powder Gate with Starometske Namesti (Old Town Square, Prague). As you enter the square, pause to take a look at the Neo-Renaissance building, Storch House (Number 16), with its painting of St Wenceslas on horseback. Old Town Square is surrounded by eye-catching and interesting buildings from Prague's historic past.

Towards the north end of Old Town Square stands the statue of Jan Hus, which was unveiled in 1915, on the 500th anniversary of his death. Jan Hus was a reformist cleric and leader of the Hussites. He stood against the corruption of the Catholic Church, taking issue with its opulent style and wealth. He was put in prison, declared a heretic, and burned at the stake.

Tip: The Old Town Square is a magnet for tourists, so aim to get here early in the day for a less-crowded view.

4. Kinsky Palace

On the East side of Old Town Square stands the Rococo Kinsky Palace, with its pretty pink-and-white stucco facade. It was originally built between 1755 to1765 for the Golz family. The palace was bought by Stepan Kinsky, an imperial diplomat, in 1768.

Over the years, Kinsky Palace has had several uses. Hermann Kafka, Franz Kafka's father, had a haberdasher's store on the ground floor, and Franz went to secondary school in the palace from 1893 until 1901. The Polish Public Embassy was located here between the Wars (1922–1934). It was from the balcony of Kinsky Palace that Klement Gottwald, the Communist leader, addressed a large crowd of party members, gathered in the square below, in 1948. This was a key event in the rise of the Communist government to power in post-war Czechoslovakia.

In 1949, the National Gallery took over Kinsky Palace. It has been used for art exhibitions since then.

Kinsky Palace.

Kinsky Palace.

5. Church of Our Lady Before Tyn

The skyline of Prague is dominated by the domes and spires of many churches. Visitors to the Old Town Square can not help but notice the spires of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn. They tower over the buildings on the east side of the square and can be easily seen from various viewpoints around the city.

The construction of this church was started in 1365. It was the main Hussite church in Prague from the early 15th century until 1620. The Tyn Courtyard, behind the church, is worth exploring, with its mix of architectural styles.

Tip: If you are looking to go to one of the many classical music concerts or any other performance that takes place around Prague, there is a very useful ticket office near the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn.

Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, Prague.

Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, Prague.

6. Church of St Nicholas, Old Town Prague

Not to be confused with the Church of St Nicholas across the river in Mala Strana (the Little Quarter), there has been a church on the site of the Church of St Nicholas on the north side of the Old Town Square since the 12th Century. It served as a parish church and meeting place for Prague Old Town until the 14th century when Tyn Church was finished. In 1620, the Church of St Nicholas became part of a monastery for the Benedictines.

The building which now stands here was finished in 1735 with its white facade adorned with statues and its green-domed roof. It has had a checkered history. In 1781 Emperor Joseph II closed some monasteries and the Church of St Nicholas was emptied. It was used by troops in the First World War. I was surprised to find out that the redecoration of the interior is due mainly to the colonel in charge at this time. He used artists, who would have otherwise been sent to the front line, to restore the interior. After the war, the church was given to the Czechoslovak Hussite Church.

The nave is dominated by a large crown-shaped chandelier. The Church of St Nicholas is used as a concert venue. Tickets and details of concerts are available at the church.

7. The Old Town Hall

Reading up on Prague before we went, I put the Old Town Hall high on my list as a 'must-see'. I was especially keen to take in the spectacular view from the 69.5m tower. I was a little alarmed therefore to find the tower surrounded by scaffolding. Although it was possible to enter the tourist information office in the Old Town Hall, I was disappointed to find out that tower access was unavailable. The renovation was completed after our visit and the tower has been reopened.

Tip: Guidebooks have their uses, but for up-to-the-minute information, it is a good idea to check out websites online (assuming that they have been kept up to date.)

The picture below shows why Prague Old Town Hall deserves its place as one of the most striking buildings in the city. The Town Hall was established on the west side of Old Town Square in 1338 and the tower was added in 1364. As it expanded, a number of old houses were knocked together. In the 1945 Prague Uprising, the Nazis inflicted heavy damage on this building. The east wing towards the Church of St Nicholas was not restored, but the rest of the Old Town Hall was.

Crowds of tourists gather here on the hour to witness the striking of the astronomical clock, which is worthy of a mention in its own right.

Prague Old Town Hall.

Prague Old Town Hall.

8. The Astronomical Clock

The first astronomical clock was installed in Prague's Old Town Hall at the beginning of the 15th century. Legend has it that, after rebuilding the clock, the master clockmaker, Jan Z Ruze, was blinded by the councilors to prevent any copies from being made elsewhere.

Crowds gather on the hour to watch the figure of Death, a skeleton on the right, pull a rope in his right hand and turn over an hourglass in his left hand. Two windows open and there follows a procession of 11 apostles and St Paul. A cock crows and the hour chimes. Other moving figures are a Turk, Vanity, and Greed.

Astronomical clock, Prague Old Town.

Astronomical clock, Prague Old Town.

9. Towards the River

We left Starometske Namesti and followed Karlova (Charles Street), the route of the royal coronation processions, towards the River Vltava. There are many original Gothic and Renaissance houses along Charles Street mostly converted into shops for tourists. There are also many tourists taking this same route.

The Clementinum, a large building on the right, was a former Dominican monastery of St Clement. The Jesuits set up their headquarters here in 1556, at the invitation of Emperor Ferdinand I. In 1601, the Church of the Holy Saviour on this site was the first Jesuit church in Prague. A university was established in the Clementinum and the complex expanded from 1653 to 1723. In 1773, when the pope dissolved the order, the Jesuits left Prague. Education became secular. The Clementinum was the Prague University Library and is now the National Library.

Knights of the Cross Square is between the Clementinum and the Old Town Bridge Tower. Crowds pass under the 14th-century bridge tower to reach the iconic Charles Bridge, one of Prague's most photographed landmarks and monuments. Charles Bridge links the Old Town with The Little Quarter (Mala Strana) on the other side of the River Vltava. An admission fee is charged to enter the Old Town Bridge Tower.

A museum for the Czech composer Smetana is housed in a striking former Neo-Renaissance waterworks by the river.

Prague Old Town

Some Places We Missed in Old Town Prague

During any visit to a large city, it is impossible to see everything. Here are a few of the places in Prague Old Town that we missed, but which you might want to consider when you visit this delightful city.

  1. Basilica of St. James.
  2. Estates Theatre.
  3. Carolinum.
  4. House at the Two Golden Bears.
  5. Church of St Gall.
  6. Church of St Martin in the Wall.
  7. Naprstek Museum.
  8. Church of St Giles.
  9. Bethlehem Chapel.
  10. Clam-Gallas Palace.
  11. Marianske Square.
  12. Church of St Francis.

Tip: Check out the Prague underground tours, which came highly recommended by a group of Canadian tourists that we met whilst in Prague. In the 13th century, the streets of Prague were much lower than they are now. As the city was developed, levels were raised to avoid flooding from the Vltava river, wider then than it is now. The underground tours access remains of the city beneath Old Town Prague that predate the surface-level streets of today.

Prague beer.

Prague beer.

Food and Drink in Old Town Prague

No walking tour would be complete without refreshment stops along the way. As with any capital city, Prague has a wide variety of options. If you do not mind paying a little more for the view and the atmosphere, there are cafes and restaurants in Old Town Square. But a look down the streets around the Tyn courtyard will turn up cheaper options and the advantage of a quieter setting, a little off the main tourist trail.

Czech beers are famous worldwide. Staropramen, Budweiser, and Pilsner Urquell are the ones we recognized. But we also came across many local brands in Prague.

If you are looking for a traditional Czech main meal, dumplings feature strongly on menus. However, after a few meals containing them, the initial novelty soon wore off for us. Most menus cater to tourists and are available in translation.

The donut/chimney craze for ice cream cones was sweeping the city when we were there. They are not the cheapest way to eat your ice cream, but they certainly provide a very filling snack and one which you can justify after a walk around the sights of Prague.

In Summary

The distance from The Municipal House to the Old Town Bridge Tower is around 1.1km, so it is an easy walk with no hills to negotiate. It offers plenty to catch the eye from the outside for free and also multiple options of interesting buildings to go inside and explore. Prague Old Town was an area that we returned to several times, either walking through on our way to and from the river or dropping into the streets behind the Tyn Church for a drink or a meal.

However you visit, Prague Old Town is definitely a 'must-see' location. Do not forget to time your visit on the hour to see the astronomical clock in action.

Czech Republic

Prague Old Town Square

Prague Old Town Square

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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.

© 2018 Liz Westwood