Walking Through Prague's Old Town
Hitting the Tourist Trail
I have to admit that my knowledge of Prague and the Czech Republic was fairly limited prior to our visit in the Fall of 2017. It came highly recommended as a very picturesque city, and I had been told about the beautiful buildings and the Old Town Hall clock, so it made sense to head over to the Old Town and start exploring. As capital cities go, Prague is fairly compact, and the Old Town—especially with its several pedestrianized areas—lends itself to walking rather than any other form of transport.
Places to See in Prague Old Town
- The Municipal House.
- The Powder Gate.
- Old Town Square.
- The Kinsky Palace.
- Church of Our Lady Before Tyn.
- St. Nicholas Church in Old Town Prague.
- The Old Town Hall.
- The Astronomical Clock.
- 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 nearby Municipal House, which is right on the edge of Prague Old Town and located on the site of the former Royal Court Palace. The present Art Nouveau building was constructed 1905–1911. The Smetana Hall inside is Prague's main concert venue, with ticket prices which reflect this.
Tip: It is possible to book onto a guided tour of the ornate interior, but if time or finances are limited, you can try wandering in and taking a 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.
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 how it was named The Powder Gate. The Powder gate is 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 (the 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. Indeed, this whole square is surrounded by eye-catching and interesting buildings from Prague's historical past.
Towards the north end of the 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. The Kinsky Palace
On the East side of the Old Town Square stands the Rococo Kinsky Palace, with its pretty pink-and-white stucco facade. It was originally built between 1755–1765 for the Golz family. The palace was bought by Stepan Kinsky, an imperial diplomat, in 1768.
Over the years, the 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 the 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 the Kinsky Palace, and it has been used for art exhibitions since then.
5. The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn
The skyline of Prague is dominated by the domes and spires of many churches, and any visitor to the Old Town Square can not help but notice the spires of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, which 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 early 15th century until 1620. The Tyn Courtyard, behind the church, is well 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's a very useful and helpful ticket office near The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn.
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 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 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, 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 and the Church of St Nicholas is used as a concert venue. Tickets and details of concerts are available at the church.
7. Old Town Hall, Prague
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 and, although it was possible to access the tourist information office in the Old Town Hall, I was disappointed to find out that tower access was unavailable. I understand that the renovation is due to be completed by the end of 2018.
Tip: Guidebooks have their uses, but for up-to-the-minute information, it is a good idea to check out websites online (assuming that it is, that they have been kept up to date.)
The picture below shows why, when it has been renovated, Prague Old Town Hall will reclaim its place as one of the most striking buildings in the city. The Town Hall was established on the west side of the 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.
Striking as it is, it would be fair to say that crowds of tourist swell here on the hour to witness the striking of the astronomical clock, located below the tower, which is worthy of a mention in its own right.
8. The Astronomical Clock, Prague Old Town Hall
The first astronomical clock was installed in the Prague 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 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 then crows and the hour chimes. Other moving figures are a Turk, Vanity and Greed.
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, where the Jesuits, at the invitation of Emperor Ferdinand I, set up their headquarters in 1556. In 1601 the Church of the Holy Saviour was the first Jesuit church in Prague. A university was established in the Clementinum and the complex expanded between 1653-1723. 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 immediately after the Clementinum and before the Old Town Bridge Tower. Crowds pass under here to access the iconic Charles Bridge, one of Prague's most photographed landmarks and monuments, linking the Old Town with The Little Quarter (Mala Strana) on the other side of the River Vltava. It is possible to gain admission for a fee to the Old Town Bridge Tower, which dates from the end of the 14th Century.
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
In my experience, 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.
- Basilica of St. James.
- Estates Theatre.
- House at the Two Golden Bears.
- Church of St Gall.
- Church of St Martin in the Wall.
- Naprstek Museum.
- Church of St Giles.
- Bethlehem Chapel.
- Clam-Gallas Palace.
- Marianske Square.
- Church of St Francis.
Tip: Check out the Prague underground tours, which came highly recommended by a group of Canadian tourists that I 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.
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 don't mind paying a little more for the view and the atmosphere, there are cafes and restaurants in the 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 being the ones we recognized. But we also came across many local brands in Prague.
If you are looking for a traditional Czech main meal, we noticed that dumplings feature strongly on menus. However, after a few meals containing them, the initial novelty soon wore off for us. Most menus cater for 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.
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. We found, during our time, in Prague that it 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. Don't forget to time your visit on the hour to see the astronomical clock in action.
Have you visited Prague?
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Liz Westwood