A River View of Prague
Paris has the River Seine, London has the River Thames and Prague has the River Vltava. It is thought that the name Vltava comes from the Germanic words 'wilt alwa', meaning 'wild water'. At 430km, it is the longest river in the Czech Republic and flows from the Bohemian Forest to join the River Elbe at Melnik.
Over the years, the city of Prague has had a bittersweet relationship with its river. As settlements grew up along the Vltava valley, the river provided a trading route and was a source of drinking water up until 1912. Water mills, weirs, and water towers were built. At one time, almost a third of Prague's electricity was supplied by the hydroelectric plant built on Stavinice Island in 1912. However, the River Vltava has also been prone to flooding, notably in 1784, 1845, 1890, 1940 and the worst of all in 2002, when the city of Prague was badly affected.
The Geography of Prague
Crossed by 18 bridges, the River Vltava neatly divides the main areas of Prague. On the East bank Nove Mesto (Prague New Town) gives way to Stare Mesto (Prague Old Town) and beyond that, Josefov (The Jewish Quarter). Prague's most famous bridge, Karluv Most (The Charles Bridge) links Stare Mesto with Mala Strana (Prague's Little Quarter) on the West bank of the Vltava with Hradcany and Prague Castle looming over it.
Sights of Prague by the River Vltava
- The Dancing House
- The Sitka Water Tower
- The National Theatre
- The Smetana Museum
- The Church of St. Francis
- The Rudolfinum
- The InterContinental Hotel
- The Ministry of Industry and Trade
- Charles Bridge
- The Observation Tower
- Certovka, The Devil's Stream
- St. Vitus's Cathedral
- Prague Castle
- The Strakova Akademie
These sights fall in four areas: Nove Mesto, Stare Mesto, Josefov and the West Bank, with Charles Bridge linking the two banks of the river. This article will tackle each area in turn.
Sights of Nove Mesto by the River Vltava
Three sights stand out as you work your way north along the river past Prague's New Town.
- The Dancing House.
- The Sitka Water Tower.
- The National Theatre.
1. The Dancing House
The Dancing House is located on the site of a house destroyed in February 1945 during the US bombing of Prague. To their great regret, American bomber pilots mistakenly targeted Prague instead of Dresden. The bomb site was eventually cleared in 1960.
Vaclav Havel, a prominent Czech playwright, and dissident (later to become a popular leader and elected president of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic) lived on a neighboring plot. In 1986, the Czech architect, Vlado Milunic discussed a project to develop the site with the then dissident, Havel, who originally hoped that the building would be a cultural center.
The Nationale Nederlanden, a Dutch Insurance company (part of the Ing Group since 1991) agreed to sponsor the building. Milunic was invited to be the lead designer and he was asked to work with another well-known architect. Frank Gehry, the famous Canadian-American architect accepted the invitation.
Design of the Dancing House
The bank was a generous funder of the project. Milunic conceived the idea of a building in 2 parts, yin and yang, static and dynamic to symbolize the transition of Czechoslovakia from a communist state to a democracy. Gehry thought of the house originally as Fred and Ginger (based on the dancers, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) but, fearing an association with Hollywood glamour, he dropped this name. The building is now rarely referred to as 'Fred and Ginger', although the restaurant at the top is still called 'Ginger and Fred'.
The style of the building is deconstructivist. The first part is a glass tower, which narrows half way up, supported by curved pillars and the second part is parallel to the river with undulating molding and windows set out of alignment.
The Dancing House was designed in 1992 and completed in 1996. American Time magazine awarded the building Design of the Year award in 1996. As well as offices and a restaurant, the building houses a hotel and a Glass bar at the top with a terrace offering great views.
Tips for Enjoying the View
- Take the lift up to the top floor and purchase a drink at the bar in order to gain access to the roof terrace. The view is well worth it.
- If you are prepared to push the budget a little for a meal with a view, be sure to book a table near the window in the restaurant. Lunchtime prices are the most reasonable.
2. The Sitka Water Tower
The original wooden structure of the Sitka (Sitkovska) water tower, dating from 1495, was destroyed by fire in 1501. The next tower collapsed because of poor construction. The third tower burned down in 1588 with neighboring mills. Fires were common in water towers, because of the open fires to prevent the water from freezing in winter. The present tower was built between 1588 and 1591. A water station was built to the north and named after Jan Sitka, owner of the nearby mill. In 1601 this water station supplied 75% of the New Town with water.
In 1648 the Swedish army laid siege to Prague and the tower was damaged. During repairs in 1651, the tower got its Baroque roof, which was covered with copper plate in the 18th century. In 1881 a new reservoir at Karlov took over the water supply function. In 1882 the waterworks mechanism was dismantled and the tower was set for demolition, but the Arts Forum Foundation prevented this.
The secret police used the tower as an observation point.
Restoration of the Sitka Water Tower
The Sitka water tower was reconstructed in 1883.
Some have compared the Tower to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, due to its slight inclination. There is a 42cm difference between the top and the bottom. The Sitka Tower was further restored in 1920 and in the 1980s to stop the inclination from increasing.
During the Communist regime, the secret police used the tower as an observation point. It gave them a good view of the comings and goings at Vaclav Havel's house nearby.
Further reconstruction of the tower was carried out in the mid-1990s during repairs to the neighboring Manes Union of Fine Arts building.
A Note on Josef Manes
Josef Manes(1820-1871) was a Czech painter who was undervalued during his lifetime, but later spawned an artists' association and exhibition society which took his name. In 1928 the society started building a complex on the site of the water tower. The Manes Exhibition Hall was opened in 1930, as a white functional building spanning the Vltava River between the right bank and the southern end of Zofin.
3. The National Theatre
The National Theatre is an eye-catching sight on the right bank of the River Vltava. The original idea for a national theatre came from a gathering of patriots in 1844. In January 1845 an application was first put in for an independent Czech theatre, but an appeal for funding was not launched until April 1851. A site was found on the bank of the River Vltava and the land of a former salt works was purchased in 1852.
There was much discussion about the design of the building and an initial modest provisional building, designed by Vojtech Ignac Ullmann, was erected on the south side of the plot, opening on 18th November 1862. But supporters of the more ambitious original plans pushed for their adoption and building began in 1867 with the National Theatre designed by Josef Zitek finally opening on 11th June 1881.
On 12th August 1881, a fire broke out destroying the dome, auditorium, and stage. It was seen as a national disaster.
The excitement at the opening was short-lived. After a few performances, the theatre was closed to enable some finishing touches to be made. On 12th August 1881, a fire broke out destroying the dome, auditorium, and stage. It was seen as a national disaster. A new collection was raised and people gave generously, enabling the National Theatre to be rebuilt this time with a design by Zitek's pupil, Josef Schulz. The re-opening was on 18th November 1883.
In 1977, the National Theatre was closed for 6 years for renovation. It re-opened on its centenary 18th November 1983. Opera, ballet and drama productions are staged here in rotation.
It's in the Stars
It has been suggested that the stars on the blue roof of the National Theatre are symbols of the heights to which artists should aspire.
The gold crested building with its many external sculptures representing the Arts is certainly eye-catching. But if you wish to explore the interior of this Czech national monument, the advice is to get tickets for a performance.
Stare Mesto from the River Vltava
Moving further along the riverbank, the Old Town runs roughly from Most Legii (Legion Bridge) to Karluv Most (Charles Bridge). There are two key sights along this bank which are visible from the river.
4. The Smetana Museum.
5. The Church of St. Francis.
4. The Smetana Museum
This building, next to the Charles Bridge, was originally a neo-renaissance waterworks. It is fitting that it is now home to the Smetana museum, as one of the Czech composer's most famous works, "Vltava", was inspired by the River Vltava. Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) was a great Czech patriot and known as the father of Czech music.
This museum, containing documents, letters, musical scores, and instruments, serves as a memorial to the composer's life. It opened in 1936. Visitors can zap a music stand with an electronic baton to hear extracts of the composer's work. It was Smetana, who wrote the opera, Libuse, about the founding of Prague, which was performed at the opening of the National Theatre in November 1883.
5. The Church of St. Francis
The current Baroque Church of St. Francis was built between 1679 and 1685 on the site of the original 1270 church of St. Francis of Assisi. There are underground corridors with tombstones and fragments of the original church. The cupola catches the eye, as you pass on the river, or walk along the Charles Bridge towards the Old Town.
The church was built for the Order of the Knights with a Red Star, who were the gatekeepers of the bridge. Organ concerts take place here. Access to the interior for sightseeing is available April to November outside of concert and mass times.
The Sights of Josefov seen from the River Vltava
The Jewish Quarter, Josefov is bordered by the River Vltava. There are three sights, which catch the eye along this stretch of the river.
6. The Rudolfinum.
7. The InterContinental Hotel.
8. The Ministry of Industry and Trade.
6. The Rudolfinum
This eye-catching landmark on the riverbank was designed by Josef Zitek and Josef Schulz. It was built 1876-1884 and, like the National Theatre that we have already seen, it is in the Czech Neo-Renaissance style. It houses several concert halls, the Dvorak Hall being one of the finest examples of Czech 19th-century architecture.
The Rudolfinum served as the home of the Czechoslovak parliament 1918-1939 and for a short time after 1945. It is now the home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
"Mendelssohn is on the Roof."
The statues of Czech, Austrian and German composers that look down from the roof, have spawned a tale of their own. In 1960 Jiri Weil wrote a book "Mendelssohn is on the Roof". In it, he pens the tale of the SS soldiers sent up to the roof of the Rudolfinum to topple the statue of the Jewish composer, Mendelssohn.
The story goes that the soldiers, ignorant of the identities of the statues, sent Hitler's favorite, Wagner, hurtling towards the ground. The story gets better by the telling, but it is said that Wagner never had a place on the Rudolfinum, although the statue of Mendelssohn is still up there.
7. The InterContinental Hotel
The InterContinental Hotel, located by Cechuv Most on the River Vltava, admittedly is not the most architecturally striking of buildings along the riverbank, but it does have an interesting tale to go with it. The angular concrete style of the building owes a lot to the Communist era in which it was built (1968-1974), although the outside was renovated 1992-1995 and the inside in 2002.
We were fortunate to spend a night here and although our room was a little faded in places, the location, leisure facilities and standard of accommodation fitted its 5-star rating. It's the first hotel I have stayed in with a Rolls-Royce showroom on the ground floor.
The story goes that the InterContinental Hotel Prague was the second home to the infamous assassin, Carlos the Jackal (Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez) in the 1970s and early 1980s. Czechoslovakia's secret police kept him under surveillance. On one occasion it is said that Carlos got locked out of his room and was seen angrily running along the corridor with a revolver. It now appears that the Czech regime was a little embarrassed by its guest, but wasn't sure how to handle him.
In 1986 the Czech government hit upon a plan. They told Carlos that a French hit squad was on its way to get him. The ruse worked and Carlos left, never to return. He was eventually apprehended in Sudan in 1994.
8. The Ministry of Industry and Trade
Completed in 1934 and designed as a palace by Josef Fanta, this building had a record budget at the time. The construction, which started in 1928, overran by three years. There are 120 sculptures on the facade alone and it is easy to see why the building came at a price. Fanta was also the architect of Prague's striking main railway station.
Surprisingly little is known about this eye-catching government building, which now serves as the base of the Department of Trade and Industry. Some tourists are envious of those who work in such a stunning building and are a little disappointed that we can but admire it from outside, as there is no access to the public.
9. Charles Bridge
Of the 18 bridges that cross the River Vltava in Prague, there is one that stands out from the rest. Karluv most, or Charles Bridge, linking the Old Town with The Little Quarter, is recognized as one of Prague's most familiar landmarks. In 1357, Charles IV founded the bridge to replace the Judith Bridge, which had been built in 1158 but destroyed by floods in 1342. Charles Bridge was the only crossing over the River Vltava until 1741.
Originally decorated with a simple cross, Charles Bridge acquired its first statue of St. John Nepomuk, in 1683. St John had drowned after Wenceslas IV had him thrown from the bridge in 1393. Other statues of saints and the Madonna were added in the 18th century and are set on the walls lining either side of the bridge.
At one time the bridge could accommodate 4 carriages side by side, but it is now pedestrianized and tourists head here in droves. Partly they come because Charles Bridge is on the 'tourist route' from the Old Town to the Little Quarter and then up to the palace. They also come to take in the view, admire the statues and see the musicians and various souvenir-sellers on Charles Bridge.
How to See Charles Bridge at Its Best
Few of us probably enjoy jostling in a crowd of other tourists trying to see the best views and capture the best photos. So here are a few tips on how to get the most out of your visit to Charles Bridge, arguably Prague's top tourist destination.
- Avoid the busiest times. Aim to get there early, before the crowds. Or try visiting later in the evening, when the crowds are thinning a little. The night time view is said to be just as stunning as the daytime one.
- See Charles Bridge from a different perspective. View it from the riverbank. Scenes walking towards it from the New Town river bank are not to be missed.
- Admire the bridge from above, by climbing one of the towers at either end.
- Take a river trip to get a great river view and avoid the crowds.
Old Town Bridge Tower
The Old Town Bridge Tower is similar in age to the bridge, dating back to 1380. It played an important part in the fortifications of the Old Town. The tower is open to the public for an admission charge. This is often considered to be the finer of the two bridge towers, adorned with Gothic decorations. There are stairs to the viewing gallery, which was not built for large numbers, so it's best to avoid the busiest times to get the best of the views.
The Little Quarter Bridge Tower
Great views are to be had from the Little Quarter Bridge Tower. There is an admission charge to this less decorative counterpart of the tower at the other side of Charles Bridge. Standing next to it is a shorter tower, dating back to 1158, which is all that remains of the Judith Bridge. The larger tower dates from 1464 and it occupies the site of a previous Romanesque tower. If you negotiate the steep steps to the top you will be rewarded with great views.
Just Along the Riverbank
The Sights of the West Bank
The view from the River Vltava is one of a panorama of the colored buildings of Mala Strana with the castle compound towering over it. But in the midst of this, there are a few features which catch the eye.
10. The Observation Tower.
11. Certovka, The Devil's Stream.
12. St. Vitus's Cathedral.
13. Prague Castle.
14. The Strakova Akademie.
10. The Observation Tower
The Observation Tower (Rozhledna) in Petrin Park is sometimes referred to as Petrin Tower or even, on occasion, the Eiffel Tower because of its similarity to the Parisian landmark. This tower dates from 1891, when it was built for the Jubilee Exhibition, as an imitation of the more famous version in Paris. At 60m, it is only a quarter of the height of the Eiffel Tower, but nevertheless, its silhouette can easily be spotted from other parts of Prague. If you are feeling energetic, you can take the 299 step spiral staircase to the enclosed viewing platform, but there is also a lift.
11. Certovka, the Devil's Stream
Charles Bridge not only spans the River Vltava, but it also crosses Kampa Island and Certovka, The Devil's Stream, which separates Kampa from the rest of Mala Strana. Certovka is a man-made channel, which dates back to the Middle Ages. It was built by the Knights Hospitaller to provide water for the mills to be built along it.
There are three mills surviving, the most famous of which is the Grand Priory Mill. The mill's name links it to the Grand Priory of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (or Knights Hospitaller). The mill has also been known as Stepanovsky mlyn, Stephen's mill, referring to the 16th-century miller who owned it, and Maltezsky mlyn, Maltese mill. The Grand Priory Mill is no longer in working order and the restored water wheel is purely decorative.
This area is very picturesque and is sometimes referred to as 'Prague Venice' with its buildings located so close to the water. The view from Charles Bridge is not to be missed.
12. St. Vitus's Cathedral
St. Vitus's Cathedral, in the castle compound can be clearly seen from the River Vltava and from many viewpoints in Prague. It has held this position since building began on the site in 1344, but, interestingly it was 19th and 20th-century architects and artists who finally completed it. It was consecrated in 1929.
A striking sight externally from a distance, it is well worth tackling the hill and making the effort to explore the fascinating interior spanning 1000 years of history.
13. Prague Castle
Prince Borivoj founded Prague Castle in the 9th Century. It has a prominent position overlooking the River Vltava. Within the castle walls, there are many buildings, including a palace, three churches, and a monastery. The town of Hradcany has been located within the outer walls of the castle since around 1320. The royal procession route stretched from the Old Town, across Charles Bridge, and up the hill to Prague Castle. Many tourists follow this same route and are rewarded with a castle area packed with interesting buildings to explore and great views down to the River Vltava and over the rest of Prague.
14. The Strakova Akademie
This stately neo-baroque building catches the eye beyond the Manes Bridge. The Straka Akademie, to use its shortened form, takes its name from Count Jan Petr Straka, the emperor's privy counsel. In his will, he bequeathed his assets to build a students' hostel for the sons of poorer Czech aristocratic families. It was built for this purpose between 1891 and 1896.
The building was used by the Red Cross in World War I as a hospital. After the declaration of the Czechoslovak Republic, came the cancellation of aristocratic titles in 1921. The Straka Akademie continued to be used by students as the seat of the Students' Union and, later, Academic House, a students' club, whilst at the same time also being used by some government ministries. After World War II, the Czechoslovak government took the building over completely. Since 1993 the government of the Czech Republic has sat here.
The Left Bank of the River Vltava
Undoubtedly, the best way to see the sights of the River Vltava is from the water by taking one of the many river trips on offer. We bought tickets from a stall near the Mala Strana end of Charles Bridge, on Straka Island. Our boat looped round near a weir within sight of the National Theatre and turned to go under Charles Bridge, heading down towards Stvanice Island before looping round to return. We got off when it stopped near Staromestska, on the right bank.
Other boat locations we noticed were on the right bank in the New Town and also between Cechuv Most and the Rudolfinum. Ours was a relatively short trip, but we could have traveled further down the river to the zoo or beyond Vysehrad in the opposite direction.
Other Options to Make the Most of the River Vltava
An alternative to a river trip on the River Vltava is a stroll along the riverbank. We favored the right bank and especially enjoyed a walk from the Dancing House towards Charles Bridge for great views of Mala Strana, Prague Castle, and Charles Bridge.
On our walk, we noted some other options. On land, we had seen tours in open top 'vintage' cars and we noticed some had been adapted for use on the river. There were also more conventional pedaloes for hire. On St Wenceslas Day we saw a flotilla of small boats on the river. Water zorbing is an option for those who prefer falling around in large transparent inflatable spheres on the water. We noticed some of these between Most Legii and Charles Bridge on the right bank.
The Vltava Experience
How would you prefer to see Prague from the River Vltava?
On Our List for a Future Trip
In my view, a good holiday is marked by two things. Firstly, a vast number of photos, which suggest great sights worth capturing. Secondly, coming away with the sense that there is still more to do. Prague, for us, ticked both these boxes.
It would have been good to explore the islands on the River Vltava a little. We could have taken a boat trip up river or down river to the zoo. I would like to see Charles Bridge at night and maybe climb the Old Town Bridge Tower to catch the view after dark.
One day we might return to Prague. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy a visit to Prague or at least enjoy this glimpse of Prague from a river perspective.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Liz Westwood