Top 5 Things to See and Do in Prague
A Trip to Prague
Although I grew up in Eastern Europe, I only recently visited Prague for the first time. Under the Communist regime, we weren't really able to travel between countries, and later on, since I've lived in the US, every time I went back to Europe, I was busy visiting family and very rarely had time to go into any other country.
This time though we decided to fly into Prague and start our trip from there. Well, really my husband decided for us, he was the one who really wanted us to visit Prague. At that time I didn't really care one way or another, for me growing up, Prague seemed like just another ex-communist country's capital.
I was in for a real treat! Yes, the architecture in Prague does remind me of the architecture of most of the cities I grew up around. Some of the buildings are very similar to those in Cluj, Romania, where I grew up, or Budapest, where I have been numerous times.
But there is a major difference. Prague is pristine, clean, those old buildings are wonderfully well preserved. I was walking in a real wonderland. In addition, people were friendly everywhere we went. After four days in Prague, the city felt like home. It really was amazing to be there, in so many different ways.
I wish I listened to my husband sooner and visited this amazing city years ago. However, I am glad that I finally did.
1. The Old Town Square: A Good Place to Start Your Visit
Even if you only spend a few hours in Prague (though I can't imagine that anyone would), the first experience you want to have of Prague is being in the Old Town Square.
No matter what direction you come from, it seems that each road leads to the Old Town Square. When you get close to it, the roads are for pedestrians only, with no cars allowed. Even so, these streets are always crowded. Walking through, you can stop for ice cream, shop at any of the numerous tourist shops, watch the street artists on virtually every corner. You can see "live statues", listen to music, watch puppet shows, dancers, bubble blowing shows, or hoop jumpers, hold a python on your shoulders, just to name a few possibilities of impromptu shows on the street that we have experienced. You can marvel at the multitude of people strolling through, listen to dozens of languages spoken around you. It is always a happy and busy place.
As fun as it is to get there, the square itself is the most spectacular. Dominated by the Old Town Hall, with museums and tourist shops all around housed in wonderful buildings, there is always something going on in the center.
The most spectacular and enjoyable day for us was when they had a dance going on in the center of the square. Girls and women in different traditional costumes from all parts of the Czech Republic were dancing, inviting by-standers to join in and teaching them the dance they called the Friendship Dance. The whole square was filled with people, dancers, those in traditional costumes mixed with those in regular street clothes, as well as by-standers taking pictures or videos. It was a fun way to spend some time, being part of this celebration.
One of the major things that draws people to the Old Town Square (other that it's just simply a great place to be in) is to watch the astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall strike the hour. As the hour draws close, thousands of visitors gather in front of it, trying to get a glimpse at the spectacle.
The puppets, representing the twelve apostles, show off in a procession, though there are other elements to the show, including other figures on the sides of the clock that move as well.
The clock is very special, not only due to this spectacle when it is striking the hour. Since it is an astronomical clock, it not only shows the time, but also the day, month, phases of the moon and the sun.
According to legend it was made by Master Hanus, who, after all his hard work, was blinded, so he could never make a replica of this clock. Nice reward for his services... However, the clock still stands, and there is no other exactly like it in the world.
While in the Old Town Square, you cannot miss going up into the Old Town Hall Tower. It is an easy walk up, however, there is also a glass elevator for your convenience. Since there was a line waiting for the elevator, we decided to just walk up. There are no stairs, the flights are all just ramps to walk on, which really makes the climb easier.
On top we were rewarded with the most beautiful views of the city.
2. Charles Bridge: A Must-See Monument in Prague
Charles Bridge is probably the most famous landmark in Prague, attracting thousands of visitors each day. Built in 1357, it still stands, and it only needed a few renovations over the centuries. There are very many stories involving this famous bridge, some of which we've heard from a local guide we've met.
First he wrote down the exact date, including the time, of the moment King Charles himself, according to his story, laid the first brick.
He wrote these numbers: 1 3 5 7 9 7 5 3 1.
A scale of the uneven numbers from 1 to 9 going up then downwards.
Then he explained that the numbers were the date, written in the conventional way year, day, month, time, so it was 1357, 9th of July (7th month) , at 5:31 in the morning. Charles IV was a believer in numerology, and he laid the first brick in the early hour at the exact minute as advised by his clergymen, in order to make sure that the bridge would last forever.
The same guide also told us the story of another legend that he heard as a kid in school, something they used to just laugh at, but never thought it actually true. As the story goes, King Charles, when he ordered the building of the bridge, heard that adding eggs to the mortar mix would ensure that the mix would be strong enough to last forever. So he ordered all the villages to send in eggs. There were thousands of eggs added to the mix. There is also a joke about one of the villages, which wanting to be better than the rest, sent its eggs boiled, being the laughing stock of the country for that decision. Anyway, the story was considered a legend until just a few years ago, when they renovated the bridge and found traces of eggshells in it.
There are many other legends about the bridge. For example, there is the statue of St. John the Baptist, somewhat in the center of the bridge. Part of it is rubbed shiny by all the visitors who feel the need to touch it for good luck. Well, the reason that it is thought to bring good luck has to do with the way John died. For reasons that are not exactly clear (there are a few different versions of this story), the king ordered John to be executed by drowning. The most popular (and romantic) version says that the king suspected the queen of having a lover. When he asked John, who would've heard it from the confessional, the priest denied the king's request, not revealing anything he has been told, So he was tossed in the river from the bridge. He drowned of course, but on the place he died five stars appeared in the water. Because of these stars he was declared a martyr, and people from all over the world feel that by rubbing their hand on his statue will bring them luck. It makes the statue look interesting with a shiny spot and a line of visitors waiting for a turn to touch it. I didn't wait for a turn to try it, so couldn't tell you if the part about luck was true.
Aside of history, fun and interesting tid-bits, Charles Bridge is still spectacular in every way. Since there are no cars allowed on it, during the busiest times of the day it becomes a very popular walking avenue, bazaar for all street vendors, artists, entertainers. as well as a place for beggars to make a buck.
Two towers, The Old Town Bridge Tower and Judith Tower, protect the bridge on the two sides.
3. Prague Castle and Saint Vitus Cathedral
Opposite the Old Town, across the Vltava, Prague Castle dominates the area. It really isn't just a simple castle, more of a town in itself, a castle complex. It even made it into the Guinness Book of Records for being the largest ancient castle in the world, occupying an area of about 70,000 square meters (43.5 square miles).
Prague Castle includes within its walls a few churches, palaces, towers and numerous other buildings.
Even just walking through it is a treat for the senses, especially for those who enjoy architectural wonders. You can find a few different architectural styles here, like the Gothic St Vitus Cathedral and the Romanesque basilica of St George.
Of all the architectural wonders in the Castle, the St Vitus Cathedral is a must see, both from outside as well as from the inside.
St Vitus Cathedral is the biggest and most important cathedral in the Czech Republic. Located within the Prague Castle, it is a one of the greatest example of Gothic Architecture.
The most interesting fact about it to me seems that the building of this cathedral took almost 600 years to complete. It is unbelievable, but maybe this is the reason that it is as spectacular as it is. Looking at all of its features, it is easy to imagine this.
It started in 1344, during the reign of Charles IV. The first master builder was the French Matthias de Arras, who designed the layout of the building. However, the cathedral was far from being finished when he died. A new master builder, Peter Parler, was commissioned to continue the work. He didn't finish it either, since he was commissioned with numerous other projects, including Charles Bridge, and after his death his sons, and later other builders from his workshop continued his work. In the meantime, during the Hussite War, the building stopped altogether. The work started up again in 1844, but it didn't get finished until 1929, just about 600 years after it started.
Visiting it makes you appreciate all of the extraordinary work that went into it.
4. Petrin Hill
For a bit of quiet, out of the hustle and bustle and crowds of the city, a good place to go is Petrin Hill. Though in the middle of the city, this area is green and lush, and it feels miles away from the it.
It is a relatively easy walk up the hill in the middle of a park, but it is a climb and for those who are not up for it, there is a funicular going straight up.
5. Wenceslas Square
Wenceslas Square is really a boulevard, with a wide middle area that seems like a giant park, with flowerbeds and grass, as well as numerous benches to sit on. On the two sides there are numerous shops. Personally I was impressed by the bookstores on both sides of the boulevard. One of them was a real mall. Entering it, i thought it was an open mall, but every single "shop" was just another area for specific books. I did wish I knew Czech. Still, I spent a lot of time in there, even though they only had one section for English books.
Across from this aprticular bookstore i noticed another one, almost as big. In a time when the bookstores in my city are going out of business one after another, it was a real treat.
Anyway, the Square has been witness of so many historical events over time, the latest one being the Velvet Revolutions. This is the place that most of the demonstrations took place during that time in history, in 1989.
At the end of the square stands the building of the National Museum and not far from it in the center of the street the statue of Wenceslas on horseback. They are the most important landmarks of the square.
Other Interesting Places in Prague
I covered what I considered the must-see, do-not-miss places to experience in Prague. However, there are so many more interesting, unique places worth seeing.
There is the Lennon Wall, for example. We knew about it, but didn't really make an attempt to find it in the first few days. One afternoon, we were just strolling around after coming down from the Castle, with no definite destination, just trying to find a more shaded way to go back to our place. We found ourselves in a small, street, shaded by large trees on each side. Looking up, we realized that we were in front of the Lennon Wall. It is an entire wall filed with graffiti that changes often, but it never gets painted over. Students in Prague started it when John Lennon died, and the wall quickly became the place for everyone to write their grievances against the communist regime. It is a quiet street, seemingly far from the real Prague.
Or there is the "narrowest street in Prague", that only one person can fit and walk through, so they have a red light/green light way of letting people walk one way or another. We heard about it from a hotel clerk who is also a city guide, but again, found it by chance, while just walking on the streets of Prague. By the way, this street doesn't really lead anywhere other than to a restaurant, but it is still interesting to walk through it (especially for kids).
We visited all of these tourist places while there, but most importantly, sometimes we just walked around in town. Spending four days on the way to the rest of our destination and another two on the way back made the city feel like home to us. We even picked up a few words in Czech, although just about everyone, including grocery store clerks, speak some degree of English.
Getting There, Public Transportation, and Other Useful Things to Know
If you get to Prague by air, it is extremely easy to get anywhere in town from there. Walking out of the terminal, there are a few bus stations right in front. You need to purchase tickets for the bus, there is an automated machine at the station where you can do this. Bus 119 travels the route from the airport into town. You can take it to the metro station (which is its last stop), a hub for all three lines. The subway or metro system is very easy to understand, even for foreigners. The green line or the red line will take you to the Museum, which is a good center destination. There are numerous hotels in town, pretty much fit for any budget. Personally I would recommend the Sonata Hotel, just two blocks away from the Museum. They have reasonable prices and include breakfast, which is plenty and all delicious.
Traveling with a family and if staying for more than two nights, it is worth renting an apartment. We did it through VRBO and were extremely happy with the result. There are plenty of apartments for short term rent, for every budget and need.