Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is a haven for history lovers, especially for those who love medieval buildings, monuments, and the like. Often referred to as the “Golden City” because of its many ancient buildings, Prague grew around Prague Castle, which had its beginnings around the year 880 when it was built as a fortification to protection Boivoj I, the oldest sovereign of the Pemysliden, who ruled over the Bohemian Empire. The center is compact, with most sites located within a radius of 2.5 kilometers. What makes Prague travel so wonderful, however, are the many legends that go along with the historical sites, titillating not only the eyes but also the mind.
Here are some of the must-see sites that you shouldn’t miss on your first trip to Prague.
Have you ever stood in line before just to see a clock? If you haven’t, you may, depending on the time of day that you visit the Prague Astronomical Clock, located on the southern facade of the Old Town City Hall in Old Town Square. For more than 600 years, this unique timepiece has dazzled Prague residents and visitors alike with its procession of the 12 Apostles that occurs at the top of every hour, along with other unique features.
Every hour when the 12 wooden apostle statues greet the city, the figures on the side of the clock also become animated. You’ll witness Death holding an hourglass and beckoning to a Turkish man who shakes his head. Vanity is a man with a mirror, a miser has a purse full of money and shakes a stick, while a skeleton rings a bell. Non-moving statues include an astronomical philosopher, a chronicler, and an angel. When the display is finished, a golden rooster crows, a bell rings, and the clock chimes the hour.
Many legends surround the clock, including the belief that at the morning’s first cock-crow, ghosts and devils flee from the city. The most popular one involves the clock maker Master Hanu, who allegedly was blinded by the councilors of Prague when they discovered he intended to make another copy of the famous clock. Various legends also surround the figure of the skeleton. All of the stories hearken back to the myth and beliefs of the medieval world.
Set your alarm clock and arrive here early if you don’t want to rub elbows with several thousand of your closest friends. The Charles Bridge, called Karlv most in Czech, is a Gothic-era stone bridge over the Vlatava River that connects Prague’s Old Town and Lesser Town. Commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, construction began in 1357 with one legend saying that egg yolks were mixed into the mortar during construction to strengthen the structure. The bridge, with its 16 low arches and two towers, almost seems to sit on the waters of the river.
The cobblestone bridge is a bustle of activity during the height of the day when food and souvenir vendors and artists jostle with each other and with visitors to get a piece of the action. The main reason to go to the bridge, however, is its connection with the past in the Baroque statues that adorn the pedestrian-only zone. Most are copies, since the originals were place in various Prague museums in the 1960s. Make sure to touch the statue of St. John of Nepomuk, a Czech martyr saint who was thrown to his death into the river from the Charles Bridge. Touching this statue is supposed to bring you good luck and ensure your return to the city at a later date. The bridge towers provide an excellent view of Prague Castle and the bridge itself.
Prague Castle is no run-of-the-mill medieval fortress. The Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the largest castle complex in the world at almost 70,000 square meters. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a delight for those who love medieval architecture, buildings, and art history. You can easily spend several days inside the complex, depending on your interests. Expect to do a lot of walking among the various ecclesiastical and governmental buildings and the complex’s magnificent gardens.
The complex is an interesting mix of many different historical periods and architectural styles comprised primarily of Romanesque and Gothic, with modifications made to buildings through the middle of the First Republic in the 20th century. The first stone building was the Church of the Virgin Mary, of which only remnants remain. For a unique way to experience Prague Castle, take in a classical concert. Lobkowicz Palace has daily concerts at lunchtime, while St. George’s Basilica has early evening concerts several times per week.
Today, the complex is the Czech Republic’s most popular attraction and cultural institution. It is the official residence of the president of the Czech Republic. Make sure to catch the Changing of the Guard ceremony at midday at the main gates. Security queues can be lengthy, with wait times ranging from 10 to 50 minutes. Mornings are busiest, so allow for extra time when visiting.
When you want a break from visiting all of the historical sites, go to the Petřín Hill for some of the best views of the Golden City. Even here you can experience history, since the hill was a former vineyard for Charles IV. Atop the hill is the Petřín Tower, affectionately known as the Eiffel Tower of Prague. It only takes about four minutes to climb to the top of the tower, as there is no elevator. On a clear day, you can see nearly all of Bohemia as well as the Czech Republic’s highest mountain, Snezka.
Petřín Hill has plenty of fun things to do. On your way up, make sure you stop at the statue of Karel Hynek Macha, the Czech romantic poet, and author of the love poem “May.” The statue is an unofficial meeting place for lovers. Other notable attractions include the Mirror Maze, an extensive rose garden, an observatory, as well as pony and horseback rides for the kids.
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Video by Nino D. Gordeli. Text by Sarah Dandashy for PeterGreenberg.com. You can watch her other videos for travel tips & tricks at AskAConcierge.tv.