Hitting Prague's Highlights
|People enjoying a sunny day in Prague.|
By Rick Steves
It's amazing what a decade and a half of freedom can do. Prague has always been historic. Now it's fun, too. No other place in Europe has become so popular so quickly. And for good reason: Prague — the only Central European capital to escape the bombs of the last century's wars — is one of Europe's best-preserved cities. It's filled with sumptuous Art Nouveau facades, offers tons of cheap Mozart and Vivaldi, and brews the best beer in Europe. But even beyond its architecture and traditional culture, it's an explosion of pent-up entrepreneurial energy jumping for joy after 40 years of communist rule. Its low prices can cause you to jump for joy, too. Travel in Prague is like travel in Western Europe — 15 years ago and for half the price. Here are some of Prague's highlights:
Wenceslas Square, named for the "good king" of Christmas-carol fame, is the lively heart of modern Prague. St. Wenceslas, who was the wise and benevolent 10th-century duke of Bohemia, presides over the square on horseback. The square (actually more of a broad boulevard) is a stage for modern Czech history: The Czechoslovak state was proclaimed here in 1918. In 1968, the Soviets put down huge popular demonstrations here (you can still see patches covering bullet holes on the columns of the National Museum). Twenty years later, in November 1989, hundreds of thousands of ecstatic Czechs gathered here to celebrate the imminent freedom of the Republic of Czechoslovakia.
Not far from the square is the Museum of Communism, nestled between a McDonald's and casino. The museum is a hodgepodge of artifacts from the Czech Republic's 40-year stint with Soviet economics. For a colorful look at today's economy, drop by the nearby Havelska Market, the city's best open-air flower and produce market. Prague's focal point is the Old Town Square, a market square since the 11th century. Today the old-time market stalls have been replaced by cafés, touristy horse buggies, and souvenir hawkers, but the square — ringed by pastel buildings — is still beautiful.
Facing the square is the towering 14th-century Tyn Church, with its fanciful spires flanking a solid gold effigy of the Virgin Mary. This was Prague's leading Hussite church. Jan Hus, a local preacher and professor, challenged Latin sermons and complained about church corruption. Tried for heresy and burned in 1415, the rebel became both a religious and a national hero. The pointed 250-foot spire rising from the square marks the 14th-century Old Town Hall, famous for its astronomical clock. Join the gang — ignoring the ridiculous human sales racks — for the striking of the hour on the 15th-century clock featuring revolving disks, celestial symbols, and sweeping hands. Karlova Street, one hyper-capitalistic orgy, winds through medieval old Prague to the much-loved Charles Bridge. The glorious, statue-bedecked bridge, commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1357, is lined with market stalls and street musicians, offering one of the most pleasant and entertaining strolls in Europe.
Looming atop the hill is Prague Castle, the roost of Czech rulers for over a thousand years. It's huge (by some measures, the biggest castle on earth) and confusing — with plenty of sights not worth seeing. Keep things simple. Five stops matter: Castle Square (great views), St. Vitus Cathedral (where all the biggies are buried, built over nearly 600 years beginning in 1344), the Old Royal Palace (seat of the Bohemian princes in the 12th century), Basilica of St. George (first Bohemian convent and best-preserved Romanesque church), and the Golden Lane (Kafka's old haunt). See all this and you're scarcely scratching the surface. Still to explore is the Jewish quarter (Europe's most interesting), the Art Nouveau sprinkled throughout the city (including the enjoyable Mucha Museum), Prague's lively music scene, and back street surprises, such as the Lennon Wall on Kampa Island, splashed with "all you need is love" and "imagine" graffiti honoring the beloved singer-songwriter.