Prague and the Czech Republic
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we return to the Czech Republic for a close-up look at Prague — the hottest city in Eastern Europe.
It's amazing what a few years of freedom can do. Prague was always beautiful. Now it's fun, too. And the streets are filled with young people who seem determined to make up for their parents' Stalin-gray childhoods.
We'll explore Prague — slinky with sumptuous Art Nouveau facades, perpetually playing Mozart and Vivaldi, and brewing the best beer in Europe. We'll see Europe's most interesting Jewish Quarter, Prague's in-love-with-life Charles Bridge, and its unique Black Light Theater. After classy street music, we'll venture into the Czech countryside to tour a silver mine and check out some bony decor.
The Czech Republic — a quick and easy side trip from Western Europe — is the western half of what was Czechoslovakia. It's about the size of Maryland. From Prague, we side trip to Kutna Hora.
The capital of the Czech Republic is Prague. Since it escaped the bombs of last century's wars, it's one of Europe's best preserved cities. Its nickname: the golden city of a hundred spires.
Until about 1800, Prague was four separate and fortified towns — each straddling the Vltava River. The Castle Town — for a thousand years the home of the Czech ruler. The Little Town — where nobles would live to be close to the king. The Old Town — with its magnificent market square. And the New Town — with the grand Wenceslas Square providing a stage for this country's tumultuous 20th-century history.
After a generation under communist control, the city is bursting with pent up entrepreneurial energy. Even the buildings — like the Dancing House — seem to celebrate Czech freedom.
Under capitalism, Prague is flourishing with inviting restaurants and vibrant markets. Today, as it has since medieval times, Prague's central market keeps both hungry locals and vagabonds well fed.
Every time I come to Prague, my tour guide friend Lida tries to teach me a little more Czech. We start from scratch each time.
Lida: Dobry den is "good day," prosim means "please," dobre means "good," Dekuji is "thank you," and Ahoj means "good bye" — to be used with friends and family.
Prague's Old Town Square — now the heart of the city — was once a similar market. But today the commerce is tourism.
The 14th century was Prague's Golden Age — the Holy Roman Emperor ruled from here, not Vienna. Back then, Prague was one of Europe's largest and most highly cultured cities.
The square is a festival of architectural styles: Gothic — pointed arches; Renaissance — straight classical-style windows; Baroque — controlled exuberance; and Rococo — uncontrolled exuberance. The fanciful Gothic Tyn Church soars over everything. For centuries, this was Prague's leading Hussite church.
Hussites were followers of Jan Hus, a local preacher who got in trouble with the Vatican a hundred years before Martin Luther.
Hus preached and taught from the pulpit here in Prague's university chapel. Like Luther, his sermons were given in the people's language rather than Latin, complained about Church corruption, and drew huge crowds. Hus was tried for heresy and burned in 1415.
Hus became both a religious and a national hero. While each age has defined Hus to its liking, the way he challenged authority while staying true to himself has always inspired and rallied the Czech people.
These days, the big crowds gather at the 15th-century Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall. It tells the phases of the moon, sunset, current sign of the zodiac, each day's special saint...and, somehow, it even tells the time. And, of course, five hundred years ago, everything revolved around the earth.
At the top of the hour: Death tips his hourglass and pulls the cord; the windows open as the Twelve Apostles parade by, acknowledging the gang of onlookers; the rooster crows; and finally...the bell rings. But my favorite part of the show is watching the crowd that gathers.
Prague has long been a mecca for musicians. Mozart loved the place. His opera Don Giovanni debuted just around the corner. Antonin Dvorak lived and worked here. And today, there's music everywhere.
Lida's boyfriend plays the flute in a trio called the Prague Castle Orchestra.
Lida: This is a love song — a song that is typical of Prague.
As in other European music capitals, you'll be accosted by powdered-wigged Mozarts and chain-smoking Vivaldis peddling concert tickets. While they sell tickets only for their show, a box office like this one — at the Tyn Church — gives you all the options: theater, opera, jazz, and classical.
Tickets are cheap — about a third what you'd pay in Vienna. Racks of fliers show what's on today and tomorrow. And with this wall of photos, you can choose just the right venue.
It's Mozart in the St. Nicolas church, under a Bohemian crystal chandelier — timeless music in an elegant space...I like it.
In Prague, I stay at Hotel Julian. In a quiet, un-touristy neighborhood, it's reliable and well run.
You'll find a friendly and helpful staff, inviting lounge, and spacious, fresh, well furnished rooms.
Our favorite trio is now playing up at the castle, where I'm meeting another friend. Honza Vihan, who helps me guide tours and research guidebooks, is joining us for a sweep through Prague history.
Honza: This song means a lot to the Czech people.
Prague castle is a complex of churches, palaces, and towers on a hill that dominates the west side of the Vltava River.
For a thousand years, Prague has been ruled from here. Even today, the guards march, and the president works within its gates.
The castle complex is huge. Keep things simple. Consider your visit a royal stroll with one essential stop — the St. Vitus cathedral.
Honza: This is from the 14th century. See Jesus here on Judgment Day? And the saved rising up out of their coffins, and the damned there? The king and queen would walk under this arch on the day of coronation to remind them that they might be the most powerful, but that they too would be judged one day.
The church was started in the 1300s, but what's with the guys in the modern suits? They're the architects and builders who finished the church in the 1920s.
Honza: This is really the central location, isn't it? Yes, for 1,100 years, this church has been the center of the cathedral and our country. Almost all of our saints and kings are buried here. This is the most sacred part of the cathedral; this is St. Vitus' tomb. On top of the tomb is where all of the coronations took place. All the art is 14th-century and depicts the life of St. Vitus.
This Art Nouveau window is by Alfons Mucha from 1931. It features Saints Methodious and Cyril. While Cyril is famous for the Cyrillic alphabet, this duo is remembered here for bringing Christianity to the Czechs and all Slavs. Mucha draws your eyes to the center with color: blue on the outside represents the past, while the gold of the interior represents the promise of a grand future. We'll see much more Mucha later.
Strahov Monastery overlooks the castle. It's big draw: an impressive library — and this one collected more than books. As the Age of Enlightenment swept into Prague in the 18th century, it brought with it an enthusiasm for the study of natural sciences. This is a baby dodo bird.
The focus of this hall: philosophy, with appropriate themes on the ceiling. Another hall is dedicated to theology. If knowledge is power, monasteries with libraries like this were forces to be reckoned with. The locked case above the door was for libri prohibiti — the prohibited books.
Only the abbot had the key, and you could read these books — like Copernicus, Jan Hus, even the French encyclopedia — only with the abbot's permission. As the Age of Enlightenment took hold in Europe, Monasteries still controlled the books.
Prague's Charles Bridge was commissioned in the 14th century by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. It offers one of the most pleasant 500 yard strolls in Europe. We're following the ancient route of coronation processions that started at the cathedral in the castle, where the king was crowned, crossed this bridge, and continued to the Old Town Square.
Today, the King's Walk, as it's called, is a commercial gauntlet lined with Prague's most playful diversions. Like main drags throughout Europe, this walk mesmerizes visitors. Use it as a spine, but venture off it — especially to eat or drink.
Tame any big city by taking advantage of its public transportation. Prague's subway can be helpful. The system, with just three lines, is cheap, simple, and zips us right to the top of Wenceslas Square.
St. Wenceslas, commemorated by this statue, is the "good king" of Christmas carol fame. The statue is a popular meeting point. Locals say, "I'll see you under the horse's...tail." The "good king" was actually an unusually educated and highly cultured 10th century Czech duke.
Stories of his enlightened reign caused Europeans to see Czechs as civilized rather than barbarian. To this day, Wenceslas is a symbol of Czech nationalism.
Wenceslas Square is the main square of the country and the natural assembly point when the Czech people need to raise their collective voice for a change. In the 19th century, the age of divine kings and ruling families was coming to an end. Here, as in much of Europe, nationalism was on the rise.
With the end of World War I, the Hapsburgs were history, and the independent country of Czechoslovakia was proclaimed from this square. But independence lasted barely 20 years. In 1939, the Nazis swept in. While Prague escaped the bombs of World War II, it couldn't avoid the communists.
Honza: We struggled for 40 years under communism. The 1968 rebellion failed. But 20 years later, massive demonstrations were held here every day for two weeks. We shook our keys like this...it's time to go. It led to the overthrow of the Czech communist government. You see that balcony? In 1989, that's where, for the first time in 20 years, we saw Vaclav Havel and then Alexander Dubcek — our hero from the '68 rebellion. Havel announced that the communist government had resigned. A few days later, we got our new government. And three years after that, Czechoslovakia was peacefully divided into Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
But, regardless of who's in power, the Czechs always have good places for a beer. For many, pivo — that's beer — is the top Czech tourist attraction. After all, the Czechs invented lager.
Before the 19th century, beer used to be much heavier, like liquid bread. Then with the start of the industrial revolution, people were starting to work other jobs besides ones out in the fields and wanted a lighter beer. Lager was then produced, being a light beer, or "diet beer."
We've got tickets for the Black Light Theater. This uniquely Czech mime/modern dance variety show is lively — and it has no language barrier.
Black Light Theatre was started here in the 1960s as a kind of theater of the absurd. Many Czechs see their history as kind of theater of the absurd.
Travel in the Czech Republic is like traveling anywhere in Western Europe — just less expensive. There are good side trips from Prague. We're taking a quick side trip — an hour by train — to Kutna Hora.
A look at the countryside and a visit to a work-a-day town like Kutna Hora rounds out your impression of this country.
Six hundred years ago, Kutna Hora was the second Czech town — and a boomtown because of its silver mines. When the mines were exhausted, Kutna Hora was basically mothballed...that's why it's so well preserved today.
The town sits upon what was Europe's largest silver mine. Today, visitors play miner and climb down 200 yards below the town to explore the medieval mine shafts that honeycombed the ground under Kutna Hora. Centuries of mining in these narrow wet shafts made the ground under Kutna Hora resemble a giant anthill. The mine was so productive that the standard coinage of much of Europe was minted right here.
Horses powered this winch. They could lift 2000 pounds of rock out of the mine.
This Baroque column is a memorial to a plague that swept through Bohemia. But a more vivid memorial is Kutna Hora's ossuary, decorated with the bones of 40,000 people — many of them plague victims. The monks who stacked these bones 400 years ago wanted viewers to remember that the earthly church is a community of both the living and the dead — a countless multitude which will one day stand before God.
Later bone-stackers were more into design than theology. This chandelier includes every bone in the human body.
Honza will join us again later, but I'm heading back to Prague for more sightseeing.
Prague's skyline of red roofs and towering spires can hide the fact that the city is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe.
Dispersed by the Romans 2,000 years ago, Jews and their culture survived in enclaves throughout the Western world. Jewish traders settled here in Prague. In the 13th century, they built this synagogue — now the oldest in central Europe.
The Old Jewish Cemetery reminds visitors that this community was one of Europe's largest. With limited space and over 20,000 graves, tombs were piled atop each other many layers high.
The Jewish word for cemetery means "House of Life." Like Christians, Jews believe that death is the gateway into the next world. Pebbles on the tombstones are reminders of the old days back when rocks were placed upon a sandy desert gravesite to keep the body covered.
This area was a walled in ghetto for centuries. Eventually, the government realized that Jews had lots to contribute to the rest of society. Restrictions were eased and Jews were free to live anywhere in town.
About a hundred years ago, the ramshackle ghetto was torn down and rebuilt as the attractive neighborhood we see today: fine, mostly Art Nouveau buildings. The few surviving historic buildings are now collectively an excellent Jewish museum.
As Nazis destroyed Jewish communities in the region, Prague's Jews were allowed to collect and archive their treasures. But the founders of this museum also ultimately died in concentration camps.
Today, this quarter is a poignant memorial to the victims of the Nazis. Of the 120,000 Jews living here before the Nazis came, only 15,000 lived to see liberation in 1945. These walls are covered with the handwritten names of over 78,000 local Jews who were sent to concentration camps. A voice reading the names of the victims fills the memorial. Family names are in red, followed by first names, birthdays, and the last date that person was known to be alive.
Despite the horrors of the holocaust, the Jewish community and religion endured. Judaism is alive and well here in Prague.
The Art Nouveau facades gracing the Jewish Quarter and streets all over the city seem to proclaim that life is precious and to be celebrated. Prague is the best Art Nouveau town in Europe.
The Municipal House, Prague's largest concert hall, is a grand Art Nouveau palace. In the Homage to Prague mosaic, a goddess-like Prague presides over a land of peace and high culture. Buildings like this stoked cultural pride and nationalist sentiment.
This is a great place to try a fancy pastry.
For a closer look at Art Nouveau, visit the Mucha Museum — one of Europe's most enjoyable little galleries. I find the art of Alfons Mucha, who worked around 1900, insistently likable. This museum, run by the artist's grandson, is thoughtfully described and displayed on one comfortable floor.
With the help of an abundant supply of slinky models, Mucha was a founding father of the Art Nouveau movement.
His posters — filled with Czech symbols and expressing his people's ideals and aspirations — were patriotic banners arousing the national spirit.
While Prague is packed with art, history, and a wealth of unforgettable sights, the most lasting impression I'm left with when I leave this magnificent city is the spirit of the Czech people — a youthful spirit that celebrates freedom and looks forward to a prosperous future.
And that's enough of an excuse for one last party. The Prague Castle Orchestra is playing, and Lida and Honza are saving me a seat.
Whether you come to Prague for its golden spires, its slinky art, its great beer, or the Czech people, it's a place you won't want to miss. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Nastravie.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.