The capital of the Czech Republic, Prague is the best-preserved Baroque city in Central Europe. We experience its massive castle, beloved statue-lined bridge, historic Jewish Quarter, and thrilling 20th-century history while enjoying its infectious love of music and perhaps the best beer in Europe. With a beautifully preserved Old Town, Prague deserves its nickname: the Golden City of a Hundred Spires.
The twin, multiturreted, fairy-tale-like Gothic towers of the Church of Our Lady Before Týn (its full name) loom over the Old Town Square. While every tourist snaps a photo of this church, consider stepping inside, too. Thanks to its complex history — first Catholic, then the main Hussite (Protestant) church, then Catholic again — it has an elaborately decorated interior (closed Sunday afternoons and all day Monday).
The clock, on the side of the tower of the Old Town Hall on Old Town Square, strikes the top of the hour and puts on a little glockenspiel show daily from 9:00 to 21:00 (until 20:00 in winter).
This vast and sprawling complex has been the seat of Czech power for centuries. It collects a wide range of sights, including the country's top church, its former royal palace, a higgledy-piggledy lane, and an assortment of history and art museums. While it's imposing and a bit intimidating to sightseers, the casual visitor finds that a quick and targeted visit is ideal. While you can enter the grounds for free, most sights require tickets.
As one of the city's most crowded sights, the castle is awash in visitors during peak times (9:30–12:30, especially May–Sept). St. Vitus Cathedral’s free-to-visit vestibule is often packed; sights that require paid entry — including at the cathedral — are less jammed.
In its heyday, Strahov Monastery had a booming economy of its own, with vineyards, a brewery, and a sizable beer hall — all open once again. You can explore the monastery complex, check out the beautiful old library, and even enjoy a brew (no longer monk-made, but still refreshing). While the grounds are free to explore, the library requires a ticket.
For more than 700 years, this has been the most important synagogue and the central building in the Jewish Quarter. While the exterior seems simple compared to ornate neighboring townhouses, the interior is atmospherically 13th-century.
For many visitors, this house of worship is the most powerful of the Jewish Quarter sights. It's now part of the Jewish Museum in Prague, a collection of sights that share opening hours and the same admission tickets.
This enjoyable little museum features a small selection of the insistently likeable art of Alfons Mucha, a founding father of the Art Nouveau movement. It's all crammed into a too-small space, some of the art is faded, and the admission price is steep — but there's no better place to gain an understanding of Mucha's talent, his career, and the influence he's had on the world art scene. You'll learn how his popular patriotic banners, filled with Czech symbols and expressing his people's ideals and aspirations, aroused the national spirit (and made him famous). Enjoy decorative posters from his years in Paris, including his celebrated ads for the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Check out the photographs of his models, which Mucha later re-created in pencil or paint, and be sure to see the 30-minute film on the artist's life.
From 2017 likely at least through the end of 2018, Alfons Mucha's monumental work won't be on display in Prague, as it'll be out on tour around Japan, Korea, China, and possibly the US. But during that time the rest of the National Gallery is still worth a visit for its extensive, fun-to-wander modern art collection, with pieces by artists both Czech and international (lesser-known works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and more).
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. As always, we're sampling the local culture. And around here that means great beer. We're in Prague — in the Czech Republic. Thanks for joining us.
Prague, which escaped the bombs of last century's wars, is one of Europe's best-preserved cities. Its nickname: the golden city of a hundred spires. And, beyond its striking facades, it's an accessible city with a story to tell and plenty to experience.
We'll explore Prague — filled with exuberant architecture and slinky, sumptuous Art Nouveau. With music spilling into the streets and colorful pubs serving up some of the best beer in Europe, it's a city thriving with visitors. We'll take in sights ranging from Europe's most interesting Jewish Quarter to Prague's in-love-with-life Charles Bridge.
Buried in the center of Europe is the Czech Republic and its capital and dominant city, Prague. Prague, straddling the Vltava River, is easy on foot, with highlights like Wenceslas Square, the Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, and the cathedral up in the castle all within about an hour's walk.
The 14th century was Prague's Golden Age — the Holy Roman Emperor ruled from here. Back then, this was one of Europe's largest and most highly cultured cities.
Until about 1800, Prague was four separate and fortified towns: 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.
Prague's four gloomy decades of communist control feels like a distant memory as the city is bursting with entrepreneurial energy. Everything, from the buildings — like the Dancing House — nicknamed "Fred and Ginger" — to the vibrant crowds in the streets seem to celebrate Czech freedom.
Charles Bridge was commissioned in the 14th century by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. It offers one of the most pleasant strolls in Europe. This bridge is part of the historic coronation route called the Royal Way. Coronation processions started above, at the cathedral, where the king was crowned. From there they crossed this bridge and headed for the Old Town Square.
Today, the final stretch of the Royal Way 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 make a point to venture beyond.
Prague is flourishing with inviting lanes and vibrant markets. Today, as they have since medieval times, Prague's farmers' markets keep both hungry locals and visitors well fed.
Every time I come to Prague, my tour guide friend Lida keeps trying to teach me a little more Czech.
Rick: Can you teach me four important words in Czech?
Lida: Don't you remember them? After so many years.
Rick: I'm completely beginning.
Lida: Okay. You are my friend.
Lida: Hello, ahoj.
Lida: Ahoj,very good.
Rick: Ahoj, okay.
Lida: More formal. Dobrý den.
Rick: Dobrý den, Dobrý den.So dobrý is good, den is day, good day. Dobrý den.
Lida: Magic word: Please. Prosím.
Lida: Be careful to pronounce the M in the end, because the Czech is very perfect, exact language. Prosím.
Rick: Prosím. Prosím.
Lida: Very good.
Lida: And another magic word: Thank you. Děkuji.
Lida: A little bit softer.
Rick: Děkuji. Děkuji.
Lida: Very well.
Rick: Děkuji. Thank you. Nice. Thank you, děkuji. Okay, so, dobrý den, děkuji, prosím, ahoj.
Rick: And how do you say good-bye?
Lida: Ahoj! It's the same.
Rick: Ahoj, like hello.
Lida: Yes, exactly.
Rick: Hello, good-bye. Ahoj, ahoj.
Lida: It's either.
I'll test my new language skills for the price of some local fruit.
Rick: Okay, let's practice what you've taught me.
Lida: Yeah. Oh, look, plums are in season.
Rick: Good. Dobrý den.
Fruit vendor: Dobrý den.
Rick: How do you say "plums"?
Rick: And five?
Rick: Pět švestky prosím. Prosím?
Lida: Prosím, yeah.
Rick: And then dobro, very good. Dobro. Good. This okay? Děkuji.
Fruit vendor: Děkuji.
Fruit vendor: Ahoj.
Rick: These will be great, that worked.
Prague's Old Town Square, once just another farmers' market, is now the heart of the city. But today the commerce is clearly tourism.
The fanciful Gothic Týn Church soars over everything as if to remind tourists that lots of religious history took place right here. Back in the 15th century, when some Christians were beginning to struggle against Roman Catholic dominance, this was Prague's leading Hussite church.
Hussites were followers of Jan Hus, whose statue graces the square. He was a local preacher who got in trouble with the Vatican a hundred years before Martin Luther and the Reformation. The chalice is a symbol of Hus and his followers who believed everyone — not just priests — should be able to partake in the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
These days, huge crowds gather at the 15th-century Astronomical Clock back here on the Old Town Square. The dials seem to tell you everything you could possibly want to know. 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, 500 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 gawk.
Prague has long been a mecca for musicians. Mozart loved the place. His opera, Don Giovanni, debuted just around the corner. Antonín Dvořák lived and composed right here. And today, that enthusiasm for music lives on.
Box offices around town give you all the options: theater, opera, jazz, and classical. Tickets are cheap — about half what you'd pay in Vienna. Racks of fliers show what's on. And with this wall of photos, you can choose just the right venue.
There's chamber music all over town. We're enjoying a string quartet…it's Vivaldi in the Chapel of Mirrors.
Enjoying Baroque music in a Baroque space like this, the music takes on a delightful dimension.
Prague Castle, towering above the town, dominates the west side of the Vltava River…also known as the Moldau. It's a complex of churches and palaces encircled by mighty walls. For a thousand years, Prague has been ruled from here. Even today, the Czech president works within its gates. The changing of the guards adds a dose of formality.
And for some entertaining informality, a quartet called the Prague Castle Orchestra is playing just outside. Their forte: songs that resonate with the Czech people. I'm meeting another friend, Honza Vihan, who helps me guide our tours and research guidebooks. Honza's joining us for a sweep through Prague history.
Rick: This piece just brings out emotion, doesn't it?
Honza: Yeah, the song is very important to the Czech people. It's "The Moldau," or "Vltava," by Smetana.
Rick: So that's the river here.
Honza: It's named after the river. It's like the blood of the Czech people, and wherever you go in the world, you can just think of this tune and it's like being back home.
The castle complex is…complex, and vast as well — with noble palaces, ancient churches, and grand banqueting halls. While you could easily spend all day within its walls, the one essential stop is St. Vitus Cathedral.
The church is Gothic…started in the 1300s but not finished for centuries.
Inside, the clean soaring lines and vast windows create a space that's quintessentially Gothic: full of light and uplifting. Visitors are dwarfed by the scale and wowed by the beauty.
A stunning Art Nouveau window created by Alfons Mucha in 1931 graces the nave. But the importance of the cathedral, both religious and cultural, is best felt in its intimate and sumptuously decorated Wenceslas Chapel.
Rick: This place feels very sacred.
Honza: Yeah, a church in this place has been the holiest place in the country for 1,100 years. St. Wenceslas is buried here.
Rick: So that's Wenceslas' tomb.
Honza: Yeah. He's the first Slavic saint, so the time when we had all this French and Italian saints, this was the first Slav to attain sainthood, and he's the patron of the Czech people, and the kings have been coronated here for those 1,100 years, and they'd always be just lent the crown of St. Wenceslas, who otherwise rules eternally up in heaven.
Just up the hill, the Strahov Monastery overlooks the Prague Castle and the rest of the city. The monastery was a center of learning. As the Age of Enlightenment swept into Prague in the 18th century, it brought with it an enthusiasm for the study of natural sciences. Cases highlight oddities from around the globe and wonders of the day. Could this be a baby dodo bird?
The monastery is most noted for its library. Libraries were the Google of the day. It's hard to overestimate the importance of these books back then. The halls were decorated with paintings that celebrated philosophy, theology, and the quest for knowledge. Knowledge is power and in Europe, until modern times, the Church was the keeper of knowledge. This gave the Church extraordinary power. For example, some of these books dealt with particularly challenging ideas. The locked case above the door was for libri prohibiti — the prohibited books.
Only the abbot had the key, and to read these books — like the works of Copernicusand Jan Hus — you had to get his permission. As the Age of Enlightenment took hold in Europe, the Church struggled to maintain its control of knowledge.
Pondering these treasured books from our Information Age perspective, I'm reminded both how abundant information is today and of the importance of free access.
Prague is well-served by its tram system. You can tame any big city by taking advantage of its public transportation. Trams slither up and down the cobbled streets every few minutes. The service is so good and cheap, many locals never get around to learning to drive. We're heading across town 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 exceptionally 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 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.
By the end of World War I, the Habsburgs were history, and the birth of an independent Czechoslovakia was celebrated on this square. But independence lasted barely 20 years. In 1939, the Nazis marched in. While Prague escaped the bombs of World War II, it couldn't avoid the communists who came next…and stayed for 40 years. But, with this square as the stage, people power ultimately prevailed.
Honza: In the 20th century, my family lived history in this square. In 1918, my grandma watched the Habsburg eagles being pulled down from the buildings. In 1939, my aunt saw the Nazis pulling in. In 1968, my dad stood here with his bare hands against the Soviet tanks. In 1989, it was my generation's turn.
Rick: So you were here. Tell me what happened.
Honza: In November '89, a student march headed for this square, kicked off two weeks of demonstrations. For 40 nights, this square filled with 300,000 people.
Rick: Each night, 300,000 people here.
Honza: And on the last night, Václav Havel, the playwright, who would become our next president, announced from that balcony the resignation of the Communist government.
Honza: Suddenly, we were free.
And without a shot, the communist era had ended for the Czech people.
And today, a big part of that newly won freedom is the freedom to enjoy what many consider Europe's best beer. Prague's beerhalls — both big and small — are an integral part of the city and its social scene.
Over the generations beer has evolved from a heavy almost liquid bread beverage to a lighter, more refreshing pilsner or lager. It seems Czechs perfected lager and they drink it with a strong sense of ownership. And in a place like this, even for a tourist, good conversation and quick friendships go hand in hand — especially with your second half liter.
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 10th century.
In the 13th century, they built this [Old-New] synagogue — now the oldest in central Europe. Stepping into this venerable place of worship, and marveling at how this could have survived the tumult of the ages, we feel eight centuries of devotion.
The old cemetery reminds visitors that this Jewish community was one of Europe's largest. With limited space and tens of thousands of 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. A walk through here affords a contemplative moment in a serene setting.
About a hundred years ago, Prague's 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 thought-provoking and open to visitors. This synagogue is now a museum, filled with historic and precious Judaica.
Even as Nazis were destroying Jewish communities in the region, Czech Jews were allowed to collect and archive their treasures here. But even the curators of this museum ultimately ended up in concentration camps.
Nearby, another synagogue [the Pinkas synagogue] is now 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 provides a moving soundtrack. 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 religion endured and a small Jewish community survives in Prague to this day.
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 perhaps the best Art Nouveau town in Europe.
Art Nouveau was an ethic of beauty. It celebrated creativity and the notion that art, design, fine living — it all flowed together.
For a closer look at that Art Nouveau aesthetic, visit the Mucha Museum. I find the art of Prague's Alfons Mucha, who worked around 1900, incessantly likable.
With the help of an abundant supply of gorgeous models and an ability to be just provocative enough, Mucha was a founding father of the Art Nouveau movement.
His specialty: pretty women with flowers, portraits of rich wives, and slinky models celebrating the good life. But he grew tired of commercial art and redirected his creative energy.
A short tram ride away, in the Czech National Gallery of Modern Art, is Mucha's greatest work, his magnum opus. [From 2017 likely at least through the end of 2018, the Slav Epic won't be on display in Prague, as it'll be out on tour around east Asia, and possibly the US.]
Mucha dedicated the last half of his career — 18 years — to painting the Slav Epic. It's a series of 20 huge canvases designed to tell the story of his people on a grand scale.
In this self-portrait young Mucha is the seer — a conduit, determined to share wisdom of a sage Slav with his fellow Czechs.
Mucha paints a brotherhood of Slavic people — Serbs, Slovaks, Poles, and Czechs — who share a common heritage, deep roots, and a hard-fought past. Through these illustrations of epic events, Czechs can trace their ethnic roots.
Mucha, with his romantic nationalist vision, shows how through the ages Goths and Germanic people have brought terror and destruction to the Slavs…whose pagan roots are woven deep into their national character. With each panel you get more caught up in the story.
The establishment of the Orthodox Christian faith provided a common thread for Slavic peoples. To maintain their identity, they stood up to the Roman Church with courageous religious leaders boldly confronting Vatican officials. The printing of the Bible in the Czech language was a cultural milestone.
Then they endured three centuries of darkness during the time Czechs were ruled by the Catholic Austrians. Mucha's final canvas shows the ultimate triumph of the Czech people as, in the 20th century, they join the family of nations with their Czech ethnicity intact. The Slav Epic.
While Prague is packed with art, history, and a wealth of unforgettable sights, the most lasting impression I take from visiting 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 back at my favorite pub, and Lida and Honza are saving me a seat.
Whether you come to Prague for its golden spires, its slinky art, its incredible beer, or the Czech people, it's a great place to visit. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Na zdraví.
Whether you come to Prague for the slinky music —
Whether you come to Prague for the golden arches —
It's a great place to visit.
And beyond its striking facades, it's one of Europe's most…Da da da da da.
♪ Love me two times, I'm going away. ♪
Would you like more muscles in my upper body?