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Praha (Prague)
  • Name: Praha. The German name of the capital is Prag and was often used in history. Obviously, the English word Prague derives from the German name.

  • Location: Prague marks the centre of Bohemia and stretches along the Vltava (Moldau) river. It is right in the middle of Berlin and Vienna - both towns are 270 km away as the crow flies. The area around the city is characterised by rolling hills, and so is the centre of Prague.

  • Orientation: Prague has around 1.2 million inhabitants. And yet it's much more famous than any other city with a similar population. When walking through the town, the population seems to be much higher - which is probably due to the incredible number of visitors.
    Many travellers heading for Eastern Europe make Prague their first destination. Which is okay, since Prague is a "must-see" indeed. The Lonely Planet on Eastern Europe points out that the visitor's impression of Prague highly depends on previous destinations. When coming from Paris, London or Rome, Prague will be a nice and rewarding place. When coming from further east, one might be shocked. That is perfectly right. It wasn't always like that. Prague before 1989 was different - the town was somewhat dilapidated and melancholic, an aged but very charming beauty. Now it's flickering and sparkling everywhere, sex shops and dubious exchange booths mushroomed, annoying tricksters prey upon some of the countless tourists invading the city every day (there's no need to worry, but before 1989 scam was something unknown in Prague). Travellers with a genuine interest in Eastern Europe should first go to Prague and then to →Budapest before heading for other, less frequented places. Otherwise chances that you are disappointed at Prague are likely to be high.
    Prague consists of huge living quarters and industrial areas in the suburbs and a large historic city centre. The Vltava (Moldau) river flows through the entire city bending in the centre of town. Josefov (the former Jewish quarter), Staré Město (old city) and the not-so-new Nové Město (new city) stretch along the right bank of the Vltava. The hillier left bank is dominated by the Hradčany (castle district). Both sides of the river are connected by numerous bridges. The most famous bridge, called Karlův Most (Charles bridge), lies in the heart of Prague and is closed to traffic.

  • Praha (Prag)
    The majestic castle and St. Vitus cathedral
    Praha (Prag)
    Probably the most famous view of Prague

  • History: Already in the year 965, the Jewish-Arab merchant Ibrahim Ibn Jacob stated that Prague would be "a city made of stone and limestone. The frequent traveller and poet Goethe eulogised Prague like nothing else. The Vltava (Moldau) river immortalised in Smetana's famous opus. Although much smaller, Prague can easily match with other famous cities such as Rome, Vienna or Paris.
    As has been proved, the area around Prague had been colonized thousands of years ago. The history of the town itself started in 870, when the first castle was built. Later on, the same castle was chosen as residence of Přemysl's, a noble family which ruled Bohemia for a few centuries. Above mentioned Ibrahim Ibn Jacob's quote is considered as being the first official written record of the city of Prague
    During the 11th century, the slow but steady development of the right bank of the river started. Initially, another castle called Výšehrad (upper castle) was built. By the way - this place name was quite typical for medieval times, and so a place with the same name can be found even in Hungary (see →Visegrád). Next the old town and the castle town developed step by step. After the dying-out of the Přemysl dynasty, Johann (John) of Luxemburg was named as the successor and became king of Bohemia. His son, Karl (Charles) IV., who, according to legends, had discovered the mineral springs of →Karlovy Vary, played a very important role for Prague. Thanks to him, Prague was declared seat of government of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation This of course boosted Prague's development. Many new buildings, mainly applying pure gothic style, were built. In 1348 the first university, which is actually named after Charles IV., was founded. To be exactly, this university is considered to be the oldest German university. More than a few of Prague's present-day attractions had been built at that time. This includes parts of the 'new city', Charles bridge and St. Vitus cathedral. During the reign of Charles IV., Prague had around 40,000 inhabitants and therefore was Europe's second biggest city - only to be outdone by Rome.
    After the death of Charles IV., the city lost its supremacy in the empire and suffered various devastating fire disasters. The worst fire took place in 1541 and destroyed many old buildings. Another time of prosperity began at the end of the 16th century and was induced by Rudolph II., a ruler who adored and patronized all kinds of art. Prague was declared capital again. Among others, the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler was invited to continue his studies in Prague. The city drew attention again in 1618. The so-called Defenestration of Prague (i.e. someone was thrown out of a window) marked the beginning of the 30 years' century, which flattened wide parts of Germany as well as Bohemia.
    During the reign of the Habsburg (Hapsburg) dynasty, Prague lost some of its political importance again, but another construction boom started. Most of Prague's baroque buildings were built in the 17th and 18th century. In 1784, Joseph II. united the four historic centres (old town, new town, castle town and downtown) and therefore founded the Capital of Prague. The industrialisation during the following century took place in Prague as well and influenced the development of town heavily. At that time, Prague was the centre of Bohemia in every respect and therefore not surprisingly the starting point of the revival of Bohemian national consciousness. Many personages were born and lived in Prague at that time - among them Rainer Maria Rilke and, probably Prague's most famous son, Franz Kafka (1883-1924) just to name but a few. And this is an advice to all visitors - read Kafka before going to Prague. The town is much more fascinating when you stroll around the narrow lanes while having Kafka in your mind.
    After the end of World War I and the defeat of Austria-Hungary, Prague was declared capital of the newly founded Czechoslovakia. The period of freedom didn't last long. In 1939, Hitler annexed Bohemia and Prague. However, the city remained capital - of the underground resitance. The German 'Reichsprotektor' Heydrich was assassinated 1942 in the centre of town (see also →History of the Czech rep.). The German army held the town until the end of the war. Only a large-scale uprising from 5 May until 9 May 1945 could liberate the city. Fortunately, Prague did not suffer massive air raids, because it was not a German city. Therefore damages caused by the war were comparatively small.
    After World War II., Prague was to be the capital of the now socialist Czechoslovakia again. And it gained entry again to the record of historically important events, when Soviet, East German and other heavily armed troops crushed the peaceful Prague Spring in 1968. The pictures of tanks in the streets of Prague remain unforgotten. During socialism, many historic buildings in Prague suffered dilapidation. As in any other city in socialist countries, the creation of living space had priority, and so many old buildings were not maintained.
    In 1989 Prague hit the headlines again, when hundreds of East Germans sought refuge in the West German embassy to ask for asylum, which finally worked out well. After the velvet divorce from Slovakia in 1993, Prague was officially declared capital of the Czech republic. Artists and tourists discovered the town and overran Prague. Especially many American dropouts made Prague their adopted home, and the number of visitors increased steadily. According to the Czech Statistic agency some 98 million people (incl. people passing through) visited the Czech republic in 2002. Among them, 40 million Germans, 20 million Poles, 10 million Slovaks and 7 million Austrians were registered. However, most of the visitors of the neighbouring countries stick to places near the border and don't go to Prague. What about the remaining 21 million visitors? Almost all of them headed for Prague. Nevertheless the number of overnight stays dropped sharply between 1997 and 2002. It's almost certain that the flood disaster of 2002, which also brought substantial damage to Prague, won't stop the negative trend.

  • Praha (Prag)
    Rush hour on Charles bridge
    Praha (Prag)
    There's a lot of entertainment on the bridge

  • Sights: There are simply too many sights to mention them all within this website. The internet and book stores already offer plenty of information on Prague, and so I would only like to give a few comments. Most sights of Prague concentrate within the limits of five wards:

    • Nové Město (lit.: New Town) starts at the main train station and surrounds the old city centre almost completely. Interesting places here include the long Václavské nám. (Vaclav, also Wenceslas, square), which is actually Prague's most expensive boulevard, the Národní muzeum (National museum) and the impressive Národní Divadlo (national theatre). Additionally, a handful of museums and the city hall of new town attract visitors. Unfortunately, the Vaclav square changed a lot - the majestic square had been turned into a place full of glittering and flashing sex shops, exchange booths and so on. However, nice restaurants and exclusive shops can be found as well.

    • Staré Město (old town) stretches north-west of the new town and is not very big. It is clearly separated from New Town by the busy ring road Na příkopě, Národní and 28. října behind Vaclav square. In the heart of the old town, the permanently overcrowded Staroměstské nám. (old city square) marks the absolute centre of Prague. Once a quiet medieval place, the square fills up quickly especially on warm summer days. Thousands of tourists loiter around and enjoy the old buildings facing the square.

      Praha (Prag)
      The gothic astronomical clock at the old town city hall
      Praha (Prag)
      Adjoining building of the city hall

      Probably the most famous building at the old city square is the Staroměstská Radnice (old city town hall). The building is mostly famous because of the huge gothic Orloj (astronomical clock) on the outer wall. In contradiction to the astronomical clock of →Olomouc, this one is an original. Every full hour, some figures appear in the upper windows of the clock and thousands of cameras make a clicking noise. Other attractions include a Jan Hus monument, the baroque Kostel sv. Mikuláše (St. Niclas church) and the marvellous Matka Boží před Týnem (thein church of virgin Mary). This gothic church got its characteristic looks in the 14th century and features two 80 m high unusual towers. Further to the east, another distinctive building called Prašná brána (gunpowder gate), although it's more like a tower, marks the border to new town. It's possible to climb the 65 m high gate.

    • North of the old city square, the rather small Jewish quarter Josefov stretches to the Vltava river in the north and the west. The old Jewish quarter is like a huge open air museum showing the long history of Jews in Prague. Several synagogues and Jewish burial grounds as well as the city hall of Josefov ward make this area an interesting place. All Jewish life related monuments have been joined up and are now called Prague Jewish museum. Entrance fee is an hefty 480 Kč (students pay 340). Quite expensive when you bear in mind that Czechs pay 50 Crowns only! It takes at least one day to see everything. By the way - Hitler planned to create a museum about "extinct races" in Josefov. Therefore, he had already started to collect Jewish artefacts. What a sick idea.

    • From the old city, the worldwide famous Charles bridge leads to Malá Strana (small quarter). The Karlův Most (charles bridge) was built in 1357 and remained Prague's one and only bridge spanning the Vltava until 1841. The 30 statues lining up on the bridge are from the 18th century. During the weekends, especially in summer, it's not possible to walk across the bridge on your own - instead, you will be pushed over the bridge. On Charles bridge, many painters, musicians, vendors and also pick-pockets perform, which makes the place even more crowded. However, it's a unique atmosphere that shouldn't be missed. There are two nice towers at both ends of the bridge. The one at the small quarter can be climbed. Admission fee is 30 Kč.
      As mentioned above, the 'small quarter' and surroundings are hilly. There are some interesting churches and, further to the north near the palace, the Valdštejnský palác (Wallenstein palace). This small palace was built in 1630. Today, it is used by the Senate. The palace was supposed to be Wallenstein's residence, but he couldn't enjoy the building for a long time, since he was murdered in →Cheb only four years later.
      The southern part of the 'small quarter' is characterised by green Petřínské sady (Petrin garden). The hilly green area contains several different parks and a 60 m high observation tower, which looks a little bit like a small version of the Eiffel tower in Paris. Many cafés and restaurants lining up in lanes around central Malostranské nám (small quarter square) cater for hungry tourists. Note that most restaurants int this area are more expensive than usual.

    • Praha (Prag)
      The palace guards at work...
      Praha (Prag)
      A detail of huge Vitus cathedral inside the castle

    • Last but not least the Hradčany (Castle District) north of the Small Quarter. Since the castle itself is atop a hill, it can be seen from almost everywhere in Prague. Here, the history of Prague started. And it has always been the political centre of Bohemia, Czechoslovakia and today of the Czech republic. The castle is still used as the residence of the Czech president. The castle itself was first built in the 9th century and several times rebuilt. Therefore, it's colourful and interesting mix of several architectural styles. Most visitors enter the castle at Hradčanske nám (palace square). After passing the first, very small court, and the second and slightly bigger court, one will enter the large third court. Inside this area called Pražský hrad (Prague castle) or shortly "Hradschin", the giant Katedrála sv. Vita (St. Vitus cathedral) dominates everything around (see photos at the top). The cathedral stands in the middle of the third court. The construction of the church started in 1344 and followed the French cathedral gothic style. However, it was not before 1929 that the cathedral could be completed. Almost the same can be said about the Cathedral of Cologne. Already in the 10th century, a small church was built at the same place. The St. Vitus cathedral is 124 m long and 60 m wide, the towers are around 97 m high.
      The adjoining buildings and towers of the castle are used as galleries, museums (among them the Národní muzeum - National Museum), monasteries and other clerical institutions. Not to forget the Zlatá Ulička (Golden Lane). This little street was built at the end of the 16th century. Many small living houses line up at Golden Lane, among them the so-called Kafka house. However, I couldn't believe my own eyes when I saw that the lane had been completely closed in 2003 - today, there's even an entrance fee to get inside. This doesn't seem to disturb anyone - the lane is often overcrowded. Travellers with claustrophobia should think twice before they enter - at least in summer.
      Important castles are always protected by important looking guards. So is the Hrad of Prague. At the main entrance, two guards wearing traditional uniforms entertain the visitors. There's a changing of the guard every full hour and an impressive ceremony at noon. Expect to be one of many thousands visitors at noon. There are other interesting places outside the castle itself - among them the Loreto shrine, a palace, the National Gallery and the old Strahov library.

    Other attractions in Prague include the Vyšehrad (Upper Castle) south of the New Town towering the right Vltava riverside. As already mentioned above, a first castle was built in the 11th century. However, the castle as it can be seen today had been built in the 17th century. There's also the famous Slavín cemetary, where the graves of celebrities like Smetana and Dvořák can be seen. Subway C goes straight to the Upper Castle area.
    Another famous attraction of Prague is the U Fleků, a large beer hall, which is in business since 1499. The U Fleku produces its own dark beer, which is, admittedly, very tasty and therefore famous. Alas, what has been done to this beautiful place? Staff is very unfriendly and tries to fill up the poor visitor as quick as possible. Pushy waiters try to convince guests to buy the famous Becherovka - for 75 Crowns only (regular price for the same is around 25!). The U Fleku became a cold, automized cash cow. Therefore my idea: Boycott the U Fleku to make them understand that friendliness is still important.

  • Getting there / Transportation: When travelling to Prague by train, it's very important to understand which train station is the correct one, since there are many of them. The biggest is Hlavní nádraží (main station), shortly hl.n. in the centre of town and only 300 m south-east of Vaclav square. Most international trains leave and arrive here. There are international ticket counters, many exchange booths (but not a single ATM), agents offering accommodation, an internet café (basement), a beautyful café and much more. Be aware that it's completely non-smoking area. Scam is quite common - especially in front of the station.
    Most trains from and to Berlin and Dresden do not arrive at hl.n., but at the Nádraží Holešovice (short n.Hl.) north of the city centre. This train station is much smaller, but it also offers one restaurant (staff is very friendly here!), exchange booths, one ATM, shops and people offering private accommodation. To get from n.Hl. to Hl.n., just take the subway - it's the third station.
    Some domestic trains neither go to Hl.n. nor to n.Hl., but to Praha Smíchov south of town (there's a subway connection) or to Praha Libeň in the east (no subway, better wait for a local train to take you to the main train station).
    Talking about the Metro (subway): Prague's subway network is small but effective and very convenient. There are three lines marked by three different colours. A single ticket without changing trains is 8 Kč, a ticket valid for more than one line is 12 Kč, children pay 6 Kč. A ticket valid for 24 hrs is 70 Kč. Ticket machines can be found in front of each subway entrance. Be aware that it's not allowed to enter the station without a valid ticket!!! Ticket inspection in the trains and on the platform are quite common. You will have to pay a hefty fee without a valid ticket.
    Needless to say that Prague is an important railway hub! There are direct trains to Århus (Denmark), Berlin, Dresden, Warsaw, →Budapest, →Bucharest and even to →Varna in Bulgaria (probably only in summer), to Vienna, Bratislava and many more. For more details see →Czech Rep.: Getting there and the various domestic locations inside this website.

  • Accommodation: There is definitely no lack of accommodation. Thousands of hotels and pensions exist. Furthermore, there are some camping sites in the outskirts. I don't want to mention a specific place. Instead I recommend to stay in places near the capital - for instance in →Kutná Hora or →Tábor. You will safe a good deal of money and learn about the 'real' Czech republic.
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