Prague has been nicknamed the "City of a Thousand Spires." As you glance over its 1,100-year-old skyline you'll be rewarded with countless splendid views of lovely domed churches and soaring old towers that combine to make Prague one of Europe's architectural gems. Everywhere you look, fine examples of Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance, and Art Nouveau styles dot the city, providing a dramatic contrast to the sturdy, ancient Prague Castle. Possessing one of the best-preserved historic city centers in Europe, Prague's narrow streets open up onto spectacular squares, each home to fine old homes and historical buildings just waiting to be explored. Must-sees include the famous Charles Bridge over the Vltava (Moldau) River; the splendid Jewish Quarter with its old synagogues; and the many historic churches. As one of the largest cities in Europe, Prague continues to be an important political, cultural, and commercial center, roles it has played for centuries as the former capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Today, this important UNESCO World Heritage Site serves as a major tourist draw, luring visitors from far and wide for its lively entertainment as well as its rich theatrical and music scenes. Here are 20 spots not to miss when you visit:
One of the most recognizable old bridges in Europe, magnificent Karlův Most boasts 32 unique points of interest along its 520-meter span. Built in 1357, the bridge has long been the subject of a great deal of superstition, including the builders having laid the initial bridge stone on the 9th of July at exactly 5:31am, a precise set of numbers (135797531) believed to give the structure additional strength (for added good measure, it was constructed in perfect alignment with the tomb of St. Vitus and the setting sun on the equinox). The bridge is also famous for its many fine old statues. Among the most important are that of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and that of Jan Nepomuk, the country's most revered saint, unveiled in 1683 (a more recent superstition involves rubbing the plaque at the base of the statue for the granting of a wish). Other highlights include spectacular views over the River Vltava and the structure's superb Gothic gates.
THE CLEMENTINUM AND THE NATIONAL LIBRARY
One of the largest collections of historic buildings in Europe, the Klementinium is home to the National Library of the Czech Republic. These beautiful Baroque buildings were originally part of a Jesuit college, and later came to house the Jesuit book collection as well as the collection from the Karolinum. The library eventually became the property of the state after the Jesuits were expelled, and the Clementinum became a public library in 1782 shortly after being constituted as the National Library. With more than six million books, the Clementinum's collection is huge and includes copies of every book published in the Czech Republic (and before it, Bohemia, Moravia, and Czechoslovakia). A highlight is the exquisite Baroque Library Hall with its beautiful ceiling artwork, a 68-meter-tall Astronomical Tower with its spectacular views over Prague, and the splendid Mirror Chapel with its exquisite decor. English-language guided tours are available, and for a truly memorable experience, the Clementinum is also used as a venue for jazz and classical concerts.
THE OLD TOWN SQUARE AND THE ASTRONOMICAL CLOCK
The historic center of Prague, the Old Town (Staré Město), is where you'll find the splendid Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí), one of the best places to begin exploring the city. Here you'll find the Týn Church and the Clementinum, along with numerous other fine old churches, as well as splendid old architecture dating back as far as the 11th century, while the Jewish Quarter, Josefov, is just a short walk north. A highlight is the Old Town Hall (Staroměstská radnice), home to a wonderful early 15th-century astronomical clock which each hour springs to life as the Twelve Apostles and other figures appear and parade in procession across the clock face. Other Old Town Hall highlights are the Gothic doorway leading to its splendid interior with its art exhibits and displays, a chapel built in 1381, and an old prison. Be sure to make the ascent (by stairs or elevator) to the top of the Old Town Hall Tower for its fine views over Prague.
ST. VITUS CATHEDRAL
Within the grounds of Prague Castle, the Roman Catholic Katedrala Svatého Vita) is the Czech Republic's largest and most important church. Seat of the Archbishop of Prague, it's also home to the tombs of numerous saints and three Bohemian kings. Founded on the site of a Romanesque rotunda built in 925 AD, the cathedral was started in 1344 and took more than 525 years to complete, resulting in a mix of modern Neo-Gothic and 14th-century Gothic styles, along with Baroque and Renaissance influences. Highlights include stunning stained-glass windows depicting the Holy Trinity, a mosaic from 1370 (The Last Judgment), and the St. Wenceslas Chapel (Svatováclavská Kaple) with its spectacular jewel-encrusted altar with more than 1,300 precious stones. Also of note, although rarely displayed, are the Czech crown jewels (on average, they're exhibited just once every eight years). Be sure to make the climb up the cathedral's 97-meter main tower for splendid views over Prague.
THE CHURCH OF OUR LADY BEFORE TÝN
One of Prague's most recognizable buildings, the Kostel Matky Boži před Týnem is unmistakable for its twin 80-meter-tall spires flanking each side of the building (each supporting four smaller spires). Unusually, its main entrance is through a narrow passage past the houses, obscuring much of its lower façade. Although completed in the 15th century, the church was altered numerous times through the centuries as the city's allegiances changed, and while interior renovations are ongoing, there's still much worth seeing, including numerous fine tombs, the superb Gothic northern portal with its Crucifixion sculpture, early Baroque altarpiece paintings dating from 1649, and one of Europe's finest 17th-century pipe organs. Afterwards, be sure to explore the 11th-century Ungelt Courtyard behind the church with its many fine restaurants and cafes. Another splendid old church worth visiting is the Baroque Church of the Virgin Mary with its famous statue of the infant Jesus, said to have been responsible for miracles and still a point of pilgrimage.
THE NATIONAL GALLERY
Spread across some of the city's most important architectural landmarks, the Narodní Galerie v Praze is home to some of Europe's most important art collections. The bulk of the collection is housed in the Veletržní Palace, a relatively modern structure built in 1925 that holds the 19th- to 21st -century works. While there's a strong emphasis on Czech artists, foreign artists such as Monet and Picasso are included, as are other art forms such as photography, fashion, applied arts, and sculpture. Other notable works are held in the Kinský Palace (Palác Kinských), home to Asian art, art from the ancient world, and the gallery's Baroque collections; and at the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia where you'll find European art from the Middle Ages. Finally, the splendid 17th-century Sternberg Palace (Sternberský Palác) houses some of the gallery's most famous pieces, focusing on European art from the Classical era to the end of the Baroque period and including important ancient Greek and Roman pieces; 14th- to 16th-century Italian masterpieces; and 16th- to 18th-century works by artists such as El Greco, Goya, Rubens, van Dyck, Rembrandt, and van Goyen.
THE MUNICIPAL HOUSE
The Obecní Dům is widely considered the finest and most prominent example of Art Nouveau in the city. Built in 1912, this splendid civic building is also home to one of Prague's most important (and largest) concert venues, Smetana Hall, and boasts numerous striking features, from its sumptuous façade with a large mural on the arch above the second floor balcony to the large dome that rests behind and above the arch. The interior is equally impressive and includes many fine stained glass windows and important paintings. While English-language guided tours are available (including a chance to see otherwise closed ceremonial rooms), one of the best ways to enjoy this landmark is to take in a concert or sample its café or restaurant.
Opened in 1931, this is not only one of the top attractions in the city but also ranks among the world's top 10 zoological parks (based on visitor reviews). In the Troja suburb just a short distance north of the city center, this 143-acre attraction is an especially fun outing for those traveling with kids. Along with its more than 4,800 animals representing some 700 species - including many considered close to extinction - the zoo is notable for its role in saving the native (and endangered) Przewalski's horse. Highlights include a chance to ride a chairlift with great views of many of the animal enclosures, a huge giraffe exhibit, the superb salamander display, and the steamy indoor tropical jungle.
ST. NICHOLAS CHURCH
On picturesque Little Quarter Square (Malostranské Náměstí), the Kostel Svatého Mikuláše is one of Prague's newer churches. Built by Jesuits in the 18th century, it's a fine example of High Baroque and is notable for its splendid interior with its unique 19th-century chandelier, as well as the large Baroque paintings by Czech painter Karel Skreta that adorn the huge cupola. The church also features a bell tower, which visitors are permitted to climb, from the top of which are great views over the church's huge dome and the old city. Try to time your visit to coincide with one of the regular concerts held here, including Mozart's Requiem and other notable classical pieces.
THE JEWISH QUARTER (JOSEFOV)
A onetime slum near Old Town Square, Josefov became Prague's Jewish ghetto around the 13th century, and then in the late 19th century was mostly transformed when large sections were demolished to make way for Art Nouveau apartment buildings. But there still remain some atmospheric old cobblestone side streets, where you'll find the Old Jewish Cemetery and a museum complex comprised of several synagogues: the Old-New Synagogue, the Spanish Synagogue, the Maisel, the Pinkaš, the Klaus, and the Ceremonial Hall.
PETŘÍN LOOKOUT TOWER
Named after the hill on which it stands, the 63-meter-high Petřínská Rozhledna) is a much smaller replica of the Eiffel Tower that offers panoramic views over Prague (although only a fifth the size of its French counterpart, the tower's elevation creates the illusion that it's bigger than it actually is). Built in 1891 for a major exhibition from used railway tracks, it was later moved to Petřín Hill in the 1930s where it became one of the city's major tourist attractions. Today, visitors can either make the 30-minute climb up to the base of the tower or take a leisurely trip aboard the funicular railway before tackling the structure's 299 steps to the top (there's also an elevator as well as a café).
THE JOHN LENNON WALL
Perhaps one of Eastern Europe's most unlikely attractions, this colorful wall in the Malá Strana district has stood since the 1980s as a tribute to former Beatle and peace activist John Lennon. Things got started almost immediately after the singer's murder in 1980 when this otherwise unassuming wall near the Charles Bridge became a place for fans to demonstrate their grief, painting pictures and slogans attributed to the star. Despite police efforts to erase the graffiti (Czechoslovakia, as it was then, was still under Communist rule), the memorial wall kept reappearing and, along with Lennon's lyrics, the site became a symbol of hope and peace for the city's population. The tradition continues to this day, and along with gatherings on the anniversary of Lennon's death, tourists can frequently be observed adding their sentiments to the wall.
The central hub of Prague's Nové Město (New Town) district - an area that grew out of the city's need to expand as it prospered in the 19th century - Václavské Naměstí is home to the National Museum and numerous other architectural treasures. Named after the patron saint of Bohemia, whose statue can be seen here, Wenceslas Square was created in the 14th century during the reign of Charles IV as a horse market and has since become the city's single most important public space, still used for demonstrations and celebrations alike. A visit today is a fun experience, and will introduce visitors to some of the cities better dining experiences, as well as great shopping.
Perched on the banks of the Moldau the Národní Divadlo is a must-visit for lovers of the performing arts. Home to the country's top opera, ballet, and drama performances, it was opened in 1881 as a symbol of Czech national identity and to promote the Czech language and culture. Despite a somewhat checkered past that saw the building destroyed by fire and even closed by the communists, this stunning theater has undergone extensive renovations and stands as a monument to the city's rich talent and cultural significance. English-language guided tours are available. Another Prague theater of note is the Estates Theatre (Stavovské Divaldo), built in the late 18th century in Neoclassical style and once a favorite of Mozart, who chose to premier Don Giovanni
THE DANCING HOUSE
The Dancing House (Tančici Dům), Prague's most outstanding modern architectural creation, was built between 1992 and 1996 to designs by starchitect Frank Gehry. Consisting of two adjoining towers, this splendid structure features unique curves that resemble two dancing figures, an effect heightened by the fact one of the towers is shaped like a woman wearing a skirt (hence the nickname "Fred and Ginger" after the famous dancing Hollywood actors of the 20th century, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers). While the building consists largely of offices, great views can be enjoyed from the top floor restaurant (a cafe is also located on the main level).
Like something out of a fairytale as it stands high above the Moldau River overlooking Prague, known to have been in existence as far back as the 10th century, Višehrad has long been the subject of myth and legend, including the prophecy of an ancient princess of the rising of a great city around it. Once the royal residence of King Vratislav II, it also played a role as part of the original Royal Route to Prague Castle taken by kings about to be crowned, who would have to stop here to pay tribute to their predecessors. Although now largely in ruins, the fortress is a wonderful place for a stroll or picnic and offers superb views of the surrounding city.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM
Its main building sitting at the top of Wenceslas Square, the Národní Muzeum is spread across a number of locations and houses numerous important collections representing a variety of fields, with literally millions of items covering mineralogy, zoology, anthropology, and archaeology, as well as the arts and music. The entomology collection alone numbers more than five million specimens. The oldest museum in the Czech Republic, it was established in the early 1800s before moving to its current location in 1891. A particular highlight is the archaeology exhibit with its extensive collection of 1st- and 2nd-century Roman artifacts, along with numerous Bronze- and Early-Iron-Age finds. (For a comprehensive list of all locations and collections, visit the museum's website
). Another museum to include on your list is the excellent National Technical Museum (Národní Technické Muzeum), which documents the many technological advances the country has contributed to, including displays of machinery and equipment built here over the years, from automobiles to aircraft.
STRAHOV MONASTERY AND LIBRARY
The Strahov Monastery and Library (Strahovský Klašter) dates back to the 12th century and is the second oldest monastery in Prague. While its imposing gateway and churches are impressive enough, its most important buildings are its two beautifully decorated Baroque libraries. The Philosophical Library contains a variety of extraordinary furnishings, along with an exquisite ceiling painted by Franz Anton Maulbertsch entitled Enlightenment. The Theological Library consists of a splendid Baroque room with a beautiful ornate painted ceiling by Strahov monk Siard Nosecky, along with superb ceiling frescoes framed by detailed stuccowork. The libraries contain many rare old volumes and manuscripts, including the famous 9th-century Strahov Gospel, while in the cellars are old printing presses along with the remains of St.. Norbert, founder of the Premonstratensian Order. Also of note are the cloisters, which house a religious art collection and treasury.
In Prague's hilltop Hradčany district, the Pražský Hrad was once the seat of Bohemia's kings, is today the official residence of the Czech Republic's president and one of the city's most visited tourist attractions. Originally built as a walled fortress around 970 AD, the castle has changed dramatically over the years and contains examples of most of the leading architectural styles of the last millennium. Within the castle walls are a number of Prague's most popular tourist sites, including St. Vitus Cathedral (above), St. George's Basilica, the Powder Tower, the Old Royal Palace, and the Golden Lane. The largest ancient castle in the world, this vast complex requires considerable time to tour, but it's time well spent (particularly rewarding are the excellent views over the Moldau River with the old town and its countless spires in the background). Highlights include the Old Royal Palace's main hall, the Vladislav Hall - so large it could be used for jousting tournaments, and its staircases wide enough to allow mounted knights to use them. Be sure to also spend time in the Royal Garden, dating back to 1534 and home to a number of superb buildings including the Ball Game Pavilion, the Royal Summer House with its Singing Fountain, and the Lion's Court. English-language guided tours are available. At night the lights from Prague Castle glow in a range of hues. Basing yourself in the vicinity is a good idea so you can experience the city highlights by day and night.
Created in 1680 to accommodate Prague's many plague victims, Olšany served as the city's main burial ground for centuries and is the final resting place of countless victims of disease and war. Divided into sections, the graveyard consists of the New Jewish Cemetery, which includes the grave of writer Franz Kafka, and the Christian Cemetery, where you'll find the final resting place of a more recent notable Czech, Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in 1968 in protest against the Soviet invasion (his body was removed in 1973 to prevent his grave from becoming the site of organized protests, but returned in 1990). Despite its somewhat morbid history, it remains a wonderful place to explore due to its many mysterious old tombs and Art Nouveau monuments.