Once dwelling in the shadows of popular European cities such as Paris, Rome, London and Barcelona, Prague has graduated from an inexpensive backpacker haven to take its rightful place among the best cities to visit in Europe. Like Barcelona, Prague is one of Europe’s greatest architectural treasures, and examples of Renaissance, Baroque, Art Nouveau and Gothic architecture are liberally peppered through this ancient city.
The Historic Center of Prague is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and features several breathtaking monuments including Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral and Hradcani Castle. The 15th largest city in Europe, Prague is a key economic and political center, and though its fortunes have risen and fallen in the 1,100 years of its existence, today it is thriving, boasting the lowest unemployment rate in the entire European Union.
Prague is a feast for the senses, with an embarrassment of cultural riches. So what are the best things to do and see in Prague as a first time visitor? Here are our picks for the top tourist attractions in Prague:
Under construction from 1357 until early in the 15th century the Charles Bridge was initially known as both the Stone Bridge and the Prague Bridge, inheriting the name Charles Bridge in 1870 – a nod to King Charles IV, who reigned when the construction of the bridge began, and is thought to have laid the first stone. The bridge has survived a lot over its history, including several disastrous floods and bombardment during the revolutionary period.
The highlight of the bridge is the 30 standing sentinel on its balustrade. Mostly constructed between the years of 1683 and 1714 the statues depict various saints and patron saints from that era.
St. Vitus Cathedral
Since 1997 this ancient cathedral has been dedicated to Saints Adalbert, Wenceslaus and Vitus, however, prior to that date the metropolitan Roman cathedral was dedicated solely to Saint Vitus and is commonly referred to still as Saint Vitus Cathedral. This incredible work of architectural art took more than 500 years to build, with construction starting in 1344 and ending late in the 19th century. Some of the sights to check out while visiting the cathedral are the 300+ foot climb up the main tower for a stunning view of the city, Saint Wenceslaus Chapel and its gem-encrusted altar and the amazing stained glass windows throughout, depicting the holy trinity.
A castle complex rather than an individual structure, Prague Castle has served as the seat of Bohemian Kings, Holy Roman Emperors and Czechoslovakian Presidents since the 9th century. Its many buildings include the Old Royal Palace, New Royal Palace, the Belvedere Palace, St. George’s Convent, and the exquisite St. Vitus Cathedral. A variety of gardens are also interspersed throughout the palace grounds. The Bohemian Crown Jewels lay hidden within its walls, though they are brought out once every eight years for display in St. Vitus Cathedral.
While one could spend weeks exploring the wealth of architectural and historical treasures that Prague has to offer, those with fidgety kids (or those starting to get “history’d out” will certainly appreciate a trip to the Prague Zoo. Arguably one of the world’s best zoological parks, the Prague Zoo features almost 700 species of animal, including the endangered Przewalski’s Horse.
The initial concept for the zoo dates back to 1881 when the idea was floated by count Sweerts-Spork. The idea eventually gained traction and the zoo was finally completed and opened to the public in 1931. Highlights of the zoo include the Indonesian Jungle animal pavilion, the Elephant Valley pavilion and the recently opened Chinese Giant Salamander pavilion, which is now home to 33 of the critically endangered amphibians.
Old Town Square and Astronomical Clock
At the heart of historic Old Town you’ll find Old Town Square. Found between Charles Bridge and Wenceslas Square this important city hub is one of Prague’s biggest tourist draws year-round, and can be especially crowded in the summer months. Don’t let the crowds dissuade you from paying a visit to this section of the city, however. Home to both the Clementium and Tyn Church (more on that below) Old Town Square is a veritable treasure trove of architectural beauty and history. The 15th century Astronomical Clock towers over the square and delights visitors each hour when various statues of the Apostles are presented, including all 12 at noon.
As mentioned above, one of Prague’s most iconic structures is also contained within Old Town Square. Its pair of 260 foot high towers flanking its clock make it an impossible landmark to miss. Completed in the latter half of the 15th century, the Church of Mother of God Before Tyn has undergone some dramatic changes of the centuries of its history, including the replacement of a sculpture of King George of Podebrady with a likeness of the Virgin Mary.
The Dancing House
Not all of Prague’s amazing architecture is of a centuries-old vintage. One of its most amazing constructs – The Dancing House – is only about two decades old. A collaboration between Canadian architect Frank Gehry and Czech architect Valdo Milunic the unique building resembles two figures dancing, and has earned the nickname Fred and Ginger.
At the time of its construction public opinion on the project was decidedly negative, but despite its vivid contrast to surrounding buildings the unique creation eventually won over the hearts of the citizens of Prague and it has joined the ranks of the Charles Bridge, Tyn Church and St. Vitus Cathedral as one of Prague’s most iconic landmarks.
Though it might rank far behind Old Town Square in popularity among tourists, Wenceslas Square is a must-visit for travelers to the city, particularly those with a fondness for shopping and/or nightlife. Dating back to the first half of the 14th century, the “square” is actually more of a boulevard and was once the home of Prague’s horse market. Not only are their a plethora of shops, bars and restaurants to be found here, but those who haven’t quite got their fill of cultural activities can wander through the National Museum or spend an evening at the Prague State Opera.
As famed as it is for its amazing historical and cultural treasures, Prague is probably equally as famous – at least among the younger crowd – for its amazing bars and nightclubs. There are numerous unique and fun watering holes liberally peppered throughout the city, but arguably the city’s best bar. The bar itself can be challenging to find, but it is worth the trouble of tracking it down as it is certainly a unique experience.
AnonymouS Bar is a theme bar, based on the Guy Fawkes mask wearing members of the group Anonymous. The wait staff remain anonymous behind those same masks and the effect is equal parts cool and creepy.
Of course, the best part of any bar is the drinks and it is in their execution of their varied and interesting cocktails that the bar and its anonymous wait staff truly shine. Every item on the menu from the V’s Blood to the Scarlet Rose is intriguing and you’ll be tempted to want to try everything on the menu. Ideally you’ll visit with a few friends in tow, so as a group effort you might be able to sample everything this hidden Prague gem has to offer.
Old New Synagogue
Completed in 1270 the Old-New Synagogue has been holding services for nearly 750 years – with the only interruption over that span coming during the Nazi occupation between 1942-45. It is Europe’s oldest active synagogue and was also Prague’s first Gothic building.
The Lennon Wall
The final entry on our list of Prague’s top attractions is one you might expect to find in Liverpool – the birthplace of the iconic music legend John Lennon – not in the capital city of an Eastern European nation that was under communist rule at the time of the wall’s creation.
After Lennon was killed in 1980 grief-stricken fans expressed their sorrow by painting images and popular Lennon quotes and lyrics on a wall near Charles Bridge. Police had the graffiti removed only to see it replaced time and again.
Despite the fact that the better part of four decades have passed since Lennon’s death the wall remains a popular attraction for tourists and visitors can still be found adding their own tributes to the man.