Do you love beautiful buildings and fantastic food? Do you want to visit a city that looks like a fairytale? Do you want to burn calories by climbing over a thousand stairs in one weekend? Then you should visit Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic!
Real talk, Prague is one of my favorite places that I have ever visited. I spent a weekend here during my study abroad in France, and I was also fortunate enough to have a bonus day in the city during my Fall Break that semester. Prague is unquestionably one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and I’m so excited to write about it here! Because Prague has an incredible history, I’ll talk about some of the highlights of that first before moving on to a weekend itinerary – essentially, what I did and what I would recommend. So, grab some coffee and a trednelik and get ready to go to Prague with me!
In my opinion, Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world! Though most famous for its medieval architecture, the region has actually been settled since the Paleolithic Age. While in the city, I loved learning about the old legends of Princess Libuše and her prophecies about the future of Prague (there’s a statue of her at Vyšehrad). One of my favorite things about Prague is that it is such an old city so full of stories, from the medieval story of the Golem in the Jewish quarter to the literature of Kafka and Kundera in the 20th century. But since this will already be a long post, in discussing Prague’s history, I’m just going to talk about a few specific places and their legacies, though I do recommend reading more about the city’s incredible history if you have time.
One of the things I was most excited about in Prague (being someone who loves astronomy and libraries) was the Klementium (established in 1722) which was the first public library in the country and is currently home to 20,000 volumes of theological texts from the 17th and 18th centuries. In the same building, astronomers did much of their work including tracking time with the use of a meridian line and a camera obscura (an actual explantion). Until the 1920s they still worked from the tower to examine the stars and both Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler lived in the city during the rule of Rudolf II (which is a fact that I was really excited about). Of course, one can’t discuss astronomy in Prague without mentioning the magnificent Astronomical Clock. Built in the middle ages, this amazing clock still works, which is good since legend says that the fate of the city is entwined with that of the clock.
Another of the most iconic features of the city is, of course, the Vltava River. The city is connected by 16 bridges across the Vltava, and its art deco façades line both sides of the water. The Charles Bridge is one of Prague’s most famous sites. Construction on the bridge started (big surprise) under Charles IV in the 14th century though it took about fifty years to complete. Though it is now one of many, until 1841 the Charles Bridge was the only connection between the east and west of the city and quickly became an important trade route in Europe since the Vltava is not a small river. The bridge is also famously lined with Baroque statues, though these were added in the 1700s after the original Gothic art was destroyed in the Thirty Years’ War. Today the bridge is still holding strong, which would please King Charles because, as a big believer in numerology, he insisted that the first stone be lain at an auspicious time, to be specific, it was at precisely 5:31 am on 9 July, 1357 or numerically 1357, 9, 7, 531 – a palindrome.
Though the Astronomical Clock and Vlatava are both stunning, Prague Castle is undoubtedly the most famous landmark of the city – or, more precisely, St. Vitus Cathedral since those are the spires one actually sees from the rest of the city. The exterior façades of the castle look fairly modern compared to what one might expect, but the extensive complex is actually home to several varied architectural styles, and the interiors of the different buildings are an amazing testimony to this building with over a thousand years of history. It is still the official home of the president today, and many famous people have stayed within its walls including author Franz Kafka (P.S. There’s also a Kafkaesque statue of Kafka in Prague’s Jewish quarter). With two incidents of defenestrations, a cathedral to the patron saint of dancers, and the gory story of Operation Anthropoid, Prague Castle has a fascinatingly detailed history, and I loved being able to visit. The history of Prague Castle could easily fill up a few books, so this is very brief, and you’ll just have to visit and learn about this place for yourself!
Named for Good King Wenceslas of Christmas Carol fame, Wenceslas Square is a stunning breath of modernity in this largely medieval city. Wenceslas was actually assassinated by his brother in 935, but he was named a saint a few years later and is still widely beloved in the region – according to legend, the statue of Wenceslas in Wenceslas Square will come to life to defend the Czech Republic if it is in danger. The square was named for Wenceslas in 1848 during the Czech National Revival (previously, it was called Horse Market), and it has long been a site for big events. The First Czechoslovak Republic was announced here in 1918, and when the Soviets took over, this was where people gathered to protest. The Czech student Jan Palach famously set himself on fire here in 1968, and in 1989, the Velvet Revolution brought about the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia (which split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993).
This history was, rather obviously, very brief, but I hope some of these stories were able to whet your appetite and inspire you to do a bit more reading about this incredible place!
Before going in detail on my trip, I’ll first provide a basic summary of my itinerary with a few notes on things I recommend:
- Day 1
- Arrive in the morning and drop off bags at hotel/airbnb
- Coffee and pastry
- Visit to the Klementium and Astronomical Clock
- Explore the Old Town and don’t forget to try some trednelik!
- Walk to Vyšehrad; explore around here and return to the Old Town with a stop in Wenceslas Square
- If you don’t want to walk, you can also see a lot of the city, including the Basilica on a hop-on/hop-off bus tour (like these). To save money, this wasn’t part of my trip
- Dinner at Lokal – make a reservation!
- Something I did not do, but would suggest: Take an evening river cruise on the Vlatava
- Day 2
- Visit the Astronomical Clock and take morning pictures on the Charles Bridge (before the crowds)
- Spend the morning at Prague Castle (arrive by 9 am, ideally earlier)
- Lunch near Prague Castle – for example at Host
- Visit Petrín Tower
- Explore the Lesser Town: Lennon Wall and Kampa Park
- Buy and eat gingerbread
- Dinner (We ate at the cheap but good Restaurant Havelska Koruna; having spent a lot earlier in the day, the prices here were appealing)
- In the evening, visit Kampa or Wenceslas Square (or both!)
- Day 3
- Breakfast, shopping, and general exploration around Wenceslas Square
- Something I did not do, but would suggest: Visit the National Museum
- Visit the Jewish Quarter
- Take in city views and have a picnic at Letenské Sady
- Departure mid-afternoon
- Breakfast, shopping, and general exploration around Wenceslas Square
All the details
I arrived in Prague on a chilly Friday morning. The flight itself was stunning; while I did take an ultra-cheap Ryanair flight, flying over the Alps and gazing on the acres of farmland in central Europe made up for the minor discomforts of the flight. Around nine am, we touched down at Vaclav Havel Airport (named for the former president/author). I was traveling with my roommate, and since this was a trip we knew we wanted to take, we planned ahead and coordinated with our Airbnb host to drop our bags off when we arrived rather than waiting until afternoon to check in. That done, we set off to find some coffee because Prague is much colder than southern France.
The currency in the Czech Republic is the crown (or koruna in Czech), and the low exchange rate is very friendly to travelers…so I ate a lot of food. Post-cappuccino and strudel, my number one place to visit was the Baroque library: The Klementinum. Prior to visiting, I thought it would be possible to actually enter the library, maybe read a book, and definitely take pictures. You can’t actually do any of that though. In that respect, the tour was a bit disappointing, but my enthusiasm for the location returned when we climbed the Astronomical Tower and got an amazing view over the city! So, worth the price of admission, in my opinion – though not necessarily somewhere I would go a second time.
Of course, you can’t visit Prague without seeing the Astronomical Clock! It’s both a technological marvel and a work of art! When we stopped by the clock on our first day, the crowds had already arrived, and there was a huge group waiting to see the clock strike the hour. While I do recommend seeing this, it’s better early in the morning when there are fewer people (i.e. morning of Day 2). Exploring the Old Town is worth braving the crowds though, and we spent over an hour just wandering the little streets and snacking on trednelik.
Not wanting to brave the crowds at Prague Castle at their peak, we spent Friday walking down the river to the Vyšehrad, a 10th century fortress said to be the first settlement of the city. One of the most iconic sites here is the Neo-Gothic Basilica of Peter and Paul, but also in the complex are the Romanesque Rotunda of St. Martin and Vyšehrad Cemetary. The only historical figure I knew of there was the artist Alphonse Mucha, but the statues lining the cemetery are marvelous works of art themselves – and I learned that rodina is not actually the most popular Czech name but the Czech word for family. After a bit more walking, we had dinner at a wonderful Czech place called Lokal that I would highly recommend (though I would also recommend a reservation).
Saturday our goal was to see the left bank of the river including Prague Castle and some other sites of the “Lesser Town.” We left the apartment at eight, planning to arrive around nine when the castle opens. After an unexpected detour (AKA getting lost and subsequently distracted by the lack of crowds by the Astronomical Clock), we decided we’d missed the über-early entry anyway and took our time posing for pictures on the Charles Bridge and drinking hot chocolate at a café. In retrospect though, we should have left around 7 (because I did enjoy taking pictures and walking around without the crowds) in order to get to the castle when it first opened. Being the most famous landmark in the city, no one wants to skip the castle (and no one should – it’s completely worth the crowds and the price!)
All told, we spent just over two hours exploring the palace grounds, and I LOVED it! There are three options for tickets: A, B, and C. Circuit A includes everything, and if you’re a huge history buff, this would be a good choice; it’s the one I would get on a return trip, assuming I had at least three hours to explore. Circuit B is probably the most popular though, and it’s what we bought on this trip. B includes all the main things – St. Vitus Cathedral, the Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, and the Golden Lane. This was plenty to do in two hours, and it’s the one I would recommend if you want to really explore the palace but aren’t deeply invested/don’t have a lot of time. Circuit C is its own thing and grants admission only to two separate exhibitions that aren’t part of either A or B, so it’s not really comparable in my opinion.
Once you’ve climbed the 208 stairs to the Castle, you may as well keep going up, so after a break for lunch (at Host, which is up-scale but has a well-priced lunch menu), we set off for Petrín Lookout Tower, built in 1891 and inspired by the Eiffel Tower as a way to overlook the city. Not wanting to take the funicular, we climbed about a hundred or so steps up the hill to reach the base of the tower. The fee to climb up is about two dollars for students and includes…more stairs! To be exact, it is 299 stairs to the top of the tower, but on a clear day you can not only see all of Prague but most of the Bohemia region. I was exhausted, but it was worth it – and going down all the stairs was nice.
As it was still early afternoon, we decided to hit a couple more places in the Lesser Town, and our first stop was the Lennon Wall – a technicolor painted wall that is an homage to John Lennon…though I was perhaps more excited about the gingerbread store we passed on the way there. Our next destination was the small park of Kampa where we spent about an hour watching the swans on the river. We even came back after dinner to see the Charles Bridge lit up at night from a distance, which I really recommend!
Sunday morning started with Starbucks in Wenceslas Square. This is the modern part of the city, and it’s mostly a high-end shopping district. Since we were interested in statues, it made since to go before the stores opened and just take some pictures and drink something warm. And, because it was incredibly cold, we also got hot chocolate (at café whose name I did not write down) about an hour after going to Starbucks. If you are interested in shopping, this is where to do it, and on a return trip, I would also add in a visit to the National Museum in Wenceslas Square
For the remainder of the morning, we went back a few centuries to the Jewish Quarter. Originally, this was just a very small bit of the city that Prince Hostivít granted to a community of Jews evicted from Russia in the 9th century. Over the centuries, the town grew and became important to the city. Though the Jewish population is much smaller today and also not limited to the one neighborhood, the area still retains much of its history. Entry to the famous synagogues, museums, and cemetery adds up, so we made it into a cheaper trip by just going on a scavenger hunt to find all six synagogues in the quarter. And stopping for kosher trednelik.
Finally, with only a couple hours before our flight, we’d seen all the main points of the city but still wanted to spend a bit more time enjoying this amazing place. There’s an extensive park on the hill looking over the Vltava that’s adjacent to the Prague suburbs. Known as Letenské Sady, it has trails for hiking or cycling, a small museum, and even a skating park. The most famous building in the park is the Hanavsky Pavillion, built in the Neo-Baroque style of 1891. It commands a spectacular view over the city, and we had a wonderful picnic sitting on the benches outside where we could overlook the Vltava and the City of a Hundred Spires. Being in Prague was absolutely amazing, and I hope to return in the future!