Bikes, cars, trains, even tuk-tuks. Perhaps the most commonly used means to maneuver around a city. I much rather prefer habitats, which wouldn’t need any of them. Even the thought of a walkable city in Europe tugs at my heartstrings. Sweet little towns laid out with a central square, overlooked by a church and then a brightly decorated town hall. Away from the main square, there are byways leading up to other churches and often, to a castle that once guarded the valleys and medieval trade routes. A template of sorts. Peeping through a window of these thoughts lies my memory of Prague, a walk to remember.
Who is Prague?
To me, Prague is a fairy tale born out of a cyclone. With every battle it has undergone, this Golden City of Thousand Spires has just evolved to be a stronger spirit. She never stops spreading smiles through her classic collection of diverse cultures and artistic styles, and I love it. Each time I hear someone visiting or simply talking about her, my heart goes back to 2013. This was the year when I met her in person. My emotions would overflow if I go back to my journey. I would rather use it as an ingredient and prepare you a travel recipe for your next 3-Day love affair with Prague.
Tragedy in retrospect
Once upon a time, Prague was amid huge political and racial conflicts. More often than not, it has been represented as the Tragic City. A place where stones recall heroic drama and homes evoke religious bloodshed. Good or bad, it endured so much so that you slowly see a solid silver lining come through. Expatriates, drawn by both business and professional opportunities have turned things around. Today, I can view the city like a prisoner gazing out into the free world. It might be in the tight grip of an invisible hand, but there’s a path to escape.
The Old and the New
In the 21st century, we love holding our roots, while being able to absorb materialistic pleasures at the same time. The same goes for cities, especially Prague. The old and new Prague systemically represent that queer mixture of Teutonic materialism and Slavic mysticism, calling for a pseudo-materialist city. This eternal struggle between the spirit and flesh is a true testament to the city’s character.
Prague – A 3 Day Walking Exercise
Prague was always meant to be built on a human scale. Back in the day, most destinations were at the mercy of 14th-century transport technologies – horse cart and shoe leather. Today, finding your way around Prague is a snap. Metros and trams are always at a stone’s throw, and pretty much the safest and most efficient options. Without a doubt, Tram No. 22 steals the show with a grand tour of the castle, the Old Town, and the Vltava riverfront. Nonetheless, walking is still the most inspiring, charming and often the fastest way of getting around. While wandering on foot, few spots might be impassable throughout the day due to busy crowds. Keep yourself light during daytime, and preserve maximum energy for the night. Late evening strolls will offer incredibly dramatic views from every landmark, as warmer lights start illuminating the Vltava River.
First-time Prague trippers! I got your walking itinerary covered. Let’s make it simple and divide Prague into 3 main sections, one for each day –
- Castle District
- Old Town
- New Town and Suburbs
Prague’s Art Nouveau Main Station. My train connecting two magnificent railway stations was about to arrive. Prague castle was a mile’s walk from Karlśtejn’s wonderfully old-fashioned station. On my way, a 37 year old local chatted me up on the train and gave me a little insight into the castle’s life story. The history of Prague began with the castle, founded in the 9th century by Prince Borivoj. The castle was rebuilt several times, most notably in the reigns of Charles IV and Vladislav Jagiello. Many towns developed over centuries and then vanished due to cataclysmic fires, nevertheless, leaving strong footprints each time. Since 1918, Prague Castle has been the seat of the president of the republic.
Popping into any European town’s itinerary, I always find castles fascinating. Prague was no different. My uphill stroll to the castle took me past courtyards, palaces and museums, disguised within the formation of a complex maze. From the outside, it felt like a large complex. Once I entered the gates, I found myself in a town within a town. Meandering further, I started seeing towers & cathedrals on all sides. There are just so many romantic hidden lanes that it would be a tough battle not to get lost. If there were ever a Tsunami in Prague, this is probably where you would like to be. While water figures its way in, you’ve probably figured your way out, maybe with some help from King Charles IV.
St. Vitus Cathedral – St. Vitus was the first-ever Gothic Cathedral I had ever seen in my life, and I never truly appreciated its beauty for a long time. Standing in the third courtyard and perching proudly above River Vltava, St. Vitus is a notch above everything we discussed so far. A walk around it took me back through a thousand years of history. It was fascinating to catch glimpses of artifacts and ancient relics over an entire stretch of intricately designed chapels. For a story that took me 30 minutes to listen in, it spanned almost 600 years of reconstruction. Owing to its modern Neo-Gothic style elements, St. Vitus is a hallmark of architectural brilliance. The interiors are French-style elegant, and the Golden Gate is a charmer. The Golden Gate is an expression of imperial pride – an entrance portraying Charles IV and Elisabeth of Pomerania kneeling beneath Christ in glass mosaics, studded with a million colored pieces.
While you’re on this mission to explore the Castle, don’t forget to cross over the exquisite chapels, the Old Royal Palace, and the Tomb of St. John of Nepomuk. The Old Royal Palace picks your curiosity with a few interesting exhibits, long passages, and funny staircases. While on my way to Bohemian Chancellery, I remember someone telling me about staircases broad enough to accommodate horsemen if we ever had a polo tournament. Later, I found out that the architect’s unusual staircase design allowed knights to enter the hall without having to dismount their horses. The tomb of St John of Nepomuk seemed to be bewitched by the martyr’s tragic death. After being arrested, abandoned, and tortured, John was martyred for refusing to divulge secrets of the queen’s confession. As astonishing as it may seem, the truth remains that even John’s silver tomb felt as if his body was abandoned by the builders, once they discovered it was too big to fit into one of the side chapels. The vibe I felt coming out of the entire castle district was spiritual.
Bollywood Movie Location – As we keep strolling, we are inching closer to one of my most memorable places from Prague. It was a memorable experience, not necessarily for its beauty. Rather, it was due to an Indian film song shot at these locations years ago. In my entire life, rarely have I ever spent 3 hours finding a popular film shooting location. During this visit, it was different. A famous Bollywood song from the movie, “The Rockstar” was shot in Vrtba Garden, parodying the vanity of Slavic kings and chanting the essence of freedom. Rerouting myself from No. 12, I marched to Vrtba Palace at No.25, where artist Mikolas Ales lived. If you were marching down the street, you would probably think I was mad. It was almost 3 p.m., and everyone else was stepping out of the palace, except me, who was far too excited. I hurriedly searched for the passage that leads to the garden and didn’t pay attention to the palace at all. Some folks tried stopping me, but I didn’t care.
And yes, there I was! Within a couple of minutes, I was at the center of a fascinating baroque garden, perching 100 meters above the Church of our Lady Victorious (Panny Marie Vltezna). The Vrtba Garden was dazzling with Italian-style terraces, swirling grass, and expressive statues of Roman gods. I swiftly climbed up to the raised viewpoint. While I was playing the film on my cell phone, the matching panoramic city skylines and eye-level perspective of the Prague Castle simply blew my mind. I had finally made it to the exact venue of the song (“Hawaa Hawaa”) and nothing gave me more joy than reliving the song at its original location. At the end of the day, I felt like a rockstar.
Lauded as the heart and soul of the city, Old Town is a characterful, intricately designed fortress town bounded by the beautiful Vltava river. Collage of historical foundations is centered on the cobblestone-governed Old Town Square (Staromêstské námêsti). Old Town is one of the reasons why Prague stands to be one of Europe’s walking cities. Much of the spaces are closed to vehicle traffic, and narrow lanes are laid out randomly. The most fascinating aspect about walking around the Old Town is the discovery of hidden shortcuts. Every time you stumble upon a giant doorway, you are in for a shortcut. Every shortcut takes you through an array of stone-walled spaces, large interior courtyards, and other similar shortcuts, setting you as prey to its medieval layout. Damn perfect for a kid’s treasure hunt, isn’t it!?
Charles Bridge – Start your Day 2 walk over the Charles Bridge, a magnificent 14th century stone bridge lined with Baroque statuary. The medieval charm of this spectacular structure pulls tourist hordes like a magnet. During summer, the bridge is a walking festival of portrait doodlers, street musicians, and local sellers. As you stroll through this action, be mindful of your wallets. Along with backpackers, the Bridge also offers a bunch of nice pick-pocketers. Obscured by a lot of other peddlers and entertainers, lies a series of religious Bohemian statues, which are an absolute must-do. Your walk is incomplete without witnessing them. At busy hours, you often witness fancy puppet sellers, selling poor imitations of whimsical sinister or old majestic creations. Fortunately, on exploring further, you can gather a few old-style craftsmen practicing the art of authentic puppet making. (Marionette making)
Quick tip – If your bladders have got you out of the bed before dawn, the center of the Bridge is also a sweet spot to see the sun rising from the Gothic Towers of Old Town.
Note: Charles Bridge is also a mathematical masterpiece.
- The length of Charles Bridge is 515 meters, which is exactly the distance between the 44 small chapels lining the route from Prague to Stara Boleslav, where St. Wenceslas was murdered.
- Blessed by the mathematician Havel of Strahov, the first stone was laid on – 1357, 9 July (7th month), to 5 hours 31 minutes, which gives the number 135797531, a remarkable palindrome with all prime numbers. Also, the sum of these digits (1+3+5+7+9) is the same as the number of arches on the bridge (25).
- On this mathematically remarkable date and time, all the planets (except Mars) were in the most favorable astrological position above the horizon. The signs of Cancer & Pisces (showing signs of Mars & Moon) proved similar to the water signs of the zodiac (also having Mars & Moon), an aspect favorable for building a bridge over a river.
Klementinum – As you carelessly saunter between the petty thieves at the end of the Bridge, you will reach an enormous complex of historical buildings, mostly coming from the Jesuits. Take away the tattoo parlors or cars parked on the cobbles, and it would be easy to imagine that you tumbled straight into the 1800’s. The Baroque library (arguably the world’s most beautiful library), the Astronomical Tower and the Chapel of Mirrors (Hopefully, you have paid attention to my Pt. 3 and bought yourself a concert ticket here) are the 3 pearls of this kingdom. Exiting Klementinum and paving down Karlova Street is a vivid memory I will always cherish. In a universe of museums, churches, and palaces defining the Old Town Prague landscape, cute little pubs and souvenir shops shine like stars in their sky. In medieval times, this was the royal route through town, today it stands as the main thoroughfare for visitors. Some of the city’s most remarkable sites are witnessed here.
From here on, you’re a free bird. Not locked to one direction. You can take multiple directions and you’ll still end up at the Old Town Square. On the way, you will find eateries, offering subterranean dining rooms, serving rich soups, meat dumplings, and some heavy desserts. Ah! Let’s hold for a second here. Let me mention that Czechs have an interesting concept of desserts. Pretty much everywhere, desserts tend to be filling but lack variety. Plodding down the streets, you’ll find people either gulping down multiple scoops of zmrzlina (ice cream) or multiple chocolate pancakes.
Walking the talk of food scenes in Prague added flair and spice to my experience. Back then, I remember pork and dumplings being the mainstays of Czech cuisine. The central European style ‘cafe and cake’ tradition were best practiced at Cafe Slavia, Prague’s symbolic coffee shop. My fellow travelers also told me about Vietnamese and Slovak food being high quality due to large communities from those countries living in Prague. For US-based Indians like myself, I have three tips. First, Avoid syr (cheese), they will seem tasteless, if you are used to French or Italian varieties. Second. Turn yourself into a Czech cerevisaphile (or a beer devotee) and order Pivo with every Czech snack you have. And the last one. When it comes to local brew, try sticking to major brands such as Budvar and Pilsner. The Czech version of “cheers” is “Na Zdravi”. It means “to health”, which seems funny, given the calories Czech beer has. Later that evening, in one of the bars, I was hit with a strong ginger-cinnamon alcoholic drink, called ‘Bacherovka’ – a liqueur made from some ancient secret formula blending 15+ herbs. You must be wondering what it was like. Sorry, bud, it was 2013 and I was only 23. I hadn’t developed the taste of alcohol, so I remember hating it all the way.
Old Town Square – Old Town Square beautifully anchors a medieval maze of palaces, mansions, and baroque churches. The area is compact and thronged with visitors, accompanied by interesting cultural and religious activities. For the first couple of minutes, I was just figuring out where I was. Soon, my eyes rose to the Astronomical Clock, also Town Hall’s most famous feature. As the hour hand reached its mark, something bizarre happened. Figures of the Twelve Apostles appeared in procession, portraying vanity, miserliness, and death. The clock seemed more than just an object of Town Hall. It almost felt like a reflection of Prague’s impassioned drama – A series of wars with Hussite soldiers and protestants were driven into exile. Tired of roaming, I snagged a seat outside one of the more touristy shops. The crowds were buzzing; you could simply sit there, enjoy a beer and watch the world go by.
Looming over the square behind one of the schools, there is another landmark, which I fondly remember. The twin towers of Tyn Church. If you look closely, it is interesting to see one tower slightly taller than the other, representing the masculine and feminine elements of the world. Despite going through multiple alterations and renovations, the Gothic furnishings and baroque interiors still retain their original charm. Inside the church, my favorite monument was the tomb of the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. The guide mentioned how his theory of planets around the sun appeased the church, yet he died convinced that the universe revolves around the earth. Whenever you stumble upon Old Town Square, I recommend walking the entire stretch by foot at least once – it’s an exhilarating experience.
Josefov – Derailing into the more urban parts of the city, I dipped into the open doors of Josefov, a former Jewish Quarter with a story of its own. My memory of this place is the history of the quarters, explained by one of the locals. The first Jewish people came to Prague in the 10th century. Since then, this part of the city tormented Jews with poor living conditions, crimes, and violent acts. In the middle ages, this used to be a prime breeding ground of Jewish pogroms. It was only in the late 19th century when the area was sanitized with only the synagogues and a couple of other buildings left. Numbering over 50000 when the Nazis invaded Bohemia in 1938, only a few hundred Jews returned to Prague after the holocaust. Once a large minority in the Czech capital, all that’s left now are the cemeteries and synagogues telling their tales. Even after so many years, Jewish residents seek refuge within the walls of the Old-New Synagogue, maintaining it as the religious center of Prague’s Jews. My highlight of exploring Josefov was the route in and around the Jewish museum, encompassing an impeccable collection of Judaic Art, perhaps the largest of its kind.
As it turns out, Prague’s charm lies in the fact that most sights concentrate within a small area. Owing to this rule, it is tempting to ignore attractions in other larger parts of the city, like the New Town. Though it says ‘new’, New Town is simply an extension of Old Town, rebuilt in the 19th and 20th centuries, as the city grew. This is a more elegant side of Prague, less talked about in books or films. Here, I recommend checking out the areas with a walking tour guide. It is a good way to get your bearings, hear some interesting facts and meet fellow travelers. Many districts in New Town don’t belong to the ancient townships within the city, so it is interesting to draw the mental border between the city and its outskirts. A cooler fact – Opposite the 1983 New Town National Theater, Café Slavia still rules as the No.1 coffeehouse in and around Prague.
Wenceslas Square is a magnet for history and civics lovers. It’s one of those typical commercials and political centers, where the statue of a famous patron saint is surrounded by old government agency buildings & museums. In the Czech Capital, neither visitors nor locals care much about this area. It’s funny to imagine how this area turns center stage during national jubilation or dismay. Walking around the square was quite a relaxing experience. The rush for ticking off the bucket list items was over. Now, it wasn’t so much about the big sights of Prague, but the little things. The interesting shopping districts near Republic Square and nice cafes around the National Museum. Old paths seemed ready to intermingle with human histories that came after that, and it was truly satisfying.
And before I knew it, the 3-day walking exercise was done.
Eight years have gone by since I visited this gorgeous city. Memories of me walking down the bylanes remain imprinted on my mind. There’s no other city as enchanting as Prague. You might have to cross the realms of this planet to find the magic it provides. Amid the trappings of the country’s progress, the city keeps celebrating its history and art nouveau with its fans. If it wasn’t for good beer, it would be for some of the finest baroque palaces, Gothic church spires, and exquisite glassware. They all rise as if nature had created them. What stays with you forever, is the fact that Prague is an emotional chord between the city and the people, more than being the city itself. She’s no more just an uncaring backdrop to stand past your thick and thin, but rather an emotion that continues to live in the lives of her people.
Soham Nagchowdhury is a travel blogger from India, currently living in Seattle, USA. He enjoys staying with locals, listening to their stories, and learning about their lives and interests. While traveling, he aims to find a distinct character in every city and loves places that can be personified. Culture, History, and Photography excite him the most. In his writing, he loves to blend the conversational style with intriguing facts and travel tidbits.