Prague has been called the “city of a thousand spires”, mostly because it boasts one of the oldest and most eclectic skylines of any city I have ever seen. With some buildings dating back 1100 years all with different architectural styles from Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance, Art Nouveau to modern, everywhere you look is a dramatic view. The most dominant feature of the city is Prague Castle, built in the 9th century, high on a hill towering over the city. It is the largest ancient castle in the world and at its center is a 14th century Gothic church that is straight out of a fairytale. Everything you look at has a rich deep history and you never know where the narrow, cobblestone streets will take you and what mysteries the ancient buildings around you hold. There are a series of 800 year-old bridges that cross the Vltava River and connect the different sides of the city to one another and there is even a section where it reminds you of Venice Italy, with narrow canals and quaint waterfront bistros.
As one of the largest cities in Europe, Prague continues to be an important artistic and cultural center, a role it has played for centuries as the former capital of the Holy Roman Empire. It may be the most beautiful city I have ever visited in Europe and a lot of that was due to the fact that it was one of the few cities in Europe spared from the bombings in World War II. Because of its fortuitous and long-standing history, Prague holds so many wonderful mysteries and unique activities to uncover. So here are my top 10 things to discover and uncover while in Prague
Here in Prague you can’t judge a building by its door, because behind it could be the most beautiful courtyard and landscaped garden you have ever seen. It is deceiving, but what gives Prague its mystery and charm and it was one of the reasons why visiting or staying at Hotel Aria is a must-do! This contemporary boutique hotel in a former theater houses a secret. If you take an elevator to the bottom floor, guests can step outside into an 18th century Baroque garden called Vrtbovská Zahrada. The experience of stepping into the garden was sort of like falling through the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, because it is just so surreal and beautiful on the other side. Aria Hotel is the only hotel that has access to these gardens and it is hard to believe that such a vast, landscaped, quiet and serene place can exist right in the heart of the city! As an added bonus, the rooftop of the Aria Hotel is by far one of the best views in all of Prague. With almost 360 views of the city below, you can sip on champagne or eat some of the best cuisine in town at Coda restaurant on the roof.
Dominating the city skyline is the largest castle complex in the world built in the 9thcentury, Prague Castle. Declared a UNESCO heritage site and the original walled-in medieval part of the city, inside you can find palaces and the remains of Romanesque and Gothic style buildings dating back 1000 years! Instead of joining the large mobs of tourists trying to pay for tickets and get in through the front gates, there is an easier and much more fun way to get in!
Just a short 12 minute walk from Hotel Aria through cobblestone streets to their sister boutique hotel, The Golden Well, you will uncover one of the city’s finest boutique hotels, but also one of its best kept secrets. They, too, have a spectacular view of the city from their rooftop, but this hotel has an even bigger secret. It used to belong to the Roman Emperor and Bohemian King Rudolph II and was a royal residence in the 16th century. The secret passageway from the house to the inside of the castle walls above can now be accessed by the guest elevator inside of the Golden Well. Yep, one second you are in the lobby and then the elevator doors open up and you are inside of the ancient castle walls. The magic of this city is never ending!
Meet David Cerny, an internationally famous Czech Sculptor and notorious rebel. His sculptures are all consistently provocative and scandalous and you can find examples of them all over the city. Here are my top three to go find.
-Two Peeing Guys Sculpture-
While walking around in Malá Straná, on the small plaza at Cihelná 2b where the Kafka Museum is situated, you will find an unusual fountain where two life-sized bronze men are peeing. The two figures move realistically, while their penises move up and down making the stream of water spell out quotes from famous Prague citizens. Very few people actually notice the bronze shape of the basin below. If you look carefully you’ll see its in the shape of the Czech Republic, so the men appear to be urinating into the country. If that isn’t ridiculous enough, visitors can interrupt them peeing by sending SMS message from mobile phone to a number, displayed next to the sculptures. The living statue then moves and ‘writes’ the text of the message, before carrying on as before.
-Metalmorphosis-(Franz Kafka’s revolving metal head)-
Located in a busy shopping center in Prague, you will find a twisting and reflective sculpture depicting the head of the famous Czech writer, Franz Kafka. This enormous mirrored bust is comprised of 42 independently driven layers of stainless steel and weighs in at some 45 tons. The piece brilliantly reveals Kafka’s tortured personality and would make sense to anyone who has read the stories from the great Czech writer. Just like he twisted the minds of his readers in the most unexpected and fascinating ways, the metal layers of this statue rotate and twist. You will find yourself completely mesmerized standing in front of this statue watching the show where at times it looks like the head is moving back and forth, turning in a 360 degree rotation, or just completely dissolving into an unrecognizable spiral of metal.
-Zizkov TV Tower with Crawling Babies
The only part of the Prague skyline that seems ugly and out of place is the Zizkov television tower built back in the 80’s. At 709 feet high it’s the highest tower in the Czech Republic. In the year 2000, Cerny was asked by city hall if he would be interested in doing an installation for Zizkov, to “dress it up” and make it a bit cooler. In true bizarre, Cerny-fashion, he created made a statement against Communism through sculpting numerous, faceless crawling babies that can be seen scaling the sides of the television tower. The babies, much like Communism (which the tower is a symbol of that era) are unable to reach adulthood, their growth stifled by this landmark of totalitarian rule.
Step back into the Old Town Square and journey back in time 800 years. This square used to be the central marketplace for Prague. Surrounded by buildings in Romanesque, Baroque, and Gothic styles, the best way to fully appreciate the beauty of this square is to sit over a coffee or a beer at a local café and get ready for the hourly show.
Every hour on the hour, hundreds of tourists from all over the world gather in front of the Old Town Hall to enjoy a fascinating mechanical performance which in the Middle Ages was considered one of the wonders of the world. The Prague Astronomical Clock, which for 600 years has been one of the greatest treasures of the city, still amazes people with its procession of Apostles, moving statues and visualization of time like no other instrument in the world.
The oldest part of the clock and astronomical dial, dates back to 1410 and it still mechanically works and keeps time to this day! Local legend says that once the clock was built, the clockmaker Hanuš was blinded on the order of the Prague Councillors so that he could not repeat his work. In turn, he disabled the clock, and no one was able to repair it for the next hundred years. The clock stopped working many times in the centuries after 1552, and was repaired many times, but on the day I saw it, it worked right on time and little skeleton figurines came out and pulled on a string making other parts of the clock move and turn.
Prague’s version of the Cistine Chapel can be found at the famous Strahov Monastery. The Klementinum Library is one of the most valuable and best preserved historical libraries in the world housing priceless books dating as far back as the 9thcentury. In 1794, Anton Maulbertsh painted the library ceiling with a theme “Journey of mankind to wisdom” giving it the feeling of walking into a sacred hall. The library is a rare and little-known treasure, but 300 years ago the Klementinum used to be the third largest Jesuit college in the world. It is hard to explain in words the beauty and experience of stepping foot in this Baroque library and it was an honor to do so, because NO ONE gets permission to actually walk inside this room, ever, except for Daniel Craig filming Casino Royale… and apparently me. Again, being a photojournalist definitely has its perks!
The St. Charles Bridge, dating back to medieval times is the main walking path connecting Old Town with Mala Strana and eventually the road to Prague Castle, but Charles Bridge has a more spiritual attraction. On either side of the bridge are two rows of 30 baroque statues erected in the 17th century depicting different saints, but only one of them will grant you whatever wish you desire. You have to find a statue of St. John of Nepomuk. It is the 8th statue on the right hand if you are heading from Old Town Square towards the Prague Castle. If you have lost count, just look for the shiny, worn, gold spot on the bottom of one of these statues from all of the thousands of people rubbing it making wishes over the years.
Legend says that St. John was a priest in Prague under King Wenceslas IV. The priest received the confessions of the Queen. Unfortunately for John of Nepomuk the King was a very suspicious man. The king wanted to know the Queen’s confessions which Nepomuk would not reveal. Therefore he was executed by being thrown into the Vltava River from this very bridge and drowned. So touching the fallen priest on the plaque is supposed to bring good luck and ensure your return to Prague.
Those who suffer from claustrophobia, may not be able to make it down this famous street. What I would call more of a “gap” between two houses, has been named the “Narrowest street in the World”, called Vinarna Certovka , measuring just 19.6 inches in width.
It is so small that to stop people colliding in the middle, two traffic lights have been installed on either end to indicate when it is occupied. The novel 32-foot-long street is nestled in Prague’s oldest neighborhood, Mala Strana or the “Little Quarter”. It is almost impossible for more than two people to squeeze past each other as they travel through the passage.
The best part about squeezing through Prague’s tiniest street is that there is a treasure to find at the end of it. At the end of the alley there are a series of stone steps leading from the street to the edge of the canal.
There you will find a super tasty restaurant at the bottom of the stairs called, Certovka. The décor is kitschy and the food is good, but the best part is the view. This tiny alley hides the best kept secret in Prague, dinner right on the canals with an incredible across the river towards the St. Charles Bridge.
Unlike the U.S., The Czech Republic has a “zero tolerance” law towards having a drink and driving. So, the Czech people have solved that problem by offering tours of Prague in renovated historical Czech vehicles from the 1930’s while you sit back and relax in luxury. The driver will pick you up at your hotel and take you on this exciting tour around Prague’s major sights in a classy chassis. You can chill and drink a bottle of wine in the open air while being chauffeured through Judish Town, Old Town, across the Czech Bridge to Prague Castle, and then back to Old Town again. They even offer a popular Prague beer tour in the evenings!
Hiking up to one of Prague’s many beautiful parks to have a picnic is a local favorite thing to do. It’s a great way to relax after you’ve had enough of battling the tourist crowds. Also, there are so many eclectic buildings and the city has so many hills, that numerous parks offer stunningly different perspectives of the skyline of Prague. If you want a romantic meal with a view, a picnic may be the answer. Also, it is perfectly legal to have a drink or two in public places, just not while driving, so why not enjoy a nice bottle of Bohemian wine or a chilled lager from a beer specialty shop?
If you have to choose one hill to hike up to the top of for your picnic, I would say Petrin Hill. This hill is the ultimate picnic with a view. After you’re finished eating, you can walk to the romantic Strahov monastery or the Prague Castle. If you are wanting a meal with a view, but are not wanting to have to work for it by hiking up the hill, no problem. You can simply buy a ticket for the funicular car and get off at the middle station.
If you think dining in the city center bars and restaurants is real Czech cuisine, then think again. For a more authentic and cheaper taste of the city, head for the quieter streets away from Old Town Square. The Czech Republic is known for brewing a huge range of beers, including Budvar, Urquell, Staropramen, Lev and Rohozec.
Most Czech cuisine is modest but tasty, based around pork, dumplings and cabbage. One of the best new restaurants in Prague is the Celeste Restaurant with panoramic views of the city from the top of the curvaceous, glass-fronted Dancing House. The building, designed by Frank Gehry, gets its name because its sensational sweeping outline resembles a couple in a dancer’s embrace, similar to 1930’s film stars Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.