On a pretty day, even one with a bit of a fall chill in the air, Prague’s Old Town Square is stunning. I would guess the same would hold true on a stormy day, as well, but I luck out and the weather is just perfect. Buildings gleam, their facades dating from the early 20th century all the way back to the 14th, and all are either in pristine condition or being currently renovated to be. From here, one can truly pay homage to most of the history of Prague, from its beginnings in the 11th century to its current state as the capital of a vibrant European democracy.
In 1355, Charles IV, King of Bohemia (the area of what is now the western Czech Republic), became Holy Roman Emperor. As such, his home city of Prague garnered an incredible amount of attention. The town hall located here, which was established by the purchase of a luxury home in 1338, had to be upgraded. In 1364, a tower was added to it, one that still stands today.
Few things inside the Old Town Hall can be visited, but with an admission fee, the tower can be climbed, either via a circular ramp or – for an up charge – via an elevator. From the top, the view of the city spreads out beneath me. Old Town Square sits at the center, and the entire old town reaches from there. The view is worth the cost of admission, although it can be crowded at the top.
However, the most visited portion of Prague’s Old Town Hall isn’t even inside the building. In 1410, an astronomical clock was added onto the side of the tower portion of the building (as the town hall took over a few neighboring structures, as well). It consists of two main faces. One (the bottom) holds the signs of the zodiac, and a rotating portion that tells visitors which saint’s day we are currently on. The top dial shows the locations of the sun, moon, and North Star in the sky, the zodiac as it would be in the sky, and tells the time in both modern and Judaic (sundown to sundown) forms. And yes, it still works, making it the oldest working astronomical clock in the world.
On the hour, doors open and saints appear in the windows. Marionettes move, and a golden rooster crows. In the fifteenth century it must have been quite the show! Today, it is a bit underwhelming, though if you happen to be here close to the striking of the hour, it is worth braving the crowds to watch.
As a medieval city, Prague once had mighty walls and moats, and was reached by thirteen gates. Under Charles IV, it grew, and New City’s establishment meant the end of the moats and walls, although some of the gates and their guard towers still exist. (These, too, can be visited. In fact, nearly every truly historic building in the city is owned by the city itself and can be visited. Admissions are all included on a Prague Visitor Pass. A 72-hour version, which the city was kind enough to gift me, costs around $100. I’ll go much more into depth about the Prague Visitor Pass in the upcoming Ultimate Guide to Prague, so watch for that.)
Charles IV is also responsible for one of the other still-standing attractions. The Charles Bridge was the first stone bridge to span the Vltava River. Construction began in 1357, although it didn’t finish until after Charles’ 1378 death. Consisting of sixteen spans, and topped with thirty statues of saints (added in the 17th and 18th centuries), the Charles Bridge links Prague’s Old Town with Lesser Town, which sits at the base of Prague Castle.
The bridge itself is insanely crowded, so while walking across is the only way to view the statues, the best views are either from the river via a boat tour (one is also included with the Prague Visitor Pass) or by climbing the towers at either end (again, included with the card). I chose the tower on the Lesser Town side, and was rewarded with stunning views of the Charles Bridge, as well as Prague Castle.
While Prague Castle might be the crowning fortification today, at the time of Prague’s founding, that side of the river was not part of the city, and Prague’s defenses stemmed from another fortress complex: Vysehrad. This hill to the south of Old Town has been topped with fortifications since the 10th century, although the Rotunda of St. Martin, from the 11th, is the oldest surviving building.
The highlight of a visit to Vysehrad is the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul. While a church has stood here since 1070 or so, this building only dates to 1903. The inside is lavishly painted with scenes depicting Czech patron saints. Outside, a cemetery contains the final resting places of some of modern Czechoslovakia’s (and later, the Czech Republic’s) notable figures, though none I had heard of.
Back in Old Town Square, I marvel at the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, though either it was closed or I couldn’t find the open entrance. Its towers, though, act like a crown over the square, and are among the coolest I’ve seen.
And I enter the 12th century St. Nicholas’ Church, highlighted by its awesome chandeliers.
Food is a part of any visit to Old Town Square, and two things stand out. First, between Old Town Hall and St. Nicholas are several huts serving Old Town Ham. Try it, though you might have to fight off the ever-present wasps to enjoy its juicy middle and crunchy crust. And have a trdelo, Czech chimney cake that is basically a churro wrapped around a metal stick and then served as a tube. Here, they are filled with ice cream.
Prague’s Old Town is full of cool streets to explore, pretty buildings to admire, and a lot of fun history. But here in Old Town Square is where that all comes together. This should be the first stop on your visit to Prague.
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