In many ways, Prague is the perfect city break option. It is crammed full of so much gorgeous architecture – from many eras – that most other cities should be insanely jealous. You walk around the streets cooing at buildings, most of which have been lovingly preserved and repainted. There’s also a remarkable number of museums, many of which have such narrow subject fields that they’re worthy of visiting for quirk value alone. If you’re interested in particular historic figures, there are museums devoted solely to Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Kepler and Franz Kafka, while other highlights to browse through include medieval torture instruments, chocolate, toys, marionettes and ghosts.
Museum of Communism
If you have to pick one single Prague Museum to visit, however, it should probably be the Museum of Communism. Ironically sited between a casino and a McDonalds, this takes you through life during the era of Communist Czechoslovakia. It traces the history of Communism back to its origins in Marx and Engels, but is at its best when it explores the effects that the Soviet-imposed regime had on local people. For all the posturing, marching and military displays, most people were interested in just getting on with life as well as possible. The displays go into how supply and demand always won out through the black market and the expectations put upon people to put the system over the well-being of their neighbours. To not report ‘criminal’ (or anti-State) activity was a criminal activity in itself, and officials were given handsome rewards for eliciting confessions through torture.
Prague does have a rather obvious tourist trail, however. You don’t really need anyone to point it out – just follow the herds along it. They will all, at some point, be found on the Charles Bridge. For many years, this was the only bridge across the River Vltava that Prague had. A huge stone construction built under the orders of Charles IV in 1357, it has turned into something of a circus in recent times. If you ever want to buy jewellery of dubious quality, have a caricature of yourself drawn or listen to buskers of varying ability, then this is the place to head to. But the towers at either end are undoubtedly impressive, while the series of statues placed along the edges of the bridge are pretty much a Czech history lesson.
Of course, the best views of the bridge aren’t from the bridge itself – either head to one of the neighbouring bridges, or duck under the bridge to Kampa Island on the Mala Strana side. Some of the best shots can be taken from the children’s playground next to the upmarket Kampa Park restaurant.
David Cerny’s public artworks
Also accessible by ducking to the north of the Mala Strana end of the Charles Bridge is a pleasant courtyard outside the Kafka Museum. Taking pride of place in the centre of it is a rather striking sculpture. Two men, carved in slices to make them look like they’re appearing via a patchy relay in a sci-fi film, can be found relieving themselves into a pool that’s the shape of the Czech Republic. The sculpture – Proudy – is by David Cerny, a man who has brightened up many corners of Prague with some seriously odd public art. In the Lucerna Palace shopping centre, a man can be found riding on an upside-down horse, while a man can be found dangling one-handed from a pole high above Husova Street in the Old Town.
Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world, although it does look more like a small town within the city than a stereotypical moats-and-ramparts castle. This, of course, means that you could easily spend a couple of days exploring it. In fact, you could happily spend a day in the castle gardens alone. Once you get inside the castle, you’ll find a network of courtyards and palaces. There are a few museums, cafés and other assorted attractions to check out, and various entrance ticket combinations get you into various parts.
Viator’s Prague Castle Walking Tour is much better than most, as you can tell by looking at the misery on the faces of those being herded round in groups of fifty or more. The last stop is the Basilica of St George, where the red baroque facade is completely contradicted by the simple, tranquil, Romanesque interior. The Old Royal Palace is also included in the tour, but while many of the rooms are impressive, none hold a candle to the incredible Vladislav Hall. It’s 124m long and 33m high, with a knock-out lattice vaulted ceiling. It was once, unbelievably, used for jousting contests – it’s that big that horses can charge around it.
St Vitus’ Cathedral
Arguably the star attraction within the castle complex (and it has got plenty of competition), is St Vitus’ Cathedral. The eagle-eyed will notice that it is split into two parts – the original, more blackened Gothic half and the cleaner, much newer neo-Gothic half. The building somehow manages to combine a monumental simplicity with lots of intriguing detail.
It’s the sort of place where having a good guide brings more to life. For example, there are numerous parts of the cathedral that have links to St John of Nepumuk, a character that somehow failed to crop up in my school history lessons. Apparently King Wenceslas IV (that wouldn’t be the good king Wenceslas of the carol fame, needless to say) had him thrown off the Charles Bridge. He now lies inside the gaudiest silver coffin you can possibly imagine, covered in equally silver decorative angels and cherubs. Whoever is employed to polish all this silver does a sterling job.
The highlight of St Vitus’ Cathedral, however, is the one chapel you can’t walk into. The St Wenceslas chapel (yes, this was the ‘good king’) is a blizzard of decoration. Every sliver of wall or window is frescoed, stained, painted, gilded or adorned with giant precious stones. OK, so he was murdered by his jealous brother, but this is a pretty special way to be remembered…
- David Grant