I like walking. Mostly because it’s not running, but that’s not the ONLY reason. A lot of people prefer the hop-on, hop-off experience when they visit new places, and if you only have two days to explore Rome, London, Paris or Berlin, then that’s fine. It will let you cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
Actually, no. Not Berlin. Or Rome for that matter. Paris and London, okay, but in Rome and Berlin, you should definitely walk! You see so much along the way, there is a constant sense of “what’s around the next corner?” And you can stop and literally smell the roses, or sample local delicacies along the way. Oooooor get scammed. Which means that you get a good story to tell when you get home, so…win. Kinda.
The point is that hoofing it is still the best way to get to know a place, at least if you want to go deeper than the glossy surface most tourists see (I always wonder about royalty. When they travel they get the extreme-version of most tourist experiences. Every place they visit is all cleaned up and nice-looking, with flower decorations and happy people dressed up in their good clothes…has the queen of England ever seen the REAL London??).
SO, I am going to do a series of posts where I suggest walking tour routes in the major cities of Europe. This is going to take a while, so patience please. And don’t worry, I will still tell you stories and share my epic fails with you in between these “informative” posts.
If you want me to suggest a route for any specific city, please let me know! If I haven’t been or don’t know the place well enough to make suggestions, I know a LOT of other tour leaders and guides around the place, and I will happily hound them to get an answer to your questions, so bring it on!
For now though, here is the first city I will map out for you.
Okay, I kinda gave that away in the title, didn’t I?
Prague is an amazing city, it is the party-capital of Europe and is a great blend of new and old. The historic city center is one of the most beautiful I know, and the Prague Castle district looms over the city in a way that’s practically DESIGNED for awesome holiday pics.
This is the route I suggest. In total it is about 6 km long, and can take approximately 2-2,5 hours to walk (at a leisurely pace and including ooh&aah’ing-stops and selfie-stops no longer than 2 minutes). It will take longer if you count shopping-stops, museum visits, food-stops, etc. And of course, I can’t cover EVERYTHING you will see along the way, or this would be a book, not a blog post, but I will briefly hit the highlights and point out some secrets along the way. You can walk the route in either direction, depending on your preference.
We start high above the city, at the castle district. Guys, the castle district is MASSIVE, so I cannot stress this enough: Do a guided tour! There is SO much to see, but if you’re exploring on your own you will miss out on 90% of it! There’s several tours on offer, and they aren’t terribly expensive either.
In the heart of the Castle District is the imposing St. Vitus Cathedral, which is one of the best preserved Gothic style churches in Europe, matched only by Notre Dame in Paris. The current building is the third to have stood on this spot, the original was a round structure founded by King Wenceslas (from the Christmas carol!) back in the 900’s, to house an important relic: The arm of St. Vitus. Yeah, I don’t blame you if you haven’t heard of him. He was a Christian martyr killed by the Romans for refusing to renounce his faith. He is the patron saint of actors and dancers, and he protects against lightning strikes and OVERSLEEPING! Which makes him my favorite catholic saint, next to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes.
No, I’m not catholic, but who doesn’t love a good saint?
Anyway, I don’t know how St. Vitus lost his arm, but it is still kept safe inside the cathedral.
Now, if you are standing facing the city with the church behind you, turn right. There’s a viewing terrace where you can get beautiful panoramic pictures, and this is where you will find the path downhill to the Mala Strena (Lesser town) district of Prague. This is the area at the foot of the hill below the castle district, and it is one of the most historic parts of the city, dating back to medieval times. Nowadays it is a student area, very bohemian and hipster cool.
If you follow the route I suggested, you will get to the John Lennon wall. The original painting of John Lennon is long since gone, but back in the 80’s this was the site of a quiet (and later, not so quiet) student revolution. In communist eastern Europe, a picture of John Lennon was painted on the wall. To the authorities, this represented dangerous western thinking and influence. When students began writing on the wall, slogans and bits of poems, often taken from John Lennon’s works, it was seen as a threat, and the wall was painted over several times. Cameras were put up to catch the graffiti artists, but it didn’t stop the students from venting their displeasure. You can still write on the wall, so bring a pen and send me your pictures!
Btw, if you’re in this area and you get hungry, let me suggest Cafe Savoy. It’s proper old world splendor, but has beautiful, authentic food and cakes. So many cakes! Ask the staff to tell you the history behind the ceiling.
Next stop on the route is the Kafka Museum. If you’re not a Kafka-fan, you can of course skip it, but it is a nice walk there, and the museum is interesting. But most importantly, it is home to the pissing statue!
This is a statue of two men, peeing on the ground (and if you look closer, you will see that the “ground” is shaped like Czechia! Political statement? I think it just might be). They move too, it’s hypnotizing to watch, but it gets even better! You can send a text message to +420 724 370 770, and the statues will spell out your message! It’s just the best thing ever!
It’s also not 100% reliable. I’ve done it, but I’ve heard from others who couldn’t make it work, but honestly, the statue is worth a visit even without the personalized message. I’d love to hear if it worked for you or not.
Back to the walking tour. We’re making our way to Charles’ Bridge, probably the most iconic sight in all of Prague.
Guys, there’s so many facts and stories about this bridge that I could easily write a novel about it, so I will keep it brief. It was built in the 14th century, and is named after King Charles IV of Bohemia, which is what this part of Europe was called back in the day. It’s famous for its statues, but these weren’t added until the 17th and 18th century, and the ones you can see today are really replicas. The originals are kept in the National Museum for protection.
The most famous statue is that of John of Napomuk, a priest who was the confessor to the queen in the 14th century. The king suspected the queen of being unfaithful, and ordered the priest to reveal her confessions. The priest refused, so the king had him starved and tortured. When the king questioned him again, John said that he had prayed on the matter, and God had spoken to him, giving him permission to reveal the queen’s confessions to a single soul.
The king was delighted, but the priest told him that he was too late. In his weakened state, he had already told the queen’s secrets to the dog that roamed the dungeons.
The king was furious, and ordered the priest killed.
He was thrown off the bridge and drowned in 1393.
As you’re walking over the bridge, you will likely see a crowd of people gathered around the base of a statue of a man in robes, carrying a crucifix and a golden palm leaf, with a golden halo around his head. THAT’S HIM!
The priest, John of Napomuk, not king Wenceslas, I mean.
And the story I just told is depicted in the frescoes at the base of the plinth. You will see a spot that’s all shiny. The legend has it that if you rub this spot, you will one day return to Prague.
I rubbed it the first time I came to Prague when I was in my teens, my grandmother took me along with her on vacation. That’s right, I went on vacation to the party capitol of Europe, with my grandmother! Admit it, you wish you were as cool as me.
AND IT WORKED! Proof positive, I DID return, many times. So rub away, my darlings, rub away.
Just, use a disinfectant on your hands afterwards, cause, you know. Hygiene.
Aaaand we’ll keep on walking. As you reach the end of the bridge, look up to the right, there’s a sign that says “Karlovy Lazne”. This is one of the most famous nightclubs in Prague (and there’s a lot of them here!). It has 5 stories, each with a different theme, from dance to R&B to oldies (that’s my floor, complete with a woman lounging in a giant champagne glass…!) and an ice bar (book ahead if you want to visit the ice bar, you need to reserve a time slot since it’s limited numbers).
However, that’s for later. For now, keep going straight, past the church on your left hand side, until you come to the Klementinum. This is one of my favorite places, not just in Prague but ANYWHERE! If you like books, you will LOOOOOOVE it! It is the most beautiful library in the world.
Takes me straight to the Hogwart library, and I’m not ashamed to admit it!
Now, past the Klementinum, we’re heading left (north, that is) into the jewish quarter. Be careful, though, it’s haunted.
Yes, I’m serious! And I don’t even believe in ghosts, but the Jewish quarter…there’s definitely something going on in there. The very second I set foot towards it, I lose all sense of direction, and I, who can maneuver the maze-like streets of Venice with no hesitation, have to pull out google maps to avoid getting turned around within 3 minutes.
By the way, they run some awesome ghost tours in this area! I’ve never been on one, I am just basing my judgement on the amount of times I’ve been scared shitless by some of their actors…
Aaaanyway, you will walk past the Faculty of Arts and the Pinkas Synagogue (second oldest in Prague) on your way to the Rudolfinum, home of the Czech philharmonic orchestra. It’s not only a beautiful building, it is also one of the oldest concert halls in Europe. Antonín Dvořák himself, my favorite composer and the national composer of Czechia, conducted the first concert ever held here, over 120 years ago. That’s him, the statue in front of the Rudolfinum, facing it. Check out his opera “Rusalka”, specifically Rusalka’s Song to the Moon. It’s sooooo beautiful! And I am proud to say that I have sung that very aria, right here at the Rudolfinum!
Okay, I stood on the steps in front of the building and sang, but at least two people stopped to listen! It was a real highlight in my life.
And for those keeping track of just how cool I am; yes, I also sing opera.
Aaanyway, from the little garden in front of the Rudolfinum you have one of the best views across the river to the Castle District, make sure you stop for some pictures!
Man, this is going to be a long post! It’s already long, and we’re not even halfway through the walking tour! Better keep going!
The next stop is the Jewish Cemetery. It’s a very eerie place, especially if you go there in the evening. This was the only place the local Jewish population could bury their dead, from the early 1400’s until the late 18th century. That’s why, if you’re standing at ground level outside, you can see the tombstones sticking up over the wall high above you. They had to bury new bodies over the ones already interred. The cemetery was eventually closed because it became illegal to bury people inside the city limits, for hygiene reasons (they got hit by the plague. No Bueno).
One of the most famous stories connected to this cemetery is Rabbi Judah Loew who is buried here with his wife. He lived in Prague in the late 16th century, a time of great upheaval in the Jewish Quarter. There was a lot of anti-Semitism at the time (the Nazi’s of WWII didn’t invent that, they just took it to a new extreme, but the Jews of Europe have been persecuted and attacked for many hundreds of years), and people from Prague would enter the Jewish quarter and attach businesses, cause disturbances and rob what they could without any fear of reprisals from the authorities. It had gotten so bad that rumors had started that the Jews were to be expelled from Prague entirely, and any who refused would be killed!
Rabbi Loew, in desperation, gathered clay from the banks of the river, and using this he performed secret rituals, creating a Golem, a creature of magic with great strength that could become invisible, to protect the Jewish people.
There’s many versions of the story, but what is undeniably true is that the Jews were never expelled from Prague, and the attacks on the Jewish quarter died down shortly after.
When the Golem was no longer needed, Rabbi Loew destroyed it, and stored the pieces in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, right next to the cemetery. Yet when the attic was searched in the 1880’s, no sign of clay pieces was found.
During WWII, Hitler had ordered most Jewish quarters around Europe destroyed, but the quarter in Prague was to be preserved as a “museum dedicated to an extinct race” (yes, he was totes cray-cray!). The synagogues were searched and any valuables collected and preserved, but when the soldiers entered the attic of the Old New Synagogue, one fell down, dead, and the rest fled in terror, refusing to set foot back in the Synagogue, and when the orders finally came to abandon the idea of a “museum”, and the synagogues were attacked and destroyed, the Old New Synagogue was spared…
The attic was searched again in 2014, but again no Golem was found. Of course, it’s just a story, though one of its powers was to turn itself invisible…? You decide what you think.
Personally, I think the whole area is haunted.
Next stop on the tour is the Old Town Square. You will walk down Parizska street to get there, one of the most high-end shopping streets in Prague. On this street, inside the Jewish Quarter, you can also find a Hugo Boss store. It’s interesting, since Hugo Boss was a Nazi sympathizer, and the company designed and produced the SS uniforms, using forced prison labor for the manufacturing during WWII. It’s interesting, as you travel around Europe, how often you’re struck by this kind of situation, where the past and the present clash violently and people are forced to find a way to coexist despite a sometimes-violent history.
As you enter the Old Town square, you pass a large church on your right hand side. This is the imposing St. Nicholas Church, a beautiful example of Baroque architecture. They often have concerts here, so if you’re looking for something to do in the evening that doesn’t involve drinking absinth, this might be a good alternative if you like that kind of thing. And why wouldn’t you?
On your left hand side you will see a big statue, looks like a group of people wailing and cowering on the ground, with one man rising above them. That one man is Jan Hus (Jan is a very popular name in Czechia, as you’ll see by the end of this post), and though you’ve likely never heard of him, he was HUGELY important to this part of Europe. Essentially, he invented Protestantism 100 years before Martin Luther. The reason you haven’t heard of him is that he was burned at a stake for heresy in 1415. The printing press wasn’t invented until 1450, so his ideas couldn’t travel as far and as fast as those of Martin Luther. However, Jan Hus had a great following in Eastern Europe, and his teachings influenced Martin Luther himself. His followers were called Hussites, and I won’t go into more detail cause not everyone appreciates the history lesson. But if you ARE interested in history, you should totally read up on Jan Hus! Pretty interesting guy, that.
There’s a LOT to see on this square, some great (but expensive!) restaurants, they often have booths and a market here, plus a lot of live music and it’s just a very lively place.
On your right as you cross the square, you can see they towers of the “Our Lady before Tyne”-church. It dates back to the 14th century, and was a Hussite church for 200 years. I won’t talk too much about it, I’ll just say that the towers are 80 meters, one is called Adam and the other Eve. You can visit the church, it’s beautiful, even Walt Disney thought so! He used the towers as inspiration for the castle in Sleeping Beauty.
You want to walk around the Old Town Hall on your right, though, with the Bell Tower looming over the square. The hall itself was built in the first part of the 1300’s, but has been added onto many times, as you can see by all the different styles and colors on the building. I recommend the guided tour, it takes you up to the tower and even into the underground areas under the building.
The most famous attraction on the square is the Astronomical Clock, BUT, it is currently taken down and is under repair. It’s scheduled to be finished and back in place either by August or October, depending on who you ask…Like with Charles’ Bridge, there are MANY myths and stories about this clock, but the most amazing thing of all is simply the age when it was built. The first parts of it were made in 1410!
I mean, I often hear that people are unimpressed with it, because obviously we can make more impressive things today, and if you’re one of those people then I’m sorry but we can no longer be friends.
The skeleton rings his bell, the vain man looks in his mirror, the miser clutches his money bag and the Turk shakes his head, he’s not ready for death to come for him. The hatch opens, and the apostles parade out, each intricately carved and painted (many were damaged in WWII and have since been restored, but that doesn’t detract from the masterpiece Master Hanuš created back in the 1400’s).
It’s like watching Agatha Christie type out a novel on a MacBook. It’s just WAY ahead of its time!
I hope you get to see it once the repairs are finished, it is so worth a second look!
But we’re not done with our tour of Prague just yet! Oh no, far from it!
Now we are walking towards Our Lady Before Tyne, to the right of it is a street called Celetna. You want to follow it for 5 minutes or so, until you reach the Powder Tower. You’ll recognize it, the design is very similar to the one on Charles’ Bridge. Like the Astronomical Clock, this too dates back to the 15th century, and it was used to store gunpowder in the 17th century, hence the name. Originally though, it was one of several City Gates into Prague. You can climb it, you get a great view of the city from the top!
If you walk through it, turn left, and you will come to one of my faaaaavorite places in Prague: The Pilsen Beer Hall! The food, the atmosphere, the BEER! It has to be experienced! There’s three ways to order beer here, look for the handy guide, but it’s basically “A little Foam, Half Foam or All Foam”. They believe that the foam protects the beer from going flat, so whatever you order, you should drink the beer before the foam disappears. If you’re a slow drinking, order the half foam, then you get a glass that’s half full of beer, half full of foam. Towards the end of the evening, when you know you should go home, but you’re not quite ready to actually do anything about it, order the all foam. It’s essentially a glass full of foam with a drop of beer at the bottom.
It all makes sense when you’ve had a few, I promise! Also, the food! This is the perfect place to try the Czech Tartar! Yes, it is raw meat. I had never liked steak tartar, you know the classic one, with raw onion and an egg yolk. But here, the egg is mixed in with the meat along with a lot of spices, and it’s served with toasted bread a garlic cloves that you rub on the bread…yuuuuuum! Honestly, I have been completely sold since my very first taste. Don’t worry, though, they have other things here too, so even if tartar isn’t your thing, give it a go, you won’t be sorry!
If you’re feeling more upscale than a beer hall, don’t worry, I’ve got your back! From here you’re only a short walk away from the beautiful Café Imperial. Just follow Na Poříčí-street, it will be on your left hand side after approx. 5 minutes. This place is popular, and for good reason, so call ahead and book a table to be sure you can get in!
And after that slight detour, we’re back. If you went to the Imperial, make your way back to the Powder Tower, and turn down the street called Na Prikope. This will take you straight to Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí), the long dual lane boulevard will be on your left after 5-10 minutes, you will see the imposing building of the National Museum at the top of the hill.
This square has been the site of many modern day historical events, and continues to be a gathering point to this day. I am a little intimidated to write about it, because this history is so recent there are youtube videos about it (You can skip to 5:00 minutes in, if you don’t want to watch all of it), so there’s no room for errors here!
I will do a very abbreviated version of history here, which will make any history teacher cringe because I will be leaving out so much important stuff, but if you’re not at all interested, just scroll down to the next picture, and I promise I’ll be done by then.
After WWI, Czechia, Sudetenland and Slovakia became Czechoslovakia (WWI rewrote the European map in a way that’s hard to understand today). It was a democracy and an industrial state, but during the 20’s, the economic depression hit, just like it hit pretty much everywhere. Unemployment hit hard, and as often happens in difficult times, people were looking for someone to blame.
In former Sudetenland there were a lot of German nationalists who’d never wanted to become part of Czechoslovakia, they still considered themselves German. After Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, he saw it as a natural second step to annex Czechoslovakia. The German Nationalists in former Sudentenland demanded that they be joined with Germany. In the meantime, the Allied Forces of France and Britain were still trying to make peace with Hitler to avoid another World War. They met for negotiations, and agreed to the demands presented by Hitler, which included that he be allowed to annex Czechoslovakia.
The Czech president resigned in protest, but there was little they could do. They didn’t have the power to stand against Germany alone, and the Allies had agreed to it, so by the end of March, 1939, the Germans had occupied the country. Slovakia became a separate country at this stage, but still a German satellite country.
There was a strong resistance in the country, and the Germans weren’t shy about punishing the local population for any acts of sabotage or other resistance activities. However, the resistance was never extinguished, and in May 1945, the people of Prague rose and fought for 5 days straight before the Soviet forces arrived to liberate the city.
After the war, Sudetenland was expelled from Czechoslovakia.
The communists stayed as a peace keeping force after the war, but then they DIDN’T LEAVE! They began a system of replacing key people in politics, the army, the police…with Communist sympathizers, and the Russian army kept a close watch from the Hungarian border. Very soon there was a totalitarian regime in place. They nationalized industry, agriculture was collectivized, opponents were arrested, and either executed or imprisoned.
Communism for Dummies (IE: Me!):
Marxism: Everyone should contribute what they can, and take what they need. Like in kindergarden. Share and share alike.
Leninim: (big fan of Marx, but made a few tweaks): Everyone should contribute what they can, and a bunch of smart people, Lenin included, should determine what people need and distribute it. Cause people dumb.
Stalinism (Followed Lenin, more than a little cray-cray): Everything should contribute what they can, and Stalin should get first pick, and then the smart people can figure out who needs what, as long as Stalin’s buddies got more than anyone else.
->Well, in Czechoslovakia, it was a Stalinist regime, but Stalin died in 1953!
What up, I hear you say!?
Well, the Czechoslovakian government set the army on their own people to ensure that any protest and uprisings were shut down before it could spread. Sooooo not cool!
But in the 60’s, the kids wanted more freedom. By then, Hungary had achieved a more lenient form of Communism, and that’s what they wanted to achieve in Czechoslovakia, but the Soviets were having none of it! In August 1968 half a million Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia. They came right into Prague and up Wenceslas Square, where they opened fire against student protesters. In total, 72 people were killed during the invasion, and over 700 injured, many seriously.
One year later though, a young student, Jan Palach, desperate to ensure that the resistance shouldn’t die down completely, poured petrol over himself while standing at the top of the stairs in front of the National Museum. He set himself on fire, and stumbled down the stairs until he collapsed, and people could get to him with blankets to put out the fire. He lived for 3 days in hospital before he finally died on January 19th.
It was a catalyst, but nothing changed overnight. 1 months later, another student, Jan Zajik, also set himself on fire, and more students got involved in the liberation movement. International media begun taking an interest in what was happening in the Soviet Block countries, but it took 20 more years before the Communist rule finally crumbled. It was a movement called the Velvet Revolution, where hundreds of thousands of people protested for days on end, jangling their keys in the air to signal to the Communist leaders “it’s time to get out of our home!”
Shortly after, Slovakia and Czechia became independent countries once more.
Aaaaaand that’s it! An incredibly dramatic chapter in modern history, concentrated down to 750 words. Not everyone is into history, but if you’re going there, I hope you do read it, cause it will make it that much more meaningful when you stand in front of the National Museum, and you see the bullet holes still present on the pillars. Then look out over Wenceslas Square, and see the memorial to Jan Palach right there. It looks like a burned out cross that’s fallen from the sky and gotten embedded into the pavement at the foot of the stairs. You’d stumble over it if you didn’t know it was there (You know, if you go to the big statue of King Wenceslas on his horse, and keep going a bit more to a small circle of bushes, there is another memorial hidden there, of Jan Palach and his friend Jan Zajic).
On a lighter note, be a little careful of this area at night. It’s not exactly dangerous, but it is the red light district of Prague, so if you see a lightly clad woman who looks like a prostitute, it’s probably because she is one.
I hope you have a fantastic time in Prague, feel free to share your stories and experiences in the Comments Field below.
PS: If you see a booth that makes these little beauties fresh, and by that I mean you can see them being grilled in front of you, RUN AND TRY THEM! And whatever you do, DON’T fill them with ice cream! Nutella, yes, but not ice cream (SACRILEGE!), they should be eaten still warm, ice cream just makes them doughy. They’re called trdelnik, don’t even ask me how it’s pronounced, but sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, they are just the best! I am on a strict “one per visit”-diet, but I break that diet happily every time. Yum!