Prague was been known to have many nicknames – ‘city of a hundred spires’, ‘the magic city’, ‘the mother of cities’, ‘the city with 100 bell towers’, ‘the golden city’, the Old Town, the New Town, the Jewish Quarter; and the ‘heart of Europe’. Travel to Prague, and you will instantly understand why. It is a captivating city full of beautiful buildings and historical sites just waiting to be explored. This bohemian city built on the hills alongside the Vltava River, features a stunning skyline of gothic spires. It is so photogenic with its cobblestone streets, red rooftops, extensive gardens and brightly coloured buildings.
Prague used to be known as the ‘Five Towns’, although it is divided into 10 separate districts, most visitors tend to concentrate on the five historic towns:
- Hradčany (Castle district)
- Stare Mesto (Old Town)
- Mala Strana (Lesser Quarter)
- Nove Mesto (New Town)
- Jewish Quarter
This travel guide is a five-part series focusing on one of the five areas at a time. It will highlight some of the area’s best of, so you won’t miss a thing. So, let’s get started shall we, with Hradčany, otherwise known as the Castle district.
A major portion of Hradčany consists of the Prague Castle. It dates back to the 9th century, and according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the largest castle complex at 70,000 square meters (750,000 square feet). It is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The castle is among the most visited tourist attractions in Prague attracting over 1.8 million people per year. While you can roam the castle grounds for free, there’s an entrance fee if you wish to visit the various buildings.
The main highlights within this complex include:
St. Vitus Cathedral
Built over a time span of almost 600 years, it began in 1344 where slowly many renaissance and baroque details were added over the centuries. It was in 1861, that a concerted effort was made to finish the cathedral which took until 1929. So, yes, over 600 years!
Old Royal Palace
The palace is one of the oldest parts of the castle complex. It was built on the remains of the original structure dating back to the 9th-10th centuries. The best part is the Gothic Vladislav Hall with its beautiful gothic vaulted ceiling. The vast hall was used for banquets, councils, coronations, and even indoor jousting tournaments. There is even a Riders’ Staircase designed to allow for a knight on horseback.
Is a picturesque street filled of small, I mean very small, colourful houses built in the 16th century mainly for the castle guards. In the 19th century, they were open up to the citizens of Prague, and typically the occupants were among the poor. However, some famous residents have also lived on Golden Lane. Literary icon Franz Kafka lived in house No. 22 in 1916 and film historian Josef Kazda lived at No. 12. Kazda is best remembered for saving thousands of films and documentaries from the Nazis during World War II. He hid copies in his house – and even organized small screenings in secret – in his tiny home.
The beautiful Renaissance garden built in 1534, showcased rare botanical flowers and exotic plants from other countries. The gardens were meant to entertain the royal family and other nobility. Structures were soon added, and included the Ball Game hall (1569), the Summer Palace or Belvedere (1560), the Lion Court (1560). Today, it is a peaceful area to stroll and take in the beauty.
Hradčany was an independent borough until 1784, and because this area is located beside Prague Castle, it long held the status of being a ‘royal town’. Because of this status, residents living here were all wealthy and therefore were able to afford to hire the best artisans who created some of the most stunning buildings. It is easy to simply walk around aimlessly and admire all of these romantic looking structures.
Other highlights include:
Hradčany Square – it faces Prague castle and you can see the towers of St. Vitus Cathedral standing in the centre.
Schwarzenberg Palace (left) and Salmov Palace (right) – both surrounding Hradčany Square square are elaborately designed each one painted a different soft pastel colour and covered in naturalistic stucco designs.
Strahov Monastery – founded in 1140 for the Premonstratensian order. Within the complex you will find Church St Roch (1612), which is now an art gallery and the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady (1143). Also of interest would be the rare Stratov library which houses a number of medieval manuscripts and maps.
Loreta – this is a pilgrimage site which consists of a Baroque Church of the Nativity and a replica of the Holy House surrounded by cloisters and chapels, all built in the 1600s. In the tower there is a 27-bell carillon that plays the Loretan Marian song “A Thousand Times We Greet Thee” every hour from 9am to 6pm.
Nový Svět – is a tiny area of just a couple of streets tucked away off the beaten path, and the radar of most tourists. This hidden gem is full of charm with its picturesque cottages dating back to the Middle Ages.
Also, here are a few of my favourites in this area for food and drink:
- Coffee shop – Karvarna Novy Svet
- Brewery – Klaterni Pivovar
- Restaurant and terrace – Peklo (part of Strava Monstery)
Most come to Hradčany to only see the Prague Castle. Not me. What I loved the most was how quiet and picturesque this area is. With its elevated position over the city it offers some beautiful lookout points and definitely a quiet respite from the busy, tourist filled streets of Prague. Be sure to check out the other 4 historical areas in future blog posts.