Anyone who visits Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, knows how captivating it really is. The Old World charm and its history are both fascinating and bewitching – especially Prague’s Jewish Quarter. Learn about its history and use this guide to know which sites to see and things to do in Prague’s Jewish quarter.
Guide to Prague’s Jewish Quarter
What is a Jewish Quarter
Many cities used to have, or still have Jewish quarters. As early as the 13th century, Jewish people (or slang Jews) were ordered to settle into one area of Prague (referred to as the Jewish ghetto).
The Jewish area in Prague is a must-see due to its history, but also because it’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visiting this Jewish town within Prague is not only a reminder of a tragic part of the world’s history but also of its undeniable beauty and charm.
Where is Prague’s Jewish Quarter
The Prague Jewish Quarter is situated between Old Town and the Vltava River, on the right bank.
History of the Jewish Quarter in Prague
The name of the quarter “Josefov” or city of Joseph comes from the name of Emperor Joseph II, whose reforms improved the living conditions of Jews in Prague.
The history of Jews in Prague dates back to the 10th century. Josefov appeared in Prague in 1850, during the transformation, when the Prague Jewish ghetto officially became one of the administrative quarters of the city. The Austrian Emperor Joseph II issued decrees on equalizing the rights of Jews with the Christian population.
Most of the Jewish Quarter was demolished between 1893 and 1913 only to be rebuilt and modelled after the city of Paris. It was only six synagogues, an old cemetery, and an old Jewish town hall that were kept intact. These original buildings, saved from demolition, now make up part of the Jewish Museum in Prague, which is considered one of the oldest Jewish museums in Europe.
The Golem of Prague Legend
In Jewish folklore (stemming from Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II time) a Golem is a clay statue brought to life by a human. There are different versions of the legend, whether it’s good or bad, but it does play an important role in symbolism in the Jewish community.
Preservation of Prague’s Jewish Quarter
The Holocaust during World War II is one of Europe’s darkest periods in history. Despite the plan to remove all traces of the Jewish population, Adolf Hitler decided to preserve the Jewish Quarter. In doing so, a “Museum of Extinct Race” was created. By doing this, all most all of the historic buildings were saved in Prague from destruction during the war. As well, Nazis gathered Jewish artifacts from other occupied countries and sent them to Prague to add to the museum.
This makes Prague’s Jewish Quarter an extremely rare and important part of our history.
Top Historic Sites in Prague’s Jewish Quarter
The Old Jewish Cemetery
The Old Jewish Cemetery is the city’s oldest surviving Jewish burial ground. It dates back to the middle of the 15th century. Due to the fact that Jewish people were prohibited from burying their dead outside the Jewish Quarter, this graveyard is crammed with some 12,000 visible tombstones. It is estimated that there are 100,000 more bodies stacked up to 12 layers below ground.
The graves were never relocated because Jewish traditions forbid moving bodies after they are buried. The settling of the ground over time has created lopsided tombstones pointing in every direction, a most surreal sight that casts an eerily, yet beautiful spell. The Old Jewish Cemetery is one of the most important Jewish landmarks in the city.
The Synagogues in the Jewish Quarter
The Old New Synagogue is the oldest active synagogue in Europe. It’s one of the earliest Gothic buildings in Prague, built in 1270.
The Pinkas Synagogue is the city’s second-oldest Jewish house of worship, dating back to the 1500s. It began as a private place of worship for the influential family, although it was later expanded to rival the Old-New Synagogue.
The Klausen Synagogue was founded in the 1690s. It sits on a site that was formerly occupied by a small Jewish school and prayer house (Klausen), in what was then a notorious red-light district of the Jewish Quarter.
The Spanish Synagogue got its name for its impressive Moorish interior design. It sits on the site of the city’s first synagogue, even though it is the most recent one, built in 1868.
The Neo-Gothic Maisel Synagogue was built at the end of the 16th century as a private house of prayer for the family of mayor Mordechai Maisel.
The Jubilee Synagogue is the largest, newest and some would say most elaborate synagogue in Prague’s Jewish Quarter. It is also referred to as the Jerusalem Synagogue.
The Jewish Town Hall is located in the heart of the Prague Jewish Quarter. The former mayor, Mordechai Maisel, was instrumental in the design of the Jewish Quarter in Prague. One of those buildings under the sponsorship of Maisel was the Renaissance-style Old Town Hall in 1586. The building was the main meeting place of the local Jewish community. It will be hard to miss that the Town Hall features not one, but two clocks- one in roman numerals and the other in Hebrew numerals.
Top Things to Do in the Jewish Quarter in Prague
Take a Guided Tour
Explore the heritage of Prague’s Jewish Quarter on a guided walking tour, including entrance tickets to the synagogues and Jewish cemetery. This is a skip-the-line access and will be a 2.5-hour tour, click here for more information.
Visit the Ceremonial Hall
The Ceremonial Hall is the former building of the ceremonial hall and morgue in the Old Jewish Cemetery. The striking building was built in the pseudo-Romanesque style in 1911-1912 by the architect Frantisek Gerstl. Today it’s an exhibition space for the Jewish Museum.
Stroll Parizska Street
Parizska Street, or Paris Street, resembles the Champs-Élysées in Paris with its long tree-lined boulevard with high-end shops. It runs through the Jewish Quarter, connecting the Old Town Square to the Charles Bridge. This part of the Jewish Quarter is a beautiful area to stroll due to its early 20th-century Art Nouveau buildings and pretty cafes, just like what you might find in Paris.
Visit Robert Guttmann Gallery
The Robert Guttmann Gallery features artwork by this artist and other Jewish artists from the 19th century and onward. With rotating collections the gallery aims to feature artwork from post-war to contemporary art.
Find the Franz Kafka Monument
Franz Kafka was born to a Czech-Jewish father and a German-Jewish mother. Kafka lived in the Old Town despite his Jewish heritage. As a German among Czechs, a Jew among Germans, and an agnostic among believers, Kafka lived a life of alienation and fear, which also reflects in his writings.
The Franz Kafka Monument depicts Franz Kafka riding on the shoulders of a headless figure (presumably Kafka himself). This is in reference to the author’s 1912 story “Description of a Struggle”.
The other sculpture to seek out is the bronze sculpture of Moses (Socha Mojžíše), by Czech sculptor František Bilek. It can be found on Prague Street.
Prague’s Historic Quarters
Prague is actually made up of 5 distinct quarters. Each one features unique things to see. Beyond the Josefov or Jewish Quarter, be sure to visit the other 4 with the help of these guides.
- Castle district (or Hradčany)
- Old Town (or Staré Město)
- Little Quarter (or Malá Strana)
- New Town (or Nové Město)
As a holidaymaker…
Visiting the small historic Jewish Quarter is one of the top things to do in Prague. Being one of the largest Jewish ghettos in Europe, it is also one of the most well-preserved. Visiting the 6 synagogues, the Jewish Town Hall, and the Jewish Museum is a must when in Prague.