Prague was been known to have many nicknames. The ‘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:
- Castle district (or Hradčany)
- Old Town (or Staré Město)
- Little Quarter (or Malá Strana)
- New Town (or Nové Město)
- Jewish Quarter
This travel guide is part of a five-part series focusing on each of the five areas at a time. It will highlight some of the area’s best of, so you won’t miss a thing. This is the second one, focusing on Staré Město, otherwise known as Old Town.
The heart of any European city is always the historic old town, and Staré Město is definitely that. Likely due to the fact that it has one of Europe’s most speculator town squares (called Staroměstské náměstí / Old Town Square), covering an area of over 9,000 square meters, from which the whole city can be explored from. It dates back to the 9th century where merchants from all over the world would meet here, as a central crossroad for trade routes. Today, it is bustling with activity and the constant crowds – morning, noon and night – are all part of the experience.
Key Attractions from Old Town Square
Every hour, on the hour from 8am to 8pm, since 1490, the Old Town hall’s Astronomical Clock comes alive. The details are impressive with the phases of the Zodiac and sunrise and sunset times. The 12 saints, visible through a window above the clock face, march by while four figures representing Greed, Vanity, Death and Turk nod their heads.
Church of Our Lady Before Týn
Its distinctive twin Gothic spires make the Týn Church an unmistakable Old Town landmark and can be seen from all over Prague. It was founded in 1385 as the main Old Town church.
Convent of St James
This gothic church dates back to the 14th century and received a massive baroque interior facelift in the 18th century. It also has an interesting, yet gruesome, tale surrounding this church. As you enter, you can’t help but be mesmerized by details. But apparently if you look up, you may spot the hanging of a shriveled human arm. Legend has it that when a thief tried to steal the jewels from the statue of the Virgin around the year 1400, the Virgin grabbed his wrist in such an iron grip that his arm had to be lopped off.
Convent of St Agnes
It is Prague’s oldest surviving Gothic building, and now serves as an art gallery for medieval and early Renaissance art dating from 1200–1550.
One of Prague’s best examples of art nouveau building. There is so much detail in its design and decor. The street level restaurant and café are the perfect backdrop, but if you want to see more, that is only by a guided tour.
Old Town Hall
Prague’s Old Town Hall, founded in 1338, is a mixture of medieval buildings acquired over different points in time. For example, at one point, Franz Kafka lived here (1889–96) as a child just before the building was bought by the town council. Today, it serves as main tourist information office and of course offers a tour of the interior buildings.
Beyond the Key Attractions
Now, for my favourites from this area…
Brewery – Pivnice U Kata (U Radnice 6) – you can feel the history as you are sampling some of Prague’s best brews
Restaurant – U Medviku (Na Perstyne 7) – although highly recommended (we didn’t actually eat here) if you want to enjoy a traditional Czech dinner this is the place to go
Cocktail bar with terrace – Bugsy’s (Parázská 10) – this is amongst the nicest shopping street and popular with the local business crowd
Best vantage point – the astronomical tower of course
Best concert – Prague is famous for offering evening classical concerts, and you will be overwhelmed with the choices. We did two, and it makes for a great way to see the interiors of these wonderfully historic churches.
- Saint Martin in the Wall Church – is a gothic church dating back to 1187. The exterior is unassuming, and the interior is simple, yet beautiful – but trust me it is the best place for a classical concert, as the acoustics are amazing.
- Church of St James – due to the high number of tourists that visit this church in the day, we thought we would take in a concert and sit and appreciate all the details. But no, I completely forgot to look for the hanging of a shriveled human arm.
Because Staré Město is the center point for all of the 4 historical areas, we actually walked through the Old Town Square more times than I can remember during our week stay in Prague. I wish I had taken more time to really appreciate each building, one by one, for its unique beauty, instead it quickly became the place to hurriedly pass through to go from one destination to the other. Don’t be like me, and allow the vast number of tourists that congregate in this square ruin the experience for you. Because there is no denying it, it is pretty spectacular.
Be sure to check out the other 4 historical areas in future blog posts.