Length of stay: 3 days
Visited: April 2019
- St. Vitus Cathedral
- Karlštejn Castle
- Tour of the Clementinum
- Tour of the Old Town Hall
- The Strahov Monastery and Library
Prague has been a political, cultural, educational and economic centre of central Europe for many centuries. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Holy Roman Empire, Czechoslovakia and now the Czech Republic. For that reason it is home to a number of historic sites and monuments. The historical centre in Prague with all its charm, beauty, and cobblestoned streets has been included as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Day 1: The main attractions
We arrived in Prague in the early evening the day before. After having an action-packed day underground exploring some of the caves just outside Brno, we had a quiet night once we arrived at our accommodations in Prague. This worked out well as today we planned to get an early start to our day up at the Prague Castle. The castle dates back from the 9th century and is considered to be the largest ancient castle complex in the world. So you know this place is going to be swarming with impenetrable tour groups. Our game plan was to get here as early as possible to avoid the crowds. While the museums and churches within the complex don’t open until 9am, the grounds are free to roam from sunrise.
The walk up to castle is quite scenic, which was good because along the way we could take pictures and (let’s be real) catch our breath on the ascent. There are multiple entrances into the complex and each requires going through security. Once we entered, we walked along the grounds for a bit before waiting in line for the ticket office to open.
As soon as we got our tickets we made a beeline straight to St. Vitus Cathedral, which is easily one the most impressive and important (and therefore popular) places located within the Prague Castle (and the city in general). The cathedral took nearly 600 years to build. It contains the tombs of several patron saints, archbishops, Bohemian kings, and Holy Roman Emperors. The coronations of of the kings of Bohemia were held here until the early 19th century.
We planned to climb up the Great South Tower of St. Vitus Cathedral, but we had to wait about 20 minutes for it to open. Instead we went through the Old Royal Palace exhibit which was located a few steps from the tower entrance. The Old Royal Palace served as the original residence of Czech kings for centuries. From the 16th century, its Vladislav Hall was used for inaugurations and other royal state purposes. Nowadays, presidential elections of the Czech Republic take place here.
By the time we finished up, the Great South Tower had opened. The tower holds the biggest bell in the Czech Republic. We climbed the 287 steps up the tower and were rewarded with a panoramic view above Prague.
From there we went to St. George’s Basilica, the oldest surviving church within Prague Castle.
We then made a short detour along the Golden Lane. It derives its name from the goldsmiths who used to live along this narrow cobblestoned road, along with defenders of the castle and servants. There are a number of small shops and homes that you can walk through to see what life was like for these people back in the day. Of particular note is house number 22 which was inhabited by the writer Franz Kafka for two years from 1916 to 1917.
We had one remaining building from our ticket to Prague Castle (well, two if you count the “the Story of Prague Castle”, but given that the exhibit was closed today, that doesn’t really count): the Rosenberg Palace. It’s a short tour through this palace built by the wealthy and prominent Rosenberg family. There wasn’t a whole lot to see here, but there was this particularly nice room featured in the picture below.
It’s a good thing we finished up at the Prague Castle when we did because the swarms of tourists and (the guaranteed) tour groups was becoming unbearable. There was even a line that wrapped around the side of St. Vitus Cathedral. We walked back to our accommodations to make some lunch and give our feet a chance to rest.
In the late afternoon we headed back out to hit up more of Prague’s main attractions on the other side of the Charles Bridge, a historic bridge that used to be the only means of crossing the river to go between Prague Castle and the Old Town.
We walked through the historic centre towards the Prague Astronomical Clock. The clock is mounted on the southern wall of the Old Town Hall. In addition to telling the time, it has other astronomical features as well. But, its distinguishing feature are the twelve apostles that parade around every hour on the hour. It is also the oldest astronomical clock that still functions in the world.
We then purchased tickets to go inside the Old Town Hall. We were provided a pamphlet that provided a brief overview of the the building itself and each room. It was created in the 14h century and expanded over time by purchasing adjacent individual houses and integrating them into a single building. Today it consists of a set of five historic houses. One of the highlights in the Old Town Hall is a viewing platform, which provides a closer view of the twelve apostles when they are not in rotation for the other 59 minutes of an hour.
By the time we finished up the self-guided tour, an in-person guided tour was about to start. And it was free. We decided to take the tour and walk through the Old Town Hall again, but this time with the guide. As an added bonus, the tour started a few minutes before the hour so you get to see the apostles dance around from the inside of the Old Town Hall. Another advantage to going on the guided tour was that we also got a sneak peak into the town hall cellars, which is only accessible with a guide. These underground cellars are older than the town hall itself and are the largest of its kind in the city.
At the end of tour we went to the viewing gallery in the tower, which provides fantastic views of the city. It is also included into the entrance of the Old Town Hall.
On our walk back to our accommodations, we stopped at the Lennon Wall. After John Lennon’s assassination, this wall has been covered with graffiti as a tribute to this former Beatles singer.
Day 2: The other attractions
We started our morning back at Prague Castle. We were unable to visit “the Story of Prague Castle” as it was closed yesterday, so we decided to finish this off first thing in the morning as this place would 100% be overcrowded and overrun with tourists an hour after opening time. It was great that our ticket was valid for two whole days. The exhibit highlights the history of the castle, dating back to the 9th century.
We didn’t mind so much the walk back up to Prague Castle. Partially because we needed the workout to burn off all the treats and sweets we’ve been devouring (more on this later), but largely because it’s right around the corner from the Strahov Monastery and Library. The monastery contains the largest monastic library in the Czech Republic and features two beautiful decorated libraries: the Theological Library and the Philosophical Library. There is a extra charge to take pictures here, but as we know from our visit to Brno, this wasn’t well enforced. So we saved a few extra dollars and took a few super secret pictures anyway.
On the way back to our accommodations we rewarded ourselves with a Trdelnik – a rolled pastry that is wrapped around a rod, grilled over coals, and then topped with a mixture of fruit, Nutella, ice cream, whipped cream, or any combination of toppings. In other words: pure deliciousness.
After eating some lunch we headed out to the Old Town Square to pick up tickets to the the Clementinum, a large complex of buildings that is only accessible by a guided tour. Since the next available tour wasn’t until two hours, we purchased tickets for a later tour at 6:00p.m so we could instead visit the Prague National Museum first. The building itself was far more impressive than the one exhibit about the history of Czechoslovakia. Granted, this exhibit is fairly new and was opened in the museum in the fall of 2018.
Afterwards we headed back to the Clementinum for our guided tour. Our guide led us through parts of this historic complex and provided more details on the history of each of the key rooms, including the Baroque Library Hall and Astronomical Tower. At the end of the tour we got to climb to the top of the tower, which was used for astronomical observations until the 1930s, for a good view overlooking Prague.
We then headed back to our accommodations for an early night as we planned to take a day trip tomorrow.
Day 3: Karlštejn Castle
Charles IV was (and still is) a beloved king of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor from the 14th century. He is responsible for founding Charles Bridge, Charles University, part of the cathedral of St. Vitus and Karlštejn Castle. Karlštejn Castle was founded in 1348 to safeguard the royal treasures, including the Imperial Crown Jewels and holy relics.
A hop, skip, and a 40 minute train ride later (it is just 30km southwest of Prague), we arrived at a super small town just outside the castle walls. From the station it’s about a 30 minute walk up to the castle grounds. The hike up offered a sneak peak of the sheer scale and size of the castle from down below.
We booked two tours of the castle for the day as the castle is only accessible through a guided tour. We arrived about 30 minutes prior to the start of our first tour so we took the opportunity to wander around the grounds.
The first tour we scheduled was the Basic Tour through the private and representative rooms of Emperor Charles IV. The tour took 55 minutes and we got to view and hear about the history and use of the first and second floors of the Imperial Palace and the first floor of the Marian Tower.
The second and more extensive (and expensive) tour was the Exclusive Tour through the sacred rooms of the castle with the Chapel of the Holy Cross. The tour is 100 minutes in duration and photography is not permitted. Perhaps because of the price, or that this tour requires you to book your tickets in advance, but we were joined by just one other couple on this tour. Our guide, Martin, was fantastic. Many Game of Thrones references were made. It was great.
On this tour we got to creep into the Eastern wing of the Imperial Palace, the second floor of the Marian Tower, which is home to the Church of the Virgin Mary and the St. Catherine Chapel, and part of the Great Tower, including the most famous room of all: the Chapel of the Holy Cross. The Chapel of the Holy Cross housed all the rare and valuable treasures, including the Imperial and Bohemian Crown Jewels, and is a treasure in and of itself.
Once we finished up our tour we leisurely made our way down to the train station so we could head back into Prague. While checking the messages on my phone, I came across one from our Airbnb host informing us that check out time was 11a.m and inquiring why our stuff was still in the room. Turns out I accidentally booked our accommodations for three nights instead of four. With a flurry of messages back and and forth, and my heart beating in overtime in my chest, we could do nothing but wait for our train to pull into the station and run back to our room as soon as possible as new guests were expected to arrive. It all worked out in the end and we were able to return our key and gather our belongings before the other guests arrived. We were also extremely fortunate that it wasn’t quite high season yet or the weekend, as we were able to score a very fancy place at the last minute and was only a third of the price as it usually was.
We headed back out in the evening to roam the charming streets of Prague one last time. It’s quite amazing how a city can look so different at night than in the day.
Next up on our European adventure: Salzburg (cue the soundtrack to the Sound of Music)
L & K