The Prague Libraries – Strahov Monastery and The Klementinum
Home to some of the world’s most beautiful libraries, the Czech Republic is an excellent destination for book lovers. During our travels, we visited two world-renowned Prague libraries, each breathtakingly stunning in their own unique way.
They are the ones you’d find on every Pinterest board for book lovers. The ones with the gilded and painted ceilings, the ancient books and the old, antique wood. I’d seen them so many times, that, when I finally visited the Prague libraries, I thought I had stepped onto a movie set. The libraries are as incredible in real life as they are in photographs, if not more so.
The Strahov Library was the first of the Prague Libraries we visited. As I love books, it was right on top of my priority queue. Although I had seen it countless times in photographs, I was still very excited to visit it in real life.
A Walk through Petřín Gardens
The Strahov Library, however, is so much more than its two famous halls. The walk from Prague’s Old Town to the Strahov Monastery in itself was quite an excursion. From the heart of Prague, we crossed the Vltava via the Legionnaire’s Bridge. This bridge is the next one up from the famous Charles’ Bridge. From here, we walked up, through Petřín Gardens.
It was a crisp, cloudy winter’s day when we started out, but the 2 kilometres uphill helped us warm up. The park was empty, save for a couple of Czech families with little children struggling to make it up-hill on their little legs. Petřín Gardens is an attraction in itself. It’s a large city park just off the heart of Prague, and it provides a spectacular view of one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Strahov Monastery Beer
On our way there, we spotted a little board. “Monastery Beer – Blueberry”, it said. Although it wasn’t even noon, it caught our eye. We walked past it at first, heading straight for the library. When we realised it was closed for lunch until one, we returned to the restaurant and ordered two mugs. Here, we discerned that the Czech don’t joke around when it comes to beer. The serving of beer, brewed in the monastery brewery, was huge. It was also strong, like all monastery beer.
The view from the terrace of Restaurant BellaVista, at the top of Petřín Gardens, is absolutely stunning. I was delighted that the librarians were out to lunch, for it gave us some time to enjoy the surrounding tranquillity. Although clouds had begun to gather, the vista stretched out before us was no less incredible under the overcast sky. From our table, we could see the Gothic towers of the St. Vitus Cathedral, their dark pinnacles rising from the colourful house below.
Definitely do not miss grabbing a beer on this terrace if you’re already on your way to visit the Strahov Library. It is definitely a worthwhile side quest!
Tickets to the Strahov Library
As you will find for most attractions in Prague, it’s not possible to prebook tickets for the Prague libraries online. To get a ticket to see the Strahov Library, we had to queue for one.
We got to the entrance at ten to one and were one of the first in the queue. The queue built up quickly though, so do get there before opening time!
TIP: VISITING THE STRAHOV LIBRARY
Tickets were around €10 per adult and €5 reduced fare (children and seniors). You need to get an extra ticket if you want to take photographs, even if it is with your phone. These photo tickets were about €2.90 per ticket. You can also book a private tour of the library for €100 per person.
There did not seem to be a limit to the number of visitors allowed inside the library. I noticed it getting more crowded during our visit as more people enter than leave. If you want to enjoy it in solitude, you’ll have to be the first one in.
The Theological Hall
Personally, I think the Theological Hall in the Strahov Library to be the most beautiful reading room in existence. I remember being enchanted when I first saw photographs of it years ago. It is an incredible place, with a pure white ceiling illuminated by beautiful figurative artwork. Its red and gold shelves stand in stark contrast to the muted palette of pastel in the murals and the light ochre of the oak floor.
The sacred rooms of the Prague Libraries are always empty because visitors are not allowed inside. Unless they purchase a private tour, which is about €100 per person. Although the price is a little steep, I thought it would have been well worth it.
A small window opens up from the passage that connects the two halls that make up the Strahov Library. The window is quite narrow, just large enough for one wide-shouldered man to stick his torso through. I was really glad I was one of the first up into the library. It gave me a few precious moments to have the Theological Hall all to myself.
What’s inside Strahov Library’s Theological Hall
The first thing I noticed when I stuck my head through the window of the Theological Hall, was the delightful smell of old books. The scent of old leather and paper washes over you the moment you pass the threshold into the Theological Hall.
Trying to distil the smell of an ancient library, apparently, is quite a popular pursuit. Writers, perfumers and even chocolatiers have all tried their hand at it. I think it’s because a library is one of the most important advancements of civilisation – the first stores of knowledge upon which our understanding of the world came to be. There is some true gravitas in the smell of old books.
The Ancient Books Inside the Theological Hall
The Theological Hall, I remember, triggered my olfactory sense the most of all the Prague Libraries. It was the smallest of the three halls, and the most packed. The moment I stuck my head in, I was blanketed with the smell of worn leather, delicate paper and old, polished hardwood. It felt like the books and furniture had been in here so long they had imprinted their smell into the bricks of the room that held them.
I craned my head as far to the left as I could, trying to get a good view of the nearest book. It was a big white tome a foot high, on the lowest shelf. There were others like it, all pressed firmly together. They were so old they seemed like white stones to me. I wasn’t even sure if it were possible to remove each on its own. The bottoms of their bindings were darkened from years of wear when people were still taking them from their shelves. I suppose most of the books must have been digitised by now, so if anyone wanted a look, they wouldn’t have to move them.
The Medieval Scribe Desk
In the left corner of the Theological Hall is a strange desk called a compilation wheel. This fascinating piece of furniture is from the 17th Century. Although the Gutenberg press was well underway for three centuries, sacred books were still copied by hand. This rotating table was, therefore, a means by which knowledge was preserved. The desk consisted of one stable surface from which the scribe would do the copying and several inclined surfaces around a wheel. By turning the wheel, the scribe brought forth a different book from which to copy.
History and Design of the Theological Hall
The Theological Hall has been through quite a lot in the centuries since its completion in 1679. Its design is Italian in origin, evident in the design and stucco paintings on the ceiling. Another interesting fact I learned here was that storing books vertically was not always the norm. The vertical storage of books on shelves was a concept from the Baroque period, before that, books in Gothic libraries tended to be stored, horizontally, stacked atop one another.
During the later years of the library, the brilliant red shelves were painted blue-grey, and a parquet floor was installed over the original Baroque flooring. These additions have since been removed, and great care has been taken to restore the library back to full resplendence, as it was in the 17th Century.
The Philosophical Hall
The Philosophical Hall is probably the most traditional in the appearance of all the Prague libraries. It reminded me a bit of Trinity College Library in Dublin. I could see from its entrance, with doors thrown wide open, the magnificent ceiling illuminating the library. And, along its entire length were shelves upon shelves of books.
The two-storied hall was lit by soft natural light coming in from its windows, and its polished shelves gilded with gold gleamed softly. We spot a couple doing a private tour inside the library, and I wished we had gotten the opportunity to do the same. I could not help but wonder, as they entered a door tucked into the side, what was hidden behind those shelves.
The Ceiling of the Philosophical Hall
The painting on the ceiling completely captivated me. At its end, across the hall were the figures of Aristotle and Alexander the Great, among other philosophers of antiquity. Above the entrance were religious and spiritual figures important to the history of Bohemia, like King Wenceslas and his pagan grandmother, St. Ludmila. On the ceiling of the Philosophical Hall, reason and religion intermingled.
A Book Case, with a Gift from Napoleon Bonaparte
I noticed an impressive bookcase, free-standing on the floor. It was a foot in front of the shelves by the library’s window. Seen from the side, I almost did not realise how grand it was, and that it was topped with an elaborate bust.
I learned that this bookcase houses several books that were gifts from Napolean Bonaparte brought to Prague by his queen and the Austrian princess, Marie Louise. Among the rare books gifted was a four-volume work on the first Louvre museum, of which there are only four copies today. Supposedly, this is because Napolean destroyed the rest, not wanting to publicise that most of the Louvre’s collection is made up of loot from Italy and Greece! Regardless of the ethics surrounding this volume, it is a fascinating treasure hidden in one of the Prague Libraries.
The Cabinet of Curiosities
Connecting the Theological Hall and the Philosophical Hall is a corridor that houses the Cabinet of Curiosities, a concept that is a precursor to the modern museum.
Although the Cabinet is not as enchanting as the libraries, it served an essential purpose during Bohemia’s Renaissance. Here, we can see an early system for categorising artefacts from the natural world, leading to the beginnings of the natural sciences that would flourish as Europe entered the 1800s.
I found myself absolutely fascinated by the diversity of objects on display along the corridor. There was such a wide variety of them, from natural history specimens like butterflies and fish to illuminated religious manuscripts. At one end, there was a grand marble Buddha.
There was also an Egyptian mummy, though this is not part of the monastery’s permanent collection. The mummy is not very large and was hanging on the wall. Usually, I find mummies slightly creepy, but this one had a rather kind face painted on.
Unicorns, Narwhales and Maritime History
I also spotted a strange, spear-like object placed with various nautical artefacts. These included a detailed model of a ship and some cannonballs. It looked to me like a unicorn’s horn from a fairytale; In fact, people had believed it was such, until the last century when we discovered the narwhale. Although it looks like Narwhales have horns, what they have instead is a really long tooth which they use for defence and to fight for mates.
The Charles’ Bridge and the street that follows from it, is packed with tourists year-round. The situation was intense when we were there on Christmas Eve. In an attempt to avoid the crowds, we ducked under a doorway carved in the stone wall of the Klementinum.
We were surprised to find a beautiful garden surrounded by high walls, empty save us and another couple. Walking a little farther, we saw a poster advertising a tour of the Klementinum. The poster was very faded. Had we not taken a close look, we would not have seen how impressive the Klementinum is, inside. Even in those sun-bleached photos, it looked like an incredible place.
We started the tour by climbing up quite many steps. There usually is an elevator in service, but it was not functioning during our visit. Luckily, the tour includes many stops along the way. This meant we never had to climb too many steps at once.
There are four main highlights of the tour, each incredible in its own way. On top of these attractions, the Klementinum’s connecting rooms were also filled with many fascinating objects. Most of these are scientific instruments from the 1700s and 1800s – sextants, clocks, weights and measures. Many of them were astronomical instruments used to understand the universe. The moment I entered the Klementinum, I felt it was a special place which played a significant role in the advancement of science in Bohemia and the West.
The Klementinum Library
The start of the tour was undoubtedly the Klementinum’s Baroque Library. The largest of the Prague Libraries, it is an incredible place. Some say it is the most beautiful library in the world. Even more poignant is that this library has been awarded the UNESCO Memory of the World Prize. An award reserved for collections that safeguard humanity’s heritage from collective amnesia, neglect and the ravages of time.
When we visited, we were in a tour group of about thirty people, the maximum size for a group. Our guide asked us to take turns viewing the library, as there were stringent rules in place – as is the case for all of the Prague libraries. We were divided into three groups, each getting a turn of about five minutes on the viewing deck at the entrance. This prevents the humidity levels in the library from rising, which would damage the fragile books inside.
Experiencing the World’s Most Beautiful Library
I made sure to go in with the last and smallest group, taking my place right in front of the fence at the entrance. The library’s interior is absolutely breath-taking. For someone who adores books as I do, the feeling is sacred. The lighting was quite dark – again, to protect the books, but it only made the interior seem more dramatic. The library must have many secrets, hidden in the pages of the volumes that line its walls.
A visitor asked the guide what the point of this library was, if no one could visit it for its books. The guide replied that researchers are allowed to visit and that the librarians are currently working with Google Books to digitise some of the collection’s most important works.
The Vyšehrad Codex
Among the Klementinum Library’s treasured collection of books is an extraordinary gospel book, the Vyšehrad Codex. It’s unique because of its age and the beauty of its illustrations. The original was created in the 11th Century, during the Romanesque period.
The book is not on display, but there is a perfect copy of it in the hall outside the Library. Because it is a copy, we were allowed to flip its pages and peruse the stunning iconography within. I’m not a massive fan of art from the middle ages, but this book is terrific. Its pages were laid out and decorated by a true artist.
The Meridian Hall
After we visited the last of the Prague Libraries, we continued on upwards, towards the astronomical tower. The spiral stairs continued to get narrower, and the passage gradually grew darker, until we came to an extraordinary room – the Meridian Hall.
I felt my curiosity ignite the moment I stepped in. It was a very tall, but small room, dimly lit by the winter’s sun through a crack in a high window. On either side were large brass quadrants once used to calculate the distance between the planets. At its centre was a shallow cabinet in the floor.
An Entire Room Turned into a Camera Obscura
Our tour guide told us that the room was a camera obscura. He closed the shutters of the tall window, throwing the hall into complete darkness, save for a pin-prick of light coming through a hole in the wall. He explained that the wooden “cabinet” in the floor held a string and that when the sunlight hit the string on the far end, it was high noon.
During winter, which was when we visited the Klementinum, the pin-prick of light would fall on the northern end.
The Astronomical Tower
I found that the best-kept secret of the Klementinum is its Astronomical Tower. We had gone on the tour, hoping to see the most beautiful of the Prague Libraries and ended up experiencing so much more.
We were fortunate the day we visited the Klementinum. Being the period around Christmas, the weather in Prague can be quite erratic, tending towards grey skies. However, the moment we got up on the tower, all the clouds cleared, and the sky was a brilliant blue. It was the perfect winters’ day.
Best Views of Prague Old Town
The view from the Astronomical Tower is undoubtedly the best view of Prague. From here, we could see all the hits. The twin towers of the Church of Our Lady Before Týn, the Tower of Charles’ Bridge, the roofs of the Old Town Hall which hosts the famous Clock Tower of Prague and, finally in the distance, the Prague Castle.
The best thing about it was, since the number of people per tour group is limited, we had enough space to enjoy it all. It is still worth going up the tower of the Old Town Hall. Yet, unquestionably, the Klementinum’s Astronomical Tower wins for the best viewing experience of Prague.
For us, the moment could not have been more perfect. Having had several days of grey weather, we had almost given up hope of capturing Prague’s full magnificence. Then, just a day before we were to leave, this – brilliant blue skies, a warm afternoon sun, and the view of the historical centre of Prague, stretched out before us.
FAQs for The Prague Libraries
The Klementinum claims to be the most beautiful library in the world, and it might just be true. The Strahov Library’s Philosophical and Theological Halls are also often listed among the most beautiful libraries in the world.
To visit the Klementinum Library, you’ll need to do the full guided tour of the Klementinum, which includes the Library, the Astronomical Tower, and the rest of the building. Tour groups are limited to 20 per person, so we recommend buying a ticket ahead of time in person. (You can’t buy them online.)
To visit Strahov Monastery’s Philosophical and Theological Halls, you need to queue in line for a ticket during opening hours. The number of visitors inside the library is only limited by the hold up when buying the ticket, so it can get quite crowded inside.