Secrets and Sights of Old Town Prague
Walking through the old town of Prague, I instantly knew why the capital of the Czech Republic is often referred to as the “Paris of the East”. In fact, I think Prague is more beautiful and romantic than Paris in some ways. Old Town Prague, the Prague Castle, and their surrounding areas are all infused with incredible charm and unforgettable elegance.
Personally, I feel Prague, and especially Old Town Prague, is a concentrated form of the idealised European city. There are three reasons for this. First, the historical core of Prague was left mostly unscathed in World War Two. Second, that Prague was and is an important cultural and intellectual centre in Europe since the 14th Century. Finally, Prague has been magnificently restored, its buildings repaired and its city centre incredibly well cared for. Also, unlike cities along the Mediterranean, it is not plagued by touts selling cheap trinkets in the heart of the city.
Cultural and Intellectual Landmarks of Old Town Prague
As you stroll through Old Town Prague, you’ll see many landmarks that illustrate Prague’s importance in European cultural life. Some of these are world-renowned like the Charles Bridge and the Astronomical Clock.
Some of them are less well-known but no less important. For example, the Estates Theatre, where Mozart’s Don Giovanni had its premiere, or the modern statue of Sigmund Freud dangling over a narrow cobblestoned street.
However, even without these icons, Prague’s Old Town is an attraction in itself. Its ancient streets are lined with buildings so old, many of them are no longer straight. Here, you can find shops selling Czech handicraft, locally made cosmetics, and traditional restaurants. And then, there’s the ancient Market Square, bustling with life all year round.
The Medieval History of Old Town Prague
In the 10th Century, a Jewish merchant, Ibrahim ibn Jakub, described Prague as a significant centre of world trade. During his time, you would find furs from Russia, spices from the Middle East, wheat from Poland, gold from the Byzantine Empire and much, much more. Intriguingly, there was also mention of slaves being bought and sold in Prague’s marketplaces. There were two of these, one within the Prague Castle complex, and the other in the Old Town.
Although Prague was already a bustling hub in 965 A.D., when the Jewish merchant visited, it was in the 14th Century that it achieved great importance. This status was thanks to the King of Bohemia, King Wenceslaus, being elected as the Holy Roman Emperor. When he was Pope, Prague became the imperial seat of the Catholic Church.
Old Town Prague during World War Two
In World War Two, Prague did not suffer significant damage from air-strikes, as the city only became the target of aerial bombing in the last months of the war.
The irony is that the city was bombed by Allied forces by accident when bad weather conditions threw the pilots off course. Mistaking Prague for Dresden, they dropped 152 tonnes of bombs on the city centre in February 1945, killing nearly a thousand people.
Most of the damage to the Old Town during World War Two, however, was attributed to a standoff between the Czech resistance and the Nazi army. The confrontation took place in the Town Hall, which the German military attacked with tanks, causing a great fire.
Prague Old Town vs New Town
The distinction between the Old Town and the New Town is not apparent. The New Town wraps around the Old Town, and there’s nothing to demarcate their borders today. In fact, the “New” town isn’t new at all and dates back to 1348.
At that time, there was a moat running around the Old Town. As the New Town grew up around the old core, the canal soon turned into a sewer. Here, folks dumped their rubbish, fought duels (where, I suppose, the body of the loser was left to rot), and used it as a public toilet. In the end, the moat became a public health hazard, and the King had it paved over.
If you’re interested in seeing some historical photos of this boundary, check out these series of postcards of places between the old town and the new.
While seeing Prague, I mainly used three landmarks to gauge if I was in the Old Town or the New Town. These landmarks were the National Theatre, the bottom of Wenceslas Square and the Powder Tower. Everything towards the bend in the Vlatava, from these landmarks, is the Old Town, and everything on the other side is the New Town.
Secrets in Old Town Prague
I would like to start the post with the “secrets” of Old Town Prague, as a lot is known about the main sights. Besides, there’s no way you could miss the main sights.
I visited Prague for the first time in 2008 and the second time in 2019. These “secrets” are the things I missed on my first visit. I’m telling you about them now, so you don’t miss these lesser-known, but no less fascinating attractions in the heart of Prague!
The Mechanism of the Astronomical Clock
Possibly my favourite “secret” is the Mechanism of the Astronomical clock. If you happen to be at the clock on the hour, do stay for the “Walk of the Apostles”. The clock will chime, and the windows above the stone statue will open. There are 12 apostles, divided into two groups, 6 at each window. When the windows open, they take turns looking out, two at a time.
They are appealing from the outside, but are way more fascinating from the inside. Especially if you get a chance to see them doing their walk.
To see the interior of the Astronomical Clock, you have to buy a ticket to enter the Clock Tower. This will also allow you to see the interior of the Old Town Hall and climb to the top of the tower.
The Klementinum Library
This gem is hidden right in front of the Charles Bridge. We did a lot of research before coming to Prague but somehow missed this one. Luckily, we stumbled upon its entrance by chance while returning into the Old Town from Charles Bridge. The tickets for the last tour before closing for Christmas were almost sold out, but we were fortunate to get our spots.
The Klementinum Library is was awarded the UNESCO “Memory of the World” prize, which is sponsored by South Korea. As you can infer from the name, the reward is given for organisations that safeguard the world’s knowledge from the ravages of time.
The library, which opened in 1722, is a fantastic example of Baroque architecture. It has a beautiful, luminous painted ceiling and elegant dark wooden shelves, filled with ancient books. As we stepped through the entrance of the library, the smell of leather, bookbinding and old paper was all-encompassing. For a book lover like me, it was an almost religious experience.
The Alley of Prague’s History
Just off the banks of the Vlatava, near Charles Bridge, is an alley with Prague’s history written all over it.
This alley, Stříbrná, leads off from the Na Zábradlí Theatre. Along this alley is a series of cards with Prague’s contemporary history, covering the significant events of the 20th Century. The cards are written in Czech, but there’s a poster at one end in both Czech and English.
The Former Kepler Museum Courtyard
Sadly, for an astronomy fan like myself, the Kepler museum is no longer operational. This museum was located in the house Kepler had lived in during his 12 years in Prague. During this time, he finished his work on his first and second laws. It’s unfortunate visitors are not allowed into the house for now, since the museum closed. However, you can still pop into its courtyard, to see the bronze sculpture in its centre.
This sculpture, although small, is striking and assertive in its own way. At its centre is a globe representing the sun, with five circles around it. An elliptic with Kepler’s name in Art Deco font crosses the circles that ring the globe.
The even spacing of the circles and how they grow and shrink have a harmonious quality to them, and the diagonal elliptic gives it a sense of movement. During Kepler’s lifetime, he was intrigued by the “music of the spheres”. A concept that each celestial body has an ever-changing song related to its speed in orbit. This sculpture, with its harmonious composition, might have taken inspiration from Kepler’s work on this topic.
Man Hanging Out
This famous sculpture of Sigmund Freud isn’t so easily seen. If you are not looking for it, you’ll miss it. Located on a side street coming off Národni (the main road which delineates the Old Town from the New Town), this statue can be seen hanging from above the cobblestones of Na Perštýně.
“Man Hanging Out” is the work of Czech sculptor David Černý, Prague’s most prominent, living, sculptor. There are many more of his works dotted around the city. Completed in 1990, it has been all over Europe and even crossed the Atlantic Ocean to tour the USA.
The sculpture is thought-provoking, as Sigmund Freud ended his life by committing suicide. There are many interpretations of it, but the one I like the most is that the sculpture reflects the artist’s thoughts on 20th Century intellectualism. Here, one of the Century’s most significant influences is depicted hanging over an urban chasm of restored buildings and a polished cobblestoned street…
Technically Café Louvre is in the New Town, although it’s right at the border. I’ve included it in this list, so you don’t miss out on it. Located on Národni, it was a favourite haunt of Albert Einstien and several other prominent scientists and thinkers.
Prague has many Grand Cafés, but if you only have time to go to one, Café Louvre remains the most authentic. At the café’s entrance is an exhibition of how Prague’s Grand Cafés were used as communication hubs by intellectuals during the turn of the Century.
The Mozart House is a nice to know spot for lovers of classical music and opera. There’s not much marking this house as unique, so you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled.
The only sign that indicates this simple off white building as special is a relief depicting the bust of Mozart. This estate, the House of the Three Golden Lions, was where Mozart spent his time in Prague. Here, he put the finishing touches on Don Giovanni, before it was premiered in the Estates Theatre across the street.
The Estates Theatre
Tucked away among the pretty buildings of Prague’s Old Town is the Estates Theatre. This Neo-Renaissance beauty is one of the last few operational theatres in the world from the 18th Century. (The Opera houses in Paris, Vienna and Budapest are all built in the 19th Century.)
We must have walked past it several times during the day, but it was late one evening that I really noticed it. The theatre is absolutely stunning after nightfall when it is lit dramatically. From the front, tall Corinthian columns hold the white and gold gable aloft. On its left side is an interior balcony with elegant cast-iron pillars, tastefully decorated with gold ornamentation.
If The Estates Theatre feels like something out of a movie – it’s because it is. It’s been featured in the Mozart biopic Amadeus and the Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved.
Sights to See in Prague Old Town
In the heart of the old town are many attractions, spanning over one thousand years. Starting from the old Market Square, first written about in the 11th Century to later additions, like the Jan Hus monument.
The Old Town Square
Perhaps the first place to get to once you’ve checked into your hotel in Prague is the Old Town Square in the heart of the city. Surrounding the square are several centuries of history, all compressed into a small space.
Here you have the Old Town Hall and the Astronomical Clock, the Lady of Týn Church and the Jan Hus monuments. A few minutes walk away, there is the Charles Bridge. The Market Square remains a bustling marketplace today, as was in past centuries.
The Christmas Market
At the very heart of the Old Town Square is a market. Records of the market go back to the 10th Century where it has been recorded that a fair took place here every Saturday. Back then, the market sold everything imaginable, vegetables, leather goods, live chickens, eggs and much more. Today, the market caters to seasonal trends. Most notably Easter and Christmas. CNN has rated the Prague Christmas Market as one of the best Christmas Markets in the world.
Tourists and locals alike congregate in the square during Christmas to enjoy the decorations and the late-night nosh. Here, we spent many an evening under fairy lights eating piping hot sausages and the ubiquitous “Trdelník“, or “Chimney Cake” in English.
The Astronomical Clock
Possibly the second most recognisable or Prague’s landmarks, after Charles Bridge, is its Astronomical Clock. Currently the oldest working astronomical clock, it is a unique example of medieval science.
The Astronomical Clock and its tower are attached to the Old Town Hall and located in the south-western corner of the Old Town Square. There’s no missing it on your visit – there’s always a large crowd gathered in front of it. Especially on the hour, as everyone wants to see the “Walk of the Apostles”!
The Jan Hus Memorial
In the centre of the Old Town Market Square is a monument dedicated to Jan Hus. This massive Art Noveau monument is a tribute to the second most famous figure (after Charles IV) in Czech history.
Hus was a protestant reformer who preached against the indulgences of the Catholic Church one hundred years before Martin Luther. He was burnt at the stake as a heretic, which started the Hussite Wars, a Protestant rebellion against the Catholic Church. The movement had broad support across all classes in Czech society, including both nobility and peasants.
It was Christmas when we visited Prague. During this time, there is usually a podium directly behind the Jan Hus monument in the Old Town Market square. By climbing up the podium, you rise up to the level of the inscription. These were the words of the Martyr, and they read, “Love each other and wish the truth to everyone”.
The monument itself stretches out like a mountain over you. And indeed, the sculptor, Ladislav Šaloun built it as such, for mountains are a vital iconography of Czech nationalism. The monument is so large that the artist had to build an exclusive studio from which he could work.
Lady of Týn Church
Dominating the cityscape of Prague are the twin roofs of the Church of Our Lady Before Týn. The church that is standing today was mostly completed in the 15th Century, during the Gothic period. It has towers that leap into the heavens, the unique silhouette of their spires sporting all sorts of Gothic and Baroque accoutrements like pinnacle and baubles. Using the towers, it possible to orient yourself from anywhere within Prague’s Old and New Town.
This church has an illustrious history, having started out as a Catholic church before being converted into a Protestant one, and then back to Catholicism, after the Thirty Years War. Its also a must-visit for astronomy buffs as it houses the tomb of Tycho Brahe.
Without a doubt, the most famous landmark in Prague is the Charles Bridge. When we visited Prague for Christmas, this was our first stop. The bridge is one of the oldest working bridges in the world and an excellent example of a medieval bridge. There are not many medieval bridges still standing today. This is because bridges tend to get destroyed over the centuries and replaced by newer versions.
The Charles Bridge is an exception, and it has stood the test of time. This medieval bridge has endured many floods and even the installation of tram tracks in the 20th Century!
The Charles Bridge has played an important role in Bohemian history. For many centuries, it was the only means through which people could cross the Vltava, making Prague an essential city of trade in the region.
Today, it still functions as a critical means of crossing the river (especially for the millions of tourists that visit Prague). More importantly, it is a Czech icon that combines elegance and engineering. It reflects the vital role The Czech nation has played in European art and science over the last one thousand years.
Powder Tower (Prašná Brána)
The Powder Tower, built-in 1475, is one of the landmarks that delineates Old Town Prague from the New Town. Once, it was one of 13 city gates which ringed the walls of the Old Town. There are no walls now, but walking under the tower still gives one the sense of entering a different section of town.
The Powder towers looks like the tower which fronts the Charles Bridge on the side of the Prague Old Town. That’s because its architect took inspiration from the Old Bridge tower. Its elaborate facade and large entryway lead historians to conclude that this tower was always meant to be more of an entrance than as a defensive fortification.
The Powder Tower turned out to be a convenient way for us to locate ourselves within the city. Inevitably, we found ourselves walking down Celetná street (which leads from the entrance of the tower) and the branching Ovocný street. Where Celetná street turns into Ovociny street, there’s the famous Cubist era house of the Black Madonna and its legendary Grand Café Orient. Further down, you’ll see the Estates Theatre, tucked amongst the surrounding buildings
Exploring Old Town Prague
With so many things to see and do, it visiting Prague Old Town might feel a little overwhelming. However, there’s really no need to worry as all the attractions are easily within reach of each other. Except for the Astronomical Clock’s Mechanism and the Klementinum Library, you can check out the rest at your own leisure, any time of day – no bookings required.
We walked through the Old Town every day during our five-night stay in Prague, and I can say I still could not get enough of it!