Home to the stately Prague Castle and Old Town Square’s pastel facades, Prague retains small-town charm despite its size. In the 14th century, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV refurbished Prague with stone bridges and lavish palaces still visible today. Since the lifting of the Iron Curtain in 1989, outsiders have flooded the Czech capital. In summer, most locals leave for the countryside when the foreigner-to-resident ratio soars above nine-to-one. Despite rising prices and a hyper-touristed Staré Město (Old Town), Prague still commands the awe of its visitors.
Shouldering the river Vltava, greater Prague is a mess of suburbs and maze-like streets. The river runs south to north through central Prague, separating Staré Město (Old Town) and Nové Město (New Town) from Malá Strana (Lesser Side) and Hradčany. On the right bank, Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square) is Prague’s focal point. Most of the city’s historical landmarks are concentrated in the few blocks around the square. From the square, the elegant Pařížská ulice (Paris Street) leads north into Josefov, the old Jewish quarter.
West of Staroměstské náměstí, Karlův Most (Charles Bridge) spans the Vltava, connecting Staré Město with Malostranské náměstí (Lesser Town Square). Pražský Hrad (Prague Castle) overlooks Malostranské náměstí from Hradčany hill. The train station and bus station lie northeast of Václavské náměstí. To reach Staroměstské náměstí, take Metro A to Staroměstská and follow Kaprova away from the river.
South of Staré Město, Nové Město houses Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square), the city’s commercial core. Nové Město is bordered on the south by mighty Vyšehrad. To the east, Vinohrady is a largely residential area with some expensive restaurants. To the north of Vinohrady, you can always spot the blue collar neighborhood turned watering hole Žižkov by Vitkov Hill or the TV tower.
Across the river from Žižkov, Holešovice is a former industrial area in the middle of a cultural (or at least clubbing) Renaissance. It is also home to the Prague’s other major train and bus station. Nearby Letná Park offers fantastic views of the more happening side of the Vltava. Last and probably least, Dejivice is a nice neighborhood to live in, but offers relatively little for travelers to appreciate.
Most of Prague’s top sights are clustered in or near the Old Town. If you visit Prague during the summer months, you will be viewing the historical sites around Prague Castle and Old Town Sq. with thousands of other people. You’ll miss the crowds and save a lot of money if you do your Old Town sightseeing at night.
Pressed for time? Check out our list of top attractions, below. Click the links to book tickets or reserve local guides.
Although Czech writer Pavel Eisner once described his country’s food as “quite deleterious to the soul,” Prague’s heavy meat and potatoes diet is a good way to line your stomach for a night of pivo. For Czechs, oběd (lunch) is traditionally the main meal of the day. In urban Prague they’re more likely to go for a quick fix of klobása (smoked sausage), from stands such as those that line Wenceslas Sq.
Czech writers have long held a privileged position, but this has been especially true in the Modern period. From the first Czechoslovak president, T.G. Masaryk, to Václav Havel, the literary figures who have spoken most powerfully have often also assumed political prominence. Czech literature was slower in blossoming than other European literatures, but by the 19th century, Prague was host to a truly modern literature that took strength from and transcended national pride. In 1836, Karel Hynek Mácha penned his celebrated epic May (Máj). Initially scorned as romantic and personal, it was eventually celebrated as a powerful, moving piece. The 1858 founding of the literary journal Máj, named after Mácha’s poem, marked the beginning of an era known as the National Revival. One of its brightest stars, Bozena Nwmcová, introduced the novel to modern Czech literature with Granny (Babička, 1855). Jaroslav Hašek’s satire, The Good Soldier Švejk (Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za svetové války, 1920-23), while never finished, was quickly enshrined as the classic commentary on the absurdities of the Hapsburg order. As a new Czechoslovak nation arose from that order, poet Viktor Dyk became an important figure in the Czech political arena.
While Kafka’s work was in German, it was his experiences as a German-speaking Jew in his native Prague that were indispensable to the magical, complex, obscure character of his writing. After Kafka, Jaroslav Seifert and Vítwzslav Nezval produced image-rich works of poetry, and Czech writers such as Karel Čapek moved to the vanguard of science fiction, originating the very word “robot.”
Socialist Realism was all that the Communist leadership could handle after it took power in 1948, but this didn’t mean the death of Czech literature. The many contradictions of life under Soviet rule provided ample inspiration for an entire generation of writers, many of whom either fled to publish in exile or went underground and published in samizdat (literally “self-published). Samizdat editions were disseminated through the intellectual community via typewriter: often in the span of just a few short days, one was expected to read the work they were handed and to type complete copies of it on carbon paper that were then distributed to friends and colleagues. As long as readers and writers steered clear of photocopiers and took precautions such as signing original works in order to claim it as a “manuscript,” they couldn’t technically be prosecuted for participating in the underground network. One of these samizdat writers, Seifert, became the first Czech writer to receive a Nobel Prize in 1984.
The Czech literary tradition, re-emerged after the occlusion of Communism, remains strong today. One of the country’s best-known contemporary writers is Milan Kundera, whose philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being met with international acclaim and quickly became a classic of postmodernism.
The 19th-century National Revival brought out the best in Czech music. The nation’s most celebrated composers, Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček, and Bedřich Smetana, are renowned for transforming Czech folk tunes into symphonies and operas. Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World, which combines Czech folk tradition with melodies gathered during the composer’s trip to America, is probably the most famous Czech masterpiece, though his other symphonies and chamber music compositions were widely regarded by his contemporaries. Among Czechs, however, Smetana’s symphonic poem My Country (Má vlast)remains most popular.
Jazz and bluegrass music have seen a recent spike in popularity, with bluegrass coming to life after a 1972 European festival was held just outside Prague and local band Poutníci took up the mantle. The rock scene was an incredibly influential factor in Czech dissident culture; it was the arrest of the seminal band The Plastic People of the Universe that prompted Charter 77. Their quirky example has been followed by the currents of New Wave and metal. Support Lesbiens is a popular band with New Age and rock features. American pop music has always been very popular here, but the lyrics are usually sung over in Czech.
Czech artistry blossomed under Karel IV, who made Prague a center for painters such as Master Theodoricus. Under the kingship of the later Emperor Rudolph II, artists from across Europe again flocked to the Mother of Cities. Czech art became truly national in the 19th century, as painters such as František Ženíšek put their art into the service of the National Revival—his paintings can be seen today in the National Theater.
Modern art begins with one word: Cubism. One of the earliest names of Czech Cubism is Emil Filla, who incorporated the trauma of the world wars and the Buchenwald concentration camp into his art. The movement also includes Josef Čapek, brother of futurist writer Karl Čapek and a cartoonist best known for his satirical depiction of Hitler’s ascent to power, and Otto Gutfreund, creator of the first Cubist sculpture, Anxiety. Surrealism, quite at home in Prague, the most surreal of cities, also reshaped Czech art, with the anti-war work of Prague native Marie Čerminová Toyen. Toyen later immigrated to Paris in the 1920s to work with André Breton, joining Josef Šíma, a noted and innovative painter.
One of the most important Czech artists of the 20th century, Alfons Mucha also worked in Paris and helped develop Art Nouveau. The capital hosts the annual Art Prague each May, a modern art exhibition that expands each year as interest increases. The prankster spirit of Czech art has been kept alive in modern times by David Černý p. 195, an artist renowned for painting a Soviet war memorial pink and submitting the art for the Czech Republic’s EU presidency; a wall of disparaging stereotypes of each European member state.
While few Czech architects have become household names, the country has a long and proud architectural tradition. During the 1300s, such monuments such as the St. Vitus Cathedral and the Charles Bridge were constructed. Picturesque neighborhoods such as Český Krumlov and Kutná Hora have been declared protected cultural monuments by UNESCO for their medieval buildings and winding streets. The first modern currents in Czech architecture were dominated by German and Italian architects, with the latter arriving in the Renaissance and establishing a small colony in the Malá Strana quarter of Prague, creating very unique takes on Baroque design. This style became truly Czech with the works of the Swiss-Czech architect Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel. As Bohemia entered modernity, native Cubist architects began to transform Prague through structures such as the House of the Black Madonna designed by Josef Gočár. Other famed architects of the day included Pavel Janák, one of the fathers of Rondo cubism, an attempt to combine the modernity of Cubism and the humanity of folk styles and decoration. Czech architecture has taken to the world stage through such contemporary names as Jan Kaplický.
The stage has always been important to Czech art, with writers such as the towering Václav Havel crossing from poetry or prose to playwriting and back. Czech-language theater was one of the key components of the National Revival under such actor-playwrights as Prokop Šedivý. These efforts culminated in the National Theater, one of the oldest institutions of Czech culture. Dvořák wrote 13 operas, of which the most globally acclaimed is Rusalka. Smetana’s The Bartered Bride is another very well-known opera. The 20th century saw the immense output of Leoš Janáček, who integrated Czech language into the structure of his operas and dramas, of which Jenufa is perhaps most famous. His other works, including Taras Bulba, an adaptation of the Russian novel, are also classics of his time. Modern drama has been equally significant, and saw its beginnings in the German-language work of Prague writers such as Paul Kornfeld, later followed by the works of Karel Čapek. Former president Havel is the most renowned 20th-century Czech playwright. His plays, The Garden Party perhaps best-known among them, and his manifestos helped give voice to the dissident spirit of the 1970s.
Film quickly became a Czech forte, with the greatest achievements of the field coming with the New Wave filmmakers of the 1960s. These directors, who include Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer, and Jirí Menzel, were interested in experiment, realism, and humanistic observation. In 1965, The Shop on Main Street, directed by Jan Kádár, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Two years later Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) won the same award. Barrandov Studios, the Prague-located hub of Czech filmmaking, became known as the “Hollywood of the East.” The fresh courage of these directors worried the Communist regime, and during Normalization, creativity was either stifled or forced abroad. Forman immigrated to the US in 1968 and conquered the film scene with the acclaimed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). His 1984 film Amadeus won eight Oscars. In recent years, native cinema has become increasingly popular in the Czech Republic, and Karlovy Vary hosts a major film festival. In 1997, Jan Svěrák’s Kolya won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Czech is a West Slavic language, mutually intelligible with Slovak and closely related to Polish. Often baffling for its vowel-free words, travelers will find that English is understood by a majority of the population and especially by young people. Knowledge of German can be useful, especially in South Bohemia. In eastern regions, you’re more likely to encounter Polish. Russian was taught to all schoolchildren under Communism, but use your “privet” carefully, as the language has fallen out of favor.
Firmly held customs govern wining and dining. When served beer, wait until all raise the common “na zdraví” (to your health) toast before drinking, and always look into the eyes of the person with whom you are toasting. Similarly, before biting into a saucy knedlík, wish everyone “dobrou chut” (to your health), especially at lunch, the main meal of the day. As a rule, foreigners should tip at servers and taxis at a rate of around 10%.