East Meets West in a Fairy Tale: Prague, Czech Republic

Half of my heart is in Praha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Sorry, I had to. Prague (or "Praha" in Czech) is difficult to convey in words. It's like a person rather than a city. Picture a medieval lord or a bishop of some sort. Prague is a blend of Central Europe, but truly one of a kind. It really does look like something from a fairy tale: the imposing hilltop cathedrals, pointed towers, secret gardens, medieval statues, and people doing wedding photo shoots everywhere. Prague is peaceful and gives off the same feelings of contentment as lying on a tropical beach. Plus, the Czech Republic has the highest per capita alcohol consumption in the world. Need I say more?

Prague is the center of the Bohemian region of the Czech Republic. This region was once the Kingdom of Bohemia. Rulers of the land at this monarchical part of the Czech backstory contribute to the extensive Czech royal history that even included the powerful Habsburg dynasty in the 1700s. These centuries of history manifest themselves in the Prague Castle. The Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in Europe. The entire complex spans nearly 70,000 square meters! However, some tourists find the Prague Castle to be underwhelming as it is less lavish than the stereotypical castles with tall, pointed towers and golden gates. But think about it this way: The makers of the Prague Castle were not aiming for such opulent and ostentatious castles like King Ludwig II's Neuschwanstein Castle or Louis XIV's Versailles in France. Additionally, the Prague Castle has much older origins that those.

In the center of the castle's complex is the St. Vitus Cathedral, an icon of Prague's skyline and seen from the Charles Bridge to Vysehrad on the other side of town. This cathedral held coronations for kings and queens and served as a burial place for bishops. Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia founded a rotunda here in 925. The Christmas Carol "Good King Wenceslas" is about Wenceslas I. Later on, Charles IV commissioned a Gothic-style cathedral at this location in 1344. This part of the Prague Castle is free to enter. St. George's Basilica is a small building near the central cathedral. Prince Vratislav founded it in the 900s.

The Prague Castle features the Old Royal Palace that began as a royal residence in the 9th century. Emperor Charles IV enlarged it 4 centuries later. Further reconstructions made the palace look closer to how it appears today, including the addition of Vladislav Hall. Royal proceedings took place here, and the royal throne is located here as well. Next to these sections of the castle is the location of the Defenestration, wherein Czech governors were thrown out of the window, sparking the beginning of the Thirty Years' War that affected multiple European lands and lasted for, you guessed it, 30 years.

Other things found within a visit to the Prague Castle include medieval armor, the torture chamber, the castle's prison tower, incredible views of the entire city, and a Starbucks, obviously. Some of these views, including the one from the Starbucks can come without the purchase of a ticket if you walk in the direction behind the St. Vitus entrance to the path on the other end of the complex that leads back down the hill to the rest of Prague's Lesser Town (Mala Strana).

History buffs rejoice! As you can already glean from these tidbits of historical background just on the multiple components of the Prague Castle, the history of Prague and the entire Czech Republic is not cut and dry. Ownership of the Bohemian region changed from its founding in the 1100s until it became Czechoslovakia in 1918. At one point it was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Then the Austro-Hungarian Empire took over. Long story short: a trip to Prague brings influential figures and eras of Central European history. Even if you don't want to fill up on such detailed and layered timelines, the enchanting fantasy of the Prague Castle and all of Prague's iconic locations will intrigue and charm anyone. I'd definitely film a Disney movie in Prague, or a Nicholas Sparks movie, if that's what you're into.

Easily the biggest attraction of Prague is the Charles Bridge (Karlov Most). Construction began in 1357 during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor (King) Charles IV. It is lined with medieval statues and book-ended by the unique bridge towers that make Prague so recognizable. Tourists can climb the stairs to the top of either tower to get close to the gorgeous spires atop of so many historic buildings all over the city. The bridge joins Mala Strana with Old Town Square, putting it right in the middle of some of the most beautiful parts of Prague. Old Town Square includes the tall Clock Tower with the famous Astronomical Clock from the 1400s and the Church of Our Lady before Tyn. The inside of this church is bright gold, but only open for part of the day. Check for the entrance signs.

Mala Strana is the term for the area of Prague that goes from the Charles Bridge to the entire castle complex and down to the river. Wander on foot through this place that is different from any other European city, save for the smaller towns of the Czech Republic. There are fresh gingerbread stores year round, artists, and my favorite spot on the river bank by the Malostranska metro and tram stop. It encompasses a historic "post card"part of Prague with winding narrow streets, pastel buildings, the Franz Kafka Museum, and gardens between historic courtyards. It was in Mala Strana that I came across a pleasant surprise through an archway while on my way to Queen Anne's Summer Palace. It is called Vojanovy Sady, which first existed in the 1200s. There were wedding photo shoots, petals all around, and ducks in the pond. If you've ever read The Secret Garden, this must be it.

An area of great historical significance is on the hilltop at what is now called Vysehrad. "Hrad" means "castle" in Czech. This area of Prague began as a fort in the 10th century (hence the stone walls), during the reign of the the first King of Bohemia, Vratislaus. It basically became somewhat of a separate domain. Today, Vysehrad is dominated by the stark Vysehrad cathedral, massive entrance structures like archways, and openings to look out over the Vltava River. It includes pristine parks with people walking their dogs and statues and views over the whole city.

Fast forward a few centuries and the territory that makes up the present-day Czech Republic once again rose to historical significance, whether the Czechs wanted to do so or not. During World War II, Germany took over most of Czechoslovakia. Hitler even stayed overnight in the Prague Castle. As if World War II wasn't enough, the Soviet Union's communist Iron Curtain fell over Czechoslovakia. The country remained communist until the end of the Cold War. During that 40-year span, the Soviets attempted to crush uprisings against their communist leadership in Czechoslovakia. One in 1968 caused around 170 deaths. Then on November 17th, 1989, a student-led peaceful protest occurred in Prague. However, the protest ended with police beatings. There is a monument for the student protesters near the National Theater (Narodni Divadlo). Many anticommunist protests occurred at Wenceslas Square, which is named after the patron saint of Bohemia. The square features a statue of St. Wenceslas in front of the huge National Museum that looks like a governmental building or a palace. The Museum has just recently reopened following extensive renovations.

The Czech Republic's WWII and Soviet history associates the Czechs with Eastern Europe. This brings negative connotations as countries in Eastern Europe thought of as less developed and not as strong as Western European countries. Therefore, Czechs do not like to be referred to as "Eastern Europe." The Czech Republic is one of the most prosperous of the former Soviet satellite countries and has done well to shake off its past communist associations. Prague's gorgeous old buildings likened to those of its Eastern neighbors and Slavic roots now mix with so-called "western" (though western is ambiguous term) influences like EU and UN memberships and countless English speakers.

The National Museum isn't the only museum in Prague. Not far from Old Town Square, the Powder Tower, and quite a few theaters ("divadlo" in Czech) is the Museum of Communism. It describes the era that the country spent under the influence of the Soviet Union. A small look into Europe's Soviet era is at the KGB Museum in Mala Strana. Its artifacts are from the owner's personal collection. Seeing the city today, it's hard to believe that the country was once communist at all, save for the awkward grey theater juxtaposed next to the gigantic (and much prettier) National Theater by the river.

Further away from the river is Charles Square (Karlovo Namesti). One incredibly opulent church in Prague is at this square: the Church of St. Ignatius. Its mint green spires make it hard to miss. In fact, Prague's nickname is the City of 100 spires. Though today, the Czech Republic has a high percentage of non-religious people, Prague is the home of some impressive churches from past centuries. The St. Francis of Assisi Church is the building with the mint green dome right next to the Old Town Bridge Tower on the east end of the Charles Bridge. Its dome makes it my favorite piece of architecture in Prague. Other churches with unique exteriors include the Basilica of St. James,  Kostel sv. Bartolomeje, and the St. Henrich Roman Catholic Church.

Don't get me wrong, Rome is still my favorite city. Rome is a place to visit as many times as possible in a lifetime. But Prague is a place to remain for years. It is comfortable, calm, and magical. Out of my courses I took while studying abroad in Prague, one was rather tedious and boring. I dreaded it, to be honest. But I'd sit through that class for hours on end if it meant I were in Prague again.

Transportation Tips:
  • Prague has an excellent Metro (subway) system and trams. There are red, yellow, and green lines for the Prague metro, contrary to metro lines that number into the double digits for places like Paris and London. Metros are the easiest to understand in all of the cities that I have visited thus far, so if you are not totally comfortable with public transportation, stick to the metro. However, using metros instead of above ground transportation obviously takes away from the sightseeing of the city in between your home base and the important landmarks. That being said, tram line 22 will take you to nearly all of the most beautiful and monumental locations in Prague no matter which direction you go on it.
  • Buses are helpful to go to the main bus station and the airport. Bus 119 picks people up from the Metro Green Line and takes passengers to each airport terminal and back to the Green Line. No need to pay for a taxi at the airport!
  • There are two ways to get to the Prague Castle. One is stop Malostranska Namesti on Tram Line 22 near the beautiful Nerudova street. From the end of Nerudova, a right turn leads up the stairs to the gates and the side of the complex with the Starbucks. The other is a few stops further on Tram 22 with tree-lined paths. Both routes to the castle are just as magical as the other.
  • There are two different ways to get to the attractions of the Vysehrad part of the city as well. One faces the Vltava and involves a long but rewarding walk up a staircase carved into the side of the hill. There are labeled signs and arrows. In the Spring, this pathway is covered with green grass and flowers. The other way is by metro. This is the long way, but it involves a walk through a unique residential area and through some of the old city/fortress entrances along cobblestone paths. For either route, put on your walking shoes.
  • Like other large cities in Europe, Prague has labeled signs to point its visitors toward the major attractions. This is especially helpful because some of Prague's iconic places are clustered together. 

  • Tucked away near the Certovka canal that goes under the Mala Strana side of the Charles Bridge is the John Lennon Wall. This is a graffiti wall inspired by John Lennon. Quite a few young tourists stop here for creative photos and to listen to street performers.
  • I lived in Prague from the end of January to the first week of May. The weather was cold until mid to late March, but in April, the tulip trees and public parks were in full bloom. Definitely a perfect time to go to the Czech Republic. Paddle boats are available for rent from the Vltava River's two islands in the Spring. However, as with most European cities, visiting during Christmas is truly an entertaining step into another time. Easter is popular in the Czech Republic as well. There are Easter markets with fresh local food at all of the city's hot spots in March and April.
  • There are different ticket options when visiting the Prague Castle, called circuits. Each one includes more or less parts of the castle and its supplementary exhibits. Choose the option that meets your own interests the most.
  • The Stahov Monastery located in the same hilltop part of the city as the Prague Castle is a highlight of the city due to its chic surroundings, wide views and historical library.
  • The Czech Republic has one of the highest concentrations of castles per capita as well, such as Melnik and Karlstjen. Venturing out to other castles in the Czech Republic also allows you to get closer to more authentic Czech society in places with less Starbucks and McDonald's that plague every European city that receives high volumes of tourists. Go off the beaten path as much as possible. This goes for any European country. 
  • There are WWII walking tours in Prague and a day trip outside of the city can take you to Terezin, a former concentration camp.
  • The Czech Republic is one of the safest countries in the world. There are very few issues involving violence and the country currently has a low terrorist threat.
  • Czechs do not like their country to be referred to as Eastern Europe as that brings negative connotations left over from its communist era or suggests that it is not as developed as Germany or France, for example. The Czech Republic is now being called Czechia in order to further convey their modernization.
  • Tulip trees bloom during April, scattering gorgeous pink petals in the park areas.

Charles Bridge

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. George's Basilica

Charles Bridge Leading to the Mala Strana Bridge Towers (peep the top of St. Vitus in the back)

Church of Our Lady before Tyn - Old Town Square

Vltava River Banks at Malostranska

Queen Anne's Summer Palace

Vojanovy Sady

Vysehrad hilltop steps

Vysehrad Cathedral

River Views from Vysehrad

November 17th Anticommunist Protests Monument

Powder Tower

National Theater

Church of St. Ignatius at Karlovo Namesti

View of St. Francis of Assisi Church's dome from the Old Town Bridge Tower

Mala Strana - Nerudova Street

Certovka Canal

John Lennon Wall