While Prague’s Malá Strana neighborhood and castle are key spots in the city, the epicenter of activity lies on the other side of the Vltava. And the best way to cross from one side to the other is over the 15th century Charles Bridge, a pedestrianized stone bridge commissioned by King Charles IV. It’s difficult to enjoy the bridge’s beauty during the day as it’s packed with people—mostly distracted tourists walking at a snail’s pace in unpredictable zig-zags. We got up early one morning to get a better look. At 7am on a Sunday the only people on the bridge were photographers and the overall volume of people was so much more manageable.
Our first real foray into the old town and its environs was through a three-hour walking tour by Sandeman’s. Sandeman’s organizes free (more accurately pay-what-you-want) walking tours in cities around the world, primarily in Europe, with fun, young tour guides and a balance in content between history and modern culture. Our tour guide brought us to all the main sights (Old Town Square, Powder Tower, Wenceslas Square, the Jewish District) and some secondary sights (New Town, Malé Náměstí, Estates Theatre, Rudolfinum) but focused more on telling us the story of Prague from its founding through the reign of Charles IV, two separate incidences of defenestration (Czechs like throwing people out of windows), the struggle of the people against the Catholic church, to the Second World War, the occupation by the Nazis then by the Soviets, the dark period of communism, the Prague Spring, the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of communism in Czechoslovakia, and the peaceful separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. There was a lot to cover but it was all done in an engaging way and complemented by insights from our tour guide into modern Czech life.
We spent a lot of time in and around Old Town Square later in the day. Old Town Hall Tower offers some of the best views of Prague and, compared to similar towers in other towns and cities, the staircase (which is more of a ramp) is very easy and comfortable to climb. We were rewarded at the top with views on one side toward the castle and on the other back onto the square and the imposing but charming Týn Church. Back at ground level we joined the crowds for the on-the-hour Astronomical Clock show. We went into it with low expectations (almost everyone you speak to and every blog post you read will describe the show as decidedly unimpressive) and our expectations were indeed met, but it’s still a fun experience and it is remarkable that such a complex machine was constructed over 600 years ago. St. Nicholas’ Church is right across the square and also worth a visit. We spent a good 30 minutes just sitting in the pews and enjoying the peace and quiet away from the square.
While we visited the Jewish District (named Josefov after Joseph II who, in the late 18th century as Holy Roman Emperor, granted Jews under Habsburg rule religious freedom) during our tour, we didn’t get a chance to visit any of the many synagogues. Our first synagogue visit was actually to Jerusalem Synagogue which is quite far outside of Josefov. The art nouveau-inspired synagogue was built in the early 20th century with a fanciful interior and exterior. Back in Josefov, we sat in awe of the Moorish-influenced Spanish Synagogue, whose interior is absolutely covered in geometric patterns and dotted with Moorish motifs. Nearby Old New Synagogue is quite the contrast. Europe’s oldest active synagogue was built in 1270 (let that sink in), exhibits a sparse and basic interior, and according to legend houses the body of Golem, a clay figure that came to life to protect the Jews of Prague in the 16th century.
Our last visit was to Pinkas Synagogue which is unique for two reasons. One, the walls in the interior are covered in the names of tens of thousands of Holocaust victims. Two, there is an equally moving permanent exhibition upstairs that tells the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Friedl, a painter, covertly taught art to children as a form of creative expression and therapy at Terezín concentration camp. When she knew she’d be relocating to Auschwitz she had the presence of mind to hide the children’s work in suitcases. She was killed at Auschwitz along with many of the children with whom she worked, but her husband Pavel survived and was able to recover the artwork which is now displayed in the Jewish Museum and the synagogue. To properly reflect we spent some time walking through the Old Jewish Cemetery just outside the synagogue, appreciating that travel is oftentimes more educational and perspective-widening than hedonistic.
We enjoyed lots of tasty food over the course of three days. Cukrkávalimonáda, right by our Airbnb, offers fresh light meals (we had some of the pasta) and scrumptious desserts (macarons and cake anyone?). Lehká Hlava, a funky vegetarian spot tucked away down a side street in the old town, hosted us for dinner our first night (tacos and curry). We grabbed bagels from Bohemia Bagel each morning. The bagel theme continued at Cafe Ebel, where we charged up with bagel sandwiches and cakes (the cheesecake was incredible!) after the walking tour. For a more traditional meal we plopped ourselves on some wooden chairs at kitschy Baráčnická Rychta. Our last full meal of the trip brought us to Art & Food by Petřín Hill for fresh pasta (we tried to get into Café Savoy but they were full).
Prague has a good reputation and we learned quickly why that’s the case. The city is undeniably charming and is drenched in interesting history and culture. We found ourselves wishing we had just a bit more time, so perhaps we’ll have to go back someday soon!