Weeks before our family’s spring trip, a battle ensued. Which city should we drop from our must-see list? We had only 21 days to spend in Europe and 25 places we wanted to see.
“Take out Rome,” I said. But my sister reminded me we were flying out from there—it had the cheapest fare to Manila.
“How about Salzburg?” No. Our father was joining us because of the von Trapps and their Sound of Music. We couldn’t take out London either. It was our mother’s pick, and it was her birthday, the main reason were on the Europe trip in the first place.
“Paris? Edinburgh? Florence?” I asked.
Cities were crossed out from the itinerary one by one, but nobody dared touch Prague. The capital city of the Czech Republic is on every bucket list: Places to See before You Die, Best Destinations for 2016, Most Charming European Cities, World’s Best-Preserved Medieval Cities… The hyperbolic lists were endless.
According to Euromonitor International, Prague is the fifth most visited European city after London, Paris, Istanbul and Rome. It helps that the city, a UNESCO Heritage Center, is also among the most affordable European destinations.
Prague is known as the “City of a Hundred Spires,” although technically, there are over 500 spires dotting its magnificent skyline, as per the Prague Information Service’s latest count. Once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, Prague flourished during the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras, as evidenced by its well-preserved architectural gems from those periods.
And the city seems to have forgotten to move on to the 21st century.
Stepping into Prague’s Old Town is like entering the bedtime stories of your childhood. No matter how much you’ve read up on the place, nothing quite prepares you for the realness of the fairy tale world that will eliminate memories of the century you came from (at least until you hear your mobile phone ring).
“What do people do here?” I wondered. It seems every person you meet is a character in a story: the castle guards, the candy store owner, the carriage driver, the town hall guide, the painters, the buskers. Then there are people like us—the strangers from another land, traveling thousands of miles to get lost in time.
So what makes this 1,100-year-old city the stuff of storybooks?
Prague has the largest castle in the world.
The Prague Castle is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the “largest ancient castle in the world.” It covers 70,000 square meters and was once the residence of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. After the loss of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, Prague Castle became the home of Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomáš Masaryk.
The castle complex remains the Czech president’s official residence today, although it is more known for the St. Vitus Cathedral, which houses the tombs of St. Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czech lands, St. John of Nepomuk, and the emperors Charles IV and Rudolf II.
Outside the castle, the Golden Lane preserves the pre-16th century houses of alchemists, goldsmiths, castle marksmen and other servants of Emperor Rudolf II. The residents of these houses were compelled by the Czech government to maintain the original look of the neighborhood.
Its historic bridge draws people from faraway kingdoms.
Prague is bisected by the Vltava River, which crosses 18 bridges. King Vladislaus I had the first bridge built in 1170 and called it the Judith Bridge, in honor of his queen. This bridge was destroyed by a flood in 1342 and was replaced by what is now among Prague’s most famous landmarks, the Charles Bridge.
The Charles Bridge connects the Old Town to the Malá Strana (Lesser Quarter) and castle area. According to historical accounts, King Charles IV himself laid the first foundation of the bridge on 9 July 1357 at 5:31 a.m. The time and date, which are inscribed on the bridge, were chosen by royal astrologists because they formed a numerical bridge (1357 9 7 5:31). The king believed this would give the Charles Bridge extra strength.
That may be true because after over 650 years, Charles Bridge still stands, carrying the weight of millions of tourists who flock there for photographs of the 30 Baroque statues—now replicas—and the Gothic towers on the Mala Strana side.
The Old Town has been untouched by time.
Much of Prague’s charm lies within the Old Town, where you will find the Old New Synagogue, which dates back to 1270; the Old Town Hall, built in 1338 as the seat of the administration and is now the tourist information center; and the Astronomical Clock, which has become the iconic symbol of Prague.
The Old Town Square, which was founded in the 12th century, was the site of many historical events. It is dominated by the Church of Our Lady before Týn, the Church of St Nicholas, the Rococo Kinský Palace, and the monument to Jan Hus, considered the first Christian reformer.
Since 1100, the Old Town Square has hosted market days, and today it remains a place where people converge to eat, roam or just watch the day go by. Visitors who want an unforgettable view of Prague should climb up the Old Town Hall tower.
The 606-year-old Astronomical Clock still works.
If Cinderella were still alive and living in Prague, she’d be running out of the grand ball and losing her glass slipper every hour, when the Astronomical Clock strikes.
Prague’s Astronomical Clock, called the Orloj, is the oldest working astronomical clock in the world and the only one that shows three different times: the Old Czech Time, the Central European Time and the Babylonian Time. It also shows the current zodiac sign.
Every hour between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m., two windows open to show a procession of the 12 apostles. The other features of the clock also become animated. This show is the crowd-drawer in the Old Town Square.
Legend has attributed the making of the clock to Master Hanus, who was said to have been blinded by the city councilors so he could not make such a beautiful clock for other cities. But historical document later revealed that the real clockmaker was Mikulas of Kadan, who built the clock in 1410 with astronomer Jan Sindel.
Prague was the home of a famous storyteller.
Writer Franz Kafka was born in 1883 in a house on the corner of Maiselova and Kaprova streets near the Old Town Square. The house is now a café with a historical marker. Near the house is the Hotel Century Old Town, which used to be building of the Worker’s Accident Insurance Company. Kafka’s time as a clerk there is said to have influenced his writing.
Kafka’s remains are buried at the New Jewish Cemetery. Two monuments were built to honor the writer: one in the Jewish Quarter in Old Town and one in the shopping center of Quadrio. There is also a Franz Kafka Museum in Mala Strana. If you want to trace the writer’s trails, there are companies that offer tours of Kafka’s Prague.
You just might find your One True Love.
The possibilities for happy-ever-after are endless in a city full of good-looking people, so sit back, relax and watch as the descendants of all the empires that once converged in Prague once again assemble at the Old Town Square. If that fails, you can always expand your horizon to include the 6.4 million tourists that visit the Old Town alone, and you’re bound to stumble on something beautiful.