by Maria Popova
Photography by Maria Popova and Camilla Stejskal
Half-empty castles in their majestic pirouette, endless tourists savoring pints of golden beer, street artists earning applauses, miniature art galleries humbly hiding between the narrow streets and gleaming pastels of St. James Basilica—all these ingredients blend into the cocktail called Prague.
Prague is a leisurely brasserie with a past. The city endured glory and devastation with its ever-shifting borders, alternating demographics and changing political influences. Prague went from reigning as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th century, when legendary Charles IV was crowned Emperor, to being occupied by the Nazis; it was liberated by the Soviet Army and stayed under strong communist influence up until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Prague is one of the oldest European capitals and a historical center, so no wonder visitors from all across the world favor it as a holiday spot. Moreover, exploring Prague is a piece of cake. The city is compact and cozy, with only around 1.26 million people.
Similar to many other famous European cities, Prague is a walking city. Considering that there are a limited number of parking slots in the ever-crowded city center, cars can only become burdens for visitors. Tourists can easily make their way by Prague Metro, trams, ferries or inexpensive taxi.
Walking around the pastel streets of the Old Town (Staré Město) one can easily find his way to the city’s essential landmarks. The Old Town City Hall presents a spacious square with the medieval Astronomical Clock (Orloj) installed in 1410. Soft climate insures that endless crowds will listen to the street musicians, children will try to catch gigantic soap bubbles and mesmerized tourists will wander around, almost constantly occupying the area.
Once the sun goes down and the street lights are turned on, the square metamorphosizes even further. Tourists, exhausted after a long day of walking, cover the restaurant terraces, cafes and bars that surround the historical center. Visitors drink craft beers and indulge in traditional food, like this being served at a family restaurant U Tyna. There, the owners pride themselves in the exceptional quality of locally produced ingredients on their menus that feature a wide selection of authentic dishes. The best way to get a truly unforgettable Czech experience is to go straight to the “Prague and Czech Specialties” section in their menu. “Roasted boneless pork knuckle served on a board, horseradish, mustard, pickled cucumber,” is most certainly something to try for the ones who are not intimidated by heavy plates.
To bring one’s hedonism to a new level, one should try to complement delicious meal experience with some spiritual food. Just a few steps away from the Old Town Square you can find a few local museums, such as the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague that includes collections of Art Noveau, art deco, cubism, toys and textile. Walk deeper into Prague to find the Prague National Gallery. There, a visitor will not find extensive collections similar to the ones at the Louvre, but predominantly Czech art with its distinctive tradition and voice.
If someone has to be especially ecstatic about visiting Prague, it is the 20th century literature lover. The city happened to be Franz Kafka’s hometown, and therefore a location of the museum dedicated solely to the groundbreaking author. The Franz Kafka Museum offers a collection of the first edition of the writer’s works, diaries and drawings. The exhibition is completed by an interactive multi-media accompaniment.
Zoo-lovers should be rejoicing no less than food and modern literature enthusiasts. Prague Zoo, offers a wide variety of sights, including the Bororo Reserve play area, Elephant Valley, Hippo House and Pavilion of Penguins. Make sure to stay hydrated and have a proper snack supply: the territory is even vaster than it seems.
Even more so than its Flora and Fauna collections, Prague’s architectural heritage is immense. There is a distorted, yet captivating silhouette of Milunić's and Gehry's Dancing House and a Powder Tower dated back to the 11th century, a grotesque Franz Kafka monument located near the majestic Spanish Synagogue and a picturesque Charles Bridge that crosses the Vltava river and connects the Old Town and Prague Castle, the largest castle in the world.
Dating from the 9th century, Prague Castle is a sight worthy of its own paragraph and a whole separate day of exploration. The complex includes St. Vitus Cathedral that stores Bohemian Crown Jewels, with the crown being the fourth oldest in Europe. While the originals are hidden for safety, the visitors can view the reproductions of the jewels at the former royal palace in the castle.
The convoluted history and multilateral tradition inherited by today’s Prague can be traced in the architecture and its colliding styles, as well as the multiplicity of the precious relics it stores. It seems as if the city has a piece of every cultural influence it was exposed to. Yet, today’s Prague is a home for an objectively western society. It seems as if the recent history of Communist influence erased itself. Perhaps, these two conflicting characteristics are both the underlining aspects that truly identify Prague: absorbing, yet constantly altering.