Europe Day 7 – Prague Castle and Old Town Square

Arrival at Prague and the first thing that strikes me is the hot and humid weather in Prague at this time in mid-June. And I made a mistake of not taking a taxi to our hotel cosidering the sloping terrain in our walk from the Praha Hlavni Nadrazi or its central train station. By the time we reached the hotel, we were sweating and exhausted. The Sheraton Prague Charles Square is located close to a park called Charles Square and is walking distance to Wenceslas Square, a beautiful square close to the main train station. We were also upgraded to a Duplex Loft Suite which was beautiful in my opinion, with the suite located at the uppermost floor with the bedroom at the lower level having attic-style sloping windows. The second floor has a sofa-bed with a separate LCD TV and study desk. An illy espresso machine is also provided in the hotel which means great coffee for tomorrow morning! The only drawback to this hotel was the slightly slow processing during check in.

We got a tip from the concierge for our lunch venue which was just around the corner facing Charles Square or Karlovo náměstí. The hotel is named after this large public square which is also a park in Prague’s city centre. It is also a good place to catch the public tram as well as the city’s metro. It was a place called Pizzeria di Carlo where we had two great pizzas to share amongst the 3 of us. Food and service was great here and I would recommend this place to anyone in the area looking for a bite. With the tram station nearby, it was the choice of transport we boarded to get to Prague Castle or Pražský hrad in Czech. However unlike in Germany where English is commonly used in information centers for tourists and in the main train stations, it is rarely utilized in Prague. Neither was I able to get maps or tourists information from the main train station. Instead, I got to know the tram number and maps from the concierge of the hotel. Another problem arose which is the payment method for the trams. This was finally solved by getting tickets for public transport from the ticket booths in the metro station at Charles Square. Since we are just staying in Prague for a night, I chose to get 2 sets of public transport tickets for each of us. This ticket is valid for 75 minutes after getting it stamped in small boxes located at tram stops and metro stations. Cost was relatively cheap at around CZK 18 for each ticket or less than US$ 1 each. However due to the hot weather and the fact that the tram has no air-conditioning, it is not advisable to take the tram under crowded peak hour conditions. Do take note of the ‘Beware of Pickpockets’ sign too that is pasted onboard the tram.

Tram 22 in Karlovo náměstí
Charles Square Tram Station with Church of St. Ignatius in the background

Several tram routes in Prague passes by the main sights in the city centre and thus it would be a smart idea to just take the tram to go around the city should you not wish to walk. The tram we took was numbered 22 which passes by the National Theatre or Národní divadlo, the Bridge of Legions or most Legii from where we can get a nice view of Charles Bridge or Karlův Most and passes by several ministerial buildings and churches in the Lesser Town or Malá Strana. One of the most prominent sights as we pass by the Lesser Town is the area around the Town Square, called Malostranské Náměstí in Czech. The Church of St. Nicholas forms a distinctive feature set in the middle of this square. After passing the square, the tram has to wait with the traffic to pass through the small alleyways that crosses this part of town.

Prague castle has several entry points for visitors and one of the entry points is located close to the Malostranská Metro and tram station. However it is not advisable to enter from here as most visitors would use this as an exit due to the uphill climb from this point. Instead, it is a better choice to stick with the tram as it winds itself upwards and goes one round to the other end of the castle to alight at Pohořelec.

Tram Ride to Prague Castle
Taking the tram up to Prague Castle

Alighting at Pohořelec, we would then take a leisurely walk down towards the entrance of Prague Castle. But before that is to happen, we are treated to an appetizer of sorts as the walk will bring us past some magnificent palaces and buildings lined with cafes. Some prominent palace buildings along this route includes the Černínský palác or Czernin Palace which now houses the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Toskánský palác or Tuscan Palace, Schwarzenberský palác or Schwarzenberg Palace which now houses an art museum, and the Arcibiskupský palác or Archbishop’s Palace. The latter 3 palace compounds surround the Hradčanské náměstí or Hradčany square which leads directly to the main entrance of the castle.

View from the Černínský palác (Czernin Palace)
View from the Czernin Palace
Facade of the Arcibiskupský palác‎
Facade of the Archbishop’s Palace
Main Entrance to Prague Castle
Main entrance to Prague Castle with Matthias Gate at the background

Prague Castle is a large castle compound with several courtyards and the main gate at Hradčany square is guarded by the Czech Guards in their light blue uniforms. Those interested to see the ceremony for changing of the guards should come at noon. At the top of the gate are 2 sculptures of Titans made by I. F. Platzer in 1770. Crossing these gates leads into the 1st courtyard also named the Courtyard of Honour. Matthias Gate stands between the 1st and 2nd courtyards and a staircase that leads to the state rooms in the Castle, which is also the office of the President of the Czech Republic, is only open twice a year. The 2nd courtyard is a vast open square with an early-Baroque Leopold’s Fountain in the middle. The Chapel of the Holy Cross from the 18th century is found here as well. A pathway here leads to the 3rd courtyard which is dominated by the St. Vitus Cathedral, the largest church in the city.

St. Vitus Cathedral
St. Vitus Cathedral

Founded by Emperor Charles IV of the Holy Roman Empire, the St. Vitus became a place of burial for former Czech Kings as well as where the crown jewels of the country are located at. Entering the cathedral is also a great way to escape the summer heat of Prague and explore the beautiful stained glass along the cathedral. In addition, numerous chapels dedicated to Czech saints can be found here, and the most magnificent being the Chapel dedicated to St. Wenceslas. The Tomb of John of Nepomuk can also be found in the eastern end of the cathedral. The 3rd courtyard outside the cathedral leads towards Convent of St. George and the entrance to the Old Royal Palace.

Inside the Majestic Cathedral
Interior of St. Vitus Cathedral
Tomb of John of Nepomuk
Tomb of John of Nepomuk in the Cathedral
Chapel of St. Wenceslas
Chapel of St. Wenceslas

The small convent of St. George is a relatively small convent at the end of St. George’s Square where a cafe provides refreshments and ice-creams for weary visitors. One could also admire the bell tower architecture of St. Vitus’ Cathedral from the Square. After a short visit to the convent, it is prudent to take the time to visit the Old Royal Palace or \královský palác, the seat of Bohemian princes until the 13th to 16th century, when it was converted to become the king’s palace. The main attraction here would be Vladislav Hall (Vladislavský sál), in the centre of the palace, was used for banquets, councils, coronations and in bad weather, jousting. From the Hall, we headed to the adjacent All Saints’ Chapel where a small terrace provides an excellent view over the city of Prague with the Vltava River. Another place worth visiting would be the new Land Rolls Room and the old map repository for land titles where the ceiling is richly decorated with the crests of land-owning nobilities.

St George's Basilica
Convent of St. George in the Square
Old Town of Prague
View of Prague from the terrace in the Old Royal Palace

Several other courtyards dot the areas after the St. George’s Square including a Toy Museum and the Lobkowicz Palace, where the courtyard has another cafe for a short break. The exit of the eastern end of the castle brings visitors out to a small sloped pathway where one can enjoy the scenery of Prague during the walk down the castle. Walking down the slope will eventually leads to the Malostranská Metro and tram station from where we took another tram number 22 to head back to the other side of Prague. This time, we alighted after the Four Seasons Hotel in Prague which is located by the Vltava Riverside. A short walk from the hotel is a Vltava River Cruise docking area and it is common to have promoters for such cruises dressed in sailor’s uniforms leading tourists to the dockside for boarding. We chose to walk instead towards the Charles Bridge, passing the Klementinum which is presently the National Library of the Czech Republic, St. Francis’ of Assisi Church and the Charles Bridge Tower at Staro Mesto or the Old Town. Another tower of the bridge exists at the Malá Strana side of the Charles Bridge. There is a monument along the bridge to commemorate the place where St. John of Nepomuk was sentenced to death and it has become a tourist spot where they rub their hands in search of good luck. The view from the bridge of Prague Castle and the Vltava River is one reason enough to visit this bridge.

Panorama of Vltava River and Mánesův most
Prague Castle and the Vltava River with Mánesův most on the right

A small pedestrian lane beside the Klementinum leads out towards the Old Town Square or Staroměstské náměstí in Czech. The famous astronomical clock or Orloj can be found here. Besides the clock tower, the town square is surrounded by shops and several interesting landmarks like the twin spires of the Týn Cathedral and the green domes of the St. Nicholas Church. The area is teeming with tourists during the afternoon I was there and it was drizzling which makes it a tiring journey. Though I would have to say it is worthwhile to spend half a day venturing around the Old Town and Lesser Town Square in both sides of the Vltava River to experience the architectural delights of this city.

Prague Astronomical Clock or Orloj
Astronomical Clock Tower or Orloj in the Old Town Square

To end the afternoon, we headed back to the hotel by taking a cab as we wanted the time to shower and take a rest before heading out for our highlight dinner at the top of Frank Gehry’s Dancing House (Tančící dům in Czech) at Celeste Restaurant. One day in Prague might be a bit short for some, but it can be done. The pleasure of visiting this city is that most of its major attractions are within easy walking distance from each other. Their unique architectural features and designs also makes the city a delight for explorers. The only drawback was the weather which was blazing hot in the afternoon and rainy in the evening. Though this is the weather during the peak tourist season of summer. It would thus be a better idea if we visited the city in April/May or September/October where the prospect of mild temperatures would surely bring out the best Prague has to offer!

Fred & Ginger Building
Frank Gehry’s Dancing House at Prague

Must Visit in Prague: Prague Castle with its wealth of treasures within the compounds and the view it offers from the Old Royal Palace. Its stature from across the Vltava River indeed shows its importance in the history of Prague and perhaps the formation of the country of Czech Republic as well.

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