A visit to Prague’s mammoth castle complex requires military precision. It has great walls that Donald Trump would envy. We sent an advance party, Bernard O’Shea, to stake it out. Here’s his report.
Prague is a beautiful city with many sights, but when it comes down to it there are two core areas you should focus on: the historic old town on the east bank of the Vitava River, and Prague Castle up on a hill on the west. The castle complex is massive – the Guinness Book of World Records deems it the largest in the world, at more than 70,000 square metres. The top layer of buildings in the photograph above is only part of it, the part known as the third courtyard. There are two more courtyards out of the picture to the left, beyond the monumental St Vitus Cathedral. So put on your best walking shoes for what is essentially a fun hike through the best of west Prague.
There are some lovely hotels and boutique accommodation on the west bank, but much of the tourist infrastructure is on on the opposite side, so most likely you’ll approach the castle precinct on foot via Charles Bridge, which is a splendid way to do it, and the earlier you start, the better – the castle opens for the tourist trade at 9am.
Once you pass through the towers of the bridge onto Mostecka road, though, you might be tempted to summon a chauffeur in this beautifully polished car!
Mostecka leads to a square (Little Quarter Square in some English guides, Lesser Town Square in others, Malostranské námēsti in Czech) with a cluster of buildings in the centre, the most notable being the Church of St Nicholas. You should pop in – it’s regarded as the most beautiful baroque church in Prague. There are lots of cafes and restaurants in the vicinity, so if you haven’t had breakfast, eat now or forever hold your peace. There’s a lot to see ahead, and you’ll need a full tank.
On the far side of the square you’ll come to the Holy Trinity Column, built – like many similar ones in other Czech cities – in gratitude that the plague had stopped plaguing. This is heralds the start of the uphill stretch, which takes about 10-15 minutes on foot.
Hrad is the Czech word for castle and the pedestrian route is reasonably well signposted. Basically you head west along the foot of the hill then zig-zag back east up to the entrance of the castle, which is visible in the zoom shot above. In the pic with the forest visible, you can see the dome of the Church of St Nicholas in the lower part of town near the river. If you think it’s too far to walk and want a “beam me up there” moment, the magic words are “Tram 22”.
The buildings close to the entrance of the castle (in Castle Square and the suburb of Hradcany) are very photogenic. The castle gates feature statues of fighting giants. As in most seats of power, a lot of backstabbing has taken place in the castle, which dates back to the 9th century.
The first courtyard is where the changing of the guard takes place at noon every day. Our article on the ceremony will help you decide whether it is worth lingering here to watch. On a quiet day with few tourists about you will probably have to get there 15-20 minutes early to secure a good viewing spot, but in the peak tourist season it could be a lot more.
The second courtyard is larger and this is where you buy your tickets to the major sights. There are different circuits and combinations – details and prices here. Circuits A and B focus on the third courtyard, while Circuit C comprises the two main attractions in the second courtyard, namely the Prague Castle Picture Gallery, which features artworks collected by former Bohemian and Hapsburg rulers, and the Church of the Holy Rood, which contains all the treasures from St Vitus’s Cathedral.
The third courtyard is by far the largest and has the most interesting sites, the most obvious one being St Vitus Cathedral, which dates back to 1344 but took almost 600 years to complete. Go in via its front doors, and out at the side entrance, the Golden Portal, which is grander and has a mosaic of the the last judgement above its three arch doors. Its tower is almost 103 metres high, whereas the twin towers at the front are 82 metres tall.
Good King Wenceslas is among the Bohemian kings buried in the cathedral – his tomb is on the right-hand (southern) side of the cathedral.
The oldest preserved building in the complex, though, is the Basilica of St George, founded in 920. Its colourful baroque facade – which was added in the late 17th century – is a little deceptive as the interior is austere. It contains the tombstone of Princess Ludmilla, the first Bohemian saint, who was murdered in 921. Another key building is the Old Royal Palace, which is actually three royal abodes with grand halls built on top of one another between 1135 and 1340, with later embellishments. I was expecting lots of regal furniture and comforts, but there is hardly any, so felt a strange sense of emptiness, but don’t let that put you off. There is a good outline of it here with much better photos than the ones I took.
One area that I really liked without expecting to (I thought it would be commercial kitsch) was Golden Lane (Zlatá Ulicka), which features brightly coloured little houses that were once dwellings for the castle guards and were later taken over by goldsmiths. They are now bookshops, souvenir shops and little boutiques. The famous Czech writer Franz Kafka lived for a while at No 22, in the foreground of the photograph.
There are not many open-air places in the castle complex with good views of Prague – most of the hilltop perimeter is taken up with buildings – but the eastern extremity at the end of the Golden Lane does the trick. Your grand tour ends here! TTW
DON’T MISS: THE DECOR IS DIFFERENT AT SEDLEC
The strangely compelling Sedlec Ossuary near Kutna Hora makes a fascinating excursion from Prague.