Home DestinationsEuropeCzech Republic Your grand tour of Prague Castle begins here

Your grand tour of Prague Castle begins here

by Bernard O'Shea
Prague Castle and St Vitus Cathedral.

A visit to Prague’s mammoth castle complex requires military precision. It has great walls that Donald Trump would envy. We stake it out.

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 Vltava 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.

Heading west across Charles Bridge.

View from a bridge

There are some lovely hotels and boutique accommodation on the west bank, but much of the tourist infrastructure is on on the opposite side, near the Old Town, so most likely you’ll approach the castle precinct on foot via the most famous of Prague’s many bridges, Charles Bridge, which is a splendid way to do it.

The earlier you start, the better – the castle opens for the tourist trade at 9am, but the bridge can get very busy with pedestrian traffic, especially in peak visiting season. If you want to take photos or selfies in front of the bridge’s most striking statue, you will have to wait your turn. Serious photographers should be on the bridge just before dawn.

Your limousine awaits!

Seeing red

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!

The Church of St Nicholas in Little Quarter Square.

Time for coffee

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. It was built between 1704 and 1755 and one of its most famous visitors was Mozart in 1787 – he played on the church organ, which has more than 4000 pipes.

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. The coffee and pastries are very good.

The Holy Trinity Column.

Grim reminder

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. These days, the column seems less of a sign of days gone by, if you think of the plague as the COVID of its day.

This heralds the start of the uphill stretch, which takes about 10-15 minutes on foot.

Walk or take the tram up to Prague Castle

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 in the slider 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 from the church up to the castle, and want a “beam me up there” moment, the magic words are “Tram 22” from Little Quarter Square

The castle gates, and the Archbishop’s palace in the background.

Slaying statues

The buildings close to the castle entrance are photogenic, so factor in some time to explore the neighbourhood, called Hradcany, before entering the castle gates. There is more than one exit from the castle, so you don’t necessarily have to go out the way you came in, and you will save a lot of walking back to the Old Town if you exit at the other end of the castle. (I regret not doing Hradcany more thoroughly.)

The castle gates feature dramatic statues of fighting giants. A good choice because, as in most seats of power, a lot of backstabbing has taken place in the castle, which dates back to the 9th century.

The changing of the guard ceremony in Prague Castle’s first courtyard.

The changing of the guard

The first courtyard is where the changing of the guard takes place at noon every day. Our separate 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.

See The Changing of the guard at Prague Castle

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.

Towering 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.

St George’s Basilica.

A murdered princess

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.

Franz Kafka’s house in Golden Lane.

The house of Franz Kafka

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.

The view to the east.

Views, views views!

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

Bernard O’Shea visited Prague with assistance from Czech Tourism. More at Prague Castle For Visitors. Photos © Bernard O’Shea


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