Czech Republic See And Do
Generations of Florentines have settled in Prague, so it's no wonder that the Czech capital is home to some of the most acclaimed sculpted gardens northeast of the Alps. The best are all in Malá Strana, close to Prague Castle. A favorite for summertime weddings, the Vrtba Garden (Vrtbovská Zahrada) was opened in 1720 and climbs partway up the hillside behind the Aria Hotel and the U.S. Embassy (25 Karmelitská; 420-257-531-480; www.vrtbovska.cz). The Wallenstein Garden (Valdštejnská Zahrada), next to the Czech senate, features hedges in complex geometric patterns, a fish pond with a grand statue of Hercules, and a band shell decorated with Trojan War frescoes (Letenská; 420-257-072-759). Located right under Prague Castle, the Palace Gardens are a set of five gardens originally laid out in the 16th century. The gardens were rebuilt in the 1920s by architect Joſe Plečnik, who also renovated and redesigned much of Prague Castle. Today, the grounds include stunning Baroque staircases, statuary, and precisely groomed lawns, vines, and trees, making it a perfect break spot after an afternoon on the cobblestones (3 Valdštejnské Nám; 420-257-010-401; www.palacovezahrady.cz).
Vrtba Garden, Wallenstein Garden, and Palace Gardens all open daily 10 am to 6 pm, April to October.
1 U Staré Školy
Czech Republic 11000
Tel: 420 221 711 511
A surprising amount of Prague's Jewish history remains, despite the fact that the former ghetto of Josefov was almost completely razed and rebuilt at the end of the 19th century. The main sites—five synagogues, the Old Jewish Cemetery, and the charnel house—form the city's Jewish Museum. The cemetery is an atmospheric collection of some 12,000 overlaid graves dating back at least to the 15th century. One of the most important is that of High Rabbi Löw, maker of the Prague golem, a folkloric man created from clay who protected the Jewish community from anti-Semites. Legend has it that the golem still lies in the attic of the nearby Old-New Synagogue, which dates from 1270. Not included in the museum complex is the New Jewish Cemetery (Nový Zidovský Hrbitov), where author Franz Kafka is buried (1 Izraelská; 420-272-241-893). Be aware: Men must wear yarmulkes or other head coverings at all sites within the Jewish Museum and the New Jewish Cemetery. Yarmulkes are available at all museum entrances, but be sure to borrow or purchase one from the New Jewish Cemetery's main office before going through the main gate.
Open Sundays through Fridays 9 am to 4:30 pm in winter and 9 am to 6 pm in summer. Closed all Jewish holidays.
Czech Republic 11000
Tel: 420 224 216 415
The Czech artist Alfons Mucha almost single-handedly invented Art Nouveau graphic design while living in Paris in the late 1800s (in France it is even at times referred to as "le style Mucha"). Generations of artists and designers have been inspired by his characteristic flowers and ornate overlays of patterns. Established by the Mucha family, this intimate museum contains copies of his celebrated posters of Sarah Bernhardt and Maude Adams, as well as banknotes and postage stamps of his design, and stained glass windows, photographs, charcoal drawings, pastels, lithographs, and oil paintings by his hand.
Open daily 10 am to 6 pm.
19 Ovocný Trh
Tel: 420 224 211 746
Though Cubism came to life in Paris at the hands of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, it was in Prague that the movement reached its zenith. The style touched virtually all aspects of Czech art and culture: furniture and interior design, typography, painting, advertising, and architecture. The Museum of Czech Cubism is part of the National Gallery of Prague and focuses on the period from 1910 to 1919, including paintings by Emil Filla and sculpture by Otto Gutfreund. The collection opened in 2003 and is rightfully housed in the House of the Black Madonna, a 1911 Cubist building designed by Josef Gočár. If you want to bring some of the design home, check out the reproductions on sale in the Kubista gift shop on the ground floor and visit Modernista around the corner for even more classic Czech design.
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 am to 6 pm.
17 Listopadu 2
Czech Republic 11000
Tel: 420 251 093 111
Don't even try to pronounce the museum's official title: Uměleckoprůmyslové Museum V Praze. Locals simply call this place UMPRUM. The city's design junkies and art-history buffs love the small but focused collection of functional masterpieces: Norman tapestries, Baroque chests, footwear from ancient Egypt, and a collection of clothing spanning the 14th to 19th centuries, as well as fascinating posters, banners, glassware, and furniture. Special exhibitions on the ground floor complement the permanent collections upstairs, and the narrow, fin de siècle building is also home to a cute café and bar, perfect for a post-museum pick-me-up.
Open Tuesdays 10 am to 7 pm and Wednesdays through Sundays 10 am to 6 pm.
Old Town Square (Staroměstské Náměstí) is the heart of historic Prague and has more gawk-worthy points per square foot than just about any other location in town. Start with the soaring black towers of Týn Church, a flagship of Gothic architecture that was begun in 1461. Enter the church via the arcade on the north side and you'll find the grave of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who arrived in Prague in 1599 and is credited with the most accurate planetary maps of his time.
Two doors away is the pink Kinský Palace, an intricate Baroque construction that once housed the German grammar school attended by little Franz Kafka. The building now holds a posh wine restaurant and an exhibition of the National Gallery's 19th-century landscape paintings (420-224-810-758; www.ngprague.cz). Another Baroque landmark in Old Town Square is the white Church of St. Nicholas, on the northwest corner. Though discreet by the standards of Prague Baroque, it overwhelms the tiny Kafka Square next door, which marks the spot of the author's birth.
At the other end of the square, to the south, is the Old Town Hall (Staroměstská Radnice), whose tower contains the celebrated astronomical clock called the Orloj, a symbol of Prague since its creation in 1410. Every hour, crowds gather to watch the clockwork morality play, in which a skeleton tolls a death knell and overturns an hourglass while the 12 apostles parade past, a rooster crows, a Turk nods his head, and the bells toll the hour. The presence of death isn't just allegorical here: The Habsburgs executed 27 rebellious Bohemian nobles at Old Town Hall in 1621, marking the beginning of centuries of brutal oppression of national and religious dissent. Despite its grim history, Old Town Square remains a popular meeting point. It becomes especially festive during the annual Christmas and Easter markets, a celebration of only-in-Europe arts and crafts, hot pastries, sausage stands, mulled wine, and holiday concerts.
Czech Republic 11900
Tel: 420 224 372 423
One of the largest castle complexes in Europe, Prague Castle is the residence of the Czech president and home to many government offices. It's also one of the city's primary tourist attractions, drawing ever-bigger crowds since its foundation more than 1,000 years ago.
Beyond the bureaucratic spaces and the presidential apartments (not open to the public), the sprawling grounds have many must-sees: Foremost is the stunning Saint Vitus's Cathedral, whose soaring spires dominate the castle skyline. Entrance is free, though there are fees for the guided tours and entrance to the cathedral tower. The building is one of the high points of Late Gothic architecture in Central Europe, so be on the lookout for gargoyles (420-257-531-622; www.katedralapraha.cz).
Nearby is the smaller, salmon-colored Basilica of St. George, originally founded in 920. It was given an Italian Baroque facade in the 17th century, as was the Convent of St. George next door. The convent is now home to the 19th-century art collection of the Czech National Gallery. Though painters like František Xaver Procházka and Ludvík Kohl are unknown to most foreign visitors, the themes of Romanticism and Impressionism will strike a familiar chord (33 Jiřské Nám.; 420-257-320-536; www.ngprague.cz).
You'll find more great art at the castle's Sternberg Palace (15 Hradčanské Nám; 420- 220-514-634; www.ngprague.cz). A Baroque villa built between 1697 and 1707 by Domenico Martinelli and Giovanni Battista Alliprandi, Sternberg Palace houses the National Gallery's collection of Old Masters: El Greco, Goya, Rubens, Rembrandt, and more. Prague Castle's own collection of Czech Baroque paintings is shown off in the Prague Castle Picture Gallery located in the castle's Second Courtyard (420-224-373-531; www.obrazarna-hradu.cz).
Though walking in and around the castle grounds is free, tickets are required for specific sites. The Long Tour ticket includes the Old Royal Palace, the Story of Prague Castle permanent exhibition, St. George's Basilica, the Golden Lane, the Castle Powder Tower, the Convent of St. George, and the Prague Castle Picture Gallery. A Short Tour includes just the first five.
The closest metro station is Hradčany, but go to metro station Malostranská so you can walk up the castle steps. The easiest way to get here is via tram (22 or 23 to stop Pražský Hrad) or go to tram stop Malostranské Náměstí and climb up beautiful Nerudova street—a commendable destination in its own right. It's worth noting that Prague Castle still functions primarily as a government building, and as such is subject to the whims of politics: If a president drops by to sign a treaty with his or her Czech counterpart, all sightseeing is off.
In the center of the city, just south of Prague Castle, this verdant area has been the favorite in-town getaway for centuries. Closest to the castle grounds is Strahov Hill, home to the Strahov Monastery, which dates to 1143 (1/132 Strahovské Nádvoří; 420-233-107-711; www.strahovskyklaster.cz). If you like Baroque grandeur, you won't find much better than the Basilica of Our Lady, an ornate layer cake frosted with cherubs, frescoes, plasterwork, and curlicues. A young Mozart once banged out some improv tunes on the church's pipe organ. Also worth visiting is the monastery's Picture Gallery, a collection of some 1,500 paintings from the Gothic to the Romantic eras.
Just south of the monastery complex is Petřín Hill, which is served from the eastern side by the city's only funicular railway (though a relatively fit hiker won't take more than 15 minutes to walk up). Petřín is best known for canoodling couples and picnics of partying teenagers, though the very top of the hill offers more family-friendly fun: a miniature Eiffel Tower with great views in all directions; the Štefaník Observatory, with telescopes and displays of planets and stars; and the Zrcadlové Bludiště (Mirror Maze), a faux-Gothic castle with a small labyrinth made of fun house mirrors.
159/5B V Pevnosti
Czech Republic 12800
Tel: 420 241 410 348
Somewhat overlooked, this ancient defensive fortress is a hot spot for romantic walks and impromptu picnics. It sits across the Vltava and a bit upstream from Prague Castle, which means walks along the ramparts offer excellent views over the river to Old Town and Malá Strana. The best time to go is late afternoon, when you can watch the sun set behind the castle. Music, literature, and history buffs should stop at the Vyšehrad cemetery. Among the Czech luminaries buried here are composers Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, painters Max Švabinský and Alfons Mucha, and writers Karel Čapek and Jan Neruda. General entrance to the Vyšehrad grounds is free, with a modest fee to tour the casemates built into the castle walls and another to see the rotating exhibits at the tiny Vyšehrad art gallery.
Open daily 9:30 am to 5 pm November through March and 9:30 am to 6 pm April through October.