Prague has so many sites located in its historic city center, that the entire area is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Most of the main attractions are located in the Old Town on the eastern side of the Vlatava River and are within a few minutes’ walk of the Old Town Square. However, Prague Castle (Pražský Hrad) is located on the western side. This side of the city has a charm all its own, and getting there is half of the fun. Take the pedestrian-only Charles Bridge across the river. Be sure to snap plenty of pictures of the water below, the looming statues that line the bridge above, the gates at either end, and the Old Town behind you. As you walk across the bridge, you can see the Prague Castle looming off to the right. (The giant steel tower off to the left is the Petřín Tower, which was built in the 1890s as a Czech answer to the brand-spanking-new Eiffel Tower.)
When you get to the other side of the bridge, you have entered the Lesser Town (Malá Strana), which gradually slopes up to the Castle District (Hradcany). This side of the river is considerably quieter than the Old Town, but no less beautiful. Make your way up the steep, narrow streets and be sure to pass St. Nicholas Church in Lesser Town Square as you head up to the castle.
Prague castle was founded in ninth century, and the has been the seat for the head of state (be it prince, king or president) for a more than a thousand years. The castle has been variously part of the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Holy Roman Empire and the Austrian Empire. It has been occupied by the Nazis and thrust behind the Iron Curtain during its long and tumultuous history. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the castle is the historical and political center of the Czech Republic.
There is a lot to see here (this is the largest castle complex in the world) including crown jewels, burial places of Czech kings, historical documents, art and artifacts. The oldest parts are of the buildings are romanesque, but many additions have been made in its long history. The gothic parts, including St. Vitus Cathedral, were built in the fourteenth century under Charles IV and the Habsburgs built the renaissance part (and replaced some windows in 1618).
The castle grounds are free, but the buildings that make up the castle complex require tickets. When you get to the ticket office, you will have your choice of two ticket types: long visit and short visit. The long visit ticket includes everything and costs 350 Kč. The short visit includes the Old Royal Palace, Basilica of St. George, St. Vitus Cathedral and the Golden Lane for 250 Kč.There is a lot to see here (and in Prague), so opt for the short visit and just see the Old Royal Palace and St. Vitus Cathedral. If you are a huge fan of Franz Kafka, stop by the Golden Lane to see his old haunts. Your ticket and map of the grounds marks each site with a roman numeral:
I. Old Royal Palace
II. Permanent Exhibition: The Story of Prague Castle
III. Basilica of St. George
IV. National Gallery
V. Golden Lane
VI. Prague Castle Picture Gallery
VII: Powder Tower with Castle Guard exhibition
VIII: St Vitus Cathedral
IX: Rosenberg Palace
In the summer, the castle grounds are open from 5am to midnight, ticketed areas are open from 9am to 5pm and the gardens are open from 10am to sunset. In the winder, the castle grounds are open from 6am to 11pm, ticketed areas are open from 9am to 4pm and the gardens are closed. There is a changing of the guard at noon in the courtyard.
The Old Royal Palace and St. Vitus Cathedral are the true draws to Prague Castle. The castle is about twenty minutes by foot from Old Town Square. A visit here combined with a walk across the Charles Bridge and a stroll through the Lesser Town makes for a wonderful morning walk, and you will get a great view of the Lesser Town and across the river to the Old Town.