Prague’s Historic Center
“Before independence, the city was gray. Now it is full of color.” This remark came from a cab driver and a lifelong resident of Prague. Indeed, Prague is one of Europe’s most gorgeous cities, and it always has been, but it took the emergence from the behind the Iron Curtain for that beauty to flourish once again.
The first site you will probably see is the Old Town Square (Straroměstské Náměstí). This ancient square began life as a market nearly a thousand years ago. As time went on, the market expanded and grew, and became the riot of gothic, renaissance and baroque facades you see today. Today, the only market here is the Christmas Market, which is open for the month of December, but it’s fun to wander the square and see so many different architectural styles represented in such a small area.
Even if it’s not on the days itinerary, you may not be able to help passing through it on your way to or from your centrally-located hotel. Most of the main sites are scattered about the Old Town, with many being near the Old Town Square, so it makes for a great starting point for any Prague adventure.
The building on the southwest corner of the square is the Old Town Hall. This gothic building was built in the fourteenth century as an administrative center, but today allows visitors to walk through its halls and climb to the top of the tower for bird’s-eye view of Prague. With its reddish-orange terracotta roof tiles, green copper church domes and gothic cathedral spires, Prague has a skyline unlike any other city. The tower’s astronomy clock is the true draw of the town hall. Located on the building’s south side, it can be viewed from the street any time of day or night. The Minute house is nearby, which is famous for its sgraffito facade and it’s most illustrious former resident, Franz Kafka.
Across the square from the town hall, towering over the Old Town is the Church of Our Lady before Týn. There has been a church here for as long as there has been a market here , but construction on this gothic cathedral did not begin until the fourteenth century. The towers are eighty meters high and capped by four spires, making it impossible to mistake for any other cathedral. This dark, gothic structure is contrasted with the white, baroque St. Nicholas Church in the northwest corner of the square (see the first photo above), which was built in 1730s. There is another St Nicholas Church in the Lesser Town Square on the other side of the river. It was built ten years later by the same architect and it is just as magnificent, so be sure to at least walk past it on your way to the Prague Castle. Both of these churches are Roman Catholic, and the statue in the middle of the square is of Jan Hus, a Protestant reformer who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1416. The monument was dedicated on July 6, 1916 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death.
Every trip to Prague should include a walk through the Old Town Square, even if you do not go into any of the buildings or churches.
Know Before You Go
If you are looking for a place to grab a bite or a beer, U Zlaté konvice (Old Town Square 478/26, 110 00 Prague, Czech Republic, 224 225 293, ukonvice.cz) has good food, great beer and reasonable prices, and with a location underneath the astronomy clock, a view unlike any other.