Most visitors to the Czech Republic confine their stay to Prague — and with good reason.
Known as “the city of a hundred spires,” it’s actually decorated by nearly a thousand towers and steeples.
In fact, Prague challenges the most magnificent capitals of Europe with its beauty and a rich history that stretches back over a millennium.
Since the Middle Ages, Prague (Praha) has been recognized as one of the most vibrant cultural settings on the continent.
And love for the city hasn’t waned: In 2014, TripAdvisor ranked the city fifth in a list of best destinations in the world, thanks to its collection of major museums and numerous theaters, concert halls, galleries and other entertainment venues.
This splendid city overwhelms visitors with its architecture, which provides a feast for the eyes, then envelops them in an aura of living history. Just when you think you’ve seen the most majestic building possible, you turn a corner and come upon another gem that surpasses it in grandeur.
The profusion of ancient palaces, castles and cathedrals creates a rich mosaic of outstanding masterpieces in styles that stretch back more than 1,000 years.
Romanesque chapels stand in the shadow of soaring Gothic cathedrals. Baroque palaces are neighbors to late 19th-century Art Nouveau buildings and examples of early 20th-century Cubism.
As a result, it’s easy to understand why the entire city center has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural and physical importance. The fact that its buildings survived World War II remarkably intact, unlike many throughout Europe, adds to its appeal.
At the same time, strolling through its off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods provides introductions to very different, yet no less enticing, attractions.
The 13th-century Old Town consists of a labyrinth of winding alleys and picturesque squares, as does the not-quite-so-old New Town, which dates back to 1348.
A famous landmark in the Old Town’s central square is an imposing tower, which has looked out over the setting for nearly seven centuries. A crowd of both visitors and city residents gathers each hour from dawn to dark to watch the square’s 15th-century astronomical clock put on its brief but impressive show.
A small door opens and a miniature statue of Christ marches out followed by his disciples, as the skeleton of death tolls the hour on the clock’s bell.
Lesser Town, also known as the Little Quarter, is clustered around the foothills on which the Prague Castle is perched. The neighborhood was born in the 8th century as a market settlement. Its cobbled streets are lined by small shops, traditional restaurants, pubs and restored ancient buildings.
The sprawling castle grounds, which claims the title of largest medieval castle complex in the world at 18 acres, dates back to 880. It served as the seat of power for a parade of kings and emperors, and today is the official residence of the president of the Czech Republic.
In addition to four palaces, you’ll find residences, cathedrals and churches, defensive towers and several museums with collections of art, toys and historic artifacts.
Adding color to the setting are six terraced gardens, including the Renaissance Garden which was laid out in 1534.
Those plantings provide only a hint of more than 200 gardens and parks dotted throughout the city. The oldest were founded in the Middle Ages and were attached to monasteries, palaces or houses of the wealthy.
Another must-see for visitors to Prague is the graceful Charles Bridge, which well deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful and iconic stone bridges anywhere.
It’s spanned the Vltava River since the 14th century, and today is one of more than 30 within Prague. A line of statues placed along its balustrades in the 17th and early 18th centuries depicts saints who were venerated at that time.
Throughout the day, the bridge is packed with tourists who traipse across it, pausing to check out souvenirs, jewelry and other goods displayed in kiosks, listen to the sounds of busking musicians or simply to enjoy the beautiful view of the castle in the distance.
Learn more at czechtourism.com.
Victor Block is a veteran travel writer and has contributed to numerous national publications. He is known as the Tenacious Traveler.