A long, storied history and well-preserved architecture have made Prague one of the most visited cities in Europe. From the time of its founding, through its periods as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire right up until the second World War, the city has played roles as an economic and cultural hub, a status it has once again begun to enjoy since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The capital and largest city in the Czech Republic was one of the few cities not bombed heavily during World War II, which means it’s far more intact and still retains that storybook Europe charm that most visitors seek. Late spring and early fall enjoy milder temperatures, while the warmer summer months attract the largest crowds.
Arts and culture play a large role in Prague, which boasts more than 40 theaters and several world-class museums, including the National Museum, with more than 14 million items of scientific and historic importance. The city’s history as an arts center is evidenced by the many names of note with which it is associated, including writer Franz Kafka, composer Bedřich Smetana and, more recently, filmmaker Milos Forman. With eight universities—including Charles University, built in 1348 by Charles IV, who was then the Holy Roman Emperor—Prague can sometimes feel a bit like a college town, although the pub culture is enjoyed by all ages.
At the heart of the city lies Old Town Square, ringed by gothic and baroque buildings from various periods in Prague’s history and featuring a medieval astronomical clock that puts on an hourly performance of moving sculptures. Crowded with performance artists, vendors, and the gawking masses, the Charles Bridge and its 30 statues have connected the Old Town with the thoroughfare to Prague Castle since 1402. The castle itself holds the title of largest ancient castle in the world and acts as the home of the sitting Czech president. In the cemetery of the old fort of Vyšehrad rest several Czech luminaries, including composer Antonín Dvořák and artist Alphonse Mucha.
The most happening area of Prague is without a doubt Old Town (Staré Město), the centrally located quarter that also boasts the largest selection of bars and restaurants. In the middle of its web of meandering streets and alleys lies Old Town Square, site of one of Europe’s most popular Christmas markets. In the northwest corner of Old Town lies the Jewish Quarter, known locally as Josefov, home to the Jewish Museum (a series of several buildings, including several synagogues and a cemetery) and the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in Europe. After a stroll among the baroque architecture of the Malá Strana neighborhood, pop into the Church of St. Nicholas, whose 4,000-pipe organ was once played by Mozart. One of the trendier neighborhoods, Vinohrady is a favorite among ex-pats and younger Czechs and lies walking distance from Wenceslas Square, the site of numerous demonstrations during the 1989 Velvet Revolution.