Founded by Prince Bořivoj in the 9th century, Prague Castle and its attendant cathedral tower overlook the city from the long hill known as Hradčany. The surrounding town was founded in 1320, becoming home to servants’ hovels and, after the cataclysmic fire of 1541, grand palaces. Renaissance and Baroque reconstructions in the area created much of what visitors see today. The Loreto shrine to the Virgin Mary demonstrated the growing importance of Prague to the church. At the castle, primitive defences were removed, making room for gardens, parade grounds and the other needs of a modern empire. When the Habsburgs removed the imperial seat to Vienna, Hradčany seemed to become preserved in time, saving it from the ravages of war and modernization. The area abounds with interesting sights for art and history lovers, as well as romantic hidden lanes and parks – in short, a total expression of the Czech nation’s shifting epochs and politics.
The first and main focus of most tourists’ visit to the city of Prague is the majestically located and architecturally varied castle complex (see Prague Castle). Its determined survival in the face of an often turbulent history seems only to heighten the castle’s lure for tourists. Despite its medieval appearance, it is still as much of a political stronghold as it has always been, and currently serves as the office of the country’s president, Miloš Zeman.
The Gothic splendour of St Vitus’s spires can be seen from almost every vantage point in the city, but don’t miss the opportunity to see its beautiful stained-glass windows and gargoyles up close.
The onion-domed white towers of this Baroque 17th-century church (see The Loreto) complex are like something out of a fairy tale.
U Prašného mostu • Open Apr–Oct: 10am–6pm daily (May & Sep: to 7pm; Aug: to 8pm; Jun & Jul: to 9pm) • www.hrad.cz
This garden was originally laid out in 1534 by Ferdinand I. Although today’s visitors may regret the disappearance of the maze and the pineapple trees that once featured here, they are likely to appreciate the absence of Rudolf II’s freely roaming lions and tigers. In the English-style garden are the former presidential residence (the First Lady didn’t like it), the sgraffitoed Ball Game Hall and the Royal Summer Palace, also known as the Belvedere.
This fine Baroque building, dating from 1698, houses the National Gallery’s collection of European art from the classical to the Baroque. Spread over three floors, it is without doubt the country’s best collection from the period. Its highlights include works by Rubens, Rembrandt and El Greco.
Nestled below The Loreto, at the head of the Stag Moat, is Nový Svět (New World), the best street in town for a romantic stroll. The picturesque low houses were built in the 17th century to replace slums built for castle workers after their houses burned down in 1541. They remain unchanged by time and still have their decorative house signs – visitors will see depictions of a golden pear, a grape and an acorn. Rudolf II’s choleric astronomer Tycho Brahe lived at No. 1 and apparently found the noise of nearby church bells insufferable.
The Royal Route, established in the 15th century for the coronation of George of Poděbrady, covered the distance from the Municipal House on the Náměstí Republiky (see Old Town Square) to the castle. The last stretch climbed the hill here at the Zámecké schody, although the original steps were reconstructed during Empress Maria Theresa’s Hradčany renovation in the 18th century. Halfway up is a music pavilion, from which a brass quartet of the Castle Guard serenades the city each morning at 10am.
The comparatively gentle slope of the Staré zámecké schody – the castle’s “back door” entrance – leads from the Malostranská metro to the citadel’s eastern gate. Local artists and artisans line the steps, selling everything from watercolour prints to polished stones.
Many visitors enter this square backwards, trying to fit St Vitus’s spires into their photographs. Tear your eyes away from the castle’s western face and you’ll see, among other Renaissance buildings, the colourful Archbishop’s Palace and the Schwarzenberg Palace opposite, housing the Bohemian Baroque art of the National Gallery. In the green centre is a plague column from 1726; opposite the castle is the Toskánský Palace, now part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Courthouse Steps lead from Hradčany’s former mayoral residence, now the hotel Zlatá Hvězda, to the old courthouse at Loretánská 1. At the bottom are two statues – on the left is St John of Nepomuk and on the right St Joseph with the infant Jesus in Renaissance garb. There are more steps than is immediately apparent, making the pub halfway up a convenient stopping-off point.
When the Stag Moat was not fulfilling its defensive duties, Prague’s rulers used it as a hunting park. Rudolf II is said to have been particularly fond of chasing deer around the narrow, wooded gorge with his pet lions. The Powder Bridge’s earthworks were excavated to permit pedestrians access to both halves of the moat.
Start your day with a brisk climb up the New Castle Steps, and time your ascent to hear the 10am Castle Guard brass quartet. After a leisurely stroll through the scenic grounds, leave the castle behind and walk west through Hradčanské náměstí. Head to the imposing Schwarzenberg Palace, set amid the Renaissance structures that surround the square, and take time to admire some Baroque Czech art. Alternatively, treat yourself to the Old Masters collection at Sternberg Palace.
Now walk up Loretánská to Loretánské náměstí, where you’ll find the vast Černín Palace staring down at The Loreto. Explore the pilgrimage site and its odd gallery of saints before having lunch at the simple Kavárna Nový Svět.
Exit Loretánské náměstí past the Capuchin monastery and follow Černínská downhill, pausing on Nový Svět lane. Coo over the street’s charming piebald houses and follow Kanovnická street back to Hradčanské náměstí.
To end your sightseeing day in Hradčany, find your way back to the famed pub U Černého vola at Loretánské náměstí 1 for a pickled sausage and a generous mug of beer.
Loretánské nám. 1
Part of the proceeds from the pub “At the Black Ox” go to the nearby school for the blind. Watching the regulars knock back litres of beer, you can guess why it’s so popular.
Strahovské nádvoří 301
Located in the Strahov Monastery founded by Vladislav II in 1142, this restored brewery has a capacity for 350 guests, split between the courtyard, restaurant and brewery.
Zahrada na Baště, Prague Castle
An out-of-the-way, peaceful café in the Gardens on the Bastion, which were designed by Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik, where you can rest over tea or coffee and light snacks.
Sip an espresso on the rooftop while peering at Prague through one of the telescopes. The quiet patio has large tables where you can lunch and plan your visit to the castle next door.
Hradčanské nám. 11
The pub “At the Swans” serves up Pilsner Urquell and some substantial dishes, such as schnitzel and goulash, on its garden terrace overlooking the upper Stag Moat.
The Hotel U Raka at the far western end of Nový Svět is a striking half-timbered building, an unusual sight in the urban Czech Republic. Enjoy a coffee in cosy surroundings – there is an open fire in winter.
Hradčanské nám. 15
Situated in the Sternberg Palace, this is a good spot to enjoy a cup of coffee and a baguette or a light meal after visiting the castle and before heading off to visit the other palaces nearby.
Zlatá ulička u Daliborky 42
Situated in the narrow alleys leading into Golden Lane, this café offers coffees, wine, spirits and sand-wiches. Outdoor seating is available in good weather.
Set in a 15th-century house at the beginning of the Royal Route, this café serves a range of beverages, home-made desserts and sandwiches.
This pleasant restaurant offers light lunches and suppers with a view of the city. The café in the courtyard is the place to end your tour of the castle.
Hotel Savoy, Keplerova 6 • 224 302122 •
This fine dining restaurant is one of the best in the country.
Strahovské nadvoří 1 • 220 516652 •
Continental dining in a grotto under the Strahov Monastery. Traditional Czech meals include golden-roasted pork knee.
Loretánská 5 • 220 518484 •
The restaurant “At the Emperors” serves traditional specialities and international favourites. The decor includes fine pewter tableware collections, hunting weapons and blacksmith bellows.
Loretánské náměstí 4 • 731 470648 •
“At the Cobbler Matouš”, in a cosy, low, vaulted room, has made an art of melting cheese on beefsteaks.
Úvoz 46 • 220 513894 • No credit cards •
The “Little Buddha” serves a wide range of potent teas and Vietnamese food.
Nový Svět 3 • 723 764940 •
“At the Golden Pear” serves delicious Czech and international dishes in picturesque Nový Svět, and is popular with locals and tourists alike.
Staré zámecké schody 6 • 702 205108 •
With panoramic views of the city and a choice of two restaurants, Villa Richter has it all. While Terra offers well-priced Czech cuisine, the elegant Piano Nobile serves Central European fare.
Nový Svět 2 • 242 430700 • Closed Mon •
Small family café hidden in a picturesque street. Try soup or salad for lunch, or just sit with a good cup of coffee and enjoy the atmosphere.
Loretánská 15 • 728 695793 •
Excellent, stylish dining alongside sweeping views of Petřín Hill and Malá Strana. Accessed by a particularly steep and narrow staircase.
U Prašného mostu 6 • 224 372361 •
The rooftop dining room affords incomparable views of St Vitus Cathedral; the beer hall serves a sublime suckling pig. Sample innovatively prepared Czech cuisine.