It is impossible to date precisely the arrival of the Jews in Prague, but historical sources make mention of the destruction of a Jewish settlement on the Vltava’s left bank in the 13th century. For the next 500 years, Prague’s Jews were obliged to live in a walled community where the Josefov quarter is today, working, studying and worshipping in the confines of the ghetto. So restricted was their allotted space that they were obliged to bury their dead layer upon layer in the Old Jewish Cemetery. When Emperor Josef II removed these strictures, many Jews left the ghetto, which became a slum occupied by the city’s poorest residents. The quarter was razed in the late 19th century, making way for avenues such as Pařížská with its fine Art Nouveau houses. During World War II, the synagogues stored valuables looted from Jewish communities across the Reich. Nearly 80,000 Czech and Moravian Jews perished in the Holocaust.
The sight of hundreds of graves, their leaning headstones crumbling on top of each other, is a moving and unforgettable experience, a testament to the treatment of the Jews in Prague, confined to their own ghetto even in death. Although there is no definite record of the number of burial sites here, to appreciate the depth of the grave-yard (see Old Jewish Cemetery), compare the gravestones’ height with that of the street level on U Starého hřbitova.
Across the street from the cemetery, Europe’s oldest surviving synagogue has witnessed a turbulent history, including pogroms and fire, and has often been a place of refuge for the city’s beleaguered Jewish community. Its name (see Old-New Synagogue) may come from the fact that another synagogue was built after this one, taking the title “new”, but which was later destroyed. It is still the religious centre for Prague’s small, present-day Jewish community (see Old-New Synagogue Features).
This lovely 13th-century Gothic convent (see Convent of St Agnes), now part of the National Gallery, is full of spectacular wall panels and altarpieces, as well as original 13th-century cloisters and chapels. The artworks, part of the gallery’s collection, comprise some of the best Czech medieval and early Renaissance art.
Maiselova 18 • Closed to the public
The hands of the Rococo clock on the town hall, or Židovská radnice, turn counterclockwise as Hebrew is read from right to left. The building was one of Mordechai Maisel’s gifts to his community in the late 16th century, but it was renovated in Baroque style in 1763.
Červená 4 • Closed to the public
Constructed along with the town hall with funds from Mordechai Maisel, the High Synagogue was built in elegant Renaissance fashion. Subsequent reconstructions updated the exterior, but the interior retains its original stucco vaults. Inside there are also impressive Torah scrolls and mantles.
Maiselova 10 • Open Apr–Oct: 9am–6pm Sun–Fri; Nov–Mar: 9am–4:30pm • Adm
Rudolf II gave Mordechai Maisel permission to build his private synagogue here in the late 16th century, in gratitude for the Jewish mayor’s financial help in Bohemia’s war against the Turks. At the time of its construction it was the largest synagogue in Prague, until fire destroyed it and much of the ghetto in 1689. It was later rebuilt in Neo-Gothic style. Inside is a wonderful collection (see Jewish Museum) of Jewish silverwork and other items such as candlesticks and ceramics, much of it looted by the Nazis from other synagogues across Bohemia. Ironically, the Third Reich planned to build a museum in Prague, dedicated to the Jews as an “extinct race”.
U Starého hřbitova 3a • Open Apr–Oct: 9am–6pm Sun–Fri; Nov–Mar: 9am–4:30pm • Adm
Constructed in the early 1900s in striking mock Romanesque fashion, the Ceremonial Hall was home to the Jewish community’s Burial Society. The fascinating exhibits housed inside detail the complex Jewish rituals for preparing the dead for the grave.
U Starého hřbitova 1 • Open Apr–Oct: 9am–6pm Sun–Fri; Nov–Mar: 9am–4:30pm • Adm
Abutting the Old Jewish Cemetery, this Baroque single-nave building was constructed in 1694 on the site of a school and prayer hall (klausen) where Rabbi Loew taught the cabala. Like most synagogues in the area, it now houses Jewish exhibits, including prints, pointers and manuscripts.
Široká 3 • Open Apr–Oct: 9am–6pm Sun–Fri; Nov–Mar: 9am–4:30pm • Adm
After World War II, this 15th-century Gothic building with some early Renaissance features became a monument to the estimated 80,000 Czech and Moravian victims of the Holocaust – the names and dates of all those known to have died either in the Terezín camp or in others across Eastern Europe are written on the wall in a moving memorial. Equally moving is the exhibition (see Jewish Museum) of writings and paintings made by the children (of whom there were more than 10,000 under the age of 15) confined in Terezín (see The Jews in Prague).
Vézeňská 1 • Open Apr–Oct: 9am–6pm Sun–Fri; Nov–Mar: 9am–4:30pm • Adm
The Moorish interior with its swirling arabesques and stucco decoration gives this synagogue its name. It stands on the site of the Old School, Prague’s first Jewish house of worship. František Škroup, composer of the Czech national anthem, was the organist in the mid-19th century. It hosts exhibitions of Jewish history and synagogue silver (see Spanish Synagogue).
One of Prague’s most famed residents, Rabbi Loew ben Bezalel (c. 1520–1609) is associated with numerous local legends but he was also a pioneering pedagogue and a leading Hebrew scholar of the times. Foremost among the myths surrounding Loew is that of the Golem, a clay automaton the rabbi supposedly created to defend the ghetto.
A sobering place to start the day, the Pinkas Synagogue lists Holocaust victims by their home village and name, and helps visitors to appreciate how large the Czech Jewish community once was. Afterwards take a stroll through the adjoining Old Jewish Cemetery, where a guide will help you find significant gravesites. Also worth visiting in this area is the Baroque Klausen Synagogue, with its exhibits on Jewish festivals and family life.
A short walk away, at the end of U Starého hřbitova, is the Old-New Synagogue, where you’ll find treasures like Rabbi Loew’s seat. Exiting, note the Jewish Town Hall next door with its Hebrew clock. Just round the corner is Kafka Snob Food, a delightful place to stop for lunch.
After lunch, meander among the antiques shops en route to the Maisel Synagogue, where you’ll find the first part of an exhibit on Jewish settlement in Bohemia and Moravia – it continues at the Spanish Synagogue a five-minute walk to the east down Široká.
A truly Josefov-style evening involves a kosher dinner at King Solomon near the cemetery and a concert of sacred music at the Spanish Synagogue.
Exquisite torah pointers, yarmulkas (skull caps) and unique gifts, such as a watch in the style of the clock on the Jewish Town Hall.
In this gallery, you will find precious jewellery and works of art created by Jarmila Mucha, who was inspired by the designs of her grandfather, the famous artist, Alfonse Mucha.
If you have trouble finding this small shop selling old clocks, simply stand at the corner of Maiselova and Široká streets and you’ll hear the old cuckoo clock sing.
Specializing in Bohemian garnet, Granát Turnov is part of Prague’s biggest jewellery chain. Jewellery lovers can find a large variety of brooches and necklaces here.
Works by Franz Kafka in German and in translation, as well as other specialized literature and books on Prague and related subjects can be found here. Guidebooks, souvenirs and gifts can also be purchased.
Aficionados come to this tiny goldsmith’s workshop for eye-catching gold and silver jewellery, much of which is embellished with the celebrated red Bohemian garnet.
Grab a bag of brownies, rugelach or butterhorns (small crescent-shaped biscuits) and other mouthwatering treats, or lunch on an egg salad sandwich and coffee. There are also salads and quiches to take away.
This serious collector’s shop specializes in prints and small decorative items such as clocks and lamps. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, just ask and they’ll point you in the right direction.
Art lovers should peruse this small gallery’s sale exhibition of local art. The original oils and sketches capture Josefov’s bittersweet warmth and humanity.
What don’t they sell? Alma Antique is a bazaar stocked with Persian rugs, jewellery, Meissen porcelain, crystal and ornate nesting dolls. This is one of the largest antique dealers in Prague.
Kaprova 3 •
Pick up ready-made sandwiches for a picnic on the steps of the nearby Rudolfinum (see Communist Monuments). Paneria has branches throughout the city.
Dlouhá 39 • 222 312533 •
The casual setting in a butcher shop makes this better suited to a quick bite. The meat is quality local beef and pork. Tell them at the counter how you’d like your meat to be done.
U Milosrdných 12 • 222 316999 •
A stylish restaurant (see Field), with an intimate atmosphere and an interesting mural projected from the ceiling. Innovative dishes and modern cuisine.
Haštalská 18 • 222 311234 •
La Degustation, a Michelin-starred restaurant (see La Degustation (Bohême Bourgeoise)) offers exceptional tasting menus of traditional Czech cuisine, inspired by recipes and techniques from a 19th-century cookbook.
Kaprova 5 • 224 813922 •
This Cuban-Creole restaurant offers grilled fish and meats made using authentic ingredients. Popular with the business crowd, it boasts a great atmosphere and welcoming staff.
Maiselova 3 • 222 329404 •
A pub with wall decorations by Czech caricaturist Peter Urban. Choose from Czech specialities or enjoy a beer.
Platnéřská 90/13 • 222 325325 •
Italian favourites cooked to perfection and great wine are complemented by the fine setting and service (see La Finestra in Cucina).
Dlouhá 736/23 • 222 329853 •
Try a range of freshwater and marine fish and seafood, plus grilled steaks.
Široká 12 • 725 915505 •
The words “Kafka” and “snob” don’t usually go together, but this informal Italian place seems to work well. Perfect for taking a break from sightseeing in the former Jewish quarter.
Široká 8 • 224 818752 • Closed Fri •
Prague’s foremost kosher restaurant has separate facilities for meat and dairy dishes. Closes for the sabbath.