Michelle Mannion checks out Kafka, the old Jewish ghetto and sacred sites in the Czech capital
Start your tour in Mala Strana on the west bank of the Vltava River. Known as the “Little Quarter” or the “Lesser Town”, there is nothing inferior about this part of Prague – it is one of the most picturesque areas, its pretty terracotta-coloured roofs sitting in the shadow of the castle.
It’s a pleasure simply to wander the cobbled streets but there are many things to keep an eye out for. On Nerudova, the road that leads to the castle, have a look at the emblems above many of the buildings’ doors, an old tradition – violins mark the House of the Three Fiddles, which used to belong to a family of musicians, while a goblet decorates the House of the Golden Chalice, formerly a goldsmith’s home. The castle itself (hrad.cz/en) is a prime tourist attraction but be prepared for big crowds if you decide to visit.
If you are here at the weekend, stop by the grand Wallenstein Palace. Built in the 1620s by Albrecht von Wallenstein, commander of the Habsburg armies, it now houses the Czech Senate and some rooms are open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays 10am-4pm (5pm in summer). For an insight into the less than modest nature of the man, check out the ceiling of the main hall, where he is shown as the god of war on a chariot. The sculpted Wallenstein garden, open April to October (10am-6pm), is an attractive place for a stroll.
Mala Strana is also home to the Church of Our Lady Victorious, a popular pilgrimage site thanks to its statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague, and the Rocco Forte Augustine and Mandarin Oriental hotels, which offer good set lunches. Visit theaugustine.com, mandarinoriental.com
Franz Kafka Museum
Also on this side of the river is a museum celebrating the life and work of one of Prague’s most famous sons, writer Franz Kafka. Open since 2005, it charts the story from his childhood spent around the Old Town until his premature death from tuberculosis in 1924. Dimly lit rooms and foreboding soundscapes create Kafka’s stifling world and his conflicted relationship with the city of his birth – only in Kafka’s mind could an innocuous walk to school become a thing of nightmares.
Extensive documentation includes pages from his diaries, letters to lovers and documents from his university days and insurance job, while first editions of most of his books are also on show. It’s a fascinating journey and the innovative way the exhibits are displayed mean you don’t need to be a Kafka fan to enjoy it. Open 10am-6pm daily. Entry is Kc180 (£6). Hergetova Cihelna, Cihelna 2b; kafkamuseum.tyden.cz
Old Town Hall tower
Cross Charles Bridge, dodging the crowds and taking in the numerous statues that line it, and make your way into the heart of Prague, Old Town Square. The former marketplace is home to buildings such as the striking St Nicholas and Our Lady Before Tyn churches – take a peek at St Nicholas’s beautiful chandelier.
For excellent 360-degree views of the city’s landmarks, go up the tower of the Old Town Hall – it costs Kc100 (£3) to ascend. Come back down in time to enjoy the fun little performance that happens on the hour at the tower’s mind-bogglingly complicated Astronomical Clock – a landmark of the square since medieval times. As the hour strikes, Death rings his bell, a troubadour plays his horn, the 12 apostles parade above the clock face, and three figures depicting greed, vanity and the infidel shake their heads in defiance.
Not one museum but six sites – four preserved synagogues, a ceremonial hall and a cemetery – scattered around Josefov, the section of the Old Town that used to be the Jewish ghetto. Together they tell the history of the region’s Jewish people. Most of the country’s Jews perished during the Holocaust, and in Pinkas synagogue, the names of 80,000 victims are handwritten on the walls, recording simply their dates of birth and death. It’s a shattering sight. Upstairs is an exhibition of drawings by children sent to the Terezin ghetto, depicting their everyday lives.
Next to Pinkas is the Old Jewish Cemetery, where burials took place until 1787. There are some 12,000 tombstones here, all in different styles and jutting out of the ground at odd angles, and it’s estimated that up to ten layers of remains lie beneath the soil. Note that the sites can get very busy. Open daily except Saturdays and Jewish holidays, 9am-6pm (4.30pm in winter). Entry Kc480 (£16) for all sites. Visit jewishmuseum.cz
Lastly, head a short way east to Republic Square. Prague is home to many examples of fine architecture but Municipal House is hard to beat. Built at the start of the 20th century, the art nouveau building contains a collection of beautifully detailed rooms designed by the leading Czech artists of the day. Take a look at the grand Smetana Hall, where concerts take place regularly, and the Mayor’s Hall, covered in murals by Alphonse Mucha – if you like what you see, there is a museum dedicated to his work in the New Town (visit mucha.tyden.cz). Guided tours take place in English at least twice a day – check the website for timings. Entry is Kc270 (£9). Visit obecnidum.cz
Municipal House has two restaurants – one traditional, one fine-dining – but if coffee and cake is all you’re after, take a seat in the bright and friendly café and watch the world go by through its large windows. For something stronger, try Cloud Nine, the Hilton Prague’s sky bar, for great views and cocktails. It’s about ten minutes’ walk from here. Visit hilton.co.uk/prague
- Prague is known as the “City of 100 Spires” but in fact the figure is closer to 500.
- The Czechs drink more beer than anyone else, at about 160 litres per capita. Pils lager was invented here.
- Mala Strana, the Old Town and the New Town are all UNESCO sites.