Among the most well-preserved medieval cities in the world, Prague is a criminally underrated tourist attraction. Ancient stone buildings, extravagant churches and synagogues, and a resilient, industrious people give the city a rare kind of Old World charm. Stepping into the city is like stepping into the past. It’s not glamorous, but it is very real.
An ancient hotbed of artistic, literary, and architectural achievements, Prague hosted many of the world’s greatest creative minds throughout its history. Their works are still on display in much of the city today. Here are a few of the best attractions you cannot afford to miss:
1. The Astronomical Clock
Located in the center of Prague’s Old Town Square, the Astronomical Clock was once the stuff of science fiction. It charts the hour and minute, the month of the year, and the movements of the zodiac constellations as well as the phases of the moon. At each hour the clock chimes its various bells and figurines depicting various saints and apostles begin spinning in place. It’s not an impressive show by today’s standards, but try not to be too judgmental. A mechanism of this complexity was no mean feat for Prague’s ancient clockmakers, and it’s considered among the greatest works of its kind in the world.
Having said all that, Prague’s citizens consider it something of a nuisance today, as the clock’s courtyard is mobbed by tourists. It’s the beginning point of several free walking tours, however, which are run by extremely knowledgeable and entertaining volunteers. If a guided stroll through the city isn’t your speed, Old Town Square offers many bars, restaurants, and street performers eager to impress a discerning traveler.
2. The Charles Bridge
Spanning the Vltava River, the Charles Bridge once made Prague rich by bottlenecking trade routes through the city. According to legend, its construction was begun when Emperor Charles IV laid the first stone himself at precisely 5:31 AM on July 9th in 1357. He was a strong believer in numerology, and he felt that that particular combination of numbers would lend the bridge magical protection. Though the bridge has suffered through its fair share of floods, violence, and reconstruction, it’s still standing to this day. Who knows? Maybe Charles IV had the right idea.
Though the bridge is a bit crowded during the daytime, at night it offers some of the most beautiful views in the world. The city lights reflect off the river in a way that just begs to be photographed. Jewelers and painters offer their wares to passersby, but they’re not pushy and easy enough to ignore if you’re not interested. Take your time crossing over, and prepare to be amazed.
3. The Powder Gate
A tall, imposing structure of black stone, the Powder Gate marks the entry point into Prague’s historic Old Town district. It’s one of the prime examples of Gothic architecture in the world. Angels and saints hide in beautifully decorated alcoves along the Gate’s exterior, sporting gilded scepters and haloes. Castle lovers will find it a fun distraction if the hike up to the touristy Prague Castle doesn’t appeal.
Like much of Prague’s landmarks, the Powder Gate saw its fair share of hardship. It held off anti-Semitic rioters in its early days, and was used to store gunpowder in the 17th century, hence its name. You can climb up to the top for a modest fee and see the city from the a medieval person’s perspective (sans the street lights and advertisements, of course).
4. The Metronome
No stranger to oppressors, even the hearty citizens of Prague despaired under the rule of Stalin and the Soviet Union. In 1955, a huge stone statue of the man flanked by workers was erected on a plinth overlooking the city center. It was the largest group statue in Europe at the time.
It was taken down less than ten years later.
The plinth sat empty until 1991, when a newly-freed Prague placed a tall, working metronome upon it. Its large orange baton swings back and forth every few seconds, a promise from the Czech people that time will go on and they will endure.
The surrounding courtyard is a popular spot for skaters and graffiti artists, who are rarely shooed away. The idea seems to be that this courtyard which once held elite Communist oppressors now belongs to the common people. Visit the Metronome if you’d like to see Prague the way its people see it, horns and all.