Czechia—or the Czech Republic—is a “young nation,” formed after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. Situated in the heart of Europe, its history goes back more than 1,000 years. Through most of those years, it was known as Bohemia. Bursting with historic venues (including 16 World Heritage Sites) and dramatic landscapes, it is one of the most inspiring countries in Europe. The focus of our road trip was architecture and history, but if you have time its natural areas are overflowing with spectacular scenery.
Prague, the capital, known as “the golden city of a hundred spires,” is one of the finest cities in Eastern Europe. The architectural details of the historic old town, a UNESCO site, are many, with cobbled streets and tranquil courtyards. The meandering path of the Vltava River includes a sequence of bridges. The most well-known is the Charles Bridge (Karlův most). Tourists crowd the bridge most of the day except in the early morning hours. The stoic baroque statues gazing out on the river and the breathtaking views of the Vltava are unforgettable. Walks along the river front are particularly rewarding. So, too, are the small boat cruises that skim the coastline and offer fine views of the bridge and the changing landscapes. It is particularly memorable at sunset.
Some of the most interesting sites are within an hour’s walk of the Charles Bridge. The narrow streets and small taverns and restaurants of the older quarters are a great place to pick up lunch or dinner. At these taverns and others, you can appreciate some of the world’s most famous beers. The brews are often sold by the half liter.
The most visited site in Prague is the old town square. It has been the principle public square since the 10th century. The famous 15th century astronomical clock in the Old Town Hall looks down on the square. In addition to the time of day (and, with so much activity on the face of the clock, you have to study a bit to pick out the time), it shows the phases of the moon and each day’s special saints. On the hour, figures of the twelve apostles march above.
If you are tempted by art the Mucha Museum is here. Alphonse Mucha, a Czech artist is known for his decorative panels—portraits of women in the Art Nouveau style. Not in the museum is his masterpiece “The Slav Epic”—20 large paintings of the history of the Slavic people. As of this writing, they are on display in the town of Moravský Krumlov. The Epic is often on the move, and its ultimate destination is allegedly a purpose-built gallery in Prague. So, if you want to see them, check on their locale-du-jour. The Mucha has reproduced his original studio with original furniture and personal items. The National Gallery is also interesting, with work by Monet, Van Gogh, Miro, Renoir and Picasso. There is also some thought-provoking exterior art in public spaces. Sculptor David Černý, has a number of curious pieces around town, but one of his most memorable is his statues of giant crawling babies. There is also his Peeing Figures just to name two! Another very popular outdoor space is the graffiti styled Lennon Wall. Starting with a mural of John Lennon, the public have added their own touches of graffiti.
Also of historical interest is Wenceslas Square, which has been the scene of many historic events, such as the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 and the celebration of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918. The Jewish quarter is captivating and has an old cemetery with layers of gravestones. Legend maintains that the remains of The Golem—the 16th century clay statue brought to life by Rabbi Loew to protect the Jews in the quarter—is sealed in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue. The Synagogue complex is exquisite with well-crafted interiors.
Construction on the stunning Prague Castle grounds began in the 9th century. In it is the office of the president of the Czech Republic. The changing of the guards attracts many onlookers. The complex includes Saint Vitus Cathedral. Its construction began in the 14th century, and now includes an Art Nouveau stained glass window by Mucha. Getting to Prague Castle from the Charles Bridge is quite an uphill hike. We took a car to it and walked down. The observation tower at Petrin Hill is loaded with great views. You can walk up or take an elevator. The structure’s design looks like a mini Eiffel tower. It can be a bit crowded with tourists, but there are some amazing shots of town to be had on the platform.
Prague may be the very best city to experience Art Nouveau design in Europe. There are many diverse architectural design elements here. The Dancing House—so named for its unique shape—is a gem designed by Czech architect Vlado Milunić and Canadian American Frank Gehry in the 1990s. The building is affectionately nicknamed “Fred & Ginger” as—from the right angle it suggests Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in one of their dance routines.
We had a wonderful private tour through Viator tours. Da’ja, our guide, is so knowledgeable about the history, architecture and art of this fabulous, picturesque city. She even offered tips for other cities on our month-long odyssey in Eastern Europe. The drivers on the tour were excellent and efficient too!
We also thoroughly enjoyed the Airbnb apartment we rented, with stunning views of the bridge and the Vltava River located above a popular bookstore. (See a Room with a View)
From Prague, plenty of daytrips to architectural and nature wonders are possible. Kunta Hora is a short drive and is especially interesting if you enjoy medieval churches. The UNESCO site includes the historic center with the Church of St. Barbara and the Cathedral of Our Lady at Sedlec. Another well visited location is the Sedlec Abbey—an Ossuary, a Cistercian monastery containing skeletons of over 40,000 people. The bones are artfully displayed in shapes representing, pyramids, chandeliers and candelabras. Most were created by monks in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Cemetery Church is a part of the oldest Cistercian monastery in Bohemia, founded in 1142.
A longer day trip is to Český Krumlov, located about 110 miles from Prague in southern Bohemia. It is better to spend a couple of days there seeing the town and the villages that surround it. It is my favorite town in Czechia. Brimming with Renaissance and Baroque architecture, the town retains much of its 16th century character. Many European cities were damaged in World War II, and many modern buildings were built around their historic centers. Not so in Český Krumlov, whose medieval structures emerged unscathed. The town has the same the layout as when it was first founded. Like Prague, it is built along the Vltava River, and is Czechia’s second most visited city. The historic center of the town was designated a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site in 1992.
Highlights of this town are:
Český Krumlov Castle is the most important tourist attraction in the town. It dates to the 13th century and was renovated in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Baroque theater and the tower are highpoints. The climb up the narrow staircase in the round tower can trigger claustrophobia, but the panoramic views are worth the effort.
The Church of Saint Vitus (not to be confused with the cathedral in Prague) with its tall looming tower also offers a postcard perfect view of the town. The church was built in the Gothic style in the early 15th century.
Unity Square, the center of the Inner Town, is one of the most beautiful town squares in all of Czechia and Central Europe. It is lined with shops and restaurants, and features a Renaissance town-hall from the 16th century known for its gothic arcades. It also contains a striking “Marian plaque column.”
Latrán is another historic district beneath the castle. There are many Gothic and Renaissance buildings in this quarter, as well as buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. Many structures feature “sgraffito technique,” in which artists apply layers of plaster in multiple colors, then scratch through the layers to create a design with depth and color.
We found a wonderful place to stay which included views of town and the river and were provided an excellent, complimentary breakfast each day we stayed. (See a Room with a View)
There are also some short daytrips close by Český Krumlov to visit for lunch or to peruse their beautiful historic squares. Flanked by two picturesque fishponds and surround by rolling hills, Telc is an idyllic wonder. It is also a World Heritage site The main square is lined with pastel colored Italian Renaissance architecture. Another great stop near Český Krumlov is Trebon with the impressive Masarykovo square. The square is surrounded by burgher houses (a very early version of a townhouse) with Renaissance and Baroque facades as well as a stone fountain from 1589. Holašolvice, another World Heritage Site, is a rural treasure with well conserved medieval farmsteads which surround the peaceful village. Much of the town is built in a style known as South Bohemian Folk Baroque. Another architectural vision is a castle which is located in Hluboká nad Vltavou. Hluboká castle, which began in the 13th century, has been rebuilt several times over the centuries. It now exists in its final 19th century incarnation in the romantic style of Britain’s Windsor Castle.
There is so much to see in the Czech Republic that you could spend weeks here. If you are a nature lover and have time, don’t miss Krkonoše National Park, Bohemian Switzerland, or Šumava National Park!