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Walking Tour 2: Prague Castle

Start: The castle's front entrance, at Hradcanské námestí.

Finish: Daliborka Tower.

Time: Allow approximately 2 1/2 hours, not including rest stops.

Best Times: Weekdays from 9am to 5pm (to 4pm Nov-Mar).

Worst Times: Weekends, when the crowds are thickest.

The history and development of Prague Castle and the city of Prague are inextricably entwined; it's impossible to envision one without the other. Popularly known as the "Hrad," Prague Castle dates to the second half of the 9th century, when the first Czech royal family, the Premyslids, moved their seat of government here. Settlements on both sides of the Vltava developed under the protection of the fortified castle. Keep in mind as you are touring the castle that to enter most of the sites requires a combined-entry ticket that you can buy at one of two information centers in the castle courtyards. The good news is that entry into St. Vitus Cathedral is free, though the lines are often very long. It's possible to buy cheaper separate entry tickets to visit the Picture Gallery at Prague Castle and the National Gallery's Museum of 19th Century Czech Art in the Convent of St. George if you're not interested in visiting anything else. The Lobkowicz Palace's "Princely Collections," unfortunately, requires a separate entry ticket and is not included among the sites on the combined Prague Castle ticket.

Begin your tour from the castle's front entrance at Hradcanské námestí. Walk through the imposing rococo gateway, topped by the colossal Battling Giants statues (1911 copies of 18th-c. granite works), to the:

1. First Castle Courtyard (První hradní nádvorí)

An informal changing of the guard occurs here daily on the hour. It involves only five guards doing little more than some impressive heel clicking and rifle twirling. The guards wore rather drab khaki outfits until 1989, when Václav Havel asked costume designer Theodor Pistek, who costumed the actors in the film Amadeus, to redress them. Their smart blue outfits are reminiscent of those worn during the First Republic.

Directly ahead is the:

2. Matthias Gateway (Matyásova brána)

Built in 1614 as a freestanding gate, it was later incorporated into the castle itself. The gateway bears the coats of arms of the various lands ruled by Emperor Matthias. Once you pass through it, you'll see a stairway on the right leading to the staterooms of the president of the republic. They're closed to the public.

The gateway leads into the Second Castle Courtyard (Druhé hradní nádvorí). Ahead, on the eastern side of the square, is the:

3. Holy Rood Chapel (Kaple sv. Kríze)

Originally constructed in 1763, this chapel was redesigned in 1856. The chapel is noted for its high-altar sculpture and ceiling frescoes.

On the western side of the courtyard is the opulent:

4. Spanish Hall (Spanelský sál)

This hall was built in the late 16th century. During 1993 restorations, officials at the castle discovered a series of 18th-century trompe l'oeil murals that lay hidden behind the mirrors lining the hall's walls.

Adjoining the Spanish Hall is the:

5. Rudolf Gallery (Rudolfova galerie)

This official reception hall once housed the art collections of Rudolf II. The last remodeling of this space -- rococo-style stucco decorations -- occurred in 1868.

On the northern side of the square is the:

6. Picture Gallery of Prague Castle (Obrazárna Prazského hradu)

Containing both European and Bohemian masterpieces, the gallery holds few works from the original imperial collection, which was virtually destroyed during the Thirty Years' War. Of the works that have survived from the days of Emperors Rudolf II and Ferdinand III, the most celebrated is Hans von Aachen's Portrait of a Girl (1605-10), depicting the artist's daughter.

A covered passageway leads to the Third Castle Courtyard (Tretí hradní nádvorí), dominated by the splendid:

7. St. Vitus Cathedral (Chrám sv. Víta)

Begun in 1334, under the watchful eye of Charles IV, Prague's most celebrated Gothic cathedral has undergone three serious reconstructions. The tower galleries date from 1562, the baroque onion roof was constructed in 1770, and the entire western part of the cathedral was begun in 1873. The whole thing was only finished in 1929.

Before you enter, notice the facade, decorated with statues of saints. The bronze doors are embellished with reliefs; those on the central door depict the construction history of the cathedral. The door on the left features representations from the lives of St. Adalbert (on the right) and St. Wenceslas (on the left).

Inside the cathedral's busy main body are several chapels, coats of arms of the city of Prague, a memorial to Bohemian casualties of World War I, and a Renaissance-era organ loft with an organ dating from 1757.

According to legend, St. Vitus died in Rome but was then transported by angels to a small town in southern Italy. Since his remains were brought here in 1355, Vitus, the patron saint of Prague, has remained among the most popular saints in the country. Numerous Czech Catholic churches have altars dedicated to him.

The most celebrated chapel, on your right, is the:

8. Chapel of St. Wenceslas (Svatováclavská kaple)

The chapel is built atop the saint's tomb. A multitude of polished semiprecious stones decorates the chapel's altar and walls. Other spaces are filled in with 14th-century murals depicting Christ's sufferings and the life of St. Wenceslas.

Below the church's main body is the:

9. Royal Crypt (Královská krypta)

The crypt contains the sarcophagi of kings Václav IV, George of Podebrady, Rudolf II, and Charles IV and his four wives. The tomb was reconstructed in the early 1900s, and the remains of the royalty were placed in new encasements. Charles's four wives share the same sarcophagus. Visitor access to the crypts, unfortunately, was suspended in 2009 due to vandalism and it wasn't clear as this book was being researched when the crypts would reopen.

Exit the cathedral from the same door you entered and turn left into the courtyard, where you'll approach the:

10. Monolith (Monolit)

The marble obelisk measuring over 11m (36 ft.) tall is a memorial to the victims of World War I. Just behind it is an equestrian statue of St. George, a Gothic work produced in 1373.

Continue walking around the courtyard. In the southern wall of St. Vitus Cathedral, you'll see a ceremonial entrance known as the:

11. Golden Gate (Zlatá brána)

The tympanum over the doorway is decorated with a 14th-century mosaic, The Last Judgment, which has been carefully restored, bit by bit. The doorway's 1950s-era decorative grille is designed with zodiac figures.

An archway in the Third Castle Courtyard connects St. Vitus Cathedral with the:

12. Royal Palace (Královský palác)

Until the second half of the 16th century, this was the official residence of royalty. Inside, to the left, is the Green Chamber (Zelená svetnice), where Charles IV presided over minor court sessions. A fresco of the court of Solomon is painted on the ceiling.

The adjacent room is:

13. Vladislav Hall (Vladislavský sál)

This ceremonial room has held coronation banquets, political assemblies, and knightly tournaments. Since 1934, elections of the president of the republic have taken place here below the exquisite 12m (39-ft.), rib-vaulted ceiling.

At the end of Vladislav Hall is a door giving access to the:

14. Ludwig Wing (Ludvíkovo krídlo)

In this wing, built in 1509, you'll find two rooms of the Chancellery of Bohemia (Ceská kancelár), once the administrative body of the Land of the Crown of Bohemia. When the king was absent, Bohemia's nobles summoned assemblies here. On May 23, 1618, two hated governors and their secretary were thrown out of the eastern window of the rear room. This act, known as the Second Defenestration, marked the beginning of the Thirty Years' War.

A spiral staircase leads to the:

15. Chamber of the Imperial Court Council (Rísská dvorská rada)

The chamber met here during the reign of Rudolf II. In this room the 27 rebellious squires and burghers who fomented the defenestration were sentenced to death. Their executions took place on June 21, 1621, in Staromestské námestí. All the portraits on the chamber walls are of Habsburgs. The eastern part of Vladislav Hall opens onto a terrace from which there's a lovely view of the castle gardens and the city.

Also located in the palace is the:

16. Old Diet (Stará snemovna)

The Provincial Court once assembled here. It's interesting to notice the arrangement of the Diet's furniture, which is all centered on the royal throne. To the sovereign's right is the chair of the archbishop and benches for the prelates. Along the walls are seats for the federal officials; opposite the throne is a bench for the representatives of the Estates. By the window on the right is a gallery for the representatives of the royal towns. Portraits of the Habsburgs adorn the walls.

Stairs lead down to St. George's Square (námestí Svatého Jirí), a courtyard at the eastern end of St. Vitus Cathedral. If the weather is nice, you might want to:

Take a Break -- Cafeteria U Kanovníku, in the courtyard between St. Vitus and St. George's (námestí Sv. Jirí 3), has a terrace garden with tables, where you can enjoy light fare and hot Czech food. They offer coffee for 60Kc and great chicken wraps for 120Kc daily from 10am to 5pm.

This square is dominated by:

17. St. George's Basilica (Bazilika sv. Jirí) & the Convent of St. George (Kláster sv. Jirí)

Benedictine nuns founded the convent in A.D. 973. In 1967, the convent's premises were acquired by the National Gallery, which now uses the buildings to display its interesting collection of 19th-century Czech art.

Leave the basilica and continue walking through the castle compound on Jirská Street, the exit at the southeastern corner of St. George's Square. About 60m (197 ft.) ahead on your right (at no. 3) is the entrance to:

18. Lobkowicz Palace (Lobkovický palác)

This relatively recently reconstructed 16th-century manor now houses the "Princely Collections Exhibition," a gallery devoted exclusively to the Lobkowicz family collections, including some old masters paintings, original scores by Beethoven, and fine musical instruments. Note that entry to this museum requires a separate ticket and is not included on the combined Prague Castle entrance ticket.

Take a Break -- Even if you don't decide to spring for the admittedly pricey admission to see the "Princely Collections," be sure to take a meal here inside the palace, which offers easily the best food and best views in the entire castle complex. You can have just a coffee and cake or a full Czech repast with all the goulash and dumplings you care to eat. In nice weather sit in the courtyard or, better, inside on the terrace overlooking Malá Strana. The views are as good as or even better than the food. It's open daily from 9am to 5pm.

Opposite Lobkowicz Palace is:

19. Burgrave's Palace (Nejvyssí purkrabství)

This 16th-century building, now considered the House of Czech Children, is used for cultural programs and exhibitions aimed toward children.

Walk up the steps to the left of Burgrave's Palace or, if these are closed, head back up in the direction of St. George's and take the first right to find tiny:

20. Golden Lane (Zlatá ulicka)

This picturesque street of 16th-century houses built into the castle fortifications was once home to castle sharpshooters. The charm-filled lane now contains small shops, galleries, and refreshment bars. Franz Kafka supposedly lived at no. 22 for a brief time in 1917.

Turn right on Golden Lane and walk to the end, where you'll see:

21. Daliborka Tower (Daliborka)

This tower formed part of the castle's late Gothic fortifications dating from 1496. The tower's name comes from Squire Dalibor of Kozojedy, who in 1498 became the first unlucky soul to be imprisoned here. One Dalibor legend, immortalized in an opera by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, has it that Dalibor learned to play the violin in prison and charmed the citizens of Prague who used to stand below the tower and listen to him play.

Turn right at Daliborka Tower, then left, and go through the passageway and down Jirská Street. Here, at no. 6, you can visit the:

22. Toy Museum

Especially appreciated by children, this museum unsurprisingly holds a permanent exhibition of toys. Wooden and tin toys are on display here along with a collection of Barbie dolls.

Follow the main street downhill and walk through the lower castle gate to see a stunning panorama of Malá Strana and the Old Town across the river. From here you have two choices for reaching the Malostranská station on line A of Prague's metro. Make a right and follow the old castle steps (Staré zámecké schody) or bear slightly to the left for a more scenic journey through some restored vineyards and several more cafes and restaurants.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.