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Walking Tour 3: Staré Mesto (Old Town)

Start: Municipal House (Obecní dum), at námestí Republiky.

Finish: Havel's Market (Havelský trh).

Time: Allow approximately 1 hour, not including any breaks or museum visits.

Best Times: Sunday to Thursday from 9am to 5pm and Friday from 9am to 2pm, when the museums and market are open.

Worst Times: Weekend afternoons when the crowds are thickest, Monday when the museums are closed, and after 6pm when the market is closed.

Staré Mesto, founded in 1234, was the first of Prague's original five towns. Its establishment was the result of Prague's growing importance along central European trade routes. Staré Mesto's ancient streets, most meandering haphazardly around Staromestské námestí, are lined with many stately buildings, churches, shops, and theaters.

Although this tour is far from exhaustive, it takes you past some of Old Town's most important buildings and monuments. Go to námestí Republiky 5, from the metro station of the same name. Begin at the:

1. Municipal House (Obecní dum)

One of Prague's most photographed cultural and historical monuments, the Municipal House was built between 1906 and 1911 with money raised by Prague citizens. In the spring of 1997, it reopened after a long reconstruction, and historians say that it has been returned faithfully to its original grandeur.

From the beginning, this ornate Art Nouveau building has been an important Czech cultural symbol -- the document granting independence to Czechoslovakia was signed here in 1918. The Prague Symphony performs in Smetana Hall, the building's most impressive room, with a gorgeous stained-glass ceiling. The detail of every decoration tells a story.

Inside you'll find a spacious period cafe, a French restaurant, and a Czech pub in the cellar with a fascinating ceramic still-life mural. Guided tours are offered most days (usually twice daily in the afternoon); buy tickets at the information center inside.

Facing the Municipal House main entrance, walk around to your left under the arch of the:

2. Powder Tower (Prasná brána, literally Powder Gate)

Once part of Staré Mesto's system of fortifications, the Powder Tower was built in 1475 as one of the walled city's major gateways. After New Town was incorporated into the City of Prague, the walls separating Old Town from the new section became obsolete. So did the Powder Tower, which was recommissioned as a gunpowder storehouse. Climb to the top for a better view of where you're going.

The tower marks the beginning of the Royal Route, the traditional path along which medieval Bohemian monarchs paraded on their way to being crowned in Prague Castle's St. Vitus Cathedral.

Continue through the arch down Celetná Street (named after calt, a bread baked here in the Middle Ages) to the corner of Ovocný trh, where you'll find the:

3. House at the Black Mother of God (Dum U Cerné Matky bozí)

At Celetná 34, this building is important for its cubist architectural style. Cubism, an angular artistic movement, was confined to painting and sculpture in France and most of Europe. As an architectural style, cubism is exclusive to Bohemia.

Constructed in 1912, this house features lots of jarring rectangular and triangular shapes that try to re-create in 3-D what cubism did for painting. The house is named for the Virgin Mary emblem on the corner of the building's second floor that was salvaged from the last building to stand on this site. There's also a small cubist museum to the left of the main entrance and around the corner is a sumptuous shop, Kubista, specializing in early Modern reproduction design and home furnishings.

With your back to the House of the Black Mother of God, cross Celetná and bear right to find a small passageway leading into Templová that begins just to the right of Celetná 27. Walk 2 short blocks, and turn left onto Jakubská. At the corner, on your right, you'll see:

4. St. James's Church (Kostel sv. Jakuba)

Prague's second-longest church contains 21 altars. When you enter, look up just inside the church's front door. The object dangling from above is the shriveled arm of a 16th-century thief.

With your back to the entrance of St. James Church, cross the street and turn left to find the small Týn passageway that starts just to the left of Malá Stupartská 5. Walk through the pretty courtyard of the former custom's house, the Ungelt, continuing straight through the second gate and up a small alleyway to the Old Town Square. Keep the Ungelt in mind for a future shopping trip as there are some great stores here. As you reach Old Town Square, turn left to find the entrance (at Staromestské námestí 14) to the:

5. Church of Our Lady Before Týn (Kostel paní Marie pred Týnem)

This is one of the largest and prettiest of Prague's many churches. Famous for its twin spires that loom over nearby Staromestské námestí, the church was closely connected to the 14th-century Hussite movement for religious reform. After Roman Catholics crushed the reformers, many of the church's Hussite symbols were removed, including statues, insignia, and the tower bells that were once known by Hussite nicknames. Note the tomb of Danish astronomer Tycho de Brahe (d. 1601), near the high altar.

Just in front of the church you can't miss the economic and spiritual heart of Prague's Old Town:

6. Old Town Square (Staromestské namestí)

Surrounded by baroque buildings and packed with colorful cafes, craftspeople, and entertainers, Staromestské námestí looks the way an old European square is supposed to look.

This square has long been a focal point of Czech history and politics. Since the city's inception it has served as a meeting place for commerce, from the simple bartering of the Middle Ages to the privatization deals of the 1990s.

Old Town Square has also seen its share of political protest and punishment. Protestant Hussites rioted here in the 1400s. In 1621, the Catholic Habsburg rulers beheaded 27 Protestants here and hung some of the heads in baskets above Charles Bridge. A small white cross has been embedded in the square near the Old Town Hall for each of the beheaded.

In the 20th century, the square witnessed a whirlwind of political change. In 1918, the Czechs celebrated the founding of the new sovereign Republic of Czechoslovakia here. But then in 1939, the Nazis celebrated their occupation of the country on the same site. The Soviets then celebrated kicking the Nazis out of Prague in 1945. But in 1968 the Russians rolled their tanks through Prague again, this time as unwelcome invaders.

In February 1948, Communist party leader Klement Gottwald led a celebration in honor of the Communist seizure of power. No wonder the Czechs chose nearby Wenceslas Square to celebrate the return of their government in 1989.

To begin your walk around the square, go straight toward the massive black stone monument in the center (at present undergoing a renovation). Here you'll find the statue of:

7. Jan Hus

Jan Hus was a fiery 15th-century preacher who challenged the Roman Catholic hierarchy and was burned at the stake for it. The statue's pedestal has been used as a soapbox by many a populist politician trying to gain points by associating himself with the ill-fated Protestant, although today you're more likely to find the international youth holding sway.

The struggle between the supporters of Hus, known as Hussites, set the stage for the religious wars that tore Bohemia apart in both the 15th and 17th centuries. The Hussite Church still lives today as the Protestant Czech Brethren, but since Communism its numbers have dwindled. Membership in the Catholic Church has also declined.

From here, turn around and walk left toward the clock tower.

8. Old Town Hall (Staromestská radnice)

Try to time your walk so you can pass the hall and its Astronomical Clock at the top of the hour. It's an understated show each hour where a mechanical parade of saints and sinners performs for the crowd watching below. If you have time and your knees are up to it, try making the steep, narrow walk up to the top of the tower for a picturesque view of Old Town's red roofs.

Walking past the right side of the clock tower toward the northwest corner of the square, past the crosses on the ground marking spot of the public executions of 27 Czech noblemen in 1621, you'll come to:

9. St. Nicholas Church (Kostel sv. Mikuláse)

This is the 1735 design of Prague's baroque master architect K. I. Dientzenhofer. The three-towered edifice isn't as beautiful or as ornate inside as his St. Nicholas Church in Lesser Town, but the crystal fixtures are worth a look. Like its namesake in Malá Strana, this church hosts expensive but high-quality concerts most afternoons. Tickets are sold at the door on the day of the performance.

From the front of the church, walk behind the back of the Hus monument, through the square, to the broad palace with the reddish roof and balcony in front. This is:

10. Kinský Palace (Palác Kinských)

From the rococo balcony jutting from the palace's stucco facade, Communist leader Klement Gottwald declared the proletariat takeover of the Czechoslovak government in February 1948. Italian architect Lurago originally designed the building for Count Goltz. It was later taken over by the Habsburg Prince Rudolf Kinský in 1768. Aside from the dubious distinction of providing a balcony for Comrade Gottwald, the Kinský Palace is famous as the site of Franz Kafka's father's haberdashery on the ground floor as well as being the former home of Baroness Bertha von Suttner, a secretary to Alfred Nobel of peace prize fame and herself the first female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.

Next to this is the:

11. House at the Stone Bell (Dum U kamenného zvonu)

The medieval Gothic tower was built in the 14th century for the father of Charles IV, John of Luxembourg. These days it often hosts high-quality art exhibits.

From here, head back toward Old Town Hall, but then about midway to the tower, turn left toward the square's south end, and begin walking down Zelezná. Continue down this car-restricted walking zone about 300m (984 ft.); then, on the left you'll see the pale green:

12. Estates' Theater (Stavovské divadlo)

Mozart premiered his opera Don Giovanni in this late-18th-century grand hall. More recently, director Milos Forman filmed many scenes in the story of the composer's life here.

Make sure to walk down Rytírská in front of the theater to get a full view of this beautifully restored building.

From the front of the theater, walk about 10 steps back up Zelezná and take the first left on Havelská.

Take a Break -- At Havelská 27, you can stop for a tasty pasta, lasagna, tiramisu, or thick Italian espresso at Kogo. There are tightly packed tables inside, but if the weather is nice, you can sit in the more comfortable archway. Hours are daily from 9am to 11pm. Salads and appetizers start at 180Kc, and you won't be disappointed by their homemade pasta (from around 200Kc).

Continue down Havelská. On the left you'll see:

13. Czech Savings Bank (Ceská sporitelna)

After serving as the museum to late Communist party leader Klement Gottwald, the large neo-Renaissance building with statue inlays is once again a bank. The 1894 building was originally intended to be a bank, but after the 1948 coup it was seized by the government and turned into a repository for Communist propaganda. After the 1989 revolution, the building was returned to the bank, which restored the intricate friezes and frescoes depicting bankers' propaganda of early Czech capitalism. This is the largest Czech savings bank and worth a peek.

Your next destination is the popular street market that overtakes the remainder of Havelská Street. Simply continue on to:

14. Havel's Market (Havelský trh)

At this popular local meeting place, you'll find vegetables, fruit, drinks, soaps, toiletries, and an assortment of souvenirs. Prices here are generally lower than in most shops. Have fun browsing.

The nearest metro is Mustek, line A or B.

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.