The huge hilltop complex known collectively as Prague Castle (Prazský hrad), on Hradcanské námestí, encompasses dozens of houses, towers, churches, courtyards, and monuments. A visit to the castle can easily take an entire day, depending on how thoroughly you explore it. Still, you can see the top sights -- St. Vitus Cathedral, the Royal Palace, St. George's Basilica, the Powder Tower, and Golden Lane -- in the space of a morning or an afternoon.
Although the individual attractions are closed, you can also explore the castle complex at night, as it's generally lit until midnight, or make a return trip to see the fine collection of 19th-century Czech art exhibited in St. George's Convent (discussed later). The complex is always guarded and is safe to wander at night, but keep to the lighted areas of the courtyards just to be sure.
If you're feeling particularly fit, you can walk up to the castle, or you can take metro line A to Malostranská and then ride tram no. 22 two stops north to "Prazský hrad."
Tickets & Castle Information -- Tickets are sold at Prague Castle Information Centers located in the second and third courtyards after you pass through the main gate from Hradcanské námestí. The centers also sell useful hand-held audio guides (250Kc) to help you make sense of the sights and tickets for individual concerts and exhibits. The castle is located at Hradcanské námestí, Hradcany, Prague 1 (tel. 224-373-368; fax 224-310-896; www.hrad.cz). Admission to St. Vitus Cathedral and the grounds is free. Seeing the rest of the sights requires a combined-entry ticket. A full-price ticket gets you into the Old Royal Palace (including "The Story of Prague Castle" permanent exhibition), St. George's Basilica, the Powder Tower, Golden Lane, Daliborka Tower, and the Prague Castle Picture Gallery and costs 350Kc adults, 175Kc students. A cheaper ticket covers the Old Royal Palace, St. George's Basilica, Golden Lane, and Daliborka Tower and costs 250Kc adults, 125Kc students. Tickets are valid for 2 days. The castle is open daily 9am to 6pm (to 4pm Nov-Mar). Metro: Malostranská, then take tram no. 22 up the hill two stops.
Touring St. Vitus Cathedral (Chrám sv. Víta)
St. Vitus Cathedral (Chrám sv. Víta), named for a wealthy 4th-century Sicilian martyr, isn't just the dominant part of the castle, it's the most important section historically. In April 1997, Pope John Paul II paid his third visit to Prague in 7 years, this time to honor the thousandth anniversary of the death of 10th-century Slavic evangelist St. Vojtech. He conferred the saint's name on the cathedral along with St. Vitus's, but officially the Czech state calls it just St. Vitus.
Built over various phases beginning in A.D. 926 as the court church of the Premyslid princes, the cathedral has long been the center of Prague's religious and political life. The key part of its Gothic construction took place in the 14th century under the direction of Mathias of Arras and Peter Parlér of Gmünd. In the 18th and 19th centuries, subsequent baroque and neo-Gothic additions were made. The Golden Portal entrance from the third courtyard is no longer used; however, take a look above the arch. The 1370 mosaic The Last Judgment has been painstakingly restored with the help of computer-aided imagery provided by American art researchers.
As you enter the cathedral through the back entrance into the main aisle, the colored light streaming through the intricate stained-glass windows that rise to the Gothic ceiling above the high altar may dazzle you. Stained-glass windows painted by the Czech Republic's art nouveau master, Alfons Mucha, adorn the windows to your left above the third chapel from the entrance. The center windows, restored in the years after World War II, depict the Holy Trinity, with the Virgin Mary to the left and St. Wenceslas kneeling to the right.
Of the massive Gothic cathedral's 21 chapels, the St. Wenceslas Chapel (Svatováclavská kaple) stands out as one of Prague's few must-see, indoor sights. Midway toward the high altar on the right, it's encrusted with hundreds of pieces of jasper and amethyst and decorated with paintings from the 14th to the 16th centuries. The chapel sits atop the gravesite of Bohemia's patron saint, St. Wenceslas.
Just beyond this, the Chapel of the Holy Rood (Kaple sv. Kríze) leads to an underground royal crypt. In the early 1900s, the crypt was reconstructed, and the remains of the kings and their relatives were replaced in new sarcophagi. The center sarcophagus is the final resting place of Charles IV, the former emperor who died in 1378 and is the namesake of much of Prague. Charles's four wives are also buried here in one sarcophagus, and in front of them is George of Podebrady, the last Bohemian king, who died in 1471. Unfortunately, the crypts were closed to visitors in 2009 after someone vandalized them, and it wasn't clear at press time if they would reopen for 2010.
Continuing through the Castle Complex
For more than 700 years, beginning in the 9th century, Bohemian kings and princes resided in the Old Royal Palace (Starý královský palác), located in the third courtyard of the castle grounds. Vaulted Vladislav Hall (Vladislavský sál), the interior's centerpiece, hosted coronations and is still used for special occasions of state such as inaugurations of presidents. The adjacent Diet was where kings and queens met with their advisers and where the Supreme Court was held. From a window in the Ludwig Wing, where the Bohemia Chancellery met, the Second Defenestration took place. Since 2004, a new part of the permanent exhibition called "The Story of Prague Castle" has been presented within the Old Royal Palace. This project shows the transformation of the castle from the prehistoric period up to the present. For information and booking, contact tel. 224-373-102 (www.pribeh-hradu.cz). It is open daily from 9am to 5pm and the 90-minute presentation costs 140Kc adults, 70Kc students. The castle's tour ticket includes admission to this exposition as well.
St. George's Basilica (Bazilika sv. Jirí), adjacent to the Old Royal Palace, is Prague's oldest Romanesque structure, dating from the 10th century. It also houses Bohemia's first convent. No longer serving a religious function, the convent now contains the National Gallery's collection of 19th-century Czech art, which you should see on a separate visit if you have the time.
Inside the sparse and eerie basilica you will find relics of the castle's history along with a genealogy of those who have passed through it. If you look carefully at the outer towers, you'll notice that they're slightly different from each other: They have an Adam-and-Eve motif. The wider south tower represents Adam, while the narrower north tower is Eve.
Golden Lane (Zlatá ulicka) and Daliborka Tower is a picturesque street of tiny 16th-century houses built into the castle fortifications. Once home to castle sharpshooters, the houses now contain small shops, galleries, and refreshment bars. In 1917, Franz Kafka is said to have lived briefly at no. 22; however, the debate continues as to whether Kafka actually took up residence or just worked in a small office there.
The Prague Castle Picture Gallery (Obrazárna Prazského hradu) displays European and Bohemian masterpieces, but few are 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.
The Powder Tower (Prasná vez, aka Mihulka) forms part of the northern bastion of the castle complex just off the Golden Lane. Originally a gunpowder storehouse and a cannon tower, it was turned into a laboratory for the 17th-century alchemists serving the court of Emperor Rudolf II.
Light It Up: The Rolling Stones Give Satisfaction -- Are the lights flickering in Spanish Hall? If they are, someone might be playing with the remote control that operates the lighting.
In the summer of 1995, during the go-go '90s, the Rolling Stones played to a crowd of more than 100,000 people in their second Prague concert since the Velvet Revolution. After finishing, the Stones gave Václav Havel, then president and a big fan, a bright gift: They paid for a $32,000 overhaul of the lighting in four of the castle's grand halls, including the Spanish Hall and Vladislav Hall. The director and lighting designer of their record-breaking Voodoo Lounge Tour managed the project.
The result? Well, it's a somewhat more dignified spectacle than the raucous light show that was part of the mythical Voodoo Lounge Tour on stage. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ron Wood presented Havel with a remote control to operate the chandeliers and spotlights that now strategically cast their beams on baroque statues and tapestries.
Crossing the Vltava: Charles Bridge
Dating from the 14th century, Charles Bridge (Karluv most), Prague's most celebrated statue-studded structure, links Staré Mesto and Malá Strana. For most of its 600 years, the 510m-long (1,673-ft.) span has been a pedestrian promenade, though for centuries walkers had to share the concourse with horse-drawn vehicles and trolleys. These days, the bridge is filled to brimming with tourists, souvenir hawkers, portraitists, and the occasional busking musician in what feels like a 24/7 Mardi Gras celebration. In 2009, the crowding was made all the worse by the presence of scaffolding, as city authorities began a long-term project to clean and revitalize the bridge. Work is expected to continue into 2010. The bridge is still fully accessible, though the presence of modern construction equipment does mar the views somewhat.
The best times to stroll across the bridge are early morning and around sunset, when the crowds have thinned and the shadows are more mysterious.
A Bridge Tale -- Why has Charles Bridge stood for so long? One great yarn through the ages has it that when stones for the bridge were being laid, the master builders mixed eggs into the mortar to strengthen the bond. At the time of the bridge's construction, one village allegedly tried to impress Emperor Charles IV by sending him carts filled with hard-boiled eggs. The gift may have been a welcome snack for the builders, but likely did little to strengthen the mortar.
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.