Prague is such an interesting city with abundant architectural, art and historical riches that it warrants several days or multiple visits to do it justice. It is a wonderful place to explore on foot as well as by tram and that is when you find it really rewarding. Although this beautiful and ancient city has a reputation for attracting big crowds during the long tourist season, they tend to settle on a few sites such as the Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle.
That said, even the immensely popular St Vitus Cathedral has lulls in crowds; it is certainly one of the premier destinations. Apart from being a major medieval cathedral (built over several centuries and not completed until 1929), it also contains splendid furnishings and fittings, notably a spectacular late-baroque silver tomb for St John of Nepomuk, designed by Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach and made in Vienna (1733–36), and fine early twentieth-century Czech stained-glass windows, including one by Alfons Mucha (1931).
The Old Royal Palace nearby contains one of the finest Gothic halls to survive, the Vladislav Hall, with magnificent vaulting, and the famous room from which two Catholics were defenestrated in 1618 into the dung heap below, the trigger that lead to the Thirty Years’ War (1618–38), one of the bloodiest periods of conflict in European history.
The best way to avoid the oppressive crowds on the Charles Bridge is to cross it first thing in the morning, or simply enjoy the view of it from one of the river banks, the other, newer bridges, or from a tram.
Step into a museum or art gallery, though, or venture one block from the key sites and main thoroughfares, and you will have the place pretty much to yourself. Even the castle precinct has peaceful, less populous sections. The Treasury of St Vitus, with dazzling examples of the goldsmith’s art from the medieval period to the eighteenth century, is outstanding and superbly displayed in the Chapel of the Holy Rood. Also in the castle are some remnants of paintings and sculptures from the former collections of Prague’s greatest collector, Rudolph II (1552–1612), most attractively presented in the Prague Castle Gallery.
The Lobkowicz Palace holds the Lobkowicz collections, one of the few old princely European collections to remain pretty much intact, most of it having been returned to the family since 1991. While endless portraits of the Lobkowiczes may pall after a while, the family’s story and rise to power during the time of the splendidly named Polyxena and her husband, Zdeněk Vojtěch, the first Prince Lobkowicz, during the Thirty Years’ War, is fascinating. A powerful catholic family, they backed the Habsburgs and were rewarded amply for it. The collections, which include paintings, furniture, ceramics, metalwork, textiles, music and musical instruments, and weapons, are displayed in a most attractive low-key manner in a sequence of rooms over two floors. In addition to a major painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Haymaking (1565), there is an outstanding pair of London Thames scenes (1746–47) by Canaletto.
From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, the Lobkowiczes were major music patrons. Gluck’s father was a forester for the Lobkowiczes and his son’s musical talents led him to the Lobkowicz orchestra in Vienna and the career that followed. The seventh Prince Lobkowicz has the distinction of being the dedicatee of Beethoven’s Third, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and several other works by the composer. The collection has scores and manuscripts by Handel, Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart, as well as Beethoven. The Lobkowicz Palace offers some of the finest views over Prague, from both terraces and its most pleasant café.
The National Gallery Prague has a vast collection with works of art from European antiquity to the present day. This is not a collection of masterpiece upon masterpiece, but careful and selective viewing is most rewarding. The collection is displayed by period and distributed among several buildings in different parts of the city, so a tour of the Czech national art collections by necessity becomes a city tour and an architectural tour. The key collection to visit is the Sternberg Palace, for the pilgrimage to one of Albrecht Dürer’s most famous and best documented paintings. The surface of the Feast of the Rose Garlands may have seen better days, but it is not to be missed. It was originally painted for San Bartolommeo in Venice in 1506 and Dürer himself wrote of the painting:
My picture if you must know, says it would give a ducat for you to see it; it is well painted and beautifully coloured, I have earned much praise but little profit by it …. And I have stopped the mouths of all the painters who used to say that I was good at engraving but, as to painting, I didn’t know how to handle my colours. Now everyone says they have never seen more beautiful colours.
Rudolph II was a great admirer and collector of Dürer’s works. The Emperor bought the painting and had it carried across the Alps to Prague. Other artists to enjoy in the Sternberg Palace are Dürer’s famous pupil Hans Baldung Grien, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Marten van Heemskerck, Bronzino, Rubens, and Rembrandt. The palace also has a beautiful secluded garden and a charming new café.
On the other side of the Castle Square, opposite the Sternberg Palace, is the Schwarzenberg Palace, home to the collections of Bohemian baroque paintings and sculpture and the armoury. The sculptures of the Bohemian baroque are first rate, brilliantly modelled and sculpted, and the paintings, by lesser-known artists, include fine religious subjects and portraits. The armoury is displayed in the top floor of the building, in the attic. With even a sketchy knowledge of the conflicts in the region, especially the Thirty Years’ War, it warrants a visit. In addition to the weapons that caused mayhem, destruction and bloodshed, there are numerous historic images depicting battles, the most famous being the Battle of White Mountain (a decisive win for the Catholic Habsburgs over the Bohemian Protestants), under seven kilometres away, in 1620.
A walk downhill from the Castle area via a long staircase on the river side avoids the popular Nerudova Street and leads through unrestored buildings and embassies to the Waldstein Palace, seat of government, with splendid formal gardens that are open to the public.
Beyond central Prague, one of the more delightful places to visit is the Troja Palace, conveniently situated on a bus service that leads to the Zoo, which is opposite. The Troja Palace, built from 1697 as a summer residence for Count Wenzel Adalbert of Sternberg, has a monumental external staircase that leads from the formal gardens to the main hall. This magnificent double-height hall is the main reason to visit the Palace. It is completely frescoed, with scenes depicting the triumph of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I over the Turks. (Before visiting this palace it is worth confirming that it is open, for it is subject to temporary closures for events. On my first attempt to get there I was greeted with a temporary sign fixed to the gates that read in language worthy of Kafka: Today is the Castle closed.)
If a church door is open in Prague, it warrants entering, just to experience the rich variety of ecclesiastical architecture and interiors. Among the many churches in Prague, three main ones, apart from St Vitus’s Cathedral, are Church of Our Lady before Týn (Gothic with baroque fittings) and St Jacob (Gothic with a late baroque interior), both in the Old Town, and St Nicholas in the Lesser Town (a late baroque masterpiece built during the first half of the eighteenth century by father and son Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer).
Prague is one of the best cities for art nouveau architecture. The finest art nouveau building is Municipal House (Obecní dům), built between 1906 and 1911. This architectural Gesamtkunstwerk houses a concert hall, council rooms, a restaurant, a café and a beer hall. It was a collaborative work in which decoration was undertaken by several Czech artists, including Alfons Mucha whose eponymous museum in the New Town should not be missed. Prague is also a city where restaurants with superb art nouveau interiors, such as Francouzska (opened 1912) in Municipal House and the Café Imperial (1914), serve very good food. (It helps if you order carefully and are a carnivore.)
The best single place for an architectural tour of fine buildings that cover late nineteenth-century historicism, art nouveau and twentieth-century modernism is Wenceslas Square which is dominated by the immense historicist National Museum (1885–90) at the top end. The dilapidated Grand Hotel Europa (1903–05) is the art nouveau classic in this stretch. Other buildings to look at are the Koruna Palace (1911–14) with its splendid arcade and great dome and no. 19, the insurance company building, where Franz Kafka was first employed. One of the best ways to see the range and scale of Prague’s late nineteenth-century architecture, and indeed the whole city, is also by using the excellent public transport system.
While Prague is famed for its renaissance and baroque buildings it is also a city to visit for twentieth-century modernism. The National Gallery’s nineteenth and twentieth-century collection is displayed in the immense Trade Fair Palace. This huge modernist construction, built in 1926–28 for exhibitions and renovated during the 1980s and 1990s, now houses the permanent collection of Czech and other European art and changing exhibitions from the collection. Not surprisingly, given the Habsburg domination of Bohemia until 1918, this collection also houses fine examples of Viennese modernism (paintings by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, plus objects from the Wiener Werkstätte bought when they were new).
There is even an Australian connections of sorts, as the collection contains a drawing by Klimt of Hermine Gallia. She was the subject of a portrait by the artist, now in the collection of the Tate Gallery, which came to Australia with the Josef Hoffmann furnishings from the Gallia’s Vienna apartment when her descendants left following the Anschluss in 1938.
The Museum of Decorative Arts has splendid holdings of modernist Czech design, superbly displayed. It is home to the archive of Czech documentary photographer Josef Koudelka, famed internationally for his images of the Prague Spring. The Museum of Decorative Arts is a grand late-nineteenth-century renaissance-revival edifice worth entering for the staircase alone. It is opposite the Rudolfinum (1876–84), Prague’s superb concert hall.
Prague’s fine examples of twentieth-century modernist architecture are not limited to public buildings. Its most famous domestic example is the Villa Müller (1928–30), designed by Brno-born Vienna-based architect Adolph Loos. The exterior is a flat-roofed modernist box, and the interior is the finest surviving domestic interior by the architect. A visit to Loos’s birthplace Brno (just over 200 km from the capital; the train leaves from the main railway station, itself another splendid art nouveau building) will take in Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat (1929–30), which is also open as a public museum. Both houses need to be booked well in advance to be sure of gaining entry. They are also subject to closures at short notice.
These are just a number of examples of what Prague has to offer the cultural traveller. If you are planning a visit or thinking of joining a tour, there are many guidebooks and much travel literature available on Prague to cover shorter and longer stays. Prague: The Architecture Guide (2013) by Chris van Uffelen and Markus Golser, on the city’s rich architectural heritage, is up to date and informative. Happy travels!
Christopher Menz is a former art museum director and curator and has been leading cultural tours in Europe, the United States and Australia since 2013. He has expertise and interest in the visual arts and music. Christopher has a BA (Hons) from Flinders University. He is a former director of the Art Gallery of South Australia. Before that he was a curator, specialising in decorative arts, and worked at the National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of South Australia, and National Gallery of Victoria. He has published and lectured extensively on Australian and European decorative arts, notably on the design work of William Morris, and curated numerous exhibitions. Christopher is based in Melbourne where he is an art consultant and valuer, and Development Consultant for Australian Book Review.