Prague, in the Czech Republic, has long been known to most people as being one of the prettiest and cheapest places to go for a weekend away in Europe.
A pint of beer is around 80 cents, an entire dinner is around 6€, and almost everywhere you go it’s just beautiful. <3 <3
But this tunnel vision view of Prague (and the Czech Republic, in fact) really does a huge disservice to the rich and complex history of the country and the people that live there.
Czech people are some of the most resilient, hard-working, and many times betrayed people in Europe, but yet they still offer the warmest welcome to all foreign visitors, no matter where they come from.
I’ve been to Prague twice; the first time I made friends with a couple of the locals and had a good time, whilst the second time I met up again with the same local guys and instead of us partying and dancing like we did the first time, they gave us the real history of Prague and told us facts that you wouldn’t hear from your average tour guide.
And now I’m sharing them with you!
John Lennon became a hero for many young Czechs after his murder in 1980. Years and years of the country being oppressed by a communist government (and various other policies and restrictions imposed over time via the Eastern Bloc, Russian involvement and the Nazis), made the Czech people value peace and respect for all citizens over loss of free speech, restriction of movement, and war.
As a sign of political protest, and their deepened support for anti-war ideology, John Lennon’s face was painted on the wall after his death, alongside various political messages of protest and support for his ideas. Western pop music was actually banned by the Communists for many years but the Czechs continued to resist.
There have been continued attempts to whitewash the wall over the years but it’s been impossible to maintain as the graffiti just keeps popping up. So basically… they gave up 😛 …and it remains colourful to this day.
Nowadays it doesn’t really have the same “aim” persay as communism is over in the Czech Republic and political tensions seem to have eased, but the sentiments remain the same. The wall is a place for people all over the world to come together.
In 2014 a local protest arts group whitewashed the wall after declaring that there was nothing left on it that was actually related to politics, protest or art, leaving the message, “Wall Is Over“. The locals ignored them, turned the statement into, “War Is Over” and continued to paint and graffiti like they always had.
Where: Malá Strana ★ Nearest metro: Malostranská (Metro A) ★ FREE
Charles Bridge, named after King Charles IV, is the oldest bridge in Prague, finished at the beginning of the 15th century. It was the only way to cross the Vltava River until 1841, making it an important route for access to the castle, and also for European trade.
The bridge has been the scene of many fights over the centuries, from the Battle of White Mountain in 1621 where the the severed heads of the Czech’s who dared to revolt against the new King Frederick V were displayed on the Old Town bridge tower (ew), to the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 where the bridge was so heavily damaged that many of the gothic statues had to be removed.
Over the years the bridge has been continually damaged by water and flooding, and conservation work on the bridge has been heavily criticised due to (in short) the shoddy nature of the work.
With stones and bricks that don’t match, placed in all directions, and not matching the original stone (and various originals chipped in the process) the UNESCO World Heritage Committee ruled that, “the restoration of Charles Bridge was carried out without adequate conservation advice on materials and techniques“.
In 1965 the original statues were replaced by replicas, whilst the originals were put in the Lapidarium of the National Museum (a part of the Czech National Museum that houses important and valuable stone sculptures).
In the beginning of the 20th century it was possible to take a bus or electric tram across the bridge (and before that a horse tram) but all vehicle traffic has now been banned. Now it’s pedestrian-only, and most days you’ll find people painting pictures, selling souvenirs and taking photos against the beautiful view.
Arguably the best time to see the bridge is super-early, just before the sun rises. The bridge looks like something out of a fantasy film, all hazy and dreamy… and there are no tourists. That’s if you can wake up early enough…!
Where: Between Můstek & Malá Strana ★ Nearest metro: Staromestska (Metro A) ★ FREE
I’ll try to keep the history of Wenceslas Square brief, even though it’s true details could (and have) filled countless books!!
It’s history dates back hundreds of years but in the last 100 years alone the square has seen so much happen (get ready for lots of reading!).
One of the biggest events occurred in 1939, when Hitler was permitted to invade the country of Czechoslovakia with his troops.
As the Nazi’s marched into the centre of Prague the Czech people fought as best they could, showing their anger and upset by throwing snowballs, protesting and singing the national anthem as loud as they could.
The details are extremely complex but the simple explanation for Hitler entering Czechoslovakia (now known as the Czech Republic) in this way is that Czech was betrayed by it’s allies (including the UK and France) who signed a treaty with various other countries behind Czech’s back (as Czechoslovakia wasn’t invited to the discussions), allowing Hitler to enter.
Why? Well, Hitler was convinced that German nationals living in Czech were being treated badly, and he used this as a reason to enter and take certain parts of Czech under his control. Most Germans in Czech lived on the border (an area coined Sudetenland by the Germans).
However, the area known as Sudetenland was extremely important to finance and business in Czech, so once the Nazi’s took control of it, it had huge negative impacts on the Czech economy and way of life.
The countries who signed the treaty (known as the Munich Agreement) were intent on avoiding war, so allowed Hitler to enter in order to avoid this as an outcome.
This history is still felt intensely by the Czech people who feel very strongly about the mistreatment they suffered at the hands of Germany, and there is ongoing resentment towards the countries that sold them out by signing the Munich Agreement.
In addition to this, student Jan Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union in 1968 (another long and awful story in Czech history), of which there is a memorial dedicated to him in front of the Czech National Museum. He died 3 days later in hospital.
This also ties in with the history of the Lennon Wall (read above!).
This 21-year old philosophy student wanted to shock the Czech people out of apathy towards injustice and stir resistance… and died in the process. He is hailed a hero by the Czech people.
I REALLY recommend you read this page to fully understand what it was like for Czech people under Nazi rule. They suffered so much yet showed such strength and resilience.
Firstly, Wenceslas Square is not actually a square, it’s actually more of a long rectangle shape 😉
Dotted all along the square are shops, department stores, cafés and various mini food kiosks selling sausages and other Czech deliciousness (most of which I can’t eat because I’m vegetarian 😉 ). However, it’s also the main centre for all demonstrations, protests, celebrations and public gatherings.
Sadly, Wenceslas Square is well-known for being a good stag-do destination, mainly because there are so many strip clubs on the Square (for non-Europeans reading: in England and various European countries a husband-to-be will have a night or weekend of celebration with his closest male friends as a way of saying goodbye to his “single life”, many of which traditionally involve strip clubs). When the Czech people were protesting Communist rule in Wenceslas Square, a speaker pulled out a pair of keys and shook them, shouting that the Communists should get in their cars and go home. The entire crowd followed suit… imagine thousands of people in a square all shaking their keys together!!
Where: New Town ★ Nearest metro: Muzeum (Metro A & C) ★ FREE
The Baroque Library is situated in the Klementinum (Clementinum in English) which is a complex of buildings which used to be a school run by the Jesuits after their arrival in Bohemia in 1556.
In 1653 they started to expand their premises, and thanks to construction taking over 170 years to complete (!!) you’ll find a huge variety of different architectural styles within the complex.
Perhaps the most famous part of the Klementinum, besides the Meridian Hall and the Astronomical Clock is the old Baroque-style library. Opened in 1722 (it’s old!!), it has over 20,000 books, mostly foreign.
They have been added to the library since the beginning of the 17th century so you can only imagine how old and valuable these amazing books are. Also the interior of the library has remained intact since the 18th century so everything you see has literally been this way for hundreds of years.
Nowadays the library is of such historical importance and so delicate that you cannot enter unless you work there. Guided tours take place in which you can look into the library from the outside of the door and take photos only without flash.
Looking in is really an incredible experience… this library that has existed for so many hundreds of years, not changing in appearance, holding thousands of valuable books… it is mind-blowing.
The library is now offering some very old Czech books to Google for digitisation, which means you’ll soon be able to read them online.The globes standing in the middle of the library are just as old as the library itself. They were created in the 17th century, mostly by mechanic Jan Klein.
Where: Old Town ★ Nearest metro: Staromestska (Metro A) ★ FREE
This incredible clock is from the medieval times; that is to say, the oldest part of the clock was actually made in 1410. Around 1490 the other features, such as the dial, were added, and the clock was decorated with gothic decorations. To think that we are still standing here looking at it now in 2018… blows my mind.
It was designed to aid medieval astronomy, with the background representing the Earth and sky. The four other parts, which actually move, include representations of the sun and the moon.Today the clock is one of the biggest symbols of Prague… it’s something tourists flock to see in their thousands.
It really is crazy to think how much history has happened in the square below the clock, including the Nazis attempting to destroy the Town Hall and the clock with shells during World War II (and half-succeeding). The clock was repaired after the damage done.
There is a local legend that if the clock is not maintained and looked after, the city will suffer from bad fortune. There is actually a ghost on the clock which is there to signify this by nodding it’s head in affirmation of the fact.
Where: Old Town ★ Nearest metro: Staromestska (Metro A) ★ FREE
Prague Castle dates back to the 9th Century!!
Yes, that’s right, it’s older than probably any other architecture you’ve ever seen (except perhaps the city of Pompeii 😉 ).
That means the castle has seen some serious history happen in and around it’s walls, including Hitler standing in there surveying it like a cat who got the cream, thinking he was really reaping the rewards of invading the country (nice try Hitler, the Czech people are way too resilient to let you and your Nazi’s win that one).
When Hitler moved one of his chief Holocaust organisers, Reinhard Heydrich (known as The Butcher for all the murders he committed against the Czech people) into the castle, the Czech Government organised two soldiers (one Czech, one Slovak) to kill him.
They parachuted into Prague, cycled to Vychovatelna Crossroad where Heydrich sat in his car, and proceeded to shoot and throw grenades at him. He died later in hospital, and the story was recently released as a film called Anthropoid (which I highly recommend).
In addition to this, it is the largest ancient castle in the world! So with the biggest/oldest castle in the world and one of the oldest libraries in the world, Prague really is rich with historical treasure!Being an architecture nerd, Prague Castle really amazes me as it actually has pretty much every style of architecture created over the last millennium. When you actually think about this it’s almost impossible to imagine!
There’ s a hidden room in the castle where they keep the Bohemian Crown Jewels and there’s also a tropical garden that’s open to visitors in the summer!
Where: Castle District ★ Nearest metro: Malostranska (Line A)… & walk ★ FREE
So there you go! The cool history you might not know behind the famous parts of Prague. Of course, there is so much more to Prague than this short article – Prague has the excitement of having well-documented history dating back to medieval times, but for now, this should be enough to tease you into booking some plane tickets 😉
If you have any other suggestions for cool places in Prague with amazing history, leave me a comment!
This article was written with the help from Katy Janoušková at Prague By Katy.
As an independant certified Prague / Czech republic / Europe tour guide, her help was invaluable and I would like to give her a huge THANKYOU!
You can check out her website here!