Prague Architecture - A Short Tour for the Casual Traveler

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Prague Castle

Second Courtyard and Holy Cross Chapel at Prague Castle, Czech Republic
Architecture in Prague: Prague Castle and the Hradcany Royal Complex Second Courtyard and Holy Cross Chapel at Prague Castle, Czech Republic. Photo by John Elk/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images

Explore the streets of Prague in the Czech Republic and you'll find great buildings that span the centuries. Gothic, Baroque, Beaux Arts, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco architecture stand side-by-side along narrow, winding roads in Old Town, the Lesser Quarter, and the Hradcany. As for churches? It's no wonder that Prague is called the golden city of spires.

Spanning 570 meters, Prague Castle in the Hradcany royal complex is one of the largest castles in the world.

Prague Castle, or Hradcany Castle, is part of a vast complex that includes St. Vitus Cathedral, the Romanesque Basilica of St. George, the Renaissance Archbishop's Palace, a monastery, defense towers, and other structures. The royal complex, called the Hradcany, perches on a hill overlooking the River Vltava.

Today, Prague Castle is a favorite landmark and tourist attraction. The Castle contains the Czech presidential offices and houses the Czech Crown Jewels. Over the centuries, the Castle has seen many transformations.

History of Prague Castle

Construction on Prague Castle began in the late 9th century when the royal Premyslid family took power over the united Czech territories. Saint George Basilica, Saint Vitus Cathedral, and a convent were erected within the fortress walls.

The Premyslid family died out in the 14th century, and the castle fell into disrepair. Under the leadership of Charles IV, Prague Castle was transformed into a prestigious Gothic palace.

The Hradcany royal complex was again remodeled under reign of Vladislav Jagellonský. His throne room is praised for for its expansive vaults with intricate network of intertwined ribs. The Archbishop's Palace was rebuilt from its Renaissance foundations.

In the late 1500s, during the reign of Rudolf II, Italian architects built a new palace with two big halls. The "New World," a district with modest homes along winding alleyways, was also constructed within the Hradcany compound.

Prague Castle became the seat of the president of the Republic in 1918, but large sections were closed to the public during the years of communist domination. Vast, secret underground shelters were supposedly built to connect the President's residence with the rest of the complex. The paranoia of the era gave rise to fears that counter-revolutionaries might use the passageways, so the exits were hastily blocked off with concrete slabs.

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The Archbishop's Palace

The Archbishop's Palace in the Hradcany royal complex was built on the foundations of a Renaissance home—built and rebuilt several times. The Palace was reconstructed in 1562-64 by the archbishop Anton Brus. In 1599-1600, a chapel with frescoes was added.

In 1669-1694, the Archbishop's Palace was rebuilt in the Rococo style by J. B. Mathey. The decorative portal with an inscription in Latin is still intact.

The statue on the left is from the 20th century. The statue honors Tomas Masaryk, founder of the former nation of Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was the first democracy in Eastern Europe after World War I.

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Homes Along the Vltava

Buildings along the Vltava River in Prague, Czech Republic
Architecture in Prague: Homes Along the Vltava Buildings along the Vltava River in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo © Wilfried Krecichwost/Getty Images

Buildings cluster along a shallow branch of the Vltava River in Prague.

During the 16th century, pragmatic industrial buildings sprang up on Kampa Island, known today as Little Venice. More elaborate homes along the Vltava River have the characteristically Czech hooded dormers.

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Old Town Square

Old Town Square in Prague Czech, Republic
Architecture in Prague: Old Town Square Old Town Square in Prague Czech, Republic. Photo © Martin Child/Getty Images

Gothic houses, some built on Roman foundations, cluster around Staromestska namesti, the Old Town Square.

Many of the homes in Old Town Prague were renovated during the late Renaissance and Baroque periods, creating a collage of architectural styles. Some homes have Gothic arbors typical of the 13th century, and some have Renaissance-era arch gables.

The Square itself is an oddly shaped plaza dominated by the Town Hall tower and its intricate astronomical clock.

See Photos of Old Town Square in Prague

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Cobblestone Streets

Cobblestone street in Prague
Cobblestone street in Prague. Photo by Sharon Lapkin / Moment / Getty Images (cropped)

Narrow cobbled streets wind through Hradcany, the Lesser Quarter, and Old Town Prague. Maintaining old architecture, including the architecture of street design, is an expensive decision, but it's a judgment that often pays off in tourist dollars. Preserving the past enriches the future.

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The Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge over the River Vltava in Prague, Czech Republic
Architecture in Prague: The Charles Bridge Charles Bridge over the River Vltava in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Hans-Peter Merten/Robert Harding World Imagery Collection/Getty Images

Gothic architecture and Baroque sculpture combine in the Charles Bridge, which arches over the river Vltava in Prague's Lesser Quarter.

Roman Emperor and Czech King Charles IV (Karel IV) started construction on the Charles Bridge in 1357. The work was completed by the architect Petr Parler, who transformed the Emperor's cornerstone into a Gothic monument. The two-story bridge tower is lavishly decorated and carved with sculptures of the Emperor, his son Wenceslas, and Saint Vitus.

Rows of Baroque statues were added during the 18th century.

The Charles Bridge is 516 meters long and 9 and a half meters wide. Popular with tourists and street artists, the Charles Bridge offers scenic views of golden stucco buildings below.

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Astronomical Clock

Detail of astronomical clock on Tyn Church, Prague, Czech Republic
Detail of astronomical clock on Tyn Church, Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Cultura RM Exclusive/UBACH/DE LA RIVA / Cultura Exclusive / Getty Images

Human beings have a lot to keep track of, what with the earth's relationship with the moon, the sun, and all of the heavens. Astronomy is perhaps the oldest science, and the mechanization of its observations with telescopes gave Earth's occupants even more information to mark. Minutes and hours were displayed with glittering hands and intricate dials, and the twelve phases of the year were kept on yet another dial of Prague's famous astronomical clock. The 15th century astronomical clock dominates Old Town Square in Prague.

The two faces of the astronomical clock is on a side wall of the square tower of Prague's Old Town Hall. The clock dial shows the earth at the center of the universe, surrounded by the planets. Below the clock is a calendar with symbols of the zodiac.

Crowds of tourists often gather in the plaza to watch the astronomical clock strike the hour. When the bell in the tower tolls, windows above the clock fly open and mechanical apostles, skeletons, and sinners pop out and begin to dance.

Learn more about the Prague Astronomical Clock

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Old-New Synagogue

Front side view of the iconic parapet of the Old-New Synagogue in Prague
Front side view of the iconic parapet of the Old-New Synagogue in Prague. Photo by rhkamen / Moment Open / Getty Images (cropped)

The Old-New Synagogue is also called Altneuschul, which means "old-new-school" in German and Yiddish.

Europe's oldest synagogue has been standing on this site since the 13th century. It was constructed by the same stone masons already in Prague to build the Gothic St. Agnes Convent, one of the oldest Roman Catholic convents in Europe.

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Source: About the Old-New Synagogue, www.synagogue.cz website, accessed September 24, 2012.

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The Old Jewish Cemetery

Tombstones in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter of Prague, Czech Republic.
Architecture in Prague: The Old Jewish Cemetery in Josefov Tombstones in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter of Prague. Photo © Glen Allison/Getty Images

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter, was created in the 15th century when Jews were forbidden to bury their dead outside their own district.

Space was scarce in the Old Jewish Cemetery, so bodies were buried on top of each other. Historians estimate that the graves are layered about 12 deep. Over the centuries, lopsided tombstones formed unruly, poetic groupings.

The surrealist author Franz Kafka enjoyed moments of quiet reflection in the Old Jewish Cemetery. However, his own grave lies across town in the New Jewish Cemetery. That burial ground is half empty because the generation it was built for was transported to Nazi death camps.

See Photos of the Jewish Quarter in Prague

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St. Vitus Cathedral

Eastern facade of Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague
Architecture in Prague: St. Vitus Cathedral Eastern facade of Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. Photo by Richard Nebesk/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images

Perched at the top of Castle Hill, St. Vitus Cathedral is one of the most famous landmarks of Prague. Its high spires are an important symbol of Prague.

The Cathedral is considered a masterpiece of Gothic design, but the western portion of St. Vitus Cathedral was built long after the Gothic period. Taking nearly 600 years to build, St. Vitus Cathedral combines architectural ideas from many eras and blends them into a harmonious whole.

History of St. Vitus Cathedral:

The original St. Vitus Church was a much smaller Romanesque building. Construction on the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral began in the mid-1300s. A French master builder, Matthias of Arras, designed the essential shape of the building. His plans called for the characteristically Gothic flying buttresses and the high, slender profile of the Cathedral.

When Matthias died in 1352, the 23-year-old Peter Parler continued construction. Parler followed Matthias's plans and also added his own ideas. Peter Parler is noted for designing choir vaults with especially strong criss-crossed rib vaulting.

Peter Parler died in 1399 and construction continued under his sons, Wenzel Parler and Johannes Parler, and then under another master builder, Petrilk. A great tower was built on the south side of the cathedral. A gable, known as the Golden Gate connected the tower to the south transept.

Construction stopped in the early 1400s due to the Hussite War, when interior furnishings were heavily damaged. A fire in 1541 brought still more destruction.

For centuries, St. Vitus Cathedral stood unfinished. Finally, in 1844, architect Josef Kranner was commissioned to renovate and complete the cathedral in the Neo-Gothic fashion. Josef Kranner removed Baroque decorations and oversaw the construction of foundations for the new nave. After Kramer died, architect Josef Mocker continued the renovations. Mocker designed the two Gothic style towers on the west facade. This project was completed in the late 1800s by architect Kamil Hilbert.

Construction on St. Vitus Cathedral continued into the twentieth century. The 1920s brought several important additions:

  • Facade decorations by sculptor Vojtěch Sucharda
  • Art Nouveau windows in the northern section of the nave designed by painter Alfons Mucha
  • The Rose Window above the portal designed by Frantisek Kysela

After nearly 600 years of construction, St. Vitus Cathedral was finally completed in 1929.

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