A couple of blocks from the market is the Old Town Square, surrounded by gloriously colorful buildings in a diversity of architectural styles: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Art Nouveau. Chief among them is the towering Gothic Tyn Church, topped by fanciful spires. The square’s centerpiece is a memorial to Jan Hus.
A short detour up the uniquely tree-lined Parizska (“Paris”) street leads to the poignant Jewish Quarter, with museums, synagogues, and cemeteries. For me, this is one of the most powerful collection of Jewish sights in Europe.
Parizka ends at a bluff that once sported a 100-foot-tall stone statue of Stalin. Torn down in 1962, it was replaced in 1991 by a giant ticking metronome, its concrete base now favored by skateboarders who love to film themselves “skating at the Stalin.” From oppression to counter-culture, Prague has come a long way.
Back at the Old Town Square, Karlova Street (and a gaggle of tourists) zigzags down to the river to one of my favorite places for a stroll — the Charles Bridge. Under the communists, this pedestrian-only bridge crossing the Vltava River was empty, its big Gothic towers and statues of saints coated in black soot. Today it’s a celebration of life, with a festival of artists and musicians all along its length.
If you were to continue across the bridge, you’d reach the charming Little Quarter, and beyond that, the Castle Quarter, topped by the massive, must-see Prague Castle. A visit to the castle complex, with its quarter-mile stretch of churches, courtyards, and palaces spanning a thousand years of Czech history, can fill the better part of a day.
The mythical founder of Prague — the beautiful princess Libuse — named her city “Praha” (“threshold”). The Czechs have always been at a crossroads of Europe — between the Slavic and Germanic worlds, between Catholicism and Protestantism, and between Cold War East and West. Despite these strong external influences, the Czechs have retained their distinct culture ... and their enviable ability to find humor in life’s challenges.
(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.)