The history of Prague's Old Town can be traced back to the medieval settlements that provided the very foundations for the Prague we know today. Records dating back to 1100 show that markets were held along the banks of the Vltava, but it would have to wait until the town’s subsequent expansion – during a time of booming prosperity in the 14th century – to earn the name we know it today: Staré Město – Old Town. Some six centuries later, the medieval origins can still be tracked through its network of cobbled lanes, spreading out from its ancient heart, the Old Town Square. Taking this bustling hub as our starting point, this is a guide to losing yourself in Prague’s culture and history – from the Prague National Gallery at Kinský Palace to the Clementinum, via St Nicholas Church and the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn.
It’s from here that the labyrinthine network of Prague Old Town’s cobbled streets leads and you can idle a morning away by picking one and seeing where it may lead. Flanked with pavement cafes and buildings of various architectural styles, including Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance, there are plenty of diversions to enjoy during a long, languorous wander. However, the Old Town Square is perhaps most famous for the Town Hall’s astronomical clock; a medieval feat of engineering so great that the clockmaker was supposedly blinded after completion to prevent him from topping it. Find it by following the crowds – it’s a popular local attraction.
This church, not to be confused with the other St Nicholas church in the Lesser Town, was completed in 1735 and its high Baroque style retains the capacity to impress. Featuring stucco work by Bernardo Spinetti and paintings by Petr Assamo depicting the lives of St Nicholas and St Benedict, there’s plenty to discover within its walls as well. The huge chandelier, the church’s focal point, was a gift from Tsar Nicholas II.
Still on the Old Town Square, this striking pink and white Rococo building was originally built for the Golz family, though it was later partially used during the 19th century as a schoolhouse, frequented by a young Franz Kafka. Today, the curriculum is strictly art-based – it houses a wing of the Prague National Gallery – with permanent exhibitions displaying the gallery’s Asian art collection.
Cultural appetites sated, it’s time to hit the shops. Forget the designer stores and high street chains of the new town, there’s plenty of more traditional shopping to be had in the Old Town. Garnets are Prague’s national gemstone, and crystal has been a Bohemian specialty since the 14th century. Head to the Celetná and Dlouhá roads, both of which lead off of the square, as this is where many of the best stores are situated.
This sprawling complex of buildings, about a five-minute walk from the square towards the Vltava River, is one of the most historic areas in Prague's Old Town. hosts a series of highly regarded concerts, often with a suitably Baroque theme, while the Baroque Library Hall is adorned with frescoes by Josef Diebel and harks back to the Clementinum’s beginnings as a Jesuit college.
Throughout your tour of Prague's Old Town, one landmark dominates the skyline. Slightly sinister in its bearing, the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn is said to have inspired Walt Disney’s designs for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Built in the 14th century, it has a Gothic exterior with asymmetrical twin steeples but its interior was remodelled into a highly ornate Baroque style in the 17th century. It also houses the oldest organ in Prague – the instrument dates back to 1673 and is still in fine working order.