By Suzanne Ball
“You’re so wise to be here now,” the waiter said as he set down my Pilsner Urquell beer and prepared to take my order. “It’s too crowded in the summer.”
I didn’t tell him that fall is my favorite time to travel. Besides fewer tourists than during the summer, the weather is milder, trees have color and cultural events are still available. Locals can relax and enjoy their city again. Often, hotel prices drop, too.
Falling for Prague
But Prague smashed all those logical reasons. It seemed to be especially designed for autumn. The city glowed in the slanted sunshine. The crisp air invited long walks. The outdoor cafes required only a jacket or sweater. When it did happen, the rain was gentle.
The largest city in the Czech Republic, Prague is the fourth most-visited city in Europe, after London, Paris and Rome. In 2018, nearly eight million tourists arrived to see a major Eastern European city that wasn’t destroyed during World War II. (Prague did get accidentally bombed near the end of the war, when American planes made a navigational error and mistook Prague for Dresden.) Most people come in the summer, especially in July and August. In September and October, mobs thin and the city can breathe again.
Visitors who come in the fall will discover the “City of 100 Spires” is at its best when explored without crowds. Its narrow streets and historic public squares are meant to be wandered without jostling. Its diverse architecture needs space and time to be studied.
Prague’s historic center is composed of five districts, each with its own history and attractions. All are easily walked. And thanks to the excellent metro, tram and bus systems, it’s simple to get to any neighborhood. Tickets can be purchased at most transportation stops, newsstands, tobacco shops, tourist information centers and many hotels. The same tickets work for all transportation modes — just validate when you board and you can transfer as many times as you want during the time your ticket is valid.
Ready to see the sites? Let’s go!
Castle District (Hradcany)
Begin with what is perhaps Prague’s most popular attraction. More like a small village than just a castle, you’ll be glad of fewer tourists when you visit this complex. The Guinness Book of Records claims that Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world. Since its founding in the ninth century, it has always been a seat of power for Czech rulers; today it serves as the official residence of the Czech Republic’s president.
Besides the castle, there are three courtyards, four churches, palaces, museums and gardens. Altogether, the castle property covers 18 acres. It’s easy to spend half a day here. Tickets are good for two days, in case you want to return.
St. Vitus Cathedral
Inside the compound is the national church of the Czech Republic, standing on the spot where St. Wenceslas founded an earlier Romanesque place of worship in 925 AD. The cathedral is huge: over 400 feet long, over 300 feet high, and designed after the great French shrines. Construction was interrupted by war, fire and disputes; it wasn’t until 1929, on the 1,000thanniversary of St. Wenceslas’ death, that the magnificent cathedral was completed.
The Old Royal Palace
Besides St. Vitus Cathedral, visitors can wander through the courtyards and buildings. It’s one of the oldest sections of Prague Castle, dating from 1135. Its Vladislav Hall is so large that it once held horse jousting competitions; there’s even a special stairway that riders used to enter the hall on horseback.
This a collection of small, colorful homes, workshops and shops. Its name comes from the alchemists who were brought in to figure out how to make gold from lead during the reign of Rudolf II; the king’s marksmen also lived there. Czech writer Franz Kafka once lived and worked at #22. With fewer tourists in the fall, you can easily stroll the narrow lane and inspect each house.
The National Gallery Prague
Housed in many historic buildings around the city, it has a picture gallery within the complex.
Located at the east end of Prague Castle, the palace shows the private collections of a wealthy noble Czech family. The helpful audio guide (included with admission) is narrated by William Lobkowicz, a descendant. The palace sponsors daily concerts at 1:00 p.m. It also has a moderately-priced café with a balcony, offering a panoramic view of the city.
Charles Bridge (Karluv Most)
Everyone — locals and tourists — loves Charles Bridge. The pedestrian-only bridge connects the Old Town with the Lesser Quarter and the Castle District. Built in 1357 to replace an earlier bridge damaged by floods, it’s Prague’s oldest bridge…and many say the most beautiful Gothic bridge in the world. It’s over 2,000 feet long, supported by 16 spans. Visitors can climb the stairs of the tower at each end of the bridge and snap Insta-worthy views.
Charles Bridge is lined with 30 Baroque statues of Czech saints. All day and night, people use the bridge. Vendors sell artwork, buskers perform and brides pose for wedding photos. Locals use it to jog and to commute to work. It’s always a safe and lively place to be. Be sure and cross it at different times; as the light changes, the views do, too.
Old Town (Stare Mesto)
The heart of Prague is Old Town, where the city was first settled. In 1992, the historical area of Prague was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Old Town Square
Here you’ll find postcard-perfect scenes. It’s lined with buildings featuring Rococo and Baroque architecture, a Gothic church, and giant statue memorializing Jan Hus, a Czech who battled with the Catholic Church a hundred years before Martin Luther. Open-air stands sell spit-roasted meats, and restaurants and cafes line the square, all inviting you to sit and watch the magicians, jugglers and fire-eating performers that pop up during the day.
The Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Hall
The clock puts on a show every hour, from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. You won’t be alone during the show, but you also won’t be jam-packed like the summer crowds are. For a better view, buy a ticket to enter the Old Town Hall. Over 600-years-old, the clock displays the current time, date, position of the sun and moon, and the current astrological sign. At the top of the hour, the 12 apostles parade from the clock, while four moving figures provide vivid lessons concerning in the passage of time.
Wander the narrow side streets of Old Town and get a feel for what Prague was like in its medieval days. The market has been in place since 1232. During the week, it sells fresh produce, honey and sweets; vendors are happy to sell you just a piece or two of fruit. On weekends, the market expands to include crafts and souvenirs.
Jewish Quarter (Josefov)
Prague’s Jewish Quarter is perhaps the most-visited Jewish site outside of Israel. The small area has been the center of a Jewish community for more than a thousand years. Throughout the 16thand 17thcenturies, Prague had one of the most prominent ghettos in Europe. During World War II, Hitler ordered that all items from Czech synagogues be sent to Prague. Experts believe that he planned to establish a “Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race” in the city after his imagined victory.
The Jewish Museum in Prague
The museum includes four synagogues and the cemetery. A single ticket, good for one week, covers all. You can also purchase a ticket to include the Old-New Synagogue, which is actually over 700 years “new.” Each synagogue has a unique design, and displays a different component of Jewish culture and history. Even a quick tour of the museum requires several hours.
The sites can be visited in any order, but this synagogue dedicated to the Holocaust is perhaps the most moving. Its walls have been covered with the handwritten names of nearly 78,000 Czech Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The project started in the early 1950s, but during the Communist takeover, the synagogue was closed. After liberation in 1989, the task of restoring the names began. Americans may be interested in finding the grandparents of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was born in Prague. Their names are Arnost and Olga Korbel.
Pinkas Synagogue also displays the Terezin Children’s Art Exhibit, a collection of children’s drawings from nearby Terezin, a concentration camp designed to fool Red Cross inspectors into thinking all Nazi camps were humane. However, of the 8,000 children transported there, only 240 would survive until 1945.
The Old Jewish Cemetery seems poignant in autumn light, with fallen leaves surrounding the grave markers. The 12,000 or so headstones are tilted in every direction. Follow the path to see simple Hebrew engravings, as well as a few larger tombs. From 1439-1787, this was the only place where Jews could be buried, as they couldn’t be buried outside the Jewish Quarter. Since Jewish law prohibits bodies being moved, graves had to be stacked on each other. It’s astounding to think there are thought to be at least 85,000 dead in this small space.
New Town (Nove Mesto)
New Town is the newest (1348) and largest historic district in Prague. It’s the main district for modern businesses and shopping malls are located, and where some of the best examples of Art Nouveau are found.
The anchor of New Town, and at one time a horse market, it’s one of the busiest spots in Prague today. This is where the people gathered in 1918 to celebrate the new republic in 1918, where Russian tanks came in 1968, and where protesters converged during the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
The National Museum
Fronted by an impressive statue of St. Wenceslas on horseback, this museum sits at one end of the square. At the other end, depending on your interests, are the Museum of Communism and the Mucha Museum, devoted to Alfonse Mucha, a significant contributor to the Art Nouveau movement.
Built on the site of the Royal Court Palace, it’s a delightful example of Art Nouveau architecture and is where the Czechoslovakia declaration of independence was proclaimed in 1918. It’s open to the public, so explore the interior. Find the former Confectionery, a white-and-gold room designed for women to have coffee and sweets. Prague’s largest concert hall is here, as well as two restaurants, a bar and a café. Ask about the guided tours to see more of the building.
The Powder Tower
You’ll find this next to Municipal House. It provides a contrast between the old and the new. The Gothic tower was built in 1475 as one of the original 13 gates into Old Town. Its name comes from storing gunpowder during the 17thcentury.
Dancing House — also called “Fred and Ginger” by its co-architect Frank Gehry — is an award-winning building with a roof-top restaurant and bar that are perfect for autumn views. Built on the site of a house destroyed in 1945, the modern design stands out against its Baroque, Gothic and Art Nouveau neighbors.
Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana)
Also called “Little Quarter,” this historic district was founded in 1257 for German craftsmen and merchants. Later it became the preferred area for palaces and gardens near the castle.
The Church of Our Lady Victorious
This church is famous for its possession of the Infant Jesus of Prague, believed to perform miracles. Many Catholics make a pilgrimage to see the 18-inch statue and to pray for favors. Replicas of the statue are sold throughout the city.
Petrin Lookout Tower
Stop here for perfect citywide autumn views and photos. Built in 1891 for an exhibition, it resembles a small Eiffel Tower. Visitors can choose to hike up Petrin Hill or take the Petrin funicular to the charming park beneath the tower. There are 299 steps to the top lookout point, but a small elevator is available for those who can’t make the climb.
If you go to Prague in the autumn:
Weather: September temperatures average 48-66 degrees, with about 1.5 inches of rainfall. October temperatures range 41-55 degrees, with about 1 inch of rainfall. Light layers and a rain jacket will keep you comfortable. You may also want to pack a light hat, gloves, and umbrella.
Festivals: Prague’s annual events include the Dvorak festival in September, a three-week series of concerts to celebrate Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak. Prague theatre in September and October offers an ongoing opportunity to experience authentic Czech theatre such as black light and marionette performances. You’ll also find one- and two-day harvest and wine festivals around the city, including Prague Castle.
Concerts: Prague opera, ballet, and classical concerts continue throughout the year. Performances are held all over the city at various times during the day and evening. Check with your AAA Travel Agent when you book your trip or ask your hotel concierge for assistance with tickets during your stay.
There are almost limitless ways to explore Prague with AAA preferred travel partners like Avanti, Club Adventures and others. Call your AAA Travel Agent today or click here to find the travel office nearest you!
(Go Magazine Sept/Oct 2019)