Czech Republic / Czechia
Kafka was right, it is hard to leave Prague.
Since the fall of Communism in 1989, the Czech Republic – and in particular the capital – has transformed into one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations. The country is home to 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As of 2018, a whopping 18 additional sites are on the tentative list. For travelers, the Czech Republic is considered a safe and enjoyable place to visit.
The best known and largest city is Prague or Praha. Nicknames include "the mother of cities" (Praga Mater Urbium in Latin), "city of a hundred spires" and "the golden city." Prague's architectural kaleidoscope creates a unique and colorful cityscape.
We are fortunate a local friend guided us through the backroads and villages of this amazing country. Once Prague is in the background, small towns and villages appear gift wrapped in verdant rolling hills and vibrant green fields. We divided our trip into 2 parts - Prague and the countryside.
While Prague has ancient roots, today there is a modern energy permeating the city. Young people flock there for education and work opportunities. People are busy maintaining and improving the infrastructure, monuments and the architectural masterpieces that line many streets. This city of architectural splendor can be almost overwhelming, with Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque facades sharing space with art nouveau, neoclassical and cubist designs. Each time you look up, you see something architecturally interesting.
There are an overwhelming number of sights in Prague so it is impossible to recommend them all, however several highlights are: the Charles Bridge, the Old Town Square, the Jewish Quarter, and Prague Castle. If you are comfortable riding a bike in a busy urban setting, rent one get a better overview of city. In addition, the city has modern public transport as well as taxi and uber.
At the turn of the century, Prague was home to Franz Kafka. The city's tangled streets and unique architecture are reflected in his stories about isolation, alienation and authoritarian oppression. The word Kafkaesque is often applied to bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening. But don't let Kafka discourage you. When the sun refllects on the Vltava River, the city takes on a cheerful glow. Jackie Craven writes Prague is "like Disneyland, but real" and his Architecture in Prague for the Casual Traveler is an excellent introduction to the visual feast.
Today Praha has over 1 million inhabitants and the city hosts 30 million visitors a year. You will find yourself looking up at building after building. Walk across the Charles Bridge on your way to Prague Castle and examine the display of 30 Baroque statues lining both sides of the bridge. The Charles Bridge also makes an attractive setting for wedding photos. If you are there on a nice Spring morning you will likely see many couples getting ready to share a life together.
Hop on a boat and cruise up and down the Vltava River for a pleasant view of the city for an hour or two. Take a 1 hour guided boat trip, a dinner cruise, or a paddle boat. Paddle boat rentals are available close to the Charles Bridge and the cost is minimal.
Prague is nicknamed "the city of 100 spires." But Prague has many facets... it is also worthy of being called the city of bizarre statues! You find statues in town squares, on the sides and on top of buildings, churches, palaces and bridges. They come in all sizes, colors and some are unique and unusual. Fans of Czech sculptor, David Cerny, will enjoy the sculpture walk around the city that highlights his provocative and insurrectionary works including upside down Horse Statue in Lucerna Pasaz, the Piss Sculpture in front of the Franz Kafka museum, Crawling Baby on the Zizkov TV Tower and Man and Skull.
Food and Drink
Prague is foodie heaven. EatingPragueTours and Prague Foodies are good places to start your research if you crave interesting and unusual cuisine. The city is also home to a large Vietnamese contingent so Asian/Eastern Europe fusion cuisine is easy to find.
After a busy day in the big city, sipping Italian wine and sharing tapas at a cozy table is the perfect antidote. Wine o'Clock is located close to the Charles Bridge and is quiet, small and intimate. Reservations are required because this gem seats only 12 people and it is booked up quickly! Relax and plan your next day's adventure. If warm chocolate cake sounds appealing, be sure to order it 25 minutes before your time is over. $$-$$$
A sunset dinner at Bellevue offers a great meal and a spectacular view. The restaurant is located on the bank of the Vltava River with a commanding view of the Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle. Great views and gastronomy come at a price but the experience is heavenly especially if you dine at sunset. $$$-$$$$
Crème de la Crème boldly claims to serve the best Italian style gelato in the city! $
Nostress is a modern restaurant located in the Jewish Ghetto, just north of the main town square. Today the Jewish Quarter or Josefov is a vibrant area with many high end shops. However, it "was created when the Jewish community was ordered to leave their homes and settle in one single area. As the area grew, it became more crowded as the Prague government imposed laws forbidding the Jews to live anywhere else in the city." $$-$$$
These days, Prague butcher shops are trendy. Kantyna is "an establishment for lovers of Czech meat, where every day you can taste Czech ‘čestr’ beef or ‘přeštík’ pork. You can also take your chosen cuts of meat home; the butchers advise on how to prepare it." $$
Black Angel’s Bar and their hipster menu were created based on the preserved notes and sketches of the early 20th century bartending legend, Alois Krcha. The cocktail scene is alive and well in Prague. $$-$$$.
Czechs love beer and you can tour the Pilsner Urquell Brewery "in Plzeň, where brewer Josef Groll (in 1842) introduced the world to the first golden ‘pilsner’ lager, and changed beer forever. His invention soon became the most popular style of beer on the planet." Entry is by guided tour only, with three tours in English available daily. Tour highlights include a trip to the old cellars (dress warmly) and a glass of unpasteurised nectar at the end.
Countryside Road Trip
Soon after landing at the Prague airport, we headed to the countryside. First stop was our friend's home village, Libice nad Doubravou with about 1000 residents. The only place to stay and eat is operated by former opera singer/musician and jovial fellow, Larry B. This Hostinec (Inn) has been family owned for years. We arrived after 11 pm. The night was dark but warm lights glowed from the windows. As we approached, we heard joyful voices singing while Larry B pounded out Czech tunes on the piano. The moment we entered, we were greeted like old friends! Beers all around and, of course, singing and dancing. Our trip was off to a great start.
The village of Libice is surrounded by beautiful fields and forests with numerous hiking trails. We enjoyed a wonderful forest hike and waved to locals out for a day in the woods. Enjoying the outdoors is a popular Czech pastime. After our hike we returned to Larry B's Hostinec and devoured a local delicacy - slow cooked pork knuckle which was one a very fine meal! After thanking Larry B and his wife for their warm hospitality, we were off to Brno.
Brno is the 2nd largest city and well worth a visit because there are far fewer tourists than in Prague and with lots of character and history. It is the ancient capital and cultural hub of the Moravia region. Brno is also home to 13 universities including Masaryk University (29,000 students) and Brno University of Technology (23,000 students). Since Brno is a university town there is a vibrant cafe and club scene as well as castles, museums, churches and towers. And, it is easy to get around in the old town.
Live large at the Grandezza Hotel and enjoy a 5 star hotel at a 3 star price! The hotel is located in the heart of the historic town center and is a 5 minute walk from the train station. In the morning get a bird's eye view of the Brno skyline by climbing the 63 meter tower in the Old Town Hall.
Rent a bike to explore the streets and squares. Because auto and pedestrian traffic is light in the old town, it is easy to do. If you feel energetic, ride to the top of the hill and visit the medieval Spilberk Castle complex with a commanding view of the town or take roll along the river. A tour of the Spilberk Castle is an excellent way to spend half a day. Don’t forget to see the gardens.
A visit to any university town isn't complete without touring bars and cafes. Brno has plenty of both! Strolling the main streets in the evening, you'll notice groups of friends enjoying the nightlife. We highly recommend experiencing the cocktail scene at The Bar That Doesn’t Exist and marvel at their beautiful, extensive inventory.
Coffee is part of the culture in most college towns and Brno is no exception. The SKOG Urban Hub is one of the best. SKOG even roasts their own coffee in addition to serving food and drinks. The decor is comfortable, urban chic. A new location in Prague opens soon.
If you desire touring unusual sites check out the Guardian article about the subterranean world of the Capuchin Monastery, the 5000 skeletons at St. Joesphs' Church and the 10-Z Nuclear Bunker from the communist era.
Next stop - Bohemia and the UNESCO Heritage site of Český Krumlov. The road from Brno to Česky wanders through pituresque villages and forests. Along the way we stopped for fresh water at a cold spring. We visited an archaic pilgrimage church and a somber WW2 battlefield memorial. The more time you spend in the Czech hillside, the more historical treasures you discover.
Česky Krumlov is an inviting medieval village. The 13th century castle dominates the old town and offers a glimpse into the lives of Bohemian rulers through the centuries. The castle consists of 40 buildings and palaces, five castle courts and a park, so be prepared to walk. From the heights of the castle walls, you observe the Vltava River meandering through the village with cafes and restaurants lining the banks.
Slow down as you walk through the village and look carefully. Next to the cafes and restaurants you will find interesting shops with unique leather, glass and metal goods. These craftspeople are delighted to create a custom belt or glass necklace for you at a price you might like.
If you enjoy touring well maintained and preserved castles, palaces, chateaus and churches, a road trip around the countryside is a must. The Czech Republic is known for its impressive architectural sights, the majority of which are well preserved for the centuries. Here are a few.
Český Krumlov (Rugged Meadow) is one of the largest castle complexes in central Europe and is more of a village containing 5 palaces or castles as well as 40 additional structures with large courtyards and Baroque-style gardens. The village hosts Renaissance fairs, music, theatre and art festivals throughout the year. There are many places to stay inside the castle complex.
Hluboká nad Vltavou Castle is located in South Bohemia and boasts 140 rooms and 11 towers. Locals claim it is the country's most beautiful castle. Tour on your own or choose from several tours including one of the castle kitchen with well preserved kitchen equipment from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Lednice Chateau is one of those rare places in the world that is elegantly maintained. "An absolutely unique park has been created here over the centuries, full of rare tree species, romantic little buildings, fishponds and beautiful little corners."
Prague Castle is a castle complex in Prague dating from the 9th century. It is the official residence of the current President of the Czech Republic. The castle was the seat of power for kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman emperors and presidents of the former Czechoslovakia. The Bohemian Crown Jewels are "under lock and key, and without exaggerating it is the place least accessible at Prague Castle. The door, and likewise the iron safe, has seven locks." The jewels go on display every 5 years.
Lobkowicz Palace inside the Prague Castle complex provides an excellent audio tour which details their personal family history in relation to world events. The Lobkowicz family played an important role in building the Czech nation. In addition, and on display are original hand written musical scores of Beethoven, Mozart and Hayden. Due to this family's patronage, Beethoven lovers have the Lobkowicz family to thank. However, the family lost everything ... twice ... under the Nazi and the communist regimes. Their moving story is told personally by the Lobcowicz family in the audio guided tour.
Kroměříž Chateau is the former summer residence of the Archbishops of Olomouc and contains a picture gallery and an extensive library. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk is a stunning example of an 18th century architectural peculiarity – the Baroque Gothic style, which is a blending of Gothic and Baroque styles.
The imposing 13th century Spilberk castle and gardens first served as a fortress and later as a prison for common criminals and opponents of the Habsburg monarchy.
A Little Background on the Czech Republic
The Czech Republic is a landlocked country in Central Europe with about 10 million inhabitants. Prague is the largest city with 10% of the population. The Czech Republic includes the historical territories of Bohemia, Moravia and Czech Silesia. It ranks as the 6th safest or most peaceful country on the Global Peace Index and is one of the most non-religious countries in the world even though the country has an abundance of churches and religious monuments. Bohemia has existed for well over 1000 years and is the westernmost and largest historical region of the Czech lands. "In a broader meaning, Bohemia sometimes refers to the entire Czech territory, including Moravia and Czech Silesia, especially in a historical context, such as the Lands of the Bohemian Crown ruled by Bohemian kings.” The most famous of the Bohemian Kings was Charles (Charles Bridge). He was the first Bohemian King to be the Holy Roman Emperor.
Jan Hus and the Hussite War
It is impossible to spend any time in the Czech Republic without an awareness of Jan Hus. Our first exposure to Jan Hus was our first night at the Hostinec. So who is Jan and why is he such a big deal in the Czech Republic?
Jan was a religious reformer living in the 1400s about 100 years before Martin Luther. Jan was a priest in the Catholic church and believed some of the Protestant ideas of John Wycliff. Hus's issues with the Catholicism were similar to Luthers. In fact, Martin Luther corresponded with the Hussites to help form his Protestant Reformation platform. Ideas like being against indulgences, wanting the bible in the local language and having secular power rather than papal political power. This last idea got Hus in trouble.
Hus was invited to The Council of Constance in 1414. This council convened to solve the ever growing pope problem (they had 3 popes at this time) and to try and eliminate heresy (Jan Hus was considered a heretic). Of course, Jan was reluctant to attend because the church had a policy of burning heretics at the stake. But the Holy Roman Emperor really wanted Jan to attend so he was given a promise of safe conduct. That promise must have expired by the time he reached the Council since Hus was arrested, tried and burned at the stake.
Jan was a popular Bohemian priest so his execution was met with outrage, the Hussite Wars ensued. The Hussite Wars were basically a David and Goliath story. The powerful Catholic Church and Holy Roman Empire sent large Crusade armies to battle the Hussites. But the Hussites usually prevailed and were a war for autonomy- independence from the Pope and independence from other secular rule like the Holy Roman Emperor.
World Wars and Communism
Like much of Europe, the two world wars and the collapse of the Soviet Union were instrumental in the formation of the modern Czech Republic. The core of the Republic of Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918 following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. Germany wanted to regain land that was lost as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. The Germans claimed the Sudetenland (current Czech Republic) be incorporated into Germany. In September 1938 the major powers of Europe met in Munich to resolve the Sudetenland issue. With WW1 a recent memory of only 20 years, all sides wanted to avoid another war. The Munich Agreement allowed Nazi Germany the incorporation of the Czech lands and so it was agreed by the UK, Italy, France and Germany. Czechoslovakia was not invited, even though it was their territory in dispute. Neville Chamberlain famously returned to England with the signed document and claimed "peace in our time." So 1 year later Germany appropriated Czechoslovakia. Because the annexation occurred with the pen rather than in battle, much of Prague is still preserved. The Munich Agreement delayed but did not prevent WWII. There was resistance to the Nazi occupation within Czechoslovakia. One of the most notable events was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. This event is dramatically portrayed in many films such as Anthropoid. While the assassination attempt was successful, the retaliation was brutal with the total destruction of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky. The remains of these villages serve as somber memorials to the people that once lived there and resisted the Nazi occupation.
After WWII Czechoslovakia was once again a nation. However, the cold war began. The US and NATO held political control of western Europe while the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact controlled central and eastern Europe. And in 1948 the Soviets supported a communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. Though Czechoslovakia was an independent state, that independence only went so far. The 1968 Prague Spring brought Alexander Dubček to power. Dubček was a reformer who allowed freedom of the press, travel freedom and some privatization. Dubček claimed to offer “socialism with a human face.” These reforms were too much for the Soviet Union. The Soviet Army occupied Prague in August on 1968. The reforms were reversed and hardline communism returned for about 30 years.
The Velvet Revolution and Velvet Divorce
The late 1980's revealed a weakening and dissolution of communism in Europe. The wall separating the divided city of Berlin came down in November 1989. Changes through eastern and central Europe quickly followed. In Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubček , the reformist communist who led the Prague Spring in 1968, resurfaced and made his first public appearance in over two decades and a new, non-communist government took over on December 5. The 1989 Velvet Revolution saw the Communist regime collapse and amazingly the country transformed with no loss of life and a privatized market economy was reintroduced. On 1 January 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully dissolved in the Velvet Divorce, with constituent states becoming the independent states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.
Read more about Czech Republic history of the 20th Century at Livingprague.com.
The Modern Czech Republic
Today the Czech Republic is thriving with (according to job spin) the lowest unemployment in the EU. People are working everywhere. The Czech people love (in no particular order) dogs, hockey, beer and good food (especially meat). Walk through the old town square, purchase a beer and some fresh pork slow roasted roasted over a fire from a street vendor and enjoy the moment. Czechs love good food.
The Czech people are also passionate about hockey. In fact, Ice Hockey is called the religion of the Czech Republic. Without a doubt, their favorite match was the 1998 Olympic Game against the Russians which was the first time the Czech Republic was represented in the Olympics. The Russians were favored to win. Can you imagine the intense rivalry leading up to the game, given the recent Soviet occupation of their country? Over 250,000 Czech fans crowded into the old town square that night to watch the Czech Olympic team bring home the Gold! When you are in the country, mention this 1998 match up and you instantly have a new friend! Watch the youtube video of the 1998 Olympic game here.
The Czech Republic is well worth a visit because the country has so much to offer. The capital city of Prague is steeped in history, sophisticated and edgy. Outside the big city, visitors tour historical villages, churches, palaces and monuments at a pace that is more relaxed and less traveled. Pictures are worth more than words. We hope you enjoy these images of the Czech Republic.