Guide to Prague's Old Town Square
One of Prague’s most visited sites is the Old Town Square, in the centre of town. In this one square, you’ll find some of Bohemia’s most famous buildings. There is something here for art lovers, historians and foodies alike. The plaza is over 1.7 hectares large with a sprawling history detailing Prague's gruesome and glorious past. Rotating minstrels still entertain on-lookers, and the square often continues to serve as a place of political protest for locals to give voice to their concerns.
Standing in the centre of the square, make a 360° spin to get your bearings and decide on which buildings you might want to take a closer look at or even head inside.
Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn
The most imposing building is, without a doubt, the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn. The distinctive twin black Gothic spires loom over the Týn Courtyard and can be seen all across Prague. The main facade is hidden from the central square by a row of pastel arcade houses which sit nestled under its shadow.
In the 11th century, a large Romanesque church once stood on this site. It was commissioned by the foreign merchants who sold their goods in the Týn Courtyard. The Týn Courtyard still stands today, and you can visit all different merchants and their shops who sell traditional Czech wares. Tyn Church was dubbed “Cathedral of aristocrats” since the merchants who funded the church's construction were wealthy and wanted a church all of their own. They desired their new building to rival St. Vitus Cathedral on the other river bank inside Prague Castle. Although personally I don't believe it does, they sure made a good attempt.
Construction began as early as 1256 when High Gothic architecture was in its prime. The soaring vertical columns and towers were inspired by St. Vitus Cathedral built by Matthias of Arras.
The two towers which make Church of our Lady so iconic are about 80 meters tall, but they are not symmetrical. One, named "Adam", is larger than the other, called "Eve".
Between the two towers, is a small, pitched roof. Inlaid on the roof is a golden statue of the "Virgin Mary.". In one hand she is holding baby Jesus and with the other a sceptre. The child holds in his arms a sphere, symbolising holding the world in his hand. But this is not just any golden statue. When the Hussites gained control of Prague, King George - the Hussite King - had a giant statue of himself created and erected between the two towers. After the Thirty Years' War between the Bohemians and the Holy Roman Emperor, when the Hussites were defeated, the old statue was melted down to make the new one of the Virgin Mary.
To enter the church, you must head down a narrow pathway and enter through the small door on the northern side of the church. The hidden entrance means that the church is often almost empty since tourists tend to get their picture and go. It's worth looking inside if you're an art history buff or love ecclesiastical architecture.
The north portal's arched doorway contains a 14th-century tympanum with an intricate depiction of the Crucifixion carved into it. It was carved by the workshop of Charles IV’s favourite architect, Peter Parler, who went on to finish St. Vitus Cathedral.
While the exterior is gothic, the interior was renovated in the 17th century and is a Baroque gem. Golden frames, with richly drawn saints, adorn the columns. In the centre of the nave is the elegant altar surrounded by jewel toned painting by Karel Škréta. One of the most famous things to see inside is the tomb of the astronomer Tycho Brahe. He was a Danish astronomer, and court scientist for Rudolf II and his marble tombs portrays a cartoon effigy of himself.
The dominating, gold organ inside is the oldest organ in Prague and dates all the way back to 1673.
The Little Square
Walking south of the Church, head towards the Old Town Hall. As you go, you'll pass a small grouping of the most elegant houses which make up the "Little Square". Since the square is a pedestrian only area of the city, you can stroll at your leisure, taking time to look up at all the multicoloured, pastel residences lining the route.
Every architectural style can be found here. One of the most notable buildings is the "Štorch House". A renaissance building with a painting of St. Wenceslas 'At the Stone Table' etched onto the front is one of the most elaborate designs which catches your eye.
On the first floor of many of these building, you'll find various cafes and restaurants. Many of the pubs bear names like 'At the Golden Unicorn', 'At the Stone Ram', 'At the Red Fox' and 'At the Blue Star'. Since there were no house numbers in the early 17th century, the residents installed signs or plaques with an identifiable character or animal on them to identify which house was theirs.
Old Town Hall
Across from The Little Square, you can find the Old Town Hall. Although the town hall is most famous for its astronomical clock, its historic importance and role in the development of the city is nothing to scoff at.
The current town hall is the amalgamation of several old houses which were connected over the years to form one large administration building. In 1338 the councillors bought a large royal house from the family Volflin. In 1458 a house only known as "Mike's house" was added to the west side. The Gothic "Cock" house was bought in 1835. The "Cock House" still contains a preserved Romanesque hall dating from the beginning of the 13th century.
The "Minute House" was purchased in 1896. It was a Gothic house from the 15th century, and the exterior is decorated with series of sgraffito designs representing classical and biblical themes. Sgraffito is a form of decoration made by scratching through a surface to reveal a lower layer of a contrasting colour (in this case black and white) typically done in plaster or stucco on walls.
The Gothic stone portal is one of the last original aspects of the town hall standing today and serves as the main entrance.
Prague's Astronomical Clock
The Astronomical Clock (or Prague Orloj) is one of Prague's BIGGEST attractions, or at least that's what the hoards of people crowding around it would make you believe. The clock is housed on the southern wall of the Old Town Hall and has been there, in part, since 1410.
Legend says that if something bad were to befall the clock, Prague itself would fall. Although it is just a superstitious rumour, it's been enough to keep the clock well protected and preserved after all these years.
There are three main parts to the clock. The first is the Dial, which represents the Sun and Moon and their position in the sky.
The next is the Sculptures of the Apostles who, upon the hour, perform a little show for the onlookers. They spin around the clock, chased by a statue of death. This is what everyone is waiting to see but let me tell you, this little show isn't worth fighting your way through the mob. Once the show is over, the crowds disappear, and you get a much better view of the clock itself.
The final part is the Calendar Dial. It is surrounded by different medallions representing the various months of the year and their corresponding astrological signs.
Throughout the year, many different street vendors set up shop here in the square. They serve a multitude of traditional Czech dishes and are a perfect place to grab a bite to eat. At Christmas time, Prague's Christmas Markets is erected in the square, drawing hundreds and thousands of people who wander the medieval inspired stalls. In the centre of the square, a large Christmas tree is raised, and bands play throughout the day.
Church of St. Nicholas
The Church of Saint Nicholas sits behind the Town Hall. It's large green topped towers sit atop the pristine white, Baroque church facade.
The church was built in 1732, and it's interior hosts a lovely array of baroque frescos and sculptures.
One of my favourite buildings on the square is the Kinský Palace. It's pink decorations, and white stucco exterior makes it looks like a frilly, Rococo birthday cake. The palace was originally built for the Golz family in 1755. Along the facade are statues by Ignaz Franz Platzer which represent multiple classical elements.
In 2006, the building was renovated to house the new Czech National Galler Museum. The famous author Franz Kafka was born in Prague and his family history is found throughout the city. His father, Hermann Kafka, was a haberdasher and his first store was located right here on the first floor of the palace.
Stone Bell House
Beside the Kinský Palace, you can find the Stone Bell House. The house is one of the oldest on the square and is one of the only remaining which preserves its original gothic architecture. The buildings now play hosts to a rotating mix of contemporary art exhibits and musical events.
Centre of the Town Square
In the centre of the square is an enormous monument of the religious reformer, Jan Hus. The statue was created to mark the 500th anniversary of his death. Jan Hus was a martyr and burnt at the stake for his beliefs which started the Hussite Wars. A turning point in Czech history.
Across from the Town Hall are the 'Memorials to the Martyrs' which include Jan Jesenius and Maxmilián Hošťálek who were beheaded right here during the "Battle of White Mountain". 27 crosses mark the pavement in their honour. Legend has it that every year, on the date of their execution (June 21st), the dead noblemen return as ghosts and visit the living.
But more than just gruesome things happened here. Since 1311, the square was the site of coronation parades. Hundreds of villagers would come here to celebrate their new leaders, dressed in all their finery, throwing flowers and dancing in the streets.
Set amongst the cobblestones on the square, is a rectangular plaque which marks the place, where the former "Marian column" used to stand. The Marian column was once a large baroque design made of sandstone and was created to give thanks for the defence of Prague from the raids of the Swedish troops in 1648. But it also served a functional purpose. The shadow of the column would show villagers high noon. Now a plaque marks the spot and written in both Czech and Latin is says, " MERIDIAN ACCORDING TO WHICH PRAGUE TIME WHAD BEEN REGULATED IN THE PAST / MERIDIANUS QUO OLIM TEMPUS PRAGENSE DIRIGEBATUR."
You're bound to discover something beautiful, something new, something old or something incredible here in Old Town Square. Despite the crowds, it definitely worth a visit. Find a peaceful spot, grab a coffee and saunter to your heart's content.