Don't Skip this Walking Tour of Prague's Secret Lesser Quarter, Malá Strana
With news of obnoxious tourists overtaking the city of Prague, a lot of us who prefer a more intimate, less crowded vacation will be taking Prague off their list. And I can understand this, the tourist crowds were one of my number one reasons I avoided this city for as long as I did. I knew how beautiful it was supposed to be, with some of the most incredible baroque architecture to be found all over Europe and yet I always hesitated to book. For me exploring a city, at the crack of dawn, before a sole other than myself hits the streets, is one of my favourite things to do. What can I say, I'm an introvert. But once I finally made the decision to see Prague for myself, I found sneaky little ways of avoiding the hordes of tourists. I found that most of the group tours just stuck to certain areas and it was easy to find peaceful promenades just a block over. I also just accepted that they, just like myself, were here to savour in this awe-inspiring city. (Except for those who come here solely for the cheap beer and sloppy parties, they're a breed all onto their own.) Instead of avoiding the town altogether, it was merely a matter of heading off the tourist track and discovering a hidden Prague for myself and I wanted to share one of my favourite off the typical tourist track guides with you!
One of my most cherished neighbourhoods in Prague was Malá Strana, which translates into "the Lesser Quarter". Malá Strana itself is divided between the lower and upper halves of the western hillside, opposite the Vltava River. The upper half consists mainly of Prague Castle, which is where the majority of tourists flock (with good reason) but the rest of the Lesser Town has a more subdued vibe. With fewer big-ticket attractions, you'll find that there are slightly less tourists along these streets. But you’ll still discovered streets lined with historic Burgher houses, astonishing churches and adorable cafes and restaurants.
How Long does this Walking Tour Take?
If you choose to go inside the various buildings we pass along the way and stop for a coffee or a meal, I would save half a day for the tour to take it at a comfortable pace. This tour pairs perfectly with the Prague Castle Tour since they both can be found in the western half of Prague.
When to go?
Since we are trying to stay off the extremely busy pathways, you can really take this tour any time of day. If you're looking for it to be very empty, try to go early in the morning and or late in the afternoon or evening. There is just nothing to compare to the sunrise and sunset across the Vltava river.
Our tour begins on Legions Bridge. To reach this bridge by public transport, you can take trams; 2, 3, 13, 14, 17 or 18 to the Národní Divadlo stop. No matter where you're coming from in the city this place is relatively easy to reach on the tram since so many stop nearby. Everything in Prague is also very walkable, and from the Old Town, the bridge is only a 15 minute way away.
Malá Strana, or "Lesser Quarter" was established by King Ottokar II of Bohemia in 1257. He divided the city into two halves, separated by the river and the Charles Bridge. The right side of town was the centre of the bourgeois, native Czech population. The left bank, however, was made up of many more German and Italian citizens, along with the most opulent noble palaces. The king brought German craftsmen to help establish his city as having some of the finest craftsmen in Europe. In 1541 the town suffered massive damages due to fires set by invading armies. When it was rebuilt, Baroque architecture was the dominant style, and to this day we can still explore the pastel-coloured burgher houses and ornate facades which Prague’s baroque movement was so iconic for having. As you walk through the town, down quaint side streets and ancient alleyways, you feel as though you've been transported through time.
Starting Point: Legions Bridge
While most tours of the Malá Strana might start you off entering via the grand gates on the Charles Bridge, I would advise that instead, take the back entrance into town. Legions Bridge allows you access to Lesser Town without fighting through a crush of people. The views from the Legions Bridge across to the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle are also incredible! If you’re ever interested in taking a paddle-boat out on the river you can watch other happy paddlers out on the waterways enjoying the views and a bit of sunshine.
Across the bridge, just to the left as you arrive, you'll find Kampa Island. This little island is a peaceful, green retreat where you'll find lots of local Czech families out to enjoy some time outdoors. This island was original man-made, constructed in the 12th century, and once used mainly as a place where women could come to wash and bleach linen by the river. Today, the island is also home to the Kampa Modern Art Museum, and as such, the island is littered in modernist sculptures. Some of the most intriguing are the giant bronze babies who crawl along the grounds of the island, somewhat creepy but definitely interesting.
The Devils Inlet
To the west of the island, is a small stream which comes in from the river Vltava. This charming waterway has a rather nefarious name. They call it 'Čertovka' which in English means "the Devils Inlet". The name is supposedly derived from the name of a nearby house which was called 'U sedmi čertů' or "at the Seven Devils". Along the Čertovka you'll find remnants of old medieval mills which used the canal as their primary form of power in the 12th century. The most famous and iconic of these is the Grand Priory Mill or 'Velkopřevorský Mlýn'. Today, the mill has been renovated into an upscale (rather meh) restaurant but still has outside the original waterwheel outside on display. I've marked it on the map so you can take a closer look as you pass it by.
Just across from the Čertovka you'll find IF Café. This cafe is the perfect place to grab a bit of breakfast or just a cup of coffee. If you haven't had to the chance to fuel up for the rest of the tour, this is a great opportunity to do so. This restaurant serves fantastic coffee and is always surprisingly quiet for being so close to a tourist mecca. Whether you're here for breakfast or lunch, this place has dishes which will make you drool! And the best part is the pastries! They look like works of art or blooming flowers sitting quietly inside their glass case ready to be devoured.
Just on the other side of the road from the cafe is Liechtenstein Palace. This cream coloured, old palace, built in the 16th century, was the most extensive baroque construction in Prague at the time. And while the exterior might look sweet and simple, this place is known as home to one of the cruelest and most ruthless men in Prague's history, the “Bloody vice-regent” Lichtenstein. He is known as "bloody regent" due to his murderous rule where he ordered the deaths of 27 leaders of the Hussite rebellions in 1621. The leaders were beheaded in Old Town square despite dozens relative who begged to the Regent to spare their lives. Today, 27 cast-iron heads are mounted as pseudo gargoyles along the front of the Palace to commemorate the event.
Love Lock Bridge
Continue walking along Hroznová street, until you reach the Grand Priory Mill, as mentioned above. A small bridge juts out over the Čertovka where you can look out across the stream to the adorable houses which face out over the waterway. The wrought iron fencing which protects visitors from falling into the river has become somewhat of a strange tourist attraction. A popular trend across Europe popped up in the mid-2000s where lovers would swear their eternal fidelity to each other by leaving a padlock with their initials on the bridge and throwing the key in the water below. While this might seem like a romantic gesture, sealing your love into your favourite location on your travels, the reality is much different. Many historic bridges have been severely damaged by these locks since they were never built to support such weight. Cities have now begun to cut them down to save the integrity of the bridges. So while you might think this is a cute idea, think twice before leaving your love lock here. You might find it to be cut down the next day...which is a must less romantic metaphor.
The Lennon Wall
Across the bridge and along Velkopřevorské náměstí you'll find the famous Lennon Wall. The Lennon Wall is a favourite spot for tourists and locals alike. Since the 1980s, people have been coming to visit this wall and covering it in graffiti relating to John Lennon and the Beatles. It represents all the ideals that John Lennon stood for, peace, love and equality. The origins of the first piece of graffiti are unknown, but it seemed to have caught on like wildfire. In addition to Lennon-inspired graffiti, in 1988, the wall became a place were young Czechs could air their grievances about the communist regime. Whenever local authorities would paint over the graffiti, the next day, it would be covered up once more in poems and paintings. Eventually, they just stopped trying and accepted it as modern art so long as they didn't deface any other surrounding buildings. If you have a pen, or even some paint, feel free to leave your mark here along with the others!
Květinářství U Červeného Lva
Keep walking north along Lázeňská and turn right along Saská lane. The houses and building along this short route are some of the most beautiful examples of everyday baroque architecture. These aren’t palaces or noble estate, just mundane buildings built within the Baroque era. These lanes are almost entirely empty even though you'll be able to hear the hustle and bustle of tourists just up ahead. Hidden down here, just steps from the famous Charles Bridge is one of the oldest and most beautiful flower shops, Květinářství U Červeného Lva. Flowers are literally pouring out the door! Even if you can't buy flowers for yourself just looking at this shop, in this quiet lane, feels like discovering a secret garden!
Lesser Town Bridge Tower
Keep walking along Saská lane until you reach a set of stairs on your left which will lead you up onto the end of the Charles Bridge, where you'll fiind the Lesser Town Bridge Towers. This lofty structure with the wide arched gateway is flanked on either side by two enormous towers of differing heights. The non-uniformity of these towers always bothered me (I’m someone who likes symmetry) but over time I’ve found the oddity to be quite charming. The lower tower is called Judith's Tower. It was built in the Romanesque style in the 12th century and once connected the old bridge from Mala Strana to Old Town before the Charles Bridge was built. In 1591 the bridge tower was renovated in the new Renaissance style and decorated with ornate gables, and the trendiest art form of the time: sgraffito. Sgraffito is a form of decoration made by scratching through a surface to reveal a lower layer of a contrasting color, typically done in plaster or stucco.
The second tower, aptly named is the Higher Tower. It was built in high Gothic style as a pair to the Charles Bridge’s Tower of Parler, located on the other side. At the peak of the arched gateway, you'll see various symbols of Prague. There are the emblems with the imperial eagle, the Czech lion and the symbol of Upper Lusatia, below them all are the emblems of the Old Town and the Lesser Town.
Instead of heading straight through the main gates where the influx of crowds can be found, we're going to enter around the northern side. While this gateway is lovely to behold, the immediate area opposite the gate is packed with tourists and best avoided. Just north of the gates, walk up Dražického nám and turn right along Míšeňská Street. Míšeňská Street is one of the best-preserved Baroque streets in Prague. Because it doesn't boast any huge attractions, you'll still find it to be a rather quiet little place to explore. Before there were street numbers in Prague, houses were distinguished by a crest above the doorway. These could be family crests or correspond to the kind of businesses which operated inside. Stop by Míšeňská #3, which was once the 'Queen of the Bees' house marked by a flag of honeycomb and bees. Míšeňská #10 is marked with an old fresco of a lamb and opposite this #7 is marked with a wrought iron rooster.
Café Club Míšeňská is another famous espresso bar which boats some of the best coffee in the city inside an old 18-century house. If you didn't grab something to drink or a snack beforehand, this is another delightful spot to sit and enjoy a bit of quiet. The decor inside is a blend of restrained modernism and antique nostalgia.
As you exit Míšeňská Street and hit U Lužického semináře you'll find the tiny little shop with the name 'Shakespeare a synové' above the entrance. This is one of the most intriguing bookshops in the city which carries both new and used Czech, English, French & other foreign language books. There are some real rarities in here, and while the books might be a bit pricey, it's still worth poking your head inside to explore. The tiny shop is actually spread out over two floors and has various couches and chairs for people to sit and peruse any books of interest before buying. It's a great spot to warm up or cool down if you need a short rest from the walk.
Narrowest Street in Prague
Keep walking north along U Lužického semináře until you reach the Restaurant Čertovka. Just beside this restaurant is one of the strangest and most hidden spots in Mala Strana. Here you can find the narrowest street in Prague! From U Lužického semináře, this extremely narrow lane leads back to a restaurant garden. The path is so skinny that a traffic light had to be installed to ensure no two people went at the same time from either direction, in case they got stuck! You can easily walk down it yourself even if you're not visiting the restaurant, just ensure you click the walk button and obey the signs.
Across the street from the restaurant, along the west side of U Lužického semináře, you'll find a long white wall which hides a valuable secret. After walking north along the wall for about a block and half, you'll come to a small archway which provides entrance inside. The exterior wall is pretty bland and usually covered in unappealing tags and graffiti. But as you make your way to the gate, you'll be in awe of the greenery to be found inside. This is Vojan Park, the oldest park in Prague, initially built-in 1300. In the 17th century, the Convent of Barefooted Carmelites was constructed beside the park, and their order took it upon themselves to care for the gardens and enhance their beauty. Especially in the summer when the cherry blossoms bloom this park is absolutely magical. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the various peacocks which roam the grounds as they are sight to behold!
St. Joseph Church
Exit the park where you entered and continue along U Lužického semináře. Walk until you reach Letenská street where you'll turn left and walk along the road westwards until you reach St. Joseph Church. While the buildings along this stretch aren't of particular note, you do have a great opportunity here to get some fantastic snaps of the old Prague trams which run up and down this street. St. Joseph Church is a narrow, little building which is piled up with some of the most exquisite Baroque ornamentation. While the interior is a bit lackluster, the exterior is a real feast for the eyes.
St. Thomas Church
Across the street from St. Joseph Church in St. Thomas Church. This church is the opposite of the one previous. The exterior is a bit of a jumble of everyday styles. But inside, you'll be awed at fantastical ceiling frescos, elaborately carved wooden chapels and stunning multilayered altarpiece. The church was originally founded by order of Augustinian Hermits by Wenceslas II in 1285. The church was decorated in high Gothic style by some of the most prominent Czech artists of the time and today is still one of the best examples of Czech art and architecture.
Down the street from St. Thomas Church is the Velikovský house, found at Malá Strana No. 518. The famous townhouse has stood on this spot for over 600 years in one form or another. Throughout time it was rebuilt and renovated due to fires and changing architectural styles. Study the corner turret, decorated with sgraffito from sculptor Celestyn Kloucek which dates all the way back to 1899. On the southern facade, facing the Malostranské náměstí is an old sundial from 1608. It was discovered, hidden under a new layer of plaster during one of the renovations. Historians were able to carefully uncover it and today is it a stunning example of how Czechs used to tell time. They used a unique method which counted the number of hours that have passed since sunset instead of the 24 hour clock we have today.
Now, after a roundabout route, we find ourselves in the main square of Prague's Malá Strana. St. Nicholas Church stands domineering over the square and separates it into it's two distinct spaces; the upper (western) and lower (eastern) squares. While the jolly food vendors and antique trams with charming church bells ringing in the distance might seem like an idyllic scene, this square hides a darker history. It was once the spot where the gallows and pillory were located throughout many different eras of Prague’s judicial history. Townspeople would gather here to view public executions and cruel medieval punishments. The only sign of such dark histories is the rather tacky “torture museum” signage plastered all over the ancient facades.
The Lower Square
The lower square is where you'll find the tram stop for Mala Strana, surrounded by pretty palace façades. This was originally where the nobility of Prague's elite would live, to be close to the Palace without being inside its gates. Many of these buildings are now tourist trap restaurants, but luckily the high prices have meant they can maintain the original architecture and appearance of these historic estates.
The Upper Square
The upper part of the square is called 'Vlašský place' as 'Vlacks' or Italians once lived solely in this area and would come into the square daily to sell their products and goods. In the upper square, we also find the soaring Plague Column which commemorates the Czech people's survival after the great plague of 1713. The column features sculptures of Virgin Mary surrounded by Czech saints designed by sculptors Jan Oldřich Mayer and F. Geiger.
St. Nicholas Church
St. Nicholas Church, with its three masterful copper-topped roofs, stands high above Mala Strana. It is known across Europe as an absolute architectural marvel and one of the most exceptional examples of Prague Baroque. Where St. Vitus is an example of the most beautiful Gothic architecture, St. Nicholas provides a glimpse into the opulence, which is genuine baroque. It was built in 1704 by the father-son duo Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer. Saint Nicholas is known as the protector of children and the patron saint of sailors. Legend has it that he saved three girls from being forced into prostitution by dropping sacks of gold coins into their window to pay for their dowry. Other stories tell of his power to calm the oceans and save lost soldiers at sea. Many of these stories are told throughout the paintings and sculptures inside so it’s always good to know a little bit of context for the saint to which the church is named after.
Stepping inside the church, you're immediately struck by the lavish decor and soaring open space. The dome stretch 70 meters above the church creating a grandiose lantern of light which rushes inside. There are lush decorations everywhere you head turns. Pastel frescoes cover what appears to be every inch of the walls and ceilings. The most impressive of these paintings is the one on the dome which depicts the Holy Trinity painted by Franz Palko. But there is a real balance between the heavy ornamentation and light which creates a most heavenly harmony. The massive dome is encircled with windows, as are either of the side naves. This allows natural light to pour into the centre of the church ensuring you never feel claustrophobic or weighed down.
One of the most impressive features of the church is the grand organ which was once played by none other than Mozart himself in 1787. The organ contains over 4,000 pipes and is an absolute marvel to hear. Be sure to check when the church holds concerts as hearing the organ played in person is truly something otherworldly.
To get one of the most amazing views across the city, climb up the 215 steps up the centre tower. From here you can look out at the Vltava River and the surrounding countryside spread out past the city limits. During the communist era, this viewpoint was more than just a pretty sight. Spies used to frequent this spot to look down on the American embassy located nearby. On your way up the tower keep an eye out for the small, cast iron urinals along the wall. These were installed to allow the spies to relieve themselves without a long journey to the ground floor.
Just outside St. Nicholas church on the corner of Zámecká and Nerudova street you'll find one of the oldest pharmacies in Prague. The Fragner Pharmacy at the Black Eagle is easily identified by, well, the giant black eagle on the front of the shop. While the pharmacy now sells modern-day medicine, it also has various historical items on display inside the 18th-century interior. It’s a great way to explore what old pharmacies used to be like while also picking up any medicine you might need for yourself (for me I always need some blister band-aids for my feet after long days of walking the entire city).
Turn down Nerudova Street which is onto itself a tour through the eras. Nerudova is named after the writer and poet Jan Neruda. Neruda spent his life writing stories all about the "Lesser Town" and the various real-life character, turned fictional, in his charming short stories. While most of the historic storefronts have turned into touristy restaurants or souvenir shops, looking closely above the entrances, you can still study the historical remnants of this incredible street. Above #12, now a Chinese restaurant, you'll see an emblem of three fiddles marking what used to be an old violin makers shop. A few doors down at #16 we see an old apothecary shop marked with a golden chalice.
Along Nerudova, stop in at the Gingerbread Museum. While more of a shop than a museum, it does sell superbly decorated gingerbread. There are always some gorgeous treats to behold both for display and for purchase. There is usually a monthly window display which features gingerbread versions of the city's iconic architecture. It’s an amusing little shop which just makes me smile, so I had to include it. And fair enough I do love myself some gingerbread!
If you feel like a quick snack head into the Prague Chocolate Bistro. Despite sounding like a tacky tourist trap this little, modernist cafe is known for serving up some of the most delicious chocolate treats. Their rich and slightly savoury hot chocolate is the perfect thing to not only fill you up with its rich flavour but also to keep you warm on a cold or rainy day.
As you continue walking along with Nerudova stop by #26 to see if you can spot the golden sparrow house or the golden wagon wheel at #26. Across the street at #27 is the golden key house. The street can get really crowded, but I found that the denser areas are usually made up of just one large group. Just wait for them to go by and the street will open itself back up in a few short minutes.
Jan Neruda Dedication
Above the house, at #45, you'll see a beautiful bronze plaque on the facade of the building with the image of Jan Neruda carved into the bronze. It documents the life of the author and the street to which is dedicated after him.
As Nerudova turns into Úvoz street, stop in at AMI Marionettes. Marionettes are a very popular souvenir to be found in Prague. For many years, puppetry was considered to be a low form of entertainment compared to acts like theatre or opera. They were operated by less skilled artisans. Often instead of being performed in German (which in the 17th century was the official language in Prague), they used the native Czech language. While this might seem like no big deal, speaking Czech had actually been outlawed! Puppetry became somewhat of a nationalist pastime, sometimes only performed in secret. In the 18th and 19th century as the Czech Republic began to rebel against using the German language, the marionette became a symbol of this rebellion. AMI Marionettes is still one of the most trustworthy names in puppetry and all their puppets are locally produced. You’ll see marionettes all over town in cheap souvenir shops but more often than not these are Chinese knock offs. Even if you’re not interested in buying one for yourself the craftsmanship used to make these marionettes is really impressive.
As we are nearing the end of the tour, if you're feeling a bit peckish, head into Baráčnická rychta. This cosy little restaurant can be found just off the famous Nerudova street. It's incredible how just steps away from tourist traps and overpriced cafes you can still find a real authentic place with great prices and delicious food. There is even a little outdoor garden to eat in on lovely summer days but throughout the year you can dine inside their traditional Czech interior.
Prague Castle View
To make your way to one of the most incredible views of the city, without the tourist hordes, head west across Vlašská, until you reach the corner of Vyhlídka Václava Havla park. Meander down the garden pathway (as marked on the map below) towards the easternmost part. Not only do you have a view across the Vltava river but you can also see the rooftops of Prague Castle off in the distance. Only a few other tourists where there when we visited along with some locals out walking their dogs. It was the perfect ending to a fantastic afternoon stroll.
Many people come to the Lesser Quarter solely to visit the Prague Castle and miss out on the subtleties of Mala Strana. There are so many treasures to uncover! If you're heading out to Prague soon let me know any questions you might have. And if you've travelled to Mala Strana before let me know in the comments what your favourite sight was!