When in the beautiful capital city of the Czech Republic, a visit to Prague Castle is an absolute must. It should not be missed, and due to its size and hilly location it certainly can’t be missed when surveying the horizon from nearly any other part of the city. It is on such a large scale that entry tickets to all the historical buildings are valid for two days to give visitors plenty of time to see and explore everything within the Castle walls.
There are two ways to reach the Castle from the city. The first – the more popular tourist route – is by making your way to Malostranska either by taking green metro line A (two stops south from end-of-line stop and stop-for-the-airport-bus Dejvicka), or by taking one of a number of frequent tram routes that all stop just outside the station (namely numbers 12, 18, 20 and 22). Pass Malostranska station – a small, neat, glass-fronted one-storey building that looks like it houses a 1970s public swimming pool – and start to walk up the hill. Take the first road on the left where you will find the ‘Old Castle Steps’ (though how old is debatable going by the rather modern looking brick-work surrounding them). The views along the way are … well I was going to say they are ‘breath-taking’ (which they are), but maybe that’s not to most appropriate adjective (or cliche) to use considering the climb is rather on the steep side and you would be more likely to want to stop to catch your breath rather than allow the scenery to rob you of the few remaining gasps you have left.
Although not as picturesque, the other way to reach the Castle is by taking/staying on tram number 22 from Malostranska for two more stops along the winding road up the hill to Prazsky hrad. You may think you are standing in the middle of a motorway when you step off the tram, but don’t worry, you are in the right place. Just cross the road (the tram stop is right by the crossing) and straight ahead you will see a pedestrianised lane lined with cafes and gift shops that will lead you to the main gate of the Castle. It’s less than ten minutes walk and on level ground. If you’re not sure which way to go, just follow the crowd.
It’s best to take the latter route because then you will start your visit of the Castle from the main gate, and if you reach this gate at precisely noon you can watch the spectacle of the daily changing of the guard.
After some military movements within the courtyard, three guards march back out and relieve the guards on duty at the gate posts. Although the routine was perfectly choreographed the day I was there, the composure of some of the guards was not so under control and the odd suppressed grin crept across their faces. Bless.
Although it was the middle of May, it was extremely cold on the day I visited the Castle, so I was glad to see that the dapperly dressed guards on duty were well taken care of for such conditions.
The public are allowed to roam around the courtyards and beautifully manicured grounds for free, but if you want to explore St Vitus Cathedral, climb the spire, enter the Old Royal Palace or see any of the other historical buildings and museums within the grounds, you will need to buy a ticket. There are various tickets for entry into individual buildings, but the best ticket to buy is the “Long Tour” ticket. It’s around £10/€13/$15 and will gain you access to all the main and popular parts of the Castle (the ticket office can be found in the Second Courtyard).
NB – you are allowed to take photographs from almost anywhere in the grounds. However, if you want to take photos inside the Old Royal Palace you have to purchase an additional Photography Pass. It’s not very expensive, but unless you are one of those people who simply must have a snap of absolutely everything you see, it’s not really worth it. The Old Royal Palace is definitely worth seeing but there isn’t a great deal in there to photograph.
St Vitus Cathedral is a hulk of a building, so it’s a shame that it has been squeezed into one end of the Castle’s third courtyard making it difficult to step back and truly take in its colossal size (and take a decent photo of it … hence why I haven’t one to share with you here). Inside is disappointingly sparse but the very modern (twentieth century) and eclectic mix of artistic styles adopted for the stain glass windows was a refreshing change from the usual Gothic fare.
If you’ve recovered from your climb up the Old Castle Steps, or you’re a bit of a sado-masochist to your knees, you may be tempted to pay a bit extra to climb the 297 steps of the Cathedral’s Great Tower (the “Long Tour’ ticket doesn’t cover this). The stairway is extremely narrow and a tad claustrophobic. It is also the only stairway open to the public, so on your way up you may have to spread yourself along the walls like emulsion to allow fellow visitors to pass you by on their way down. There are hardly any window sills or openings to stop and take a break along the way. It is one long, gruelling climb up and I was certainly grateful for the doctor’s surgery style waiting room right at the top to sit down with fellow breathless climbers and recover before finally stepping out onto the panoramic viewing platform.
When I purchased my ticket for entry into the Great Tower, a coin was thrusted back into my hand with my receipt. At first I thought it was just change, but unlike other Czech coinage this coin was shiny, golden and had plastic coating around it. I then thought it was a fancy token to hand to the assistant at the foot of the stairs to grant me passage (or access to a secret lift all the way to the top, but sadly that was just wishful thinking). The assistant however wasn’t interested in it. It was only after successfully reaching the top and still just about capable of moving that I realised it must have been Prague Castle’s subtle way of covering itself legally from any potential injury claims from Tower climbers: a medal rewarded in advance for the stamina required to achieve the task (so no climber can argue they were not told of the steep climb ahead of them beforehand). Clever.
Amongst the courtyards and historical buildings are a number of related museums, galleries and exhibitions to peruse. The ‘Story of Prague Castle’ is a fascinating museum detailing the turbulent development of the Castle from the ninth century to the present day with interesting models, ancient artefacts and fancy AV facilities. Another exhibition within the grounds that clearly doesn’t benefit from the same budget and popularity as the ‘Story of Prague Castle’ is the one that chronicles the Castle’s military history, housed in the Powder Tower. I enjoyed it very much, not so much for its subject matter, but for the way the exhibition was presented which brought out my ashamedly puerile side. I’m afraid, like the troop during the changing of the guard earlier, I couldn’t quite keep a straight face whilst walking around it.
The exhibition was primarily made up of window dummies dressed in various military uniforms which wasn’t the problem for me. It was the potentially comical poses that the dummies were put in that made me giggle. It was like looking through the male-clothing section of a 1960s mail-order catalogue in 3-D:
A far more enchanting exhibition which I took a little more seriously was that along ‘Golden Lane’. This cobbled alley that runs along the inner side of the Castle’s northern wall is lined with a row of small, picturesque sixteenth century cottages that once housed the Castle’s goldsmiths, seamstresses and other crafted people (and even writer Franz Kafka for a time). It now houses gift and craft shops. But as I walked along it taking in the size of the cottages and the occupations of the original tenants – one cottage once housed a Herbalist, another was the home of a Psychic and fortune teller – I couldn’t help but think that this little lane held very close parallels with JK Rowling’s Diagon Alley.
And then it dawned on me; the Gothic Hogwarts-esque St Vitus Cathedral, perimeter walls so high only a giant like Hagrid could see over them without assistance, Dumbledore-Army-style golden coins discreetly given out without explanation, and now this? Was Prague Castle in fact the Czech Republic’s answer to the world of Harry Potter?
Well, whether Prague Castle is Hogwarts or not, it certainly was an enchanting place to explore. It also houses a rather cheeky sense of humour …
PS – to all my Czech readers – I apologise for not using the right accents over your Czech words. It’s just that I can’t find them on my keyboard. Sorry!