If you were to see only one monument in Prague, it would undoubtedly have to be the castle. A symbol of the city, the Prague Castle – better known as hrad among the locals – features any Prague travel guide. Millions of visitors from around the world come to admire the castle’s beauty and architecture.
Dominating the Old Town of Prague from Hradcany Hill with its grandeur, Prague Castle has been the center of power for centuries, accommodating the kings of Bohemia, but also the presidents of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic.
Prague Castle’s History
Its construction began in 885, but Prague Castle turned into what we know today only in 1740. The first wooden fortification was built on this hill in the ninth century to protect the residence of Přemyslids princes ruling the Kingdom of Bohemia at that time. The first stone buildings built inside the fortress’ walls (next to the still wooden palace) were the churches: Notre Dame (erected during the ninth century, only some archaeological traces are still visible today), the Church and Convent of St. George (built during the tenth century and rebuilt several times), the Rotunda of St. Vitus (a tenth century edifice).
The castle itself, princely, royal and imperial residence was gradually transformed along the centuries, especially under Emperor Charles IV, King Wladyslaw Jagiello, the Habsburg Emperor Rudolph II, and the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa.
Prague Castle’s golden age began in the early 14th century with the arrival of the House of Luxembourg and Charles IV. This is when Prague Castle became an imperial residence the first time as the seat of the Holy Roman Empire. Under his reign the castle was significantly rebuilt.
Three more protection towers – Powder Tower, the White Tower and New Daliborka – were built during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, under the Jagiellonian dynasty. Their architect, Benedikt Ried also extended the Castle and created Vladislav Hall – the largest vaulted room in Europe at that time.
The Habsburgs turned Prague castle into a Renaissance palace in the 16th – early 17th century. This is when the Royal Garden was founded, the cathedral and the palace were renovated, and new residential buildings were built west of the Old Royal Palace along the southern wall.
Prague Castle’s reconstruction peaked during the reign of Rudolf II. The emperor took possession of the castle and began to turn it into a dignified and magnificent center of the empire, appealing to diplomats, artists and scholars. Its rich artistic and scientific collections were part of the northern wing of the palace – the current Spanish room.
The Defenestration of Prague in 1618 marked the beginning of a long period of wars, during which Prague Castle was damaged and looted. The last major reconstruction of the castle took place during the second half of the 18th century. At that time, Vienna was the capital of the empire and Prague was just a second-rate city. The castle gradually fell into disuse and its artistic treasures have been impoverished by the sales of collections organized by Rudolf II.
After his abdication in 1848, Emperor Ferdinand V chose Prague Castle as his residence. On this occasion, the Chapel of the Holy Cross was rebuilt. After the establishment of the independent Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, Prague Castle again became the seat of the head of state. The necessary facilities were entrusted in 1920 to the Slovenian architect Josip Plecnik.
Since 1989 many previously closed spaces such as the Royal Garden with the ball game, the southern gardens, the imperial stables and Teresa Wing of the Old Royal Palace have been made available to the public.
Prague Castle Tours
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Tour of Prague Castle
Prague Castle looks almost like a small town. With its 570 meters of length and 128 meters of width, it is the largest ancient castle in the world and is, for sure, the most visited tourist attraction in Prague. It is not exactly a castle, in the classic meaning of the word, because some portions of it were built in different styles and it rises more horizontally than vertically. But inside the majestic castle there are many sights and exhibits that will simply charm you.
Guarding the entrance to the castle from Hradcany Square, the main gate is an impressive sight by itself because of the enormous statues of battling Titans standing on top of it.
The guards of the castle standing right under the Titans look like dwarfs compared to them. The statues you see nowadays are actually replicas of the original ones made in 1770 and replaced in 1991.
Once you admired the Titans and their baroque magnificence, take a look at your watch to see if the changing of the guard is approaching.
There is a small ceremony every hour and a big one with fanfare and music at noontime. If you are in the area at this time of the day, it’s worth the detour to watch it.
After passing through the triumphal arch that is Matthias Gate, you enter Prague Castle’s Second Courtyard. At its center you will see a baroque fountain, on the right side, the Chapel of the Holy Cross, while on the left side, you will notice a gate leading to the Powder Tower and to the Royal Garden.
Erected between 1758 and 1763 and designed by the architect Anselmo Lurago, the Chapel of the Holy Cross is also known as the Treasury, because it has been home to Saint Vitius Treasury since the early 1960s until 1990. After over 20 years of closure, is has been open to public again since December 16th 2011. The objects used for liturgical celebrations – especially shrines – are not exposed here.
Visiting this exhibition is rewarding in terms of the history of art in general and the art of goldsmiths in particular. During your tour of Prague Castle take the time of admire, the Treasury’s Classicist architecture (style in which it was rebuilt in the mid-19th century). The statues of Saint Peter and Paul designed by Emanuel Max as well as the wall paintings of Josef Navrátil and Vilém Kandler depicting biblical scenes date from the same period.
Wonderful place for a walk, but also to get some great views of the castle and its fortifications, the Royal Garden is decorated with architectural works and sculptures. Dating from the Renaissance, it was created under Ferdinand I of Habsburg on the site of former vineyards. Originally meant to be a garden of exotic plants and an outdoors reception space, the Royal Garden is decorated with a singing fountain designed in 1568 by Francesco Terzio and built by the founder of Brno, Tomáš Jaroš.
This fountain is located in front of Queen Anne’s Belvedere – also known as the Royal Summer Palace (Královský Letohrádek) built in 1537 for Anne Jagiello, Queen of Bohemia and wife of Ferdinand I. Designed by Paolo della Stella, this Belvedere displays the purest Italian Renaissance architecture. The ground floor is surrounded by an ornate loggia whose proportions are reminiscent of the Brunelleschi gates. The upper floor is a later addition (1569) due to Bonifác Wohlmut and houses a ballroom. Currently, the Belvedere serves as a showroom or reception venue for the needs of the presidency of the Czech Republic.
In the same yard, housed by the castle’s Renaissance stable house, the Prague Castle Picture Gallery will seduce you with is 16th to 18th art history exhibits.
Here you can admire, among others, the works of some mannerist painters from the court of Rudolph (Hans van Aachen, Bartholomeus Spranger), an interesting collection of Flemish 16th century painters and especially Italian works, including the school of Venice: A Beautiful Young Woman at her Toilet by Titian, Passion of Christ by Tintoretto, Portrait of Johann Jakob König by Veronese, a painting by Rubens…
Upon entering Prague Castle’s third courtyard, you will be immediately submerged to the charm of Saint Vitus Cathedral. Located in the heart of the Prague Castle complex, it is the largest Gothic building in the city and serves as the seat of the Archbishop of Prague.
Built over several centuries on the site of a former stone rotunda (10th century) and a Romanesque church, it contains many artistic treasures, crown jewels or mausoleums of the greatest personalities of the kingdom, from its Venetian mosaic to the Art Nouveau stained glass signed by Alfons Mucha depicting the lives of saints Cyril and Methodius.
Home to the relics of St. Wenceslas and St. Adalbert, patrons of Bohemia since the Middle Ages, St. Vitius Cathedral was built upon Emperor Charles IV’s order to create a huge gothic cathedral for the newly created archdiocese, which should by its splendor and beauty reflect the rank of Prague, capital of the Empire at that time.
A French architect Matthieu d’Arras is first in charge of the project. He is replaced after his death by Petr Parléř which completes the chorus with an inventive vault with interlaced ribs forming an organically unified and very dynamic space. The construction work is then interrupted for a long time because of the Hussite wars. An elegant Renaissance gallery and a Baroque dome are added over the following centuries. The cathedral will be completed only at the beginning of the twentieth century by Josef Mocker.
Besides the beauty of its architecture, the cathedral is home to art treasures and object of great historical value. Outside, at the south entrance, there is a magnificent Venetian mosaic on a gold background. This golden door leads directly to the chapel of St. Wenceslas, sumptuously decorated with gilded stucco and frescoes. This is where the tomb of St. Wenceslas, patron saint of the great kingdom of Bohemia is located. The precious crown jewels are kept here, but they are very rarely shown in public.
St. Vitus Cathedral serves as main mausoleum for the ruling dynasty. Many members of the Přemyslid family were buried under the Gothic headstones carved by Peter Parléř. Of a more recent date and particularly impressive, a huge and ostentatious baroque tomb of sterling silver contains the remains of another patron saint of Bohemia – Saint John of Nepomuk.
The historic seat of the rulers of Bohemia since the 12th century, the Old Royal Palace of Prague is an exceptional collection of historic spaces dominated by the majestic Vladislav Hall – the largest secular hall of medieval Europe.
Historical sources make mention of a wooden palace dating back to the 9th and 10th century on the current site of Prague Castle, but the stone foundations of the Romanesque palace date back to the reign of the Soběslav I. Two critical periods of construction have largely shaped the present appearance of the royal palace: the works initiated by Charles IV in the 14th century and those of Vladislav Jagiello after 1483. The royal edifice was partially reconstructed after a fire in the 16th century and renovated in the 18th century during the reign of Maria Theresa.
Built during the reign of Vladislav Jagiello between 1492 and 1502, the most impressive part of the Old Royal Palace, Vladislav hall is an exceptionally large ceremony room for that time (13 meters of height, 62 meters of length and 15 of width). Designed by the court’s architect Benedikt Ried, it mixes decorative elements of Gothic and early Renaissance styles. Its vault is formed of an extraordinary maze of ribs.
Vladislas hall was home to the court’s biggest festive events: dances, meetings, coronation receptions, royal audiences, tournaments, etc. It is still used nowadays for major state ceremonies.
From Vladislav room, you can access and outdoor terrace with wonderful views over the gardens and the Mala Strana, the Chapel of All Saints rebuilt in the 16th century, which houses the tomb of St. Procopius, Louis Tract where the former offices of the Bohemian Chancellery were located, the Old Diet built in 1541 whose lobby’s walls and ceiling are decorated with coats of arms.
The Old Royal Palace’s oldest Romanesque and Gothic halls are located under the Vladislav Hall and they are also accessible to the public, housing a permanent exhibition about the history of Prague Castle.
Adjacent to the Old Royal Palace, there is an impressive museum telling the story of the castle itself. Story of Prague Castle gathers a wealth of artefacts dating from different historical eras, from the thumb of a 9th century soldier discovered on the spot Prague Castle was built to jewels and household objects.
Opposite the Old Royal Palace, you will find a gate leading to the Powder Tower, a formerly defense element surrounded by cannons that was an alchemy lab under Rudolf II. Here you can visit a permanent exhibition dedicated to the guard of the castle.
The very heart of Prague Castle, St. George Square is a charming place surrounded by top attractions such as the St. George’s Basilica and the Royal Palace.
Built in 920, the Basilica of St. George was, like St. Vitus Cathedral, one of the first stone buildings on the site of Prague Castle. A church of an unexpected sobriety with a rich baroque façade, massive columns and pillars and soft lighting, Basilica of Saint George is one of the most beautiful Romanesque edifices in Prague. The present building dates from the mid-12th century, when the monastery was completely rebuilt after a major fire. The baroque facade was added in the 17th century.
The church served as a mausoleum for the Přemyslids dynasty and played a major religious role in the Middle Ages. The most important grave is that of St. Ludmila – grandmother of Saint Wenceslaus, a major patron of the kingdom of Bohemia.
Outside the building, on the west side, you will find a well-crafted relief depicting St. George and the dragon, surrounded by a gate of the early Renaissance: it is the work of Benedikt Ried, the brilliant architect that designed Vladislav Hall at the Old Royal Palace.
Adjacent to the church, the Convent of St. Georges is the oldest monastery in Bohemia. It was founded in 970 by the Benedictine monks. Home to girls coming from noble families, sometimes even from the royal family, the monastery enjoyed a huge prestige in the Middle Ages. Closed in 1782, it was occupied by various institutions before being given to the National Gallery in Prague.
Longing the northern wall, Golden Lane is the most romantic place of the Prague Castle and maybe even of the entire city. Once inhabited by Emperor Rudolf II’s alchemists, it is bordered by colorful cottages. More recently, the writer Franz Kafka lived and created some of his work here.
Originally there were 24 wooden cottages on this narrow street, but in the 19th century, a part of the street was demolished. The remaining houses started being inhabited by low class people and criminals, after World War II, the street became a property of the state, the cottages being renovated and repainted with lively pastel colors. Now craftsmen and artists have resettled in the alley. You can visit their studios or even buy their works.
Located at the end of the Golden Lane, Daliborka is a cylindrical tower built in 1496 during the reign of Vladislav Jagiello and designed by the architect Benedikt Ried. Together with Mihulka and the White Tower, Daliborka was part of Prague Castle’s old ramparts. The legend says that this former prison took its name after the first prisoners from Dalibor Kozojedy.
It is said that during the reign of King Vladislav II, a knight of Adam Ploskovsky Drahonice oppressed his people with rough chores until the peasants revolted, besieged the fortress of Ploskovsky, captured their master and forced him to free them from the slavery. Later on, they agreed to go in the service of a more gentle and respectful knight Dalibor of Kozojedy. But the overlords did not like this, fearing this revolt and rebellion will inspire other riots. So they called Dalibor Kozojedy to the court of Prague, imprisoned him and gave Knight Drahonice back his property. Dalibor awaited his sentence in the dungeons of the dark and cold Daliborka tower.
Nowadays home to a private museum – the Princely Collections, displaying valuable works of art, pieces of furniture and other artefacts, Lobkowicz Palace is a Renaissance building erected in the 16th century by the noble family of Pernštejns. In 1627 the palace became the property of Polyxena of Lobkowicz. The baroque palace building was designed by the architect Carlo Lurago and dates from the first half of the 17th century. This two-storey edifice, with a simple and plain façade, is built around two courtyards and its two early Baroque gates overlook Jiřská Street. Originally, the Renaissance palace had four wings that revolved around the yard and it was richly decorated with graffito and small terracotta sculptures.