Visiting Prague Castle: 10 Top Attractions, Tips & Tours
Within the walls of Prague Castle (Pražský hrad), one of the most important UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Czech Republic, are some of the city's most visited attractions. In addition to the old fortifications, tourists can view old cathedrals and churches, historic towers and gatehouses, as well as splendid royal palaces and their gardens. Once home to Bohemian kings and now the official presidential residence, the castle has changed a great deal since its establishment in the 10th century and contains many different architectural styles. Acknowledged by the Guinness Book of Records as the largest ancient castle in the world - it measures 570 meters in length and averages 130 meters in width - Prague castle can take a fair amount of time to visit, and its sheer size is intimidating. One way to see the highlights and learn about the castle's long history is to join a tour with an expert guide.
As important as the castle's many attractions, are the magnificent views over the Vltava River and the Charles Bridge, along with the old city of Prague with its many church spires.
1 The Old Royal Palace and the Vladislav Hall
The Old Royal Palace (Starý Královský Palác) is one of the most interesting of all Prague's many old buildings. Although dating back to the 9th century, the current building can trace its roots to the 14th century, when Emperor Charles IV had a Gothic palace built for state functions. Further extensions were added by his son, Wenceslas. The most interesting part of the palace is the magnificent 16th-century Vladislav Hall, a massive structure used for coronations, banquets, markets, and even jousting tournaments. An Observation Gallery overlooks the palace gardens, and the splendid Riders' Staircase was built wide enough to allow knights participating in the tournaments to enter the hall on horseback.
2 St. Vitus Cathedral
The Czech Republic's largest Christian building, the Roman Catholic St. Vitus Cathedral (Katedrala St. Vita) is the seat of the Archbishop of Prague and contains the tombs of important saints and Bohemian kings. Founded on the site of a Romanesque rotunda built in AD 925, St. Vitus was begun in 1344, but due to interruptions by wars and plagues, it took more than 525 years to complete. As a result, its architecture is an eclectic mix of styles, including elements of modern Neo-Gothic and 14th-century Gothic, with a sprinkling of Baroque and Renaissance influences. Among its most interesting features are the stunning stained glass windows depicting the Holy Trinity, and The Last Judgment, a splendid mosaic from 1370 above the Golden Portal. Another highlight is the exquisite St. Wenceslas Chapel (Svatováclavská kaple), with its jewel-encrusted altar, as well as numerous paintings dating from the 14th to 16th centuries. Also worth visiting is the Treasury, one of the richest such collections in Europe, with many priceless artifacts dating back as far as the Middle Ages, and the lookout gallery in the South Tower, with its superb views over the city and castle grounds.
3 The Story of Prague Castle
Telling the castle's history through superb displays and exhibits, the Story of Prague Castle is a must-see when visiting the Old Royal Palace. In addition to detailing the castle's long 1,000-year history, this permanent exhibit deals with the rich history of the Czech people themselves, along with those who have shaped the nation's history (for good and for bad), including ancient kings and courtiers, famous artists and writers, as well as the tradesmen who built the city and the servants who served in the castle. Other highlights include displays and artifacts related to the Czech crown jewels and the treasures of St. Vitus Cathedral.
4 The Prague Castle Picture Gallery
Art lovers won't want to miss the excellent Prague Castle Picture Gallery, home to an important collection of artwork started by Emperor Rudolph II in the 16th century. Included among the more than 100 paintings on display from the castle's collection of over 4,000 works are important pieces by Hans von Aachen, Peter Paul Rubens, and Tiziano Vecelli. Much of the current collection dates from the 17th century and comprises major works by Italian, German, Dutch, and Flemish artists, along with Czech masters from the Baroque period.
5 The Powder Tower
The old Powder Tower (Prasná brána) was built in the 15th century to serve as one of the main entrances to the walled city of Prague. At the start of Celetná Street and the Royal Route, it was long a landmark along the traditional route taken by the ruling Bohemian monarchs as they made their way to St. Vitus Cathedral for coronations, funerals, and other state occasions. Originally called the New Tower, its name was later changed to reflect its role as a storage place for gunpowder, and although it is the largest of the castle's defensive towers - it once housed a number of large cannons - it was never put to the test.
6 The Basilica of St. George
Despite many renovations and alterations over the centuries, the Basilica of St. George (Bazilika sv Jiri) has managed to retain its attractive Romanesque form. While there's been a church on this site since the early 10th century, the current structure with its twin towers dates to the mid-12th century while its fine façade was added in the 17th century. Highlights include the tombs of Vlatislav I, who died in 921 AD; Duke Boleslav II, who died in 999 AD; and St. Ludmila, the wife of Duke Borivoj and first female Czech saint.
7 The Golden Lane
Originally a laneway of goldsmiths shops that once served Prague Castle, the Golden Lane (Zlatá ulička) is one of the finest collections of traditional medieval buildings in the Czech Republic, and has changed little over the course of centuries. Eleven of these old buildings have survived intact and now house interesting displays of armor and textiles, scenes showing medieval life, and shops selling local crafts. The Golden Lane dates back to the 15th century, when a new wall was added outside the existing wall of the Prague Castle complex.
8 The Royal Summer Palace
Built in 1560 by Ferdinand I as a gift for his wife, Queen Anne, the Royal Summer Palace was constructed by Italy's leading stonemasons and is famous for a number of features, most notably its fine arcade and exquisite relief decoration, as well as its unique roof. Designed to host events and court entertainments, it later served as an army barracks before being renovated in the late 19th century when its monumental staircase was added, along with wall paintings depicting important scenes from Czech history. Although now used mostly for art and craft exhibitions, it's well worth a visit for its splendid décor.
9 The Riding School and Imperial Stables
Built in the late 17th century in Baroque style, the huge façade of Prague Castle's Riding School occupies nearly an entire side of the street running up to Prague Castle. Although now serving as an exhibition hall, it's notable for its pleasant design and expansive roof garden with fine views of St.Vitus Cathedral. Also serving as an exhibition hall and the home of the Prague Castle Picture Gallery, the former royal stables also present an imposing sight.
10 The Royal Garden
Ferdinand I had this fine example of a Renaissance garden added in 1534. In addition to its many flowerbeds and lawns, it incorporates a variety of interesting buildings, including the Ball Game Pavilion; the Lion's Court; and the Royal Summer House, with its fascinating bronze Singing Fountain created in 1568 and notable for the fact that its dropping water sounds like the ringing of bells. Over the years, numerous exotic plants were added, and today the garden is a mixture of Renaissance and Baroque elements laid out in an English style. The Royal Garden is a pleasant place to walk, particularly in spring when its flowerbeds burst with color. Other gardens worth exploring are the Southern Gardens, part of an excellent circular tour around the castle; the Paradise Gardens, dating back to the 1550s; and the Garden on the Ramparts, part of a natural park beneath the southern face of the castle.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Prague Castle
- Tours: To fully understand the more than 1,000 years of history and artistry of this complex, join a 3.5-hour Prague Castle Walking Tour and explore it with an expert guide. Tours include admission fees and transportation to the castle from central Prague. Another option of the same length, the Prague in One Day Sightseeing Tour is especially good for first-time visitors, combining a bus tour of major city landmarks with walking tours of the castle and Old Town.
- Castle Tour with a Cruise: Another combination tour worth considering is the City Sightseeing Prague Hop-On Hop-Off Tour: Jewish Quarter and Prague Castle Tours plus Vltava Cruise. A 48-hour ticket allows you to create your own itinerary, traveling by open-top, double-decker bus to Prague Castle, the Old Town, the Mala Strana neighborhood, and four other stops where you can explore further on foot. An on-board commentary gives information as you travel. Also included in this tour package are walking tours of Prague Castle and the Jewish Quarter and a scenic one-hour Vltava River cruise.
- Changing of the Guard: This colorful, traditional ceremony is held daily at noon in the castle's first courtyard and is one of the fun things to do with children here.
- St. Vitus Cathedral Services: Visitors are welcome at regular cathedral services (the entrance fee is waived). Times are shown on the Prague Castle website.
- Access: Much of the castle is wheelchair accessible, except for the towers and the Treasure of St. Vitus Cathedral exhibit.