- darkometer rating: 4 -
The capital of the Czech Republic
… and one of the world's foremost city tourism destinations – and it also has a couple of things to offer to the dark tourist.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background information: The fabled ancient capital city of today's Czech Republic (formerly the CSSR/Czechoslovakia, and before that Bohemia) is primarily still a mainstream tourist destination, especially for weekend city breaks. Prague isn't considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world for no reason! Although, these days, it has become rather overcrowded with tourists – so much so at times that it is all but impossible to move in the throngs, especially at prime tourist sights such as the famous Charles Bridge.
Most visitors come to see the architecture such as that bridge, the magnificent churches, old gates, clock towers, Art Nouveau, etc., and of course the quaint Old Town in particular. The whole place is a UNESCO world heritage site!
Many want to take in the great history of this city, one of the richest of any metropolis in Europe, after all. It was, for instance, in Prague where the one of the world's oldest universities was founded as early as 1348.
Prague also has its share of dark sides/sites, however. For starters, Prague has had a long Jewish history, which – like in so many Central and Eastern European countries – suffered its darkest period during the Holocaust
at the hands of the Nazis
occupied the Czech lands in WWII
Moreover, Prague, as a capital city of an Eastern Bloc
country that had been liberated by the Soviet Union
, was also of significance during the Cold War
period. This became particularly dark for the city/country at the end of the so-called "Prague Spring
", when the movement towards reform and greater freedom was crushed by invading Warsaw Pact
troops and tanks.
The "Velvet Revolution
" of 1989 then put an end to the communist
era in a much more peaceful fashion – so velvety soft was it that the other "revolutions" in neighbouring countries such as Hungary
and the GDR
pale in comparison. The Czechs often say that while it took the Poles
10 years and the GDR 10 weeks to shake off their communist regimes, the same thing took only 10 days in Czechoslovakia
What there is to see: Quite a bit – in various shades of dark, from pretty grim to the lighter sides that blend with the not-really-dark. Three individual sites are singled out here for separate entries:
In addition to these, noteworthy sites include the Memorial to the Victims of Communism
. It is comparatively small and understated but quite powerful in effect: it consists of a group of statues of humans in different stages of "disintegration", as it were. While the man at the front of the group is more or less complete (though naked and thin and frail looking), the one behind has a cracked torso and part of the head is missing. Further back a "half human" follows and at the back the statues are mere indications of bits of human forms. As if they'd been crumbling away. I leave it to you to decode the symbolism here. Plaques set into the ground/the steps provide some statistics (estimated figures of those imprisoned, exiled, executed, etc.). The group stands at the upper part of a set of memorial steps at the bottom of the Petřin Hill, ca. 100 yards south of the funicular, near the corner of Újezd street and Vitězná in Mala Strana (or "Lesser Town" – that is on the western bank of the river). [50.08115,14.40385
The National Monument
on Vitkov Hill
is an altogether grander but also blunter affair. You can see the giant equestrian statue at the front of the complex from far away. The rider is Jan Žižka
(a Czech general of the 14th century), but the unnamed horse is even more impressive – by size alone (9m high, weighing 16.5 tons). The dark connection is less visible, though. Not only is the whole site a memorial to Czech resistance and (often fragile) nationhood, it also serves as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
and now forms part of the National Museum. Take a closer look at the doors as well – they feature some superb socialist realist
reliefs of workers, women and warriors.
Most intriguingly, however, the main part of the building was once a grand mausoleum
, namely of the CSSR
leader during Stalinist times, Klement Gottwald
. He had died (under mysterious circumstances while in Moscow
) in 1953, shortly after Stalin's death, and for a while his embalmed body was displayed in a glass coffin in the main hall here. The whole affair was inspired by and modelled on Lenin's mausoleum
(like Dimitrov's in Bulgaria'
s capital Sofia
). With the advent of De-Stalinization, however, Gottwald had to move out too. His body was cremated in 1962 and his ashes were later interred in a regular grave in Olšansky cemetery (see below).
Recently, the whole complex was refurbished and a museum exhibition
included (about "Czech and Czechoslovak Statehood"). I didn't see this though as it was closed at the time of my visit (on a Monday, also closed Tuesdays and in winter Wednesdays, otherwise open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 60 CZK). Apparently the exhibition includes parts of the control room/lab of the former Gottwald mausoleum. At the bottom of the hill towards the city centre there's also the Army Museum
(Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., free). From there, steep zig-zagging paths lead up the hill. More paths, and a set of very steep steps, lead up from the southern side of the hill. The only access by road (also far less steep) is from the east, but there's no public transport (other than taxi, of course). [50.0885,14.4497
On Castle Hill on the other side of the river, a hidden side street holds a very quirky little surprise: a "KGB Muzeum
". It isn't really so much a museum proper as a random collection of weapons, militaria and Soviet
memorabilia of all sorts. Visitation is by "guided tour" – conducted by the eccentric Russian proprietor/curator himself. In the course of his enthusiastic and at times highly theatrical "performance" he points out various intriguing items such as miniature cameras, James-Bond-like weapons disguised as cigarette packets and such like. In the basement room there's a death mask of Lenin
(I'd seen one before, in Gyumri
, so maybe there are several around? Or maybe they're not all genuine ...) The gulag
system is also mentioned in passing, but overall the emphasis is more on KGB
methods, military equipment and, in particular, combat. The tour is normally conducted in English (in a heavy accent – but that kind of adds to the Russki-exotic quirkiness). It's not cheap, though, at 300 CZK a head for such a small museum and a tour that lasts less than an hour. Opening times: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; location: at Vlašska 13 in Mala Strana. [50.0872,14.3996
Prague also has one of the world's most impressive old Jewish quarters
– many Jewish buildings, especially synagogues, survived the destructive Nazi
years in good shape or have been restored so that the complex still forms a remarkable whole, feeling quite complete and real. The fact that it survived was no "oversight" on the part of the Nazis. In fact they wanted the quarter to be turned into a kind of museum – to show the general public the "subhuman" and by then "extinct" culture of Judaism vis-à -vis Aryan superiority. Thankfully, that sick plan never came to fruition. However, most visitable sites of Prague's Jewish quarter are still merely memorials even today. These are in part of special interest to the dark tourist too, in particular as some include artefacts and pictures from the concentration camps
(in particular Theresienstadt/Terezin
Together with Charles Bridge and Castle Hill, the old Jewish quarter ranks amongst the top tourist sites the city has to offer visitors. Consequently, it can get pretty crowded at peak times here too. It's located to the north-west of the Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti) around Maiselova Street in Josefov. The central reservation/ticket office for all Jewish quarter sights is to be found at No. 3a U Starého hřbitova. [50.09001,14.41711
The medieval Jewish cemetery at the heart of the quarter is certainly the most famous of its kind and the most visited one (in particular by non-Jewish tourists). The image of the densely packed and stacked headstones has become almost iconic for what a Jewish cemetery is expected to look like. So if you are only ever to visit one Jewish cemetery, make it this one. An additional touristy treat this quarter offers to visitors is the fact that the famous writer Franz Kafka lived and worked here – a fact that gets especially pushed at the Kafka-House itself.
Some commercialism of the "scary tales" variety is also directed at people interested in the legend of the Prague Golem. This is sort of a Jewish version of the Frankenstein's monster story type. According to the legend, a local rabbi, with only the best of intentions, created the Golem from clay and made him come to life, which, however, had to be taken from him again when the Golem got out of control and turned violent. (It really does sound strikingly similar, but apparently is a much older legend than the better known literary Frankenstein "immortalized" by Shelley.) The lifeless dusty remains of the Golem are reputed to be still housed under the roof of the "Old-New Synagogue" …
Those with a taste for enchanting cemeteries should also head for Prague's largest, Olšanské hřbitovy
. Parts of this huge necropolis are very atmospherically overgrown – especially the westernmost section – and feature many cool gothic mausoleums, some in a semi-ruined state. Perfect horror-movie settings! There are also numerous interesting sculptures, from the more typical angel statues to much more idiosyncratic specimens. Amongst the prominent people buried here is Jan Palach – the student who in 1968 set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square in protest against the crushing of the Prague Spring
. The ashes of Klement Gottwald were also moved here from his former mausoleum (see above) in 1990. The cemetery is easily reached by tram or Metro (best stop to get out at is Flora), opening times vary with the seasons (at least from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.,), and admission is naturally free. [50.079,14.465
Finally, there's Prague's uniquely shaped three-legged TV tower
. It was once declared the second ugliest building in the world (that's unfair, though – most of the world's average apartment blocks are much uglier). It comes with the usual observation galleries and restaurant with a view and even sports – much more unusually – a "one room hotel" (very pricey, as you can imagine). The dark element, however, comes from the sculptures that adorn it. These look like oversized human babies
that crawl up and down the tower's shafts. On closer inspection, however, you find that they don't have faces. Instead there's just a fold that looks a bit like a bar code down the front of their heads. It looks like something straight out of one of the scarier "Doctor Who" episodes. The tower is in the middle of a residential area in the Žižkov district (Prague 3); the nearest Metro station is Jiřího z Poděbrad . Google maps locator:[50.081,14.451
Access and costs: Easily accessible, but no longer a cheap place.
: Prague, being one of THE tourist destinations in Europe, is easy enough to get to. For those who need to fly in there are countless connections, including some with a variety of budget airlines. But Prague can also be reached easily by train, e.g. from Berlin
(ca. four hours away). Of course there are coach connections too. And in theory you could drive there in your own car – only I'd rather advise against this, if only due to the navigational difficulties to be encountered when driving in this city (without a GPS at least – last time I did so it took me a whole hour to find my way out of the city after I had taken just one wrong turn). Parking is also very restricted.
The inner city can comfortably be explored on foot as most of the major sights are within walkable distances from each other. Otherwise, use the good network of public transport, especially the trams or the three Metro lines. The latter mainly serves to connect the city centre with the outer districts of Prague, where some of the larger hotels are also located.
Owing to Prague's ever increasing popularity with tourists over the last couple of decades, costs for accommodation, food and drinks
, and transportation have gone up so much that in the touristic centre they are now generally comparable to the price levels encountered in Western capital cities.
The same is true for the tourist sights, including the Jewish quarter. Here you can either pay for admission to each of the sites individually, or get a somewhat cheaper combined ticket, which still sets you back a hefty 480 Crowns (nearly 20 Euros)! Note, also, that Jewish sites are closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Otherwise the general opening hours are: daily between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. (only to 4:30 p.m. in winter). You can get guided tours of the Jewish quarter from a range of operators, but frankly, these should really only be considered if you have a genuinely profound interest in these places and their history. Otherwise it's perfectly feasible to do them on your own, independently.
There are plenty of other guided tours on offer too, some of which may indeed be of particular interest to the dark tourist. Most importantly there's the "Communism & Nuclear Bunker
Tour" – mainly because that's the only way to see that bunker. The same company also offers a range of further "Special Tours" on themes such as "Underground", "Dungeons and Terror" or "Ghosts and Legends". Furthermore, another company offers special WWII
-Tours (ca. 2 hours, 600CZK, as in October 2013). The latter includes as its main asset a visit to the St Cyril and Methodius church crypt
(admission and tram fare included) but also points out various other sites of dark historical interest.
Time required: In order to get a decent impression of Prague, you should have at least a whole weekend. This is the typical "city break" time most people spend here – however, most would also agree that the city deserves more time for more extensive exploration to include some bits off the well-beaten (and overcrowded) track. Up to a week could easily be filled with a more extensive itinerary.
Of course, Prague could also be worked into a longer itinerary taking in e.g. Krakow
in the south of Poland
, or in combination with destinations in the south-east of Germany
or the east of Austria
, for instance, is easily reached by train).
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Prague is one of the world's top destinations for short city breaks and offers all the trimmings, from the cultural to the downright tacky. Indeed, the overload of blatant tourist traps has been taken to new heights in Prague. Probably nowhere else do you encounter such a densely packed conglomeration of souvenir shops, offering more or less the same tacky touristy crap. How they can all survive is a mystery to me. And their numbers are rather going up than down too.
On the other hand, dedicated shoppers (with the prerequisite stamina) can also hit upon some real good finds and bargains in between all the tacky stuff.
The main throng of tourists pushes through the streets between Wenceslas Square and the Old Town Square, with its astronomical clock besieged by huge crowds on an hourly basis, and its marvellous Tynsky Church, further on through the bottleneck that is the famous Charles Bridge, and up the Castle Hill with its gothic St Vitus Cathedral.
Off the heavily beaten tracks flooded by tourists at all times, surprisingly quiet spots can be found offering an oasis of peace and calm too, e.g. by the river banks if you just walk a little up from the Charles Bridge.
Naturally, you can also do a range of mainstream tourist day excursions from Prague as a base; the most popular are probably the ones to the spa town of Karlovy Vary, to the Castle of Karlstejn, or to the incredibly picturesque town Cesky Krumlov (also a UNESCO world heritage site).
- Prague 01 - victims of communism memorial
- Prague 02 - Vitkov Hill in the distance
- Prague 03 - National Monument
- Prague 04 - socialist realist relief
- Prague 05 - when the Soviets were still welcome
- Prague 06 - Prague Spring commemorated
- Prague 07 - KGB museum
- Prague 08 - old Jewish cemetery
- Prague 09 - old Jewish cemetery
- Prague 10 - Mendelssohn is on the roof
- Prague 11 - Jewish memorial plaque
- Prague 12 - atmospheric Olsansky cemetery
- Prague 13 - Olsansky cemetery mourning figure
- Prague 14 - Olsansky cemetery heroic tombstone
- Prague 15 - Olsansky cemetery beauty in death
- Prague 16 - TV tower
- Prague 17 - scary babies on the TV tower
- Prague 18 - Museum of Communism advert
- Prague 19 - Powder Tower on Republic Square
- Prague 20 - one of the last victims of WWII died here
- Prague 21 - Castle Hill by night
- Prague 22 - view down from Castle Hill
- Prague 23 - in Mala Strana
- Prague 24 - idyllic
- Prague 25 - across the river
- Prague 26 - city centre
- Prague 27 - art nouveau
- Prague 28 - gothic
- Prague 29 - Old Town Square with horses and Tynsky church
- Prague 30 - Old Town Square and astronomical clock
- Prague 31 - Old Town clock tower
- Prague 32 - modern architecture - Dancing House
- Prague 33 - unusual church
- Prague 34 - wobbly
- Prague 35 - good beer
- Prague 36 - down to the underground
- Prague 37 - ghostly statue