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Prague Essentials

Moody, romantic, historic, mysterious -- it's impossible to put a single label on Prague because it's a city that truly is the sum of its parts.

prague old town historicModern-day Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is shaped by a storied past that dates back to the ninth century. Historical figures include the larger-than-life Bohemian Emperor Charles IV and, later, Empress Maria Theresa. In more recent times, the former Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Germans between 1939 and 1945. While it suffered the hardships of World War II, Prague saw less extensive bombing than many other European cities did. As a result, the city today is a wonderful, open-air gallery of largely undisturbed architectural styles that span the centuries: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Art Nouveau and Cubist. It's not an overstatement to say there is no other place quite like it.

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Czechoslovakia, liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, operated as a Soviet-style state for decades. Not until the 1970's did dissident groups begin to organize against the Communist regime. But democracy was slow to take hold. It wasn't until after the famed Prague spring uprising in 1968 and the student-led Velvet Revolution in 1989 that playwright and former political prisoner Vaclav Havel was elected president. Full, multi-party elections under a new constitution were held in 1992. One year later, after the Czech Republic and Slovakia split into two nations, Havel was re-elected president of the Czech Republic.

Today's Praha, as this city of 1.3 million is called, is becoming more of a tourist destination and an increasingly Westernized commodity. It's not unusual to see Austrians, Germans, Russians and Americans following tour guides, with their ubiquitous raised umbrellas, through Prague Castle and the warren of cobblestone streets that make up Old Town. But that's just part of the city's present-day persona. Experience Prague for just a few days, and you also get the feeling that this is a place that is still defining itself. If history is any indicator, it is just that.

What to See
If Prague has a visual signature, it is Prague Castle, the hilltop fortress that has dominated the city since the 9th century. There is no place better to view the so-called City of 100 Spires (though there are hundreds more than that across the city skyline). Said to be the largest ancient castle in the world, the complex has been reconstructed four times over the centuries and still serves as the seat of the presidency. When the president is in the country, his flag is flown. The grounds have four courtyards, a royal palace and several museums. An on-site cathedral, started in 1344, remarkably was not completed until 1929. There is a changing of the guard at the castle at the top of each hour, as well as a ceremony at noon, all with much ado.

As any local will tell you, no visit to Prague would be complete without a stroll across Charles Bridge. The bridge, with its commanding 30 statues, straddles the Vltava River and has been Prague's lifeline for centuries. Armies, monarchs and now tourists have all trooped across the bridge, completed in the early 1400's. The Charles, named for famed Bohemian emperor Charles IV, has two towers worth climbing, even if only for the photo opportunities. There's also a museum with information about the history of the bridge.

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astronomical clock old town square prague Old Town, anchored by Old Town Square, is a colorful collection of restaurants, shops and a stunning hodgepodge of architecture that includes Gothic towers, a premier Art Nouveau exhibition hall and Cubist houses. Vendors, sausage stands and, seasonally, a Christmas market enliven the square, which is also home to Prague's famous Astronomical Clock. The clock, installed in 1410, is the only astronomical clock in the world still operating. Every hour between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., two cuckoo clock windows open and statues of the 12 Apostles parade past, while the Grim Reaper rings his bell.

Josefov, Prague's Jewish quarter, represents the most well-preserved complex of Jewish historical monuments in all of Europe. It's a strange little place because the former Jewish ghetto -- which includes six synagogues, a town hall and the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe -- now houses chic boutiques and galleries in what were once overpopulated medieval alleys. Most of the original Jewish quarter was demolished after 1893 to make way for a redevelopment project, but the buildings that did survive are testimony to Prague's Jewish culture.

The highest building in the Czech Republic, TV Tower Praha, is a modern edifice, built in 1986 under the auspices of the Soviet Union. Disparaged by many locals, the skinny silver tower is jokingly referred to as "The Russian Finger," said to offer the nicest view of the city because the tower itself isn't in it. A panoramic observation deck is open daily.

A number of Vltava River cruises, some with dinner and music, originate at the Charles Bridge, among other places. One of the most popular, called Jazzboat, boards at 8 p.m. and features live jazz and dinner. The ship departs from Terminal 5, across from the Intercontinental Hotel.

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Even if you don't use the metro system, check out a subway station just to ride the escalator. They're extremely high and steep and have become featured fodder on YouTube.com. (Go to the site, enter Prague escalator in the search bar and you'll see what we mean.)

Prague is a town that thrives on classical music, and concerts are easy to come by. The Prague Castle Consort (flute, viola and piano) performs a daily midday program of selections from Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Beethoven and Dvorak, among others. The 60-minute concerts start at 1 p.m. at Lobkowicz Palace in the castle complex.


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