Perched on top of the hill overlooking the city making a dramatic fairy-tale scene sits the largest castle complex in the world. Reaching out of the center of it all are the Gothic spires of the castle cathedral which is the main highlight of the complex. For more than a thousand years, Czech leaders including the Holy Roman Emperor have ruled from this castle.
The main sights of the castle complex include St. Vitus Cathedral, the Old Royal Palace, the Basilica of St. George, the Castle Vineyard and the Golden Lane. The castle square courtyard is featured upon entering the complex and holds beautiful views of the city below. The square is lined with Czech president offices, palace buildings, churches and other notable building including the archbishop’s palace where the current archbishop still lives.
The castle gates feature two incredibly appealing and intimidating statues that greet you upon entering the complex. I was absolutely fascinated with these statues and they are probably the most memorable statues I have seen in Europe thus far. The guards of the castle stand underneath these statues.
Taking 700 years to fully complete, the castle cathedral is a jaw dropping Gothic masterpiece and is just as amazing as Notre Dame in Paris or Westminster Abbey in London. St. Vitus is a Catholic Church containing the tombs and relics of the first Habsburg kings and local saints. The cathedral began construction in the 1300’s but wars and plagues put it on hold. For 400 years a temporary wall sealed off the functional, yet unfinished cathedral. Half of the cathedral stood waiting to be finished until its completion in 1929. You can tell where the first part of the church ends and the newer part begins if you look close enough.
The fist day we visited castle it was raining and I’ll never forget watching the gargoyle rain gutters spew water out the sides of the cathedral. I’d never seen anything like it. It was so beautifully GOTHIC, my favorite style of architecture.
The castle complex has a gorgeous hillside vineyard that you can walk through on your way down the hill and out of the complex. St. Wenceslas vineyard is the oldest vineyard in Bohemia, founded by St. Wenceslas who farmed here in the 10th century. The vineyard had a recent renovation in the spring of 2008 after being neglected for some time and also quite difficult for the public to access. I feel quite lucky that I visited in 2010, and was able to enjoy this gem.
By the time we got to the vineyard, the rain had let up and it was an absolutely beautiful serene overcast. Every color was emphasized due to the recent rain.Not only is the vineyard itself gorgeous, but it has beautiful views of Prague. The overcast made the lighting perfect and I was able to get gorgeous pictures of the city. Do not overlook the vineyard when you are there! I could see where you could easily miss it and I’m so glad that I didn’t, because it was my favorite part of the whole castle experience.
Old Royal Palace
In the old royal palace, you are able to enter the actual room where one of the biggest events in European history began- the “Defenestration of Prague.” This event took place in one of the office rooms where in 1618, angry Czech Protestant nobles poured in and threw the two Catholic governors out of the window. An old law actually permitted defenestrations or throwing people out of the windows when necessary– ha! This event is what began the Protestant vs. Catholic 30 years’ war. Don’t worry, the governors didn’t die, they were saved by a giant pile of manure below!
St. George’s Basilica
St. George’s Basilica is the oldest surviving church building within the castle complex, founded in 920. St. George is a Romanesque church with a 17th century baroque facade. The convent behind the basilica houses the National Gallery’s collection of 19th-century Czech painting that you can also tour.
Just above the castle sits the once private grounds and residence of the communist presidents, which were later open to the public. Also slightly above the castle is the Strahov Monastery which I wish we would have visited. Founded in 1120, this monastery once had a booming economy with its own vineyards, brewery, and a beer hall which are all still open. The famous library within the monastery is gorgeous and would have been very worthy of a visit. The Monastery also holds superb views of Prague- Don’t miss this on your visit.
Just below St. George’s Basilica is a little street of colorful little houses that the castles soldiers and workers used to inhibit. The lane is said to have received it’s name when the emperor had some of his court alchemists trying to turn metal into gold while staying in the lane. Although this is said to be myth, there is a real story dating to the beginning of the 20th century of an old man living on the lane that was said to practice magic. He made secret experiments in his lab inside the house and in 1831 people in the Golden Lane heard a big detonation from his house. When fire fighters entered the house and distinguished fire, they found the old man dead with a yellow stone in his hand. Later on the stone was proved to be gold. Whether he had actually “made” the gold or had it all along, we’ll never know.
The lane holds souvenir and book shops you can wonder through. The oldest house on the street is said to be #20 and is to look just the same as it did in the 16th century.
Unfortunately, this little lane was closed the day we visited. I was able to peek my head through the gate and see the houses, but did not get to enjoy the full experience.
To tour or not too tour
As far as deciding whether you should take a designated tour of the castle or not, I would highly recommend NOT. Our castle tour in Prague was the first tour of our travels that started me thinking of the idea of becoming a do-it- yourself traveler.
Our experience began where we were to meet our tour group at a certain location in the old town. We were lost in the rain for over an hour trying to find the location. Once we found it, I realized we could have just taken the tram or a taxi by then without all the headache! We then waited at the location for the other tour members and finally took the bus up the hill to the castle. The tour guide had such a strong accent, I could barely understand what he was saying, not that it mattered because I had done enough research prior and with my guidebook, I didn’t really need him.
Once we arrived at the castle, we went at the tour groups pace going from place to place. We then waited in a rainy line to get into the castle. I was so mad because I couldn’t understand why we needed this tour guide anyway. We weren’t getting into the castle any faster with him being a guide and even if he had got us in without waiting, it would have been worth it to wait the small amount of time that we did, to not have to pay for a tour and go at the tour’s pace. To make things worse, we were forced to hang out with 2 older people that we didn’t know or care to know!
Once we got in the church, I wanted to go about on my own and at my own pace, but no, we were forced to listed to broken English history of the castle and go where the tour guide told us to go. After the cathedral, we went through a few other areas and then were forced to sit down for coffee and make small talk with the 2 other people in our group! I wasn’t at all thirsty and I just felt like I was wasting precious time. After the walk out of the castle through the vineyard, we were left to figure out how to get back on our own. I was furious! What a waste of money! They couldn’t even give you a ride back?! I wanted to go back up to the castle to see all the stuff we’d overlooked, but it was too late now. We actually ended up going back to the castle the last day of the trip and went back through everything at our leisure.