Prague – an architectural gem in the heart of Europe

Charles Bridge, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Prague Castle, the Cathedral of St Vitus, Charles Bridge and the astronomical clock on Old Town Square are some of the architectural jewels that attract millions of visitors to Prague every year. What is special about the city is its historic authenticity documenting the city’s urban development of over a thousand years. The integral complex of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings, its romantic cobbled alleys and gas lamps give visitors the impression that they have travelled back in time.

Charles Bridge,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“This is the first time we’re here and it is a really beautiful, beautiful country. The architecture here is amazing.”

“We live in London and there are some pretty parts of London, but here the whole city looks stunning.”

“My fiancé and I would love to come back to Prague. It has beautiful sights; beautiful architecture and the people here are amazing.”

“We are standing on Charles Bridge. It is an absolutely beautiful landmark. It is really cool to see it after reading about it before I came. It is even beautiful at night, because it is all lit up. And it is not as busy as I thought it would be, which is fabulous.”

“I like the scenery of Praha. I can see the old buildings and the new buildings and the history. The food is good too. I like it here. I want to come back.”

“Prague is a great city, we are having a great time. We are from Pennsylvania, USA. We have been enjoying all the sights. It feels like Disneyland; only its real. It’s a great city.”

Prague is a city of myths and legends and according to one legend its origin dates back to 8th century when the Czech duchess and prophetess Libuše stood on a rocky cliff high above the Vltava River and prophesied: "I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars." She then ordered a castle and a town called Praha to be built on the site. The 17th century Jewish chronicler David Solomon Ganz claimed that the city was founded as Boihaem in 1306 BC by the ancient king Boyya. There is no evidence to back either of those claims, but in any case Libuše’s prophesy came true – a glorious city arose on the banks of the Vltava River.

Asian tourists on Old Town Square: photo: Gareth1953 All Right Now on / CC BY
Its Old Town and historic center, built between the 11th to the 18th centuries, is admirably preserved both in terms of individual monuments and the townscape. It is this authenticity in terms of the Prague skyline, structures, materials, decor and architectural details that has put the entire Prague historic centre on the list of UNESCO Cultural Monuments. Barbora Hrubá spokesperson for Prague City Tourism cites the biggest tourist attractions.

“In the UNESCO protected part of the city lie the most popular and the most significant monuments, such as Prague Castle, Charles Bridge or the Old Town Hall. The Old Town Hall was visited last year by 870,000 people, Prague Castle by over a million.”

And Charles Bridge?

“There we only have an estimate of approximately three and a half million people, but it might actually be way more.“

Prague flourished particularly in the 14th-century during the reign of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia who transformed it into an imperial capital, at the time the third-largest city in Europe (after Rome and Constantinople). He ordered the building of the New Town, adjacent to the Old Town, and laid out the plans himself. He order the construction of Charles Bridge, to replace the Judith Bridge destroyed in a flood prior to his reign, personally laying the first foundation stone for the bridge, he founded Charles University, the oldest university in Central Europe and begun the construction of the Gothic Saint Vitus Cathedral which he never lived to see completed. Prague was elevated to an archbishopric in 1344, the year work on the cathedral started. Charles IV has great merit in making Prague what it is today.

Prague | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International
The listing of Prague’s historic centre, as well as Průhonice Park, located southeast of the city, on UNESCO’s list of cultural monuments 25 years ago brought some financial benefits as well as a significant rise in tourists who were only just beginning to discover the city dubbed by Western journalists “the Paris of the East”. But it also brought new responsibilities and while the lack of funds during the communist years paradoxically helped preserve the city’s architectural heritage which remained in a dormant state for four decades, the arrival of new developers with finances and bold construction plans proved a threat to its historic legacy. The Prague planning authorities must now carefully weigh each new building in the UNESCO protected historic core as well as a buffer zone around it. Barbora Hrubá again.

“Prague was listed because of its specific urban development; the Medieval development, the organic architectural growth of the city. As I said, for us it is a great honour, and yet, there are rules and restrictions that we have to observe, in order to preserve the integrity of the city centre, its visual integrity, the city’s rooftops for example, which is threatened by developers. We cannot allow the building of skyscrapers for instance. The office building in Pankrác district has been under close UNESCO scrutiny for years and they are really measuring and assessing if it does not violate the panorama of the city.”

Cathedral of St. Vitus,  Wenceslas and Vojtěch at Prague Castle | Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio
With more money for sensitive repairs and maintenance the historic city centre –which had grown grey and shabby in the communist years – emerged in its true beauty. Its Gothic churches, Renaissance theatres and Baroque town halls were given a facelift and stood out, vying for attention. But as money flowed into the historic centre, reviving Prague’s historic legacy, its human inhabitants, the lifeblood of what was once a busy Prague quarter, flowed out. Few of the former residents could afford the new rents and flats were sold as good investments rather than a place to live. Gradually some of these historic areas became a showcase for tourists and filmmakers. Barbora Hrubá explains.

“The gentrification of the city is really huge. In the Lesser Quarter thankfully you still have a local community. There are the old restaurants and it is actually a village-like life of people who have lived there for generations. People who go to the local shops know each other, there are many festivals, many things that they do together. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same of the Old Town. The price of flats and houses rose so sharply that the locals mostly couldn’t afford to stay, and moreover ,the infrastructure and services in the city centre are focussed mainly on tourists. So it is very hard to find a school, a supermarket, a playground or even a parking lot. As Prague City Tourism, we do not have any direct influence or legal possibilities to prevent these things from happening. But we are trying to influence the City of Prague, we are stressing it is important for the locals to come back, because when the city is loved by the locals it is a more comfortable and enjoyable place for the tourists as well. We would not like to see the Prague city centre turn into a Disneyland of sorts, an empty city just for tourists.”

Tourists at Prague Castle | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International
Prague is the country’s biggest tourist attraction. Last year it was visited by seven million tourists. For a city of 1.4 million people this is quite a burden and at the peak of the tourist season many of its inhabitants stay clear of the most frequented areas which are teeming with visitors. So what are the prospects for the future and can Prague handle a further increase in tourists? Barbora Hrubá again.

“We really are on the border of getting far too many people. As I said in 2017 Prague was visited by 7 million people, which given the size of the city is really a lot. And most of them concentrate in the historic centre of the city which is quite a small area. Of course, when you come to Prague for the first time you really need to see the significant landmarks like the Astronomical Clock, Charles ‘Bridge or Prague Castle. But now we are focussing on getting the tourists to come back and visit also other places of interest. We are now promoting other parts of Prague –outside the historic city centre – for example Holešovice or Karlín that are coming up and they are getting more and more popular.”

The twenty-fifth anniversary of Prague’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has highlighted issues relating to this special status. They will be addressed in a number of related events scheduled to take place in the coming days and weeks. Jiří Skalický, head of the Historic Monuments Department at Prague City Hall outlines what’s ahead.

Jiří Skalický,  photo: Klára Stejskalová
“The city of Prague will celebrate its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site 25 years ago with an international conference. The conference, to be held on Dec 6-7 will focus on the city’s future, plns for its development and life in the protected historic core. People will also be able to visit an exhibition called Prague Not Realized which depicts projects that were considered but never built –and thus see what the city may have looked like. And finally the Historic Monuments Department at Prague City Hall is publishing a book of interviews with nine interesting personalities about their relationship to the city’s historic core –what the UNESCO listing gave Prague and what else it may bring.”