Few first-time visitors leave without seeing Prague Castle, but there's plenty more to the city than the grand old hilltop retreat. Both Malá Strana and Staré Město are rich in historic appeal, lined with churches, palaces and other glorious relics. There are also plenty of great art galleries, both ancient and modern. But perhaps Prague's main attraction is its beguiling, charismatic streetscape.
Hradčany's Prague Castle is both the official and the historic heart of the Czech Republic. The world's largest such complex of buildings, it's centred around the Gothic spires of St Vitus's Cathedral, and is first on many visitors' list of things to see in the city. The roots of the old Czech Přemyslid dynasty enfold the oldest parts of the Castle, but the president's office remains, flanked by the futuristic early 20th-century architectural accents of Josip Plečnik. Elsewhere, the various courtyards, palaces and chapels show off every significant early period of Prague's architecture, from the Romanesque Basilica of St George onwards.
The castle makes a logical starting point for a stroll around the highly walkable city, and not just because everything is downhill from here. For all that, Hradčany can feel like one vast museum, although a handful of characterful pubs, galleries and traditional dining rooms enliven the district as you move toward Loretanské náměstí.
Between Hradčany and the Vltava river, the Malá Strana quarter is a tapestry of its former histories: full of craftsmen's hovels during the medieval period; prize real estate granted to nobles for supporting the Habsburgs during the late Renaissance; a hotbed of poets bristling against foreign domination in coffeehouse cabals during the 19th century. Today, cottages, fabulous palaces and smoky cafés from each era stand side by side on its narrow streets.
The Baroque architecture in Malá Strana may prove to be the most over-the-top you'll see. It's a style that's epitomised by the immense, eye-catching Church of St Nicholas (Kostel sv. Mikuláše), which dominates the area. The nearby Church of our Lady Victorious (Kostel Panny Marie Vitězné), which hosts the supposedly miracle-working Bambino di Praga, still draws pilgrims, but the deeply skeptical Czechs never really were won over by all the religious excess.
Prague's right bank owes its beguiling layers to the Vltava river, which is responsible for the unique underworld of flat Staré Město (literally, Old Town). These innumerable vaulted, stone-walled spaces once sat at street level, but constant flooding of the Vltava during the 13th century prompted city fathers to raise the streets one storey to the level at which they lie today. Ordinary-looking doorways lead to underground labyrinths; small frontages hide surprisingly expansive buildings.
Prague's layers are such that longtime residents who have lived here for years still stop in amazement when an old passageway between favourite streets is reopened. Many of these walkways, through building courtyards, haven't seen the light of day for over 50 years, but now host designer hotels, one-of-a-kind shops and smart bars. Staré Město is a snapshot of how Prague is rediscovering itself, as it digs itself out from its grey pre-Velvet Revolution days.
This is where the city's commerce gets done, and is also where the uniquely Czech form of political dissent known as defenestration was perfected. All of Europe was plunged into the chaos of the 30 Years' War after city mugwumps were tossed from the windows of the New Town Hall (Novoměstská radnice), which overlooks Karlovo náměstí.
The constant traffic gridlock surrounding this square gives no hint of its past as a medieval horse market. Wenceslas Square, meanwhile, personifies modern Prague, whether for good or ill. The adjoining street of Na příkopě is the place to shop for lifestyle essentials, while the blocks south of the National Theatre (Národní divadlo)are still blooming as a fashionable, hedonistic nightlife hub.
A bend of the Vltava river wraps around the once-blighted Holešovice district, across the river to the north of Staré Město; Letná park, once home to a massive statue of Stalin, forms the high ground. Holešovice is shaking off its past as the city's slaughterhouse district: international trains stop here first, allowing visitors to hop right off and explore the area's range of hip clubs, award-winning dining rooms, forward-looking art galleries and, less thrillingly but perhaps more lucratively, trade fairs.
Dejvice & Bubeneč
To the west, the neighbourhoods of Dejvice and Bubeneč are lined with sleepy but elegant streets, dotted with embassies and century-old apartment buildings.
Vinohrady and Žižkov
To the east of Staré Město lie Vinohrady and Žižkov districts; once home to outlying vineyards and tenements, they now support some of the city's hottest music venues, drinking holes and ethnic restaurants. And south of Malá Strana lies Smíchov, newly transformed from an industrial wasteland into a buzzy retail and nightlife hub.