A Walking Tour of Prague’s Old Town. And things to consider when choosing a guide.

a walking tour of prague's old town header

If you google “walking tours in Prague” you’ll get a lot of options, including a lot of  “free” walking tours. These are very popular for obvious reasons. In our case we decided to opt for a free tour because we didn’t want to commit to anything up front. We chose the most popular free walking tour on Trip Advisor (the one featuring the red-shirted guides) and showed up at the meeting point.

It didn’t take long to realize that the tour wasn’t for us. Circled around the red-shirted guide were about 20 (loud) kids in the 17 to 20 age bracket. The guide wasn’t much older. Totally not our demographic. I wondered how much we’d appreciate the tour.

Anna saved us. 10 feet away, a contrast with her green shirt and umbrella, she also offers “free” walking tours. Unlike the other company, she was standing there by herself. We actually ended up being the only people on her tour.

We had an excellent tour that lasted about 3 ½ hours and learned a lot about Prague and Czechs in general. We also got a lot of juicy insights and historical tidbits. I’ll get into that in a minute. But before I do I just wanted to clear this up; 1) guides for the larger free walking tour companies are generally not licensed, 2) they are not employees of the companies, they are free-lance guides, often hired because they can speak the language, 3) they are generally not Czech.
Anna is both a licensed guide and a Czech, and it was actually her insights on Czech culture and as well as all the juicy little stories that made this tour much more than just a “walking” or “historical” tour*.

*I also want to clear up that we received no compensation of any type for recommending Anna. We’d just like to encourage others to support local small business while at the same time getting the best value for money.

 

old town square, Prague

Above: Tyn church and the Old Town Square

We love Europe because of its varied history and culture. Where else in the world, in such a small geographic space, do you have such a history of wars, plagues, alliances, changing borders, regional conflicts, and religious persecution? It’s a diverse continent with complicated and ever-changing relationships. I find it fascinating. One of the first things I had noticed when chatting with our taxi driver upon our arrival was his indifference when I mentioned Germany reaching the final of the World Cup. I had sensed that Czechs may not be such great lovers of their neighbors. It was the first thing I asked Anna and what I received was a very honest account of how most Czechs feel about their place in Europe and the countries surrounding them.
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Juicy insights and historical tidbits:

– Despite Nazi history, the Germans are not the most despised of the Czech Republic’s neighbors. That belongs to Russia. And again, surprisingly, that is not so much to do with Russian control of Czechoslovakia after the war but rather the Russian intrusion into Czech affairs today. Anna mentioned that the Russians are involved in everything economic and control many of the stores. You’ll see many of the stores in Prague run by Russians and she told me to note all the Russian Matryoshka dolls on the shelves. The Russian mob is very much involved in Czech affairs. I found that interesting because I had just read that the popular Czech Spa town of Karlovy Vary (less than 2 hours away from Prague) is overrun by Russian tourists and, supposedly, Russian mafia money. The perception of the Russians is that they throw their money around and treat the Czechs like dirt. They’re not well liked.

Czech history and identity is shaped by the old Kingdom of Bohemia which included the Czech Republic at its center along with eastern Germany, western Poland, and northern Austria. Czechs feel more of a kinship to these people than the Slavs further to the east.

The country of Czechoslovakia was an odd pairing, a coupling of two very different peoples. I mention the Czech identity above – Slovak identity and history is more closely aligned to Hungary. The unified country lasted for 76 years, from 1918 to its peaceful dissolution in 1993. The way Anna described it was like a marriage that should have never happened. I didn’t sense huge animosity in the relationship, it sounded more like low-level bickering and poking fun of each other. The Czech Republic’s national anthem’s first verse translates to “ Where is my homeland, where is my homeland” – Slovaks make fun it this, saying the Czechs drink too much beer and are perpetually stumbling around drunk trying to get home. Anna recounted the story with a chuckle. Obviously Czechs can laugh at themselves.

the least religious country on the planet? 20% of Czechs consider themselves religious. They’re evenly split between Protestants and Catholics. Anna said probably more Czechs believe in Star Wars than religion. On that note, the character Jabba the Hutt was supposedly named on the basis on the Czech translations for “toad” and “snake”.
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Astronomical clock on the side of the Old Town Hall, Prague

Above: Astronomical clock on the side of the Old Town Hall.

Anna showed us around the Old Town Square, which has been a market square since the 11th century. What few know is that it actually specialized in the slave trade, the town being a conduit between east and west Europe. She pointed out the Old Town Hall with the famous Astronomical clock on one side (this post describes it much better than I ever could). In front of the building you’ll see 27 crosses marked on the sidewalk. They identify the spots where 27 prominent Czech participants of the Czech revolt against the Habsburgs were beheaded on June 21, 1621. The Old Town Hall is actually much smaller than when it was built – the building was burned down by the Nazis in the last days of WWII because it is where they kept their important documents. Most of it was not rebuilt, a park stands where the rest of the building used to be. Prague actually had little damage during most of the war, Hitler loved the city (but hated the people). In fact, the worst damage of the war was caused by the US Air Force. How and why you ask? They confused Prague for Dresden (Germany), an hour and a half away. Hard to believe.
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walking tour of the Old Town

Above: rough map of our tour route.

There was a lot of interesting information along the tour, a route that led us from the Old Town Square to the Church of St. James, up to Powder Tower (located right next to the impressive Municipal House), down Na Příkopě and past the Museum of Communism (which I’m told is really worth a visit), and up to Wenceslas Square in the New Town. From there we continued what is essentially a circle around the Old Town Square, passing the Klementium (Eastern Europe’s largest library) and going into Prague’s Jewish Quarter. Along the way Anna included descriptions of the different architectural styles used and the architects and history behind some of the buildings. I won’t go through every sight we saw on the tour, it would make this post too long. I’ll let the photos, and some of the captions below them, do the talking.

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St.-James-Church-Prague

Above: St. James Church (Kostel Sv. Jakuba), one of the city’s most impressive churches built in the 13th century. It has an amputated arm, supposedly over 400 years old, hanging off a hook on the wall which stories say is that of a thief trying to steal jewels from the statue of the Virgin Mary. According to the legend, the statue of the Virgin Mary grabbed his arm and held it there. When priests discovered him the next morning they had to cut off the arm. It’s hung there all this time as a warning to potential thieves.
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Powder-Tower-Prague-2

Above: street leading up to the Powder Tower. This Tower is a former gate to the Old Town and is one of many towers in Prague. Right next to it is the Municipal House, a ‘pearl of Czech Art Nouveau’. It was built between 1905 – 1911 and has Prague’s largest concert hall. Hour-long tours, daily between 10:00 – 18:00 are recommended.

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Na Příkopě street, Prague

Above: Along Na Příkopě street, a busy pedestrian boulevard with a few interesting museums including the Museum of Communism. More interestingly, “NaPříkopě” means “on the moat” – this used to be a 12 foot deep moat protecting the boundaries of the Old Town.

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Wenceslas Square, Prague

Above: Wenceslas Square (which is actually more of a grand boulevard). Czechs come here to celebrate, mourn, and protest. It was here that Czechs and Slovaks congregated to push for freedom from Soviet rule in November of 1989. The ‘Velvet Revolution” ended soon after with the election of Václav Havel as the president of the free Czechoslovakia.
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hanging-Freud-Prague
Above: Statue of Sigmund Freud “Hanging out” by famous Czech sculptor David Černý. Location: Husova street, near the Bethlehem Chapel.

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art nouveau buildings of the jewish quarter
Above: The Jewish Quarter has some of the most beautiful buildings in the city (categorized as “Art Nouveau”). 

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Kafka statue, prague
Above: The statue of writer Franz Kafka, 1883 – 1924. Like Freud further above, Kafka was born in what is now the Czech Republic. The statue was the ending point of our tour.

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Overall it was an excellent tour and we would highly recommend Anna because of her thorough knowledge of history and architecture. This tour was for us an introduction to both Prague and the Czech Republic and we felt we learned a lot. We were lucky to have Anna to ourselves – my favorite part of the tour was questioning her on how Czechs feel about their place in Europe and their relationships with their neighbors. I find that kind of cultural stuff fascinating. Disappointments? I would have liked seeing the Charles Bridge and the views of the river. I would recommend that Anna make a small detour in the area of the Klementium, just to show clients a glimpse of the bridge and the castle on the other side. It would also give her the perfect opportunity to try to upsell her other tour, the “Castle Tour”. That’s my marketing tip 😉 . Overall we give this tour a 4 out of 5.

* Note that although this is a “free” walking tour you are expected to tip. Between the two of us, we gave her 1000 Kč, the equivalent of about $55 Canadian ($51 US). That’s the price of many paid walking tours (they go for about 500 Kč/person). We also took into account that we were the sole participants, it was essentially a private tour. 

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Prague July 12, 2014 annaAnna does the “Old Town Tour” and the “Castle Tour”. For more information email guideAnna@email.cz and check out her website: Pragueando

 

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Sarah commented on my last post that she’d like to see something about Czech food.  Lucky for us Anna had some inexpensive restaurant recommendations. Below is what I ate at Restaurant Sedm Konselu.

Restaurant Sedm Konselu, Prague

In Tuscany, I had Penne Alla Vodka. In Montreal, I had de Carpaccio D’agneau. In Prague, I had the “Farm Plate”. It was actually very good.

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Feel free to comment with recommendations, tips, or your stories on Prague or the Czech Republic. I’m always looking to supplement the above and welcome all constructive feedback!

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Comments

  1. It sounds like you got a great deal and made the correct choice in Anna. I know I’d prefer her tour than one with a bunch of loud teenagers.

    I’m also very envious. I adore Prague but haven’t been since March 2001. Sounds like a lot has change, not just the introduction of free walking tours.

    I’ve been on one free walking tour so far and that was in Melbourne. I would recommend it.

    Those Russians really know how to win people over don’t they? I know the Chinese don’t speak very highly of them. In my brief interactions with Russians I’ve found them to be rude and arrogant. Hopefully that is only a small minority as I wouldn’t want to stereotype them. I’d rather give credit where credit is due.
    The Guy recently posted…Why Do I Have To Get Off The Plane?My Profile

    • I really don’t know Russians too well and I don’t want to stereotype them either – but yes, “rude” and “arrogant” is exactly how some have described them. Having said that, we’ve met a few Czechs who look like thugs, with big bull necks, thick bodies and expressionless stonefaces. Wouldn’t want to meet some of them in a dark alley after a bad day. But we’ve also met some people who’ve smiled and were friendly. So I’ll reserve judgment until we’ve been here a while. As for the Chinese – if they don’t speak highly of them then that is saying a lot!!

      That’s the thing with free tours – they are ‘free’ so you may just get the kids or cheap tourists who aren’t as committed. I believe you usually get what you paid for. But in this case we got lucky with Anna and it was a fun tour.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Truly interesting post. I don’t know how you kept all the facts straight but thanks for sharing all the tidbits, especially about how locals feel about their neighbors. My favorite: the incredible architecture shown in your amazing pictures. WOW.

    • Thanks Sarah! Did you like the photo of the “Farm Plate”? Sorry, I forgot the rule that bloggers have to take the photo before taking a bite…

  3. Oh I love the dumplings they serve at nearly every meal – yum!
    Gotta say, you’ve created a great resource on your site for anyone planning on visiting Prague and for those of us who have been… you bring back sweet (and delicious) memories.
    Maria Falvey recently posted…Wild Birds of FlameMy Profile

    • I also love dumplings. My parents are German and when I was a kid my mom would often serve dumplings with roast pork or turkey. With beets and sauerkraut. So the first thing I wanted to eat here was something similar.
      Thank you for commenting Maria!

  4. This sounds like a great tour and an awesome way to learn more about Prague..
    Valen-This Way Paradise recently posted…TRAVELING TO SICILY? DON’T MISS ERICE! THESE PHOTOS SHOW YOU WHY!!My Profile

    • Thanks Val. There are a million tours available in Prague, a very competitive market. Overall after taking two tours (I’ve got another post coming up) I think the quality of tours pretty high here and you get good value for money. But this was definitely a great tour and I think we were lucky to be the only participants.

  5. WoW you are very lucky to find Anna, looks like you had an incredible private tour.
    It’s so important to have a good guide on these kind of tours. Loved the article & photos.
    Freya recently posted…EBC Trek Day 2: Phakding to MonjoMy Profile

  6. Awesome pictures. My favorite is the one of the church. Prague looks very nice. I am going to refer to this when we visit. Very lucky you had a private tour.
    Kemkem recently posted…Sliema, Malta’s Beverly HillsMy Profile

  7. How fortunate that you lucked into Anna! Bet she’ll be getting more visitors on her free tours now :-). Having an excellent guide really brings the history of a place alive, doesn’t it. Hope we visit Prague some day soon…
    Sand In My Suitcase recently posted…Snapshot Story: Swimming in DubrovnikMy Profile

    • Thank you both – I hope we can bring her a little traffic 🙂 . I always have a problem with big companies undercutting the little guys and if I can I’ll always try to give support to small local companies.

  8. Your photos are wonderful! Thank you for sharing. We will definitely contact Anna when we visit Prague next summer. We plan to stay 4 nts/3 days, do you think that’s enough? I was hoping to take a day trip to Dresden but with only three full days in Prague, it may not be practical.

    • Hi Mila – yes, Prague can be done in 4 days but you would have to stick to the highlights. We were there 3 months and liked the city more as we got to know it, was a great experience. Most people can’t do that but I do recommend taking as long as possible.
      Dresden great but you’re right its not practical. Only a 2 1/2 hour train ride but you’ll end up losing at least half a day getting in/out of train stations. I’d save it for the next time if you can swing more time. Also, if you ever do go to Dresden – Bad Schandau, the stop about 30 minutes out of Dresden, is great place for hiking and canoeing. And Hresko, not far from there (but on the Czech side) also popular. If you have time and would like to see some really nice geography try to spend a weekend in this area.

Thanks for reading! Feedback is always appreciated!

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