Founded more than 1,000 years ago by Přemysl princes, the impressive if somewhat sombre Prague Castle complex - including the Old Royal Palace, three churches and a monastery - is an enormous festival of architectural styles: the final touches to the castle's look, including the present shape of St Vitus's Cathedral, were not added until the early 20th century. The complex seems strangely quiet these days, but it does still attract a steady stream of students, sketchbook-toting artists and - of course - tourists.
The grandiose façade enclosing the complex is the result of Empress Maria Theresa's desire to bring some coherence to the jumble of mismatched parts that the castle had become by the middle of the 18th century. But the outcome of Nicolo Pacassi's monotonous design concept is uninspiring - 'an imposing mass of building in the factory style of architecture', as one 19th-century commentator put it. After Maria Theresa's son, Joseph II, attempted to turn the castle into a barracks, it was largely deserted by the Habsburgs. Václav Havel chose not to live here, although his presidential office was installed in the castle. However, he did his best to enliven the palace, opening it to the public and hiring the costume designer from the film Amadeus to remodel the guards' uniforms.
The palaces, chapels, museums, galleries and gardens serve as testament to the rise of the Přemyslids, the first documented Bohemian native dynasty, and every bloody, internecine struggle for power within that dagger-happy family and the later rulers and their competitors: the Jagellons, Charles IV, the Habsburgs and the Catholic Church, to name just the major players. The Golden Age of Charles, in the
mid 14th century, and the Nazis' march through the gates are just two events in the castle's relatively recent history that indicate its iconic value as the nation's grandest seat of power. Nowhere else in Prague resonates with as much national identity and symbolism, increased by the pride Czechs have taken since having had the castle returned to them in 1989.
The complex is undergoing makeovers and renovations as the Czech Republic's finances improve and the Catholic Church continues to assert its rights over the cathedral. Aside from a dozen rooms newly opened to the public beneath the Old Royal Palace, with excellent historic and architectural displays (since 1989 worthy of such a national treasure), the entire exterior of the Basilica of St George has been renewed, the Lobkowicz Palace has opened as a fully fledged museum, the city's best restaurant vista has opened in the Villa Richter, and the calendar is swelling with cultural series such as Jazz at the Castle (www.jazznahrade.cz).
You can't get away without spending at least half a day exploring the castle. Trouble is, neither can every other visitor to the city. To avoid the worst of the crush, come as early or as late in the day as you can. Another frustration is the almost complete lack of labelling in English, and lacklustre exhibits on the castle tour: the St Vitus crypt looks more like a concrete bunker, despite being the final resting place for the nation's hallowed forefathers. That said, most of the female volunteers installed around the castle and its palaces are friendly and forthcoming to visitors, and speak English.
Prague Castle Information
There's no charge to enter the grounds of the castle, but you will need a ticket to see the main attractions. One ticket covers entrance to the Old Royal Palace (which now has a large new museum on castle life), the Basilica of St George, the Golden Lane, the Daliborka Tower and the crypt and tower of St Vitus's Cathedral (except Jan-Apr & Oct-Dec, when the tower is closed and the Golden Lane is free). Entrance to the art collection of St George's Convent and the Prague Castle Picture Gallery are also included, but not the Toy Museum or the recently opened Lobkowicz Princely Collections museum.
Be warned that it's a stiff uphill walk to the castle from Malostranská metro station. The least strenuous approach is by tram 22; get off at the Pražský hrad stop. There's a handful of adequate cafés within the castle complex, if you don't mind paying high prices.