For as long as I can remember, my mother’s dream was to visit the Czech Republic, the country of origin of her paternal ancestors. My mother’s dream also became my father’s dream. Not much for traveling generally, it was the one place on earth outside of the United States that they talked about visiting.
This trip was always somewhere off in the future, more of a wistful hope than an actual plan, until one day my sister convinced them, and me, that it was time to book it. I am so incredibly grateful that she did that.
When you are a child growing up you feel like your parents are going to be with you forever–bigger and stronger than you and full of knowledge that you don’t have. When you get to adulthood this is such a part of your psyche that it’s hard to notice that they are aging even when it happens right before your eyes. Even then, you think of it more as a surface situation–hair gets grayer and more wrinkles appear–but you don’t let it mean that they are slipping away from you, that your time is limited.
We lost my dad to a stroke this year. It happened very suddenly and there is a part of me that still doesn’t believe it. As I sit down to write this post–sorting through pictures and re-living experiences–I see everything with a weighted perspective I couldn’t have had then, before I knew that very soon there would be a tragic twist in the story. I am so deeply happy that we seized the opportunity to check the one big item on my parent’s bucket list. If there is one thing that this past year and the pandemic has taught me, and all of us I think, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted. So when life offers up something wonderful . . . reach out and take it.
15 Things we Loved in the Czech Republic
01 Old Town Square
When we arrived in Prague, we headed first to Old Town Square to get our bearings and get introduced to the city. The architecture of the buildings is beautiful and distinctive. The Týn Cathedral enjoys a commanding presence (can you tell that one of its towers is bigger than the other one?). The square was a buzzing with activity; we learned that it has been a center of history and commerce for centuries. Also in the Square is the Old Town Hall, with its famous Astronomical Clock (more below). There are plenty of restaurants and food trucks around. However, we were advised to go a few blocks away from the square to enjoy better, more authentic food at half the price.
02 Old Town Hall Tower and the Astronomical Clock
I love a tower. It was just before sunset when we climbed the Old Town Hall Tower. We were treated to incredible views of the city at “golden hour.” I highly recommend viewing the city from this dazzling perch. When we descended we enjoyed the Astronomical Clock’s top of the hour display. This medieval astronomical clock has been operating since 1410! It is the oldest operating astronomical clock in the world. The history and the details are fascinating (find a tour guide or a good book to teach you about it). The clock itself is spectacular. This icon is a must-see.
03 Charles Bridge
The magnificent Charles Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in the world. It is the oldest bridge still standing above the Vltava River (2nd oldest bridge in the Czech Republic). For centuries, it was the most important connection between Prague Castle and Old Town. The best time to see the Charles Bridge is first thing in the morning. We got up early; the only other people there were couples doing bridal photo shoots and a group of nuns. I loved being able to have the bridge mostly to ourselves as we admired the statues and the views. An hour later the bridge was packed and it stayed that way until late into the night. It is worth it to get up and go early!
04 Prague Castle
Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world! We took a tour, which I recommend. A good guide will put into context the many things that you are seeing and point out details you would never notice on your own. So grateful for everything I learned from George, our guide. Although, as someone with a fair amount of Czech heritage, the history lesson did leave me feeling as though the Czech people have been used as pawns in everyone else’s power games. I was kind of mad about that on behalf of my tribe.
05 St. Vitus Cathedral
The St. Vitus Cathedral is inside the castle grounds. You pass through a large stone wall and immediately your eye is drawn up, up, up. This cathedral is imposing, gothic, and gorgeous. It is impossible to capture the beauty of the circular rosette window, which represents the creation of the world. This window is absolutely stunning, and only one of the many exquisite stained glass windows in this cathedral. This cathedral is also the burial place of kings and emperors. There is much to see and learn!
06 Jewish Quarter
The history of the Jewish Quarter and the treatment of Jewish people over centuries is an incredibly important, although heavy, part of Prague’s story. Several beautiful synagogues are here, including the Spanish synagogue (shown below on the left), and the Old-New Synagogue (shown below on the right), which is the oldest synagogue in central Europe. Also worth a visit is the Old Jewish Cemetery, which is one of the largest of its kind in Europe. Prague’s Jewish Quarter is the birthplace of renowned author Franz Kafka, who is honored and remembered with the statue in the center below.
07 John Lennon Wall
Since the assassination of John Lennon in 1980, this wall of ever-changing graffiti has served as a place for artists and activists to voice their support of freedom and democracy (and love of John Lennon). The wall is bold, colorful, rowdy, and full of spirit. Today it is embraced as a part of the city’s culture, but it was once a thorn in the side of the ruling communist regime.
One thing you will need to try at least once: Trdelník–a Czech pastry covered in cinnamon and sugar and sold by street vendors throughout the city. There are several variations to this delicious treat. You can have it straight up, or filled with melted chocolate and ice cream. I tried both! I found the smell of baking bread mingled with cinnamon-sugar drifting over the city to be delightful and irresistible.
09 Handmade Marionette Store
One of my dear friends, Lillie, purchased a beautiful set of marionettes to recreate the nativity. Her sweet marionette Christmas production is a highlight in her community every year. Before we went to Prague she mentioned to me that her marionettes were made in Prague. When we wandered past a marionette store, I had to go check it out. Little did I know that I was stumbling upon an important part of Czech culture. Czech puppet makers and puppeteers are some of the best in the world! The puppets we found were intricate, beautiful, and full of whimsy. In the store it was as if all of my childhood fairytales were dancing around me. If you are looking for a gift for someone that captures the spirit of the Czech people–a puppet would be a great choice!
10 The Infant Jesus of Prague
For this LDS girl who grew up going to churches with plain white cinderblock walls and scratchy carpet chair rails–this display was a lot to take in. It was wow. But I think it’s always good to experience the different ways that people and religions honor the things that are important to them; especially when it is different than what you are used to. The little statue wearing a purple robe depicts the Christ child. It is said to have originated in Spain more than 400 years ago. The Infant Jesus of Prague is cherished by many Catholics throughout the world. Many miracles are attributed to it–many people feel its presence blesses the city. The robes on the statue have been donated by benefactors over the years, and are changed depending on the liturgical calendar. The style of the altar is very baroque, and is drenched in gold.
11 Traditional Czech Cuisine
First of all, I am not sure if this is a common thing, or if it was just where we serendipitously ended up on this trip, but we ate most of our traditional Czech meals in old cellars. This, of course, especially with the added ambiance of taxidermy displays and live music, only enhanced the overall experience. I would describe Czech cuisine as being very comfort-foody. Meat, veggies, sauce, bread–you can’t ask for a more perfect winter meal.
12 Sedlec Ossuary
This is one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited in my life. Here’s how it came to be. In 1278 an abbot was sent to the Holy Land. He returned with a little bit of dirt from Golgotha, which he then sprinkled over the cemetery grounds. After that, EVERYONE wanted to be buried here. And then plagues happened–you know, Black Death–and some wars. Pretty soon they had a situation, with piles and piles of bones everywhere.
In the late 1800s a local woodcarver was tasked with putting the bones in order. He chose to do this with a bit of an artistic flare. So in addition to 4 large piles of bones in each corner, there are bone crests and bone garlands and bone chandeliers. They estimate that the ossuary houses the remains of 40,000 to 70,000 people. For me, the feeling inside was definitely sacred and solemn, like I feel when I am at any cemetery or memorial. This is the resting place of thousands of people and it definitely deserves to be respected as such. As far as burial places go, this one definitely tops my list as “most unforgettable.”
13 St. Barbara’s Cathedral
While you are in Kutna Hora, be sure to also visit the gorgeous St. Barbara’s Cathedral. My husband and I walked to it from the Sedlec Ossuary. But it is a long walk, so everyone else grabbed a taxi. The cathedral has lovely flying buttresses, and the exterior is elegant from all angles. The interior is fun to explore, with lots of interesting side rooms and a second story with statues and information about the cathedral’s construction and history. We were there during organ practice–a delightful happenstance–and it was fantastic to be in the space while it bloomed with music.
A sweet little town in the Czech countryside, Tabor doesn’t have any big snazzy draws, but I loved it for its quiet charm. Like I said before, I love a tower, and we found a door to a tower and decided to climb up. A paper taped to the door said that we would pay at the top. Climbing this bell tower is not for the feint of heart. It involves rickety ladders and crawling under the actual bell. At the top of the tower we found a 74-year-old man who collected our ticket money, and then showed us the views of the countryside from the small windows, as well as his very robust coin collection. Well into his 70s, he has climbed up and down the tower every day for decades, and I just fell in love with him.
From there, we were drawn to the town’s Chocolate Museum–because, chocolate. This place was quirky, weird, and tons of fun. You can explore some of the city’s old underground tunnels, where they have fairytale displays with characters made out of chocolate. (And when I say “fairytale” think Brothers Grimm, not Disney.) There are several floors of chocolate sculptures–with everything from trains to the Astronomical Clock to movie stars–and of course a little bakery shop where you can indulge your chocolate cravings.
15 Český Krumlov
Two words: bear moat. The castle here has a bear moat, and yes, there are actual bears in it (although they were hiding so I didn’t see them). If there is one place I wish we would have had more time to explore, it is Český Krumlov. But it just means that I am definitely going back someday. The castle was amazing, but doesn’t do tours in the off-season, so we were limited to the grounds. There is an amazing medieval wall/bridge from which you can view the village and surrounding countryside.
The city itself was charming and picturesque. I mean . . . look at it! I adored wandering through the cobblestone streets and peeking in the glowing shops. We even attended part of a mass service at the cathedral and were warmly greeted by the local worshipers. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at Papa’s Living restaurant, which I highly recommend. I’ll be back!
If you would like to visit the Czech Republic this year, here is a link to the U.S. Embassy in the Czech Republic for the latest advisories regarding Covid.
Want more travel ideas? Click here for some possibilities in Rome!