Historic jewel, culture capital, architectural wonderland – by any measure, Prague is one of the most captivating cities in Europe. Itʼs also one of the most compact, with a city center made for walking. A visitor can comfortably stroll through centuries in a single day, following in the footsteps of kings, martyrs, artists and revolutionaries while enjoying the modern comforts provided by baristas and brewmasters.

Charles Bridge and the old town, seen from Legion Bridge
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

In some ways, Prague has become a victim of its own success. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the city put out the welcome mat and the response was overwhelming. The number of visitors grew every year to just under 9 million in 2019. Which means that to truly enjoy the city, one should get off the beaten path. Itʼs easy enough to follow the crowds, and certainly unique attractions like Charles Bridge and the Astronomical Clock are not to be missed. But for a sense of the cityʼs true character and colorful past, itʼs best to leave the madding crowds behind.

Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler at Pohořelec
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

So we begin this walk in the lesser-traveled neighborhood of Hradčany, behind Prague Castle, where tram 22 or 23 will drop you at Pohořelec. The stern figures overlooking the stop are Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and German mathematician Johannes Kepler, two of the many luminaries summoned to the court of King Rudolph II in the late 1500s, when Prague was a leading center for the arts and sciences. When they weren't fighting with each other, Brahe and Kepler helped lay the foundations of modern astronomy.

Follow the left fork of Pohořelec as you walk toward the Castle, past arching colonnades and tidy shops, to Loretánské náměstí, a square that features a telling architectural contrast of the sacred and profane. The massive Černín Palác, a former fortress that served as the headquarters of the SS during the Nazi occupation of Prague, now houses the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opposite, the stunning Loreta offers a rich array of baroque sculpture and one of the most breathtaking pilgrimage sites in Central Europe. Carillon bells set a heavenly atmosphere for a replica of the Virgin Maryʼs home in the Holy Land (supposedly carried by angels to the Italian town of Loreto), a glittering golden chapel that houses the remains of two mummified saints and a priceless collection of jewel-encrusted religious artifacts fit for the Vatican.

Continuing down Loretánská will bring you to Hradčany Square (Hradčanské náměstí) and the front gates of Prague Castle, typically closed since security was tightened in 2016. Should you prefer to linger, a short walk around the corner to your left leads to an entrance where you should be prepared to wait in line during busy periods. Inside, the Gothic splendor of St. Vitus Cathedral towers over fabulous palaces, sumptuous ceremonial halls and 10 centuries of art and architecture. In warm weather, the expansive gardens on the north and south sides of the Castle are pleasant places to stop and refresh.

The Loreta
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

For now, we will give the Castle an admiring gaze and continue to the right, following the retaining wall (which affords spectacular views of the city) down and around onto Nerudova Street. This is one of the main tourist thoroughfares in Prague, but worth a brief visit to see the elaborate facades and quirky symbols that served as addresses before house numbers were introduced in the late 1700s – like the three violins at the home of a luthier (No. 12), a golden chalice marking the home of a goldsmith (No. 16) and the twin suns where Czech writer Jan Neruda lived (No. 47).

Near the bottom of the street, before it opens into Malostranské Square and the grand St. Nicholas Church, two restaurants cater to foreign tastes: U Tří Jelínků (No. 4) and the cozier Kavárna Good Eats (No. 8), both of which offer all-day English breakfasts. On the lower half of the square, the Malostranská Beseda (No. 21) is a good stop for coffee or a light lunch. For a serious slice of local culture, turn left on Zámecká before you enter the square and then left again onto Thunovská, where you will see U Hrocha – The Hippo, a small, raucous pub where politicians from the nearby Czech Senate can often be found plotting their next move over some of the tastiest beer in town.

The far end of the square empties into Mostecká, which leads directly to Charles Bridge. If the crowds are not off-putting, the iconic 600-year-old span will take you across the river to Karlova, which winds through the labyrinthine streets of Old Town to Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square).

Twin Suns at Nerudova no.47
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

Should the crush be too intense, turn right onto Lázeňská before you get to the bridge and follow it through the quiet back streets of Malá Strana as it bends left into Velkopřevorské náměstí. In a leafy setting opposite the French Embassy you will see the Lennon Wall, a symbol of free speech gone sour. Graffiti calling for political reform and freedom began appearing there after John Lennonʼs death in 1980, blossoming into a landmark that endured for nearly 40 years. Dissent was forbidden, but it kept appearing on the wall, framing a colorful portrait of Lennon. Last year, vandalism by drunken tourists finally forced the owners to paint over the graffiti and restrict artistic expression on the wall only to hand-picked artists. And the wall is now kept under constant electronic surveillance.

Lennon Wall
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Continue along the street as it narrows, takes you across a small bridge (with a water wheel on your left) and deposits you on Hroznová, which followed to the right will put you at the entrance to Kampa Park. Actually an island bordered by the Vltava River and Čertovka canal, Kampa is a serene riverside retreat where locals come to picnic and play with their dogs. It offers lovely views, an imposing modern art museum and a great hipster café, Kavárna Mlýnská (tucked away in the southwest corner). This is a deeply local place, so donʼt expect much English – and donʼt tell your friends, it hasnʼt been discovered yet.

Stairs at the south end of Kampa will take you up to Legion Bridge, named for the legendary Czechoslovak legions of World War I. The views as you walk across are some of the best in the city and the other (east) end of the bridge is the place to take selfies with the Castle, hovering on the skyline like a fairy tale come to life.

Continuing east along Národní will take you past another architectural version of beauty and the beast – the National Theater, the cultural cornerstone of the nation and Nová Scéna (“New Stage”), a Brutalist glass block structure built next door. Itʼs been put to good use, with schedules posted for all the National Theater venues outside, an efficient box office inside and a smart second-floor café where singers, dancers and other theater habitués hang out, especially after evening performances. Further down Národní, at No. 16, look for an overlooked but significant monument – hands emerging from the wall with peace signs above a plaque marked 17.11.1989. This is the date and place where riot police brutally beat students marching in a peaceful demonstration, triggering nationwide protests that culminated in the Velvet Revolution.

The Nová Scéna
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Follow Národní as it narrows and ends at Jungmannnovo náměstí, where a left onto Perlová will lead you to Uhelný trh, a small square that was once a coalyard. This is where Mozart stayed when he was in Prague in 1787 to premiere Don Giovanni – though not for long, as the noise drove him to quieter quarters. But if you turn right and walk the three blocks to the Estates' Theater, you will absolutely, no question, be retracing Mozartʼs footsteps as he created what is now considered the opera of all operas.

A left at the theater and brief walk up Železná will bring you to Old Town Square, the historical hub of Prague, where you can see the Astronomical Clock with its 12 Apostles emerging on the hour for a quick spin past the windows. The stalwart fellow standing tall atop the monument in the middle of the square is Jan Hus, a reformist priest who preached in native Czech at the nearby Bethlehem Chapel, angering Catholic authorities. His execution by the church in 1415 ignited the 11-year Hussite Wars and helped lay the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation.

You can minimize the souvenir shop assault by exiting the southeast corner of the square on Celetná, stopping at the corner of Ovocný trh to admire the House of the Black Madonna, a nifty work of Cubist architecture. Throughout the rest of the world, cubism was a style of painting and sculpture; in the Czech lands, it became an architectural and design motif. The Cubist Museum and gift shop inside offer some truly unique artworks and tasteful keepsakes.

The Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

A few steps more take you under the foreboding Gothic Powder Tower and onto Náměstí Republiky, where the splendiferous Municipal House (Obecní dům) holds sway. A sprawling Art Nouveau masterpiece, it hosts concerts, exhibitions and civic events and offers some attractive dining options. The Plzeňská Restaurace and Americký Bar in the basement are tourist traps, but the Kavárna and French restaurant just inside the entrance on the main floor offer elegant surroundings and tasty (if pricey) fare.

One of Pragueʼs premier shopping strips, Na Příkopě (a hairpin turn to the right after the Powder Tower) will take you to Wenceslas Square, where throngs gathered for all the seminal events of the 20th century: the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, the Nazi occupation in 1939, the Soviet-led invasion that crushed Prague Spring in 1968 and the triumph of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The plethora of international shops and busy sausage stands on the square now make that all seem unreal. But memories linger in the faded grandeur of the Lucerna shopping and entertainment complex (No. 38) and the modest memorial, in front of the National Museum at the top of the square, to Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc, the young Czechs who sacrificed themselves in acts of self-immolation to protest the communist crackdown after Prague Spring.

Charles Bridge and Prague Castle after sunset
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

The day should finish on a happier note – literally, in one of the cityʼs splendid concert halls, hearing some of the finest classical music in Europe. The Czech Philharmonic, PKF – Prague Philharmonia and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra play at the Rudolfinum, the Prague Symphony Orchestra is at Obecní dům and opera is on tap many nights at the National Theatre, Estates Theatre and newly restored State Opera. And if you havenʼt already, stop by the Charles Bridge afterward. In the glow of antique street gas lamps, sans the crowds and noise, with saints keeping watch from the shadows, itʼs a magical place.

This article was sponsored by Prague City Tourism.