The Lesser Town is a historic miracle that has survived in a surprisingly authentic form. Unlike the Old Town and New Town, it was spared the radical architectural changes of the 19th and 20th centuries. The neighbourhood structure has remained the same for hundreds of years: a constricted historic town set in an impressive townscape fringed by a strip of gardens and orchards. Such a description is the opposite of the dramatic image of Prague.
The focal point of the quarter is the mighty Baroque St Nicholas Church, dating from the 18th century. Its bell tower and dome form a deliberate compositional counterbalance to Prague Castle. The Lesser Town’s lanes and nooks are, however, surprisingly intimate and peaceful. Even in the heart of Prague, the district still feels like a small town living its own life and existing separately from the outside world. Thus, on the one hand, the Lesser Town forms a dignified visual “base” for Prague Castle, the panoramas from which would be far less impressive without the towers and roofs below. On the other hand, the neighbourhood embodies a mysterious world within a world, as if it existed beyond time and space.
Like Prague’s other historic districts, the Lesser Town has ancient medieval roots. The strategic position along the river, below the residence of rulers, made it a natural crossroads, where the oldest medieval settlement in Prague was possibly established. The undisputed significance of the Early Middle Ages in the Lesser Town is evidenced by the Romanesque Judith Tower of the Charles Bridge, and the preserved Romanesque part of the Maltese Church of Our Lady Under the Chain. Gothic characterised the initial architectural phase, when in the mid-13th century the Lesser Town street plan was marked out. Surprisingly, the streets and squares, where today palaces and town houses showcase Renaissance and Baroque beauty, are from the Middle Ages. This era initiated wonderful dialogue between the Lesser Town architecture and the landscape.
In 1541, a fateful moment occurred in the Lesser Town’s history – a fire ripped through the neighbourhood, destroying more than two-thirds of it. Consequently, this tragic event freed space for a Renaissance and later Baroque remodelling, a fundamental development that added to the potential of the Lesser Town.
Naturally, the unrivalled location below Prague Castle resulted, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, in the construction of palaces by the nobility, transforming the character of the entire district. The Lesser Town also included expansive gardens, which made use of the green belt surrounding the district and creatively enhanced it. Equally importantly, new religious buildings mostly of quite exceptional quality were constructed in the Lesser Town. A series of statues and sculptural groups adorning the gardens, squares and corners has given the neighbourhood a unique atmosphere, undoubtedly transforming it into a picturesque Baroque gem.
Most important monuments:
Of the neighbourhood’s Romanesque monuments, the Judith Tower, from the second half of the 12th century and part of the originally Romanesque Judith Bridge, was best preserved. The facade core of the Church of our Lady Under the Chain is the most imposing of the Gothic structures. Built by masons under Matthias of Arras in the 14th century, the place of worship was devastated during the Hussite wars.
The Renaissance in the Lesser Town is symbolised by several town houses and palaces, particularly the gabled facade of the Thun Palace. Located on New Castle Step (Nové zámecké schody), the building dates from the second half of the 16th century.
Baroque art in all its forms, tones and colours was also applied in the Lesser Town. Palaces of note include that of Albrecht von Waldstein, whose refined artistic expression provides a fascinating echo of the vanished splendour of Rudolfinum Prague. Significant too is the Lobkowicz Palace, with one of the most exquisite garden facades in Europe. The Baroque list includes Nerudova, home to the Thun Palace and Morzin Palace and where the exceptional architecture of Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel combines with the superb statues of Matthias Bernhard Braun and Ferdinand Maxmilian Brokoff.
In terms of churches, the austere but impressive Church of Our Lady of Victories stands out. Visitors can admire the famous Bambino di Praga statue (Infant Jesus of Prague) inside. Other examples include the dramatic facade of St Thomas Church and, above all, the monumental St Nicholas Church, the work of Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer and his son. Undoubtedly, the gardens are a highlight of a stroll through the Baroque. Threading themselves throughout the district, they offer unique views of Prague. The most impressive are the Gardens Below Prague Castle, giving us access to the eponymous gardens. Equally striking is the Vrtba Garden, the most beautiful Baroque landscaped garden in Prague. Lastly, the sprawling gardens and orchards of Petřín afford the most wonderful views of Prague Castle and the whole city.