Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) is the real heart of the city. It is situated in the centre of the quarter, and like capillaries, all the main streets in the Old Town lead there. Major historical events always took place in this square and its pulse in some of these momentous events could actually be felt. It was here, at the Old Town Hall, that decisions on the fate of the nation were made during the political anarchy of the Middle ages. In 1621, 27 Czech aristocrats, who had opposed the Hapsburg rule, were executed here. In 1918, a frenzied crowd tore down the Baroque Marian Column, a symbol of the empire; at the same time, this act started the celebrations that ushered in the new democratic republic. Symbolically, this was also the place where the end of a democratic Czechoslovakia was played out, when, on 25 February 1948, head of the communists, Klement Gottwald announced the victory of the working class, thus marking the beginning of the Red dictatorship, which in the end lasted for a long forty years.
The history of the Square itself is equally attractive and dramatic, faithfully reflecting the aspirations and hopes of the individual epochs. The founding of the square as a crossroads is linked to the founding of Prague itself. Its ground plan gradually stabilized. The surviving Romanesque houses point to the fact that today’s square acquired its proportions in the 12th century at the latest. The southern side of the square is lined with exquisite patrician houses which show the boom of the city in the 13th and 14th centuries. Their ostentatious Renaissance, Baroque and Classicist facades are proof that burghers did not lose their wealth or self-confidence even in the ensuing centuries.
The eastern part of the Square is dominated by the monumental façade of the Týn Church. We can say that this church is the “cathedral” of the Old Town. At the same time, it symbolizes the religious differences which, in the 15th century, drove the city to the brink of a religious civil war. In the niche where a statue of the Catholic Virgin Mary stands today, there originally stood a giant chalice – a Hussite symbol. The same religious dispute returned to the square on the threshold of the 20th century, when a sculpture of the martyred Master Jan Hus was provocatively built opposite the column of the Virgin Mary.
The northern side of the Square has a completely different character than the remaining part of the space. Its metropolitan format is due to the demolition of a Jewish ghetto and the building of a modern quarter in its place. The axis of the new development was Pařížská street, which mercilessly opened the originally quiet area of the square onto a huge boulevard, which – in the minds of the 19th century architects – should have continued all the way to Wenceslas Square. Today, the free space created after the demolition of the Neo-Gothic wing of the Town Hall serves as a counterpart; it is a reminder of the battle for Prague in 1945. Both these interventions irreversibly changed the character of the square, which is thus a compelling and unsettling testament to the thousand year evolution of the city.
The current appearance of the square unfortunately reflects its huge popularity with tourists. In spite of this, we can name several sites worth visiting. First off, it would be the Old Town Hall, whose tower offers a unique view of the city. Both churches are remarkable – the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn and the Baroque Church of Saint Nicholas. We further recommend a visit to the exhibitions in Kinský Palace, which belongs to the National Gallery.