Of all Prague’s towns, the Old Town alone bears the most traces of a thousand years of development and historical layering. Located in the centre of historic Prague, streets from neighbouring quarters symbolically connect with it. The main thoroughfares followed the ancient convoys of traders that for centuries had crossed the river and then continued into Western Europe. By a former ford, a Jewish settlement was founded, becoming the core of Europe’s largest Jewish cities.
The street plan is by far the best chronicle of the how the Old Town has developed. We can distinguish between irregular streets connecting with crooked lanes, and ordered streets and parcels of land. The regular layout emerged based on the decision to formally establish a city with all rights and political possibilities. This fundamental distinction emerged in the mid-13th century, when the Old Town received a royal charter and was surrounded by robust city walls. Today, the line of these defences remains traceable, formed by thoroughfares bordering the Old Town. They became the centrepiece of Prague development during the Belle Époque at the turn of the 20th century.
Given the Old Town’s extraordinary wealth and political significance, naturally, the most prestigious town houses were built there. To understand their history, we should remember that until the 19th century, dwellings weren’t demolished but gradually altered. This means that the facade doesn’t reveal the building’s actual age. Most of the historic structures in the Old Town have a long story, from Romanesque beginnings to the 19th century. Therefore, it isn’t exceptional for such structures to have a Romanesque cellar, an arcaded Gothic ground floor, a Renaissance hall on the first floor, and a Baroque facade with a lavish gable. Considering the wealth and self-confidence of the Old Town burghers, distinguishing a town house from an aristocrat’s palace can be difficult. For both are imposing and of exceptional artistic merit. The same principle of layering of architecture and artistic wealth also applies to religious buildings, which were mostly positioned in picturesque streets and small squares.
The end of the 19th century marked a turning point in Old Town life. It was then that the idea became popular that old dwellings weren’t compatible with modern living and that an entire neighbourhood had to be radically rebuilt. Because of the desire for modern homes and wide avenues, the Jewish Ghetto and many parts of the Old Town were completely demolished. Over several decades, more than 600 historic homes were destroyed, the majority of which were historically as valuable as buildings that are rigorously protected today. Fortunately, the new district bisected by Pařížská (Paris) Street has a unique and distinctive elegance, and has been integrated into the city’s fabric relatively well. It’s extremely fortunate, however, that these serious plans for total obliteration of remained unfulfilled. Had the Old Town been destroyed, Prague would have lost the most authentic witness to its thousand years of history.
Most important monuments:
The Old Town gives us the opportunity to experience an extraordinary concentration of exceptional architecture spanning a Prague millennium. The city’s Romanesque roots are evidenced by the rotunda Holy Cross, dating from the 12th century, and the exceptionally well-preserved Romanesque Palace of the Lords of Kunštát on Řetězová.
From the highly significant Gothic period exceptional churches have been preserved St Agnes Convent and the Church of Our Lady Before Týn, ceremonial city gates Old Town Bridge Tower and the Powder Tower, palaces (House at the Stone Bell) and town houses with grand arcades (Old Town Square and Havelský market).
The Renaissance epoch left its architectural mark mostly in the form of town houses, whose imposing architecture compares favourably with the splendour of contemporary palaces (House of the Five Crowns and the Teufel House, on Melantrichova, and the House at the Green Tree on Dlouhá).
The Baroque period added new buildings to the cityscape and saw the remodelling of churches (S. Nicholas on Old Town Square, St James, and St Gall), palaces (Clam-Gallas Palace) and magnificent mansions (on Celetná, Karlova and many others). In the 19th century, the waterfront underwent rejuvenation, and new houses and public buildings were constructed, including the superb neo-Renaissance Rudolfinum concert hall.
The turbulent period at the turn of the 20th century resulted in the magnificent Art Nouveau Municipal House, the Modernist brick Štenc House, and the unique Cubist House at the Black Madonna.
Interwar architecture mostly comprises buildings along the former fortifications, a line that has become one of the urban city’s focal points. Architecture in the second half of the 20th century is represented by the impressive Brutalist architecture at the entrance to Pařížská Street (notably the Intercontinental Hotel) and the prominent ČKD building at Můstek, heralding architectural post-Modernism in Prague in the late 1970s.