Exploring Prague’s Malá Strana Neighborhood
By Josephine Parr
Known for its fascinating history, gorgeous architecture and Old Town Square, Prague is brimming with tourists from around the world. Almost all of them travel across the famed Charles Bridge to explore the Prague Castle, set up on a hill overlooking the neighborhood of Malá Strana or Lesser Town.
Beyond the Prague Castle and its stunning cathedral, which overlooks the city, many don’t spend much time exploring the Malá Strana neighborhood. They are missing out, as the area features many restaurants, hidden surprises, and a slower pace.
The Strahov Monastery, founded in 1143, is off of Nerudova Street, one the main roads of Malá Strana, past the Castle. You’ll find yourself walking uphill (though, the chocolate shop about halfway is a good excuse to stop for a moment) to a spectacular view of the Castle and extended city of Prague. The Monastery has a wonderful restaurant and outside patio. The Strahov Monastery Brewery produces Monastery Beer, which is sold at the restaurant and can be found at restaurants throughout Prague. They also sell a blueberry beer for adventurous beer drinkers.
Almost as famous as the Castle is the Lennon Wall, which is in a small square near the French Embassy. Since the 1960s, short messages and poems had been written on the wall, but in 1980, after John Lennon’s assassination, an unknown artist painted Lennon’s image on the wall, along with a few of his song lyrics. The wall became a place for students to express their resistance to the Communist regime during the “Prague Spring” in the late 1980s. Today, the wall almost breathes the optimism, energy, and artistry of Prague’s students and youth. It continues to shift as people paint images over older images. All that remains of the original portrait of John Lennon is his iconic round glasses.
An easy walk along Ujezd Street, one of Lesser Town’s major thoroughfares, finds Obeti Komunismu, an art installation dedicated to the Czech people who became prisoners under the Communist government. This moving memorial includes seven human bodies cast in metal with jagged, empty spaces and body parts removed. Impactful at any time, it is particularly effective at night with lights from the ground illuminating the statues, adding a dramatic and somber mood. According to the plaque explaining the piece, over 205,000 people were convicted during this time, with over 4,500 dying in prison.
For those looking to shop on their way to the Castle and Monastery, there are many touristy stores along the streets. Yet, if you look carefully, you will find unique stores filled with interesting and authentic designs. You’ll notice several stores selling colorful and intriguing puppets. In the Czech Republic’s past, puppets were used to show artistry, but also to show political dissent at a time when differing opinions were not always appreciated or allowed. The traditionally handmade puppets require an investment, so if you decide to take one home, be sure it is made locally as there are stores that sell cheaper, machine-made versions from other countries.
Moldavite is unique to the Czech Republic. Created when an asteroid collided with Germany thousands of years ago, this semi-precious stone is only found in the Czech Republic. With a finite supply of Moldavite, and with interest increasing and the reserves shrinking, the price of Moldavite is on the rise. Finding a reputable store selling real Moldavite, not glass, is becoming more of a challenge. If you are interested in buying some of the green stone, stop by Bohemia Jewelry, Nerudova 18, which has been family owned for over 25 years. They create and sell their own designs, as well as jewelry from other local producers, featuring high-quality versions of both polished and raw stones.
Also, if you are interested in taking home garnets from Prague, which it seems every jewelry store sells, know that only the small round stones are from the Czech Republic. All other shapes and sizes are from other countries.
Also on Nerudova and close by Bohemia Jewelry, is Designum Gallery, which specializes in products and designs by Czech artists, ranging from jewelry to serving pieces to clothing. It’s an excellent place to find a unique memento of your time in Lesser Town.
Wine bars are particularly easy to find in Lesser Town. My favorite is U Staré Studny Cognac & Wine Bar on Trziste Street. The tiny, bright red door belies the wine cave atmosphere down the winding stairs. As the name indicates, the bar features a comprehensive list of wines and cognacs, along with numerous whiskeys, calvados, and other liquors. It is well worth a stop.
While many tourists choose to stay in Old Town, Lesser Town offers many charming hotels in a tranquil environment. The Aria Hotel Prague, on Trziste, is perfectly placed to explore Lesser Town, with easy access to the Charles Bridge and Old Town. This boutique hotel provides the best of old-world charm and modern luxury. Steeped in musical history, with each room inspired by a style of music or specific artist, the hotel features original artwork throughout to complement the theme. As well, the Aria Hotel has an extensive music library available to guests, along with a concierge who is well-versed in the best opportunities to hear music around Prague. Guests enjoy a full breakfast bar and a la carte menu and simple high tea, as well as piano concerts on a Bosendorfer grand piano in the Winter Garden atrium. If you happen to stay in the warmer months, the Aria Hotel has a rooftop terrace and a private entrance to the Vrtba Garden, Prague’s oldest Baroque garden and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Josephine Parr is a freelance writer who is passionate about adventure travel, ethnic food, and a good glass of red wine. She has been published in The New York Times, AFAR magazine, Travel Age West, Town & Country, Runner’s World and other publications. She lives in New York City.