If you’re planning a trip to Prague, you might think first of the Christmas markets, the fascinating mix of architecture and its celebrated café culture (plus cheap beer!).
But the city has so much more to offer the intrepid traveler with a taste for the arcane and unusual. Here are 14 of the more offbeat things to see in Prague.
1. Sedlec Ossuary
This jaw-dropping ‘bone church’ lies an hour’s train ride to the east of Prague, in Kutná Hora. It’s well worth the trip for the incredible sculptures made from skulls and the intricate chandelier.
Overcrowding in Sedlec cemetery forced the authorities to move bodies into a crypt to make space. In 1870, woodcarver František Rint took on the task of organizing jumbled skeletons. He turned them into the famous artistic arrangement visible today. You can even spot his name spelled in bones on the wall.
Its stunning chandelier plays a key role in the climax of Crypt of Bone, which was inspired by the Ossuary.
2. The Magical Cavern
Despite the name, this manmade gallery inhabits a three-storey house. The sculptures, paintings, and fake stalactites depict ‘Argondia’. Prague-based artist Reon invented this imaginary world in the 1960s. Its mystical colour scheme and faux rock walls add to the otherworldly atmosphere. They’re as much a part of the art as the paintings.
The Magical Cavern opened in 2005 and now houses around 80 fantastical paintings. Reon’s website describes the Cavern on Petřín Hill as his ‘atelier’. One of the more unusual things to see in Prague, it even includes sangria or juice with your entry fee.
3. Prague Golem
The 16th-century Jewish population of Prague lived in fear of pogroms. Rabbi Judah Loew created a golem from clay to protect the ghetto. The German Expressionist film, Der Golem (1920), captures the fear and panic of the time.
Various tales claim the golem could summon the dead and turn invisible. Rabbi Loew ‘deactivated’ it every Friday evening to let it rest on the Sabbath. In some versions of the story, the rabbi forgot to deactivate the golem, and it went on a rampage. In others, it fell in love. When spurned, it turned violent.
The tales all share that the golem raged through the city. The rabbi ended its reign of terror and brought peace. In some stories, the rabbi stored the body in the Old New Synagogue’s attic in case he needed it again. But no traces of the golem emerged during renovations in 1883.
You’ll see the image of the golem all over Prague. In the Jewish quarter, a statue of it holds Kafka on its shoulders. A golem features in Gates of Hell, an ARKANE thriller which follows the trail of ancient Kabbalah mysticism across modern Europe.
4. The Jewish Cemetery
Like many European cities, including Venice, Prague confined its Jewish population to an overcrowded ghetto. The land set aside for a cemetery filled up and no one could move the remains. The locals buried more people on top, moving the headstones up with each new burial. Rabbi Loew lies among them.
Estimates place the number of tombstones in the thousands. The cemetery, along with a handful of synagogues, make up the Jewish Museum. Take a self-guided tour, or join a walking tour, to see the most fascinating sites in the Jewish quarter. Together, they create a memorial to those lost in the Holocaust.
5. The Church of St. James the Greater
St. James the Greater is a gorgeous Baroque church near Old Town Square. It’s worth a visit for its stunning art and architecture and strangely, a severed arm hangs from a hook inside the door.
According to the legend, a thief sneaked into the church a few hundred years ago. He tried to prise the jewels from the statue of the Virgin Mary. Her stone hand landed on his arm, its deathly grip pinning him in place. The thief only escaped her grasp when the local butchers’ guild cut off his arm.
The statue returned to her normal pose, and the butchers hung the arm above the door to warn other thieves.
6. The Astronomical Clock
Head to the Old Town Hall Clock Tower to see the world’s oldest astronomical clock. It operates every hour so it’ll be easier to catch it in motion. You can even enjoy a tour of the clock’s interior.
Created in 1380, it displays the passage of both the moon and the sun through the zodiac and boasts four automatons. The clock, or Orloj, displays four times; Babylonian, Central European, Celestial, and Old Czech time.
A dark legend lurks behind its beautiful facade, explaining its unique nature. The city fathers blinded its maker, Master Hanuš. They wanted to prevent him from making a similar clock elsewhere.
While the clock is fascinating itself, look at the cobbles below when the display ends. The 27 crosses on the stones represent 27 Protestant leaders beheaded in 1621. A memorial plaque commemorates their names.
7. Museum of Torture Instruments
Descend into the basement space to find one of the more unusual things to see in Prague. Explore a range of torture devices, such as iron maidens, iron masks, the gridiron, the rack, or the Catalan Garrote. You’ll find both period etchings and over 100 exhibits.
Some look innocuous until you examine the explanatory cartoons nearby. Where images don’t help, wax figures show the uses of the implements.
8. Wallenstein Garden
The 17th century Wallenstein Palace boasts the most beautiful garden in Prague. It also features a mammoth dripstone wall along the western side.
The wall nestles among manicured lawns and the other trappings of a Baroque garden. Grotesque imagery hides in plain sight. Or does it? The stalactites are a natural formation but the mind imposes Dante-like imagery over the stone swellings. See if you can spot the demons and snakes among the rock.
Urban legends claim secret passageways snake through the inside of the wall. No one has found an entrance in 500 years of searching.
The part of the park containing the Dripstone Wall is only open between April and October.
9. Nuclear Bunker Museum
It’s difficult to imagine the tension and paranoia of the Cold War. Visiting a nuclear bunker lets you experience the effects of this turbulent period. Currently filled with Cold War paraphernalia, this one held up to 5000 people. Once the largest bunker in Prague, it now includes a museum and a gas mask workshop.
This bunker, built during the Cold War, lies four storeys below street level. You can only gain access to the nuclear bunker by booking onto one of their tours. The tour provides histories of communism and the Czech Republic.
10. Strahov Monastery
The Strahov Monastery boasts a library that impresses visitors more than the church. Its Theological Hall contains ancient religious texts. Look for the wood cartouches on the shelves, illustrating the topics stored there. Meanwhile, the Philosophical Hall holds philosophical texts.
You can also see a cabinet of curiosities dating to the late 18th century. It contains a range of oceanic specimens, insects, minerals, and other strange items. Such cabinets predate museums, making them a fascinating way to see what preoccupied our ancestors.
11. Bohnický Hřbitov Cemetery
Willing to make the trip to the outskirts of the city? Then this graveyard is one of the unusual things to see in Prague.
The cemetery once served a mental asylum nearby. It’s been abandoned since the last burial in 1963. Many graves bear signs of vandalism if they’re not too overgrown to tell.
Suicides and First World War soldiers lie alongside the former asylum patients. It even attracted Satanists in the 1980s. Even now, visitors claim to see weird lights at night.
12. Olšany Cemetery
If you prefer your graveyards on the traditional side, try Olšany Cemetery. The authorities established it in 1680 to keep plague victims outside of the city limits. It’s the largest cemetery in the city and contains 12 different sections.
That includes a Jewish cemetery and a Muslim section. Walking through the cemetery is like walking through time. Move from the 17th-century graves at the edge to the Art Nouveau monuments of the 20th century in the middle.
Parts of the cemetery resemble the overgrown beauty of Highgate Cemetery in London. It’s a serene spot to pass a quiet afternoon.
13. The Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague
You can’t move in Prague without bumping into its occult history. 16th-century ruler Rudolf II patronized the dark arts during his reign. He even funded the work of famous alchemists like John Dee.
One of the more unusual things to see in Prague, the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague tells the story of this era. The interactive exhibits and displays on the ground floor focus on the apprentice. Ascend the staircase to the attic to see the alchemical exhibits.
Noted alchemist Edward Kelley allegedly built the spiral staircase to the attic. It’s now one of the oldest wooden staircases in the city. It can be kitsch in places but it’s a fun museum, given the subject.
The company behind the museum also run the Prague Ghosts and Legends Museum in the Lesser Town.
14. Hrdlička Museum of Anthropology
Two anthropologists, Aleš Hrdlička and Jindřich Matiegka, founded this fascinating museum. It contains remains from US excavations, Egyptian mummies, and skulls. It celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2017.
The collection explores deformity, disease and human evolution. One story thread follows mummification, both natural and artificial.
Find the Hrdlička Museum of Anthropology inside Building of the Faculty of Science at Charles University.
Prague is a fascinating place, mixing art, culture, history and the occult in one diverse city. Be sure to enjoy the beer, Bohemian cuisine, and interesting people!
Want to read a thriller that features Sedlec ossuary near Prague? Check out Crypt of Bone, an ARKANE thriller.
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