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Although it has undergone many changes en route to its present form as a future leader of Eastern Europe, the area known as the Czech Republic has actually been settled since the Neolithic era. Once the seat of Bohemia—a key stronghold of the Holy Roman Republic and later the storied Austro-Hungarian Empire—Czechoslovakia only emerged as an autonomous country after the collapse of the latter following World War I.
The 20th century saw Czechoslovakia come under Communist control until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when it dissolved (notably without bloodshed) into two nations: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. After centuries of being ruled by monarchs, the country has now become a parliamentary democracy, and much of its economy is fueled by visitors who flock to Prague, its historic capital.
Prague today is a bustling city that retains much of its Old World charm. It lies along both sides of the winding Vltava River, connected by 16 picturesque bridges. Like Rome and San Francisco, the city is built over a series of hills, with varied architecture that spans many centuries. Entering the city, one is struck by the view of its many hilltop neighborhoods, where rows of steeples stand out against the city’s skyline, earning Prague the nickname “City of 100 Spires.”
Prague owes much of its modern majesty to the fact that while other European capitals were leveled during World War II, Prague survived virtually intact. Among the structures to remain remarkably undamaged was Prague’s great landmark, Prague Castle—the largest ancient castle in the world and still the seat of political power. Built during the ninth century, Prague Castle has evolved over the centuries, blending Romanesque, Gothic, and even Spanish architectural styles. Today, it is a sprawling complex of breathtaking enormity and a symbol of Czech unity.
A visit to Stare Mesto, the Old Town, reveals Gothic and Baroque buildings. From there, you might cross over the famous Charles Bridge, built by Charles IV in 1357, which crosses the Vltava River from Stare Mesto to Mala Strana (Lesser Town). Lined with statues and ornate lampposts, the bridge is reserved for pedestrians and offers views of Prague Castle and the skyline of the medieval city. For 400 years, this bridge was the only river link connecting the two parts of the city.
Prague’s attractions do not simply include historical monuments. As it was during the zenith of the Bohemian kingdom, Prague still ranks as the thriving cultural center of the country, reminiscent of Paris in the 1920s. Here you’ll find some of Europe’s best jazz venues, excellent opera, and innovative theater groups.