Until World War II, Prague was characterized by the generally peaceful coexistence of Czech, German, and German-Jewish cultures. It was the city of Rilke and Kafka as well as of Smetana, Dvořák, and Čapek. The city's literary, artistic, and musical life, which has a long and distinguished tradition, was very active between the two World Wars.
The old section of Prague, which occupies the center of the city, is an architectural treasure enhanced by the beauty of its location on the hilly banks of the Vltava. Hradčany Castle dominates the city; the seat of the president of the Czech Republic and the former royal residence, it is an imposing and many-winged structure, dating mostly from the reign of Charles IV. Next to it stands the largely Gothic Cathedral of St. Vitus, first built in the 10th cent., which contains the tomb of St. Wenceslaus. The Hradčany quarter also contains many other fine churches and palaces, notably the Romanesque basilica of St. George; the baroque churches of Our Lady of Victory (with the miraculous statuette of the Infant Jesus or Holy Child of Prague) and of Loretto; the magnificent Waldstein Palace, built for the imperial general Wallenstein; and the Czernin Palace.
The Old Town, on the Vltava's east bank, contains the Carolinum, the oldest part of the university; the adjacent Stavovske Theater, where Mozart's Don Giovanni had its first performance; the vast Clementinum Library; the Gothic Old Town Hall (13th cent.; burned in May, 1945) and its astronomical clock (1410); the baroque Church of St. Nicholas (18th cent.) and the Gothic Tyn Cathedral (14th cent., formerly the main Hussite church, with the tomb of Tycho Brahe); the Powder Tower (15th cent., the last city gate), and the art nouveau Municipal House (1912). Situated in the adjacent former Jewish quarter is the Old Synagogue (c.1270), Europe's oldest remaining synagogue.
In the heart of modern Prague is Wenceslaus Square, with its statue of St. Wenceslaus. It was the center of Czech resistance to the 1968 Soviet invasion and a rally site for the support of political change in 1989.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.