8 Must-See Museums in Prague

editorial feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Spectacular galleries and museums in the 'City of a Hundred Spires'

According to legend, in the 8th century, the mythical Princess Libuše foresaw Prague’s future glory declaring, “I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars.” She then named the city práh, which loosely translates to “threshold,” which may refer to the location of the city which is just at the crossing of the Vltava River. Many historians believe the Czech Republic’s capital—Prague—must have picked up its name from this legend.

Whether or not you believe the story of Libuše, one thing’s for certain: Libuše was right. Prague did go on to become one of Europe’s greatest cultural capitals. To better appreciate the rich heritage of the city, let’s take a peek inside eight of its exceptional museums.

1. The Surreal Side of Prague: Franz Kafka Museum

Before Czech-born writer Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis at the age of 41, he asked his friend Max Brod to burn all of his unfinished works. Luckily for modern literature, Brod ignored his friend’s final wish. Many of the first editions of these celebrated novels, including The Trial and The Castle, are now housed in Prague’s Kafka Museum.

The Kafka Museum is most interested in examining how the city of Prague influenced the settings in Kafka’s haunting fiction. With the use of 3D installations and special effects, the Kafka Museum helps visitors feel the surreal quality of Kafka’s fiction as they explore his diaries, letters, and drawings.

Many of the surreal art pieces in and around the Kafka Museum add to the dreamlike atmosphere of the area. The most famous of these artworks is Czech sculptor David Černý’s 2004 work Proudy, which features two men urinating in a pool that looks like the Czech Republic. Originally the statues spelled out political quotes but now it speaks with and for visitors; send a text message to the number on the fountain and have these two statues write it out with their pee!

2. From the Renaissance to Renoir And Beyond: The National Gallery

With origins dating back to the 18th century, Prague’s National Gallery is one of the oldest, largest, and most respected art museums in Central Europe. What makes this gallery unique is that its collections are spread out in various Baroque palaces, Medieval convents, and castles all around Prague.

In addition to the works of great Czech artists, the National Gallery has an extensive collection of works by international names from the Renaissance to the Contemporary era. The National Gallery is particularly well-known for its wide collection of modern artists such as Picasso, Rousseau, Monet, and Cézanne.

One of the most recognizable works in the National Gallery’s collection is Vincent van Gogh’s Green Field (1889). This is one of many landscape paintings Van Gogh produced while recovering at a mental asylum in Provence and it shows the painter at the height of his creative powers.

Green Field (1889) by Vincent van GoghNational Gallery Prague

Green Field by Vincent van Gogh, 1889 (From the collection of National Gallery Prague)

Staring at this joyful piece, it’s difficult to believe Van Gogh wrote these words to his sister after completing Green Field: “the desire to begin again, the joy of living, is hardly great.”

3. A Refuge for The Jewish Spirit: Jewish Museum

Consisting of five synagogues, a Ceremonial Hall, and a cemetery, Prague’s Jewish Museum was created in 1906 to protect precious buildings and treasures for the local Jewish community. Strangely, this museum got many of its most valuable pieces after the Nazis took over. The Nazi government intended this museum to house the largest collection of artifacts from an ‘extinguished’ culture.

Jewish Museum in Prague

The items in this museum go back at least seven centuries, and many are linked to the Jewish experience in Bohemia. One of the rare works displayed in the Jewish Museum’s collection is an intricately woven Bimah Cover that dates to the latter half of the 19th century.

Bimah Cover (2nd half of the 19th century) by UnknownJewish Museum in Prague

Bimah Cover Unknown (2nd half of the 19th century) From the collection of Jewish Museum in Prague

This work is fascinating because it employs colorful patchwork, something that wasn’t common in Bohemian synagogues. Scholars believe the idea to use patchwork must have spread into the Czech Jewish community via France.

4. Prague’s Center for Contemporary Art: The Museum Kampa

Founded in 2003, the Museum Kampa has become the central destination for Central Europe’s contemporary artists. World-renowned artists like Kveta Pacovská, Stanislav Kolíbal, and Magdalena Jetelová have all displayed their innovative works here. Indeed, before a flood hit Kampa Island in 2012, Jetelová’s giant wooden sculpture of a chair served as the symbol for this museum.

One fascinating work at the Museum Kampa is the collection of burlap and laminate statues called Figures, which was made by acclaimed Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. Created in the 1970s, these frightening figures give viewers an eerie sense of the anonymity in contemporary life.

Figures (1970s) by Magdalena AbakanowiczMuseum Kampa

Figures, Magdalena Abakanowicz, 1970s (From the collection of Museum Kampa)

5. Traditional Czech Crafts at the Museum of Decorative Arts

Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts is on a mission to educate visitors on how to use different materials to make items that are both functional and beautiful. To achieve this ambitious goal, the museum has five major sections focusing on textiles, clocks, graphic designs, metals, and glassware. All largely produced in the Bohemia region.

One masterpiece at the Museum of Decorative Arts is a panel by the Florentine Castrucci workshop, which was made shortly after Rudolph II ordered them to move to Prague. Entitled Panel with a view of Hradčany and the Lesser Town (1601), this landscape artwork is notable because it was made out of precious colored stones that had to be cut by skilled artisans.

Panel with a view of Hradčany and the Lesser Town (1601) by Giovanni CastrucciMuseum of Decorative Arts In Prague

Panel with a view of Hradčany and the Lesser Town by Giovanni Castrucci (1601) (From the collection of Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague)

6. Prague’s Master Musician: The Antonín Dvořák Museum

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was one of the few Czech composers to achieve worldwide fame during his lifetime. In total, Dvořák wrote a staggering nine symphonies, 10 operas, 16 Slavonic Dances, as well as numerous small group pieces, symphonic poems, and choral works. Almost all of his music draws inspiration from Czech folk melodies and rhythms.

LIFE Photo Collection

Portrait of Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), Czech composer (1891) From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection

To honor the Czech Republic’s finest composer, the city of Prague decided to convert an 18th century Baroque house into the Antonín Dvořák Museum in 1932. Inside, guests can see dozens of letters and household objects Dvořák once used during his lifetime. Perhaps the two most famous objects in this museum’s collection include Dvořák’s piano and viola.

Besides preserving artifacts from Dvořák’s life and times, the Antonín Dvořák Museum frequently hosts live classical music events. The museum also holds special celebrations on the day of Dvořák’s death (May 1st) and the day before his birth (September 8th).

7. A Style All His Own: The Mucha Museum

Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) got his big break in 1894 after designing an ad for the Parisian production of Gismonda staring Sarah Bernhardt. Soon afterwards, Mucha’s pastel-colored ads featuring beautiful women, much like La Femme Animee en Fleur pictured below, became the epitome of the Parisian Art Nouveau movement.

La Femme Animee en Fleur by Alphonse MuchaVirginia Museum of Fine Arts

La Femme Animee en Fleur, Alphonse Mucha (From the collection of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

Interestingly, Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints were a major influence on Mucha’s ads, especially on his color schemes and floral designs. Today, however, many Japanese shōjo manga artists claim Mucha’s work inspired them! It’s cultural exchange in action.

Since Mucha was so prolific during his advertising years, his Art Nouveau posters can now be found in museums all across the US and Europe. Prague, however, has a large collection of Mucha’s early works in its 500-meter-squared Mucha Museum. While most of the works housed in the Mucha Museum are posters of colorful women with flowers, there are also a few rare sketches from Mucha’s childhood.

8. Hero of The Velvet Revolution: Václav Havel Library

In 1989, the playwright and political activist Václav Havel led a peaceful “Velvet Revolution” against the Communist leaders in Czechoslovakia. Shortly after he was put in charge of the country and oversaw the 1992 separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

HAVEL NA HRADNadace Dagmar a Václava Havlových VIZE 97

HAVEL NA HRAD From the collection of Nadace Dagmar a Václava Havlových VIZE 97

As you could imagine, Havel’s legacy looms large over modern Czech Republic. The best place to learn about Havel’s importance to the Czech people is to visit Prague’s Václav Havel Library.

Founded in 2004, this library is dedicated to collecting and digitizing all of Havel’s written and spoken works. Visitors can learn about Václav Havel’s life and times in an exhibit dubbed “Havel In A Nutshell” on the first floor. The library also hosts many special events throughout the year to encourage discussion of Havel’s works and ideas.

Václav Havel (2009) by Oldřich ŠkáchaKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

Václav Havel Oldřich Škácha (2009) (From the collection of Knihovna Vaclava Havla Vaclav Havel Library)

It’s impossible to imagine Prague without its fascinating history and beautiful fine arts. Every one of the 6.4 million tourists that visit this capital annually are equally impressed by the masterpieces Prague preserves as they are by the contemporary art it encourages. All that remains is to embark on your own journey to the “City of a Hundred Spires.”

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