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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
5. Traditional Czech Crafts at the Museum of Decorative Arts
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.
6. Prague’s Master Musician: The Antonín Dvořák Museum
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
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
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.
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.”