Vysehrad is a historical district of Prague, the legendary birthplace of the Czech nation. It is situated on a rocky hill, at the foot of which the Vltava River flows. Vysehrad is also called the former residence of the first Czech rulers, which changed its status over time to a military fortress. Today it is an open-air museum and one of the most interesting sights in the Czech capital.
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Urban development has hardly touched Vysehrad. Time seems to have stood still here, and this peripheral area of historic Prague looks quite romantic. Travelers come here to see the famous St. Peter and Paul Church, the beautiful tombstones of the National Pantheon, to descend into the underground casemates and look under the vaults of the Gorlice Hall, where periodically there are exhibitions and theater performances, or to the Gothic crypt with a small exhibit telling the story of Vysehrad.
There are practically no crowds of tourists in Vysehrad, and in the mornings and evenings in this part of the city there is an atmosphere of complete peace and solitude. It’s a delight to wander leisurely through the winding paths of Vysehrad Park and walk along the castle walls, from where one can enjoy breathtaking views of the Vltava River bridges, Prague Castle, and modern districts of the Czech capital.
History of Vysehrad
The history of Vysehrad is steeped in legends about the events that took place here in the 8th century. According to the legend, the town and the fortress on the top of the high mountain was founded by the mythical ruler of the Czechs, Prince Krok. Here, in her father’s palace, the young princess Libuše predicted the emergence of Prague. She also became the founder of the royal dynasty of the Přemyslids, choosing the ploughman Přemysl as her husband. Archaeologists are skeptical about the legend, the researchers attribute the foundation of Vysehrad to the second half of X century, and by this time the Prague Castle was already built. However, this does not deny Vysehrad the status of one of the first centers of the Czech state and does not detract from the significance of the legend of its founding. In the second half of the 19th century, at the height of the Czech National Revival, the legend became particularly popular. Thus, the composer Bedřich Smetana based his solemn opera Libuše on it.
The heyday of Vysehrad dates back to the 11th century and is associated with the name of Vratislav II, who established his residence there. It was under his rule that Bohemian coins were minted, fortifications were built, the St. Martin Rotunda was built, and the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul was founded, under which the Visegrád chapter was also founded, which was independent of the Prague bishopric. The royal palace supposedly stood in the southwestern part of Vysehrad, under the Vysehrad Rock.
On July 30, 1119, a tornado struck Vysehrad, one of the deadliest in the history of Europe. It took the lives of over 900 people and destroyed most of the buildings, among which was the princely palace. However, Vysehrad remained the residence of the Czech rulers until 1140.
The new heyday of Vysehrad came during the reign of Charles IV (14th century), King of Bohemia, who became Holy Roman Emperor. Under him, Nove Mesto was founded and the revival of Vysehrad’s fame began. Two parts of the city were connected by castle walls, the dilapidated fortifications of Vysehrad were rebuilt by the architects, and 15 square towers were erected. Now, the main approach to Prague from the south led through Vysehrad.
Under Charles IV, the royal palace at Vyšehrad was reconstructed and the Church of Saints Peter and Paul was rebuilt. He also introduced the tradition of the coronation procession of the Czech rulers to commence from Vysehrad. This was to be preceded by the worship of the founder of the Přemysl dynasty, Přemysl the Pahar. His suma and bald shoes, symbols of the people’s origins of monarchic power, were kept in Vyšehrad.
In the first half of the 15th century, during the Hussite wars, Vysehrad suffered devastation, after which many inhabitants left. In the following period it was inhabited mainly by small craftsmen. However, its fortifications had not lost their importance in Prague’s defensive system. In 1653, Vysehrad began to be actively rebuilt as a fortress. It was of an irregular pentagon shape and was fortified with five bastions, each bearing the name of one of the most revered saints in Prague. The development of the civilized urban infrastructure at Vyšehrad came to a standstill.
The fortress of Vysehrad did not cover itself with the military glory, and the whole system of the old forts in XIX century was considered outdated. In 1866, it was decided to transfer the Prague forts to the municipality, and soon the walls around the city were gradually dismantled. Despite the abolition of the fortress, Vysehrad was officially administered by the military administration until 1911, when its fortifications were finally handed over to Prague.
The present-day appearance of Vysehrad began to take shape in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the rebuilding of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, and was generally completed by the end of the last century.
A walk around Vysehrad
Vysehrad is surrounded by high walls, built in the 17th century, and the entrance is through a gate. Once you get off the metro and you pass the impressive Congress building, you arrive at the baroque Tabor Gate, one of Prague’s well-preserved fortifications. It was once equipped with a drawbridge and protected the exit to the city of Tabor, which gave it its name. The area in front of the gate is paved with stone, and the walls around the opening are lined with bricks of different colours and fragments of the so-called raisin masonry.
The street with the ancient name “In singing” leads from Tabor gate to Leopold’s gate, named after Emperor Leopold I. Approximately in the middle of this 250-meter long path you can see the Gothic fortress gate of Špička, which dates back to the 14th century. Today, only a fragment of the first level of this portal survives. Not far from the Špička Gate there is an information center of Vyšehrad, where tourists are offered maps, booklets in different languages, including Russian.
The spectacular Leopold’s Gate, the gala entrance to the fortress, was erected in the 70s of the 17th century. It is topped with a stone sculpture of an eagle. On the sides of it, just below, are images of two lions. To the right of the presentation gate is a small rotunda of St. Martin, built in the Romanesque style. Built in XI century, it is the oldest building in Vysehrad and one of the oldest architectural attractions in Prague. The diminutive rotunda, consisting of a circular nave and a semicircular nave apse, stands out for the restraint and austerity of its ascetic architecture. Looking at it, it is easy to believe the ancient legend about ghostly processions of knights in armor and priests periodically appearing here. As they chanted psalms and moaned, they would make their way to the chapel and disappear through invisible doors into its chambers.
Throughout its existence, the Rotunda of St. Martin was the private chapel of King Vratislav II, and prayed here with the ladies and gentlemen of the royal suite and the inhabitants of the foothills. During the Hussite wars, the rotunda was looted and later lightning struck the roof, which caused a fire. After Vysehrad was converted into a fortress, it was decided not to continue church services in the renovated rotunda, and a gunpowder warehouse was located under its arches. In 1757, during the Prussian siege of Prague, a cast-iron cannon ball hit the wall of the ancient building and remained there forever. In the second half of the following century the rotunda was purchased from the military by the Chapter of Vyšehrad and in 1880 it was re-consecrated. Today, you can view the partially preserved 17th century Early Baroque paintings in the chapel and the later paintings that appeared after it was returned to the church.
If you turn left on Sobeslavova Street, you’ll come to a two-story building of the Old Deanery. A stone wall with a neo-Romanesque portal adjoins it on the right. The gate leads to the excavated ruins of the early Romanesque basilica of St. Lawrence, built in the 11th century, during the reign of Vratislav II. The views from this site are spectacular.
To the west is the well-maintained Visegrad Park and the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. The construction of a large temple at this location began at the end of the 11th century, under Vratislav II, who moved his seat to Vysehrad. Legend has it that the king carried on his shoulders the first 12 baskets of stones, which formed the foundation of the future church, under which the chapter house was soon established. Originally the church was a three-nave Romanesque basilica. In 1249 there was a fire in the temple, and it was rebuilt in Early Gothic style.
In 1369, under Charles IV, who respected the traditions of his ancestors, the Přemyslids, the church underwent massive reconstruction, after which it looked like a Gothic three-nave church. Two centuries later it was reconstructed in Renaissance style, and in the first half of the XVIII century it was reconstructed in Baroque style. The church got its present neo-Gothic appearance in 1903, when its two 58-meter high towers were built, which are today the landmark of Vysehrad.
In the tomb of Saints Peter and Paul lie the remains of members of the Přemyslovich family. There is a preserved stone Romanesque sarcophagus from the 12th century, in which one of the royal family was probably buried. The interior of the church is richly decorated with Baroque and Art Nouveau paintings. The relic of the temple is the image of the Virgin Mary of Vysehrad (or the Rainbow). It was painted on a wooden board probably in the middle of the 14th century.
Since the 13th century there was a small cemetery near the church. It was enlarged at the end of the 19th century in order to realize the initiative of priests Václav Štulc and Mikuláš Karlách to establish the National Pantheon – a burial place for citizens who have left an outstanding trace in the history and culture of Bohemia. Today the Vyšehrad Cemetery is one of the most important historical sites in Prague. There are graves of famous Czech writers, artists and musicians. The tombstones carry the names of Karl Čapek, Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana. There is a whole sculptural gallery of monuments made by famous artists, many of whom rest near their creations.
The dominant feature of the pantheon is the Tomb of Slavin (1889-1893), located on the east side. The site, where more than 50 prominent citizens are buried, is dominated by a sculptural composition by Josef Mauder. In its center is a sarcophagus, above which rises an allegorical figure called “The Genius of the Fatherland.” The statues to its sides depict the Motherland mourning and the Motherland rejoicing.
The Karlovy Gardens extend from the fence of Vysehrad Cemetery to the St. Martin Rotunda, the name of a beautiful park laid out by Mikuláš Karlová, the abbot of St. Peter and Paul’s Church. Among the sculptures that adorn the park, the Devil’s Column (or Devil’s Column), which consists of three slanted fragments of columns, is of constant interest for tourists.
There is a curious legend connected with this sight. It tells of a priest who recklessly sold his soul to the devil, but before he died, repenting, wanted to break the agreement. And this might have happened, according to the terms of the bargain, if the devil had not been able to fulfill any wish of the priest. On St. Peter’s advice, he demanded that the devil deliver the column to Vyshgorod from Rome before the mass in the church was over. On his way out of Rome, the devil was caught in a storm that Peter had cast upon him, and three times the column slipped out of his hands. Late for Mass, the devil threw the column in a rage right at the temple, causing it to break into three pieces.
The true origin of the Devil’s Column is unknown. It is only confirmed that the wreckage did lie on the floor of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul for a long time.
Through the Brick Gate from the Karlovy Vary Gardens you can get into the casemates, which are labyrinth corridors, stretching for 1 km inside the walls. Tourists can visit the underground Hall of Gorlice (330 m²). Here you can see ancient sculptures transferred under the vaults of Gorlice from the Charles Bridge.
The sights of the Stulce Gardens are the sculpture of the founder of the park – provost Wenceslas Stulce and the equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas, over 8 meters high. It is a copy of the monument, created at the end of the 18th century.
The park, located southwest of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, was laid out in 1927. Previously this area was part of the princely mound. The park is decorated with sculptures of the characters of old Czech legends: the legendary Libuše and Přemysl Pachar, Lumír and Pesni, embodying the ancient Czech singer and his muse, the bogatyrs Zaboj and Slavoj, warrior Ctirad and the beautiful Šarka. The author of sculptural compositions is Czech sculptor Josef Myslbek. These talented works were created by the master in the 80s of the XIX century. The sculptures adorned Palacký Bridge until they were damaged, like the bridge itself, at the end of World War II. They were moved to the Vysehrad Gardens in 1948 after restoration.
One can walk around Vysehrad at any time of the day or night. In the evening hours all of its ancient gates are spectacularly illuminated, lanterns set up in the streets and alleys of the parks are lit. You can enter the territory of the ancient castle for free, but for a visit to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, and casemates you have to pay 50 CZK per person. At the entrance are offered annotations in Russian, German, English and Czech.
There are several viewing platforms on the territory of Vysehrad. They are marked on maps and in the guides, which can be taken in the information center. There are benches, small cafes and paid toilets everywhere.
At the entrance to the park is a popular beer garden Hospudka Na Hradbach. There are 3 small halls and an open-air summer garden with a wonderful panorama of Prague. There is a huge choice of beer accompanied by chops of lamb, fried sausages and Balkan gastronomy dishes.
The stylish U Kroka restaurant (12/28 Vratislavova Street) is 250 meters away from Vyšehradsky park. It serves traditional Czech cuisine, the average bill for two persons is 900 CZK incl. alcohol. You need to reserve a table in the evening.
How to get there
The best way to get to Vysehrad is to take the metro (red line C) to Vysehrad station. From there, it’s a 10-minute walk to the Tabor Gate. After a walk around the ancient castle, you can take the stairs to Podolskaya Embankment, along which streetcars number 2, 3, 17, and 21 run. Route number 17 is one of the most popular among tourists: it passes through the main sights of Prague.
Vysehrad is the earliest center of the Czech state. Among its sights stands out the Basilica of St. Peter and Paul.
Vyšehrad is a castle-fortress, as well as a historic district of Prague. It extends on a hill above the Vltava River in the southern part of the capital. Along with Prague Castle, Vyšehrad is a symbol of Czech statehood.
History of Vysehrad
According to legend, Vyšehrad was erected in the 10th century by the Czech prince Krok. The founding of the town is also connected with one of his daughters, Libusa, who had the gift of divination. On the Visegrad Rocks, she prophesied that a beautiful and glorious city would be founded there. Princess Libuše was the co-founder of the Czech monarchical dynasty of the Přemyslovič. She chose a simple ploughman, Přemysl, to be her husband in absentia.
During the reign of a representative of this dynasty, King Vratislav I (who prior to his coronation was Prince Vratislav II), Vyšehrad experienced a period of prosperity. In the 11th century, visible structures were built, first the Rotunda of St. Martin, then the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul (Bazilika svatého Petra a Pavla). Czech money was made in the city, and the local church authorities (capitul) were not subordinate to the bishop of Prague.
The next period of prosperity is associated with the activities of King Charles IV. He set out to turn the nearby Prague into the capital of the interstate Roman Empire. Large-scale construction took place not only in Prague, but also in Vyšehrad. In the latter, in particular, the Bazilika svatého Petra a Pavla was rebuilt in the Gothic style.
Charles IV decreed that every new ruler had to bow before the coronation to the symbols of the Přemyslovíč family stored in Vyšehrad: the bald shoes and the souma of the founder of the dynasty. The coronation procession of the future Czech monarchs had to begin from here.
After the death of Charles IV, the development of Vyšehrad came to a halt. It retained some significance as a fortress, though it suffered considerably from the Hussite battles. In the 17th century the fortress was substantially reinforced and surrounded by impressive brick walls. In the 19th century the old church cemetery was converted into the National Cemetery. Many prominent figures of Czech culture found eternal rest here. In 1883, Vysehrad became an administrative region of Prague.
Detailed Scheme of the Castle
Two gates in the castle walls lead to Vysehrad – Táborská brána and Leopoldová brána. After entering the two gates you can visit:
- at the Rotunda sv. Martina;
- Basilica of St. Peter and Paul (Bazilika svatého Petra a Pavla);
- in the garden (Vyšehradské sady);
- the memorial cemetery (Vyšehradský hřbitov);
- in the casemates (Vyšehradské kasematy).
- on observation decks.
The rotunda is the first thing that arrives through the gate. It is the oldest building in Vyšehrad, built by King Vratislav I. in the mid 11th century. The Romanesque rotunda has not changed in appearance, but its purpose has changed many times. It functioned as a police headquarters, an orphanage, an arsenal, and an ordinary warehouse. In the wall rotunda can be seen a cannonball. It was fired at Vysehrad during the Prussian siege of Prague in 1757, but it failed to detonate and got stuck in the wall.
The facade and interior of the basilica bring to mind the famous St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. This is no coincidence. The initiator of its construction was King Vratislav I, who wanted to have his own chapter, which was not subordinate to the Prague diocese, but directly to the Pope. Interestingly, the bishop of Prague was his own brother Jaromir, who competed with the king for influence.
The delegation sent to Rome by Vratislav I was not only to receive the Pope’s blessing, but also to examine St. Peter’s Cathedral. The Pope even sent a bishop to Vysehrad, who laid the cornerstone of the basilica. Unfortunately, it was badly damaged in the 15th century by the Hussites, led by Jan Žižka.
After that the church was repeatedly rebuilt in different architectural styles. It was rebuilt in 1885 and had its present Neo-Gothic appearance. The atmosphere was completed by the towers erected in 1902-03 that became the present-day symbol of the town of Vysehrad.
The interior has a carved wooden altar in modernist style by J. Kastner. Kastner. The altar is decorated with images of saints – the heavenly patrons of Bohemia. The basilica is the place of storage of a Gothic relic from the 14th century – an icon of the Virgin Mary.
In the church there is a family burial vault of members of Czech royal dynasty of Přemyslids. It is believed (historians dispute this) that one of the sarcophagi contains the remains of St. Longinus, a Roman centurion who pierced Christ with a spear and then became his zealous follower.
You can visit the basilica from 10:00 (Sunday from 10:30) to 18:00 (Thursday – 17:00) hours. The price of admission is CZK 30.
The Basilica of St. Peter and Paul is surrounded by a wonderful garden, the entrance to which is shaped like a Baroque portal, which once belonged to the arsenal. Ruins of ancient structures remain in the garden. There are also sculptures of legendary Visegrad heroes that originally stood on the Palackého most bridge. The statues, damaged during World War II, were moved to Vyšehradské sady after restoration.
Among the sculptures, the equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas stands out on the old road from Vyšehrad to the Vltava River. In his lifetime, Prince Wenceslas used it to travel to Prague.
The constant attraction for tourists are the 3 parts of the marble Čertův sloup (Hell’s Column) which are leaned against each other. According to legend, the priest of the Basilica promised the devil his soul in exchange for a Roman marble column from St. Peter’s Cathedral. On the condition that it had to be delivered to the Visegrad temple before the end of mass. The impure man flying with the column was hindered by St. Peter, who threw it into the sea several times. However, the devil managed to catch it each time, leaving claw marks on the column. But he reached the Visegrad basilica when the mass was over. The devil threw the column onto the roof in a fit of rage. It broke through the roof and crashed to the floor, splitting into three pieces.
After a long time the wreckage was dragged with great difficulty into the garden. Some impressionable tourists assure that they can smell sulfur near the wreckage. Scientists, however, believe they are fragments of a sundial or an unused building structure.
At the end of the 19th century it was decided to build a pantheon of eminent people of the Czech nation in the historic Vyšehrad. By now hundreds of writers, artists, musicians and statesmen have found eternal rest here. Many tombstones are of artistic value. The cemetery can therefore be seen as an open air sculptural museum, which is also worth a visit for tourists who do not like necropolises.
The underground excursion to the Visegrad casemates from the 18th century is also popular among the tourists. They were built for military purposes to transport soldiers inconspicuously and to store ammunition. Now this is where the original sculptures of the famous Charles Bridge are located. In the working museum there is an exhibition depicting the history of Visegrad fortress from ancient times until the XX century. Tours are available every day except Mondays, every hour from 10:00 to 18:00 and cost 50 CZK.
Many tourists consider the panoramas of Prague from Vyšehrad Hill to be the most beautiful ones. There are several viewing platforms. Near the St. Martin’s Rotunda you can climb to the widest one – the southern viewpoint, which goes along the perimeter of the fortress. From it you can easily photograph the southern part of Prague with its red roofs and the Vltava River.
Opposite the facade of the basilica is the entrance to the western observation deck. After passing through the gate and descending the stairs to the foot of the cliff, you can view and photograph Prague’s bridges, Petřín Hill and Prague Castle. Going down the same stairs to the end tourists find themselves at the streetcar stop, where they can quickly return to the city center.
How to get to Vysehrad
Vysehrad is located not far from the central part of Prague and is not difficult to get to. The easiest way to get there is to take the streetcar № 3 in the direction of Nádraží Braník in Karlův most, on Vodickova Street, and take the 10-minute Výtoň stop. From here – walk under the railway bridge and, after a few minutes, exit to the landmarks – the basilica towers and the sign Vyšehrad. An alternative to the streetcar is Vyšehrad subway station C, which also leads to the bridge.