Moody, romantic, historic, mysterious: Think Franz Kafka, baroque music, medieval and Renaissance buildings, opera, small avant-garde theaters, marionettes, and the Velvet Revolution. All of these (and more) make the capital of the Czech Republic a must-do on a European river cruise.
Prague serves as a transfer destination for Danube River cruises, as well as cruises that eventually hit the Main, Rhine and Moselle rivers. Passengers frequently overnight here for one day or more before journeying by bus to meet their ships.
Modern-day Prague is shaped by a storied past that dates to the ninth century. Once part of the Holy Roman Empire, the city played a major role in the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years' War, and was later an important part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Historical figures associated with the city include the larger-than-life Bohemian Emperor Charles IV and, later, Empress Maria Theresa.
The former Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Germans from 1939 to 1945. While the country suffered the hardships of World War II, Prague itself -- unlike other European capitals -- was not bombed extensively (although Americans accidentally knocked out around 100 buildings in Prague's historic center). Because so much of the city remained unscathed, architectural styles span the centuries: Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, Art Nouveau and Cubist. It's not an overstatement to say there is no other place quite like it.
Liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, Czechoslovakia operated as a Soviet-style state for decades; not until the 1970s did dissident groups begin to organize against the Communist regime. But democracy was slow to take hold. It wasn't until after the famed Prague Spring uprising in 1968 and the student-led Velvet Revolution in 1989 that playwright and former political prisoner Vaclav Havel was elected president. Full, multiparty elections under a new constitution were held in 1992. One year later, the Czech Republic and Slovakia split into two nations.
Today's Praha, as this city of 1.3 million is called, is firmly a tourist destination, with high quality shops, restaurants with top chefs, a historic center designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and important museums. It's not unusual to see Austrians, Germans, Russians and Americans following tour guides (with those ubiquitous raised umbrellas) through Prague Castle and the warren of cobblestone streets that make up Old Town. But that's just part of the city's present-day persona. Take a few days here before or after your cruise to dive deeper.