Prague was one of my favorite stops as I traveled through Europe exploring Jewish heritage. It’s beautiful, ancient, and a little bit spooky. This is a city surrounded by mythology and folklore. A place that was the seat of the Austro-Hungarian empire for a short period, and the supposedly permanent home of the famous Golem, the man made of clay, created by the famous Maharal of Prague.
There were so many amazing places to go in Prague, but I’ve collected all of the most important Jewish sites in the city. There is so much to see in Prague, I’d recommend taking an organized tour so you can pace yourself. Then you get to really plan with someone who knows how long each section should take and how you should organize your route.
Prague’s Jewish Quarter is called Josefov, and you might end up there even if you’re not on a Jewish heritage tour in Prague. The neighborhood has been around since 965 AD and has some of the oldest buildings in the city.
The Jewish community in Prague is pretty ancient. A presence was actually recorded back in the 10th century when Jewish merchants sold their wares in the city’s markets.
Of course, Jewish history in Prague hasn’t always been happy. From pogroms to expulsions, Bohemian anti-semitism in the middle ages resulted in one of the worst acts of violence against Jews in Medieval history, when 1,500 Jewish citizens in the city were massacred on April 17, 1389.
While the large Jewish community of Prague has largely shrunk, many of the most famous buildings from the community have survived. This is rare in Europe, and only possible because Hitler wanted to found a “museum of an extinct race” in the city after the war. For that reason, hundreds of thousands of Jewish artifacts were transported to Prague from everywhere in Europe.
Because of Hitler’s dark plan, it’s now possible to visit the Jewish Quarter’s six synagogues, including the Old-New synagogue, where the Golem is said to be, and the Pinkas Synagogue, a touching memorial to victims of the Holocaust. The cemetery in the Jewish quarter is also worth a visit, as well as the Jewish town hall with its famous clock using the letters from the Hebrew alphabet.
One of the main Prague synagogues, the Maisel synagogue has been around since 1592, when Emperor Rudolf II was in power. The synagogue was originally built as a Renaissance temple with three naves. It burnt down in the ghetto fire of 1689 but was rebuilt and in the late 19th century was transformed into a Neo-Gothic building.
The synagogue houses the permanent exhibition, Jews in the Bohemian Lands in the 10th-18th Century. There’s a collection of rare objects and touch screens for looking through old Hebrew manuscripts and historical maps of Jewish settlements in the area.
At night, the exhibition area is sometimes transformed into an auditorium for concerts, recitals, and theater performances.
This synagogue is fascinating, especially on a Jewish heritage tour, because you can really learn about Jewish life in the area and what it was like to be Jewish specifically in Bohemia.
Plan your trip to the Maisel synagogue with our Jewish Travel Agency.
Old-New Synagogue and the Golem of Prague
One of my favorite sites in Prague, the Old-New synagogue is like walking back into history. I went there for Friday night services, and it was amazing to feel like I was doing the same thing that Jews for centuries had done. This is the oldest synagogue in Prague’s Jewish town and in Europe. It’s existed for over 700 years, built in the thirteenth century by stone masons from the royal workshop who also built the Convent of St. Agnes. This is proof of the high status of the Jewish community of Prague at the time.
But what’s even more interesting about this synagogue is the mythology and folklore that surround it. They say its foundation stones were brought by angels from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem and that the synagogue was protected against fire in the ghetto by the wings of angels. The most famous legend of the synagogue, popularized through multiple mediums such as Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, is that the Golem, the man made of clay created by the Maharal, is in the attic of the synagogue.
The Pinkas synagogue is the second oldest synagogue in Prague. Although this Prague synagogue isn’t as old as the Old-New synagogue, it’s still worth it to visit.
The synagogue was built in the late Gothic style in 1535 and was restored to its original form in the 1950s. This synagogue is home of the Memorial to the Victims of the Shoah from the Czech lands. There are 80,000 names written on the walls. Although the memorial was closed to the public after the Soviet invasion, it was reconstructed and reopened in 1995.
The first floor houses an exhibition of children’s drawings from the Terezin Ghetto. The powerful drawings illustrated by children are a look into daily life in the ghetto and what the children longed for in the darkest time of European Jewish history. Most of the children were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
There’s another exhibition on the deportation of Jews from the Czech lands, and another on the faces of the victims of the Shoah, which involves a night-time projection of photographs onto the gable wall of the mikveh of the Pinkas synagogue.
Prague is great to explore on foot. Check out Jewish walking tours here.
Old Jewish Cemetery
The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is one of the oldest surviving Jewish burial sites in the world. National Geographic has even called it one of the top ten cemeteries to visit around the world.
The oldest tombstone at the cemetery is from 1439. What’s especially distinct about this cemetery is the density. It wasn’t big enough to fit the needs of the Jewish community, so bodies were buried on top of each other. Some burial plots are 10 layers deep.
It’s fascinating to walk among the graves and see the tombstones decorated with animal motifs, plant motifs, and religious symbols. One of the most famous residents of the cemetery is the Maharal, the creator of the Golem.
The Klausen synagogue is the largest in the quarter. It was founded in 1694 in the early Baroque style. It was used as a place of prayer by the Hebra Kadisha of Prague (Burial society) and as the second main synagogue for the entire community.
Inside, the permanent exhibition on display is of Jewish Customs and Traditions. There are exhibits relating to the daily life of a Jewish family, such as circumcision, bar mitzvah, divorce, and marriage.
As part of a kosher trip you can visit this place. So consider it.
The synagogue in the Prague Jewish town from 1868 was a reform synagogue. It was designed in Moorish interior design and built to look like the Alhambra. This is one of the most beautiful synagogues in Prague.
The permanent exhibition is on Jews in the Bohemian Lands in the 19th and 20th centuries, so it deals with Jewish history from the 1780s until the Second World War. It focuses on famous Jewish figures from the Czech Republic, such as Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud, and the Shoah and Terezin ghetto.
One of the favorite synagogues visually, this synagogue was built in 1906. It’s a mixture of Moorish revival design and art nouveau. That means a rose window, Iberian red and white layers of stone, keyhole arches, and so many colors.
Services are still held in this spectacular place on Fridays and Saturdays.
Franz Kafka Monument
Franz Kafka was a famous Czech existentialist writer. His most famous book is The Metamorphosis.
This whimsical statue was inaugurated in 2003, near the Spanish Synagogue. The statue is of the writer riding on the shoulders of a headless figure. It’s an easy stop if you’re already exploring the other synagogues and sites in the Jewish quarter.
Jewish Museum in Prague
The Jewish Museum of Prague contains a collection of Judaica of 40,000 objects, 100,000 books, and an amazing archive of Czech Jewish testimonies and histories. It comprises the Maisel Synagogue, Pinkas Synagogue, Spanish Synagogue, Klausen Synagogue, Ceremonial Hall of the Prague Jewish Burial Society, Old Jewish Cemetery, Robert Guttmann Gallery, and archive in the Smichov Synagogue.
It can take days to explore the whole museum, but afterward, you’ll leave with a firm understanding of Jewish life in Bohemia and Jewish history in general.
Not a part of the Jewish museum but still beautiful, this is a great spot to go to when you’re looking for a break or food or coffee in the middle of your day in the Jewish Quarter. This street runs through the center of the Prague Jewish Quarter and is a good place to shop, grab a coffee, or eat at one of the fine restaurants.
Museum of Alchemy
Did you know that alchemy actually has a connection with Jewish history? The first alchemist, Mary the Jewess, lived in Egypt and invented processes used for centuries in alchemy afterward.
But besides that fun fact, alchemy actually has a connection with Jewish history in Prague. Alchemy was banned by the church in Prague, so many alchemists hid their labs in the Jewish quarter so the church wouldn’t find out. This, of course, put the Jewish population at risk. If one of the labs was discovered, the Jews would be blamed.
But some later Jewish figures were also alchemists. The Maharal, the creator of the Golem, was a famous alchemist himself.
This museum is really my favorite part of Prague. It was only recently discovered, and it’s one of the most unique activities you can do in the city.
A few years ago, a 16th-century underground laboratory full of vials and pots was found beneath a building. They’ve now turned the lab into a museum, and you can take a secret passageway (so cool!) hidden behind a bookcase, go down the stairs, and see what an alchemist’s lab actually looked like in the middle ages. If that isn’t a great reason to go to Prague, I don’t know what it is!
So no matter what it is you are looking for Prague will most certainly deliver. Make sure to pick a comfortable time to come and enjoy this amazing place after all this is one of the greatest and most beautiful cities in all of Europe.
Interested in Jewish Heritage Tours to Prague? Visit our website today.