Jewish Quarter Walking Tour, Prague

Jewish Quarter Walking Tour (Self Guided), Prague

Josefov, formerly the Jewish ghetto of Prague, is part of the city's Old Town (Staré Město). Steeped in history, it breathes Jewish culture. Some of the beautiful and historically important synagogues here are still acting, whereas others have been converted to art galleries and museums. This self-guided tour will help you find your way around and explore the most interesting sites of Prague's Jewish quarter.
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Jewish Quarter Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Jewish Quarter Walking Tour
Guide Location: Czech Republic » Prague (See other walking tours in Prague)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 11
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.1 Km or 0.7 Miles
Author: vickyc
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Spanish Synagogue
  • Jewish Museum
  • High Synagogue
  • Old New Synagogue
  • Klausen Synagogue
  • Old Jewish Cemetery
  • Ceremonial Hall
  • Museum of Decorative Arts
  • Jan Palach Square
  • Pinkas Synagogue
  • Maisel Synagogue
Spanish Synagogue

1) Spanish Synagogue (must see)

Prague can proudly boast some of the most beautifully decorated buildings in Europe and the Spanish Synagogue, even by Prague’s standards, is quite simply breathtaking.

Located in the Jewish Quarter, this Moorish Revival synagogue was built in 1868 according to the design by Vojtech Ingnatz Ullman, and stands on the site of the oldest synagogue in the city. If you are a seasoned traveler, you might find this building somewhat familiar. This is because it is a close copy of the Leopoldstadter Tempel in Vienna; its tripartite façade and central section, with its twin-domed turrets, are taller than the two flanking ones.

Still, it is the interior of the building that takes one's breath away, really. Each surface, other than the floor, is covered in Islamic-style arabesques that are carved in wood, molded or painted. The overall effect is quite stunning. Of a particular note is the ark and bimah, the dome over the central space with its Magen David chandelier and the beautiful organ.

Under the Nazis and then the Communists the synagogue fell into disrepair and remained closed for over 20 years. Presently owned by the Jewish Museum, the property has been restored and reopened in 1998 as a concert hall and museum. Its name represents a bit of a mystery as it has never been used by a Spanish congregation.

Why You Should Visit:
The most beautiful and unusual synagogue in Prague's Jewish Town.

Recommended visiting as part of the Jewish Quarter tour.
Bakeshop is close-by for a sandwich or a sweet treat.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Jewish Museum

2) Jewish Museum

The Jewish Museum of Prague was founded in 1906 by historians Dr. Hugo Lieben and Dr. Augustin Stein, who later became head of the Prague Jewish Community. The goal was to preserve artifacts from the Prague synagogues demolished during the Urban renewal of the old Jewish Quarter at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1942, the Nazis established on its premises the Central Jewish Museum, set to commemorate the heritage of an exterminated people by collecting notable objects of Jewish ceremonial art. Artifacts were shipped here from all the Jewish communities and synagogues of Bohemia and Moravia. The museum reopened under the post-War Communist regime but began to flourish only after the Czech lands had been liberated from Communism.

Why You Should Visit:
Apart from the museum itself with its historical exhibits, you get to see the nearby synagogues, the cemetery, and the WWII memorial. The Klausen Synagogue, now religiously inactive, gives insights into the Jewish traditions and is a single example of an early Baroque synagogue in the area.

Best time to see everything is very early or later in the day.
You can also come back the following day in case you don't get to see it all in one day.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
High Synagogue

3) High Synagogue

The High Synagogue of the Jewish Quarter was built in 1568. Its construction was financed by Mordechai Maisel, a philanthropist and one of the richest men in Prague at the time.

Built next to the Jewish Town Hall, the synagogue was a place of preaching for the councillors of the Town Hall and also where the Rabbinic Court was held. The name “High” came about from the fact that the prayer hall is located on the 1st floor of the building.

In 1689, the synagogue was destroyed in the Great Fire but was carefully restored along with the original ribbed vault with its eight-pointed star. In 1883 the building was renovated and received the rather simplistic façade that it has today.

During the Nazi and Communist rule the synagogue was used by the Jewish Museum to display Torah textiles, silver ceremonial tools and ancient Hebrew books. After the fall of Communism, a bookshop opened and sold books about the Holocaust.

As of 1997 the synagogue has been reinstated as a place of worship for Prague citizens and foreigners, and is no longer open to tourists.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Old New Synagogue

4) Old New Synagogue

The Old New Synagogue of Prague’s Jewish Quarter is the oldest synagogue in Europe that is still used as a house of prayer. One of the city's first Gothic buildings, it dates back to 1270. It is also the oldest synagogue that boasts a twin nave, the presence of which is due to the architects being Christians, who modeled the design on the monasteries of that period.

The double naves have six vaulted bays, each with five-ribbed vaulting, which is rather unusual, as most Gothic vaultings are either four- or six-ribbed. Some scholars say that it was to avoid a semblance of the Christian cross. Each of the bays has two narrow Gothic windows. Over the tympanum of the portal, the moulding depicts 12 vines with 12 bunches of grapes. Apparently, the number 12 represents the 12 Tribes of Israel.

There are several legends attached to the synagogue; one being that its foundation stones were carried to Prague from the ruins of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem by angels and that the synagogue is “Tnay”, which means “on condition”. This means that the building will remain undamaged until it is moved to Jerusalem. “Thay” may eventually have been corrupted to “alt-neu” (old-new) thus explaining how the synagogue came by its strange name.

Another legend suggests that the body of the Golem of Prague lies in the genizah (attic) and that a German soldier who tried to enter it was struck down by the Golem himself. It is true that during the Second World War, the Nazi’s never penetrated the genizah. The lower three metres of the stairs, leading to the attic, have been removed and it is not open to visitors.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Klausen Synagogue

5) Klausen Synagogue

The Klausen Synagogue, found near the entrance of the Jewish Cemetery in the Jewish Quarter, is particularly worth visiting for its permanent exhibitions.

The synagogue was commissioned by Mordechai Maisel, a rich philanthropist, in honour of Emperor Ferdinand III who visited the area in 1573. Originally, it consisted of three buildings and was named “Klausen”, which is the plural form of “Klaus” and means “small buildings”. One of the building was used for religious ceremonies, the other one was a Talmud School where Rabbi Lowe (of the Golem of Prague fame) taught, and the third housed the ritual baths.

The original Klausen was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1689 and rebuilt as synagogue in 1704. It was the largest place of worship in the Jewish Quarter and the seat of the Prague Burial Society.

Today, the synagogue holds a permanent exhibition in its central nave, dedicated to Jewish Customs and Traditions. Here you will learn about the customs related to various events, from birth to death, including circumcision, weddings and divorce. There are also Hebrew prints and manuscripts on display complete with the touching drawings by children from the Terezin ghetto, as well as a fine collection of Hanukkah candelabras and Esther Scrolls.
Old Jewish Cemetery

6) Old Jewish Cemetery

The Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague is one of the largest of its kind in Europe and one of the most important Jewish historical monuments in the city. It served its purpose from the first half of the 15th century until 1786. During that period, renowned personalities of the local Jewish community were buried here, including rabbi Jehuda Liva ben Becalel – Maharal (ca. 1526–1609), businessman Mordecai Meisel (1528–1601), historian David Gans (ca. 1541–1613) and rabbi David Oppenheim (1664–1736).

There are two kinds of burial monuments (Hebrew: matzevot) found in the cemetery. The older type is a slab of wood or stone, basically rectangular, but with various endings at the top. Tumba (or ohel – Hebrew for “tent”), resembling a little house, appeared later, during the Baroque times, and is generally more representative than the slab tombstones. The tumbas mark the graves of Maharal and Mordecai Maisel, among many others. They do not contain the actual remains; the latter are buried underneath, in the ground.

The earliest gravestones in the cemetery were plain, but very soon the ornaments – such as pilasters, volutes, false portals, etc. – started to appear. The most decorated gravestones originated in the 17th century. Regardless of decoration, though, each gravestone carries Hebrew inscriptions indicating the name of the deceased along with the date of his/her death or burial. Copious praise of the person's virtues appeared beside the brief eulogy ("of blessed memory") during the Renaissance period. From the 16th century onward, the gravestones featured symbols, hinting at the life, character, name or profession of the deceased.

Today, the Old Jewish Cemetery is administered by the Jewish Museum of Prague. It also appeared in Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetery novel, which is named after it.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Ceremonial Hall

7) Ceremonial Hall

Right next to the Klausen Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter is a building that resembles an old castle or, perhaps, a grand manor house. This is the Ceremonial Hall and you’ll probably ask yourself as to what wonderful story may be associated with it. Sadly, the answer is – none, really.

The Hall was built in 1912 to the design by architect J. Gerstl in a pseudo-Romanesque style. It was given to the Jewish Burial Society and was once a ceremonial hall and mortuary, where important members of the Jewish society were taken to be prepared for burial. This is one of the buildings in the area that the Nazi’s left untouched during their occupation, as it was destined to become part of their “Museum to an Extinct Race”.

Today it belongs to the Jewish Museum and holds permanent exhibitions, including one devoted to illness, death and graphic descriptions of ancient burial rites, along with the examples of gravestones, tombs, memorials and paintings donated by the Burial Society.

The other exhibition is less morbid; it represents Part II of the Jewish Customs and Traditions Exhibition (Part I is in the Klausen Synagogue) and deals with the everyday life of the Jewish households throughout centuries. It is a very interesting, instructive exhibition and is well worth visiting.
Museum of Decorative Arts

8) Museum of Decorative Arts

The Museum of Decorative Arts is housed in a 19th century Neo-Renaissance building and displays examples of international historical and contemporary arts. The aim of this museum is to preserve samples of art and crafts throughout-the-ages for future generations.

The ground floor of the museum holds exhibitions that change every month and showcase the works of both renowned and emerging artists. On the first floor there are permanent exhibitions of objects from the 14th century to the present day.

The Story of Fibre Exhibition has a wonderful collection of wedding dresses, dating from the 14th to the 19th century, as well as miniature dresses for porcelain dolls. In the Print and Image section you will find books and prints made on the first printing presses, photos, public notices and books on graphic arts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Treasury Exhibition displays metals and assorted objects: jewellery, candlesticks, statues, etc. The Time Machine gallery features clocks and watches from the 15th to the 20th century. In the Glass and Ceramics gallery you will find 16th–19th century ceramics, 18–19th century porcelain and 20th century glass and ceramics.

There is also a small gift ‘area’ at the entrance and a very good café that is frequented by local artists. There is a small entrance fee to the museum and a little extra for an audio guide.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Jan Palach Square

9) Jan Palach Square

Compared to other squares in Prague, Jan Palach Square is relatively new. Found on the right bank of the Vltava river within the Old Town, not far from the Jewish Quarter, it was named the Square of the Red Army in commemoration of the Russian soldiers who fell liberating Prague in 1945. Between 1969 and 1970 the square was rather tentatively renamed Jan Palach Square after the young student who committed suicide by self-immolation in protest against the Soviet occupation of his country. The name stuck and was officially adopted at the end of 1989 after the Communist regime came to an end.

The West side of the square, adjacent to the river, affords a great view of the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle. Through the Mάnes Bridge it is connected to the Lesser Town.

To the North of the square, you can see the Rudolfinum Concert Hall and Art Gallery, and to the South – the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design. On the East side stands the Charles University Faculty of Arts.

In front of the Rudolfinum there is a statue of the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, and by the river you will find a statue of Josef Mάnes, the Czech painter who is best known for the beautiful images of the twelve months (Calendar plate) that he painted for the Astronomical Clock in 1870. As for Jan Palach, a commemorative plaque to him is found in Wenceslas Square.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Pinkas Synagogue

10) Pinkas Synagogue

Built in 1535 next to the Jewish Cemetery, Pinkas Synagogue was commissioned by Aaron Mesullam Horowitz as a family place of worship. The synagogue was named after Aaron’s grandson, Rabbi Pinkas Horowitz. It has a reticulated vault and the southern tract, and a gallery for women added in the 17th century. During an archaeological survey that preceded reconstruction of the synagogue after the water damage in the late 1960s, vaulted spaces, a ritual bath and an ancient well were discovered under the basement.

Since the end of World War II the synagogue has served as the Memorial for Jewish Victims of Bohemia and Moravia, commemorating over 80,000 with the names inscribed on the walls. The memorial was designed and constructed by Vaclav Bostik and Jiri John between 1954 and 1959 featuring the names, dates of birth and death of the Jews deported to the concentration camps.

On the walls within the main nave there are names of the victims who lived in Prague, while the adjoining walls bear the names of those who lived in the surrounding villages and towns. All the names are arranged in alphabetical order and divided by villages they lived in. There are also a number of children’s drawings from the Terezin ghetto.

As a moving memorial to those who never came back from the camps and ghettos, it is an incredibly sad place to visit and you won’t be blamed for having shed a tear.
Maisel Synagogue

11) Maisel Synagogue

South of the New Old Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, you will find the Maisel Synagogue which today belongs to the Jewish Museum and, just as many other buildings in Prague, is used as an exhibition hall.

Set on 20 pillars, the synagogue was built in 1592 by Josef Wahl as a private place of prayer for Mordechai Maisel, the rich philanthropist who also commissioned the Klausen and High synagogues and the Jewish Town Hall. It is also the first synagogue in Prague to be open to women.

Originally styled as Renaissance, the synagogue was badly damaged during the Great Fire of 1689, upon which it was rebuilt with a Baroque façade. The current Neo-Gothic façade dates to the late 19th century.

The inside exhibition recounts history of the Jewish settlement in the Czech lands, featuring artefacts from the 10th and 11th centuries, including Czech dinars. Medieval and early modern settlement exhibits contain manuscripts relating to the persecution of Czech Jews and anti-Semitism in Europe. On the central platform of the main nave there is a stunning display of synagogue's silver including a Levite laver and basin made in 1702 by Jan Jiri Lux. You will also see Bohemian and Moravian synagogue curtains and manuscripts of the works of 12th-18th century scholars.

It is quite ironical to realize that most of the precious artefacts on display here now have been brought to Prague by the Nazis themselves.

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