Black and White Photograph of the Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic
Czech Republic

Charles Bridge – Prague’s Iconic Landmark

A story about the history and architecture of Prague's famous icon, the Charles Bridge. It was key to the city's importance as a trading hub and greatly influenced the architecture of its Old Town...

For centuries, Charles Bridge was the only crossing over the Vltava. This landmark is key to understanding the history of Prague’s Old Town. This iconic landmark, and its unmistakable silhouette can be identified by many. As a testament to its structural integrity, it is one of the few remaining medieval bridges still standing today. There are not many bridges in the world that can rival the Charles Bridge in age, beauty and utility.

Panorama of the Charles Bridge and the Vltava River in Prague on a sunny winter day
Charles Bridge and the Vltava River are particularly charming on a sunny crisp winter day

History of Charles Bridge

Commissioned by King Charles IV two years after he was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor, the bridge made Prague the most important city in the region for many centuries to come. 

Gate at the end of the Charles Bridge, leading into the Castle District of Prague
Accessing the Castle District of Prague via the Charles Bridge is something every visitor to Prague should experience – yes, it is often crowded, but it is also amazing

When was the Charles Bridge built?

If you’re a numberphile like I am, you’d be amused to know that the first stone was laid on the 9th day of the 7th month of 1357 (9 July 1357), at 5:31, forming a numerical palindrome 135797531. King Charles was a superstitious man and felt that this was important. 

View of Charles Bridge and the tower from the Prague Castle hill
Looking back at the Charles Bridge and its Tower from the hill hosting the Prague Castle

Charles Bridge and Trade

Although the cost of the bridge left the Kingdom of Bohemia in debt for many years after its construction, it was a truly worthwhile investment. From its completion in the early 1400’s up till 1870, it was the only means of crossing the Vltava. Although Prague was already a key trading hub before the bridge, the bridge significantly increased the flow of traffic through the city. Today, as an easily recognisable icon of Czechia, it generates billions of tourist dollars indirectly.

Panorama of the Charles Bridge, with the Prague Castle in the background
Charles Bridge and Prague Castle are intrinsically connected in both history and most photographs of the bridge

On top of being useful to traders in the region, it also made life easier for the Medieval residents of Prague. Especially those working in the Prague Castle, who now had an easy and safe way to cross the Vltava. 

Black and white image of the Charles Bridge, with many people, statues, domes and towers of Prague in it
The cacophony of people, statues, domes, and architectural and artistic styles is one of the calling cards of Prague and the Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge and War

Of course, to any upsides, there are downsides. The bridge’s incredible importance as the only crossing across the Vltava meant it was a target during the many wars that took place in the following centuries. In 1621, the Habsburgs hung the heads of 27 Bohemian revolutionaries from the Bridge Tower. The location of the heads meant that this “message” was received and spread quickly. During World War Two, the Nazi army noticed the bridge’s importance in the transport of supplies, and the bridge came under threat. Fortunately, it was not significantly damaged. 

Night panorama of the Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge
The famous Prague panorama, including both the Bridge and the Castle, is impressive regardless of the time of the day

The Architecture and Engineering

In the 600 years or so of its existence, it has endured a lot. The floods of the Vltava can be severe, and the bridge has been damaged many times over the centuries. At the turn of the last century, the bridge accommodated trams and buses, which no doubt increased the load and wear on this historical monument. After World War Two, city planners wisely decided that the bridge would be for pedestrians only. Today, it accommodates the footsteps of the millions of tourists that visit Prague yearly. 

Panorama of Charles Bridge curving across the Vlatava river
The Charles Bridge looking very impressive as it stretches across the Vltava river

That it is still standing is testament to the power of an ancient engineering idea – the stone arch, which is a Roman invention. The Charles Bridge has 16 of these arches across its half kilometre length. Legend also has it that this strength was due to eggs being mixed in with the mortar by the constructors who built it. However, analysis of the bridge has so far been inconclusive whether this is true.

Black and white image of Charles Bridge, over the Vltava River, in Prague
Charles Bridge is the most famous bridge in Prague, no doubt about that, but there are many others spanning the Vltava River

During my visit to Prague, I often found myself wondering what exactly made the bridge look so “medieval”. I concluded that it was the tapered pier heads (they cap the columns separating the arches), which resemble the conical roofs of medieval towers.

Charles Bridge in Prague, seen from the Castle side of the Vltava River
The Prague Castle side of the Charles Bridge offers more interesting ways to see the famous bridge, so it is well worth exploring around

The Bridge Tower

The Old Town Bridge Tower is one of the oldest and best-maintained structures in Old Town Prague. When you look at the skyline of the Old Town, you’ll feel that everything kind of matches up with each other. That’s because the Gothic architecture of the Bridge Tower inspired the other two prominent landmarks in Old Town Prague – the tower of the Prague Astronomical Clock and the twin towers of the Church of Our Lady Before Týn.

Charles Bridge in Prague at night
Charles Bridge is way more tranquil at night, so if you are staying in Prague for more than a day, make sure you take a stroll at moonlight

The Bridge Tower was, however, more than an impressive entrance into the heart of Prague. In the past, the size of its arches restricted the vehicles that could cross the bridge. In this way, the Bridge Tower performs a protective function for this historical monument.

Charles Bridge packed with tourists tall and Gothic buildings rising out into the sky behind
Charles Bridge is packed with people all year around. I can imagine a scene just like this centuries ago, with the same Gothic buildings rising out into the sky behind. The only difference would be the clothes the people wore

The Statues on the Charles Bridge

Along the bridge are thirty statues. Various Czech organisations, nobility and business people commissioned most of these between 1683 and 1714. When the construction of the bridge was completed, there was only a simple cross installed on the North side. When the Protestant Hussites destroyed the cross in 1419, the city council only got around to replacing it in 1629. In the centuries that followed, each replacement was destroyed in turn either in war or by floods. Today, a sculpture from the 19th Century stands in its place. It is the Statuary of the Holy Crucifix and Calvary by Emmanuel Max, a Czech-German sculptor.

The statues of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the “Apostles to the Slavs”

Among the more interesting sculptures on the Charles Bridge is the one of Sant John Of Nepomuk. This statue stands out because of the five golden stars that ring the statue’s head. In the relief at its base is a knight with a golden dog by his feet. The dog is golden because tourists rub it “for luck”. Thus keeping it clean of the green copper oxide which covers all the statues on the bridge.

View of the Church of St. Salvator and the Bridge tower from the Charles Bridge, looking towards the Old Town
The ever present tourist crowd on Charles Bridge and the Church of St. Salvator in the background

Most of the statues are replicas. The Prague council has redistributed the originals throughout various Prague museums. 

Statue of Czech composer Bedrich Smetana on a platform near Charles Bridge
Statue of Bedřich Smetana, a Czech composer who wrote music expressing his country’s determination for independence in the 19th Century

Current Status of the Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge is, unfortunately, in bad condition today. The council has started a new series of renovations in 2019. When we visited in 2019, the bridge was, to my surprise, not lit. Workers had to turn off the lamps that lit the bridge to repair the ice guards. The bridge will be incrementally repaired over the coming decade in a way that won’t interfere with this function and view. It will continue to be accessible. 

A view from Charles Bridge, with an old style lamp, a statue and Gothic roofs in the background
An abstract view of Prague from Charles Bridge, imbued with a romantic old-world vibe

If you look carefully, you’ll notice that some of the stones on the bridge are mismatched. That the new stones do not match the old ones was one of the criticisms of the last restoration done in 2008. The quest to find matching stones continues for Prague’s city council.

Final Thoughts

For me, Charles Bridge is one of the world’s most enchanting bridges. There are not many other bridges in the world that can match up in age, quality and beauty. Today, the bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an essential bridge for historians and engineers alike. That it is still standing after six centuries is a testament to its cultural and locational importance, and of course, structural integrity.

Seagulls flying above the Vltava near Charles Bridge
Seagulls can be found everywhere near the Charles Bridge

FAQs for Charles Bridge

Why is Charles Bridge famous?

Charles Bridge is an icon of Prague and the Czech Republic. For many centuries until 1870, it was the only way for people to cross the Vltava. It is also one of the few Medieval bridges still standing and in use today.

When was Charles Bridge Built?

The first stone was laid on 9th July 1357. The bridge was completed about a century later, in the early 1400s. [Read More]

How was Charles Bridge built?

Charles Bridge was built with local limestone, with Medieval construction techniques. It uses the Roman arch, which gives it great stability. Legend has it that eggs were mixed in with the mortar to ensure the strength of the bridge. [Read More]

How far is Charles Bridge from the Old Town Square?

Charles Bridge is a mere 9 minute walk from the Old Town Square