It’s probably not going to be on your top ten list when visiting Prague but Charles Square is an historic area which today is a park bisected by two main roads but it has an active past so I’ll describe why it is here, some of it’s colourful history, why you might like to visit the square and places close to it.
The New Town Markets
Emperor King Charles IV had inherited the historic Lesser Town and Old Town from his father John of Luxembourg. In his lifetime Charles IV would give the permission for and actively encourage the development of the New Town from the 1360s so Charles Square (Karlovo Namesti in Czech) takes his name and sits in the New Town district on it’s border with Prague 2. To encourage trade and to be successful there had to be markets so the New Town would have three. Two of them would be the Hay Market (Senovážné) and the Horse Market (Wenceslas Square).
The Cattle Market
The third would be a Cattle Market at today’s Charles Square. Records show that there were 5 other cattle markets in Prague up to the 1880s including Smichov, Karlin, Zizkov, Vinohrady and Holesovice. The one at Charles Square created more than double the volume of meat sales than all the others combined. The map above is from 1816 and shows the large open area that today we know as Charles Square. But on this map it’s shown as “Dobytcí Trh” which literally translates as “cattle market”. What they knew as “Charles Square” back then is abbreviated to “Karlovo Nam” middle-left on this map going downhill via Resslova below the Church of ST Cyril and Methodius.
There is still a street close by called Reznicka which means “Butcher street” and 150 years ago there was 1st Reznicka and 2nd Reznicka. There was a street called U Masných Krámu which means “at the meat shop” but the city changed that to Lazarska.
The New Town Hall
No surprise that where you have a large market you’ll also find a town hall where taxes would be paid. In this case the New Town Hall was completed in 1456. It served as the administration centre for the area, a fire watchtower and a prison. It was the site of the first Prague Defenestration. It has a great view from the tower gallery.
By 1900 only half of Charles Square was being used as a market whilst the other half was made into a formal park. The area to the south of the old market became the location of both a Military Hospital and a General Hospital so it’s probably no coincidence that the park was right in front of the Military Hospital and would have been used by imperial troops recovering from battle wounds. The former Military Hospital is next to the ST Ignacius church and extends to the end of the square. By the outbreak of the first world war the whole area was now a park.
The effect of having a cattle market on Charles Square also led to a boom in breweries in the area not just because there was a market but also because of what was being used in it. Two of the streets that bisect Charles Square are called Ječna and Žitna which translate as Barley Street and Corn Street and would have been the main route into the city for cereal cattle feed. Žitna on it’s own had more than 12 breweries.
World War Two
Charles Square was the scene of the single biggest loss of life in the accidental bombing of the city on February 14th 1945 when a building being used for shelter received a direct hit killing almost 100 people. Another WW2 location is just 200 metres away down the hill called Resslova. On the right is the Church of ST Cyril and Methodius. Read about Operation Anthropoid if you are interested in World War Two stories.
Now and the Future
It’s a pleasant place during the day you’ll find many people sitting on benches reading newspapers. Families and kids will be using the playground or the fountain or just laying on the grass. But at night it’s a place to avoid. Not because it’s dangerous, it’s just a place associated with homelessness and becomes an unofficial Prague Red Light District. At the time of writing the Prague Redevelopment Institute is currently accepting proposals and designs for a new look for Charles Square.
How to Get to Charles Square
It’s literally 5 minutes walk from Wenceslas Square via the street called Vodičkova. It has a metro station called Karlovo Naměsti (yellow line). Trams 2, 3, 6, 14, 18, 22 and 24 all pass through here.