Many people who live in Prague hadn’t been to the center in years. Under normal circumstances, locals would go almost anyplace else rather than brave fighting the wall-to-wall crowds of tourists between Old Town Square and Prague Castle.
With tourists unable to come, Praguers were finally able to get an undisturbed gander at the centuries-old streets and squares in the city center for the first time since the 1990s. Compared to 2019, the number of tourists visiting Prague dropped 87 percent in 2020.
When the tourists left Prague, local tourism changed 360 degrees. Rather than having to search for a narrow passage between tour groups, people could relax and look up at the house signs above the Baroque doorways. Before houses were numbered, they were known by fanciful names such as the House at the Black Sun or House of the Three Violins. Hundreds of these colorful sculpted signs still remain.
The overall feeling downtown was surreal, though. When the tourists left Prague, souvenir shops were either closed or mainly selling face masks, as locals have no interest in puppets or faux Soviet hats and watches. Whole streets of shops were shuttered save for a stand or two offering two-for-one deals on fresh-baked funnel cakes and takeaway beverages.
Even in difficult times, Praguers kept a sense of humor. One cafe near Old Town Square rose to the occasion by making chocolate bonbons with red spikes — modeled on the coronavirus. They had to be ordered in advance as demand was so high.
The area around Wenceslas Square, the city’s main shopping and entertainment district, in particular, was eerily quiet. The Lucerna Passage, an Art Nouveau shopping arcade cutting through the ground floors of several buildings, had only security guards to save it from being fully deserted.
Most vacant of all was Prague Castle, the grounds of which stayed closed to all except government workers. While uniformed castle guards could be seen behind the gates marching on a regular schedule, it was a show for virtually nobody.
Even before the first lockdown started, Prague City Hall had been trying to clear Old Town Square and the rest of the center or the worst excesses of tourism — fake historical vehicles, living statues, people in panda costumes, and mediocre buskers.
The lockdown completed what the city started. Finally, those who ventured to Old Town Square could appreciate the former Town Hall and other elaborately decorated buildings without a lot of visual noise. The buildings include ones where writer Franz Kafka lived and another where Albert Einstein entertained his fellow intellectuals by playing the violin.
The Astronomical Clock, with its functioning astrolabe and an hourly procession of wooden saints, now played to single digits of viewers rather than hundreds. The newly erected victory column, capped with St Mary, became home to flowers and candles left by people seeking divine intervention to mitigate the virus. The column is a replica of one from the 17th century that had been torn down in 1918 when Czechoslovakia became independent.
The main draw for locals returning to the center, though, was Charles Bridge. The 14th century stone structure, dotted with 30 religious statues, was now devoid of both crowds and merchants hawking souvenirs and caricatures. Small groups could finally make a wish by touching the statue of St John Nepomuk without having to wait in line. Posing for masked group photos with Prague Castle in the background became the way to show you experienced the pandemic.
On June 30, 2020, some 2,000 people came together for a pot luck dinner on 515 meters of tables crossing the entire span of Charles Bridge. At the time, the first wave of the pandemic had largely abated and rules had been relaxed. Museums and theaters reopened, at least with limited capacity, and restaurants could offer some indoor and outdoor dining.
Throughout the pandemic, parks and urban forests were an exception to many of the rules, as people were encouraged to get out of their homes for exercise. Petřín Hill on May Day 2020, a holiday where lovers kiss under blooming trees, seemed almost normal save the occasional face mask.
Stands in some parks selling beer and snacks remained open under rules that allowed takeaway from restaurants. Picnics in the park became one form of entertainment people could engage in.
The relatively relaxed times of the summer were short-lived, as by September 2020 the virus numbers were back up and restrictions returned slowly. By March 2021, a full year after the pandemic started, the city was back into lockdown. Police were checking IDs in the center as only city residents were allowed on the streets. Tourists, even ones from just beyond the city limits, were supposed to stay away.