Visiting Prague’s Jewish Quarter, Josefov: your complete guide

Let’s explore Prague’s Jewish quarter, known as “Josefov”. It is located just a few minutes’ walk from the Prague Astronomical Clock in the heart of the old town. This area is a must-see part of the city’s history and offers many monuments to visit.

In this guide, you’ll find out more about the history of the Jewish quarter, its synagogues, and I’ll share a suggested itinerary to explore the area either on your own or with a guided tour.

The Jewish Quarter of Prague: a history tied to persecution

To understand present-day Josefov, one must understand how Jewish settlers came to Prague. This began as early as the Middle Ages, in the 10th century when Christianity sought to expand its presence in Europe through the crusades.

At that time, Jews were not welcome in the city and were victims of several pogroms. These were massacres that also involved looting of their property. The first major pogrom, in 1096, resulted in their being grouped together and segregated in a ghetto. In the 13th century, they received limited rights to self-govern their community via a decree known as the “Statuta Judaeorum”. They had their own town hall, their own flag, and apparent freedom, which in fact masked a mistrust of the population mixed with anti-Semitism. The pogroms continued, such as in 1389 when more than 1500 Jews were massacred on Easter Sunday.

Nevertheless, the ghetto continued to attract Jews, both locals and immigrants from Moravia (the present eastern part of the Czech Republic), Spain, Austria, or German-occupied territories. Driven from their lands by the incessant massacres, they gathered in the Prague ghetto, which began to spread over adjacent lands.

The 16th century is considered the “Jewish Renaissance” period, as the life of the ghetto was flourishing with artists and intellectuals contributing to its real wealth. At its peak, the Prague ghetto was home to no less than 18,000 inhabitants. By the beginning of the 18th century, Jews represented a quarter of the local population!

Maiselova Street, Jewish quarter of Prague
Maiselova Street, Jewish quarter of Prague | Photo © Paul Asman & Jill Lenoble – Under CC BY 2.0 license

As I mentioned in the title of this paragraph, the history of Prague’s Jewish quarter was unfortunately built on persecutions. In the 18th century, the arrival to power of Maria Theresa of Austria marked the resurgence of anti-Semitic persecution.

In 1850, the district was renamed “Josefstadt” (“City of Joseph” in German), a reference to the Roman emperor who emancipated the Jews at the end of the 18th century. This is how it received its current Czech name of “Josefov”. Additionally, Jews were (finally) allowed to settle outside the ghetto, leading to a decrease in inhabitants. Only the most religious or those who could not move for various reasons remained.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a significant part of the architectural history of the neighborhood was lost. Prague underwent many transformations, some of them inspired by Paris in France… and it was decided to rebuild the Jewish neighborhood in the Art Nouveau style. Most of the buildings were completely destroyed. Only 6 synagogues (and some rare places such as the town hall and the old Jewish cemetery) were spared.

As you can imagine, there was the rise of a new wave of anti-Semitism at the dawn of World War II. This led to many deportations, Jews fleeing to hide, and emigration. After the war, about 10,000 Jews returned to Prague. Today, there are only a few thousand.

However, the Jewish quarter has been revitalized thanks to tourism. The miraculously preserved synagogues attract visitors, as does the old Jewish cemetery.

Touring Prague’s Jewish Quarter, Josefov

To start, I am providing you with this map of Prague’s Jewish quarter, which should help you locate the main places of interest in Josefov.

It’s important to note that in Judaism, Shabbat is celebrated every weekend, from sunset on Friday until nightfall on Saturday. Therefore, Jewish places are closed to the public. The same applies to Jewish religious holidays.

If you’re coming to Prague for the weekend, make sure to reserve Sunday for a visit to the Jewish Quarter, or Friday at the beginning of the day if you’re here for three days. It will not be possible to visit on Saturday.

So, what are the must-see places in Josefov? It’s important to know that all the places of interest are quite close to each other, making it easy to plan an itinerary in Prague’s Jewish Quarter in the direction that suits you best!

The Spanish Synagogue in Prague

The Spanish Synagogue (Španělská synagoga) is definitely the one whose architecture made the biggest impression on me. Surprisingly, it is the most recent of all the surviving synagogues. Built in the 19th century, it replaced the oldest synagogue in Prague (the “Altschule”), which had become too small for the population’s needs.

The building was entirely rebuilt in a very distinctive style: neo-Moorish. The architects (Josef Niklas and Jan Bělský) and decorators (Antonín Baum and Bedřich Münzberger) blended elements inspired by the Moorish population of Spain, especially Muslims from North Africa, with elements of European architecture.

In Spain, the neo-Moorish style has given rise to incredible places like the Spanish Plaza in Seville. However, buildings of this style are not widespread in Europe, except among the Jewish population, which has largely adopted it for the architecture of synagogues. This explains why the “Spanish Synagogue” bears this name.

The Spanish Synagogue in Prague
The Spanish Synagogue in Prague

The square Synagogue is impressive with its gilding and dome, adorned with a stained glass window bearing the Star of David. Like every synagogue, it has a holy ark (“Aron Kodesh”) facing Jerusalem, which contains scrolls of the Torah, the Jewish Bible. The raised area from which the Torah is read is located against a wall, not in the center of the synagogue, a sign of alignment with Reform Judaism.

During the Second World War, the synagogue was preserved and used as a storage place for property looted from Czech Jews. About ten years after the war, it was entrusted to the Jewish Museum in Prague and underwent several renovations, finally opening to the public in 1998. Today it houses an exhibition on the history of Jews in Bohemia and Moravia during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The synagogue also boasts a beautiful organ.

The Spanish Synagogue in Prague
The Spanish Synagogue in Prague

Right next door, outside, you can admire a monument dedicated to Franz Kafka, a native of Prague who lived a good part of his life in the city. The square now bears his name (Náměstí Franze Kafky), and at No. 1, you can find the house where Kafka once lived, including a maisonette in the Golden Lane of Prague Castle.

The Old-New Synagogue

The “Old-New Synagogue” in English and “Staronová synagoga” in Czech, dates back to the 13th century and has a very different style from the previous one, as it honors the Gothic style.

It holds a record of being the oldest synagogue in Europe still in use and the oldest medieval synagogue that has withstood the test of time. I had already visited the old synagogue in Krakow, which was converted into a museum, but it was almost two centuries younger and considered a “youngster” compared to the one in Prague!

As at that time there was already the “Old Synagogue” (replaced by the Spanish Synagogue), this one was initially called the “New Synagogue” before taking the name “Old-New”. Apparently, this name is not a reference to its old and new status at the same time, but rather a derivative of a Hebrew term meaning “on condition”.

Legend has it that the stones used to build the synagogue were brought by angels from the Temple in Jerusalem “on condition” that they be returned to him on the day the Messiah returns and the stones are needed to rebuild the Temple.

This synagogue has the particularity of having two naves, which is generally explained by the fact that the architects were Christians and were probably inspired by the architecture of certain churches and monasteries with double naves.

It is an orthodox synagogue, so men and women are separated, and the Torah is read in the center. A large Jewish flag is displayed here because, as I mentioned earlier when I talked about the history of the Jewish Quarter in Prague, the community was allowed to have its own flag.

The High Synagogue

Dating back to the 16th century, the High Synagogue (or Vysoká synagoga) was funded by Mordechai Maisel, who is buried in the old Jewish cemetery and has a street and another synagogue named after him in Josefov. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during the great fire that ravaged Prague in 1689 and later rebuilt.

Located right next to the Jewish town hall, it is named after its unusual upstairs location, as it is not situated on the first floor. It was primarily a private synagogue and served as a rabbinical court. Currently, it is not part of the tourist circuit and still hosts religious services.

The grave of Mordechai Maisel in the Jewish cemetery
The grave of Mordechai Maisel in the Jewish cemetery

The Jewish Town Hall

The Jewish Town Hall (Židovská radnice) is also a building that can be admired only from the outside as it is not open to visitors. It was also financed by Mordechai Maisel in the 16th century, but its facade was entirely renovated in the 18th century in the rococo style, which is why it is so famous in the current Prague landscape!

The building has two clocks:

  • A clock on the frontispiece – The numbers are inscribed in Hebrew and read counter-clockwise. The clock actually runs “backwards” from what we are used to seeing.
  • A clock on the turret above the building – The numbers are Roman numerals.
The clocks on the Jewish Town Hall in Prague
The clocks on the Jewish Town Hall in Prague | Adapted from a photo © Jim Linwood – Under CC BY 2.0 license

The Pinkas Synagogue in Prague

The Pinkasova Synagogue is the second “must-see” synagogue that I would recommend visiting in Prague’s Jewish Quarter, along with the Spanish Synagogue. It has an interesting history and today houses a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

This place of worship was originally private, and during archaeological excavations, traces of a 15th-century mikveh were found. If you are not familiar with Judaism, you may not know that a mikveh is a purification basin that is fed with rainwater, and is used for various religious rituals such as conversion, marriage, Yom Kippur, Shabbat, and others.

In the 16th century, the Horowitz family who lived there decided to build a family synagogue in the Gothic style, incorporating Renaissance elements. The synagogue was later named after Rabbi Pinkas, who led the Jewish community during the 16th century.

Interior of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague

The synagogue is partly “buried”, with the floor below ground level, leading to issues of humidity that damaged the building and led to a renovation and the addition of the Baroque style. A rococo grating was added in the late 18th century, and the floor was raised before returning to its original level to respect the history of the place.

Today, the walls of the synagogue are covered with the names of Jews from Bohemia and Moravia who were victims of the Shoah. They require regular restoration due to the ravages of humidity in the building.

Interior of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague

On the first floor, there is a small but poignant exhibition of children’s drawings made in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, a project conducted with the children by the painter Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. The drawings were hidden and survived the war, unlike most of their authors who died in deportation, including Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is simply the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. It was active between the first half of the 15th century and 1787, and even inspired a short story by the famous writer Umberto Eco.

The oldest grave in the cemetery belongs to Rabbi Avigdor Kara, and dates back to 1439.

You might be wondering why the cemetery stopped operating. As in many cities, burials in Prague used to take place within the city walls, but with the growth of the population and the great epidemics, it was considered unhygienic to continue burying people so close to the city center.

In London, for example, the “Magnificent Seven” sumptuous cemeteries were built around the city. Similarly, the old Jewish cemetery in Prague stopped taking in new occupants.

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague
The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague

When you visit, you will find it fascinating that the cemetery was able to remain active for nearly 350 years despite the limited space. The graves are intertwined because, in the Jewish tradition, it is not possible to remove a grave after a certain time, like in Catholic cemeteries. Instead, space is gained in depth and height, tombstones are placed wherever there is room, to represent the deceased buried under the ground. This gives the impression, which is justified, that the cemetery floor is raised due to all those “layers” of the deceased who found eternal rest there.

You will find both plain gravestones (often the oldest) and small, more elaborate monuments in the Old Jewish Cemetery. There are also various symbols on the graves. Some represent the qualities of the person (for example, a crown indicates a “good reputation”, bunches of grapes indicate someone who led a prosperous life). If you see animals, it may be a reference to the person’s first name (for instance, a wolf refers to a deceased person named Benjamin, and a rose to a woman named Rosa). There may also be symbols that refer to the deceased’s profession (e.g., scissors, if he or she was a tailor).

The tour will take you throughout the cemetery.

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague
The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague

The Klaus Synagogue

Once again, the philanthropist Mordechai Maisel financed this synagogue, which is the largest of all. Originally, in the 16th century, it comprised several buildings including a Talmudic school (in Judaism, the Talmud corresponds to the entire tradition of oral biblical study that developed and was formalized in writing). The place was nicknamed the “Klausen”.

It was completely destroyed during the great fire of Prague in 1689, along with the High Synagogue, and had to be rebuilt.

A new synagogue in the Baroque style was built in 1694. It withstood everything: the complete restructuring of the neighborhood at the beginning of the 20th century (surprising, since three other Baroque synagogues in Josefov were destroyed!), but also the Second World War.

Today, the synagogue hosts an exhibition that allows visitors to learn about Judaism and its customs, including major holidays, the functioning and key objects of a synagogue, stages of life, and associated traditions.

From a purely architectural point of view, the Klaus Synagogue seems to be less interesting than the others, but if you are curious to know more about traditional “Jewish life”, you will find valuable information here!

The Old Ceremonial Hall in Prague

The Old Ceremonial Hall in Prague looks like a charming small castle in the heart of the city. It is a relatively new building compared to its neighbors, constructed in the early 20th century. The hall was used primarily for ceremonies, especially funerals.

Today, it displays all the Jewish funeral customs and is located next to the Klaus Synagogue. A visit is quick and informative.

The Old Prague Ceremonial Hall
The Old Prague Ceremonial Hall

The Maisel Synagogue

The Maisel Synagogue, like many other sites in the Jewish quarter of Prague, is named after the philanthropist Mordechai Maisel. Maisel was authorized by the emperor himself, thanks to his well-connected relations, to build his own synagogue, completed in 1592, nine years before his death. At the time of the inauguration, Maisel was 64 years old, which was considered advanced age, and he had expressed the wish in his will that the synagogue be donated to the Jewish community of Prague.

However, it took several lawsuits and decades of legal battles before his final wishes were fulfilled, due to the precarious status of the Jewish population and their rights at the time :/

Like many buildings in the neighborhood, the synagogue was damaged by the great fire of 1689, lost a third of its area during reconstruction, and subsequently underwent several rounds of renovation and reconstruction that gave it the neo-Gothic style that it has today.

During World War II, it was used, like the Spanish Synagogue, as a storage place for goods confiscated from Jews. Eventually, it was converted into a museum, opening to the public in 1996. The permanent exhibition is devoted to the early history of the local Jewish population, from the 9th century to the Enlightenment. Therefore, in a way, this is the “beginning of the story” whose end is told in the Spanish Synagogue.

Some visitors may prefer to follow the chronological order, visiting the Maisel Synagogue first and then the Spanish Synagogue.

Explore Prague’s Jewish Quarter with a guided tour

As this article shows, there are numerous must-see attractions in Prague’s Josefov neighborhood. For this reason, some visitors opt for a guided tour of the Jewish Quarter in Prague to ensure they don’t miss out on any historical or anecdotal information.

I particularly recommend the following guided tours:

  • The 3-Hour Private Tour of the Jewish Quarter by Supreme Prague – This is a comprehensive tour that covers all synagogues open to the public and the Jewish cemetery. The tour is available with an English-speaking guide and is a private tour to which the price of the combined ticket for the various sites visited must be added.
  • The Walking Tour by Local Agency Michal Vesely (available in English) – Offers a historical perspective of the Jewish Quarter, including a visit to one of the synagogues and the Jewish cemetery.

If you have limited time but still want to visit the Jewish Quarter during your stay in Prague, there is also a shorter guided tour that combines the Jewish Quarter and the Old Town of Prague in 1.5 hours by the Michal Vesely agency. You can view the program and prices here.

Practical information for visiting the Jewish Quarter

Opening hours of the synagogues

It is best to check the current opening hours on the website of the Jewish Museum in Prague, as they adapt to the season and Shabbat hours. Generally, synagogues and other places in the Jewish Quarter close one hour before the start of Shabbat and are closed on Saturdays and all Jewish holidays.

Tickets to visit Josefov

If you prefer not to take a guided tour, note that most of the sites are managed by the same entity, the “Jewish Museum of Prague.” The best value for money is to have the CoolPass Prague (Prague Card) (you can buy it online here and pick it up upon arrival). It provides free access to many monuments and tours, as well as discounted rates. This includes all sites in Prague’s Jewish Quarter (synagogues, Jewish cemetery, etc.), which can be entered without payment using the card. Must-see activities in the city, such as Prague Castle, are also included.

If you do not have a Prague Card, you can buy a ticket on-site. There are three locations with ticket offices: the Pinkas Synagogue, the Klaus Synagogue, and the Information and Reservation Center at 38 Maiselova Street. Tickets are valid for seven days, but each location can only be visited once.

There are individual tickets for some places, or combined tickets, such as the “Jewish Museum” ticket which includes the Maisel Synagogue, the Pinkas Synagogue, the Klausen Synagogue, the Ceremony Hall, and the Jewish Cemetery for just over 20€ per adult.

The Maisel Synagogue in Prague's Jewish Quarter
The Maisel Synagogue in Prague’s Jewish Quarter | Photo © Jewish Museum in Prague, available here

Final tips for visiting

If you want to explore the Jewish Quarter thoroughly, I suggest planning for at least 3 hours. Keep in mind that this area can get quite crowded, especially during peak tourist season, but that’s just part of the experience.

If you have the Prague Card, you can try to avoid the crowds by visiting the most popular sites early in the morning when they open.

In any case, I hope that this guide has helped you appreciate the historical significance of Prague’s Jewish Quarter, and that you’ll have the opportunity to see it for yourself.

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