An aerial view shows Old Town Square, which dates back to the 10th century. Photo by Michal Bednarek
By Georgia Pinkston
Located at the heart of Central Europe, the capital of the Czech Republic is often referred to as the “City of a Hundred Spires” due to the many historical church towers found throughout it. Prague is well-known for its centuries of history and cultural heritage and was fortunate to be mostly spared from destruction during World War II. As a result, the city retains its historical charm with beautifully preserved palaces, Baroque and Gothic churches, impressive medieval squares, and charming cobblestone streets. The U.S. Embassy in the Czech Republic is located near the center of this enchanting city.
“Prague has it all—from a proud history and magical tourism sites, to world-class tech and entrepreneurial talent, to an incredible restaurant scene, to a deeply diversified business environment,” said Embassy Prague Deputy Chief of Mission Christy Agor.
Prague lies on the winding Vltava River, which connects some of the Czech Republic’s most beautiful and historical cities. In Prague, there are 18 bridges, but the most notable is the Charles Bridge, known as Karlův most in Czech. King Charles IV ordered construction of the bridge in 1357, and it became an important trade route between eastern and western Europe. Today, locals and tourists alike enjoy walking across the iconic stone bridge between Prague Castle and the city’s Old Town.
The first settlement of Prague dates to the 9th century C.E. The city flourished under Charles IV, who ruled as the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Bohemia of the new Luxembourg dynasty during the 14th century. At one point, Prague served as the seat of both the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg dynasty.
After the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson championed the vision of an independent state of Czechoslovakia. Wilson’s support is not forgotten today. The road in front of the main train station in Prague bears his name, and there is a monument dedicated to him in the park in front of the station.
Leaders of the new country chose Prague as its capital and the famous castle as the home and office of the president. By that time, Prague was a true European capital with a highly developed industrial sector. Prague’s society included Czechs, Germans, and Jews. Jews are believed to have settled in Prague as early as the 10th century, contributing to its importance as a commercial hub. Today, the Jewish Museum in Prague is one of the most visited museums in the city. Its collection of Judaica—Jewish ceremonial art—is one of the largest in the world.
Today, approximately 1.3 million people live in Prague, nearly 10% of the Czech Republic’s population of more than 10.5 million people. Since the end of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, and the subsequent split of the country in the “Velvet Divorce” at midnight on Dec. 31, 1992, the Czech Republic has experienced steady progress and development. The country has a high standard of living, a skilled and well-educated population, and highly developed infrastructure. Prague attracts students from around the world to study at its prestigious universities and, upon graduation, to work at the many international companies located within the Czech Republic. Public transportation in Prague is inexpensive and exceptionally reliable, with an extensive network of trains, trams (modern and retro), and buses connecting every corner of the city, making it very easy to get around, even for people with dogs. Canines are welcome almost everywhere, including on public transportation and inside restaurants and shops. For foodies, the dining scene is a diverse combination of delicious traditional and cosmopolitan choices. Traditional meals such as svíčková (roast sirloin with bread dumplings), schnitzel and guláš (due to the German and Hungarian influences, respectively), and a sweet honey cake known as medovník are commonly served in Czech restaurants. Despite Prague’s reputation for “heavy” meals with meat staples, multiple rankings place Prague near the top of the most vegan-friendly cities in Europe.
The United States appointed its first ambassador to Czechoslovakia in April 1919. During WWII, the U.S. maintained diplomatic relations with the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London. From there, Czechoslovak leaders planned Operation Anthropoid, during which soldiers parachuted into Prague and assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials and the head of the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The 2016 film “Anthropoid” immortalized the paratroopers who conducted the mission and died in the crypt of the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Prague in June 1942. Paying tribute to the heroes of the operation, thousands of people each year visit the crypt.
Seventy-eight years after the end of WWII, the people of the Czech Republic have not forgotten the role America played in freeing them from Nazi repression. Each spring, around May, towns and villages across the western and southern parts of the country host liberation events and reenactments. The biggest, called the “Convoy of Liberty,” includes a caravan of authentic, refurbished U.S. military vehicles from WWII.
“I don’t know if I have ever felt as patriotic as I do right now,” said U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic Bijan Sabet to the crowd when the convoy arrived in front of Embassy Prague, April 28.
Many towns have similar events at “Thank You America” monuments inscribed with the date the U.S. troops liberated the city, including in Plzeň—home of the world-famous Pilsner Urquell beer.
Looking toward the future, the U.S.-Czech relationship is growing in many areas. The Czech government ratified the Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) in August, which will strengthen defense ties, enhance NATO operations, advance transatlantic security, and protect shared interests and values.
Within just one month—in May of this year—a number of visits between representatives from the U.S. and the Czech Republic highlight this growth. During a visit to the United States, May 1, Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Lipavský told Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “Czech-American relations were never so strong and intense as today.”
The relationship goes far beyond the military as economic and business ties are also blossoming. The largest delegation ever of Czech businesses attended the Department of Commerce’s SelectUSA Investment Summit in Washington, May 1-4, demonstrating increasing interest from local firms to expand investments and partnerships in the United States.
Back in the Czech Republic, Sabet is focusing on economic cooperation, including supporting American investment interests. He hosted the U.S.-Czech Business Forum—also in May. The event at the historic Žofín Palace, titled “A Climate of Innovation,” brought together more than 200 leaders in business and technology. The main attraction was a fireside chat between the ambassador and Biz Stone, who co-founded Twitter.
Embassy Prague is also focused on boosting people-to-people ties, especially with youth. In 2022, the public diplomacy section launched its America on Wheels program to visit schools in small towns. It uses an American-style tailgating environment to connect with students and educate them about the U.S.-Czech relationship, media literacy, and exchange opportunities.
“A majority of the students at the schools we visit have never even met an American before, so interacting with them in person can have a huge impact,” said American Center Prague Director Vít Nejedlo.
Thanks in part to America on Wheels, a record number of students applied for the 2023 Future Leaders Exchange high school scholarship program.
March 12, 2024, will mark the 25th anniversary of the Czech Republic joining NATO. Planning is underway to commemorate the anniversary, in part by highlighting the efforts of the late Madeleine Albright, who was born in Prague. During her time as secretary of state and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, she played a crucial role in the accession of the Czech Republic to the North Atlantic alliance.
Czechs love spending time outdoors, especially hiking and biking. Embassy Prague seeks innovative ways to demonstrate its commitment to the environment. The Community Liaison Office and the embassy’s Green Team organized a (virtual) Prague-to-Bordeaux walking challenge, which inspired 44 employees to join teams and walk to work. The information management office championed another green initiative: e-waste shredding, which is seen as more economical, ecological, safe, and secure than current Department of State methods. The e-waste program disposed of a large volume of secure information technology equipment.
Embassy Prague is housed in the Schoenborn Palace in the Malá Strana district of Prague. The famed Czech writer Franz Kafka called the building home for a short time in 1917. American businessman Richard Crane bought the palace in 1919. Later, after serving as the first U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia, he sold the palace to the American government. However, the history of the building goes back centuries. It was built from 1643 to 1656. The palace consists of four wings around three courtyards, which explains its many staircases and winding halls. Behind the palace stretches a multilevel garden and seven-acre orchard, which extends up a hillside to the iconic Gloriette. Those lucky enough to visit the small pavilion can enjoy breathtaking, 360-degree views of Prague.
“As a teenager I remember looking at the flag at the top of the Gloriette thinking with sorrow that I would never be able to leave the country because of the Communists. But I kept dreaming. And here I am today working for the U.S. government,” said Political Specialist Jana Kernerova.
Another stunning building of interest is the ambassador’s residence, which was built in the late 1920s by Otto Petschek, the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in the country. From the outside, the Petschek Villa was a luxurious mansion, inspired by French classic Baroque architecture. But on the inside, it was outfitted with the latest technological innovations of the time. The U.S. government bought the mansion in 1948 for $1,720,000—the exact amount owed to the United States for surplus military equipment left to the Czech government following WWII. Ever since, the chief of mission residence has served as a premier representational space, hosting dissidents during communism—such as future Czech president Václav Havel—and dignitaries including U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
Embassy Prague describes the relationship between the United States and the Czech Republic as one of “Friends, Partners, Allies.” A prime example of that partnership is the unwavering support both countries are providing to Ukraine. The Czech Republic led the way in the European Union in assisting Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022. The Czech Republic welcomed more than 500,000 Ukrainians, the third-highest total number of Ukrainian refugees worldwide. Since February 2022, Embassy Prague has leveraged the network of six American Centers across the Czech Republic to help Ukrainians integrate via job-training programs, Czech and English language classes, and children’s activities.
Visiting Prague not only provides an opportunity to immerse oneself in the city’s rich history and vibrant cultural offerings, but also offers a unique perspective on the enduring bonds between the Czech Republic and the United States. Exploring the city’s landmarks and engaging with locals deepen one’s understanding of the deep-rooted friendship between the two countries. The United States and the Czech Republic’s historical ties are poised to become even stronger in the years ahead.
Georgia Pinkston was an overseas seasonal hire at Embassy Prague.