Petrín Tower celebrates 120 years of city watching

Czech Position

The Czech capital’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, Petrínská rozhledna was completed in time for the Prague Jubilee of 1891

Officially known as the Petrínská rozhledna, the little “Eiffel Tower” on Prague’s scenic Petrín Hill has become a defining landmark of the Malá Strana skyline. Rising up through the greenery of the surrounding park, the tower and its environs have become a cool and relaxing respite for residents and visitors alike.

The Czech Tourist Club is responsible for this landmark, which is celebrating its 120th birthday this year. Having become enthralled with the real Eiffel Tower while on a visit to Paris for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, Club members returned to Prague determined to have one of their own.

“Imagine the time, this part of Prague was out of the center; today’s Brevnov and Strešovice were small villages behind Prague,” Jirí Lopata, operations director for Prague Towers told Czech Position. “They built it on Petrín because it was the highest hill in the center.”

Lopata adds that also at that time the main street was Národní trida. If you draw a line from Wenceslas Square to Národní and over the bridge; the funicular (which the Czech Tourist Club also had built at the same time) proceeds along that line.

The Czech Tourist Club raised the money, worked with the city (which was quite open to the idea and allowed both the tower and funicular to be built on city land) and after two years of planning, the tower began to rise on March 16, 1891, in the capable hands of engineers František Prášil and Julius Soucek. It was a mere two years after the Club returned from their fateful Paris trip.

“Forty people a day worked on the actual construction, until it got bigger, and then there were about 100 a day,” Lopata said. “Imagine building something like this today – it would take 200-300 people two years. It really was something fantastic.”

Unbelievably, the Petrínská rozhledna was completed a mere five months later, on August 20, in time for the Prague Jubilee. According to Lopata, the depth of the foundation is 11 meters and the structure weighs 175 tons. The top is 63.5 meters; the first floor is 20 meters, and the highest that visitors can climb is 50 meters, to the observation gallery. He adds that actually Petrín is in fact higher than its more famous Parisian big brother.

“Petrín is only 63 meters compared to the Eiffel Tower’s 300 meters, but Petrin is actually higher,” he explained. “The top of the Eiffel Tower is 335 meters above sea level, and the top of Petrin is 388 meters above sea level.”

Still the same

The Tower is almost 100 percent the same today as it was when visitors to the Jubilee first laid eyes on it. Lopata said that originally there was a crown at the top of the tower; to represent the Czech kingdom, which was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. It was taken down in the ‘60s and replaced by antennas so the tower could be used as a broadcast tower. The tower has had some aging pains over the years, however.

“From the ‘50s, the tower was basically left alone, its technical condition worsened and it was closed to the public in 1979 as it was unsafe,” Lopata said. “It was reopened in 1991 on the occasion of the second Prague Jubilee, and a through reconstruction was undertaken in 1999. It was renovated to its original look and now, except for the crown, it looks the same as it did 120 years ago.”

The Petrínská rozhledna staircases — there are, in fact, two — contain 299 steps each. The construction was neatly done as the two staircases spiral each other, one set to go up, and one set to go down, but looking at it from the outside you can’t tell.

Another interesting fact is that Adolf Hitler apparently wanted the tower torn down, supposedly because it ruined his view from the occupied Prague Castle.

The Czechs somehow succeeded in delaying the demolition and ultimately managed to save the tower. In its base are two exhibitions; one on Jára Cimrman — the most famous fictional Czech explorer and inventor — and a second smaller one on the Czech Tourist Club and the tower itself.

Influential travelers

“The Czech Tourist Club was something very different from today,” Lopata said. “Today, they are more nature focused (they are responsible for the country’s color-coded trail marking system), but then it was an important group in public life, they made a lot of contributions and had the power and money to do projects like this.”

At the 1891 Jubilee, the Club also had a pavilion at Výstavište (which was also built for the Jubilee) and where it was actually taking place. More recent visitors to Petrín Tower may also have popped into the mirror labyrinth next door.

This labyrinth was the Club’s exhibition in Výstavište, modeled after the Prater in Vienna. During the Jubilee, it held photos of the Czech countryside. It was dismantled two years after the event and recreated on Petrín, with the mirrors this time.

Prague Towers, which operates Petrín Tower and five other city towers, is planning a big bash on August 20, the anniversary of the opening of the Tower.

“We are preparing something that will remind visitors of the atmosphere of the time, period clothing, food, games, an exhibition of historic bikes (which you can try and ride) cars and fire engines and traditional music,” Lopata said. “Prague Transport will also have an exhibition on the history of the funicular in the top station plus we’ll have fireworks in the evening, and lots of things for young and old, good music, food, beer.”

Lopata said that summer weekends see more than 3,000 visitors a day to the Tower and it’s the fourth most popular site in Prague, after the Prague Castle, Prague Zoo and the Old Town Hall Tower.