The first time was, like it is for so many, a beer-fuelled haze. Prague is a city often first encountered by the young and the thirsty. It’s the dubious beneficiary of many stag weekends and first forays into budget city breaking. Or, in my case, a largely alcohol-based InterRail trip.
That’s not to say the Czech capital is wasted on a hedonistic 20-year-old — you don’t have to remember much to have a great time. But subsequent visits reveal depths beyond a foaming tankard of Pilsner Urquell.
I’ve returned to Prague repeatedly in the past decade, during which it’s morphed further into elegant respectability. Despite the best efforts of the communist era, Prague has remained a grand, Germanic central European city, and globalisation is smoothing out the Soviet-inflicted rougher edges.
It’s best to take the slightly less direct streets running parallel to the tacky, souvenir and tour group-clogged ‘motorways’. In this hemmed-in maze of lanes and semi-hidden courtyards, gothic, baroque, art nouveau and virtually any other building style you can name congeal into a whole that’s even more magical than the sum of its already impressive parts.
The Vinohrady area to the east of the centre captures Prague’s easy-going, peaceful side best; lazy lunches are taken on cafe terraces while leaves blow off the linden trees. Blissful days can be filled stringing together parks and ambling through them. Of these, Havlíkovy sady, off Vinohrady’s southern tip, incites little heel-clicks of delight with its landscaped collection of Greek temple-esque grottos. Then, slightly further around, the grass-topped Vyšehrad fortress feels more castle-like than the Castle. But its occupants are dog walkers and parents letting their kids off the leash. Below and beyond, the Vltava River flows and the city unfolds. It’s the same Prague, just a different way of looking at it.
Piles of style
Also in the Old Town, Kubista is good for statement living room pieces like vases, decanters and candlestick holders in the chunky cubist style that’s popular in Prague.
Manufaktura, which has a couple of outlets in the Old Town, sells herbal liqueurs, aromatherapy oils and body butters made with brewer’s yeast. It also stocks the sort of cute old-fashioned wooden toys parents tend to love far more than the children they’re bought for.
For fashion, a few boutiques showcase local designers. Leeda, for example, in the Old Town, is good for kooky womenswear. But ask most locals where they shop and there’ll be far more enthusiasm about the 200-outlet Palladium shopping centre on the edge of Námestí Republiky.
But Prague’s shopping is most fun when dipping into both the past and thinly disguised chaos. Art Deco Galerie in the Old Town has some fabulous vintage handbags and hats amid the jumble of flapper-esque mannequins. In Malá Strana, Podolské Vetešnictví resembles a mad old uncle’s attic — it’s as if someone has tipped an entire flea market into a fusty old room — but it’s joy to sift through.
Moser: Staromestské námestí 603/15. moser-glass.com
Kubista: Ovocný trh 19. kubista.cz
Manufaktura: Melantrichova 970/17. manufaktura.cz
Leeda: Bartolomejská 304/1. leeda.cz
Palladium: Námestí Republiky 1. palladiumpraha.cz
Art Deco Galerie: Michalská 435/21. T: 00 420 224 223 076.
Podolské Vetešnictví: Vítezná 534/16. T: 00 420 257 310 611
U Slovanské Lípy, a decorative hodgepodge of a boozer, is a good starting point for a mini-crawl through the pub-packed Žižkov district, just north of Vinohrady. Grungy U Vystrelenýho oka has a propensity for hosting accordion-and-violin bands and a great beer garden, fashioned almost entirely out of firewood. Známá Firma, meanwhile, has DJ decks and mojito promos — but still feels like a place for catching up not tearing it up. For the latter, club Bunkr Parukárka pumps out electronica inside of a former nuclear bunker. For the polar opposite — both in attractiveness of location and energy levels — go to Vinicní Altan, a wine garden with an intricately carved wooden gazebo atop a vine-strewn hill in Havlíckovy sady.
Most Czechs, however, are beer drinkers, proudly putting away plenty more per capita than any other nation. It’s often dirt cheap and quality varies considerably. The secret is to look for signs saying ‘z tanku’ or ‘tankové pivo’. This freshly brewed ‘tanked’ beer is unpasteurised — which is reflected in the taste. Lokál, a wonderful modern-day take on the beer hall, is one of an increasing band of venues specialising in it.
Prague Beer Museum: Americká 341/43. praguebeermuseum.com
U Slovanské Lípy: Konevova 288/1. uslovanskelipy.cz
U Vystrelenýho oka: U bozích bojovníku 606/3. uvoka.cz
Známá Firma: Husitská 19. T: 00 420 222 540 066.
Bunkr Parukárka: Off Propokova. parukarka.eu
Vinicní Altan: Havlíckovy sady 1369. vinicni-altan.cz
Lokál: Dlouhá 33. lokal-dlouha.ambi.cz
Food, glorious food
Prague’s food scene has gone global in the past decade, a welcome benefit of EU membership and the wave of immigration that’s come with it. Indian Jewel — if you can ferret it out in the Old Town courtyard it hides in — is arguably the kingpin in a clutch of superb Indian and Pakistani restaurants. Flavours are rich, the oiliness factor is low, and punches aren’t pulled with the spices.
An influx of Mexican students has brought with it tastes of Tijuana, Puebla and Mexico City. Just off the Old Town Square you’ll find the authentic tacos al pastor and achiote-marinated pulled pork burritos of Las Adelitas. The basement-margarita-bar vibe, with decoratively tiled tables and practically obligatory Frida Kahlo picture on the wall, is worth checking out, too.
Prague’s best grazing, however, is to be found in Vinohrady, where cafe terrace tables come with locals playing chess rather than river cruise passengers brandishing guidebooks and cameras. Aromi manages to be both suit-and-tie smart, and romantic, with the menu going into exhaustive detail about where in Italy everything is sourced. Staff can advise when not to add pepper to the truffle-covered raviolo, and point out the cod dish that makes best use of the asparagus season.
Most enjoyable of all, however, is Kofein Restaurant, a buzzy, exposed brick basement with an open kitchen and seats at the bar for solo diners. It has a menu that’s best described as gleefully affordable central European tapas. Homemade spätzle (egg noodles) with wild mushrooms or rabbit and oregano in mustard sauce are among the unpretentious options.
U Modré Kachnicky: Nebovidská 6. umodrekachnicky.cz
U Malé Velryby: Maltézské námestí 15. umalevelryby.cz
Indian Jewel: Tyn 642/6. indianjewel.cz
Las Adelitas: Malé Námestí 13. lasadelitas.cz
Aromi: Mánesova 1442/78. aromi.cz
Kofein Restaurant: Nitranská 1339/9. ikofein.cz
Top 10 local tips
01 One- and three-day public transport passes — by far the most useful for getting around — can be bought from tabak shops.
02 The Metro has three lines, but with limited interchanges, trams are often the best option.
03 The Charles Bridge is gorgeous — but go early in the morning to avoid heinous crowds.
04 Deminka Palace, on the cusp of Vinohrady, is a stucco-drenched bargain of a hotel. deminkapalace.com
05 Featuring a series of increasingly disintegrated human figures, the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, on Petrin Hill, is one of Prague’s most haunting spots.
06 Lonely Planet’s Prague guidebooks give better local insight than many — author Mark Baker lives in the city and knows it in impressive detail.
07 Prague’s streets are made much more entertaining by the series of often risque installations by Czech sculptor David Cerny. davidcerny.cz
08 Be aware that any unordered extras — bread, etc — that appear on your restaurant table will also appear on the bill if you touch them.
09 Beers come with a huge head — you’ll get short shrift complaining about it.
10 The Saturday farmer’s market on riverside Náplavka is marvellously sociable and well worth a browse.
Secret Prague. RRP: £12.99. (Jonglez Guides)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. RRP: £8.99. (Faber & Faber)
The Castle, by Franz Kafka. RRP: £9.99. (Wordsworth Editions Ltd)
Amadeus (1984). Set in Mozart’s Vienna, but largely filmed in Prague, Milos Forman’s film won eight Oscars.
Published in the September 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)