It may come cheaper than most of Europe’s flashier cities, but the Czech capital’s persisting popularity owes as much to pedigree as to price.
This article does not feature anything about whisky. I just couldn’t bring myself to mention the dodgy bottle of Czech whisky (Gold Cock) that I happened upon and bought whilst on this trip.
First published in GQ (July 2015 edition).
It’s difficult to know what to make of Prague unless you’ve actually visited the place. It has a mixed reputation. Both admired and somewhat maligned, luckily in unequal measures – otherwise I may have had second thoughts about my trip, by those whom I consulted as I did my planning, the only sensible conclusion to which I could come was that the city clearly has the capacity to inspire a range of impressions. I set off then with tempered expectations. Would its noted budget-friendliness serve up gangs of inebriated, bachelor-partying louts (along with great value for my Rands)? Would I be greeted by Praguers grown jaded and unamenable by the continued press of tourist hordes? These concerns, and others, had weighed on my mind, but they were quickly dispelled on arrival, whether by luck, or by the foreboding (but in reality delightful) winter season, or by a lack of merit I can’t rightly say – I was there all too briefly. What I can say, heartily, unreservedly, is that, glimpsing it like I did, this city exudes a magical olde worlde charm, resplendent with its cobbled streets and squares, its imposing medieval spires, and its quaint, ginger-bread architecture, of sufficient degree to offer the makings of a mesmerising weekend.
In a walking city, and Prague is most definitely a walking city, location is gold, especially during a short stay – when you don’t want to be wasting time waiting for taxis, figuring out the public transport system, or making long treks. The Intercontinental, perched smack bang at the heart of the Old Town, couldn’t be better positioned. Five minutes of leisurely strolling will get you either to the Charles Bridge or the Old Town Square, fifteen minutes to the Castle. Now this is not a boutique hotel by any means – if that’s what you’re after then look elsewhere – but it’s comfortably well-appointed and it provides all the amenities expected of an upmarket hotel, from an overnight shoe shining service and an impressively large and well-equipped gym, to a Sunday brunch that’s apparently considered to be the best in the city.
Pařížská 30, +420-296-631 111
The Czech Republic is reputed for its exquisite glassware, referred to as Bohemian crystal. Note that the term crystal is used in the country to denote any high-quality glass, whereas “lead crystal” specifically defines glass containing a minimum 24% lead oxide. If you’re intent on going shopping in this city then let it be for the local crystal – it’ll be a fitting memento and you’ll be buying craftsmanship equivalent to the best in the world. Prague though – be warned – is a lot like Venice: the tourist hotspots are wildly overgrown with souvenir shops and stalls, most carrying glass and some specialising in glass, many of which hawk crystal that is overpriced and of dubious provenance. Tread carefully. And pack carefully – crystal pieces aren’t the most robust items to be lugging about.
If you’re feeling flush then head directly to Moser, the oldest and most iconic glass manufacturer in the country. They’ve been making their precision, hand-crafted, lead-free crystal creations for over 150 years; and whilst you’ll be paying a premium, you’ll do so in the confidence that you’re getting the best of the best.
Staroměstské náměstí 603/15, +420 221 890 891
Those who prefer their crystal with lead, incidentally making it softer and hence easier to cut, can visit the long-established Dana Bohemia, which offers a wide variety of products ranging from tableware and chandeliers, to Christmas decorations and figurines.
Národní 43, +420 224 214 655
This chain of some nine stores is undoubtedly intended for tourists, with all its locations either in the Old Town or at the airport, but its products are interesting, its prices aren’t overly intimidating, and its scale confers reliability and authenticity.
Malé náměstí 14, +420 224 216 717
I have a weakness for pastries, I have to admit. It’s a disturbing compulsion, especially in these sugar reviling times in which we live, but I’ve been unable to overcome it. I single-mindedly seek them out wherever I go – pains au chocolat in France, cannoli in Italy, churros in Spain, danishes here, strudels there…I could go on. During my time in Prague I happened upon the Trdelnik, a traditional pastry common to several central European countries, the Czech Republic amongst them. This hollow cylinder of rolled dough is typically grilled over coals or gas flames, covered in sugar, nuts and cinnamon, and served piping hot, either as is or smeared with Nutella. It’s a decadent treat that’s ideal for a chilly winter morning. Try it from a street stall where you can watch as it’s being made.
Smetana Hall at Obecní dům
There’s arguably greater appreciation for classical music in central Europe than anywhere else in the world, so a visit to Prague represents an opportunity to partake in the region’s passion for this art form. The austere and cavernous, but acoustically well-endowed, Smetana Hall at the Municipal House hosts regular musical soirees, some as unimposingly short as an hour. There’s space to go around in my experience, but book early to avoid disappointment, especially in high season.
Námesti Republiky 1090/5, +420 222 002 130
The Czech Republic is famous for its beer consumption, per capita the highest in the world, and, more flatteringly, for its beer heritage and culture, which is derived in large part from Pilsner – its very own home-grown style. Pilsner is in fact a specific type within the lager family, distinguished primarily by the use of “noble hops”, which is more aromatic and less bitter relative to other varieties. First brewed in the town of Pilsen in 1842 – at the Citizens’ Brewery (now Pilsner Urquell) – it was widely acclaimed for its flavour, and, most influentially, for its colour. The clear golden liquid was a dramatic departure from the dark brews prevalent at the time, thereby forging a new standard to which most of the lagers that we consume today are indebted.
To any beer connoisseur a Tanknova, or Tank Pub, is holy ground. Previously these were unique to Czech Republic but they’ve now started to spread elsewhere – by popular demand I’m sure. Prague though remains the mecca, with a Tanknova on every corner…well, just about. Most of the beer we drink – certainly everything in bottles or cans, and much of the draught too – is pasteurised, to stabilise it and extend its shelf life, and like any preservation this process takes a little something away from the fresh, unadulterated original. Tanknovas offer unpasteurised beer, kept fresh, and safe from contamination, at between 8 and 10°C (the optimal range) in large stainless steel tanks, and then pressed out for serving using a high-pressure air compressor. The result: a rounder, more complex, fuller-flavoured beer – and a bucket list experience! Try the tanked Pilsner Urquell at the rustic Bredovský Dvůr; it’s virtually impossible to reconcile with the stuff we get over here.
Bredovský Dvůr, Politických vězňů 13, +420 224 215 427
Blah Blah Bar
During my trip Blah Blah was Prague’s number one rated bar on TripAdvisor, so I decided to put it to the test. A recent addition to the scene – the bar was opened some six months ago – it was clearly striking the right chord with locals, expats and tourists alike. The place is owned by a dynamic Khazak couple – I kept my Borat impressions in check – whose (well executed) vision was an idea of community, of people coming together to converse. From the eclectic decorations, including seventies style upholstered bar frontage, and the mix of niche and mainstream liquor, the reassuring and interesting both covered, to its excellent service, despite the obvious busyness the barmen made the time to chit-chat, and its animal friendliness, one of the guests was accompanied by a beagle, I found Blah Blah to be charming and friendly, but also edgy. It’s a bit out of the way but well worth the visit. Try the Omg (oh my gin) gin – or is it just Omg? – produced by the Zufanek distillery in Moravia, whilst you’re there.
Žitná 41, +420 777 169 977
U Zlatého Tygra
U Tygra may be somewhat polarising – you’ve been warned upfront. It’s one of the two most well-known, uber traditional bars in the city (the other is U Černého Vola), and it seems to find its way into every guidebook – so here I am doing my bit for the cult. My brief experience of it went something like this: I walked in, I was nearly asphyxiated by the heavy pall of smoke, and I was roundly ignored by the staff for what felt like some ten minutes before I eventually walked out in resignation. As I’d waited awkwardly though I’d managed to observe that the overwhelmingly male clientele was seated at big communal tables, and that everyone seemed to be eating and drinking the same thing – a throwback to the communist past perhaps…? Having said this I have it on good authority that their limited fare – the beer and the food – is outstanding, so if you’re prepared to brave a visit I’d venture that it would be as authentic a Czech experience as for which you could hope. Get your concierge to phone in advance and make a reservation.
+420 222 221 111
I’d been a little apprehensive about the food in Prague, which I’d been told was gristly and stodgy, and marginalising for non-red meat eaters. This though wasn’t my experience. I ate the quintessential goulash-with-dumplings on no less than three occasions (when in Rome you know) – alternating between beef and venison for the former, and potato and dough for the latter – with absolute relish, the highlight being the first, a steaming, hearty affair – absolutely perfect for the sub-zero evening, at Klub Architektů. This restaurant, a prime example of the admittedly cosy local predilection for locating bars and restaurants in cellars, offers a varied menu – varied enough to have entirely satisfied my notoriously difficult pollo-pescetarian wife and to have immediately eased my reservations.
Betlémské náměstí 169/5A, 110 00 Praha 1, +420 224 248 878
It’s a little known fact outside of the country that Prague has a significant Vietnamese population. In the iron curtain era the Russians brought in Vietnamese labourers, many of whom remained to establish themselves, their families, and their culinary heritage in the city. Take a break from the goulash with the light, flavourful summer rolls at Remember.
Biskupská 5, +420 602 889 089
A cup of tea or coffee
Artisan Café and Bistrot
After a few hours of pounding Prague’s busy, buzzing, cobbled streets, you could be forgiven for seeking a temporary refuge. In such moments look no further than this little oasis of quiet, run by owner Krystof Polansky, where the sumptuousness of the teas and the deliciousness of the freshly-baked cakes cannot be overstated.
Vejvodova 1, +420 602 727 734