107 – Caput Mundi – Insider’s Guide of Prague for a Sophisticated Tourist

English lads on a stag weekend, stop reading right now. However, let’s get it over with in the beginning: yes, the beer is still cheap (around £2 for a pint, if it’s expensive), and it’s also the best beer you’ll ever try: it’s not a lukewarm flat piss like real ales, it’s not as sparkling as german lagers, and it will not give you a week-lasting headache as certain Belgian poisons. It’s just spot on. However, should you wish to remember something from your trip to Prague, continue reading.

I haven’t lived in Prague since six years. However, I have my very reliable spies and I visited the Capital frequently between the return from the world trip and my next adventure (coming soon), therefore I have seen how much it changed – for the better. The change may not be noticeable to a tourist, but it definitely is for a citizen, which is exactly why I am writing this post. If you want to experience the most beautiful city in the world the way a local would, here are a few dos and don’ts .

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Moldau in the morning

Do & See:

Do, by all means, whatever your guide tells you to do. The Castle, the Jewish Town, the Astronomical Clock (reopened after huge restoration this coming Sunday), the Charles Bridge. See all of it. Face the crowds in the Old Town and admire all the architecture. All the tourists go there for a reason. I will not write about it any further. Missing that would be like going to Paris and refusing to see Tour Eiffel, because all the tourists go there. You would not be an alternative traveller, just an idiot. Every possible offence meant.

Apart from that, opt for something that a cultured snob from Prague would do on a Sunday:

  • The Kupka exhibition in Waldstein Riding School is not to be missed. It is quite possibly the best retrospective on any artist anyone in Czech Republic ever managed to organize, showing masterpieces from private collections and museums around the world (including the Large Nude normally on display in Guggenheim) and the evolution of the artist from realistic illustrator to titan of abstract art.  Ends last week of January 2019.
  • Alphonse Mucha isn’t famous just for creating advertising for dodgy french liquors. One of his most important works is the Slav Epic, a cycle of 20 monumental canvasses depicting Czech and Slavic mythology. Some decrepit castle in Moravia (I know exactly which one, I am just being smug) used to house the collection for many decades, but apart from a stray school trip, no one ever bothered to go and see it – understandably – until some charitable soul decided to rescue the masterpiece from rotting and move it to Prague. The exhibition can be seen until mid-January 2019 in the beautiful art nouveau premises of Municipal House, which by itself is worth a visit.
  • If you have children, take them to the ZOO, the fifth most beautiful zoo in the world according to Forbes; or visit the Museum of Technology, recently reopened after many years of restoration. Seriously, your kids will love it. And I am not saying that just because I got carried away by all the stuff on display so much I got locked in there when I was six. I wonder if that experience condemned me to life-long nerdiness.
  • If you feel adventurous, visit Little Hanoi. The Vietnamese are Czech Republic’s largest minority (OK, second, but no one can tell a Czech from a Slovak), and SAPA (aka Little Hanoi) is Prague’s most important Vietnamese market and cultural centre. Entering SAPA is like teleporting into Asia. There are shops, schools, theaters, temples, anything you’d expect. Most importantly, you’ll find the best vietnamese food in Central Europe, and in my humble opinion, vietnamese cuisine is by far the best of asian culinary traditions. Take the C line to Kacerov and then local bus no. 113 to get there. If you are lucky enough, you’ll witness a  karaoke night or a vietnamese wedding.
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St. Vitus cathedral from Charles Bridge

Souvenirs

You will see a plethora of souvenir shops in the city centre. Do yourself a favour and ignore them. Apart from laundering money from God knows what illegal activity, they are not much useful. Matrioskas are Russian, not Czech. So are the terrible Red Army fur hats. Bohemian crystal is handmade and expensive. If you can find it cheap, it’s probably not the real thing. The same thing applies for traditional gemstones as garnet and moldavite. Absinth (the real one that gives you hallucinations) cannot be sold anywhere in the European Union, that includes Czech Republic. The green stuff they sell everywhere is just strong alcohol (70%) and the only mystical experience you are going to live will be the spectacular blinding headache you’ll have the morning after, especially if you pour it over sugar. Trust me, I was once young and stupid, too.

If you want to be original, there is a little shop just few meters from Old Town Square, where you can buy beautiful jewels and glassware made by Jarmila Mucha Plockova, the niece of Alphonse Mucha, inspired by the famous artists own designs. I am not sure if kids still play with anything else than iPads these days, but in case they do, wooden toys would qualify as traditional and beautiful present for the little people. There are plenty of shops selling traditional woodenware around Prague.

The important stuff: where to eat and what.

I understand “Czech cuisine” doesn’t exactly enjoy a spot among world’s top ten food experiences. Partly because the traditional food is heavy (and no one would desire to take their fiancée out for a meal that will leave her drowsy rather than horny), partly because after 40 years od communism, most of the tradition is irrecoverably gone. For four decades, going out for a meal was something you would do on very specific occasion: you were either travelling on (state) business or it was someone’s birthday or wedding. You would not eat out just because you could not be arsed to cook (even if you could – unlikely – afford such behaviour). It was considered as something the bourgeoisie would do. Therefore,  restaurants did not need to provide a distinguished service (or any service at all), let alone fight for the customer. Working in a restaurant was a privilege, in terms of having access to the venue’s stocks, which would be promptly stolen. Because “If you don’t steal from your employer, you are stealing from your family” is the first commandment of communism.

You have to understand that most Czechs who experienced the socialist education system (and the subsidized meals in the school canteens) carry forward some sort of gastronomical trauma. Because they forced us to eat whatever was on the menu. In my case, I cannot face hot milk. Every morning upon arrival to kindergarten, they would force feed me a cup of boiled milk, there would be a layer of coagulated cream on top, which would stick to my palate on one end, while the other end would go somewhere down my throat, and it would make me sick (contrary to the popular belief, I do have a gag reflex). To this day I feel the urge to throw up if someone offers me a cup of cocoa. But we were all forbidden from leaving the table until the plate was empty. And trust me, finishing up was sometimes a superhuman effort: the meat (there was always some) was either hard or full of unchewable fat bits, the sauces were mostly unidentifiable (in fact, to this day we refer to it as “universal brown sauce”), the vegetables were overcooked an mashed. You can see why most of us would eat anything but Czech when we go out for a meal.

Fortunately, lately the concept of dining as an experience has reached the Czech lands, and many young chefs embarked on an honourable mission to raise Czech gastronomy on an acceptable level. Starting with fighting the general belief (mostly correct) that the service in Czech restaurants is spectacularly rude. I’ve eaten in the following places and can highly recommend them:

  • Field and Degustation Bourgeoise : Let’s start with the heavy artillery straightaway. Both of them have a Michelin star and are similar in concept. While La Degustation only offers tasting menus (one traditional Czech, the other seasonal international) and is a bit more formal, Field specializes in local products, has an à la carte menu apart from the tasting one, and is a bit more relaxed. La Degustation was the first restaurant that took generally hated dishes and transformed them into delicacies. Their flagship dish is roast beef in dill sauce, which we all feared whenever the school canteen prepared it, but their interpretation is superb. Be prepared to spend over £150 pp, double it if you go for wine pairing as well. Both restaurants offer alcohol-free pairing too, but frankly paying fifty quid for vegetable juices is a bit of a pisstake.
  • The Eatery : Opened recently just this summer by a young chef who used to work in Alcron (another formerly starred establishment). They offer an à la carte menu formed of less known classics of Czech cuisine, their battle horse is roast chicken in paprika sauce (which is actually made of roasted bell peppers, not just the spice). They also have an extraordinary wine cellar. We are talking roughly £40 pp, wine excluded.
  • Milada : A informal small bistro that offers a menu of just 9 dishes between starters, mains and desserts, you can choose if you want to taste 3, 5 or 8 of them. You will not be told what you will eat, just what the ingredients are. The wine list is brief, but carefully selected. Under £50 pp for the 5 course menu, including a shared bottle of wine.
  • Nejen Bistro : for meat lovers. If you want a burger, look no further. Arguably the best burger this side of the Atlantic. I rarely eat burgers because for EU hygiene standards, restaurants that buy pre-prepared mince are not allowed to serve burgers other than well-done. Nejen Bistro minces their own meat, so they will prepare the patty rare, if you wish so. Also, their interpretation of steak tartare is unlike any other you’ve ever tried. It’s prepared from ox heart (I know, it sounds like something from Game of Thrones, but it’s superb), lightly spiced, so that the seasoning does not cover the taste of the meat, and served on bone chopped in half, meaning you can eat all the warm marrow from inside. An orgasm on a plate. I wonder if you can tell that I am writing this post from a resort that only prepares vegan and raw food and I am having food-related visions. (About this experience later). Back to the restaurant: Very nice wine list, obviously meat-oriented. Count around £30 pp, wine excluded.
  • Lokal : there are a several of those now around the city centre. They serve the standards of Czech cuisine, both warm dishes and cold cured meats, everything prepared from prime quality ingredients. I always take my foreign friends there for an informal lunch if they want to try something typical and have a rest from sightseeing (all Lokals are conveniently located close to the touristic walks). Also, all establishments serve Pisner Urquell directly out of the tank, so you cannot have it any fresher than that.

Now, as some say, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I picked two spots that are definitely worth a morning visit. Do not expect eggs benedict or avocado toast, these places serve stuff that reflects our tradition. Avocado tree does not traditionally grow around here. Both are all-day restaurants, but give the best of themselves before lunch, in my opinion.

  • ESKA: a former industrial complex in Karlin, now a bakery and a popular weekend brunch joint. Their bread is heaven. You will never want another bread. Ever. Especially if you are coming from a country like UK or the US, where last proper bread was baked sometimes before the WW2 and you treat sourdough (= normal bread in the rest of the world) as the wheel reinvented. Be adventurous and try their specialty: ashes-baked new potatoes with sour milk and dried trout. It sounds more hipster than it is, my grandmother used to give me potatoes with sour milk when I was little.
  • Cafe Savoy: perfect place for a Sunday brunch. Make a reservation to avoid two hours queuing on the sidewalk. I always enjoy walking into Savoy, ignoring all the silly people in the line {who immediately start tutting impatiently) and greeting the concierge with “Good morning, we have a reservation”. Priceless. Makes the breakfast taste better. You can enjoy the same fulfilling feeling is you call them aforehand. Works every time, guaranteed. The place has a certain 1920s flair. The premises are beautiful, the service impeccable, daily press is available, it’s perfect for a lazy morning. How do you like your eggs, Sir? Try them soft-boiled in a glass, with chives and parmesan cheese. A pre-war specialty, eggs cooked in a glass immersed in hot water, but be prepared that they will be a little bit on the soft side (don’t worry, they are fresh).

If you lack a bit of sweetness in your life (don’t we all, although my sugar of choice is fermented, preferably twice). In the last few years, shops selling “trdlo” popped out every 20 meters in the city centre. Please, please, please, do not buy that under any circumstance, please. It’s not traditional, it’s not even Czech, I do not know what it is to be honest, apart from disgusting sugar-coated piece of crap. Czech Republic has a great coffee (& cake) culture, but we certainly do not eat that shit. We sit in coffee shops, with friends or a newspaper or a book (or a phone these days, I’m afraid) and we savour our coffee. There are plenty of grand cafe’s in the city centre. Let me point out a couple:

  • out of all Prague’s old cafes, Cafe Orient is my favourite. Located on the first floor of the monument of czech cubism – House of the Black Mother of God – everything about the decor is extraordinary, from the interior design to the china they use. Even the staircase you have to take to enter the cafe is beautiful. If you have a sweet tooth, have “rakvicka“, a coffin-shaped meringue with freshly prepared whipped cream. Also, check out the design shop on the ground floor. One day, when I have money and more importantly a place where I want to settle down long-term (ish), I will buy all my furniture here. Or some, at least.
  • Visit Villa Werich on Kampa island, just a few steps from Charles Bridge. The structure was heavily damaged during the 2002 floods and only recently reopened after extensive restorations. It now houses an art gallery and a nice cafe that serves home-made cakes. Now, I have a personal problem with sweets, I see a cake and my veins start clogging, a bit like Pavlov’s dogs, so I did not try any of the desserts offered in the cafe, but I recognize they all look wonderful.
  • Finally, it’s never too cold for a good ice-cream, and there is just the perfect parlour that will enchant every gelato lover. Angelato, which would be considered awesome even in Italy. Try their naturally salty pistachio flavour.

The most important stuff: where to drink.

If you’re into beer, just go anywhere. We don’t do bad beer in the Czech Republic. For wine and mixology, my personal favourites:

  • Bokovka: located in the courtyard of a beautiful historical palace in the Old Town, it’s perfect for summer evenings. They have a fantastic, carefully selected wine cellar, but and they also open different bottles every evening and sell them by glass. They don’t have a kitchen, but serve cheese boards and anchovies. Perfect for the first Tinder date with your future ex.
  • Tretter’s: THE cocktail bar in Prague. Mr. Tretter is the legendary pioneer of barcraft and the first cocktail & liquor expert around here. He used to be a bartender before the revolution. If you want to get pissed in style, or just contemplate your poison in peace, there is no better watering hole in town.
  • Bar & Books: a quiet bar (there are 2 in Prague, and 2 in New York), dim lights, muted music, uninvading waiting staff who know their trade. Possibly the most civilized place where to get intoxicated in Prague. If malt is your drink of choice, look no further. Apart from a theory of whiskies on the menu, they do divine cocktails. I (vaguely) remember one night of tasting the bartender’s creations that almost caused a premature end of my then-relationship years ago. Not that anything happened, but I said I would be home around midnight and I made my triumphal entry at 5 am. Ooops.

Right, these tips should be sufficient to keep you entertained, fed, and most importantly hydrated during your visit to Prague. Just a few more tips on general behaviour: please do not try to impress us with “spasibo” and “dasvidaniya” or any other russian vocabulary you may have picked up from James Bond films. We are not Russians. We don’t like to be taken for Russians. I understand that you may think you are being considerate if you try to speak a language (loosely) similar to ours, but what we hear is the complete opposite: we hear an ignorant foreigner who doesn’t see a difference between Czech, Russian and any other Eastern European. Come to that, we do not like being labelled Eastern Europe. Our culture is austro-habsburg, we share more with Germans and Austrians than with Russians, we just speak a slavic language and we ended up on the wrong side of the iron curtain for 40 years. Anyway, if you cannot manage to learn how to say “good day” and “thank you” in Czech, just stick to English, it’s fine.

Do not hail down taxis. They will rip you off. They will rip us off, too, but they are likely to rip you off more. Use Uber, Taxify or TicTac apps.

If you are interested in more insider tips, how to avoid tourist scams, where to eat and what to see in lesser known parts of town, check out this guy’s youtube channel, the Honest guide.  He’s brilliant.

I hope you enjoy your holiday in Prague. It’s beautiful in every season, and I hope this post may help you to see the city as a thriving cultural hub, full of exciting things to see, not just a destination for a cheap stag weekend with the lads.

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Disclaimer: Please be advised that every recommendation in this post is purely personal. None of the establishments mentioned has given me any kind of compensation. I realize many of the places I write about are part of the Ambiente group, but that is just a coincidence; clearly they do their job well.


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