There was a time in the late ’90s and into the aughts when any post-Soviet European city that suddenly became hip got the label “the next Prague,” thanks to the Czech capital’s quick emergence as the place to be after the Iron Curtain came down. But Prague, it turns out, is the next Prague — at least the parts that lie just beyond the historical center.
Many locals have fled the center, giving Old Town and Mala Strana to the unforgiving wave of mass tourism. Which means for those visitors interested in seeing what local Czech life is like in Prague, spending time out of the center of town is essential. And fun.
When a few friends from Berlin recently came to visit — Krystin and Annie — they asked me what they should do. I lived in Prague for three years and return often, usually on a magazine assignment, which means I’m often trekking to out-of-the-center parts of town and finding out about off-the-radar wine bars and restaurants.
The night before, left to their own devices, Annie and Krystin reported finding “nothing so intriguing” in the center of town outside of the usual suspects (Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, etc.). They were looking for things the locals did, not tourists like them.
That’s not to say they didn’t have a good time on their own. But they were also skeptical. Could a mass-tourism-eschewing visitor actually find something redeemable on the periphery of this Mitteleuropa metropolis?
To find out, I gave them a tour of the Prague I know and love. The other Prague.
Sit and Sip for a Spell in Karlín
We started in Karlín, a 19th-century neighborhood just east of Old Town (a 20-minute walk or a short metro ride to the Křižikova station) that has recently hit the radar of the city’s hipsters. We took a moment to admire the Invalidovna, a mid-18th-century veterans war hospital that was modeled after Les Invalides in Paris, its monumental neoclassical structure, with its thick columns and sharp pediment, dwarfed us.
We considered plopping down for a coffee at Muj Šalek Kavy, one of the best third-wave coffee spots in the city, but instead we went straight to Veltlin, a unique and affordable wine bar that offers an interesting angle: They only serve wine that has been made within the borders of the erstwhile Austro-Hungarian Empire.
So what if the empire dissolved at the beginning of the 20th century! You can sit in this elegant bar sipping on a crisp white from southern Moravia, the Czech Republic’s chief wine region, or nurse a glass Tokaji from Hungary, pretending the emperor is still alive and well in Vienna, plotting the next move of the empire, which stretched from Bohemia (the western half of the Czech Republic) all the way down to Dubrovnik, on what is today Croatia’s southern Dalmatian Coast.
Or you can get a history and geography lesson from the massive map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the wall.
TV Tower Turned Art and the Pub Capital of Prague
After a few glasses we trudged through the Žižkov Tunnel, which leads to the gritty but hip neighborhood of the same name. The tunnel goes under Vitkov Hill, which today boasts the largest equestrian statue in Europe. The man on the horse is 15th-century Czech general Jan Žižka (for which the neighborhood gets its name), who rose to medieval lore for halting a legion of papal armies from invading Bohemia.
After trudging up a hill, we stopped for a cocktail at the low-lit Bukowski’s. Žižkov, it’s often said, has more pubs per capita than anywhere else in Europe. And from a short walk, seeing a pub on just about every corner, this might be true.
After a martini we paused to gawk at the Žižkov TV Tower. Built in the late 1980s, the futuristic 700-foot tower has long been the object of scorn among locals. That is, until artist David Černy had a handful of van-sized crawling black babies attached to various parts of the tower. Just what this artistic project actually means is anyone’s guess, but the tower is infinitely more interesting to look at now.
Pause for a Bite
A few blocks away we parked ourselves at U Sadu in the neighboring and trendy Vinohrady district. Once a smokey dive bar, complete with salt-of-the-earth atmosphere and jaundiced-hued, smoke-stained curtains, the pub was renovated a few years ago.
The smoke-free wood-paneled pub serves up above-average pub grub — including hearty goulash and dumplings — and an admirable craft beer selection.
A Final Stop for Soul Tunes
We had one last stop: my old neighborhood. Vršovice, crammed with attractive 19th-century apartment buildings, has always lacked a reason for nonresidents to gravitate here. But then, on Krymska, a sloping street that snakes through part of the area, hip pubs and cafés recently began opening.
The first was Cafe V Lese, which attracts beer-swilling twenty-somethings who spill out onto the sidewalk and street. Now the lane is flanked by cool places to see and be seen. We planted ourselves at BAR v Krymsky across the street, sipping martinis and listening to the DJ spin classic soul tunes.
That’s when Krystin hoisted her drink and said, “Today was exactly the scene we were looking for but couldn’t find in the center. Cheers to you!”
We didn’t even get to Letna or Holešovice, the other two super-hip, up-and-coming neighborhoods in Prague. Maybe tomorrow.
And with that, we clinked our glasses, took a gulp and ordered another round.