Prague has a reputation for hosting crowds of tourists, who come from around the world to photograph the Czech capital's soaring Gothic spires and elegant baroque curves before stopping for selfies on the romantic cobblestone lanes that lead up to stately Prague Castle.
But even the most photogenic parts of the city are also home to actual Praguers—and lately, it seems like the million-plus of us who actually live here are starting to get a lot more out of it. In recent years, beautiful old Prague has become much more livable, with spruced-up parks, reclaimed pedestrian zones, and a slate of new cultural attractions.
Take what happened at Malostranské Náměstí, the main square of the scenic Malá Strana district that lies between Prague Castle and the slow-moving Vltava River. To call the square a landmark is a major understatement: It is home to some two dozen museum-quality baroque buildings, including the baby blue-and-cream-colored Liechtenstein Palace, which houses the city’s main music university. Across from the palace's triple-arched entrance, just beyond a remarkable "plague column" constructed in gratitude for the end of pestilence in the year 1715, sits the immense St. Nicholas Church, hailed as the city's greatest baroque church.
Despite its obvious beauty, the area used to be a mess. For years, students and residents constantly had to watch out for automobiles, as the rest of the square functioned as a public parking lot. But as of this summer, Malostranské Náměstí is a new pedestrian-only zone, just like the lower half of Wenceslas Square, which banned cars a few years back.
Other big developments have happened in less central districts. On the Vltava, south of Old Town, the Rašínovo Nábřeží embankment—commonly called Náplavka—launched a Saturday morning farmers market in 2010. Since then, it’s become one of the city’s favorite evening promenades. To make like a Praguer, time your waterfront stroll for sundown, and choose a refreshment or two from the numerous bars, cafés, and food stands on the sidewalk and barges along your way.
Something similar has sprung up at the Negrelli Viaduct, Prague's oldest railway bridge and its second oldest crossing over the Vltava after the far more famous Charles Bridge (which is also about 500 years older). Built by the Austrian-Italian architect Alois Negrelli Ritter von Moldelbe in 1850, it was the longest railway bridge in Europe until 1910, originally comprising 90 elegant, low-slung granite arches. In recent years, many of the bridge's cityside arches have been used for storage and, unsurprisingly, parking. But a temporary program this summer—called Léto pod viaduktem (Summer Under the Viaduct), which runs from June to October—has kicked out the cars and opened the atmospheric spaces to the public, installing seating, Ping-Pong tables, a trampoline for kids, a café for adults, and a stage for concerts, all under the arches. Area residents are petitioning to make these changes permanent.
Other neighborhoods have switched from overlooked and underloved to artsy and popular, like Karlín and Žižkov. Badly damaged by flooding in 2002, low-lying Karlín was long thought of as undesirable. Today it is home to a slew of cozy new cafés, like Proti Proudu, where you can stop for a BLT sandwich (which costs about four dollars) and chat with the designers and new-media types who now call Karlín home. Even though you can still spot the high-water marks on the walls of Karlín's imposing Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the area has shaken off almost all other effects of the floods, thanks in part to a number of resident-friendly developments, like a lowered speed limit, improved bike lanes, easy-to-use rental bikes, and spruced-up parks. (It doesn't hurt that some of Prague's finest late 19th-century apartment buildings are found here.)
If it's a hot day, you'll appreciate the walk through the cool tunnel that connects Karlín with street-smart Žižkov, traveling almost a thousand feet straight through Vítkov Hill. (Unfortunately, you'll miss the hilltop's giant statue of Hussite general Jan Žižka, as well as its amazing views over Old Town. Save those for another time.) Wander through the neighborhood's world-class art galleries, like Hunt Kastner Artworks and Drdova Gallery, then finish up at the recently restored pub U Kurelů, originally founded in 1907. Although it maintains much of its historic atmosphere, U Kurelů caters to Prague's contemporary tastes, with great hamburgers, spicy Vietnamese-style bánh mì sandwiches, and beer from regional Czech microbreweries.
Most of these new developments in Prague are meant for the people who live here, rather than for tourists. Ironically, these improvements only serve to make Prague even more appealing for tourists.
We can live with that. After all, that's exactly how many of us ended up becoming Prague residents ourselves.
Experience Evan's favorites in Prague:
When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is Letná Park, because the views over Old Town from the beer garden are absolutely amazing, especially at sunset with a cold Czech beer in hand.
You can see my city best from romantic Petřín Hill.
Locals know to skip the overcrowded tourist zones in the city center and Prague Castle and check out cool neighborhoods like Žizkov, Vinohrady, and Vršovice instead.
Cihelna Concept Store is one of the best places to buy authentic, local souvenirs.
In the past, notable people like Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Rainer Maria Rilke have called my city home.
My city’s best museum is the Uměleckoprůmyslové Museum, or Museum of Decorative Arts, because of its small but incredibly well-chosen collection of historic costumes, posters, clocks, toys, glass, and ceramics.
If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s that Prague has some of the best public transportation in Europe. In a race between a tram and the metro, the metro is almost always faster—but the trams have better views.
The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is Divoká Šárka, a nature reserve just a few minutes by tram from the city center.
You can tell if someone is from my city by how they pronounce velké pivo (or “large beer”). The Prague accent treats the Czech language’s neutral ending of é like the masculine ý.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Just outside my city, you can visit historic Karlštejn castle.
When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I splurge on simple pleasures like chlebičky, a variety of open-faced sandwiches that rarely cost more than a dollar.
If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss cool parks like Gutovka, with a kid-size waterworks playground, as well as miniature golf, rock climbing walls, and more.
The best book about my city is probably Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, because like Prague itself, the story is both beautiful and tragic.
Evan Rail is a long-term resident of Prague and the author of Why We Fly: The Meaning of Travel in a Hyperconnected Age. Follow his tweets on travel, beer, and life in Prague @evanrail.