Back in 1992, the opening of the first McDonald’s in Prague was a red-carpet event. Gowns were worn, celebrities were summoned, paparazzi stood poised and 11,000 people lined the streets. With the ousting of communism after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the ascent of Westernised, globalised culture was swift and the city’s newly liberated locals were hungry for all that had been suppressed during the 40-year Soviet rule.
Then came tourism, ushering in all the heady highs and inevitable lows of easy-spending, camera-wielding travellers to the compact, cobbled streets of Prague’s medieval Old Town, including a slew of stag parties, which the Czech capital has been at pains to curb. But times change and, in recent years, a new generation of young, creative, entrepreneurial locals — the first to be born post-communism — is reconnecting with traditional Czech culture through food, fashion, art and design. And many are now reimagining their city afresh for a new breed of inquisitive traveller.
The crucible of this cultural renaissance is the suburbs. There’s another Prague to be discovered beyond the Old Town for those who criss-cross the bridges spanning the Vltava River, and head away from the UNESCO-listed Hradcany Castle and the towering gothic spires of St Vitus Cathedral. You’ll find it in industrial-cool Karlín, in the city’s north. It was devastated by floods in 2002, neglected, then repopulated over the past decade by local creatives. Here, restaurants such as KRO and wine bars like Veltlin have upgraded Prague’s food scene with their focus on organic, all-natural produce, plucked from the Czech countryside.
The cultural revival is in evidence, too, in the former factory area of Holešovice, just to the north, which now hums with creative energy thanks to the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, which hosts cutting edge exhibitions and is home to a fantastical events space in the cantilevered Gulliver Airship. And it’s also apparent in nearby Vinohrady, where pastel-toned buildings take on an almost Parisian feel and cosmopolitan boutiques such as Nila sell Czech brands alongside stylish Sandqvist backpacks, providing yet more reasons to stray away from the trappings of the Old Town.
All this is to say that modern Prague has evolved beyond the medieval rampants that have historically encircled it. Venture into the suburbs and you’ll be richly rewarded with inspirational art and innovative food — and barely a McDonald’s in sight.
Things to see and do
Jatka78: Language barriers matter little at this envelope-pushing theatre in a small-scale warehouse space in Holešovice, which specialises in dance and Cirque du Soleil-esque performances from visiting troupes. Its non-verbal approach means you’re able to sit back and enjoy the spectacle. From spring to autumn, it also hosts festival-style circus performances in a big-top tent with food trucks and bars.
Taste of Prague: This free-spirited food tour outfit was started by a group of Czech pals in 2011. Tours weave through the hipster suburb of Karlín, built during the industrial revolution to house workers, now brimming with neon-lit restaurants and late-night bars. With a big focus on fun, your Taste of Prague guide will show you the best places for local craft beer, fruit dumplings, fermented cocktails and, of course, schnitzel, goulash and more.
DOX Centre for Contemporary Art: The clue’s in the name at this cutting-edge cultural space in the former factory district of Holešovice. The centre stands in a complex of 19th-century industrial buildings, reborn and topped by the architecturally arresting Gulliver Airship, which hosts workshops and literary talks. The suspended rooftop structure resembles an early 20th-century Zeppelin and also showcases dance, theatre and music.
Vnitroblock: Not content to convert just one industrial building, Vnitroblock has repurposed a whole street in happening Holešovice, from Tusarová 31 to Dělnická 32. Grab a coffee with the co-working crowd in the bare-brick, plant-lined complex, or shop for trainers, go to the cinema, sink beers at a brewery and even try a dance class.
Charles Bridge: Prague’s most distinctive landmark loops over the Vltava as if laced by a fine haberdasher’s thread. It’s best to visit at night or first light to avoid the bottleneck of tourists that occurs during the daytime. The medieval stone-arch bridge statue-studded structure dates back to 1357, and until 1841 was the only way of crossing Prague’s primary waterway, connecting the Old Town in the east with Hradcany Castle in the west.
Jewish Quarter: The former Jewish ghetto of Josefov has become a collection of synagogues, ceremonial halls and cemeteries that together make up a vast museum complex offering entry under one ticket. It details the period from the 13th century — when the resident Jewish community was relegated to this patch between the Old Town and the Vltava — through to the brutal Nazi occupation in the 20th century.
Live like a local
Jiřího z Poděbrad: This square in Vinohrady is home to a thriving farmers’ market from Wednesday to Saturday, where producers from the Czech countryside sell their wares. Street food is served — including Jamaican jerk treats, meaty grills and rustic pizza — drinks flow, there’s sometimes music and always a great atmosphere.
Kus Koláče: Queues form outside this neighbourhood bakery on Vinohrady’s main street, Korunní. The reason this humble, hole-in-the-wall bakehouse stands out? The Czech delicacy koláče, a sweet puff pastry filled with gooey fruit, served fresh from the oven. And while you’re here, don’t miss hotspots such as the neon-lit Coffee Room and gilded Výčep gastropub.
Grébovka: Stromovka park in leafy Letná may be the city’s largest, but locals go to leafy Grébovka area for a Sunday stroll, taking in its terraced urban vineyards and wine cellar. This can be followed by a stride through Havlíčkovy park, past Gröbe Villa — the summer home of 19th-century industrialist Moritz Gröbe — ending at the half-timbered Pavilon cafe.
Where to eat
Naše maso: This is no ordinary butcher’s. This meat lover’s palace stocks pork from prized Přeštice pigs, beef from Czech Fleckvieh cattle, and serves a creative carnivorous menu, including meatloaf sandwich and bone marrow with grilled bread. There are tables inside, but most visitors enjoy the food streetside, accompanied by local beers from a self-pour tap.
KRO: This millennial-run outfit has a bakery and bistro in Vinohrady, and a restaurant in Karlín. KRO typifies the evolution of Prague’s suburbs, steered by the first post-Soviet generation. Interiors are hip, food is local and dishes, such as pulled chicken and fermented potatoes, look to the Czech past while keeping things current.
Eska: ‘Potatoes in ash’ might not sound appealing, but you don’t want to miss this dish or its fashionable home in a converted fabric factory in Karlín. By day, locals swoop to this restaurant-bar-bakery for the flame-baked bread. By night, bare brick walls and suspended ceiling plants shelter chattering diners feasting on dishes of duck breast and cauliflower steak.
Where to shop
NILA vinohrady: If you’ve already hung out in Holešovice and kicked back in Karlín then next visit Vinohrady, where Korunní street brims with bakeries, bars and boutiques, including Nila. Here you’ll find chunky ankle boots from Danish brand Angulus, sustainable threads from Spanish designer Rita Row and traditional Czech dresses by local label Látky z Lásky.
Page Five: Veverkova street in riverside Letná is another burrow of alluring boutiques, including this bookshop, which specialises in arty tomes and prints. Architecture, design, poetry and prose are all featured on the shelves of this penman’s paradise. Snap up everything from coffee-table books to cool canvas bags.
Holport: Your one-stop-shop for homewares awaits in the Holport complex on Komunardů, Holešovice’s main street. This former metal factory, with its brick tower and blocky exterior, was built in 1911 and converted at the turn of the millennium. It hosts fashion shows and a design school, and also stocks brands including arty lighting company Flos.
Where to head after hours
Manifesto Anděl: This new opening of restaurants and bars in a series of shipping containers is set to shape-shift through the seasons, switching from a winter market to poolside spot in summer. The company behind it transforms unloved, abandoned areas by way of street food, cocktails, live music and events.
Lokál: There are various outposts of this classic Czech pub, but its Old Town spot at Dlouhá 33 is the liveliest. Beer mats reading ‘zatluc ho tam’ (‘hammer it down’) indicate the atmosphere. Order booze-mopping plates of fried edam in buttery breadcrumbs and order the three traditional pours of pilsner: the Regular (a normal head); the 60/40 (three fingers of foam); the Milk (almost fully foamy).
Vetlin: If you’re after a classy evening out, head to this bottle-lined wine bar in Karlín, which has an atmospheric cellar downstairs for tastings. Central European vineyards are its speciality, with a particular focus on organic and biodynamic wines. Many of the best Czech labels come from Moravia, but expert staff can steer you to the top tipples.
Where to stay
Hotel Cube: This slick contemporary design hotel stands in a 19th-century building in Prague’s centre. Set in a 1920s baroque revival structure that originally housed Cinema Alma before a 2020 renovation, it’s located on the same street as U Fleků, one of the oldest beer halls in the Czech capital, which has been brewing since 1499.
Botanique: A reception desk backed by plants sets the tone for this new, sustainably minded ‘nature inspired’ hotel in Florenc, a short skip from Karlín. Here, caring for the environment is paramount, with mini-bars removed in favour of a communal, curated ‘market’ in the lobby; single-use plastics switched for bamboo key cards; and farm-sourced food at the bistro.
Maximilian Hotel: It might be one of Prague’s best-established boutique hotels with a spa and terraced garden, but Maximilian certainly isn’t resting on its laurels. Opened in 1995, a refresh in 2019 brought soothing blue rooms with statement headboards, brass accents and pendant lights that look bang up to date.
Getting there & around
London to Prague by train involves two to six changes in the likes of Brussels and Frankfurt, depending on your chosen route. raileurope.com. Average journey time: 19h.
British Airways, EasyJet and Ryanair offer non-stop flights to Prague from London and UK airports, including Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol. ba.com easyjet.com ryanair.com.
Average flight time: 2h.
The airport is connected by shuttle bus and a public bus with transfer to Prague’s three-line metro system. Prague, suburbs included, is compact and accessible on foot. The city also has a handy tram service, while Uber and Bolt both operate widely. dpp.cz
When to go
Spring to autumn is best; average daily temperatures reach a comfortable 20C in summer. The festive period has its own charm, bringing Christmas markets to the castle and Old Town Square.
How to do it
British Airways Holidays offers three nights at the four-star Hotel Duo from £159 per person, room only, including return flights from Heathrow.
Published in the October 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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