36 Hours in Prague, Czech Republic
By EVAN RAIL
Prague has become one of the most visited cities in Europe for good reason: remarkable architecture, rich history and excellent drinking and eating options. Once thought of as slightly behind the times, the Czech capital is also experiencing a renewed interest in design and fashion, with dozens of new shops. Happily, many of the best new boutiques, restaurants and pubs are either outside or on the edge of the heavily touristed city center. Thanks to Prague’s excellent public transportation, you can whiz from new attractions in the once-ignored neighborhood of Smichov, south of the guidebook sites in the Mala Strana district, out to the residential but party-friendly areas of Vinohrady and Zizkov east of Old Town. Even in more central areas, catching up on Prague’s cutting edge usually means avoiding crowds.
1) A Peek At The Past
Prague is known for its churches, castles and other large distinctive buildings, but it is also home to beautiful, intimate villas, many of which are open to the public, among them the Werich Villa, a former tannery that was once the home of the great Czech actor Jan Werich. Located on Kampa Island, it re-emerged in mid-2017 as a cultural and arts center, with exhibits on its own history and the story of Werich, Jiri Voskovec and their Liberated Theater, a cornerstone of Prague cultural life before World War II. Entry is 90 koruny, or about $4.10.
2) Untapped And Unknown
Prague is a great town for good beer, but the still somewhat gritty Smichov neighborhood has long lagged behind other areas in terms of craft beer bars, as well as other basic necessities. The scene improved with this year’s opening of Ale Bar, a tiny, seven-tap pub that offers rare brews from small Czech producers. What’s on draft changes almost daily, along with the prices, but you’re likely to find (and fall in love with) any of the ales from the new Czech craft brewery Pivovar Raven. A couple of pints you’re almost certain never to taste back home should cost less than 150 koruny.
3) À La Française
Home to the Lycée Français de Prague, the Smichov neighborhood got another dose of Gallic culture with the late 2015 opening of the cozy bistro Papi Oliver, named after Raymond Oliver, a legend of 20th-century French cuisine. In Prague, the master chef’s grandson Grégory Oliver serves rustic, time-tested dishes — beef tongue with fragrant, tarragon-scented gribiche sauce, Camargue-style risotto, moules marinières with frites — in a romantic but informal setting, accompanied by a limited list of regional French wines. Dinner for two costs around 2,200 koruny, including wine.
4) Late Nights
Smichov has scores of dive bars, but the recent closing of Prolog made it hard to get a well-made cocktail in the area. One option is Back Doors, a jazz and blues club with drinks that range from classic old-fashioned and “rum fashioned” cocktails to a Shanghai (not Long Island) iced tea, scented with jasmine and lychee. Get comfortable: like many local dives, Back Doors stays open until 3 a.m. on weekends.
5) Pastry Fight
Take the subway to the Jiriho z Podebrad station, where you’ll find one of the city’s best farmers markets in full swing in front of the remarkable Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord, a 1932 modernist construction by the Prague Castle architect Joze Plecnik. For an old-school breakfast, stop by the Antoninovo Pekarstvi, a bakery offering excellent kolace (22 koruny), the traditional Czech pastries that inspired the kolache trend in Texas and elsewhere. Then buy a brown-butter (56 koruny), maple-bacon (54 koruny) or vegan chai (56 koruny) doughnut from the new Donut Shop, and sample a similar tale of international pastry conquest in reverse.
6) Shots And Streetwear
The party-friendly Vinohrady and Zizkov neighborhoods around Jiriho z Podebrad square are known for great bars, but the area also has several alternative clothing boutiques. The new NeverEnough shop sells funky T-shirts from brands like Berlin’s The Dudes, Warsaw’s Turbokolor and Paris-based Yeaaah! Studio, as well as its own line of hoodies. An in-house bar offers cocktails and shots of Bulleit rye. Nearby, Sugar Bat sells women’s rockabilly, goth and swing fashions, including crinoline petticoats (around 1,000 koruny) and an array of vintage-inspired dresses. Farther north, the Botas 66 shop on Krizkovskeho sells footwear modeled on the classic Botas sneakers of Communist Czechoslovakia, a perfect match for a new backpack (1,750 koruny) from the Borivojova street showroom of cult Czech brand Playbag.
7) Turning Japanese
Two stops on the tram or one stop on the subway will get you to the 2016 arrival Momoichi, a Japanese-inspired “coffetearia” in an airy space carved out of one of Prague’s charismatic 19th-century apartment buildings. Try the fluffy, Hokkaido-style milk bread toast, with rose hip and fragrant orange-blossom jams (130 koruny). More substantial meals include an eye-opening bowl of spicy laksa noodles, redolent with coconut milk and chiles (245 koruny).
8) Local Designs
Don’t worry about walking off lunch just yet: Next door, the year-old Book Therapy offers Prague’s best collection of reading material on art, architecture and design, most of which is in English. For a local souvenir, ask for the coffee-table volume on the great photographer Josef Sudek (1,699 koruny) or Vladislav Rostoka and Dusan Junek’s “Typografikum,” a masterpiece of graphic design (1,890 koruny), or choose from the small collection of home furnishings, like the set of hand-turned wooden bowls from the east Bohemian town of Dobruska (699 koruny).
9) By The Bite
Until recently, the area to the north of Wenceslas Square and east of the trendy shopping on Na Prikope street has been relatively uninteresting. But new attractions like Spejle are luring people to Jindrisska street. Spejle takes its name from the skewer used to serve almost everything it offers. Ask for a glass of a dry Czech white wine from a producer like Horak (90 koruny) and pair it with any of the dozens of tapas-style dishes, all priced at 29 koruny per skewer. You can sample Czech classics in just a few bites: Traditional recipes include gingery roast duck with braised red cabbage, and juicy baked bucek, or pork belly, with a dollop of mashed potatoes and apple-horseradish sauce.
10) Compare And Contrast
Find more funky design across the street at Freshlabels, with two shops around the corner from each other. On Jindrisska, the main outpost stocks obscure European clothing brands, including colorful footwear by Sweden’s Happy Socks and Komono watches from Belgium, as well as jackets, coats and eyewear. A few steps away on Panska street, the Freshlabels backpack store stocks some 300 cool bags, like the “paper” knapsacks from Berlin’s Ucon Acrobatics. Walk around the corner to the Passage of Czech Design, on the ground-floor passageway of the Czech National Bank building. This long walkway was recently converted into a gallery, displaying the work of both up-and-coming and established Czech designers.
11) Italian Empire
For centuries, Prague has benefited from Italian influences. One of the most important today is the mini-empire of chef Riccardo Lucque, who owns several standard-setting restaurants. His most recent has changed the atmosphere on somewhat rundown Havlickova street, installing the comfortable bistro and deli La Bottega Linka in the overlooked area just north of the Masarykovo Nadrazi train station. Main courses include excellent fresh pastas, chops and roasts, though the kitchen seems to come into its own with seafood: juicy, lightly seared scallops with crisp pancetta and a tangy Caesar salad, and perfectly roasted whole turbot or John Dory. Dinner for two costs about 2,500 koruny, including drinks.
12) Free Range
Many tourists overlook the Convent of Saint Agnes of Bohemia. But locals know that the former convent is one of the best places to spend a relaxing morning, especially following the extensive renovation of the grounds at the end of 2016. It also represents a great bargain: While the medieval art is certainly worth the entry fee of 220 koruny, access to the gardens and much of the interior ground floor is free, including the tombs of Saint Agnes and her brother, King Wenceslas I.
13) Burger Trends
Despite (or perhaps because of) its popularity among tourists, locals generally don’t consider going to the area around Wenceslas Square for a good meal. That might change with the recent opening of George Prime Burgers on Vodickova street. This spacious bar and grill excels at high-end hamburgers, an ongoing Prague food trend, including a venison burger topped with arugula, sautéed forest mushrooms and tangy bleu d’Auvergne cheese (240 koruny), backed up by crispy sweet-potato fries (95 koruny) and beers from the celebrated Czech craft brewery Pivovar Matuska (75 koruny).
Part of Spain’s Barceló hotel group, the Occidental Wilson Hotel (Vaclavske namesti 59; doubles start around 120 euros) opened at the top of Wenceslas Square in early 2016, offering 53 rooms in a central location with views overlooking the square, the National Museum and the State Opera.
Last year also saw the arrival of a new Dancing House Hotel (Jiraskovo namesti 6; doubles start around 140 euros). The location along the river and south of Old Town is excellent, though the real pleasure comes from getting to stay inside the landmark riverside building by architects Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunic.