May 21 – June 19, 2017 (Summer)
Greeting: Dobrý den
Currency: Koruna (Kč)
Cost of living: Medium
Everywhere we’ve traveled, people wanted to know if we’d been to the Czech Republic. “You haven’t had great beer until you’ve been to Prague!” they’d say. When it happened to be the cheapest destination for a flight out of South America, we took the hint. The allure was evident from the moment we first stepped onto the instantly-familiar medieval streets. It felt like coming home.
We weren’t alone, though. More than 7 million tourists visited Prague last year, many times the city’s native population. The largest influx coincides with the best weather and peak festival season, or about exactly when we showed up. Despite the crowds, we found an eminently livable city that was easy to love… even if the hype over the beer was a little overblown.
Where we stayed
We spend this month in a lovely little Airbnb↗ in Prague 7. From our location atop Letna Hill and sandwiched between the parks of Letna and Stomovka, the Old Town was just a twenty minute walk away. But a river and a couple hundred stairs up the hillside did wonders to discourage interlopers and kept us sheltered from the unruly mobs of the tourist core. The neighborhood was fairly quiet and very residential. A Billa grocery was about 7 minutes away on foot, and a few other mini-markets with all the basics were equally close.
Occasionally an Airbnb host will go above and beyond, and this was one of those times. Ours learned that our flight arrived a day before we were to check in (we had a single night planned in an intermediary apartment to cover the spread), and was kind enough to let us in a full day ahead of schedule. This was a minor miracle after 26 hours of travel from the other side of the world. Instead of a restless short-term stay, we picked up our keys and got right to buying groceries and settling in to our new home.
The apartment had three rooms connected through the entrance-facing hallway. Bright windows and decor combined with a well-planned layout to make it feel far more spacious than the actual square footage. We overlooked a quiet residential street to the front, and a small courtyard in the back. Aside from the infrequent car honk or sound check at the football stadium a block away, the only auditory annoyance were the near-daily beer bikes. We giggled the first time a stag party pedaled by bellowing Sweet Caroline… the 30th occurrence was less amusing. At least it wasn’t construction noise for once!
Our kitchen was well-equipped with appliances, utensils, pots & pans, and plenty of dishes. An oven (surprisingly rare in rented apartments) allowed us to roast exquisite dinners of pork and duck. A full-sized fridge and pantry added even more opulence.
The rest of the apartment was equally spacious. Plenty of closet space for clothes and bags, plenty of drawers and cabinets for everything else. The bathroom, on the other hand, was a little cramped – definitely the least-polished part of the experience. We also lacked a television, though this wasn’t as big a deal. We stream what little we watch online; whether we view it on a big screen or a little one is far from our top concern. Anyway, the internet this month was far more solid than last, and the outside world offered endlessly more entertainment options.
One final upgrade from our Rioplatense accommodations was the relative absence of mosquitoes in Prague. Persistent flies sometimes made their way inside and drone around our dining room until smashed or shooed off, but for the first time in months, we could sleep in peace. We cherished every rest-filled night.
What we did
For seventeen days in May, the Czech Beer Festival takes over a corner of Letna Park and dozens of brewers, large and small, share their handiwork. We arrived just in time to catch the tail end of the festival and found our apartment was just steps from the gate (I swear we didn’t know this when we booked, just a happy coincidence). The beer was more affordable than we were used to for a festival at just $2-3 for a full glass (though this was actually pricey for Prague). And we do mean glass. Beverages were served in appropriate glassware owned and branded by the brewery, no flimsy plastic cups to be found. Over a few days, we got to try at least something from most of the brewers in attendance. There was a good deal of variety on offer: local favorite pilsners and other light lagers, craft fan-favorites like hop-heavy IPAs and smoky porters, and quirky experimental brews with fruit, syrup, or even cinnamon. Everything there was good. Our favorites, from Pivovars Raven and Frýdlant (Albrecht), were great. It seemed others agreed – both breweries took home awards for best-in-show brews. In addition to the main draw, the festival boasted live music, pub games, and tasteful, filling food. We had an inexpensive bowl of goulash soup a few times, but made sure to try the grilled sausages and smoked pork knuckles, too.
Perhaps more important than Prague’s beer its amazing beer culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the city’s incredible beer gardens. The one at Letna Park is probably the most touristed. It sits atop the south end of the hill, overlooking the river and Old Town. Despite the ever-present clans of college bros and bachelor parties racking up large stacks of empties, the place always felt relaxed and welcoming. Large trees shaded more than enough tables to go around. A few discreet security guards kept watch over the proceedings and shushed anyone on the brink of causing too much trouble for two in the afternoon. The selection here was underwhelming – fairly high prices for plastic cups of Gambrinus or Kozel, but the döner stand was a good value when we were hungry.
Smaller and more out-of-the-way is the beer garden in Stramovka. They offer large-label beers but also more local selections, and sometimes put on concerts and quiz nights. This place perfectly exemplified the city’s distinct vibe. On a weekday afternoon, we saw quiet couples like ourselves joking back and forth, mothers on walks with their newborns stopping in to chat with one another, amateur sports teams stopping in to celebrate a well-fought practice, and young business-types in full suit-and-tie pausing for a quick pint on their way home. It was a scene repeated in waterfront pubs and craft beer gardens across the city. Seemingly everybody in town swung by at one point or another, but not a single one was there to drink to excess. It was such a stark contrast to the mobs of tourists who cycle in and out, treating the city as an alcoholic amusement park. Likewise, I was saddened to remember what passes for a beer garden in the States: fences, pushy bouncers checking ID, wrist bands and hand stamps and $5+ for a solo cup of watery sadness. Perhaps if more Americans experienced the alternative, we would expect better.
Prague’s Old Town impressed. It has everything one could ask for in a European capital: grand buildings and winding cobblestone streets, towering church spires and tiny row houses. The ancient juxtaposed with the ornate. And one hell of a lot of tourists. We remembered our Rick Steves and turned into side streets where possible, to incredible effect. Often just a single block off the main thoroughfares was enough to give us a street to ourselves. We found Charles Bridge earned its place among the most beautiful walking bridges in the world, and even better, the Bridge Tower offers a commanding view of the crowds below and back over the city for a very fair price. The entrance isn’t terribly well-signed, and we had to climb halfway up before we even found the ticket office… maybe that’s why the viewing platform was practically abandoned. The city also boasts Europe’s oldest active synagogue, as well as some of the prettiest. Merchants in the Old Town Square have no qualms about targeting foreigners to overcharge, but we found those places easy to avoid and instead found quality establishments through internet reviews (U Kunštátů for craft beer) and “long line analysis” (Crème de la Crème for gelato).
Towering over the Old Town is Prague Castle. It’s a tourist must-see, the largest castle complex in the world and is still home to many functioning government institutions. This does mean there are guards and a mandatory security check to get in, which at peak times can produce hours-long queues. But in the evenings, after all the tour groups had gone, the lines vanished and the courtyards fell eerily quiet. Parts of the Castle felt tourist-trappy – think displays of armor and weapons, crowded narrow streets of pastel houses, and photo-ops with birds of prey. But St. Vitus Cathedral was more than worth the trouble. The interior was simply cavernous, and the stained glass windows were unlike any we’d seen, some composed of so many tiny shards that they seemed to ripple and dance on their own. The complex also houses a vineyard, Royal Gardens, and some truly lovely viewpoints overlooking the city below.
Easily the luckiest break of our timing (even more than the beer fests) was being in town for Prague Museum Night. For one night↗ in June, dozens of museums across the city open their doors late and do away with admission fees. Many put on special performances. Free buses connect them all in a massive accessible network, so there really is no excuse for staying home. Nobody did. The whole city buzzed with energy, locals and and tourists alike jumping at the opportunity to binge on art and culture. We targeted the Schwarzenberg, Sternberg, and Salm Palaces, Maisel Synagogue, and the National Gallery. The art museums collections focused on Czech pieces, but also had sculptures and paintings from across Europe. We checked off some other great museums before and after the extravaganza, including the National Technical Museum and, just downstairs from our apartment, the combination Coffee Museum/museum of kinda-creepy marionettes.
We never miss a chance to visit a world-class library, and Prague is spoiled for choice with at least two of them. Unfortunately, the Klementinum Library was shuttered for renovations during our stay. Strahov Monastery more than made up for it. Located southwest of Prague Castle, Strahov likewise sits atop a hill overlooking the city. Its library consists of two halls, the Philosophical and the Theological, each a book lover’s dream. Ornate ceiling murals, giant globes, large windows with cozy-looking nooks, and of course, the polished stacks of books. Some poor soul had dropped their “permission to photograph” sticker on the ground, so we traded our ethics for it and filled our cameras with priceless ill-gotten digital souvenirs. The monastery had a few other secrets – a few tomes on display, an old collection of animal and seashell curios – but the final treat was the Strahov Monastic Brewery. Naturally, all that walking and library-ing made us thirsty, so we stopped in for some of the best beer in Prague.
About an hour away by train is the town of Kutná Hora, home to the infamous Sedlec Ossuary and perfect spot for a day-trip. The main station is within walking distance of the ossuary, but we took advantage of a short connection so we could start our exploring downtown. The Church of St. James, beautiful but lesser known, sits near a perfect viewpoint to appreciate St. Barbara’s Church and the former Jesuit College (now an art museum). St. Barbara’s is massive, with soaring ceilings and stained glass paid for by grateful guilds made wealthy by the local mines. Sedlec Ossuary is, by comparison, rather modest at first glance. Just inside the door though, things get creepy. Tens of thousands of skeletons decorate this tiny chapel. The bones garland the archways and ceilings, delicately-arranged symbols and patterns comprised of so many human remains. In the center, a massive chandelier, supposedly containing every bone in the human body, hangs ominously. The ossuary is just a single room, and a far cry from the endless passageways of Paris’s catacombs. But the morbid beauty of this place is something else entirely.
Finally, our stay ended as it began, with a beer festival. The Pivo na Náplavce Craft Beer Festival was a more focused affair, showcasing the work of smaller producers on a cramped bank of the Vltava (just past the Dancing House). Dozens of craft and gypsy (those without their own brewing equipment) breweries were in attendance. Almost every tasting sheet centered on a flagship light lager, and there were relatively few esoteric experiments. These brewers were motivated by passion for their craft; quality over novelty. Raven made another worthwhile appearance, and we discovered new favorites from Pivovar Trilobit (“Callista” APA) and Slepý krtek. The food, though not the star of the show, was once again exceptional.
Food & Drink
Our Uber driver from the airport was an Algerian immigrant who spoke Czech, French, and bad Spanish. Fresh off half a year in Latin America, we confidently settled on “bad Spanish” as our lingua franca. (This was the most European thing that has ever happened to us.) He was very confident we would be happy with the local beer, but warned us the food was… so-so. Honestly though, we were very satisfied with our meals. Uruguay’s cuisine isn’t known for variety or depth of flavor, so Prague seemed like a garden of delights in contrast. Lots of international tourism means lots of international restaurants. Well-connected Central European location mixed with low cost of living means good ingredients at good prices. Add it all up, and we found ourselves eating very well this month.
Grocery stores carried actual hot sauces, real ajvar, and acceptable chocolates of all kinds (or so says Danielle). Billa’s “Clever” store brand had especially good peanut crisps and popcorn, though their pasta was a gluey, tasteless mess.
As usual, we didn’t eat out much, but the few times we did were great. For our anniversary, we enjoyed pho, stir-fry and Vietnamese coffee at Phở u Letné, our first decent Southeast Asian food since, well, the last time we were in Europe. We were thrilled to find that duck was once again affordable. We could roast a whole one for dinner for just a few dollars, and we did. A lot.
Czech wine tends toward sweet, but a fair amount of imports make their way into stores. We had good experiences at Moravska Banka Vín, in Prague Market (Prague 7, east of Vltavská), where the shop owner gave us some helpful tips on what to try. Czech grape names have yet to be displaced by the more recognizable international ones, so figuring out what we were buying took a fair bit of guessing or googling (Wikipedia↗ has a comprehensive conversion chart). Ultimately we just weren’t thrilled with the local product, though we gave it every chance we could: Svatovavřinecké (St. Laurent), Modrý Portugal (Blauer Portugieser), Rulandské bílé (Pinot blanc), Ryzlink rýnský (Riesling), Tramín červený (Gewürztraminer), and more.
Beer, if it wasn’t already obvious, is kind of a big deal here. People know how they like it, and they don’t bend easily to foreign demand and trends. Like wine, the terminology is usually Czech and not translated, so it’s good to know some of the important terms. Ležák is a mid-strength lager, and by far the most popular style. The color will fall somewhere on the spectrum between Světlé (light), Polotmavé (semi-dark/amber), Tmavé (dark), and Černé (black). Dark beers are common, but tend to be lower-alcohol and sweeter than their pale counterparts (more like dunkel than porter). A lot of beers with advertise as being Nepasterizované (unpasteurized) or Nefiltrované (unfiltered), implying a fresher or more authentic beer, though in practice it doesn’t change the flavor of bottled/canned stuff all that much.
Czech beer often doesn’t list the ABV on the bottle, opting instead to label in Balling degrees (similar to degrees Brix), something like 10º or 12º. This is a measure of how sweet the malt is before fermentation, and translating it to alcohol content is not an exact science. Depending on how much of the sugar gets fermented, a higher number can translate to more alcohol, or more sweetness, or a little of both.
Foam here is considered integral to the beer, not an obstacle to suppress. Glasses and mugs are clearly marked at 0.5 L servings and are never under-filled, so it’s not as though the foam comes at the expense of the liquid. Rather, it’s meant to be drunk, combined with the beer to produce an airier and more flavorful beverage. Some bars will even pour a beer more than half foam on request, if a customer is looking to pace themselves.
One more trend to mention is the popularity of “tank beer” bars. Unlike bottling or kegs, beer is transported without pasteurization, in steel tanks, straight from the brewery. Somehow, shipping fresh beer in every few days is supposed to make the beer taste “fresher” – who would have guessed! Unfortunately, the effort seems a little misdirected. Brewpubs already have fresh beer on site by definition, and seemingly all the tank beer bars offered were brews from the mega-giant companies like Pilner Urquell and Kozel. Sure, it may be the freshest, most delicious Kozel in Prague, but that’s not really saying much.
It’s not hard hard to find really good beer, though. Every supermarket carries a huge selection, and we were lucky enough to live close to a small but well-stocked craft beer store named Base Camp. Beer bottles (glass and plastic) usually have a deposit, cans and wine bottles do not. A few stores have bottle return machines that print out a redeemable receipt, but in a lot of stores you just need to find an employee to count up the change for you. Czech beer is also very, very inexpensive. Pilsner Urquell sometimes commanded as much as $1 a serving on brand recognition alone, but most beers could be had for $0.50 or less. This probably goes a long way to explaining the country’s reputation as a beer mecca.
Maybe it’s a matter of personal taste, or maybe not enough people have had the pleasure of experiencing the breadth of beers we have. Whatever the case, we found the beer in Czech Republic did not quite live up to the hype. Don’t get me wrong, it was very good! The worst Czech beers are better than the average beer almost everywhere else. It’s just… they were all kind of the same. There was a high bar, but nothing soared way over it. It was still a welcome relief after what passed for beer in South America, and an excellent palette cleanser for what came next.
Taxis in Prague are notoriously scam-ridden and love to charge tourists inflated rates. Thankfully, we got by just fine walking everywhere. When we needed a ride on-demand, we used Uber↗. Free wifi at the airport made it easy to hail a ride on arrival, though the first couple of drivers canceled on us (locals snatched up the drivers laying in wait near the terminal, and the ones further away were less interested I guess). Even worse was when we tried to leave. Our driver took a wrong turn into a highway tunnel and, rather than cancel, rode it for miles and then slowly worked his way back to us on surface streets over 20 minutes. Our carefully-planned schedule was dashed, but we did made our bus to Poland with just minutes to spare. To top it off, we lost our sandwiches in the backseat in our hurry.
Around town, there are a plethora of trams, buses, and metro lines. Tickets cost just a dollar or so and most transit lines run frequently. Timed tickets mean getting to Vaclav Havel Airport costs less than $1.50, transfers included. No tram or metro line goes right to the airport, but bus 119 runs from the terminal to the well-connected Nádraží Veleslavín stop. We used it a few times escorting family that came to visit us.
Heading further out of Prague, Czech Railways has frequent trains to other local destinations like Kutna Horá, Pilsen, and Český Krumlov. We bought our tickets to Kutná Hora online. It came with free seat reservations, which were a bit excessive – we had the train car nearly to ourselves.
Stuff of interest
We used SIMs↗ from O2 for the month. They came with 1.5 gigs of data for about $13 each.
As usual, we picked up basic phrases like hello and thank you, though it was by no means required. Everybody in Prague speaks English. The Czechs, the tourists, everyone. The largest crowds appeared to come from next-door Germany, followed by the UK and the US. Indeed, this was probably the most American accents we’ve heard since we left home.
Last year, we naively expected some small amount of mutual intelligibility between Croatian and Polish as “related” Slavic languages. That was very much not the case, and we were surprised by how different they were. Being exposed to Czech was like finding the missing link. Even with our small vocabularies, we found overlap with both Polish (thank you, “děkuji” vs. “dziękuję”) and Croatian (good day, “dobrý den” vs. “dobar dan”). It’s not much, but after nerding out on linguistics for the past few months learning a new language and listening to the History of English Podcast↗, it was a fun realization for us.
Letna must have had some sort of mysterious, nocturnal creek. At least, we heard nonstop flowing water in the trees and bushes just off the paths after dark, but never during daylight hours. Maybe the drunk youths stumbling around at night could be tasked to investigate?
What we learned
There wasn’t any one thing that stood out to us as “the” thing Prague does head and shoulders above than anywhere else (not even the beer). Rather, we found ourselves falling in love with just how above average everything is. It’s so much more than the sum of its parts. Now, if only they could do something about all those tourists.