Prague: A Jewel in the Crown of Beer Culture
Prague is justly famous for its Old Town Square, its Castle District dominated by St. Vitus Cathedral, and the Charles Bridge, majestic despite the throngs of tourists. Beyond that, Prague is famous for the Defenestration of Prague. (Defenestration: now there’s a fine word for you.) Legend has it that the ignominiously defenestrated Catholic Lords Regent survived the 21-meter fall by landing in a dung heap.
Prague is also famous for its beer.
Prague is one of my favourite cities in Europe, has been ever since a friend of mine borrowed my grandmother’s old Renault 5 in Switzerland, told her we were going to the German Alps for about a week — and then just kept on going. By the end of it all, we had driven through Austria (via Munich, of course) to Budapest and then up to Prague before continuing on to Saarbrücken, where I had only recently discovered good beer during my first study year abroad. Little did I know that it’d take a good fifteen years to get back to Prague. This time around, we spent five leisurely days rambling through hidden squares, across small foot bridges, and up and down the hills of Prague in search of liquid sustenance amid museums, monasteries, and castles.
As I mentioned at the start of this series on Prague, I did something different from my usual city spotlights by starting at the end with beer lists and highlights. We’ve now arrived at the beginning: a five-day itinerary that includes a sprinkling of restaurants and things to see with your beer tips. Rather than dividing up Prague into various regions like I do when I write about large beer cities such as Munich, Berlin, or Vienna, I’ll take you along on the itinerary that we followed. Pick and choose depending on how long you’ll be in Prague and how much beer culture you want to experience. It goes without saying that although this is a “long read,” it’s far from exhaustive. Chime in with your favourites in the comments.
For those who’ve had enough of reading by now, the following articles give you the short version of the goods:
Quick note: It has been ages since I contributed to the The Session, a monthly forum for beer wordsmiths the world over to gather and discuss a theme determined by the month’s host. When I checked earlier in the week, no one had yet thrown his or her hat into the ring. A few days ago I noticed that Alistair Reece of Fuggled fame had stepped into the breach with a call for posts on Czech beer. Perfect timing for this long-form accompaniment to my earlier Prague posts.
Prague’s Beer/Culture Scene Day-by-Day:
- Vinohradský Parlament. Sleek interior and food to match. Around the corner from the Náměstí Míru square in a vibrant area to the northeast of the main train station.
- Bellavista. A restaurant terrace in the shadow of the Strahov Monastery where the vista truly is beautiful.
- Klášterní Pivovar Strahov (St. Norbert). A monastery brewery in the shadow of the Baroque Strahov Monastery. Solid beers pair well with the excellent food on offer.
We left behind the beer gardens of Regensburg on the mid-morning train, arriving through hail, wind, and rain to sunshine in Prague about five hours later. Hungry and thirsty after the ride, we settled on Vinohradský Parlament, a chic restaurant with an industrial-polished Art Deco interior not far from our hotel in the Vinohrady District. The food — veal neck in dark beer sauce with baked squash and potato-turnip mash, along with rabbit paté with marinated rabbit loin and rhubarb jam — was a cut above your standard pork and dumplings. The Staropramen Nefiltrovaný (unfiltered) deftly parried the food while showcasing what a larger regional brewery in the Czech Republic can do. (Interestingly, though Staropramen is from Prague, we didn’t see it on many menus.)
After our late lunch we hopped the tram over to the Hradčany (Castle) District for glimpses of St. Vitus Cathedral and the town below, eventually making our way up the hill to the Loreta, a Baroque pilgrimage site designed as a replica of the Santa Casa in the Holy Land. Like pilgrims of old, we, too were searching — in this case for the Klásterní Pivovar Strahov, a monastery brewery that was reopened in 2000 after closing in 1907. (It was founded in 1628.) Across the square from the Loreta, we stumbled upon an arched doorway, rabbit hole-like, leading to a steep stairway that whisked us up to the Strahov Monastery.
Before sitting down to some monk-brewed beer, though, we spied a terrace bar (the aptly named Bellavista) with stunning views down to Malá Strana and Staré Město (Old Town) in the distance beyond an urban vineyard and orchard. The Pivovar Klášter was refreshing after our walk up the hill, and a glass of wine from Bellavista’s list of Czech wines wouldn’t be a bad accompaniment to the view, either. This place isn’t the cheapest in Prague, but that view is more than worth the few extra krona it’ll cost you for your beverage of choice.
Now for that Strahov beer! A courtyard garden separates the cozy tavern on the brewpub side from a larger beer hall with a vaulted ceiling and stuccoed Gothic arches across the way. We split a four-dip platter (smoked fish, washed-rind beer cheese, spicy chicken paté, and a Liptauer-type spread) with pickles, onions, and pickled peppers, washing it all down with a variety of the house offerings. Try the Pivo Norbert Tmavé, a richly malty dark lager, or the light golden Hefeweizen.
By now it had turned twilight behind the Baroque towers of the Strahov Monastery, so we rode the tram down the hill along the edge of the castle, through narrow streets of Malá Strana past the St. Nicolas Church, and back to our “home square,” Náměstí Míru in Vinohrady. Opportunities for craft beer night caps abound in the streets that radiate off this square should you still have the energy.
- U Trí Růží (Three Roses) in Staré Město. Top-notch food and beer in an Old Town brewpub just steps from the Charles Bridge.
- U Fleků. One of the oldest drinking establishments in Prague (founded in 1499), with a courtyard beer garden surrounded by a warren of beer halls. Famous for its dark lager.
- Prague Beer Museum (Vinohrady). Near the Náměstí Míru square and metro station. Well curated beer selection from across the Czech Republic
We walked across the Legion Bridge on this perfectly sunny day for some stunning views of the castle and St. Vitus overlooking the river, then carried on into the backstreets of Malá Strana. After our morning caffeine fix at Café Kafíčko, we cut through the crowds, ducked into the solitude of the Vojan Garden hidden away just beyond the bridge, and then continued on to the Wallenstein Garden with its grotto and carp-filled ponds. Our garden interlude behind us, we joined the river of humanity crossing Charles Bridge, magnificent despite the crowds, into the Old Town (Staré Město).
We’d been out and about now for a good four hours. Definitely pilsner time. We made for U Trí Růží (Three Roses) in Staré Město, which turned out to be a fortuitous choice. Many of the other places were packed full of tourists, but this place all but a hundred meters from the Charles Bridge was only about three-quarters full with a lively clientele by about 4:00 p.m. The building itself claims a brewing connection dating back to 1405 when a master brewer obtained brewing rights. Since then, the building has housed a printing press, among other things, before becoming a brewery yet again. Caricatures and cartoons depicting the history of brewing adorn the walls of this recently renovated tavern that still manages to retain a “traditional” feel. Lamps in the shape of hops round out the décor. If you’re feeling the serious need for some sort of vegetable (sometimes hard to come by on Central European menus), opt for the arugula and beet salad with goat cheese. As for the beers, you can’t go wrong with any of them. The medium full-bodied Vídeňské červené (Vienna Red) is a classic Viennese lager, the quaffable Tmavý special unleashes a torrent of malt flavours and aromas, and the American Hop Lager is a prime example of what skilled European brewers can do with American hops. Treat yourself to one of U Trí Růží‘s scrumptious desserts if you still have room.
Satiated, we headed to the main square in Staré Město, watched the Old Town Hall’s astronomical clock do its thing at 6:00 pm, and visited the Josefov District (a once-again thriving Jewish quarter that was decimated by the Nazis) before deciding it was time for another drink.
This time: the legendary U Fleků. Outside, the Pivovar U Fleků clock marks both time and the spot. Inside, a world-class beer garden benevolently shaded by chestnut trees welcomes visitors to the inner courtyard, a precinct packed with people sitting at long wooden tables atop a wooden-plank floor. Enclosing the beer garden on all four sides is a warren of dining rooms and beer halls with elaborate stained-glass arched windows, dark wood, vaulted ceilings, elaborate light fixtures casting soft cream-coloured light, and murals adorning the walls. Each of the eight rooms has its own history. Kufr (suitcase), the second-smallest hall, was the meeting place of Prague journalists in pre-war times. A portrait of Vít Skřemenec, U Fleků’s first brewer, graces the wall of the second-largest hall, the Rytířský sál (Knights’ Hall), which once served as a chapel and also as a malthouse. We opted for a table in the beer garden, amused ourselves listening to the table of rather inebriated folks behind us singing Czech folk songs, and soaked up the ambiance of one of the oldest establishments in Prague. U Fleků serves one beer, and one beer only: their standard-setting dark lager, a mahogany-hued chestnut-coloured beer with plenty of mocha aromas, pecan nuttiness, and richly textured but subtle cocoa/dark chocolate notes on the palate. And when you’re finished, the server plunks another one down in front of you faster than you can say U Fleků.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped off at the Prague Beer Museum in Vinohrady for a night-cap. Open since 2014, the dimly-lit rooms of this pub are remind me more of a brooding bohemian café than a tavern –– probably a cozy place to go on a cold night and read a book while sipping a dark and stormy beer. The selection of Czech craft beers and contemporary takes on old classics is well curated and the staff knowledgeable.
- Pivovar u Bulovky Richter Brewery. An epic ride out to Liben along the Tram 3. Their světlý ležák 12 was among the best Czech lagers we had.
- Pivnice u Černého Vola (The Black Ox). A traditional Prague watering hole in the Castle District. Timeless.
It was time for our history fix, so we caught a tram and a subway over to the Vyšehrad district, the spot where Prague sprung up. Atop the moat is a wooded park with gardens, ramparts with views north and south, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, and the Vyšehrad Cemetery, in which several Czech luminaries are buried, including the composers Dvorak and Smetana.
All the walking was starting to take its toll in the heat, so we decided to do what any good beer enthusiast would do in a similar situation: check out more pubs, this time in the Zizkov area. This wasn’t a bad idea on the surface of things. But then the Pivovar U Bulovky (Richter Brewery) caught my eye on a list of beers and breweries I had printed off for the trip to Prague. It wasn’t until we were well through Zizkov on the tram that I realized that Pivovar Bulovky was way out in Liben –– an epic Tram 3 ride to the northeast of the city. But good things come to those who have been roasted in vintage trams with no ventilation. Pivovar U Bulovky’s světlý ležák 12 was among the best Czech lagers that we had, and their well-crafted APA displayed a judicious use of hops that still gave off plenty of aroma to match the malt. Tasty goulash too, if you happen to be hungry after 15 km of walking and an epic tram ride.
We made our way back in the direction of the Petřín Hill funicular in Malá Strana for a leisurely early evening outing that redeemed the tram ride out to Liben. From Petřín Hill, we ambled over to the Strahov Monastery before stopping for liquid sustenance in the wonderful Pivnice u Černého Vola (Black Ox). This gem of a tavern filled up quickly on this warm evening with locals and tourists alike sitting down to beers at sturdy oak tables, the buzz of conversation gently reverberating under timeless timbered ceilings. A few beers at Černého Vola makes for the perfect prelude to the nearby Nový Svět neighbourhood, an atmospheric little quarter in the Castle District that has retained all of its late-medieval charm.
- Lod‘ Pivovar. A brewery and brewpub in a steamer anchored on the Old Town side of the Vlatava River. Stellar beers accompany food served with contemporary flare.
- Letná beer garden. A short hike up the banks of the Vlatava River and a beautiful view of the Old Town. One of Central Europe’s classic beer gardens, despite the plastic cups.
No trip to Prague is complete without a visit to the Castle District and the St. Vitus Cathedral. For the beer enthusiasts in the crowd, it’s also the perfect way to work up a prodigious thirst. Don’t despair at the lineups when you arrive after your trek up the hill. If you want to get past the dense crowds, splurge on the ticket that gets you into the cathedral. (Without a ticket, you can wander the precincts and enter St. Vitus, but you can’t walk around the whole cathedral.) Highlights of the long-tour tickets (350 CZK each) include:
- Vitus Cathedral: intricate stained glass windows, including one by Alphonse Mucha, whom we’ll meet again below.
- Basilica of St. George: a charming Romanesque basilica concealed by a striking brick-red Baroque façade.
- The Old Royal Palace: impressive late-Gothic dining hall (the Vladislav Hall); an interesting display on coats-of-arms and the history of law in Bohemia; the Bohemian Chancellery (pay close attention to the second room: it’s from this window that the Second Defenestration of Prague took place on 23 May 1618); and the Riders’ Staircase, designed in such a way as to admit a knight on horseback.
- The Story of Prague Castle: an informative if at times plodding city history museum that’s as much about the castle as it is about the history of Prague, the Czech Republic, and the intertwined history of the Habsburgs in Bohemia.
You’re probably pretty thirsty by now. If you head due north out of the castle precincts, you’ll come across a pleasant path that leads down from the castle through vineyards. From there, you can cross the Vlatava River in search of Lod‘ Pivovar (open since 2016), a pleasant brewpub in a steamer floating on the Vlatava. The space in the keel has been retrofitted tastefully with a brewhouse, fermenters, scrubbed wooden floors, and a seating area presided over by a motorcycle installed as a decoration. Our excellent duck paté with cherry compote, salad, and country bread went well with most of the beers we ordered, especially the darker ones. We had the Legie 10º, Remorkér 12º with Kazbek hops, Republika 12º (a well-crafted standard-strength lager), and the Monarchie 13º, a rich, smooth, intensely flavoured dark lager reminiscent of a porter. Bonus points for the uniqueness of the venue.
After lunch we set off in the direction of the Letná Beer Garden on the other side of the Vlatava in Holešovice. Hundreds of tables fan out under shimmering shade, a welcome respite after a day of taking in the sights. The beer garden is located in a wooded area atop a bluff, so you’ll work up a thirst climbing up to it from the river. You’ll be rewarded for your efforts with a view of the Old Town and the hills beyond to Vinohrady, especially if you score a front-row seat. (Note: there’s an easier way to get there that involves less walking. We didn’t take that route, so I can’t say much about it save for the fact that it exists.)
Back in the Old Town we got the tram to Pivovar Dům, a brewpub that looked so tempting when we walked by a few days previous. We had a sampler rack of coffee, banana, cherry, and nettle beers, all made with flavour extract, and all rather unpleasant, save for the nettle beer, which tasted okay but was a ghoulish green. At least the heavy food helped us sleep well.
- Lokál in Staré Město (Old Town). An airy tavern restaurant with a long row of rounded arches and white walls, with three tanks of beer in a glass case that serves as the bar.
Our final morning’s stroll along Wenceslas Square featured fine examples of Art Nouveau architecture, especially the Hotel Central and the Grand Hotel Europa. Amid the centuries of architectural history that line Prague’s boulevards and rise up over its narrow lanes, Art Nouveau has left a subtle but lasting mark on the city. If the latter half of the nineteenth century was the age of historicism in European architecture, the turn of the twentieth century ushered in an age of novel architecture and design. Art Nouveau (and aligned movements such as Jugendstil and Secessionism) took its inspiration from the curved lines of plants and flowers. At the same time, these innovative artists, architects, and designers introduced new methods and materials that sought to obscure the line between fine and applied arts. Artist and designer Alphonse Mucha (1860–1939) was one of the most prominent Czech members of the Art Nouveau movement. He painted the ceiling of the Municipal House, produced a stained glass window for the St. Vitus Cathedral, and left behind numerous works of graphic art housed in the Mucha Museum, our destination for the morning. You might even recognize one of his beer posters.
After our museum visit, we stopped in at Lokál, a lively and airy tavern restaurant with a long row of rounded arches and white walls. Three stainless steel tanks of beer surrounded by a sleek glass case serve as the bar. Try the carp dish (watch out for all those tiny bones), or go for the Svíčková, a dish similar to Sauerbraten. We capped off our meal and our stay in Prague with unpasteurized Pilsener Urquell and Kozel Černý (a dark lager) served oh-so-fresh from tanks delivered direct from the brewery. Back to Vienna we went, passing through rolling hills, industrial towns, and low-slung mountains before witnessing a beautiful end to the day, golden sunshine splashed across the green-gold fields and stands of trees in southern Bohemia and Lower Austria.
Related Tempest posts:
Images by F.D. Hofer.
© 2018 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.