What to do in Prague and the Czech Republic

There are many good guidebooks on Prague. Here I want to summarize some of the information that may not be that obvious or where I have a personal preference.
  1. Useful links
  2. Transportation in Prague
  3. Restaurants and pubs - those with Czech cuisine
  4. What to taste - both food and drink
  5. Day trips outside Prague - both taking a tour or public transport

Before I start, let me provide links to other useful webpages.

Transportation in Prague

Cabs are Prague's biggest disgrace. Cab drivers frequently severely overcharge tourists, fix the meters, take deliberate detours and can be pretty rude. There are cab companies that care about reputation but you should be really careful whom you choose. The situation is improving but only very slowly.

Fortunately, Prague has an excellent public transportation system. The network is dense, connections frequent and on time. The subway, trams and buses run 5am to midnight, with night trams and buses serving the main lines.

A single ride ticket costs 32 CZK (as of 2012) and is valid anywhere for 90 minutes since validation (you must validate the ticket!). A good option may be a one-day or three-day ticket. Here is a simple table with fares.

Getting from the airport

The situation with cabs at the airport is better than downtown. A cab ride downtown should cost around 500 CZK.

You can also use the bus within the public transportation system (the standard 32 CZK fare applies) that gets you to the nearest subway station.

Restaurants and pubs

There are abundant restaurants and pubs in downtown Prague, unfortunately many of them are typical tourist traps. If you choose randomly, there is a good chance that you end up disappointed or overpaying.

I will only focus here on Czech cuisine or Czech pubs. There are certainly other good restaurants but this is probably not why you came to Prague.

One thing to remember - nonsmoking restaurants are still not the rule. Sorry.

  • Café Imperial - webpage and map - Na Poříčí 15, close to Obecní dům, main courses 200-350 CZK, pricier but very stylish, show up for a good breakfast, lunch, dinner or just coffee and dessert. Certainly recommended.
  • U Modré Kachničky II. - webpage and map - Michalská 16, in the pedestrian zone between Václavské náměstí and Old Town Square, main courses 400-600 CZK, fine dining, duck and wild game specialties. As good as it gets in Prague with fine Czech cuisine. There is also another branch of the same restaurant in the Lesser Town (left bank of the river) near Charles Bridge at Nebovidská 6 (map)
  • U Pivrnce - webpage and map - Maiselova 3, off the Old Town Square, main courses 100-250 CZK - very traditional Czech pub and restaurant, informal, very good prices without fancy service, get a seat in the cellar, and have one of the Czech specialties, or even better a couple of beers with utopenec, nakládaný hermelín or tlačenka (see below)
  • U Pinkasů - webpage and map - Jungmannovo náměstí 3, off Václavské náměstí, main courses 150-350 CZK - well-known, with more expensive beer, a little fancier
  • U Staré pošty - webpage and map - Opletalova 17, off Václavské náměstí, main courses 100-150 CZK, cheap lunch menus - waiters are certainly quite rude according to U.S. (and maybe even Czech) standards, but they have very good guláš and svíčková for very low prices. Around the corner from CERGE-EI.
  • Ferdinanda - webpage and map - Politických vězňů 19, off Václavské náměstí, main courses 150-200 CZK, try the guláš with their specialty beer. Around the corner from CERGE-EI.
  • U Balbínů - webpage and map - Jungmannova 22, near Václavské náměstí, main courses 130-230 CZK (I think only after 3pm), reasonable lunch menus (before 3pm). A broad variety of Czech specialties.

Cafés and winebars

  • Café Bar Platýz - webpage and map - Národní 37, between Václavské náměstí and the National Theatre, you have to walk into the passage
  • Kavárna (Café) Dobrá Trafika - webpage and map - Újezd 37, near the funicular station to Petřín. Very homely and friendly environment, get a coffee and some of the home-made pastries, and then get on the funicular to Petřín (or walk up through the park) to get the panoramic view of the downtown and Prague Castle.
  • Wine bar U sudu - webpage and map - Vodičkova 10, between Václavské náměstí and Karlovo náměstí, a famous wine bar (used to be one of our favorite late night places, got a bit pricier since). Large underground cellars with amazing vaults, go downstairs and have some cask wine or beer.

What to taste

A Czech lunch typically consists of a soup and a main course. We are not much of an appetizer or salad nation but you can sometimes get for instance small portions of charcuterie to start with (I would go with a soup as the appetizer).

What goes well with beer

This is important. When you go to a pub like U Pivrnce and you want to have a beer or two (or more), it's always good to eat something small (and Czechs do that abundantly). These typically include cold-served meats and pickled stuff. Notice that these things are typically pickled, so they go very well with beer but not as an appetizer before a main course.

  • Tlačenka - traditional head cheese made of pork meat and other parts, served with vinegar, onions and bread
  • Utopenec - pickled bratwurst, marinated with bayleaf, chillies, black pepper and onions, served with bread
  • Nakládaný hermelín - pickled brie served with bread
  • Olomoucké syrečky - ripened cheese from the Moravia region, very smelly, for real connoisseurs

Soups

  • Zelňačka - sauerkraut soup, often with sausage
  • Bramboračka - potato soup with mushrooms, spiced with marjoran and garlic
  • Polévka s játrovými knedlíčky - soup with liver dumplings
  • Dršťková - tripe soup (tripe is arguably an acquired taste)

Main courses

  • Knedlo, vepřo, zelo - roast pork with (potato or bread) dumplings and sauerkrat - it doesn't get more traditional than that. The name is an abbreviation that means 'dumplings, pork, kraut'.
  • Svíčková (svíčková na smetaně) - marinated beef sirloin with a typical creamy sauce and bread dumplings. Although 'svíčková' literally means sirloin, it is typically made from cheaper beef, cooked until soft.
  • Duck or rabbit - both belong to traditional Czech cuisine and are available in many restaurants
  • Guláš (goulash) - a stew heavily spiced with paprika. It is more of a Hungarian dish but still very popular in the Czech Republic.
  • Halušky - the Slovak national dish. These are soft potato-doughh noodles, served with bryndza (traditional Slovak soft cheese) and bacon.
  • Fish - the traditional Czech fish is carp (most traditional Christmas Eve meal) but people sometimes don't like the taste. Trout is the other option.
  • Smažený sýr (or simply smažák) - fried cheese (either edam-type or hermelín (brie)). The most typical vegetarian dish, also served in a bun as fast-food.
  • Fruit dumplings - small cooked balls of dough filled with fruits, served with tvaroh (soft unaged cheese), melter butter and sugar.

Sides

  • Dumplings - the most traditional Czech side dish. They are cooked in loafs and served in slices. There are two basic types - potato dumpling made of potato dough, and bread dumplings with dough mixed with bread pieces (sometimes just flour).
  • Bramboráky - potato pancakes, spiced with marjoran and garlic. Can be eaten as a side, or purchased as snack, or filled with meat.

Drinks

  • Beer - of course! Beer is often the cheapest beverage that you can get in restaurants, cheaper than sodas or even water (certainly per unit of volume). Czechs are very conservative with beer, so they essentially drink only lager (the word 'pilsner' comes from the name of the town Pilsen), sometimes dark-colored (černé pivo). Brands are numerous - Pilsner Urquell and Budvar (the truly original Budweiser, sold as Czechvar in the U.S.) are the internationally famous brands, others I like include Krušovice, Kozel, Klášter, Radegast, Ježek, Starobrno or Bernard. Many Czechs are almost militant drinkers of only particular brands of beer.
  • Becherovka - traditional Czech herb liquor, with bitter-sweet taste of anise, cinnamon and other herbs, smooth (nothing like the very bitter Jägermeister)
  • Slivovice (slivovitz) - plum brandy, often distilled at home. The commonly sold types have 40% alcohol content, the home-produced ones typically 50-60%. Many other types of fruit brandies are made at home as well.
  • Fernet - fernet is of course the bitter Italian herb liquor but it is now popular in two countries - Argentina, where it was brought by Italian immigrants, and Czech Republic because the Czechs bought a license from the Italians a century ago (many Czechs think fernet is of Czech origin)
  • Kofola - a soft drink that is a direct (and very serious) competitor of Coke. Popular during the communist time, it disappeared after the Velvet Revolution and was revived later. Try it, it's much better than Coke.

Day trips outside Prague

You will find plenty of offers for half-day or day trips to other places in the Czech Republic. I try to provide here ways how you can get around using public transportation.

Karlštejn

Karlštejn is the most famous Czech castle, originally built by Karel IV (Charles IV) in the 14th century, with the most recent neogothic renovation from the end of the 19th century.

There are 1-2 direct trains every hour from the main train station to the village of Karlštejn. The train takes about 40 minutes, and it is about 1.6 km (somewhat uphill) walk from the train station to the castle itself.

If you are into walking, you can take the very well signposted tourist trail from the castle through the woods to the abandoned quarry Velká Amerika (4 km one way).

Konopiště

Konopiště is another famous castle with a very nice park, originally from the 13th century, and the last residence of Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

There are both buses and trains to the town Benešov. Direct trains from the main train station in Prague take about 40-60 minutes and run at least every hour. From the train station in Benešov, it is a 2 km walk to the castle, mainly through the parks surrounding the castle.

Křivoklát

Křivoklát is a 12th century castle in a narrow valley west of Prague. It is somewhat more remote and less touristy. Although it also underwent a renovation in the 19th century, it has a more medieval feel.

In order to get there, you will need to take the train to the village of Křivoklát, which is right at the castle. There are no direct trains - you will need to take a train to Beroun first, and then to Křivoklát from there. The whole trip from the main train station in Prague takes about 1 hour 45 minutes.

If you are into walking, you can do a 20 km hike through the woods (again perfectly sign-posted) to the village of Lány.

Kutná Hora

Kutná Hora is an old silver mining town to the east of Prague that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, with famous Gothic church of St. Barbara.

There are frequent buses from the main bus station (Florenc) in Prague (about 90 minutes travel time), and a train every two hours (about 50 minutes travel time).

Český Krumlov

Český Krumlov is a town in the south of Bohemia and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is very popular with tourists, with a beautiful location and preserved architecture. You can get to Český Krumlov with many agencies offering day trips.

If you want to do the trip on your own, there are direct buses (at least on weekdays) that take about 3 hours. You can take the train but you must change trains in České Budějovice. It is possible to do the trip in one day but you will have to take something like a 7 am bus from Prague. As of June 2012, the travel agency Student Agency runs comfortable daily buses that leave Prague at 7am (not from the main bus station!), with the latest return bus from Český Krumlov at 7 pm (200 CZK one-way, and you can book the tickets through their webpage or in their office in downtown Prague).

Karlovy Vary

Karlovy is a well-known spa resort in the west of the Czech Republic, near the border with Germany. There are other smaller spa resorts in that area as well but Karlovy Vary is most easily accessible by public transport.

There are frequent buses (2 hours 15 minutes from the main bus station) and also trains (3 hours 15 minutes). Karlovy Vary is also a popular destination with organized day trips that you can purchase anywhere in Prague.

Terezín

Terezín is a town north of Prague and the location of the Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp.

Buses run roughly hourly from the bus station at the Nádraží Holešovice subway station. The trip takes less than an hour.