Prague Gets a Reset and the Emphasis Is Local

Prague was justifiably popular with visitors before the pandemic, but life here often felt slightly out of whack before 2020. As a small counterbalance to an immense tragedy, the pandemic offered the city a chance for a much-needed reset. Residents had time to rediscover sites and neighborhoods that they’d long since abandoned to tourists. The sudden lack of foreign guests forced restaurant owners to refocus on customers who actually live here. Historic attractions underwent renovations. And new projects that went ahead with openings in 2020 and 2021 have made the city even more fun than before.

As a result, Prague now feels like a place with less touristic gimcrackery and more local flavor. It also has a younger vibe than many visitors might expect, explains Jan Valenta, who blogs about local restaurants and offers food tours through his company, Taste of Prague.

“The biggest difference, I think, between a Western country like the U.S. and a post-communist country like us is the distribution of wealth among generations,” Mr. Valenta said. “The older generation here doesn’t have the money to spend in these restaurants that young people go to.”

Mr. Valenta, 44, notes that he defines young “very generously.” But by any definition, the city sports more youthful vibrancy than in previous years, which might account for the newfound popularity of public spaces, including the embankments along the Vltava River, as well as islands and parks.

“There’s more of a sense of community than there used to be five years ago,” Mr. Valenta said. “People are more willing to meet and spend time together outside. That’s a very new development, I think, and it’s great.”

The promenade on the Rašín embankment known as Náplavka gained new cafes, pop-up bars and other features during the pandemic.Credit…Lenka Grabicova for The New York Times

Some of those new spaces include Čapadlo, a scenic but overlooked spot on the Old Town embankment that debuted as an open-air concert venue and multipurpose hangout in mid-2021. Even attractions with a bit of history, like the popular promenade on the Rašín embankment known as Náplavka, gained new features during the pandemic, including new cafes and pop-up bars in the former ice-storage vaults in the retaining wall along the riverside walkway.

One of the most anticipated recent gallery openings took place in February: the Kunsthalle Praha exhibition space, which opened in a former electrical substation.Credit…Lenka Grabicova for The New York Times

A renewed culture

On the arts and culture front, the biggest debut took place in February, when the Kunsthalle Praha exhibition space opened in a former electrical substation near the foot of the castle steps. Both the National Museum and the State Opera re-emerged after their own renovations in 2020, while Salm Palace, an important National Gallery exhibition space at Prague Castle, reopened after reconstruction earlier this year; the current exhibition, Zenga — Japanese Zen Paintings from the Kaeru-An Collection, runs through October. Next up: Clam-Gallas Palace, a Baroque masterpiece across from the main public library in Old Town, which should reopen after a complete renovation later in 2022.

The National Museum is among the major art institutions that recently reopened.Credit…Lenka Grabicova for The New York Times

Less highbrow, but more immediate in terms of local memory: Retro Muzeum, an exhibition of everyday items from Czechoslovakia’s Normalization Era of the 1970s and 1980s, which opened inside Old Town’s Kotva department store earlier this year (adults, 220 koruny, or about $10). The commie-kitsch collection of clothing, furniture, interior design, packaging and collectibles fits perfectly with the setting, a renovated but still bizarre Brutalist building from 1975.

Barbecue, beer and bakeries

Most of the big new draws are in the world of food — and many are away from the central districts of Old Town and Malá Strana. That might sound daunting, but Prague’s metro and extensive tram network make crosstown travel easy, as Melissa Joulwan, a Prague resident and co-host of the Strong Sense of Place literary travel podcast, often tells visitors.

“People who are not used to public transportation might not understand that it’s so easy to get around, and places that might seem far away are really not far away at all,” she says. “It’s so much fun to look at the architecture in other neighborhoods — there’s always something beautiful or interesting to see.”

In the up-and-coming neighborhood of Holešovice, Big Smokers serves Austin,Texas-style barbecue.Credit…Lenka Grabicova for The New York Times

With a 72-hour ticket that costs 330 koruny, or a 30-minute ticket for 30 koruny, it’s easy to reach up-and-coming neighborhoods like Holešovice, where Big Smokers started serving its spot-on, Austin, Texas-style barbecue to a relaxed crowd at the end of 2019 (the Big Taste platter serves four kinds of smoked meat and four sides, enough for three diners, for 765 koruny), not far from a popular smashburger takeout window that opened under an unprintable name in 2021. Take another metro and in a few minutes you can check out the new arrivals in the once run-down Smíchov district, like the globe-spanning food court Manifesto Market. Its stylish Anděl branch opened in September 2021, shortly before it shuttered its original location near the Florenc metro station; highlights include tacos, Italian seafood sandwiches and Brazilian barbecue. Just around the corner is another 2021 arrival, Bon Ramen, the third outpost of a local micro-chain.

Even neighborhoods with an already enviable list of restaurants got some fun new arrivals. The Karlín district was already cool half a decade ago, but with the arrival of casual dining spots like 2021’s home-cooking-inspired Kro Bistro & Bar, serving rotisserie chicken, roasted cauliflower and housemade kimchi, it has only gotten cooler. The extensive development projects transforming the nearby embankment are ongoing, but they already host a handful of new cafes, bars and restaurants, like Ye’s Kafe Wine — a day cafe with great vino, housemade lemonades, creative brunch dishes, cakes and easy-sipping cocktails.

There are several branches of Antonínovo Pekařství (or “Antonin’s Bakery”) in Prague, where you can find local pastries. The newest is in the Smíchov neighborhood.Credit…Lenka Grabicova for The New York Times

One trend runs citywide: better bakeries and pastry shops. With the 2020 opening of its newest, sixth branch in Smíchov, it’s easy to find an Antonínovo Pekařství (or Antonin’s Bakery) in Prague, even if the name isn’t easy to pronounce; an espresso with a poppyseed-covered loupák roll or a gingerbread-like perník makes an ideal midafternoon pick-me-up.

There are now three branches of the Icelandic-owned Artic Bakehouse — a source for super-flaky almond croissants and Iceland’s cardamom-scented kleina pastries — including a Smíchov branch that opened in 2021. And you’ll find Cronut-style “crobliha” pastries, a cross between a Czech kobliha pastry and a French croissant (around 110 koruny), across the city at the four branches of Oh Deer Bakery, three of which opened in 2020 or later. More traditional sweets, including the small pies sometimes called kolache in English, can be found in the Vinohrady district at Kus Koláče, which launched in mid-2020 to rave reviews.

Because of social distancing and other public health restrictions, Prague’s famed drinking culture saw less growth than in previous eras. That said, a handful of important watering holes have opened, including this year’s grand reopening of the vintage-1912 American Bar inside the landmark Obecní Dům, or Municipal House, on Republic Square, after a long closure. Other new arrivals include Pult, a specialty beer bar focusing on expertly tapped, foam-capped Czech lagers, and Oh My Yalta, a cocktail bar run in partnership with the cult Czech distiller Martin Žufánek, maker of great absinthes, unusual fruit distillates and a treasured local gin known as OMG.

Where to lay your head

The recent cancellation of virtually all coronavirus restrictions and a severe, resident-pleasing reduction in short-term apartment rentals have only heightened the sense of a city in full bloom.

While a few hotels did close for good during the lockdown, they were outweighed by several beautiful new arrivals, like 2021’s Hotel Cube, a contemporary boutique hotel housed in a former cinema from the 1920s (in August, doubles start around 149 euros, or about $157). Famous for Viennese coffee and gourmet groceries, Austria’s Julius Meinl group opened its first Prague hotel, the Julius, this summer; many of the 168 rooms and suites have full kitchens or kitchenettes (in August, doubles start around 145 euros). On that same New Town square, Senovážné Náměstí, the Hyatt’s new Andaz Prague opened its 176 luxuriously appointed rooms earlier this year; the landmark neoclassical building, Cukrovarnický Palác, which the hotel translates as Sugar Palace, dates from 1916 (in August, doubles start around 342 euros).

That seems like enough to justify a visit. But to sweeten the deal, the city just launched a new tourist card, Prague Visitor Pass (1,800 koruny for a 48-hour version). In addition to unlimited travel on public transportation, it offers free entry to dozens of museums, galleries, gardens, towers and historic sites.

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