Baroque palaces, cobbled squares and a round-the-clock pilsner moustache – it’s tempting to go with the flow in Prague, but swim against the tourist tide and you’ll surface in some far more intriguing places. Head to eight of Prague's hidden secrets, as chosen by Lonely Planet Magazine.
1. Upstairs cafes
Prague is well known for its grand cafes but raise your sights: the city’s most refined and atmospheric downtown cafes are all on the first floor, wondrously ignored by the visiting masses. The period interiors are stunning, the coffee unfailingly perfect and the smart clientele look like they’re discussing Milan Kundera or their latest ceramic collectable. There’s the Grand Café Orient above the Cubist Museum, decorated in such detailed sympathy even the cakes come garnished with an oddly angled wafer. The fin de siècle Café Louvre, perched over an entirely forgettable modern rival, was a favourite with Kafka and Einstein, and serves a fabled hot chocolate you can stand a spoon up in.
2. Squares, but not as you know them
To shun the gorgeous Old Town and Castle district would be an act of tourist perversity, but Prague’s story is a long one, and those gothic and Hapsburgian squares tell only a couple of chapters. Few cities blossomed so gloriously as did Prague in the 1910s, when entire new suburbs of magnificent art nouveau mansions were laid out all around the old city, and thankfully the legacy of those breathless years has survived. Lyckovo Square, in the rather sombre Karlin district, offers the best before and after overview. But for a more complete and exhilarating appraisal of Prague’s development since 1900, go to Jiřího z Poděbrad Square, which lies in the peculiar shadow of the asymmetric Soviet-built Žižkov TV Tower.
3. Contemporary art
A dozen gigantic babies now crawl along the Žižkov TV Tower, Prague’s most conspicuous structure; a life-sized Sigmund Freud hangs by one hand from a pole sticking out from a roof high above the Old Town; and in the garden behind a west-side art gallery stand a colossal pair of splayed legs – visitors climb a ladder, wedge their heads where the sun doesn’t shine and enjoy a video of Czech politicians feeding each other slops, as We Are the Champions thunders from a colon-mounted speaker.
Prague is a nation that downs more beer per head than any other, but it is possible to find establishments where quality is valued above quantity. Most of the big Czech brewers are now owned by multinationals, and their mass-produced output shares little with the dark ales and wheat beers consumed across the land until 1842, when a Bavarian brewmaster turned up to grant the townspeople of Pilsen the gift of bland and uniform lager. The old ways were repressed under the Soviets, but since the 1990s, a scattering of small-scale pub-breweries have opened across Prague, reacquainting locals with a multifaceted drink that can be sometimes nutty, sometimes sweet, and sometimes limb-flappingly potent.
5. Forget crystal, it's all about ceramics
No-one has more experience of working with ceramics than the Czechs: the oldest finds have incredibly been dated to 25,000 BC, predating all global rivals by well over 10,000 years. You can bag a souvenir that combines this unique tradition with the national fascination for the shocking and new at Qubus, a contemporary ceramics gallery round the back of the Old Town square. Sperm-shaped coffee spoons, a gold-glazed baroque clock fronted with a 1970s LED readout, willow-patterned porcelain wellies, a teacup the size of a punchbowl: everything on the shelves is either odd, mischievous or both, but always beautifully crafted.
6. We're only here for the...wine?
Don’t mention it to the young male visitors who arrive here in such thirsty droves, but as the city’s beverage of choice, beer is an upstart. Blessed with long, warm summers and girdled by south-facing hillsides, the residents of Prague have been quietly raising grapes with alcoholic intent for over 1,000 years. And although Czech wine can hardly boast a lofty global reputation, there’s no better place to find out what you’ve been missing than at Viniční Altan, an elaborately trellised low-rise pagoda set in the grounds of a grand 19th-century villa. The terrace offers spectacular views over the city across the steeply pitched vineyards; grapes literally cascade onto your table, granting an opportunity to sample both raw material and end product. It’s a world away from the downtown beer halls.
7. Czech dumplings: food of the gods
With its emphasis on beer-friendly stodge, traditional Czech cuisine presents a challenge to any imaginative chef – one that few high-end Prague kitchens have been prepared to accept. A delightful exception is La Dégustation Bohême Bourgeoise, whose 14-course tasting menu pays adventurous homage to classic national dishes. ‘All our recipes originate from a 19th-century book the manager found years ago in a junk shop,’ says chef de cuisine and co-owner Oldřich Sahajdák. ‘It’s some kind of housekeeping manual for new brides.’ This unlikely inspiration, with its faded pages now plastered with coloured Post-It marker strips, takes pride of place in manager Filip Trčka’s office.
8. Urban woodlands
Although it’s just a short tram ride from the centre, Divoká Šárka is made of far sterner stuff than your typical urban park. Divoká Šárka hosts a free open-air theatre in late summer, but that aside, locals and visitors come here in search of soft recreational options: plenty of uphill hiking, then a high dive into the reservoir. Don’t be fooled by the tamer-looking swimming pool across the gorge, which is stream-fed and thus shudder-inducing in any weather. The locals will tell you it is busiest in winter, when bathers have to break the ice with an elbow.
This article is reproduced from Lonely Planet Magazine, on sale now across the UK priced £3.60. Make sure you never miss an issue with a monthly subscription (available only to UK residents).