Bars in Prague go in and out of fashion with alarming speed, and trend spotters are forever flocking to the latest ‘in’ place only to desert it as soon as it becomes mainstream. The best areas to go looking for good drinking dens include Vinohrady, Žižkov, Karlín, Holešovice, the area south of Národní třída in Nové Město and the lanes around Old Town Square in Staré Město.
Even in these times of encroaching coffee culture, pivo (beer) remains the lifeblood of Prague. Many people drink at least one glass of beer every day – local nicknames for beer include tekutý chleb (liquid bread) and živá voda (life-giving water) – and it’s still possible to see people stopping off for a small glass of beer on their way to work in the morning. And come the evening, beer reigns supreme. There's nothing Praguers enjoy more than getting together in a local bar and swapping stories over a pivo or two. Or three…
There are two main varieties of beer: světlé (light) and tmavy or černé (dark). The světlé is a pale amber or golden lager-style beer with a crisp, refreshing, hoppy flavour. Dark beers are sweeter and more full-bodied, with a rich, malty or fruity flavour.
Czechs like their beer served at cellar temperature (around 6°C to 10°C) with a tall, creamy head (known as pěna, meaning 'foam'). Americans and Australians may find it a bit warm, but this improves the flavour. Most draught beer is sold in půl-litr (0.5L) glasses; if you prefer a small beer, ask for a malé pivo (0.3L). Some bars confuse the issue by using 0.4L glasses, while others offer a German-style 1L mug known as a tuplák.
Prague pubs traditionally offered just three beers on tap, all from one large brewery such as Pilsner Urquell; some pioneering bar owners added a čtvrtá pípa ('fourth pipe') to allow them to offer a rotating range of guest beers from various independent regional breweries. Many now have five, six or even more pipes.
One modern innovation that you will come across in many Prague pubs is the phenomenon of tankové pivo (tanked beer). Ordinarily beer goes stale through contact with oxygen in the air. Tanked beer is delivered in sterile plastic bags that are stored in chilled stainless steel tanks (often in plain view in the pub). Compressed air forced between the tank and the bag forces the beer through the tap without it having to come into contact with oxygen, a system that allows pubs to serve fresh, unpasteurised beer (vastly superior in flavour to the more common, heat-treated keg beer) without the problem of it going stale.
While big multinational brewing companies have been busy taking over traditional Czech breweries, a growing number of enthusiasts have been setting up microbreweries that stay true to the origins of Bohemian beer, serving tasty, unpasteurised brews in atmospheric brewery pubs.
There are now more than a dozen in Prague, and around 350 throughout the Czech Republic. Here are six of the best in the capital:
U Tří růží In the 19th century there were more than 20 breweries in Prague's Old Town, but by 1989 there was only one left (U Medvidku). The Three Roses brewpub, on the site of one of those early breweries, helps revive the tradition, offering six beers on tap.
Klášterní pivovar Strahov Dominated by two polished copper brewing kettles, this convivial little pub serves up two varieties of its St Norbert beer – tmavý (dark), a rich, tarry brew with a creamy head, and polotmavý (amber), a full-bodied, hoppy lager.
Vinohradský Pivovar This popular and highly recommended neighbourhood pub and restaurant offers its own home-brewed lagers as well as a well-regarded IPA.
Pivovar U Bulovky Opened in 2004, this is a genuine neighbourhood bar out in the suburbs, a homey wood-panelled room with quirky metalwork, much of it home-built by the owner.
Pivovarský dům While the tourists flock to U Fleků, locals gather here to sample the classic Czech lager (in light, dark and mixed varieties) that is produced on the premises, as well as wheat beer and a range of flavoured beers.
U Medvídků The most micro of Prague’s microbreweries, with a capacity of only 250L, U Medvídků started producing its own beer only in 2005, though its beer hall has been around for many years.
There’s an etiquette to be observed if you want to sample the atmosphere in a traditional hospoda (pub) without drawing disapproving stares from the regulars. First off, don’t barge in and start rearranging chairs – if you want to share a table or take a spare seat, first ask ‘je tu volno?’ (is this free?). It’s normal practice in crowded Czech pubs to share tables with strangers.
Take a beer mat from the rack and place it in front of you, and wait for the bar staff to come to you; waving for service is guaranteed to get you ignored. When the waiter approaches, just raise your thumb for one beer, thumb and index finger for two etc – it’s automatically assumed that you’re here for the beer. Even just a nod will do. The waiter will keep track of your order by marking a slip of paper that stays on your table; whatever you do, don’t write on it or lose it (you’ll have to pay a fine if you do).
As soon as the level of beer in your glass falls to within a couple of centimetres of the bottom, the eagle-eyed waiter will be on their way with another. But never, as people often do in Britain, pour the dregs of the old glass into the new – this is considered to be deeply uncivilised behaviour.
If you don’t want any more beer brought to your table, place a beer mat on top of your glass. When you want to pay up and go, get the waiter’s attention and say ‘zaplatím’ (I’ll pay). They will total up the marks on your slip of paper, and you pay there, at the table.
Grapes have been grown in the Czech lands since the 14th century, when Charles IV imported vines from Burgundy; their descendants are still thriving on the slopes beneath Mělník Chateau.
The standard of Czech wine has soared since the fall of communism, as small producers have concentrated on the quality end of the market. Although Czech red wines – such as the South Moravian speciality Svatovavřinecké (St Lawrence) – are mostly pretty average, Czech whites can be very good indeed. The varieties to look out for are Veltinské zelené (Grüner Veltlin), Rýnský ryzlink (riesling) and Müller-Thurgau. Tanzberg and Sonberk are both excellent winemakers.
For about three weeks each year, from the end of September to mid-October, you will see shops and street stalls selling burčak. This is ‘young wine’, freshly extracted grape juice in the early stages of fermentation. It is cloudy yellow in appearance and innocently sweet in flavour, more like a soft drink than a wine. But beware – it contains 5% to 8% alcohol.
Later in the year, as winter sets in, you’ll notice the svařák stalls appearing in the streets. Short for svařené vino (mulled wine), svařák is red wine heated and flavoured with sugar and spices.
Cellarius is the place to head if you’re looking for Czech and imported wines.
Probably the most distinctive of Czech lihoviny (spirits) is Becherovka. Produced in the West Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary, famous for its 12 sulphurous, thermal springs, the bitter, herbal liqueur is often served as an aperitif, and is increasingly used as an ingredient in cocktails.
The fiery and potent slivovice (plum brandy) is said to have originated in Moravia, where the best brands still come from. The best commercially produced slivovice is R Jelínek from Vizovice. Other regional spirits include meruňkovice (apricot brandy) and juniper-flavoured borovička.
The deadliest locally produced spirit is absinthe. While it’s banned in many countries, in part because of its high alcohol content, absinthe is legal in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, connoisseurs of absinthe consider Hill's absinthe – the biggest-selling brand of Czech-made absinthe – little better than highly alcoholic mouthwash. However, it does form the basis of an evil cocktail that was popular among clubbers some years back – the H-Bomb (Hill's mixed with Semtex, a Czech brand of energy drink).
Prague’s club scene is nothing to rave about. With few exceptions, the city’s dance clubs cater to crowds of partying teenagers and tourists weaned on MTV Europe – if you want to dance to anything other than '80s hits or happy house, you’ll have to look long and hard. Prague’s main strengths are its alternative music clubs, DJ bars, and ‘experimental’ venues such as Palác Akropolis and the Roxy.
Refreshingly, dress codes don’t seem to have reached Prague yet, and it’s unlikely you’ll be knocked back anywhere unless you’re stark naked. And there are even a few places that would probably be OK with that…
Check out www.prague.tv, www.techno.cz/party or www.hip-hop.cz for up-to-date club listings (the latter two are in Czech, but you can work out what’s going on).
Need to Know
Most bars are open from 11am until midnight, though many stay open until 1am or later, especially on Friday and Saturday nights.
The price of a half-litre of draught beer varies enormously, from around 28Kč to 45Kč in pubs catering mainly to local drinkers, to an eye-watering 100Kč and up at outdoor tables in the tourist-thronged Old Town Square. Most tourist-oriented bars in the city centre charge between 45Kč and 85Kč.
Cocktails in the city centre range from 150Kč to 300Kč, depending on the quality of the ingredients and the fanciness of the surroundings, while good-quality Czech wine in a specialist wine bar will cost from 400Kč to 800Kč a bottle.
Normal practice is to round up the bill to the next 10Kč (or the next 20Kč if it’s over 200Kč). Change is usually counted out starting with the big notes, then on down to the smallest coins. If you say děkuji (thank you) during this process, the bartender will stop and assume that the rest is a tip.