If you go to Prague, be sure to get off the beaten path.
Cross the river, take the underground, go to the other side of town, and explore.
Sure, you should see the tourist attractions, too. See the astronomical clock, go to the castle, walk along the King Charles Bridge. But sooner or later, you’ll realize this isn’t the real Prague – those tour guides with their yellow umbrellas, the waiters standing outside restaurants, waving for you to come in, the museums and gift shops and street artists are just predators, preying on tourists, milking them of the money which keeps the city alive. It’s a sort of Disneyland, enthralling visitors with its fairy tale towers and cobblestone streets. The historical buildings, the colorful winding streets, the costumed performers, they all do such a good job re-enacting Prague in the middle ages (or 19th century, or 20th century, or take your pick), that many visitors never get to see what Prague in the 21st century is like.
The first time I went to Prague, I checked the tourist stuff off the list. The Old Town Square with its highly-overrated anematronic clock, the castle, the restaurants. I returned nearly seven years later (has it been that long?) with a different purpose to the trip: to visit friends – or, more specifically, a former lover. I wound up seeing a new side of the city, and gaining a new appreciation for it.
Matty and me
Matty and I dated the spring of 2017, when I was in that sweet spot of being between my studies and my first full-time job. I had finished my classes, turned in my master’s thesis, and was working a couple of student jobs to get by. Matty was living in Berlin, having moved there to pursue a photography internship, and we had a short but intense time together, commuting between Hamburg and Berlin to visit each other on our long weekends, which were frequent as we both worked part-time. Our affair ended before the summer did, as he decided to move back to the U.S. to work on his application for a master’s degree in photography – in Prague.
Prague city center: It could be any city in Europe
Upon arrival in Prague, I emerged from the depths of the underground to find myself on a major shopping street which could have belonged to any city in Europe. Clothing stores, jewelry stores, familiar brands with unfamiliar products, the smooth gray pedestrian street lined with glass storefront windows, the street lights, the people – the only hint that I was in Prague were the occasional signs in Czech and the outrageous prices, as the exchange rate was about 25 Czech crowns to the Euro (or about 22.5 crowns to the dollar).
The best public transportation system in Europe
I met up with Matty and we took a tram back to his place so I could set my things down, a beautiful spacious apartment in the hip neighborhood of Letná where he lived with his girlfriend and two other students. The journey was short, less than 20 minutes, though we were well outside of the city center. Matty asked if I wanted to change trams or walk the last leg.
“How far is it to walk?” I asked.
“About seven minutes,” he replied.
I laughed. Living in Hamburg, it was unthinkable for me to take the public transit for a distance that was walkable in seven minutes. In many places in Hamburg, you have to walk more than seven minutes to get to the nearest bus or train station.
“Oh yeah, that’s one of like the best things about Prague. We secretly have like the best public transportation system in Europe,” Matty said.
Park Letná and seeing the city from above
Matty and I spent some time walking around Park Letná before it got dark. The park had a beautiful view overlooking the city, the river Vltava, and all of its bridges. One of my favorite things to do is to see cities from above, and I spent a lot of time just taking in the view.
The park holds a large sculpture of a metronome, which was installed to replace an unpopular statue of Stalin which stood there earlier. It’s also the park where delinquent teenagers come to loiter, skateboard, and smoke weed. The park also has a playground, a beer garden, and some gardens. Had the weather been a little warmer, it would have been a lovely place to spend the day.
Vegan restaurants and queer bars: the alternative side to Prague
Traditional Czech food, Matty and Bella told me, usually consists of a big hunk of meat, starchy potatoes or boiled-to-death vegetables, and some sort of brown sauce or gravy. As we were two vegetarians and a vegan, this didn’t hold much appeal. We skipped the “authentic” and “Czech” restaurants in the city center, with their chalkboard signs and English-language menus, and went instead to what is most likely the only vegan restaurant in Prague: Plevel, in the neighborhood of Vršovice on a street called Krymská.
The journey there took about 40 minutes and we had to change twice – quite the trip, by Prague standards.
The restaurant was a charming two-story affair with dim lights, low ceilings, and peeling wallpaper, a design choice which was so ugly it was somehow adorable. We enjoyed Czech beer, vegan interpretations of traditional Czech dishes, and a vegan cheesecake which was anything but traditional or Czech.
Afterwards, we went down the street to a cocktail bar called Boudoir, in the neighborhood of Vinohrady. We enjoyed craft cocktails in cramped quarters with what looked like a bunch of students. At any rate, it’s not often that I (at 26) walk into a cocktail bar and feel like I’m one of the oldest ones there. We stayed up until the heavy food and the alcohol caught up to us, at which point we went home and went to bed.
Yoga in Prague
As it were, my friends’ apartment was literally on top of a yoga studio, and they had classes in English. I woke up early Saturday morning and went to the reception 15 minutes before the first class of the day was to start, and asked if they still had space free. They didn’t, but the teacher was kind enough to let us participate anyway, so we squeezed into the corners in the very front and back of the room.
As it were, this was no yoga for beginners. I’ve been practicing yoga for around five years, and I struggled to keep up. Chair pose, crow pose, arm balances, side crow – then once again chaturanga-vinyasa, and don’t forget to breathe. Before long, I was out of breath and sweaty, and my arms felt like jelly. After that, I hurt for three days. It was amazing. If anybody knows of a yoga studio in Hamburg that will make you sweat like that, please give me a recommendation – I’ve been struggling to find classes above beginner-intermediate level here.
Prague: where East meets West
Prague is truly a city where East meets West. I know that title is usually given to Istanbul, and maybe Istanbul is the dividing line in southern Europe. But in central Europe, Prague has elements that are extremely western Europe, but also extremely eastern Europe. Though the city center of Prague is extremely western, with its shopping streets, souvenir shops, and kiosks, as soon as you travel to other places in Prague, the dingy block buildings, laundry hanging on lines, and faded, gray streets give it a distinctly Soviet vibe. Interestingly, I also noticed slightly more eastern European fashions in the shopping areas: The heels were higher, the lipstick was brighter, and more women were wearing bright colors and fashionable clothing than in Germany.
While western Europeans typically consider the Czech Republic to be part of eastern Europe, Czech people will firmly tell you it is central Europe, a category all on its own. Ruled by the Germans and then the Russians at different times in the last century, Czech people assimilated to neither culture, firmly maintaining their national identity, but in a different way than the arrogant powerhouses of Germany and the U.S. Czech national identity is an odd mixture of pessimism and pride – pride because they know their city is beautiful, they love their culture, and they have a good quality of life, but pessimism in the form of a fatalistic humor, of accepting and being able to joke about the fact that their country is vulnerable and weak, a reflection of its 100-year history of being controlled by the world’s superpowers and a failed revolution.
The Sauna Spot in Prague
Matty and I took an excursion to a sauna in Prague called Sauna Spot Dvorce. After my horrifying first German sauna experience, I was feeling rather like an expert in sauna etiquette. The sauna we went to was much smaller than the one I’d been to in Hamburg, but it was still very nice. It had saunas with different temperatures and humidity levels, plunge pools for a cold shock post-sauna, lounge chairs with blankets for relaxing, and plenty of showers.
I noticed some minor etiquette differences between Czech and German saunas: In Prague, nearly everybody was barefoot, save for us as we’d bought slippers to wear. In Germany, people wear sandals at all times. In Prague, we were given both a towel and a sheet to cover up with, and most of the Czech people seemed concerned about staying covered up, even inside the sauna. In Germany, people only bring a towel into the sauna, and usually choose to sit or lay on top of it rather than stay covered up by it. Germans will, however, sometimes bring a bathrobe for walking around between areas or for lounging between saunas, but it’s not uncommon to see sauna guests walking around naked with their towel in their hand. The Czech, by comparison, were a bit more modest.
The experience was relaxing and refreshing, and I wish we could have stayed longer.
The best pizza in Prague
Though the plan was to cook dinner at the flat, we passed by an Italian restaurant which looked too good to pass up: Da Antonio Pizzeria Napoletana, back in our neighborhood of Letná . It was shockingly authentic – so much so that the host who seated us didn’t speak English, so another waitress had to take over when we placed our order. We ordered pizzas with thick crusts, gooey cheese, and fresh toppings.
“It’s definitely the best pizza I’ve had in Prague,” said Matty.
The Prague Burlesque Festival
Finally, it was time for the evening I’d been most looking forward to: the Prague Burlesque Festival. After pizza, we hastily changed our clothes and slammed gin and tonic before heading over to the Royal Theatre. As the name suggested, it was a beautiful, regal location, holding plenty of grand staircases, velvet curtains, and finely-dressed people. I ordered us Hendricks & Tonic with cucumber and we took our back-of-house seats.
The Prague Burlesque Festival consisted largely of dance, acrobatics, costumes, and tricks, with the striptease element coming in secondary. I recognized some performers from the Hamburg and Berlin Burlesque Festivals of years gone by. Some acts which stood out were
I also recognized the Dutch performer Michiel Tange van Leeuwen, who I’d photographed for the online magazine Jutland Station when he performed at a neo-burlesque event in 2014 in Aarhus, Denmark. This time he appeared wearing stilts. After the show, when the audience got the chance to go onstage and meet and greet the performers, I excitedly told him about that time we’d met in Aarhus. “I remember,” he said, in such a way that told me he did not.
The MCs, unfortunately, were some of the worst I’d ever seen. They did little more than look pretty and chatter with each other, barely taking the time to introduce the performers before each act. Sometimes they even ran out of things to say before the stage kittens had even finished clearing the stage. The lackluster MCs and a group of belligerent British tourists were definitely the lowlights of the night.
During the intermission, I met a nice girl waiting in line for the toilets who we wound up hanging out with the rest of the night. She was there by herself, and had been invited because she was friends with one of the performers. I’ve forgotten her name and where she was from by now, but it was fun.
The after-show party for the Burlesque Festival took place at Bar and Books, a nearby New York-style bar and lounge with leather seats and a tiny stage. We arrived nearly an hour after the burlesque show had ended, and the place was empty. I started getting weird vibes, thinking we were at the wrong place, but it slowly filled up with people who we recognized from the show. Not that we were in any state to enjoy it by that point – Matty and I were I-don’t-know-how-many drinks in and, during the lack of commotion as we waited for the party to start, started talking about personal topics as only drunken ex-lovers can. We spent the rest of the night in our own world, crying, shouting, hugging, laughing, talking about what was and what might have been and why things were the way they were, finally stumbling home around 4 in the morning.
We did not go to yoga the next day.
Bumps in the road
My final day in Prague was spent recovering from my final night in Prague. In the morning I got a text that my flight had been canceled and I’d been bumpted to a flight later in the evening, and when I got to the airport in the evening I found out that that flight had been canceled, too. Realizing I wasn’t going to get back to Hamburg in time for work on Monday either way, I decided to milk it for all it was worth. Rather than go back to Matty’s, I asked gave the Eurowings attendant my best Kindly Brontosaurus and asked if she could help me reserve a hotel room. In the end I got an overnight stay in an airport hotel, food vouchers, taxi transfers, and a direct flight at 11am the next day. (They tried to put me on a 7am flight with one stop between, but I asked if there was a direct connection available and they obliged).
The food vouchers, it turns out, were only valid inside the airport, and most of the shops and restaurants were closed. I was really in the mood for a relaxing, sit-down meal and a glass of wine, so I skipped Subway and followed the signs that said “Restaurant.”
The “Restaurant,” located on the upper floor of the airport, turned out to be a worker’s cafeteria. Off-duty security guards were eating late dinners off of plastic trays in a near-deserted lunchroom. I was surprised and a bit disappointed, but I decided to view this experience as part of the travel experience and an adventure, so I tried to make the most of it.
As my food voucher was for a generous 330 crowns – nearly €13 – I took advantage of it, piling a heaping bowl of salad and a large slice of cake onto my tray. The main courses consisted mainly of Czech meat, potatoes, and gravy dishes. I went with the only vegetarian option, a rather plain pasta dish.
Eating at that worker’s canteen reminded me again of the Eastern European elements of Prague. Sharing a late-night meal with those off-duty guards made me feel like a true comrade. Okay, so probably it was all in my head – I was a lost tourist with a food voucher, not a Soviet worker standing in solidarity – but to me it felt like an authentic experience, and somehow completed the trip.
If you go to Prague
So if you go to Prague, get off the beaten path. Travel outside the center, visit a park, and see the city from above. Check out the vegan restaurants and queer bars and burlesque shows, but also the saunas and the cafeterias and the kiosks. It may not be “traditional Czech,” but it’s real, and it’s Prague, and it’s the 21st century – not some Disneyland version the street vendors want to sell you. Take a chance to see the other side of Prague. You won’t be disappointed.