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,” Valenta said. “The older generation here doesn’t have the money to spend in these restaurants that young people go to.”
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,” 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.”
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.
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 reemerged after their own renovations in 2020, while Salm Palace, an important National Gallery exhibition space at Prague Castle, reopened after reconstruction this year; the current exhibition, “Zenga — Japanese Zen Paintings from the Kaeru-An Collection,” runs through October.
Barbecue 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.”
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.
One trend runs citywide: better bakeries and pastry shops.
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 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 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. — NYT