I don’t remember much about my first visit to Prague. I was drunk most of the time and chasing after men. Not much has changed, admittedly, but this trip to Prague occurred right after Oktoberfest and so the drinking slacked off considerably. (Not entirely. Do you even know how cheap Pilsners are in Prague?)
Instead, me and Cailin O’Neil devoted our time to eating, and with great enthusiasm. Prague is a gloriously cheap city but its cheapness doesn’t mean low quality. If you stray from the main square, you’ll dine with the locals and at local prices. We made the mistake one Sunday afternoon of grabbing a beer in the square so we could sit back and watch the hordes of tourists stream by. Most of them were seniors – presumably all the youngsters were still in bed, hungover. A pint cost us each 100 CZK (the equivalent of 5CAD), but you should never pay more than 70 CZK for a beer. The average is around 60.
Anyway, while we did a great deal of exploration on our own, we also set out on a walking tour with Eating Prague. The Czech Republic has never really been known for its food offerings. There are many misconceptions about Eastern European countries in general – they’re all about meat-and-potatoes, heavy stews, goulash, etc. (First of all, I don’t want to live in a world without meat and potatoes.) Berlin is literally just shaking a similar reputation, despite being one of the most multicultural cities in the world.
But there are TONS of good food options in the Czech Republic, and especially in Prague. Seriously. Prague is a maze – the kind of place you can wander and get lost in, joyfully. What looks like a furniture shop might actually be a beloved café selling warm bread and yogurt cheese balls.
No really, this happened.
The food scene in Prague especially tends to be as quirky as the city itself.
The Saturday Market
The farmer’s market runs along the Vltava River on the weekends. Cailin and I visited one Saturday morning. It’s a small market, without a huge variety of foods to offer, but you’ll find a lot of local goods and products. We mostly just browsed and then opted for the toast spread with a pesto butter. Probably one of the stranger dishes I’ve had, but still delicious.
The Christmas Carp
I learned about the Christmas carp from my tour guide, Jan. Apparently instead the ‘ol turkey dinner, Czech people opt for a carp on December 24th. Like, the fish. Yes.
A few weeks before Christmas, fishermen will start turning up on every street corning selling their carps. Most people tend to have their carp prepped and stored until dining time, but other families take their Christmas carps home with them and let them live in their bathtubs for up to five days. Then they’re served up for the whole family. Et voila!
I don’t know why this is so hilarious to me. What happens to hygiene during those five days? Please someone else share the humour.
Pastries and Sweets
Gingerbread is a particularly popular dessert in the Czech Republic. I’ve honestly never been a huge fan of gingerbread unless it’s fresh out of the oven, still warm and moist. (Moist! Haha! I bet half of you are cringing!) But there’s an adorable shop in Prague known as The Gingerbread Man where you should go even if you’re not a gingerbread fan.
Did I just make a rhyme? I’m a poet and I know it.
Another very traditional dessert is koláče – a round pastry with a filling in its centre, usually plum jam. I never had plum jam until spending time in Eastern Europe. I’m not sure how to feel about it. But plum jam used to be a main export from Prague, so it’s something you should try if you feel like getting cultural.
My favourite traditional pastry was the Czech vanilla crescent, a shortbread cookie made with ground walnuts and almonds. It was also the sweetest and most decadent pastry. Go figure.
The Czechs invented this kind of open-faced sandwich known as chlebíčky. I think this was my favourite stop on the Eating Prague tour. While many European countries have their own version of these sandwiches, Czech’s focuses mostly on heavy meats and fatty dressings – stocking up on fat was a good way to survive a hard Czech winter in communist times.
We stopped at the Sisters Bistro for some sandwiches. There are a ton of options, including tamer tastes like celery root and herbs. But my favourite was the pickled herring with radish, mayo, and wasabi.
I’ve never been a huge meat person. I think this is mostly because I’m repulsed by how meat is mass-produced in North America (but I will never give up bacon or hotdogs entirely). But travelling around Europe has offered me a different perspective — I really, really appreciate butchers and farmers who genuinely care about their product.
Nase Maso (“Our Meat”) is where you’ll find the most serious butchers in Prague. Their meat is more expensive than elsewhere, but it’s worth it. The owners handpick their farmers, and put their meat through a rigorous process of drying and aging for weeks. We ate bacon sausage embedded with bacon fat here. The World Health Organization would totally lose its mind.
For some reason there are a lot of really good burger places in Prague. I don’t really know what constitutes a good burger because I’m not a burger enthusiast, but Cailin seemed to enjoy them just fine.
There was a place called Le Burger just around the corner from our apartment, so we went there one evening and had the best experience. Is it just me or is service in Prague exceptionally friendly? Our waiter even gave us a Czech language lesson.
Anyway, the menu selection is huge, and there are cheese balls with guacamole. The other place we enjoyed was Mozaika Burger & Co, a very local place with pesto chicken burgers.
Every Czech meal begins with a soup. But if there’s one soup you should try, it’s the sauerkraut soup. My guide, Jan, told me that the man of the household typically makes sauerkraut soup. While gender roles are sometimes quite defined in the Czech Republic – with women ruling the kitchen – this one dish is the man’s. It’s made from sauerkraut, mushrooms, and potatoes.
In Prague there’s a secret place you can try it: Restaurant Zvonice, in the bell tower of the belfry. You can literally dine below the ancient church bell.
The Most Traditional Czech Dish
If there’s one dish that belongs solely to the Czech Republic, it’s Svíčková na smetaně. Do not ask me how to pronounce that because I do not have the slightest clue.
Svíčková na smetaně is a beef sirloin served with a yellow cream sauce, traditional bread dumplings, double cream, and cranberries. If it sounds like an odd combination, it’s because it is. Somehow, it works.
I tried Svíčková na smetaně at Café Louvre, the oldest café in Prague. It’s a fancy place with high ceilings and crown moldings, and Kafka and Einstein dined here.
I don’t even know where to begin with the drinking culture in Prague, and I’ve already talked some about it in the past. It’s apparently home to the largest nightclub in Europe (Karlovy Lazne), and beer is cheaper than water. The Pilsner was invented here. Everything is glorious.
My favourite bars in Prague:
- Bugsy’s Bar – Probably the best cocktail bar I’ve ever been to, and not just because the bartenders are insanely attractive (tall) men dressed like servers from the 20s. And no, not just because of the free cheese strings we were served. My bartender made me a mean Dark ‘n Stormy, and then gave me and Cailin delicious alcoholic shots with giant figs soaked in liquor. The vibe is great, and the menus are comic books. It’s expensive though.
- The Pub – This is a no-frills kind of place. At The Pub, you can sit at a table and pour your own beer! It’s really just a novelty thing, but it’s surprisingly fun. Plus the beer is CHEAP.
- Kavarna Mlynska – This is one of my favourite little pubs because David Cerny’s art is plastered all over the place, and if you sit at the bar you’ll be delighted for hours by the embedded trinkets. There’s everything from condoms to ancient Nokia cellphones. I think I saw a vagina.
- Letna Beer Garden – Although I didn’t get to visit this beer garden on this trip (it was cold!), Letna is an excellent place for a few pints overlooking Prague. It’s a family affair! Everyone comes out with friends, children, etc. I love the casual attitude towards beer in the Czech Republic.
- U Fleku – U Fleku is a massive beer hall that’s been in operation since 1499. Cailin and I walked in with trepidation before nestling into a corner table, and then instantly a server swooped down upon us with trays of beer. The servers are all quirky and pushy (in a light-hearted way) – before we knew it, we were buying shots and sausage. Shots and sausage! What a glorious world.
- Beergeek – For the craft beer lovers out there, this cozy bar offers 30+ craft beers from all over. The staff is super friendly and knowledgeable about their beers, and prices are decent.
Wow, this post turned into a monster. Anyway, now you’ll never go hungry in Prague.