TWO DECADES AGO, I lived in Prague for nearly a year during a study abroad program. And although it was already a tourist destination back then, I was shocked to see, on a recent trip how much tourism has really taken over the city. I yearned for the Prague I once knew and I only had 48 hours to try to find it. I set out to find what might turn out to be only memories.
Prague is a city of Gothic spires, where Baroque and Cubist architecture mix among cobblestone streets. But walking now through Old Town (Staré Město) across the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) into Lesser Town (Malá Strana), you sometimes have to fight your way through throngs of tourists and hawkers selling cheap souvenirs — walk just a block or two outside of the main thoroughfares, and you’ll find beautiful uncrowded sites without the crowds.
1. Head around the corner from the Charles Bridge.
The pedestrian-only Gothic bridge is definitely worth a visit at least once during your trip. Walking along the Charles Bridge over the Vltava River you catch amazing views of the Prague Castle and the breathtaking Baroque buildings of Malá Strana. Start from Old Town and cross into Malá Strana, then head down and around to the right and you’ll find a shop selling handmade marionettes called Marionety Truhlář. Even if you’re not in the market for one, it’s still interesting to check out the intricate detail and artwork that goes into making them. Also nearby is Artêl Glass a shop specializing in handcrafted Bohemian crystal glassware, featuring a modern take on traditional design. To have the bridge practically to yourself, go early in the morning or late at night.
2. Learn about an iconic literary figure in Prague history.
Also in Malá Strana, close to the Charles Bridge, is the Franz Kafka Museum. Kafka is a famous figure in Prague (and the rest of the world) as a prolific Jewish writer and intellectual, but the museum doesn’t get as crowded as you may think. When I visited, I was one of maybe five people (not including a small school field trip). If you know anything about Kafka’s work, you know that his novels and short stories are well-crafted enigmas, mostly commenting on socio-political ideas with dark undertones. The museum plays on his themes and is dark and a bit spooky, with some of the rooms set up as if to be “Kafka-esque.” The museum features a lot of information and documents about Kafka’s life. After you’re done, head to an American-style hipster coffee shop called Bake Shop Praha, down the street from the museum, for a yummy pastry and real espresso.
3. Walk along the river in the Smichov district.
From Prague’s New Town district, cross the Vltava River to the Smichov district. Full of leafy trees in the spring and small neighborhood parks, the area is a nice respite from the tourist traps. Walk north up the river towards Malá Strana and you’ll pass the Jazz Dock, a newly built music club atop the water. Keep walking and you’ll see a large park in the middle of the river. This is Dětský Island or Children’s Island with playgrounds for kids. Venture north up the river and you’ll come across Museum Kampa, a modern art museum that showcases Central European art.
4. Head to Holesovice.
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For the more adventurous, take a short tram or subway ride to the Holesovice neighborhood located northeast and across the water from Old Town. It’s a short commute from the main tourist areas, yet feels like a world away. Once a sleepy neighborhood suburb, it’s now considered one of the hippest areas in Europe with art galleries, modern art museums, cafes, destination restaurants, and amazing dance clubs.
By day, visit the Trade Fair Palace building of Prague’s National Gallery (Veletržní Palác) When you step inside, you’re instantly transported into a crisp white open space more attuned to a modern art aesthetic. I’ve been to a number of modern art museums both at home in New York City and abroad, and I can say that this is one of the best I’ve ever visited because of the immense collection of works by artists such as Picasso, Monet, Klimt, and Miro.
There’s an entire room dedicated to Picasso’s early works and entire floors devoted to many brilliant Czech artists such as art nouveau master Alphonse Mucha. And that’s just the permanent exhibits. When I went, Ai Weiwei’s exhibit “Law of the Journey,” about the refugee crisis, displayed racks and racks of laundered clothing from a refugee camp in Greece and walls of illuminating photos from that same camp.
On the other end of Holesovice, across from the train tracks you’ll find restaurants, bars, and clubs and a community art and design space called Vnitroblock, which houses unique pieces from local Czech and European designers. There’s a cafe with freshly roasted coffee and homemade food inside the industrial-style building, as well as a concept store, DIY workshops, live DJs, and art exhibits.
I wasn’t able to check out the nightlife in Holesovice, but I suspected that I was missing out because the area is known for non-pretentious dance clubs where DJs spin sick beats in funky settings that rival some of the most interesting clubs in Europe. Among them are Cross Club, Mecca, and 36 Underground.
5. When you’re tired of goulash, have Vietnamese pho.
Approximately 60,000 Vietnamese people live in the Czech Republic, most of them residing in Prague. They have opened Vietnamese restaurants in and around the city. Many moved to the former Czechoslovakia when it was still under communism to work in factories or study at university. On my last day in Prague, I went on search for pho, the Vietnamese meat broth and rice noodles topped with cilantro and basil. I searched on Yelp for the closest pho place and found Bistro Pho Vietnam, a small restaurant attached to a small grocery. It was like walking into a typical Vietnamese pho place in the US with plastic table cloths, the mom cooking in the back and the son or daughter taking orders in the front.
6. Get lost on purpose.
But really, the best way to find hidden gems in Prague is to put away your phone, guidebook and maps and just wander the cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways that lead off the main tourist areas and you’ll be amazed at what you see. Almost everywhere you turn, you’ll find a piece of history dating back centuries that survived both world wars, a Communist regime, and now a tourist explosion. The true beauty of the city lies around the corner or down the street from the most popular sights, so get lost and discover the beautifully historic and magical in Prague.