Covid has lifted the hangover from Prague. Now the city wants to stop partying

(CNN) — Strolling across Charles Bridge or dining under Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock isn’t something most locals would consider fun or bearable.

Unless, it turns out, they’re doing it in the middle of a pandemic.

Travel restrictions put in place due to the coronavirus have caused the number of visitors to the Czech capital to drop by more than 73% in 2020, according to official city statistics. Although disastrous for Prague’s economy, the tourist exodus was a revelation for many of its citizens who were suddenly able to reclaim their city and enjoy its beauty at a slower pace.

Prague’s historic center has become habitable again – and its political and community leaders are trying to find a way to sustain it even after the tourist crowds have returned.

“All these beautiful places suddenly reappeared,” said Matej Velek. “All the glitz, the cheap, tacky souvenirs and the flashing signs trying to get you to spend money, it all disappeared incredibly quickly once the tourists disappeared.”

Velek, born and raised in Prague, belongs to a growing number of locals trying to revive the city’s many forgotten public spaces. It’s part of the team behind Kasarna Karlin, part community hangout, part beer garden with an open-air cinema, playground and café in an abandoned swimming pool. The venue occupies the huge courtyard of a disused military barracks in Karlin, a neighborhood that was badly damaged in the devastating 2002 floods in Prague.

This Kasarna Karlin bar was once a garage inside a disused military barracks.

Dorota Velek/Wikimedia Commons

The state-owned building had been deserted for years awaiting possible renovation at some point in the future when Velek and his team succeeded in convincing the authorities to authorize a local non-profit organization to use the place for community and cultural purposes until the beginning of the redevelopment. Since opening in 2017, it has become one of the neighborhood’s favorite spots. And while the resort has seen a lot of bureaucratic to-and-fro involving various ministries in recent years, Kasarna Karlin has become something of a model for community projects – so much so that representatives from other towns visit the place to get the know-how.

Kasarna Karlin is far from a lone star in the neighborhood. Less than a five-minute walk away, another derelict building has recently been transformed into Bar/ak, an artsy cafe featuring local musicians and artists. By the river, Harbor 18600 now hosts an outdoor cinema, music events and conferences in a space that was once an illegal dump just a few years ago.

Kasarna Karlin’s success with locals has earned it a spot in guidebooks like Lonely Planet. Slowly it became a place where locals mingle with tourists. This is still unusual in Prague. Locals tend to stay away from the more touristy spots, while visitors rarely venture outside of the historic center.

This is something the city wants to change. Prague has long been a magnet for tourists. But their growing numbers have become a worry for its residents, who feel overwhelmed by rowdy bands looking for a big night out.

The Dox Center features an airship-like structure used as an event space.

The Dox Center features an airship-like structure used as an event space.


Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib told CNN last year that the city welcomed nine million tourists in 2019.

‘It’s about the same as Rome, which is twice the size of Prague,’ he said, admitting the growing number of tourists, some coming mainly to party, has caused problems .

Like other cities in a similar situation, Prague has put in place a “night mayor” whose task is to find a better way to deal with the crowds.

Hrib has also stepped up its attempts to rid the city of fraudulent tourist traps and eyesore and to regulate the likes of Airbnb. “These types of services have a very negative impact on residents’ quality of life, mainly through noise, and they also make housing more unaffordable for young people, so finding a solution is a priority,” Hrib said.

The Hrib team is keen to reinvent Prague as a destination for bachelor parties.

“We care most about more conscientious tourists who respect that tourism should not harm the lives of locals,” he said. “Prague simply cannot be just an open-air museum for tourists, we have to stop the exodus of people from the city centre.”

The vast majority of international visitors do not venture beyond the historic city center. But Hrib is keen to show them that Prague has a lot more to offer, which it certainly does.

Cultural venues and events have popped up all over Prague in recent years. Once dark places have been transformed into urban hotspots, some with the help of the city, others by independent communities and volunteers.

The Rasin Riverside, south of downtown, has gone from a near-derelict to a popular hangout for hipsters to a mainstream tourist destination in a decade. Some locals preferred the place when it was still a little rough around the edges and groan about its evolution into a more polished space, but the shore’s growing popularity is giving tourists a chance to taste something a little different.

Holesovice, a residential area across the river from Karlin, was also badly damaged in the floods of 2002. And like Karlin, it too has been transformed beyond recognition from a dilapidated place to an artsy neighborhood with lots to see and experience.

The DOX Center for Contemporary Art has become the neighborhood’s art epicenter since it opened in a former factory in 2008. Other venues have sprung up. Vnitroblock, a sprawling industrial-chic cafe and design-focused event space is just a 10-minute walk away. Around the corner, Jatka 78, once a slaughterhouse, is now the place in Prague to see contemporary circus, avant-garde theater and dance.
Rasin Riverbank has grown from a rundown place to a popular meeting place.

Rasin Riverbank has grown from a rundown place to a popular meeting place.


The venue is currently being renovated, but the show is due – and continues – in a temporary circus tent erected in the nearby Prague Exhibition Grounds. Baptized Azyl78, the place will offer “asylum” to performance artists throughout the summer.

The co-founder and director of Jatka 78, Štěpán Kubišta, is particularly proud of the international character of the institution he has helped to build. The venue regularly hosts foreign troupes and is one of the few theaters in Prague to serve locals and tourists alike.

“Culture in Prague is still mostly for and by locals, there are not many international events, both in terms of artists and audiences,” he said. Of the dozen theaters funded directly by the city, all but one currently focus on Czech-language theater and are therefore off-limits to most visitors. “If we want to attract tourists who are interested in culture rather than partying, we need to give them more options,” he said.

It’s a tradition started by one of Prague’s most famous residents, the country’s former president, Vaclav Havel. When he hosted Bill Clinton in 1993, he showed him around the castle and then took the then-president to a legendary, if somewhat grubby, jazz club, Reduta.

The artistic cluster that has developed in Holesovice over the past decade has become a source of inspiration for other districts of Prague.

“Holesovice is a prime example of a neighborhood that has been revamped from the ground up into an almost official art district…and although it has since become perhaps too gentrified, it has shown others that these types of projects make sense,” said Marie Kasparova, director of Za Trojku, a non-profit organization that runs two publicly funded community cultural centers in Prague’s Zizkov district.

Zizkov, once known as the slightly hilly neighborhood below Prague’s famous TV tower, has always had a diverse cultural scene. From the U Vystrelenyho Oka pub that has long been the beating heart of Prague’s underground scene, to independent art galleries and the recently reopened event space in the functionalist Radost building, Zizkov, according to Kasparova, has something for everyone. world.

It seeks to follow Holesovice’s lead by introducing more contemporary art to the neighborhood, while maintaining its appeal to long-time residents of the neighborhood. “When people walk into a contemporary art gallery, sometimes they can be a little scared, not knowing what to think. We want to bring art to people in a way that isn’t scary, through themes that they can relate to,” she said.

To attract more locals to the arts venue, Za Trojku started organizing more community-oriented events. Later this month, he’s hosting a mini houseplant and urban gardening festival. Last year’s event attracted millennials and retirees. “We want to open up the space to local people so they know it’s there for them,” Kasparova said. “If they get used to coming here for events that interest them, like the houseplant swap, they might eventually come and see art that they might have previously dismissed as something that doesn’t matter. is not for them.”

Berta D. Wells