Prague by design – The Spectator World
Prague has a graffiti problem. This becomes evident as the train heads to the 19th century Masarykovo Nadrazi station, through the old industrial east of the city. Huge abandoned warehouses, some from the Communist era, others much older, are covered from top to bottom in scribbles and cob amid collapsed roofs and glassless windows. However, it is unlikely that it will stay that way for long; Prague’s response to gentrification is quickly transforming previously dilapidated areas of the city, making it worth venturing off the beaten track.
For all the exquisite architecture at its heart, the graffiti is a sign of a city that isn’t afraid to show its displeasure. Trapped behind the Iron Curtain for so long, progress has been, for decades, driven at the whim of Communist governments. The Czech capital has seen two brutal occupations and three uprisings in the past eighty years. In 1945, the station was used by the Nazi SS to execute rebels. Its story is not always happy, and the fate of the warehouses is only the last chapter.
But not all progress is destructive here, quite the contrary. Outside Masarykovo Nadrazi, the starting point of the city’s Protected Architectural Zone, you come across the best cafe in town: EMA, a small cafe built in an old block from the 1920s that now houses the Institute of Czech Literature. It’s an unpretentious place, but poignantly located, considering that not even later than 1989, many academics and writers working there could not study, let alone publish, freely.
Where EMA is modern and trendy, Prague has no shortage of great traditional cafes. Café Louvre and Café Slavia, both on Narodni Trida, are old restaurants where you can sit and read the best of the international press, about the heavy meatballs and meat dishes that warm everyone’s heart. from Havel to Kafka for centuries, for centuries. over the price of an indulgent McDonald’s. The Grand Café Orient, meanwhile, is a slightly younger establishment, housed in the “House of the Black Virgin”, which is part of a small Cubist enclave dating from the early 1900s.
Before exploring the city center, a short walk east brings you to Karlin, one of the best examples of modernization in Central Europe. This is not the Prague of postcards, but the buildings were carefully renovated following the devastating floods of 2002. Before that, the area could have been described as a no-go zone, but it is now one of the most attractive destinations for elite young people. The Karlin Forum, a converted warehouse, is a large, elegant concert hall that is far from the rigidity of the neo-renaissance National Theater. It is also home to Eska, a famous local restaurant with a modern twist on heavy Czech dishes. But if you’re looking for wellness rather than just being well fed, Karlin is also home to the best aerial yoga classes an Instagrammer could ask for.
In the other direction is the old town and, on the Charles Bridge straddling the Vltava, the imposing Prague Castle. One tip a local could share with you would be to always walk in the opposite direction of the crowd. There is no shortage of picturesque old streets here, if you want to experience the true nature of a city that seems overrun with tourists and stag parties. Behind the castle is quieter, a labyrinth of alleys and dusty houses, interspersed with a strange palace here and an occasional monastery there.
Heading down from the castle to the river, through a sea of ancient palaces (now government ministries), is a peaceful garden in the grounds of the Czech Senate, Valdstejnska zahrada. Crossing the bridge to the east you will find the Rudolfinum, now an art gallery and concert hall, and opposite, the headquarters of the Academy of Art, Architecture and Design. Every second street is home to a historic site, but Prague, although a prisoner of its heritage, is not a Disney castle. The design scene is as exciting as any western metropolis, just on a slightly smaller scale and housed in protected period buildings, with local brands like Chatty, Leeda, and the SmetanaQ complex all thriving.
It’s a city made for Airbnb. Instead of hotels, apartments in Letna or Vinohrady, beautiful old residential areas, are the best places to stay, with spacious living rooms overlooking Prague’s impressive rolling parks. Letna is close to the National Gallery’s Modern Art Collection at Veletrzni Palac and the DOX Center for Contemporary Art. A bottle of wine at Havlickovy Sady Vineyard in Vinohrady (literally “Wineland”) will set you back around $ 15. In Letna, you can visit a site called Metronom, where a giant metronome sculpture stands on the spot once occupied by a 15-meter statue of Joseph Stalin.
This article originally appeared in The spectatorglobal edition of December 2021.