The Complete Guide to Life at Letná

Text: Photo: Libor Petrášek

At some point, this simply had to happen. When you’re writing a series about the unique micro-world that are Prague’s neighborhoods, Letná is the first thing that comes across your mind. This is that part of the city everybody’s got an opinion on, no matter what they call it — it might be “home”, “that huge park where dogs reign supreme,” or, perhaps most often, “that place that got hipster-ized to the point I'm sure it must've turned into one huge flat-white ocean by now.” It’s Prague’s only hood that also functions a meme. You can walk from one end to the other in 10 minutes, but according to the general discourse, Letná is the shit.

We started this magazine 9 months ago. We simply cannot ignore it for longer, lest we anger the Great Bearded Ones.

The big question that looms over the premise of this article is simple: Where does Letná even start? Where does it end? This topographical dilemma might sound stupid, but sometimes, it really divides people. Even on Letenská parta, a Facebook discussion group that started as an informal virtual place to chit-chat and meet new neighbors and ended up becoming a largely incomprehensible shitstorm, as Facebook groups are wont to do.

The thing is made even less clear by the fact that officially, Letná does not even exist as a city quarter. It’s simply the name of a hill rising above Vltava’s riverbank, plus the large park that sits atop. Nobody can simply say they live at Letná; the area either falls under the Holešovice cadaster, or under Bubeneč. But because we need to draw the line somewhere, we’ve made our decision: Letná is bordered by Vltava river, Stromovka park (even larger than the eponymous one), a street called Dukelských hrdinů, and Sparta Prague’s home stadium. There you go. Nice and simple.

Of course, this might (and will) lead to several issues with the Dukelských hrdinů borderline, because now we’re leaving several places that have a distinct Letná flavor formally just outside of Letná. Like the triangle of cafés down at Heřmanova street: Liberál (successfully dabbling as a pub after 7 PM or so), Ouky Douky (which looks like it fell right out of the Black Books Universe), and Kumbál (a breakfast bistro where a friend of ours once saw a hipster order pickled camembert and cocoa, which must be the most surreal combo in the history of ever).

But hey, you can’t always please everyone. Plus, if there are any purists who have strong issues with calling the aforementioned places ‘Letná’, they can still find solace in Fraktál, Vegtrál, and Lokál. What sounds like a botched local version of Huey, Dewey, and Louie is actually another list of cafés/pubs, this time sitting on the other end of Letná, with seemingly endless drinking options (Fraktál), vegan food (Vegtrál) and Stromovka located right outside the door (Lokál).

(Okay, there’s also Kyklop there. It’s a great little pub run by Balkans, so you’ll get homemade rakija there, but we simply couldn’t ruin the onomatopoeic orgasm that is Fraktál, Vegtrál, and Lokál.)

For purposes of this article, however, we’ve decided to abandon our tried and tested method of "going outside and drinking beer with people, and also maybe take some notes". For Letná carries a specific aura, one defined by visions of tattooed designers, fixed gear bike enthusiasts who spend half their salaries on beard-specializing barbers, and indie marathon runners who only listen to Hüsker Dü. In the general view of outsiders, Letná is basically iPhone: The City.

So, naturally, we met up with a guy who runs the most successful local hip bar. You know, to check things out from within.

"Letná is a state of mind“

The guy, who we’ll simply call Boss, is an integral part of the team at Cobra, a much-hyped bar / restaurant located at Letná's main street, Milady Horákové. We went for a beer with him and Waitress at Bio Oko, Letná's much beloved cinema which also houses a café and, during the summer season, a small beer garden. Local freelancers love to work and drink there, so the choice was rather easy.

But back to Cobra — the place used to be a filthy non-stop bar, but now, with its huge windows and inappropriately subtle branding, serves as a symbol of Letná's gentrification.

"I find it kinda funny," Boss quips (we talked in Czech, so he’s not really opening random conversations with Gary Jules' lyrics, although that’d be killer). "I like being a pain in the ass of this whole ‘gentrification’ thing. For example, nobody could say we’re expensive. Quite the contrary. People from the biz are more likely to say we’re stupid for not charging more for food and drinks. But fuck that, you know? We want to be accessible to everyone."

Five years ago, places like Cobra simply didn’t exist at Letná. Now, there are dozens. Some of them are even hyped enough to gain that cult status you get from having people knowing your name, regardless of whether they’ve actually ever been there: places like Bistro 8 at Veverkova, ye's kafe studio at Letenské náměstí, or Mr. Hot Dog at Kamenická. A random delivery pizza company, creatively called Pizza Letná, was the first one in Prague to include vegan pizza on their menu. There are Indonesian restaurants (Garuda), foodie-scene-approved eateries (Milada), and countless small bars. Like Elbow Room, which lures people in with its dimly lit atmosphere, subtle latino music, and the absence of Wi-Fi, which saves the place of becoming yet another in the laundry list of cafés that look more like Apple product stores during weekdays. Or Wildt, a rather upscale bar built right at Výstaviště, in the place where one of Prague’s smelliest public toilets used to be. Everything changes around here.

The question is: Does all this somehow erase the ethos of the ‘old Letná’? It’s a tricky one. You could definitely say that people who are living there experience the process almost day by day, never knowing when there’s gonna be another gala opening of a small rum bar slash conceptual art gallery or whatever. But to paint this as a counterpoint of some simpler ‘good old days’ would simply mean ignoring the facts of daily life. Because to locals, life does not really change. Never has. Stuff is happening, but Letná (as a whole) remains the same.

"I’ve been working at Cobra almost from the very beginning, and no, there was no revolution going on," Waitress recalls. "To paint Letná's development as a distinct clash between Old and New would be too simplistic. The worlds aren’t replacing one another. They merge."

"People sometimes think that first, there was some old-timey Letná, then came us ‘hipsters’, and now the whole hood is fucking expensive, pretentious and whatnot. It’s simply not the case. Patrons from the old Cobra — the non-stop bar — still visit us. I can understand that for someone, the ugliness was the point. But aside from that, there never really were any problems." Boss agrees: "Being fancy requires money. We really don’t have that much money. We just like to provide good things to people."

This point can be strengthened by the fact that lots of Letná's ‘old’ pubs still function – and, barring some drastic events, will continue to do so for many years. Places like U Houbaře or Na Mělníku look like a Doc Brown’s trip to 1993, but they’re still packed, and the atmosphere there is great. Then you have Kovadlina, a pub that’s equal parts microbrew-searching-hipsters-hangout and granddads-drinking-with-other-granddads-hangout. At Café Spitfire, you can, due to its strategic location at Veletržní street, meet everyone from stoned punks to local stand-up celebrities.

But by far the biggest riot potential lies within the walls of Barré, a legendary punk pub where (almost) literally nothing is off limits. Boy, the male half of our editorial unit, lovingly recalls how he took a girl for a date there once. They got drunk and watched a soccer game between Gabon and Cameroon on Boy’s old laptop. Gabon lost, which prompted Boy to google the number of Gabon’s FA and call them to ask what the fuck was that about. Boy’s date didn’t find it funny. The end.

A Village Hangout Spot

One of the rather specific limits of life at Letná is that after 6 PM, almost everything closes. Other hoods usually have at least one mall where you can get stuff till midnight or so, but Letná still operates on the decades-old system of "specific shops for specific purposes", which gives it kinda village-y feeling. It’s quite charming, really: if, for some reason, you need to buy a lightbulb, a shampoo, and cat food, you have to either go to three separate stores, or hit the nearest Vietnamese supermarket and hope they’ll have everything you need (but you can never be sure about that).

There’s the legendary Billa supermarket, taking over the central square (Letenské náměstí), but it’s not exactly well stocked. And until the planned Palác Stromovka is built, Letná simply doesn’t have a mall.

"It would be easy to build twenty of them, but nobody here wants that," Waitress explains. "Even Palác Stromovka is a highly controversial project. You see — Letná is really, really small. You can almost literally see from one end to the other. To compare Letná to the rest of Prague would be like to compare Czech Republic and Russia. Nothing here takes too much time, not even shopping. So why build giant malls?"

She then adds that the village feeling stretches even further — for example, the locals aren’t exactly prone to partying all night long (or they are, but elsewhere). Just look at the most strategically put non-stop bar around here: it’s called Star Arena (creativity!), and it’s almost always empty, even during weekends.

The bad thing is that when you live at Letná, but work elsewhere, chances are that your working hours will mirror those of, like, 90% of local shops. Oh, and they are often closed during weekends, so good luck finding anything, ever. But the locals don’t mind. They cherish the old-timey romanticism that comes with having four separate florists around, but no big standardized florist chain opened till midnight (situated in some capitalist version of Ceaucescu’s palace, tucked between a giant Tesco and five cinemas). "That’s the appeal. People who’ve moved to Letná often say they don’t want to live anywhere else anymore."

"Prague’s seventh district has two completely different parts," adds Boss. "Holešovice, the lower part, are… well, industrial. Huge buildings, abandoned factories, smelly streets in between. Letná really feels like a village in comparison. There’s the Main Street (Milady Horákové), the focal point where people gather (Strossmayerovo náměstí), and that’s basically it. Everything is close to everything." "Strossmayerovo náměstí is crucial," says Waitress. "It’s the natural center of life here. It makes Letná feel compact. The quality of living is just way better this way."

What’s better in Holešovice, though, are the cultural options. While the lower part of the seventh districts rapidly gains recognition thanks to its burgeoning theater and techno scenes, Letná simply does not offer much. The case is even more severe now, after the official closing of NEONE — Prague’s only club that really felt like a club, with opening hours from 10 PM to the next morning, no tables and no beer on tap. NEONE was unique, because it managed to break down the stereotype that all Czech clubs are basically just pubs with a podium. But since its closing in October, Letná fell into darkness again.

During the summer season, you actually have lots of places to go around: the parties, indie gigs and performances up at Kyvadlo, former Stalin's monument and one of Letná's (or, for that matter, Prague’s) most photographed sites. Letní Letná (theater and nouveau cirque). Tiskárna na vzduchu (hangout spot / parties). But now? Granted, there are several theaters – Studio Hrdinů, Alfred ve dvoře, Pidivadlo – but aside from that, there’s really nothing much you can do on a Friday night (except for drinking), if you count out bizarre places like Mischmasch, a discotheque so out-of-style that we couldn’t find a single person who’d admit to actually going there.

Why are there no, say, small indie clubs for local bands to perform in? "Letná didn’t go through the same gentrification process like Krymská did," Boss explains. "People would tell me how cool it was that I was basically living in Prague’s Beverly Hills, and I’d laugh at that, happily sitting on my porch and appreciating how everything still feels the same it always did."

"Furthermore," Girl replies, "the fact that there are no places where melancholic bearded men could freely wail over plucked guitar chords doesn’t mean the culture is dead. There’s still Page Five, Studio Alta, and two museums — the Technological one and the Agricultural one. Those still count as culture, you know."

"Sparta? Not Our Club"

Now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Sparta Prague, the most famous Czech soccer team that plays its home fixtures at Letná (the stadium is even colloquially called Letná, because nobody can keep up with the fucking sponsor changes). Normally, a soccer franchise should somehow vibe with the local life, but Sparta is different.

"A few years ago, when I was working at Bio Oko, we had a real problem with Sparta’s Neo-Nazi hooligans," Boss recalls. "They would come to Oko just to bully us. It was really ugly, you never knew what was going to happen. Several times, fights almost broke out. I’ve seen a huge Neo-Nazi doing the ‘Sieg Heil’ thing right in front of our bartenders. He’d say things like: I know who you are, I know where you live… Now, I employ several foreigners, and they do look different. It’s not easy to look at Sparta fans passing through. But it’s mostly OK now. The situation has calmed down."

"There was a cult-ish pub where those people liked to gather," he adds. "It was called Železná Sparta — the Iron Sparta. Hooligans would drink there after every game. Then the place went bankrupt, and it’s now a kebab shop, called Alibaba. I find it poignantly funny."

The city of Prague hosts a lot of soccer teams, some of them amongst Czech Republic’s most famous. One of them is Bohemians, located in the district of Vršovice – and you can really sense that even for people who could not tell what an offside was if you Iron-Maiden-ed them, Bohemians is still an issue. It’s their club, simply because they live there. The relationship between Letná and Sparta is completely different: Sparta, being the big bully for decades now, draws its fanbase from all around the country. It’s funny, because although Letná definitely has patriots, almost none of them attribute this patriotism to Sparta’s existence.

"Go to any small Czech village — there’ll be Sparta fans. It’s the biggest, strongest club. Its legacy resonates throughout the country. But here? Whenever I pass the stadium, I see the graffiti that says ‘One city, one club’. Which, to me, is basically fascism. Like Leni Riefenstahl levels of fascism, at least. But at the same time, I don’t feel intimidated by the mere presence of Sparta. There are fascists who worship the club, and the stadium is their place. The rest of Letná, not the slightest. So I don’t go to the stadium, and I’m fine."

"I can imagine how the most extreme fans simply gave up. Maybe they’ve grown up, maybe they’ve just realized that ordinary people of Letná don’t want them around. Letná is a liberal, progressive hood. The hooligans can’t change that."

While it’s still entirely possible to run into a group of drunk hooligans — mostly at obscure drinking spots like Žralok (‘The Shark’) or a non-stop bar called 777 — the most frequent hangout spot for Sparta fans around here is the local McDonald’s, located right there at the stadium. When we were shooting the photos for this article, we’ve run into one of them. He agreed to take a photo (^^^), but insisted we included the fact that this McDonald’s is so special it gets to jack up the cheeseburger prices every time there’s a game on. Apparently, no other joint in the whole fucking country gets the privilege.

An Oasis on the Riverbank

For a neighborhood so focused on its inner balance and sense of companionship, Letná keeps a surprisingly large number of “rivalries” – well, two, but that is still an upgrade over virtually every other city part. There’s the territorial one (Holešovice, or ‘the wetland’, as the up-hill people call it), and then the “who's the most hip around here” one. People of Letná hold this imaginary, vinyl-shaped contest with Vinohrady.

Boy, who used to live in Vinohrady before moving to Letná, describes the most obvious difference as the ability of walking around in sweatpants, which is a thing he simply wouldn’t do in Vinohrady, but has no problem doing here.

"Yes, the feeling of casualness is definitely there," Waitress admits. "I think it’s because of the river. On the other riverbank lies the center, and we’re simply not a part of it, even though the actual historical center is closer to Letná than it is to Vinohrady." One of the residents, an alternative singer/songwriter, adds his two cents: "Letná might not take much space, but for me, its greatness lies in the people. Besides, I have everything I need to live here: Huge parks, an old cinema and a beer garden with the best view over the city. I don’t want to go anywhere else."

Our trip ends in Stromoffka, a quiet laid-back bar that serves as a testament to the notion that Letná is, indeed, that type of hood where everybody knows everybody. "Our clientele? Mostly friends and their friends and their friends' friends," the bartender reveals. "That’s kinda our thing."

While a decidedly postmodern mix of people (some garden variety hipsters, elderly whiskey enthusiasts, and Helena, who is a loyal patron) shake heads to the tunes of old-school 70’s disco music, we end the whole report with the sentence that’s usually indicating the end of all things: "Two Long Island Ice Teas, please." It’s a conceptually bold move, since neither Boy nor Girl have ever tasted that prior to this very moment. We don’t have anything more to say, because after drinking it, we can’t remember much more. Because the Long Island Ice Tea is not a drink. It’s a devilish potion specifically designed to tear your reality asunder.

"I love it here," we can hear Helena jovially chat to someone in the background. "Letná is always full of friends. You spend a few days here and you already feel at home. Letná is your friend."

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