The Ever-Changing Matrix of Prague's Old Town

Text: Photo: Libor Petrášek Styling: H&M

Prague is a city of a thousand faces. Even if you count just the city center, the statement still holds. There’s a huge difference between the bar scene of Dlouhá, the puzzling chaos around Náměstí Republiky and the main train station, the concrete jungle that is I.P. Pavlova – and, of course, the Old Town.

This is by far the most well-known part of the capital. Not every tourist guide will include current hip place like, say, Krymská, but surely every single one will talk about the Old Town, with its kitsch atmosphere, centuries old buildings, narrow crooked streets, and places like the Charles' bridge and Astronomical Clock. Prague’s Old Town is full of cobblestones, history, and picturesque beauty. Swarms of tourists navigate its chaotically laid out streets alongside art school students. Everything is expensive as all hell. You get the idea.

"I once had some 40 minutes to get from Národní Třída to DAMU (Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague)," says Boy, the male half of our editorial unit, shaking. "I crossed the first street… GPS told me it’s a few hundred meters. Half an hour ago, I somehow ended up on the same place where I’d come from. So I said ‘Fuck this noise’ and had a beer at U Medvídků

While not everyone shares these kinds of experiences (no Boy’s friends trust him with navigation anymore, as he’s proven to be able to get lost while walking from Street A to another place at Street A), it is true that ergonomically, the Old Town doesn’t make much sense. In the olden days, people just… kinda built houses anywhere. They all lived there, so there were no such issues. Yeah.

"Everytime I have to go to the Old Town, my brain starts to itch," says Boy. Then, he unleashes hell upon Karlova St, which ends at one place and then continues on at a completely different place, and, satisfied with the impact of his rampant OCD tirade, finally shuts up.

The Old Town is now centered mainly around Staroměstská, the metro stop on the A (green) line; Rudolfinum is located at its mouth, as is Dvořákovo nábřeží, one of the last green patches in the overwhelming avalanche of cobblestones, buildings, and cobblestone buildings. It’s a nice place to just hang out with a beer while enjoying a great view of the Prague Castle.

"One of Kanye West’s music videos was shot here," says Producer, one of our local contacts. "It was a riot. Crowds of people. I didn’t know what was happening… I just left the school and said to myself: Shit, it’s finally going down. The Revolution is here. And I’m a part of it! Awesome!"

Director, a local guy (born and raised) who knows the Old Town like few others, explains: "I understand Boy’s confusion. See, it feels like the Charles Bridge and the Mánes Bridge are parallel to each other, but in reality, there’s a 45 degree angle between them." We are sitting at U Parlamentu, a famous pub with a beer garden that’s actually just a few tables on the sidewalk. Its owner has a daughter, Jane, who has also joined our impromptu exploring party.

The topic of not being able to navigate the Old Town intuitively is a huge topic here. Turns out there are several reasons for this. Apart from the bridge thing, there’s also the very shape of the famous central Old Town Square — no place in Prague gets more tourists than the Astronomical Clock, located in its center. The only exception might be Charles Bridge, connecting the Old Town with another sought-after neighborhood, the Lesser Town.

To be clear — you won’t have trouble finding the Astronomical Clock. Just follow the crowd and you’ll get there. But what about those who want to go to the Old Town Square, but for other reasons? For example — there’s also Skautský Institut, a Scouts' clubhouse that also dabbles as an alternative performing arts venue. It’s great. But if you want to find it, good luck fighting all the Astronomical Clock People around. The same could be applied for Dům U Minuty.

The Old Town Square is as crooked and random as any of the adjacent streets — Kozí and Michalská (those comprise the Eastern border of our area), Dlouhá, or Celetná. On the southern border lies Betlémské náměstí, a beautiful square known for it Gothic chapel. We highly recommend to stop by Jaroslav Fragner Gallery there — this is a must especially if you are an architecture geek. Around the square, the Old Town slowly merges with the more lively, modern area of Národní třída and its surroundings.

In our article about Národní třída, one respondent said that the whole area can be divided by migration patterns of drinking actors: If the bars are filled with actors from the National Theatre, it’s the Národní quadrant. If the patrons are from DAMU, it’s the Old Town.

"This is basically the HQ of Prague’s theater scene," Director confirms. And it’s not only DAMU, too – Unitaria or U Valšů theaters are also located there, the latter employing senior citizens as actors. The nearby Divadlo Na zábradlí is well known and revered, too, even though it’s lost some of its charm after reconstruction. And by charm, we mean things like "the elderly bartender who used to drunkenly explain to random people that the Ustashe should rise again and rule the world."

The Soundtrack of Growing Up in the Middle of the City

U Parlamentu translates to "At the Parliament", and the pub has been known by this name for a long time now — it lies right at the exit of Staroměstská metro station, across Rudolfinum, where Czechoslovak parliament meeting were being held during the First Republic (from 1918 to 1938). So, of course, there are lot of stories. Like that one about a barfly who insisted on paying for only three beers, although he sat there for several hours and drank at least sixteen of them. Director then clarifies that this is not really "a story", as shit like this used to be pretty common there.

"During the nineties, my father used to work here. I remember that when I was in high school, I’d come to buy ice cream. Today’s pub really tries to hang onto its legacy, and the loyal barflies are a big part of that," Jane explains. "A famous painter, Josef Sekyra, used to live in his studio right above the pub when I was a little girl. He drank vodka and smoked Petra’s (a local cigarette brand). He would come to me as I was eating my ice cream, point to some guy sitting at another table, and say: This is Magor Jirous, a very famous poet. He might well be the topic of your final exams. I was thirteen, had no idea what was he talking about, so I just went ‘Sure, yeah’. Then, six years later, Magor Jirous was the topic of my final exams."

"My father introduced a system of beer vouchers. Every Monday, he’d sell small buttons to his barflies. More buttons = cheaper beer. Thanks to this system, even the professors who used to go to a pub at Rudolfinum before learned to go here."

Jane adds that while the effort is admirable, it’s becoming increasingly harder to keep the spirit of the place alive: "Somebody on TripAdvisor said the place had great atmosphere and the food was perfect, and it mushroomed. In a while, scores of Japanese and Korean tourist flocked the place, showing a picture of a meal on TripAdvisor and demanding the same thing. That’s great for business, sure, but not for the barflies who might decide to just stop going. It’s a double edged sword."

At the beginning of the 21st century, there were few millennial residents left. Jane remembers that while growing up, she knew all the pubs and could take her dog inside most of them. "Some of these places are still alive and kicking, others are not. If a pub or a bar has a distinct vibe, it usually survives — I’m talking about places like Aloha, or La Casa Blu, or Hangár. Too bad the Thirsty Dog is closed already. That was a legendary place. Václav Havel would go there, and Nick Cave even wrote a song about it."

"When I was fifteen I had a part-time job where I’d go from pub to pub distributing some fliers," Director remembers. "That was basically the Facebook of the era. We lived near the Old Town Square. On a good day, I’d visit all the important pubs in the area — and in every single one of them, the EXACT SAME soundtrack was playing. Samotáři OST. Pulp Fiction OST. On repeat. If you timed it right, you could hear the whole soundtrack in one night."

The Old Town has witnessed some wild changes in the past century. Before WWI, huge parts of Josefov (the Jewish Quarter) were torn down to build wider streets and boulevards. But even before that, people of Josefov were not exclusively Jewish. "By the early 20th century, it was more like a cheap bohemian district," Director explains. "When the ghetto gates opened, all Jewish families who had some money moved away to Vinohrady. The ones who stayed in Josefov were mostly poor. They shared their town with Christians, Germans, various artists… oh, and brothels."

"I used to live there as well," adds another respondent, an artist himself. His Afghan heritage only adds to the multicultural feeling of the place. "Our house was right across Maisel’s Synagogue. I had a roommate named Pepa. We paid the same rent, but his room was three times smaller. Also, he was gone all the time. There was a cat in our apartment named Arnold Rothstein. I’d leave the window open for him to stroll around. Once, we got robbed because of that. They took three bottles of Jack Daniels and some weed."

"In the last 100 years, this place has changed completely," Director continues. "Before WWI, the Jewish left, after WWI, the Germans. During the Communist era, lots of the beautiful Art Nouveau decorations were torn down. Why? It was hard to clean them effectively. Lots of little details were lost like that. Communists have sandpapered the zeitgest of centuries past into oblivion."

"Then, after the Revolution, tourists would walk the streets and say: Look, scaffolding everywhere! They must be renovating the buildings! Well… the scaffolding was installed because otherwise the damaged buildings would simply topple over. The 90’s era of wildly uncontrolled capitalism finished what the Communists started."

"And now, people can’t live here comfortably," Jane summarizes. We’re still sitting at the beer garden at U Parlamentu and our interview is often interrupted by her friends stopping by to say hello. This used to be absolutely normal during summer season (from May to September) – everyone was outside. If you didn’t have a plan, you could just sit here and wait. Within a few hours, someone would show up.

It still happens today, but as the number of truly local residents falls, so does the living standard: "Look at the shops around here. All they sell is overpriced tourist crap. Literally nothing else. It’s bizarre — there are dozens of shops in EVERY street, but if I want to buy, say, a tomato that’s not a price of a small motorcycle, I have to take a tram to go to fucking Tesco or something. If only humans could survive on a diet of trashy pictures, Russian hats and nesting dolls, or those stupid I <3 PRG t-shirts!"

Even though the Old Town gets blasted with tons of people every day, most organized events — like demonstrations, street festivals and such — take place a few hundred meters over at either Národní Třída or Václavské Náměstí. Here, the atmosphere is pure chaos. One of the main meeting points around is Hotel Intercontinental, located on a riverbank across the Letná hill. In front of it, big concrete tables invite passersby to hang out. "Once, on my birthday, I played ping-pong there with some friends," Producer recalls. "Whoever lost a point had to down a shot of vodka. The game was over when the weakest one threw up on the table."

"Other time, there was a Neo-Nazi march going through, so we decided to block it. We were running through the Old Town streets, trying to apprehend the Nazis while hiding from the police. Finally we blocked the march near Rudolfinum. One guy, not knowing what was going on, just… drove right into the melee in a car. Obviously, he became stuck, and it was certain that he won’t be able to move for the next half an hour or so. So he sat on the roof of his car and watched the scene like it was a movie. What else could he do?"

By the way, if you want to enter the Old Town in a car, it’s surprisingly easy — not that the streets were particularly car-friendly (they are not), but there are very few restrictions. Some people even stroll around in SUVs. We don’t know why would anybody drive an SUV for the three minutes it takes them to move between two points inside the Old Town, but we assume it’s because those people are annoying assholes.

Connecting the riverbank and the Old Town Square is Pařížská, arguably the most luxurious, high-end boulevard in Prague. It’s littered by absurdly expensive shops. It’s THE place to go if you feel like buying a watch for the price of half of Burkina Faso. "I love to cross Pařížská while wearing a filthy, worn-out, smelly old coat I use when I paint," says Director, grinning.

"The whole street is just one huge status symbol. You can find basically everything that’s being sold there online for cheaper. But to say ‘I bought something on Pařížská’ is symbolic. It’s a place where the first DIOR opened after the Revolution. People would queue in front of it. The queues were a mile long."

Jane says that regarding Pařížská two kinds of people exist: For some, it’s a focal point of their life, simply because they have so much money they don’t know what to do with it. For them, to shop at Pařížská is not luxurious; it’s automatic. "And then, you have people like Pepíček. He’s from around here. He used to go for a beer with Bohumil Hrabal. He’s an old guy who’s been living here his whole life. Those are two completely different social groups. They don’t even register each other."

When we ask what happened to the middle and upper middle classes, Jane snaps: "They got boxed out by rental costs and moved across the river to Letná instead."

Drinking, According to Young Actors and Actresses

While living in the Old Town is hard these times, it’s still a great place for students. There are so many artistic schools, bars, pubs, and hangout places that it’s not unusual for UMPRUM and DAMU students to get ‘locked’ here for several days. At DAMU, it was even quite common to get drunk right there in the school building (that also houses a café) and fall asleep in a locker room. DAMU has its own theater (Divadlo DISK), and students that are old enough to play there get a special card that allows them to go backstage. Which is often comfier than their own shared apartments. Boom — you can go to school, get blitzed right after, go to sleep at school, wake up the next day and go to school again. Ingenious.

"Yeah, you can do that. But you have to make sure the doorman doesn’t see you," says Actress, a DAMU student who’s been there for four years now. Most of her classmates aren’t that lazy, though. It’s more popular to go drink elsewhere — which is never a problem, because there are like sixty bars within a 5-minute walking distance from the DAMU building. "We used to just stay at DAMU’s café and drink all night, but the bartenders got tired of that. So we usually have to change pubs now."

"One of the options is Blues Sklep. It’s great if you have a large group of people that don’t want to go very far, presumably because they’re unable to walk by that point. But Blues Sklep has slipped recently, so we don’t go there that often anymore."

"There’s a rule of thumb that says that whenever you skip pubs in the Old Town later in the night, there’s a big chance somebody will steal shit from you. Lots of people congregate on small places, and a large group of drunk students is a safe target for thieves. I lost my phone and keys at Konvikt once. Fortunately I found them the next day in a dumpster."

"When the mood is festive enough, we go to Friends, one of Prague’s most famous gay bars," she adds. The downside is that it’s a bit pricey. "Male actors sometimes go there for an ego boost. But there are dozens of places to go – Café Kampus (fka Krásný Ztráty) tends to get crowded, but you can pay by card there, which is a serious advantage. Café Standard is another favorite."

Yet another one is Literární kavárna Řetězová, a cult underground pub / café / gig venue popular among elderly poets, musicians, writers, and basically anyone who likes the atmosphere of a true bohemian spirit. It’s a great place to casually meet a famous writer, or a gentleman frantically explaining some surrealist story to an audience of precisely zero people. The place is under construction now, though, and should re-open sometime in March.

"Across Řetězová lies Montmartre. It’s been there since the First Republic. But it’s a crazy, unpredictable place," says Jane. "Then, you have Hany Bany, a booming hangout spot for art students — take whatever you want from it. And, of course, Konírna in Anenská. That pub is legendary. It’s so bizarre! Like stepping in a time machine set for the eighties. If aesthetic terrorism was a thing, this place would be its HQ." Actress knows Konírna as well: "They have great pickled camembert and good beer. But beware of the toilets. The doors are made of paper."

"Indigo is a very popular bar among the more deadbeat students, but I don’t like it, because it smells like piss. Oh, and I have a life hack for you: At Anenské Náměstí, there’s a diner for ballet dancers from the National Theatre. You can get a cheap, hearty, healthy food there. The only caveat is that they have to believe you’re a ballet dancer." So, a good life hack for a small, lean girl like Actress. For a two meters tall, bearded, balding man like Boy, not so much.

Apart from the art schools, the Old Town also houses the Faculty of Law. It’s located by the river, in a majestic building designed by Jan Kotěra. We contacted a student (whom we’ll call Lawyer) to tell us more about it: "Most of the important stuff happens in a huge lobby on the ground floor. We call in The Pool, because the ceiling is made of glass — when the sun shines on the tiles below, it feels like you’re underwater."

"The Pool has forever been used for cultural events. In 1968, there was a ball that quickly turned into a monstrous party. A huge banner of Leonid Brezhnev’s face was hanging from the ceiling, and somebody got the brilliant idea to set it on fire. What they didn’t know was that there was a couple having sex right behind it. As Brezhnev fell, they were suddenly exposed. Party!"

"These days, stuff like that doesn’t happen in The Pool anymore. One time, our dean greenlighted a techno party, which was awesome." Another student clarifies that "every year, there are huge parties being held at St. Nicholas' Day — people drink, smoke, and fuck right in the school building. It’s been like this for at least ten years now."

For our next stop, Boy suggests Zázemí, a little punk-y pub filled with expats where the heating doesn’t work most of the time. He says it’s a good place, because he’s been there on a date recently and it went well; Girl, however, shuts the option down, because she’s also been there on a date recently and it didn’t go well.

"To think he could’ve taken me to Champagneria instead!" she laments. "Such a great hidden spot. With champagne! But nooo, we had to go to goddamn Zázemí. What a dealbreaker. They have a signature drink called Your Mum that consists of Becherovka, an apricot brandy, and cola. Why?!"

If we were a little more cultural that evening, we could’ve gone to Ponrepo to see a movie — one of our favorite theaters boasts a carefully curated programme, focusing mainly on old movies. Or to Opero, a multi-purpose space that holds regular talk shows. But we were not cultural, and because of that, we head on to Rotunda.

Rotunda is a classic Czech dive bar. On the surface, it’s really nothing special — a pub where people drink relatively cheap beer and eat relatively cheap Czech junk food. But for a large part of Prague’s art scene, Rotunda is a focal point of the Old Town.

This is thanks to its amazing lenience towards bizarrely surreal parties. Like that one when a guy jumped up and down on the table, naked, with the goal of “activating” the massive wooden thing to the point where all the beer mugs will simultaneously topple over, and called it ‘performance art’. He succeeded after several minutes, while his colleague played his old movie about pissing on a random castle to the soundtrack of Einstürzende Neubauten, and another guy accompanied it with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu covers on an acoustic guitar.

During our visit, it almost looks like a normal pub. There’s a guy that looks like George R. R. Martin sitting in the corner; he’s wearing suspenders, a hat, and cheap headphones. He’s typing something on a giant laptop that looks like it might’ve been used to launch Eugene Cernan on the Moon.

"This is one of the last pubs here where you can still smell the oil fry," says Director, contentedly. "The poseur ones have installed ventilation. Psssh." Girl is in a mood for a vegetarian meal, but after skipping through the menu, she decides that the most vegetarian thing here is cod liver. Outside the pub, a drunk patron is having a smoke, yelling at a friend: "I’ve never been late to work! Well, maybe once, but that was four years ago!""Didn’t you say you go to work late all the time because of the fucking trams?" his friend replies. "Well YEAH, I hate those fucking trams! They’re the reason why I’m always late at work!"

As Residents Flee, the Future Is Bleak (But Change Might Still Come)

For foreigners, the Old Town can be downright baffling — a few years back, Boy held an interview with a professional yo-yoer from USA. At the hyper-elegant café inside Rudolfinum, no less.

When asked which thing fascinated her the most about Prague, she just waved her arms around: "Right now, we are sitting in a building that’s older than my own country! When we talk about ‘ancient history’, we actually mean things like ‘that time where people started to build railroad tracks’. Here, you just casually walk around buildings from the Middle Age. And it’s completely normal to you, but for me, as an American, that’s fascinating."

It’s true that if you stop for a moment and try to look at the Old Town from the viewpoint of a foreigner, you’ll realize how beautiful it really is. The quarter is small, but you can still spend hours exploring it. Go for a walk around Stavovské divadlo (and maybe have a beer right there in a pub that lies under it), stroll by the U Závoje passage, check out the last two towers of the former Old Town fortification in Bartolomějská, gaze upon the majestically quiet Klementinum building (with a weather station that started running in 1774), visit the churches of Saint Salvador and Saint Kliment… and, who knows, maybe you’ll randomly end up in a small passage that connects Karlová and Řetězová streets, famous for its Disco Duck vintage record shop.

Director also points out that there is a somewhat secret shortcut between Liliová and Husova: "It’s… how to put it… it’s great if you’re on a date and want to, well… make love. Yeah. Also, Dům pánů z Kunštátu is great as well. There’s dozens of places like that."

But you can’t live comfortably in a neighborhood just because it is picturesque — and the residents of Old Town face significant challenges that just don’t exist anywhere else (or at least are not that severe). Director explains: "There’s a decree that prohibits drinking alcohol outside. Otherwise, living here would be unbearable. Street like Dlouhá, Kaprova or Michalská basically serve as huge ‘GET DRUNK HERE’ signs for thousands of tourists. The decree is Prague’s way of trying to combat this ‘booze tourism’ that’s rampant in the city. People are visiting our neighborhood, the place where we live every day, solely to get wasted and yell and smash stuff."

"Why is that even happening? Well — look at the rents here. To live here is so absurdly expensive that if you don’t already own an apartment, you’ll probably never be able to. But you know who can pay the rents? Posh, tourist-friendly drink bars. That need to attract as many people as they can."

"What’s interesting is that most of the tourists follow the same path — Karlova street is so packed during the day that it might be literally impossible to get through at a normal pace. Twenty meters over, there’s Anenská, at the same time completely empty." Actress agrees: "Karlova is hellish. But there’s nothing you can do about it — you have to go there if you study there. After a few days, you’ll start to hate crowds with the power of a thousand suns."

"I had my vendetta once, though. I got stracciattella ice cream from Creme de la Creme, which is by the way the best ice cream place around, and plastered it over some Italian lady’s back, to let everyone know that LOCALS STRIKE BACK. Bwahahaha."

Director’s advice? To visit the Old Town sometime between 4 and 7:30 AM — that’s the time when even Charles Bridge tends to be empty. Jane agrees: "The only people you’ll meet there are tourists who wanted to drink on, but didn’t want to get lost in that flashy EDM hive around Dlouhá. Which is always nice. You can hang out with them, sitting right in the middle of Prague’s most sought-after tourist spot, alone, with a guitar and some wine. Amazing."

So how come the neighboring Lesser Town flourishes in revival and locals are again hanging out on its streets? It’s as beautiful and historic as the Old Town, yet, living there is much more bearable (some say awesome, even). Director thinks that it has something to do with the fact that while the Old Town basically lies on a flat riverbank, Lesser Town looms over from a nearby hill and therefore can’t be reached that easily. This relative isolation makes Lesser Town feel almost like a separate village, whereas the Old Town… "In a building we used to live, there are thirteen empty apartments. Thirteen," adds Director, bitterly. "The owner thinks he can rent them out for horrendous prices, but there are no people to invest in that."

"Years ago, the neighborhood was much more colorful. The residents fell into all these social classes — there were rich people, sure, but also small merchants, craftsmen, teachers, artists… It was diverse. But now, as all the apartments are similarly expensive, the diversity quickly wears off. These days, ALL the residents are rich. They have to be, otherwise they couldn’t afford to live here. Which also means they have similar lifestyles, go out at similar times, work at similar businesses, get up and go to sleep at similar times. The life in the Old Town has become uniform. It’s like a satellite suburb, only smack dab in the middle of the city."

Jane adds that not only the apartments are expensive, but offices and other places as well: "The Old Town is now owned by rich Russians, Italians, Arabs and Israelis. And, of course, friends of important politicians. If you have the right contacts in the city hall, you can get a place for a few bucks and turn it into overpriced AirBnB spot. That happens, and it’s a huge problem. Nobody will rent out a flat to a local even for a hefty price when they can make four, five times as much from AirBnB."

Of course, locals have their own ways of navigating the neighborhood. They’re not even that complicated. Rule number one? Stay out of tourist trap restaurants. They usually boast a sign that says something like ROAST DUCK TYPICAL CZECH STYLE, or have Švejk somewhere in the name. Little Vietnamese shops also sell ridiculously overpriced stuff here. "This fake rustic style… it’s everywhere," Director admits.

"Even in pizzerias, which is bizarre. Large, massive wooden tables, faux old-timey “traditional Czech” décor, chairs made of logs, walls decorated with flails and sickles… and linguine on the menu. What?"

"But you can still find decent places to eat," counters Girl, an expert on Prague’s foodie scene. "There’s a nice bistro called Mistral right across U Parlamentu. For steaks, head to George Prime Steak near the library. For breakfasts, there’s La Bottega di Finestra. Even Bistro Kaprova is fine, if you don’t mind going to Kaprova street."

The latter sprung up in a place where a legendary bookshop used to be — yet another sign that the Old Town is losing touch with its residents. Can this trend be reversed? Everybody thinks that yes, it can, but it’ll take serious time and effort. "I’m hoping that once the generation of eighties and nineties dies out and the buildings change owners, it’ll settle down," Director says. "The new generation will hopefully try to find ways to get the Old Town back on track. They’ll want to live here, and you can’t live in a giant exhibition of luxury cars, overpriced beer, and Russian nesting dolls. They’ll want to live in a city. A normal one."

"It’ll take time, sure. But things will eventually get better. I firmly believe that."

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