Bar Crawls: Prague, The Royal Route

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Walking the Royal Route is generally regarded as the most beautiful sightseeing route in the city of Prague, extraordinary in not only its variety but its expanse. A walk from the Powder Tower to Prague Castle will take the average person 25 minutes, not factoring in pausing to admire the sights and sounds. The gradient to Prague Castle, manages to slow down many an unfit tourist yet even if you are fit as a fiddle, it’s wise not to rush, but to try and take it all in steadily as you go along.

Elements of the route are unfortunately but inevitably mired in opportunistic tourist tat, clogged to a virtual stand-still at peak season, so a diversion to a pub is a great way to take a load off and take advantage of the hubbub and atmosphere of the excitable crowds.

Czechia is a country where you almost expect to find a pub on almost every street corner, while the choice of options gets even more concentrated in the capital Prague itself. The trick however is finding the proper pubs and the bars that aren’t interested in rinsing you for expensive shots and dragging you into VIP areas so they can discover the maximum limit on your credit card, and ones that aren’t generic and faintly depressing dives either. Sadly there are plenty falling into both category; pleasantly there are plenty that don’t.

Although the Royal Route travels East to West, finishing at Prague castle, I propose walking the full route first, going for lunch, and then making your way back to your starting point via a series of pubs and bars.

We start in Hradcany, the castle district. At this point, having ascended the castle hill from Nerudova in Mala Strana and up the steps, I am sure your heart will be pounding. Take your time to admire the view and by all means have a poke around the castle grounds – you won’t fall short of activities. However, the bar crawl starts in earnest at 1. Klasterni pivovar Strahov, a brewery and restaurant attached to the monastery, formerly brewing until 1904, but which in 2000 reopened with the vague notion of upholding ‘monastic tradition’ and the very firm notion of making oodles of money.

For the ultimate panorama of Prague take a walk across to the viewing terrace up Uvoz, where you can also admire the twin onion-domes of the monastery and its gleaming white front.

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Capitalism aside, the food and the beer is of good quality (albeit leaning towards western wallets, price-wise) while the open plan lunch hall is atmospheric and faintly medieval without clubbing you over the head with it. My personal favourite of their drinks is the dark lager with a distinct bitter note but some seasonal variants crop up every few months and may be more suitable for your needs.  There is also a small bar the other side of the courtyard if you just want a beer, though it is small and can be very tricky to find space during peak times.

The turn of the millennium has been a period of revived brewing – and to an extent cooking in the Czech Republic, but it’s time to get medieval and it doesn’t get more old-school than the cro-magnon appeal of 2. U Cerneho Vola (The Black Ox) a simple drinking den where tourists are tolerated rather than requited. Don’t be surprised if your choice of seat or lingering around results in being barked at to take a seat down in the backroom!

As written about in my full profile (click above), staff at this pub would prefer it if you spoke a few pleasantries in Czech, wherein their expressions will alter slightly but perceptibly from a snarl to a pursed upper lip in appreciation of your token effort.

The prices in U Cerneho Vola have always been fantastic considering it’s a few hundred metres away from Prague Castle and its wares are as basic as you can get, to send a signal loud and clear to the public. The dark Kozel is kept and poured to near perfection in here, and none of my visits are without sinking at least one of these. The difficulty is that the Pilsner and the light Kozel are so damn good too.

It must have something to do with the back-to-basics approach. If this pub couldn’t keep and pour good beer it may as well close down.

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Yet it isn’t all beer, if you ever wanted white wine served in a half-pint glass this is the place to come. Whatever it was (probably Müller-Thürgau), it cost £1 for a fair old glug and satisfied the needs of my non pilsner-appreciative partner. This place is one of my favourite pubs in the world.

You see, there was a reason I did the crawl this way around – the hard yards have been done, and it’s all downhill back to Mala Strana, Charles Bridge and the old town.

Just as one fantastic pub passes, another one arrives in 3. U Hrocha (The Hippo). These particular two pubs are the jewels of Prague in my opinion, yet counter to the norm are both located in Mala Strana, not really a noteworthy area for great pubs. This fantastic place is located on a gradient up a steep hill to the castle, already lending it a suitably crooked characterful look from the exterior. As you descend, look out for the Pilsner Urquell branded sign above the door and dive into an entrance hall. To your left is the taproom, and your right… well… don’t ask me why anyone really wants to go in there.

Small but perfectly formed, this pub epitomises Czech pub going – the bar manned by an intransigent portly wolfman tapster who can be prompted by the slight twich of a neck muscle to unleash another pullitr of Pilsner Urquell in a matter of seconds, and a cosy arrangement of tables and niches that has this certain something, genius locii, I suppose.

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I’ve had many a good night in here as the premium on seating tends to provoke communal conversation and new meetings. The ambient creates a cosy club-like grip that makes you relate to the Czech’s compulsive drinking in the iconic and hilarious book  The Good Soldier Svejk, where various characters find themselves unable to drag themselves out of the pub to carry out their bureaucratic duties.

The proximity to the castle means that it receives plenty of tourist custom, but even Prague has its downtime – during a very cold week in March 2018 I discovered that the locals are ready and waiting – they re-emerge to reclaim their pub until the tourists return. A fabulous experience.

The Pilsner Urquell is teed up, with its gigantic head, and there’s no particular need to stray from that for the time being. During winter, as the light of the afternoon fades and the lamplight slowly takes over it feels like you wouldn’t be anywhere else.

However, being a pub crawl and everything, you could hardly quit now. What’s more, things are about to get even better. At 3pm 4. U Zlateho Tygra (The Golden Tiger) opens, and this is the most famous of the Pilsner pubs in the city.

This historic venue has patrons queuing around the block, early afternoon to get a seat. It’s first come first-served, and as tables are reserved for the evening this is by far your best chance to enjoy it. This isn’t like queuing for a pub, however, turning up 10-15 minutes beforehand should ensure you are ahead of the queue sufficiently.

To get there, retrace your steps over Charles Bridge and just see if you don’t pick out a few more dozen things you missed on the skyline from last time. It isn’t an experience you easily tire of. However, once you pass under the eastern tower, your next stop is close, and just a quick detour off Karlova.

The Golden Tiger has for a long time been used as an archetype for a Czech tavern – I would say it is generally better than the average one (an archetype these days would be the most generic of the Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurants you get everywhere), but you can see given the location why this would be a convenient place to take a dignitary. For centuries people of high status have drank among equals, bankers, builders, artists, anarchists, clergymen and anything in between; this has always been one of the trademark aspects of Czech pub culture. When you are sat down with a beer there are no distinctions between class. (although admittedly most of the women in here are either tourists or wives of old Czech blokes who have accepted their lot in life is to hold forth in the pub).

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U Zlateho Tygra has actively pursued a policy of remaining Czech and for Czechs, so this extends to the unnecessary, yet deliberately haughty service given to foreigners. Note the volte-face when anyone they know walks through the door. This is (depending on your point of view) chauvinistic, deeply cynical in order to maintain their asset, or their absolute right as publicans.

Consider it a pushback against the place being overrun with tourists and gentrified, as it surely would be without a little resistance. Therefore give them a break – even when they insist on serving the Pilsner Urquell in their very slightly below half-litre portions.

At first, the atmosphere is excitable, almost as though one were engaged on a fairground ride, but soon settles down to business: friendly, bustling and a great place to start up a conversation with a stranger. This really is a pub to be reckoned with.

Time for a break from Pilsner Urquell – and beer. Well, ordinary beer, in any event. My next recommendation is a change of speed, 5. Absintherie, an absinth bar aiming to capitalise on the worldwide interest in ephemeral bohemian decadence, and the appealing art of its greatest marketeer, Alfons Mucha. An art-nouveau styled bar is the kind of thing you visit Prague to find, and while it could use a little bit more iron and steel to truly hit the mark, the layout and general atmosphere is effective, particularly the cabinets at either side of the room.

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If you really must, there’s a couple of beers on offer, but while in Prague, you really should try some heated absinth, perhaps with a bit of sugar thrown in. The mouthfeel is beyond anything you’ll have come across, and it breaks up what can be a relentless lagery day.

Ok, have you beer geeks finished grumbling yet? You’ll be glad to know its beer all the way to the end, but our next stop is on the core of the route itself.

Imagine a medieval or renaissance city at its peak. A wander down Karlova through to the old town square is about the best assistance your imagination will ever get, and no amount of wandering up and down, thai massage parlours, con artists, stag parties and all has ever made me tire of that special atmosphere.

After several beers and spirits it would be wise to stop for further food. On the Royal Route there are now few superior options for straight up drinking left until you get past the Powder Tower, but there is 6. Pivovar U Supa, a relatively new microbrewery with a well-reputed and award-winning 12 degrees svetly lezak, light lager and kitchen, which will knock up some safety-first Czech cooking at a price not too offensive to Western eyes. Fill your belly, and saddle up for the rest of the evening.  It’s all a little new and corporate to my eyes, but you can’t deny the money has been well-spent; the building itself lavishly decorated.

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Namesti Republiky is more or less the limit of the royal route, but not far away at all is an extraordinarily out-of-place hideous shopping centre and department store, which is easy to find as it’s that appalling tesseract of 1980s hexagons that stands out a mile. Now why in heaven’s name am I dragging you there? Some readers may already know the answer.

7. T-Anker is a terrace bar, a genre normally synonymous with “incredibly bland place with fake plants and inoffensive lounge jazz”, and the décor doesn’t do much to dissuade anyone of that view, but in this case their range of beers and the undeniably dramatic view over the rooftops of Prague, whether that by day or night makes it a must-visit location.

Although you can use the lift, it is possible to ascend via the stairs, that is, if you want a truly alarming experience. Vandalised, encrusted with detritus, pigeon feathers and seemingly derelict, it can actually be used to access this swish terrace bar. No, trust me. No, I know there’s a big creaking scary metal door. Push it – see what happens.

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If it’s one of those bitterly cold Czech nights, there is a heated section on the terrace and a reasonably sized indoor bar, but let’s face it, you’re here for the view aren’t you? Now, this place is not especially well reviewed, nor is it particularly cheap, but for a unique drink, especially if you’re only going to be there once, it’s well worth checking out. Bear in mind it kicks out at 10pm, probably because they won’t be able to see if someone falls off the side.

Now, it’s time to get down to earth, literally and metaphorically for the final stop of the evening. No more pretentious cocktail crowds to associate with – this place is seriously low key. 8. Hostomicka Nalevarna is a resurrection of a superb and very in-the-know old boozer called Vycep Soukenicka, this time in the guise of offering the beers of Pivovar Hostomice. While that in itself is quite interesting – particularly for a city where 3 or 4 beer brands dominate, I’m pleased to say the pub is a lovely, cosy effort and the main reason to visit. The only window is at the front, itself covered, so feels like entering a friendly cabin.

You’ll note the décor is wood, wood, wood and more wood, and it looks like the only thing they’ve done since it last functioned as a bar is stuck some printouts of the new beer options up, made sure the lines are clean and the cash register works. Oh, and they added a big new telly – though that isn’t unusual, even for an old dive like this – Hostinec U Rotundy upgraded their TV recently.

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Man, their unfiltered 12 degrees lager goes down well, and check out their prices – not too shabby at all.

This spot is supposed to be for locals in-the-know, and apparently consciously disinterested in advertising its existince.

I find this kind of thing fascinating coming from Leeds, UK, where the survival of a pub depends on shouting its latests offers from the rooftops or being situated next to the train station.

On my visits to Nalevarna there always seems to be a hint of raised eyebrow from the young guy at the bar when some English conversation arises. Do I feel guilty about treading on their attempt to stay clear of tourists? Nope, not one bit. If you’re going to open a pub with beer this good, at this price, in the centre of Prague, I’m coming down and what’s more I’m telling my friends about you.

Mind you, you probably knew that by now.

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