April 13th-18th – Czechia 🇨🇿 & Borderlands 🇩🇪🇵🇱 – Trip #5 of 23

You are reading Part 3 of our 24 day tour of central Europe, which started with Part 1 – Austria & Slovenia and Part 2 – Croatia.

For the next 5 days we would visit the pubs and bars of Brno & Prague, go hiking in the Český ráj (Bohemian Paradise), visiting Turnov & Liberec in Czechia 🇨🇿 before navigating the borderlands of Zittau, Görlitz in Germany 🇩🇪 then Zgorzelec & Legnica in Poland. 🇵🇱

Day 1 – Planes, Trains & a Šalina named Desire – Brno & Prague

After a very boozy evening with our Zagreb 🇭🇷 pal , followed by a cripplingly early start to the airport I wasn’t feeling all that great on landing in Bratislava 🇸🇰. Arrival early and in the pouring rain we headed for an omelette and a lemonade in efforts to perk up. Semi-successful. A 50 minute delay on the train to Brno didn’t improve matters as we kicked around the cold damp station concourse of one of Europe’s less pleasing stations, but eventually we were away.

Our 2nd visit to Brno 🇨🇿 this year after our January trip, and something like 8th occasion in this lovely city, it is nice turning up somewhere already knowing where things are and how to get to them – not least when the rain is absolutely hammering down. Good old April 🌧️!

Such conditions require safety first decision making, meaning an umpteenth trip to Pivovar Pegas 🇨🇿 for lunch and a beer (but equally important warmth and dry). Stolidity is an underrated quality on such occasions. Traditional with more of a pubby feel than perhaps even the creators initially intended, they churn out a core range of beers which vary from alright to surprisingly good, with a roster of seasonal specials. Food is city centre prices and decent enough.

Once fed and watered, I emerged to find the rain easing off, the city itself quiet aside the tram stops. Brno’s term for trams is Šalina, which is nearer in terminology to ‘Streetcar’. As with most of central Europe these are very useful, normally in good condition, quick, clean and cheap, all allowing people to explore far more – I can’t encourage their usage enough. A few stops up the road dropped us off at one of Brno’s cult pubs, almost the first name that comes off people’s lips when you mention Brno boozers: Hostinec U Bláhovky 🇨🇿 .

This place has a draw. After a first experience here, if you find yourself even in the same region you feel an almost magnetic pull to head there for a pint. Pilsner Urquell is not the standard beer in Brno as it is in Prague, the picture is mixed. Aside of Stopkova in the city centre, this is the next known place for it, something recognised in Prazdroj’s ‘Legend Tapster’ series, with one of the acclaimed individuals pouring the beers at Bláhovky.

Rather than being a big beer hall, this is a neighbourhood pub on a corner. You’ll encounter the regulars on a table adjacent to a bar, groups of people who know each other well, the great, good and everyone next on the rank. On weekends you’ll find a queue of people outside in preparation for opening. A beer is assumed unless you make an interjection, and this can be enjoyed on the stand/na stojaka by the bar or sat on high tables opposite or the backroom. The local life and the ingrained rhythm of service is special, this is a truly outstanding bar in Europe that made this year’s Top 100.

On a limited timeframe, we had time to squeeze in three more venues before our journey to Prague 🇨🇿 . We prioritised seeing somewhere we hadn’t been to before and two venues we hadn’t been to for a few years. Starting at U všech svatých (The All Saints) 🇨🇿, we were keen to revisit on account of not really exploring the pub properly. Multi-room with mid-brown wood panelling and large religious prints, this is a Poutník pub with their regular light lager and its unfiltered version on tap, both at very reasonable prices. The service was kind, even giving a smile as I launched into the few exchanges in Czech I can handle without difficulty. They have rather shot themselves in the foot by only having one enormous stamgast table at the bar, which kind of rules that room out as being a social focal point when no-one is there. But the pub is likeable, naturally likeable, almost with a bit of underdog spirit, local charm, quite versatile too. And the beer… good grief, it was every bit as tasty as it looks.

A change of scenery followed as we walked back to Brno’s central square, the Cabbage Market, Zelný trh to Air Café 🇨🇿, our 1st visit here. By no means a beer bar, this central bar specialises in spirits and has a theme, decorated with WWII memorabilia to recognised British and Czech co-operation in the war. Service and the atmosphere is international, it felt like the bar guy would rather have conversed in English. I did enjoy the fact my small beer (Fagan, from a small Moravian brewery) was poured schnitt-style with a big head. Kudos to the bartender for that. The venue deserves an inclusion to the guide, and offers something a little bit different.

Further train delays meant only one thing – further beer. Somewhere quick, somewhere close by – ah! Pivnice u Poutnika 🇨🇿. Among Brno’s cult venues, a Pivnice with classic grumpy mute tapster, the curved ceilings and net curtains, but a slightly wilder knockabout vibe. An evening hangout, not somewhere to go for a meal or a date, put it that way. It’s name is instructive – they serve Poutník, and it’s bloody fantastic. When you get nice vibes in a virtually empty pub you know you’re somewhere pretty good. I know you’ll look at the below and think ‘what’s all the fuss about?’ – Trust me.

Having slightly overindulged, a 3 hour train journey probably wasn’t the worst outcome in order to sober up, or perhaps snooze it off. A relatively quiet train allowed for that, and it was early evening by the time we alighted at Praha hl. n and made our way to Žižkov district to check into our accommodation, drop bags off and relax for a few hours.

Our approach to exploring Prague bars these days is as follows: hit a few of the absolutely non-negotiable core venues, revisit one or two lesser visited, and find a few new venues. This keeps a nice balance of familiar trusty rewards, risks and novelty value.

With the weather brightening up, a walk along the Royal Route from the Powder Tower to the Old Town square and along Karlova to Charles Bridge and through Mala Strana up Nerudova to Prague Castle offers an entirely free and infinitely repeatable way to be astounded by mankind’s creations (not the pedestrians).

On the way, we attempted, perhaps foolishly, to get a seat at a table in U Zlatého tygra 🇨🇿, without luck. It would take another 2 tries on our trip before we succeeded.

Normally the next selection would be something like U Medvidku, U Vejvodu or U Rudolfina, all nearby, but I was in the mood to go straight for the bullseye. On entry to a Top 100 Bar in Europe, U Hrocha, 🇨🇿 things didn’t look any more promising in terms of seating, but the atmosphere was terrific, and I engineered – awkwardly – a leaning post in one of the niches. The server was struggling with the swell of people and it was difficult to get people’s attention, but I eventually secure the treasured Pilsner, which at the time of writing cost 49 crowns, unreal in that part of Prague. Bustling and glowing with that steam you get on wet evenings in warm rooms, this was the pub reaching its zenith – it was just a shame no-one else was with us to enjoy those moments.

The climb up to Hradčany, Prague’s Castle Hill is usually followed by the reward: a beer at U Černého vola 🇨🇿. This time however it was not to be, with no spaces opening up on the tables inside. More than a little frustrating given there aren’t exactly a ton of pubs up at the top of there. In fact it was a rare occasion where on a trip to Prague we didn’t manage a visit.

Tram #22 from Pohorelec stop is the way out from there. You can drop down and round back to where you started, or head west, which is what we chose to do, in search of a pub that had eluded us for years: Majk L’Atmosphere 🇨🇿

Originally recommended by Pivni Filosof Max Bahnson in his 2015 edition of Pisshead’s Guide To Prague. Several years have passed including Covid, with a period of silence as to this bars operation. I noticed it had also moved, though not far, across the other side of the road. Initially we were worrying it had gone altogether.

The place is clandestine to say the least, the exterior doesn’t exactly scream “come in”, although as you approach the door the sound of drunkenness bleeds through. On entrance, something of a madhouse. Cackling old server with frozen perm, a group of rastafarians, and one or two others smoking. Another venue which gets around Prague’s smoking ban by turning themselves into a club, in the most ad hoc way possible. Ring the bell, be buzzed in. Ta-da!

I chose a table adjacent to the bar, somewhat appropriate for my rubbernecking rather than deep dive into this culture. Before long a guy started up conversation with me – who revealed after 10 minutes he was the owner. Florian has run the place for the last few years and was interested both in my efforts to learn Czech and the fact I knew one of his beer suppliers, Pavel Kyslousek who brews at Pivovar Olešná. Oh yes, despite the bar giving off no promising vibes whatsoever about good beer, they actually stock a beer on tap from one of Czechia’s modern facing little independent breweries. Go figure!

One of those memorable down n’ dirty dive bars, an experience you can only have through taking a risk, stepping into the weird looking room.

Not that the weirdness was about to stop. After this I decided to go further away from the centre. When you’re used to the tram movements, honestly, nothing phases you about getting around this city. U Prezidentů 🇨🇿 is a true one off. A family-run hospoda in a genteel and very un-pubby neighbourhood that has taken a step further and turned the space into a plush living room covered in portraits of previous presidents along with graffiti and scrawled excoriations of many of them. The elderly gentleman is kind and runs the show in a hospitable fashion that is just not taught these days. This was our 3rd visit and what really stood out this time is how much the owners actually enjoy what they do.

Several beers in now, I had to refer to our list of tweets and camera footage to confirm what happened next: Minirest 🇨🇿 happened! This place is convenient as hell – it is located yards away from Náměstí Republiky and Masarykovo nádraží and stays open until 2am most days. This helps stitch together bar crawls very well. The interior, curved ceilings aside, is no great shakes, but the beer is excellent, focusing on offerings from small independent brewers, the atmosphere is always intimate and social, and there’s usually football/hockey on TV. The bar guy is pretty gruff, but it’s Prague where anything else is actually notable.

So endeth Day 1 in Czechia.

Day 2 – The day the rain turned to rain

From the point of waking up to falling asleep it did not stop, mostly persistent, heavy rain, sometimes easing to simply ‘rain’. I can’t remember in the last 10 years a day I spent abroad that was so unrelenting. However, where better to find oneself in such a situation than Prague? City of indoor activities – boozy ones!

After a tactical lie-in, I figured it was best to visit some fresh target venues today, starting with a soggy walk up the hill to U Mariánského obrazu 🇨🇿. This came after some quite persistent recommending on Czech Beer Fan Club. I found it a decent diner with a local crowd, good food at honest prices in a very familiar feeling setting. Think of places such as U Veverky that do similar. One thing it was not though, was a pub. It’s an eatery! This is not really somewhere you’d go to hang out during the day and was a little lacking.

Sated in the stomach, if nothing else, I decided to make the next venue an out-and-out boozer, Hostinec na Schůdku 🇨🇿 It was not a long walk away, and on approach it looked promising. Telltale Gambrinus signage and a personalised look. Unfortunately, on entry it was obvious it had received a bland renovation, spoiling things. Even some of the Bohemians signage I had seen online had been removed. And then the wifi wasn’t working, leaving me with a handful of mute customers and a jar of Gambrinus (I wasn’t all that keen on drinking it), yet trapped there until I did. Not a bad place exactly, but not up to the mark for our guide.

After two strikeouts it was time to go somewhere that delivers over and over again: U Sadu 🇨🇿. Too much written about it already to say anything new, but the main pub room was as always, a timeless dusty and atmospheric experience even during a quiet rainy afternoon.

A break from beer and bars followed with some classic Prague tourist stuff and a rest. The plan was to have an earlier evening out rather than the heavy two previous days. We were going somewhere new though, to Dva Kohouti 🇨🇿 a brewpub that’s one of Prague’s hippest, happening and all other fuddy-sounding adjectives that betray my latent prejudice and my guilt through feeling out of touch at being disinterested in visiting a US-style brewery taproom in Prague. I was however still interested in their beer and understanding why the place is popular.

Karlin is generally the test-bed neighbourhood in Prague for whatever globalised derivatives they are attempting, financed by whatever unimaginative businessmen can see already happening in America. This is fair enough – the locals want more than simply Czech restaurants, and to be honest, the taproom itself is a welcome addition, no matter how unexcited I may have been by the unimaginative décor, an exclusively middle class white crowd and amusingly expensive prices (64kc for 0.4l of the house lager brewed on site – effectively £4 for a pint in Prague. Guys, it’s tasty, but it’s not that good).

The summary: You’ll have been to somewhere like this before, it’s clean, it’s shiny, there are tasty beers. It’s fine. If you’re seeking a little bit of a distinctive experience with your product, maybe head elsewhere. We did.

I was keen to get back to Prague’s roots after that, and took a first visit to the trad Pilsner Pivnice Na Mělníku 🇨🇿 in the district of Holešovice. This simple boozer ain’t changing for no-one, with its time-worn cream walls, dark chunky furniture and round after round of decent Pilsner Urquell keeping the customers happy. While a familiar format this is a likeable bolthole with varied custom that’s enough off the tourist trail to feel like a genuine local’s pub.

Keeping our eyes on the prize, next stop was Hangar Pub & Pivotéka 🇨🇿 a short walk into Letna. Still raining, by the way. This venue benefits from the classic Czech hospoda arrangement, social space simply furnished in a half-step basement, a layout that encourages cross-table chat and feels neighbourly even in a city centre. The beers were so-so, not all that great value either, however this was complimented by an eye-catching selection in the fridge. Service was by Prague’s standard warm and welcoming which helped. Their airplane theme adds an identity without smothering the place, so all-in-all, tastefully done little pub that we added to our guide.

This part of Prague is going through a really hot patch, and I’d recommend it as having just as many good pubs in number as the Old Town and Malá Strana put together. Yes, some of the venues don’t have that sense of history and institution but they ably compensate in their authenticity, the absence of tourist churn and perhaps less focus on food too. Our next stop was a classic example, our first visit to Na Sekyrce. 🇨🇿Personalised, local and social, this is very much about local gossip and the social connections people there have, one of those pubs that becomes more than just the sum of its parts and we were convinced to include it on our guide.

After a long day out we had a long rest and, with the weather unrelenting, only popped down to the neighbourhood pub U Járy 🇨🇿 near our apartment for a pint, which was ticking along, server jolly as ever. The visit was perhaps our final chance to taste Pardubický Porter, a creation that has a history of being a celebration beer in Czechia in the years prior to revolution when the choice available was so much more limited. The brewery has been closed down by their parent owners and while they are persisting brewing some of their brands off-site, this one is unlikely to be anything other than a very occasional limited edition brew. A sad day for all concerned. At this pub, this very strong 8% abv beer was always available for pennies.

Day 3 – Final day in Prague

So far, a proper seat at some of Prague’s more famous venues had eluded me. Keen to put that right, an early start and walk in Petrin park was sufficient to work up a thirst ahead of arrival at U Hrocha 🇨🇿 shortly after opening time. This time I didn’t have to hide under some niche like a guilty interloper, but secured a table facing the taps, one of the best seats in the house. Wolfie wasn’t on taps this time but I recognised the other geezer from previous visits.

Dropping down the hill next, we checked out a café bar that’s been gathering plenty of attention and rave reviews: Roesel 🇨🇿. This is a modern venue although in a historic building. You enter via an alley and work your way to the back of a small courtyard, entering a room with a curved ceiling. These guys serve up to date beers and a good standard of basic Czech pub food that’s purposefully tuned up a notch. While inevitably attracting a certain segment that you might call the Instagram crowd, that’s not too distracting. This is definitely a place where individual groups keep themselves to themselves, it is not as social a venue for mixing, and it narrowly missed a guide inclusion – probably for that reason alone. Enjoyed it – the interior and experience was better than the pictures make it look.

After this we were marking time until the opening of The Golden Tiger, U Zlatého tygra 🇨🇿 at 3pm, but doing so in two of the old town’s best pubs, U Rotundy 🇨🇿 and U Medvidku 🇨🇿. These stalwarts offer reliable, slightly different experiences. U Rotundy is a frozen in time hospoda with simple and basic wares, sport on telly and a scruffy, but friendly tapster. Medvidku is a giant beer hall equipped to deal with inundations of people, but is a perfectly decent place to stop for a pint – they also brew their own beers.

Finally it was time – not quite – 2.40pm which is about the time you need to be joining the queue outside U Zlatého tygra 🇨🇿 to ensure a seat. Once open you have effectively 2 hours until the table reservations start kicking in, after which your chances of getting sat down reduce dramatically. You’ll be guided to a place by the server – be sure to take a look around because unless you’re with a group of people, these folks are your drinking buddies for the next two hours. I had a group of Finns to my left who were friendly and inquisitive, and a Prague resident with a Mongolian he had befriended in the queue. This is the joy of the place. There can be frustrating aspects, sure, but among the throng you become initiated, time slides away, you’ll be lucky to escape without necking shy of three Pilsners, often many more. Simply one of Europe’s best pubs.

Even though the beers were padded down securely by a round of Ďábelské topinky at The Golden Tiger, it was still time for a well earned rest.

In the evening we made a couple of first time visits in the Žižkov district. Unijazz 🇨🇿 is a café bar/Kavárna/bookish type event space with predictably warm, friendly service. The interior is homely with huge rugs and vintage furniture, and the audience were a predictable crowd of post-grads. Their beer selection is decent, more similar to the independent options you tend to find in Brno. Although it didn’t grab me by the scruff of the neck, I still quite liked it and it was only a few tiny points away from an inclusion.

The next venue is too much of a well-known pub in Žižkov to not have ever visited. While I wasn’t entirely convinced it would make the guide, it deserved at try: Planeta Žižkov 🇨🇿 is the epitome of an all-rounder. Yes, it does everything reasonably well to a good standard. It’s quite pubby and certainly popular. The decoration won’t last long in the memory but good service and social environment is on offer. Not distinctive enough to earn a guide recommendation but as a fallback option it will serve well.

Day 4 – Český ráj – Bohemian Paradise

Part of our trip was intended to explore the national park Český ráj, reachable by train from Prague in a couple of hours via the town of Turnov. The journey became extended due to a rail replacement service from Mlada Boleslav, meaning we arrived a little later than planned. However, we were still able to catch the train and walk from Ktova through the famous rock formations at Hrubá Skála to the clifftop chateau of Hrad Valdštejn with enough time to return before the rain – and possibly thunderstorm – set in. It is a truly beautiful as well as distinctive and unusual area with little caverns and crevasses to explore, and rocks towering above and below you.

On our way back to Turnov we passed by the village of Mašov, making sure to check the local pub situation. Hospůdka Sokolovna Mašov 🇨🇿 is part social club, part pub with darts, three cushion pool, and community events. The beer (Svijany & Rohozec) was as expected, very cheap and the welcome was reasonable, all things considered. While the pub won’t enter our guide it was nonetheless a bit of a living museum to a particularly local experience.

A review of Turnov’s nightlife did not look promising and to make matters worse, it was a Sunday too. However, even in smaller towns you can generally expect to find a local brewery (Pivovar) and their taproom, which was no different here. Dinner and a very tasty pint at the modern, warm, but rather angular and sterile taproom Turnovská pivnice Slavie 🇨🇿 kicked things off. There was about as much socialising going on there as the local graveyard and a couple of the young staff were a little too staring and rude.

The subsequent ‘choices’ weren’t selections so much as finding anywhere that was open. Things were about to get very local and a little bit too much so as we wandered across the bridge to Hospoda Stará Smrt, 🇨🇿 translating to ‘Old Death’. I certainly received a slice of that from the woman serving, not through any lack of etiquette on my part. Mustering all my Czech pleasantries – greeting the staff as I arrived, ordering politely and asking if a table was free, and in return receiving a barely veiled hostile stare. It tells you how important welcome is to a pub, because if she’d been pleasant I may have considered including this raw, unvarnished and entirely authentic smoky pajzl. A community of grizzled locals, yet another three cushion pool table (what’s going on in this part of the world), a seriously cheap pint, but no feeling I could be at ease.

After this there was virtually nothing left. I passed by the empty and beginning to close BAR ne BAR. That was somewhere of close to zero interest so carried on until reaching Barrel Bar 🇨🇿. This competent late night bar specialised in rum, while also offering pivo of course, but other than the clique involving the bartender’s friends, there were no customers and it generally reeked of all the bad elements of provinciality.

A last ditch effort to salvage a guide entry in Turnov was made, walking to a pub with virtually no online presence or recent reviews in just the mere hope it might be open. For all the world I assumed it had been shuttered long ago, but then as I drew near – the lights were on at Hostinec V Zatáčce 🇨🇿. On entry there was an old woman working the taps and two paralytic customers. I quickly gleaned it was closing time and nodded as the tapster confirmed as much. While I didn’t see much to write home about it is good news the pub remains open for a town not endowed with many choices.

That was that – in lieu of a great pub we could at least get an early night and prepare for a long day of travel ahead.

Day 5 – Liberec 🇨🇿, Zittau 🇩🇪, Görlitz 🇩🇪, Legnica 🇵🇱

A hop step and jump is required when trying to get from Czechia to Poland. A row of mountain ranges and lack of huge cities make most border arrangements long and without much backup if things go wrong. The simplest way from Turnov to Poland happened to be via Germany.

First, a train to Liberec, a city we had visited once before in 2018 to visit the incredible town hall and Jested tower in the snow. In slightly warmer weather this time we saw nothing to divert us from Radniční sklípek 🇨🇿, the town hall’s beer cellar run by Svijany brewery.

Back in 2018 I felt the venue was useful rather than a great pub, but on this occasion I was able to see beyond the utility to what is a truly beautiful premises which has been well restored to show off stained glass, a curved, cloistered ceiling and candelabras, which along with the beer offerings (including 2 unpasteurised tank poured options) is an opulent venue that if placed somewhere like Prague would be busy every day. Despite the plum location the daily menu remains fair value and as it serves predominantly locals, it has to make the price fit the wallet.

I made a vain attempt to locate any other sort of pub or drinking hole between here and the train station, but it was futile, in fact it also caused me to miss my connection by maybe 30 seconds as I ran to the platform to see the train in motion, departing.

I was soon enough on the train to Zittau though, a beautiful little town. It was Monday mid-afternoon so expectations were low for pubs, but I figured there would at least be a competent Wirthaus or Gaststätte open. But it was worse than that – there was nothing! All I could do was look at Café Filmriß 🇩🇪 in the market square and dream about it being any other day and time.

Rather than hanging around for a miracle, we moved onto Görlitz. Our 2nd visit there, one of the most beautiful towns in Germany and possibly the most beautiful in Saxony. As we discovered, it is also rather middle-aged and staid, not a great combination for a vibrant nightlife.

After a tip-off we visited Sud Ost 🇩🇪, a café and minibrewery for the first time. As so often happens, the product was good – very good, the service was friendly and helpful, but the venue was awfully lacking, without social space, too many high chairs and the problem was acute enough that I barely found the place to be eligible, let alone other considerations because it is more like a coffee shop.

There is however a jewel in Görlitz which comes in the shape of Bierblume 🇩🇪. Here you can have home brewed beer but in a truly comfortable, cosy, friendly and all-round lovely environment in a historic old town building yards from the Polish border. 4 years ago I had popped by and spent an evening drinking the proprietor’s strong Dunkles bier with a Polish friend, and again this time, once seated it was very hard to even consider leaving. There was also no motive to, as it was 3 hours until the train from Zgorzelec (the Polish sister town of Görlitz) to Legnica was due. Sit back, relax, drinking Zoigl and Hefeweizen. Delighted to report this place goes from strength to strength.

Eventually time comes calling, and I reached Poland on foot from the footbridge over the Neisse, with a half hour walk to Zgorzelec station as the mist of the evening rolled in.

The Polish city of Legnica is halfway between Görlitz and Wrocław. It isn’t somewhere we’d been previously but appealed due to some nice postcards of the churches and the restored tenement houses in the centre. As it is, Legnica was a reasonable evening stop-off but I doubt we’ll be back any time soon.

On a Monday night bar choices were going to be a challenge, as it proved. Legnicki Browar 🇵🇱 , the typical ‘brewery taproom’ was open as we passed from the station to check into our apartment, but closed when we returned 40 minutes later. With other options closed due to being Monday, this left a selection of chain bars, namely Piwiarna Warka 🇵🇱, Pijalnia Wodki i Piwo 🇵🇱 and Ministerstwo Śledzia i Wódki 🇵🇱, the latter of which was by far the best. Yes, mainstream and towny but with a pleasing nostalgia-retro décor and some actual nightlife action going on.

The step down from drinking excellent Czech and German beer hours earlier was brutal, the Warka even by its own dismal standards one of the worst single beers I’ve ever had that was clearly meant to be as it was.

Legnica may prove a handy stop off for you at some point and is not without its diverting landmarks either, but it may make most sense to head direct to Wrocław, which is where our story next picks up!

There you have it! Part 3 of 4 of April’s trip. Please join us for Part 4 as we explore Poland 🇵🇱 for the remaining days of our trip, visiting Wrocław, Poznan, Bydgoszcz, Torun, Warsaw and Łódź!

April 7th-12th – Croatia 🇭🇷 – Trip#5 of 2023

Following 6 days in Austria and Slovenia as covered in Part 1, the next 6 days of our Big Trip of 2023 were spent in Croatia – firstly in Varaždin then the capital Zagreb!

Day 1 – Ptuj 🇸🇮 to Varaždin 🇭🇷 – Rail Replacements on Good Friday?

Unlike the almost seamless border transition by train between Graz 🇦🇹 and Maribor 🇸🇮, crossing the border from Ptuj 🇸🇮 into Croatia 🇭🇷 looked wooly to say the least. One of the spectacularly pointless elements of nationalism is making larger settlements that are in close proximity poorly connected – the Balkans is a particularly bad example. A 7am train from to Čakovec 🇭🇷 looked like the only option. Then, on inspecting the information online it appeared the train would go no further than somewhere called Ormož 🇸🇮 due to staffing issues and Good Friday. Unfamiliar with the reliability of Croatian rail replacement services, but aware all our eggs were in one basket, we had to try it.

In the end, the switch to the replacement bus was well choreographed by the train conductor, but the bus trundled along, getting us to Čakovec later than planned. A connecting train to Varaždin appeared to be horribly delayed, and the passengers listlessly kicking dust around the station concourse didn’t seem promising. The ticket officer also assured us it wouldn’t be coming and we could only get the next train 2 hours later. Resigned to that, we set off into Čakovec centre to have a look around and kill some time. Except – what is that on the horizon? As the station disappeared behind us, a train emblazoned with Varaždin approached. Running full pelt with full rucksacks, we got back to the platform in literally the nick of time, as the guard was about to blow his whistle. Off we went to Varaždin!

A northern city with an impressive central castle and beautiful Austrian-era old town, we first visited Varaždin in September 2014 where a 10-day festival Špancirfest was in full swing. Memories of cheerful crowds, bunting, huge barbecues, live music on the street and magical courtyards like Julijan’s Apartment 🇭🇷 left rose-tinted spectacles.

It is to be expected that any town goes through its highs and lows, and perhaps being Easter we could hope for something similar. We were wrong – on this year’s visit. Grey, quiet, with a hint of rain in the air, the experience was initially like after the Lord Mayor’s show, the air had been sucked out of the balloon somewhat. Still, after a café stop-off, castle visit and lunch, it was time to inspect the bars – bars we resolutely failed to visit in 2014, 3 years before this site was founded.

The first stop off, one we had recommended to us, was south east of the old town near the park. Medina Škrinja Pub 🇭🇷. Tucked around the rear of the building, you’ll find a pretty unremarkable set of patio furniture used by smokers, and uPVC type entrance, none of which sets off any great vibes. Hang in there though as the interior space opens out into a historic vaulted room, vast and dark. The ‘Bear’s Chest’ is decorated with a large ceiling centrepiece, the eponymous bear with a chest of treasure chained to it. Around the brick interior there are medieval sigils and a general acknowledgement that this is a very old building. The bar enjoys a decent beer selection – only a few that would get any beer geeks purring, but still clearly above average, and even during the afternoon there was a decent clutch of people and plenty of activity at the bar to create adequate atmosphere. We are confident the evening would be even better, and it was an easy inclusion to our guide.

Finally, it had rolled around to 3pm allowing us to check in our apartment, drop off our luggage and have a rest. Our next stop was on the fringes of town, around 25 minutes walk, Picabia Pub 🇭🇷. One of Croatia’s persistent issues is a lack of a pub type feel to its communal social drinking venues. While this place wouldn’t make our guide, it was pleasingly pubby in feel and appearance, the complimentary nuts made it reasonable value and it is basically a spacious neighbourhood hangout of a kind that are in fairly short supply in provincial Croatia.

After a stop for dinner, we looked around the centre in efforts to find Julijan’s Apartment 🇭🇷, only to find that it was closed (for the day, not permanently). Pretty gutting when you average 1 visit to Varaždin every decade.

This left 2 venues remaining, the first being only a semi-promising looking bar called Medonja 🇭🇷. Some places perhaps don’t photograph well, and this is one of them. It is true that the main lounge is unnecessarily green, and the bar area is pretty unremarkable. And yet two elements entirely compensated for that. Firstly the surprisingly good beer selection – you are not starved for decent choices, both Croatian and International. Secondly, it is a very effective social space that was on our visit buzzing with people.

A last stop of the evening was to the imaginatively titled Craft Beer Bar 🇭🇷. This guesthouse has converted its entrance hall into a café bar. It’s all done on a budget, with portable keg machines lined in a row below the stairs, the 1 member of staff gamely trying their best to cover orders, but nevertheless a long wait on a Friday night. There is a good social scene here, some interesting local craft beers on offer too, but the bare bones of the bar are somewhat lacking.

Day 2 – Arrival in Zagreb 🇭🇷

Varaždin to Zagreb by train involves a scenic, but very long journey around the villages, so we made the call to get a coach (not exactly quick either). The bus journey, mainly along single lane roads passes along rolling hills and villages, many of which have simple little farmsteads, a few chickens, goats, the odd pig here and there. It’s a good reminder of how fast the Balkans slides into simple rural life outside of the cities.

We spent 3 days in Zagreb on our previous visit, mainly staying rigidly around the old town and the boulevard towards the train station. It is curious looking back how much more closed and conservative our urban exploration was. This time, 5 nights would allow us to explore the city’s suburbs and its different sides.

As per usual, the dead time while waiting to check into our apartment was filled by bars – firstly Swanky Monkey Garden 🇭🇷, a hostel with an attractive modern tiered courtyard and bar – a fairly well executed bit of funkiness.

After that, a beer at the Ilica branch of Pivovar Medvedgrad Illica 🇭🇷 Tucked away off the street in a shopping mall, this is more of a traditional beer hall, with a large garden at the back. It had been a while since our last beer of theirs, back in 2017. What is noticeable is what strides forward they have made with both the traditional and modern beers. This operation is equipped and future-proofed, as far as beers go. In terms of the venue, it is a little too drab in terms of décor and atmosphere, not a place I would want to spend a long time in unless I was eating.

After check-in and a rest, we visited the fun, tragic, disturbing and amusing Museum of Broken Relationships which is worth a first time visit for any tourists.

The evening started with a walk along the Strossmayer boulevard, a treelined route overlooking central Zagreb with a great view of the cathedral at one end, through the old town to Tolkein’s House 🇭🇷, which was shut. We learn it has been closed a while, but may reopen soon. Oddly, the extension to it, Veliki Tolk 🇭🇷 was open. A little sparse on decoration and people, the drinks were fine, service also friendly enough, but we didn’t linger long.

One of the joys of exploring European cities is the prevalence of trams. Zagreb residents seem rather modest about their service. Perhaps theirs may seem inferior to some neighbours but trust the view of this English person with our generally awful urban transport: it’s still damn good. Affordable and comfortable, allowing to whoosh around the city. The pink line heads into the hills, and halfway up towards the cable car is the pubby mini-brewery Pivovara Mlinarica 🇭🇷 (possibly translates as Miller Brewery?). This roadside pub isn’t typical of Croatian drinking venues, with an interior similar to some English or American pub-restaurants. Their beers are really nice, the food and service seems appropriately pubby and my partner really liked it. I’d say it was decent, but it just misses something. We returned later in the trip for a second try, and it still just didn’t cut it. One of the clear disappointments is that the bar area, which should in theory be a social magnet, is far too small. Being tucked away from the main seating areas loses whatever atmosphere it may generate. Yes, these are the careful considerations we make when reviewing bars.

Seeing as we were taking a tram back down the hill, we allowed it to drop us off in the commercial centre, which is a largely familiar, unremarkable set of shopping streets you could place anywhere on Earth. There are plenty of bars and eateries of course, most of which are unremarkable so far as the bar guide is concerned, but we had passed one by chance that looked very different. Another venue we hadn’t found on our research but found out in the wild! Orient Express 🇭🇷 has an eye-catching train theme, a small narrow bar you enter straight off a shopping street. Wood fittings, leather upholstered seats and booths, golden age ephemera on the walls, this is noteworthy, particularly in a country with a famously ‘who cares?’ approach to decorating its caffe bars. Drinks are fairly stock and predictable, but complimented with some local craft beer options. Service is very friendly and used to touristic custom, and the place does a familiar kind of city centre trade, perhaps not a place with regulars in the evening as such, but well worth a look while in Zagreb given it goes the extra mile.

Back in 2014 we may have visited this place (but there is no evidence to prove it) – Čeh Pub 🇭🇷. This very directly-named pub is situated on the run between the station and central square, and has been a fixture of the city nightlife and social scene for a long time. Very smokey, noisy and vibrant venue with layers of event posters plastered along the wall and, it must be said, excellent Kozel and Pilsner Urquell on tap. It remains one of my favoured spots in the city. Yes, your clothes will end up stinking of smoke and your eyes streaming, but that applies to the majority of Zagreb bars anyway, in a nation where smoking inside pubs is still permitted.

There was time for a last stop of the night, and this was a place I remember we attempted to visit in 2014, but being timid little… *checks* 29 year olds, weren’t brave enough to explore. Bacchus Jazz Bar 🇭🇷 . This was a time when we may have still relied on paper maps, I can imagine us missing this place, tucked around the corner inside an alleyway. Neon-signage beckons you through but you still have to keep going until the stairs to the basement are visible. In summer months the courtyard is a popular place, but the weather was still a bit iffy so there was only the usual few smokers outside chatting. Indoors, you’ll find a cosy little underground bar with curved ceiling and warm lighting. They host occasional live music events but it is very much an attractive, social venue regardless of if an event is taking place. Some of the drinks options may be a little last gen, but this is also one of Zagreb’s longer-running city institutions, so deserves a bit of leeway. Even if they still hadn’t taken the Christmas decorations down! After an enjoyable nightcap it was very much time for bed.

Day 3 – Easter Sunday In Zagreb 🇭🇷

Croatia is a religiously observant country and there was a good chance Easter Sunday may have been a washout for bars. In reality, there was a very slow start with a lot of closures before the nightlife gradually got going in the evening time. An appropriate activity, and largely chosen because nearly everything else was shut, was the incredible Mirogoj Cemetery. Yes, spending time in a cemetery is not everyone’s holiday activity, but this is a colossal site with a mile of domed towers facing the street, and inside rows of porticos and beautiful headstones. Easily worth the tram ride and 15 minutes walk out.

After some lunch we returned to town to Carpe Diem 🇭🇷, which is one of those versatile café/bar/pub/anything tourist places with an uncanny valley appearance between Czech pivnice and English theme pub. Despite these sneery remarks, that’s not such a bad thing, and with a reasonably interesting drinks menu you could do far worse. It is versatile for a reason and does a good job, as reviews will attest to.

Next stop in the old town was our only surviving Zagreb inscription, Pivovara Medvedgrad’s old town pub Mali Medo 🇭🇷. On a sultry summer evening in 2014 we were treated to live music from the upstairs window onto the street and a great terrace atmosphere. Inside was the typical trad beer hall look. A refit has spoilt the interior which lacks a focal point, while it wasn’t exactly buzzing so early on an Easter Sunday. Still, it is a typically reliable option.

Another open attraction was the 80s Museum. Most Eastern-Bloc countries have their own version of these, and this leans straight into nostalgia and interactive exhibits rather than torturous captions about ideological repression. A fun time exploring Yugoslavian commercial and domestic life. Kudos to whoever donated the pornography.

Quite a few recommendations had come in online to visit Valhalla 🇭🇷 which was our next stop. One of Zagreb’s strongest beer specialists, combining a great range on tap and in the fridge with a venue that is itself worth hanging out in even if the beers weren’t there. A pubby understated space just off one of the main tourist streets, the Nordic signage is unmissable, though not over-the-top and leads into a two room pub with a mixed crowd. While this isn’t somewhere you’d go for a wild party, there is a social atmosphere around the bar and in the backroom, which all combines effectively to make this somewhat of an obvious choice.

After a rest and dinner (Sri Lankan food – go out with a vegan, interesting things happen!) we visited another old town circuit pub we had walked past the previous evening, Kvazar 🇭🇷. This small bar picks up the pace a little, with sport on TV, free popcorn, louder music and a younger crowd, but it’s a pretty well put together pub with some nice music memorabilia, leather upholstered bench seating, and a range of Croatian craft beer that goes beyond the norm too, a nice surprise. The atmosphere is friendly rather than brash, and it’s good enough overall to warrant an inscription to the guide. As we left, walking to the centre we noticed a man shouting, repeatedly, seemingly trying to get our attention. Then, as he approached he signalled, and we noticed a dog he was trying to chase down. The dog seemed to think this was a game so would wait until he got close then run away again. This scene continued to the central square, by which point it had descended into farce. Did he eventually grab his dog? Who knows!

I remember the day really sliding away, and somehow we ended up back at Swanky Monkey Garden 🇭🇷 barely getting in a round of cocktails (which are not amazing) for last orders.

Day 4 – Monday, Monday In Zagreb 🇭🇷

On the continent nearly all museums and attractions close on a Monday, so it is worth targeting what to do in advance, as neurotic as that may seem to some people. Zagreb Zoo, in Maksimir Park seemed a nice Monday morning activity, particularly as the weather was beginning to improve. Very good value for money attraction (for context about 15% of the cost of Chester Zoo with about 80% of the contents). Another opportunity for a tram ride, and to see Dinamo Zagreb’s battered stadium en route.

After that we paid a visit to a suburban pub Pivnica Budweiser 🇭🇷 which promised – and delivered – lots of chunky wooden rustic furnishings and a Krčma pub-restaurant experience. Not overly distinctive enough to be worth including but not an unpleasant experience either. The Budweiser was Budvar, not the US tosh, btw.

As we were in the vicinity, we paid a visit to neighbourhood pub Legend Riders 🇭🇷 On approach, it was one of those slightly intimidating ‘Am I really going in here?’ moments, and on entry we found a small pub with a large friendly dog blocking the path to the bar. Distinctly local, we expected a Hell’s Angels type theme, but instead it was classic rock with guitars on the wall, TV churning out rock videos and enough Eric Clapton memorabilia that it moved from a feeling of ‘that’s quaint’ to ‘that’s slightly disturbing’. Well reviewed, and you can see why, because this is unpretentious, local, has far more to the décor than the average Zagreb caffe bar and a bigger surprise, has decent beers – including local craft on tap from Nova Runda. It wouldn’t make our guide but it sticks in the memory, and is a good indicator that if craft beer has permanent taps in a place like that, it is making a breakthrough in a land dominated by Karlovačko, Ožujsko & Pan.

Running out of Monday activities, a trip to Muzej Marmaluka, aka Hangover Museum (yes, Zagreb’s speciality is wacky museums) killed an hour, with anecdotes and props – some hilarious, some moronic about drunken escapades with possibly ankle breaking tests for you to conduct, followed by a shot of herbal liqueur.

We returned to the city centre for a rest before any evening activities, but would be targeting the bars dotted along the epically long Savska cesta, which is also frequently serviced by passing trams. Running from south west towards the city centre north east, this is a transect of regular Zagreb life. Hi-rises, arcades, precincts, mainly dated, but life goes on.

The first target venue goes by a few names, but Hendrick’s Garden 🇭🇷 seems to suffice. Images of a fairylit treehouse and painted frontage are eye-catching, particularly given how few places are remotely like that. On arrival anticipation rose, only to find it wasn’t open. Everything shut! At least there was time to return.

Fortunately it wasn’t far to the substitute venue, Vintage Industrial Bar 🇭🇷. Modern, with a typical enclosed courtyard area with tactical graffiti and festooned lights, with a repurposed interior. Most Westerners will be familiar with this format. Given this is less usual here, I was confident this would be an inclusion to our guide, but somehow it managed to miss the mark. The seating is not very collected and communal at the bar area, everything feels overly dispersed, and there is an absence of something lovable, something quintessential about it that would have got it over the line. Oh well. It’s there if you fancy it.

With an appetite for something less corporate, the next stop delivered. Woody Beer Bar 🇭🇷 is everything Vintage wasn’t. Ad hoc, honestly priced, free of beer tie, neighbourly and local, raucous and generous. Unvarnished, but packed to the rafters with people visiting for the live music and deli spreads put on by the owner. The beer options were very good with a well chosen balance of Czech lager, Croatian craft and some international classics. We can’t guarantee it will be like this every time but it provided what we were looking for and deserved an inclusion.

The next choice, buried in Zagreb’s labyrinth of hi-rise, was Sunshine Inn 🇭🇷. Following on from the unpretentious experience in the last place, this was local, busy and considering how far off the beaten path – quite friendly too. More of a retro café with parquet floor, but music memorabilia and a pool table in the backroom underlined that it is still ‘a local’. It didn’t do enough to merit and inclusion but was worth visiting as a sample of real life.

If only there had been any life, real or otherwise at Medvedgrad’s 3rd venue, Fakin 🇭🇷. Well-financed, this large venue is built for volume, but didn’t have any. No-one was there. Given the array of beer taps including guest options (in this case Garage Brewery 🇪🇸 from Barcelona ) a lot of beer was going to waste, but if so many people prefer the likes of Woody and Sunshine, that should probably set off some soul searching. A venue without an audience, seemingly.

The evening ended where people actually were, underlining a distinct pattern for the evening, the corporate venues shut, quiet or dead, the neighbourly down to earth venues lively, vibrant and raucous. Take note, craft beer world. Krivi put 🇭🇷 is a large venue with huge courtyard hangout in summer and a barn like interior. Smokey, lively, another venue showing how frequently in Croatia there is little division between where the alternative crowd and the posers hangout. It ended up being a great choice to end the evening, concluding with the classic Imbiss kebab by the tram stop!

Day 5 – And then there was one. Zagreb 🇭🇷

My partner was due to return home mid-afternoon, leaving me (how dare she!) to myself for the rest of the trip. The flight was not until the afternoon though, and we had pencilled in a trip to The Garden Brewery 🇭🇷 around lunchtime. Way out of town, you’ll need a bus or tram, which takes around half an hour each way, dropping you off on some industrial scrubland. A major, well-funded operation with an international distribution network, this is no tinpot operation, but it does do legit craft beer, focusing on porters, pales and sours (quelle surprise). Enormous premises with a greenhouse type building housing the brewkit, large beer garden, tall plants and street food vendors. There’s something obnoxious about its utter predictability (although for some reason they don’t offer a taster set) but you can’t quibble with the quality of produce and amenities available. We’re sure it’ll continue to be an appealing venue for many and it just squeaked onto our guide, all things considered.

As we said our goodbyes I found myself just south of Kvaternikov trg, which wasn’t all that far from Caffe Bar Croatia 🇭🇷, a venue I’d researched in advance as it appeared to be a tiny old battered bar that had virtually fallen off the map. It felt like the ultimate counterpoint to the demographic led corporate brewery tap we’d visited. On entry, that classic head-turning as a stranger arrives occurred, but the young bar staff didn’t bat an eyelid and that gave me sufficient welcome. With basic drinks and zero glamour, the experience of visiting this pub is about authenticity. Local life, way, way off the tourist trail in Stara Peščenica, an old working class district near the railways. Smoking, drinking and banter at the bar in surroundings more personalised than most, with wood fittings and unexpected nautical nik-naks.

Rather than heading home to the safety of the old town, we kept going further out to try Hub Cooltura 🇭🇷. A neighbourhood café bar, versatile hangout spot with pleasant beer garden and vintage furnishings in the interior, this attracts a young boho crowd. It’s a likeable place with a very snug backroom, a bit of a diamond in the rough.

It was time to return to the apartment and sleep off some of that booze. On the route back we popped our head in a bar we would return to later. The evening started with a return to Mlinarica 🇭🇷 to try and understand why we hadn’t given it an inscription on the guide. One lovely beer later, we still weren’t fully sold on it. Not that it’s bad, it’s just that our inscriptions need to possess a certain something. The challenge is to reach 7.5/10. This is the most 7.4 place we’ve been to. Maybe in a year or two this fussiness will seem mad.

Back down the hill to a 2nd stop at Kvazar 🇭🇷 and found another busy, buzzy environment with a football game on, and then headed into the centre for a first visit to an intriguing venue, The Beertija 🇭🇷. A courtyard with a hint of ruin bar to the environment, ideal for lounging in summer, very useful in an area of the city without much outdoor bar space. However it is also a basement bar, reasonably mainstream and very ‘worn’, clearly hosting a few too many nights out for its own good. Overall though, it ticked plenty of boxes to warrant an inclusion.

The night ended with a 2nd trip to Čeh Pub 🇭🇷 which was starting to wind down for closing time, but that helped to appreciate another side to what had always otherwise been a bustling bar. Once the beer was sunk it was time to get some late night scran at Pingvin, a cult fast food kiosk in the centre.

Day 6 – The final day in Zagreb 🇭🇷

After a well-earnt lie-in, we rose to a warm, sunny day. It had been a while since one of those. Taking the tram out to Jarun with its swimming lake and park was a nice way to get ‘out of the city’ (while still essentially being in the city). The fresh air and sunshine was welcome, but as always, the next bar visit wasn’t far away. Jazz Café 🇭🇷 is set in a pleasant neighbourhood, and the interior is a labour of love from someone who appears to be a water polo medallist. We didn’t enquire further! Quite a way ahead of the typical interior décor you’d expect from a Caffe Bar, with a few nice bottles available to drink. It was too early for that business though, so we made do with the Balkans classic – Cockta!

In the vicinity of Hendrick’s Garden 🇭🇷 this represented the final opportunity. Google said it was open so this seemed an appropriate time to visit, with the sun blazing. Well, what a waste of time. A 15 minute wait in a near empty bar for the staff to take my order, and no sign of the drink 15 minutes hence. After sitting on the patio furniture clicking my fingers, the novelty of the treehouse was no longer enough, I just left. This venue had the biggest gap between expectation and reality.

Referring to the remaining venues we had yet to visit, the next nearest bar was Ero 🇭🇷, a knackered old wooden boozer in a square, fairly brutalist complex. The staff were friendly, it was fairly quiet, fairly priced and photographs reasonably, but let’s be real – there’s nothing much to the place overall other than basic provision for locals.

Working my way up Savska cesta, en route I was advised to pay a visit to Le Petit Belge 🇭🇷 This Belgian café in a modern complex is a very good option when in Zagreb and was instantly likable. While there’s no point going too over the top, it covers drinks, decor, atmosphere, amenities and reasonable value, the service was nice and the environment is friendly, day or night. Not the worst place to drink Czech/German lager or Belgian ales.

After a break, it was time for some final drinks in Zagreb before my flight onwards. One of our followers on Twitter invited me to meet up, which I eagerly accepted. It’s great to meet some locals and help understand the local scene. Better still, the place he chose was another first time visit and one that ended up on our guide afterward. Cajt 🇭🇷 is located a short walk from the old town and its unprepossessing exterior appears to successfully deter tourists. Inside, a typically battered café layout with wood partitions and old patterned upholstered seats are opposite the bar. This is a place where everyone knows each other, a pleasant feeling, rare to find in a city centre, and certainly not something you’d find so centrally in a city like London. Cajt’s big draw is beer, which covers local craft to international classics both on tap and in the fridge. We worked our way through several before moving on.

The final venue ensured that the wake-up for the flight the following morning would be hungover and unpleasant, but those are the sacrifices you make sometime. Modern bottleshop and taproom Ambasada 🇭🇷 was recommended by our friend, and is walkable from Cajt, if not exactly close by. The offerings here are not so much vast as extremely well curated, with each beer style represented by particularly strong brands. The atmosphere was also jocular, local, with plenty of banter between people that knew each other, and the fact they were willing to switch to speaking English was very generous too. The venue itself is painted in warm ochre and furniture is the typical ‘does the job’ utilitarian approach. So somewhere that is full of pretty familiar generic elements is elevated to an inclusion by virtue of its friendly atmosphere and excellent beer.

And that was that! The final stop, after which we staggered home to bed ahead of a 4.45am start to Zagreb airport.


5 days is a pretty good amount of time to spend in a city the size of Zagreb and it would have been a poor performance by us if we hadn’t done a thorough search. After visiting 30 venues, we’re pretty confident there isn’t some world-beating bar that’s slipped our net. In truth Zagreb has a number of good, likeable if flawed bars but very few that breakthrough as being among the very best. You won’t run out of options, and nightlife is overall pretty lively too, with the old town, the commercial centre and Savska cesta offering three quite distinct districts to explore. Zagreb has a number of varied activities making the city well worth a visit in general, never mind the bars. We didn’t get time to head into the hills, which are full of other excursion possibilities. Aside of one or two streets in the very centre of the old town, Zagreb still feels refreshingly local and not over-saturated with tourists most of the year.

Where next? Join us for Part#3 – April 13th-18th as we journey to Czechia 🇨🇿 and the Borderlands of Germany 🇩🇪 & Poland 🇵🇱 !

The Product 🍻 vs. The Experience 🪩

The day before writing this we noticed on a Facebook group our guide was being criticised for not being something it was ever trying to be – a beer guide. Not the first time that has happened.

As we’ve always tried to point out, our guide aims to be the first guide to review any type of bar, simply to judge how effective they are at what they’re trying to be. If they have other strings to their bow, even better!

The reason we took this approach isn’t just in order to reach and be of use to a wider audience, but to invite people to reflect on their own preferences and to be curious about the range of experiences around them. After all, going to these bars opened our eyes, so why not others?

When it comes to bars, can their value be detached from the products they offer?

Let’s review two examples. Sorry to single these out, but it seems a good way to illustrate this:

Product: 🍻 Mels Diner 🇦🇹 in Vienna.

Here is a craft beer bar, a US-style taproom/diner hybrid with one of Vienna city centre’s better selections on tap and in bottle. If you follow Ratebeer or Untappd for example, there’s no doubt here is where they’ll tell you to go (among a few other venues). The bar in terms of product is pretty solid, including its food repertoire. The experience however is where it falls short. Poorly ventilated, poor acoustics, kind but sometimes erratic service, décor that is a paean to generica – it could be anywhere in the world, and that actually seems to be the point. The killer blow (at least to an inclusion on our guide) is a sterility to the atmosphere, even when busy.

For now, the experience at Mel’s is put to one side by people because the product is clearly above average and as there aren’t many similar options nearby, they attract their custom almost by default. However, place this venue in a city with a lot of competition, and it would drop a few places into an also-ran position. It is a middling to decent bar with a bigger fridge and more keg lines than average.

Experience: 🪩 Calgary Antik Drinkbar 🇭🇺 in Budapest.

An independently run little Boazn with an elderly owner, Auntie Viki. Starting with the product: the drinks selections are as basic as they come. Macro lager (in cans) and a choice of cobweb flecked spirits. The only way you’ll be distracted by the drinks is by wondering if they’re safe to consume. There is not much product here really, except the most perfunctory required to actually describe itself as a bar. But the experience is where the venue comes alive.

Individual and eccentric, the bar is somewhat like wandering into an old lady’s living room midway through spring cleaning. Piles of dresses and flowery adornments everywhere, soft furnishings, a fluffy cat and a brain-damaged dog. Locals and tourists visit here because of the warmth and welcome, the authenticity and loyalty, to recognise its spirit of endurance in a brutal world. To be allowed inside the venue in the first place requires the scrutiny and consent of the owner, who then welcomes you in as her guest in her own eccentric, doddering way. Conversation is in Hungarian or broken German, but somehow it all muddles through.

One is safe, one provides product. They hammer out a 6 or 7/10 almost every time.

One is riskier, weirder, more unfamiliar, unlike anywhere you will have been on Earth, but curious, individual, charming, eccentric and potentially bags of fun. It provides memories. For you it may be a 9, for someone else a 3 or 4. When you read the reviews online, some get it, and some just don’t.

These two venues highlight the fundamental problem of only using product as the barometer to rate bars.

As a tourist, one visiting a city for the first time, which would you pick?

At the very least, shouldn’t the answer be: both?

A Weekend in Prague – Trip #2 of 2023

Prague in Czechia will be subject to extensive research this year in advance of a dramatic new offering on European Bar Guide (details of which we will keep under wraps for now). With 44 guide entries on our guide – which is only here to recommend the best venues in Europe, you’d be fooled for thinking we’re close to cracking it, but the truth is we are probably halfway through at best!

February 2023’s trip involved a flight into Bratislava before getting the train to Brno and Kolin the following day, joining up with Czech Beer Fan Club in Prague for 3 nights. Time in Prague on this occasion was to be focused on exploring authentic, down-to-earth and working class pubs, including those with a bit of history.

Day #1 – Arrival in Bratislava, PM

On arrival to Bratislava we’d seen the opportunity to visit a unique looking venue in the outskirts, Múzejný Hostinec. The route to Podunajské Biskupice takes about half an hour with 2 buses from Bratislava airport. Not straightforward but not too onerous either. This suburb is part of Bratislava but once you pass the tower blocks everything goes low-rise and village like until the pub hoves into view on the corner.

Múzejný Hostinec is a revivalist pub with fittings and décor redolent of the Austrian era into the 1920s Czechoslovakian era. Frilly and dressy, genteel, but don’t be fooled. There are no pretensions to appeal to an elite audience; this is otherwise a down-to-earth village boozer with local life. Múzejný has several strings to its bow too. Brewpub operation, museum, live events venue. It’s a destination venue that genuinely warrants the trip out to its obscure location. The beer options are extensive with seasonal specials along a wheel of styles traditional and modern.

On the way into the centre we had to assess the situation with Hostinec Richtár Jakub, one of Bratislava’s best pubs. A multi-tap marvel in a classic half step basement, this really defined all that was best about Czechoslovakian pub going – and it brewed its own beer. Unfortunately they have left this great location and set up in a new one called Gallery Šenk. We visited to find the brewing still going, but the venue itself leaves a bit to be desired, so will be removed from the guide. The tapster was unable to tell us the reasons for the move in either English or Slovak.

Before checking into the hotel we could squeeze in another visit so popped down the road to perennial favourite and reliable stopgap Steinplatz which also features on our Days Out guide to Bratislava. This basement venue, a former public convenience, has been decked out in a truly complimentary manner befitting its location, with exposed brickwork, muted lighting, antique musical instruments and what feels like a cosy little warren of rooms. Friendly and atmospheric. The beers are 0.4l pours sadly, but there are at least 8 taps with a range of largely independent Slovak and Czech brewers represented. A must visit.

After check-in and a rest, it hadn’t escaped our attention our hotel was handily located by the cult pub Bernard pri lýceu. This tiny Pivaren has an appealingly odd-couple blend of grizzled regulars and young groups who come for the amazing Bernard range on tap and excellent value beers, with the 12 degrees unfiltered lager clocking in at 1.70 euros for 0.5l. In summer the terrace provides a spot for people that might be intimidated by the extremely local atmosphere inside. It has never helped that the service is very frowning and gruff. A few words in Czech or Slovakian go a long way to breaking the ice here.

Our final stop was somewhere we have generally struggled to get a seat in, but this time we toughed it out until a table opened up (a 10 minute or so wait). Čierny Pes, aka Black Dog is an old town venue with a deservedly strong reputation. Set onto a slope, you enter with a few steps into a basement setting with curved ceilings and some exposed stone. Lit with hanging lamps and furnished with chunky wooden tables, each corner feels intimate and set up for winter socialising at its best. We perched by the bar waiting for our chance until the table by the entrance became available. Once seated, it was clear we were in the place to be. The social scene is warm, friendly and collegiate, managing a range of people without the pub alienating any specific group. This is extremely difficult to execute without being bland. Its character does the business, as does the range of Bernard beers, including the Nitro keg version of their black lager (the spinoff nicknamed Black Avalanche). Mark it on your to do list. There was no need to go anywhere else, so with an early start the following day, we immersed ourselves in the hubbub and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Day #2 – Brno, Kolin, arrival in Prague

On a chilly winter morning, we departed to catch our 8am train to Brno through snow flurries and quiet streets, a ‘grounding experience’ for central Europe in February, one that we’re well used to by now. A crowd in Bratislava station entrance normally means train delays – there is no reason anyone in their right mind would want to spend more time than strictly necessary in that place. Unfortunately that was the case here, and a 45 minute add on of time ate into our available time in Brno.

The train was calm, warm and quiet and travelling through winter fields from the previous week’s snowfall emphasised what a pretty and largely rural place Moravia is, with rolling hills, farmland and idyllic pastoral scenes that don’t make Josef Lada’s lovingly twee drawings seem overly cartoon-like after all.

Brno centre was reasonably busy on a Saturday morning, and we wandered through the centre assessing our options. The recent Česká televize series Příběhy starých hospod (or ‘Tales of Old Pubs) featured Restaurace U Průmyslovky, an old pub in the Veveří district walkable from the old town. This pub offers faded grandeur with high ceilings, stucco, tall curtains and hanging lamps. It has clearly since then moved to operate to the working class market, so also offers an interesting balance of vestigial formality and totally down to earth service and customers. The lunch of Smažený sýr (fried cheese) and Polička beer was about as stolidly mediocre as you could expect, with the decent price only reflecting the middling quality. Despite the time of day there were a few groups in, from the bar fly to the youngsters behind me. It needs something else to really elevate it to a guide inclusion though.

Lunch finished in time to reach Hostinec U Bláhovky up the road (also featuring in the above series). The pub is known to us from several visits in recent years, and has been known to Brno residents for far longer. It is really their direct equivalent of a pub like U Hrocha or U Jelinku in Prague.

When there are a queue of people at midday opening time, you know you’re at a cult venue. The sense of anticipation grows because the staff aren’t ready to pour straight away. For 5 minutes you watch them gradually set up everything they need to function for the day ahead, before the order is made. Here, unless you specify something other than a beer, that’s what will arrive if you stay silent. Then when it arrives, let the head climb up the glass, again all adding to the suspense, before diving in, nose first into the 3 fingers of foam. Some pubs give you a fuzzy feeling of a happy place, and this is one such venue. Known for its huge pork knee (genuinely bigger than a human skull) and for the rhythm and patter of its crew of tapsters and servers whose banter is all part of the atmosphere at this great place.

Further train delays led to a window of dead space and so, with little time to make any serious commitments we visited EFI Hostinec Zelňák. It’s a brewpub with a venue on the Cabbage Market, Brno’s main square, and offers a tidy range of traditional and more modern beer. Price point is fair, with a weekly beer on for a decent reduction. Their 8 degree lager brewed with Kazbek hops was a suitably modern effort, dry as a bone, citrusy but with a note of wholesome Kellerbier style flavour in the aftertaste. At 35 crowns for a half litre, it was a surprise competitor around the cheapest beer of the trip. As for the venue – a confused café with Austrian era fittings and thick curtains not sitting with the stark glass and larger modern posters. Unless a similar situation arises, or if the food looks good perhaps, it’s not a venue we’ll rush back to.

We are always keen to visit somewhere new on each trip to stimulate the senses and cover ground. This time we settled for the option that was staring us in the face – Kolin. This medium sized town is one we’d passed several times to and from Kutna Hora, however it never looked that appealing from the trainline. How wrong we were – the centre is a classically restored ensemble of pastel houses and charmingly crenulated civic monuments, stone towers and a Jewish quarter. Perhaps it hasn’t got the size or breadth of others, but is diverting enough to seriously warrant a day excursion.

The pub situation was less promising though, with only two options in the whole town centre that looked even above average. The main target, Hostinec Stoletá has a revivalist taproom with a smart wooden bar, curved ceiling and ethnic patterns in the arches as decoration. The selection of antiques in the window and closer inspection heightened expectations. This wasn’t going to be a stopgap after all! Then disaster, as we attempt to visit the taproom and are told it is closed. We are turned around and told to sit in the lobby area, which was full. Eventually we are moved to a backroom, unlit, to sit on our own. This is pointless, so we leave, cursing our luck. There was no reason why the taproom ought to have been closed. We’ll return to this…

The second option, Hostinec U Tří pírek was a genuine stopgap, not unlikeable as a venue but not much of an actual pub. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the half litre of Kutna Hora 13 degrees dry hopped lager. While not an exceptional example it was well kept and competently brewed.

It was getting dark and time to leave for Prague. As we left the main square, past Hostinec Stoletá we suddenly noticed the taproom was open and full of people. It must have been a matter of 20 minutes. The staff who turned us around did not have the wit to explain this, denying us opportunity to sit in what is almost certainly the best bar room in Kolin. Computer says no!

In Prague we were situated in Karlin, a district euphemistically described as up-and-coming for the last 20 years until recently it actually has started to resemble that. The twin towers of its central church are iconic, as is the Vitkov hill overshadowing what is a riverside district. After checking in it was time to meet the Czech Beer Fan Club & friends for beers.

I was informed they were in První Pivní Tramway, a great choice other than the fact it it possibly the most remote pub to choose, nearly 50 minutes on the tram. Nevertheless, we boarded the 14 and embarked on what is in some ways a classic voyage and pilgrimage, sweeping through the centre, on to Nusle before picking up speed and off at the terminus in Spořilov, a clearing dotted with grim looking towerblocks and the ramshackle outbuilding which houses this lovely pub.

Possibly our 6th visit here, it is great to see the place going strong and still attracting a great mixture of people, the type you find in good quality English boozers. The Konrad 10 is still on at a decent price and the multitap offerings, now almost unremarkable, should be recognised as the first place in Prague which attempted that as a format.

The next stop, Zlý časy has caught up, surpassed then left-for-dead Tramway in terms of its local fame, while still offering something rather similar. Multiple tap options of great beer among a familiar – but still distinctive – homely surrounding of warm wood and glowing lights. Delighted to find Poutnik on tap, we stayed for a few. This is a place where you can find high quality craft and classic European options.

Our final stop of the evening was a 1st time visit for us, Pivnice Špeluňka. As part of research into ‘4th grade venues’ this little boozer had appeared to tick all the boxes. Arriving 20 minutes before closing time and with Justin from the group falling sleep, we didn’t immediately endear ourselves with the tapster. Armed with some Czech I assured him we would be out of there in good time. A rare outing for Branik on tap (the beer that’s ‘not all that bad really’ by any standards other than Czech ones), a small venue with a simple format, with a crowd in the backroom and what appeared to be a rather large safe by the entrance. Then it was time for bed.

Day 3 – A Full Day In Prague

A beautiful clear sunny day followed, a great excuse for a wander around some of Prague’s more obvious beauty spots. The Royal Route, takes you from Náměstí Republiky to Prague castle. Taken at a steady pace, and allowing for stops for photographs and general gasping, you can take in a whole 45-60 minutes of spectacular architecture. Moving from the old town to Charles Bridge, seeing Malá Strana and Prague castle in front of you, yet to be reached, is one of the touchstone moments of sightseeing in Europe, a feeling that never gets old, even if it is never the same as the first time.

As part of the pilgrimage, a trip to U Černého vola was compulsory, being one of our top 20 pubs in Europe. Set up on the castle hill, but just – just far enough up the road to avoid the excessive tourist footfall, a balance of locals and tourists fill this majestically Cro-Magnon, rustic and raw boozer with its medieval sigils, super chunky tables and gruff tapster/server combos. A love or hate place, no doubt. Even its adherents like ourselves have had one of those moments of being shouted at in Czech for not sitting in the right place. A dark Kozel here, for us feels just right.

Joining up with the Czech Beer Fan Club once more, we took the tram from Pohořelec west to U Prezidentů, for only our 2nd ever visit. One of the most distinctive pubs in the city, its decoration of famous Presidents, dictators and politicians and distinctly anti-authoritarian streak sits charmingly alongside a genteel, rustic, cabin-like decor staffed by a friendly team that welcome tourists, (not that they will get as many out here in near Ladronka park). The moment of our visit was being presented with a plate of what appeared to be Czech stromboli. Cheesy, tomato turnovers with sausage and gherkin inside. With the price of 35kc per piece, this plate of piping hot deliciousness ended up being irresistible. More pubs should do this – just present people with hot food and wait till they crack!

Down the hill and down the stairs back to Bělohorská to pick up the tram one stop to Hostinec Drinopol. Our 2nd visit here, this venerable century old pub is a local classic, with a striking white tall corner building emblazoned in green paint with Hostinec on one side and Drinopol on the other, offering a simple and honest selection of food and drink among football trophies, memorabilia, car number plates and wood strip interior. Popular with local 5-a-side teams for an after game pint on Sundays, we arrived to find a shirtless fellow and a barrage of unintelligible banter passing back and forth. This settled down sufficiently while still being atmospheric. A busy, social atmospheric pub of no pretension and plenty of character.

The real luncheon was to follow at the even older pub Hostinec Na Slamníku, a place that makes Drinopol look like a veritable teenager with its 400+ years of history. Our 4th visit here, the signage is equally iconic and you’re feeling good vibes before even stepping through the door. Slamníku is a more upright affair which attracts middle class families for good quality lunches, and its beer offering from Unetice is excellent. In the past I have had several excellent dishes (including a platter of quail), this time there was shredded roast duck serviced with red cabbage in a savoury wrap. Delicious but a little more basic than usual.

The nearby station pub Dejvická Nádražka came next, another venue featuring in the Czech TV series on old pubs, more surprising in a sense because this former upstanding station restaurant has long ceased to be anything other than the most unvarnished, rough and ready boozer, with live gigs, laid back attitude and focusing on an affordable price point. To find Staropramen 10, poor though that beer is, at 29,50kc (£1.10) for 0.5l is startling in this inflationary era that has been affecting the Czechs severely. This pub isn’t for everybody but for those it is aiming at, it’s a cult venue and the site of some of the best nights out many have had.

Going cheaper and scuzzier than the last place is nearly mission impossible but with U Prašivka only up the road, it was about to happen. In a visit in 2022 they were still clinging on to 27kc per beer. The dam has burst but at 28kc for a half litre of Chotěboř, and fair prices for a small range of more glamorous rotating alternatives, this is about as low as it goes in the city limits. The pub is an intimidating no-holds barred pajzl with grizzled guests and snarly service. It isn’t for wallflowers. Yet a lot of this is facade (or at least a mirage based on prejudice and social expectations). Keep on going before it settles and you’ll discover a hugely charming pub. It defines ‘4th grade’, and used to be the bin man’s destination of choice, knocking off their shift for a pint at 9am, still maintaining those hours. In the summer, being kicked out after last orders near 9pm in broad daylight is a truly odd experience.

It was time to go somewhere new – Fraktal is a venue that had been loosely on our radar for a while, an odd mixture of traditional Czech hospoda in some respects, with quirky decor in a Theme pub with Mexican food. Perhaps it was just the spittle-flecked barbarity of the last place but it felt like the service was really warm and friendly here, putting us at ease. There’s a little raised area with seating where you get a good view of the bar. As our numbers swelled we visited the side rooms with striking chrysalis type lighting and more general oddness. Difficult to put your finger on what’s going on here. A little worn, but distinctive and stubbornly difficult to dislike.

Next stop and a venue that has crept up our radar with each visit. The homely U Pivoje down the road is a tidy and compact little Pilsner Urquell Pivnice with blackened wood and a simple appeal. On first glance to some it looks like it might be a bit intimidating. However, the service – family-run – is pretty friendly and it’s nice to see such an operation survive amidst the change around them. It was more atmospheric this time with a group of musicians in the taproom and the place shined as for the first time we went from imagining what it may be like when it gets going to being there in person.

U Velblouda (the Camel) followed, a little Pivnushka type pub with a tiny bar in the entrance and basement hangout. Svijany and Unetice beers on tap provide a change of flavour.

Time was well and truly moving on and Cross Club was our next stop at the request of Justin who had designed the route and wished to see the steampunk decor and environment. It is no doubt a work of art, but as with all such places you have to avoid scams (tourists being overcharged being one) and without enough customers its raison d’etre can appear unfulfilled.

As our group tapered off, mainly to go to bed, this left a final fling at Bondy Bar, a short walk away. Located right next to the modern, contemporary Vnitroblock, this vaguely naff theme bar was saved by its natural surroundings of brick vaults, candlelight and the tapster, a well-loved local character whose service is kind and adds to the atmosphere. Parts of you will desire to hate the place, with its USA and Redneck flags, but it’s genuinely quite difficult. After this it really was time to call it a day.

Day #4 – Also All Day In Prague!

The best way to kill a hangover: fluids, a good breakfast (preferably with salt) and fresh air. We set off from Karlin to Wenceslas Square, and explored the ‘pasazy‘, shopping precincts and passageways that were built between the late 19th century up to the 1960s. Many of these interconnect and can lead you into a maze. The ensemble of preserved decor, such as in Lucerna, is every bit as beguiling as some of the more conventional sights.

We arrived at U Rotundy for opening time to find the typical tapster in operation, a paunchy unshaven fellow with an unbuttoned waistcoat. He is generally friendly and although it doesn’t seem like it will be the case, he can converse in English should you need it. As our article above describes, this is one of the few remaining genuine working class boozers in Prague 1. Prices have risen in accordance with inflation, but at 38kc a half litre, it still represents great value for a city centre largely offering beer above 50kc these days. There’s a genteel simplicity here, at a venue where you are as likely to find workers in dirty overalls drinking beer as you are local magistrates in their suits and tie. Their addition of Cerna Barbora, a dark lager is a welcome move and an improvement on the Staropramen Dark they previously offered.

We can cram in the words pilgrimage and institution one more time, surely? Yep, let’s go. This time it really was to one of Europe’s finest establishments, a Top 10 pub U Hrocha in Malá Strana. Rather like in Brno, there was a queue of people waiting for the place to open its doors at midday. After that, the place was full half an hour later. With Wolfman on the taps, you know the půllitr of Pilsner Urquell is going to be sublime, but honestly on this occasion it was like a return to the days where we were convinced it was the best lager on the planet. The orchestra conducted masterfully at will with a flick of the taps. Deciding to decline ještě jedno was the toughest decision of the entire trip, due solely because of the ground needed to be covered today. We left the pub in a very, very good mood.

Going across town to U Dandu to drink Gambrinus was a bit of a comedown to say the least, although not because of the pub, which is an authentic ‘legit’ boozer. A second visit here. Bright orange with frilly net curtains and a taproom that is one of the more masculine, unvarnished places you could visit in the city. The adjacent Šenk is a truly local pit, be warned you may not be permitted in there unless you’re armed with intermediate Czech at least. A curio but not quite reaching the heights required in our guide.

Next stop, U Růžového Sadu was not a choice we personally made, but when one is going with the crowd, some diplomacy is called for. Rather than the pub being bad as such, there is more a general absence of much distinctive going on to warrant the diversion. The most notable aspect was the unfiltered Gambrinus which is still a sleeper hit. Definitely one of the better regular ‘beers from a big brewer’ in Czechia.

Things were about to get more interesting, following on from yesterday’s theme of rough and ready boozers that by rights should have closed down decades ago. Hostinec V Lucemburské is one of Vinohrady’s remaining such places, with an interior that looks unchanged for a long time. The glazed circular patterns in the windows are a dead giveaway of such places, while the inside had a worn tiled floor and battered old black furniture and fittings, all lit with a warm cream glow. To say we stood out on entry would be underplaying it somewhat – we had well and truly invaded a local’s domain. After a while of hostile stares it appeared, as it so often does, that some were simply curious and as we made to leave they began a conversation with us. Proof that what is on the surface can often simply be prejudice. Potentially a really nice old pub which we will return to.