2019: In short, an extremely busy and productive year for The European Bar Guide!
You may have noticed some changes as we overhauled our site in efforts to make it easier to navigate, while adding ever more content. Tabs, sliders, tables, drop-downs and other little flourishes to help your browsing experience.
We have been busier than ever in 2019 exploring the European bar scene.
Let’s take a look at a breakdown of the year:
87 new inclusions!
4 new 10/10 rated venues
16 new 9/10 rated venues
67 new 8/10 venues
GERMANY – Nuremberg, Bamberg, Fürth
A long weekend in Franconia was largely spent enjoying some established favourites and – at the start – true winter weather. Right on cue it was snowing on our arrival in Nuremberg leaving a beautiful covering over the bridges and fortifications of Lorenz and Sebaldus sides of the Altstadt – though the forecast turned to rain in the following days.
In addition to the Altstadt we explored the offerings in the district Gostenhof, Nuremburg’s artsy quarter, adding the atmospheric ‘sailor pub’ Grosse Freiheit to our guide. We also took the U-Bahn to Fürth (a city attached to Nuremberg via conurbation) where the snow returned) and found Keimling, one of the year’s top finds, which we dedicated a full write-up to. Please follow the link above to read all about it.
We then visited Bamberg for a day trip. It rained and rained, but the Altes Rathaus remained as stunning as ever, as did the quality of the rauchbier at one of our 10/10 venues, Schlenkerla. A seriously enjoyable 2nd trip to Brauerei Spezial convinced us to include it on our guide!
HUNGARY – Debrecen
This was European Bar Guide’s first visit to Debrecen, Hungary’s second city, capital of the flat and sparsely populated Great Plains region. I was really impressed by the stylish thermal spa and nearby football stadium, though the centre was remarkably low key, devolving to single story rural houses within 15 minutes walk from the central square. Nevertheless I found just enough to keep nicely occupied over a couple of nights.
I arrived after a long, long delay at 5AM in heavy snow. The plane landing was dramatic to say the least, and for the course of the holiday sub-zero temperatures left paths and roads laden with a foot of snow.
Nightlife was patchy, but where it was to be found, it was raucous, down-to-earth and dirt cheap (and I mean dirt cheap – think 0.6-08 euros for a 0.5l serving of beer) with ‘késdobáló’s like Ibolya Söröző , Facankakas and 3. Felido Sorozo providing both local colour and great value. Local beer was to be found in a few places but largely it was about mass produced and ghastly lager.
We also discovered Roncsbár, a 10/10 venue and the best ruin bar outside Budapest. Our profile guide to Roncsbár (<here) was our most successful yet, driving traffic to the site and attracting interest from a brand new audience.
Back at home…
In England we were keeping our heads down in some classic venues in Leeds, Hull and Sheffield.
SLOVAKIA / AUSTRIA – Bratislava, Vienna, Trenčín, Trnava
A long weekend in Slovakia with a day trip to Vienna. Snow had fallen for a few days prior to our visit, and was just clearing up as we arrived in Bratislava. We visited some of the attractions that had hitherto slipped our net (with the exception of the UFO, which seems permanently booked out for private parties) and visited some old favourites like Hostinec Richtar Jakub, Omama and Bernard pri Lyceu, each one a top quality boozer.
Bratislava’s brewery scene was already quite strong as of our first visit in 2015 and has taken off even further since. We tried and enjoyed the beers at Starosloviensky Pivovar, and the pub atmosphere at the central taproom for Pivovar Stupavar. There are a few others I didn’t get around to visiting.
To keep it real we also tried the games pub Dungeon Pub, local boozer Urpiner Pub and a couple of really smokey old pajzls which left an authentic fug of stale smoke on your clothes, served a mean pint but didn’t set our world alight in terms of atmosphere.
Trenčín is a one horse town, albeit one with a beautiful castle, and so pubgoing was limited. The central brew pub Lanius is smart and adventurous, albeit lacking atmosphere, whereas by contrast the surrounding pubs are drab, albeit dirt cheap, nearer 1 euro a pint versus Bratislava’s 1.80+
Trnava was disappointingly provincial, not to mention bitterly cold and grey on the day, further dampening meagre offerings, so we only stayed for a few hours and a quiet pint at the rather boring Quest Bar.
Vienna was once again a difficult one to deal with. Its famous Beisls are awkward to visit as a lone traveller – stuffy and frequently overly food-focused, though Gosser Bierklinik provides an atmospheric old-time ausschenk which rendered it worthy of inclusion on our guide. Many other venues simply weren’t open during the day and what ones there were were too bland to be notable. This city really needs to be lived in to be appreciated properly, I think.
The idea of crossing 3 borders in one holiday (without travelling very far) and the desire to visit Liège and Maastricht, (possibly also Monschau and/or Aachen) made me think of doing this trip.
As a side benefit, flying in and out of Cologne also gave some time to enjoy some old favourites such as Lommerzheim, Papa Joe’s and the various Kölsch brauhauses. We wrote a Day Out Guide to Cologne to help casual travellers negotiate the best of the Altstadt pub scene.
Liège was an ugly hodgepodge lacking a particularly beautiful centre, though this is what we had been preparing to face. There were some touches of beauty, with the occasional timber house and art nouveau façade peeking through the dour and dirty mass. Individually, some of the normal buildings were much more interesting than the civic and commercial ones too. However, the riverside, which should be its most obvious strength, is shockingly poorly planned, featuring all poor examples of the most dilapidated late 20th century concrete mistakes.
Liège’s best bits were the hilly area north west of the river (yes, hills in Belgium) the absurdly enormous staircase of Montagne d’ Beuren and its brown cafés, Au Delft, Taverne St. Paul and Café Lequet, while the jewel in the crown, possibly of the entire city, was the wonderful 10/10 bar Le Pot Au Lait, which was both uniquely styled and buzzing with atmosphere.
That soon turned out to be the high point of the trip. Unbeknownst to the author, this had been planned around the festival of Carnival, not celebrated in Liège at all, apparently, but boisterously, cloyingly celebrated in Maastricht and Cologne to the point of exhaustion. Bars that would previously have been historic and atmospheric such as Café De Knijnspiep and In De Karkol were clad in carnival boarding, with all seating removed; the modern incarnation of this really rather inane festival took over everything inside and out.
Maastricht in particular ended up being a near complete waste of time, as a result. Even the historic architecture was generally grey and austere versus the more exuberant approach of Belgian cities.
I arrived in Aachen early as a result; mercifully their own Carnival celebrations were not commencing until the following day. Aachen centre is compact with a beautiful core so spending the afternoon and evening here somewhat made up for the first half of the day spent pushing past people waving flags, singing songs that very much fell into the ‘forced jollity’ category and getting obnoxiously drunk.
Aachen’s central pub Domkeller is a fantastic kneipe which retains its atmosphere despite the central location. You can really feel the borderland blend of Belgium and Germany with the Gothic architecture of the building and – unusual for Germany – concession to some Belgian beer on the menu. They also allow you to bring pizza in from the nearby takeaway and halfway through eating I got chatting to a group of wingnut Republicans on a layover, one of whom pressed me continually on what he coined “London politics”. As you can imagine, I didn’t put up with any nonsense from them.
This trip concluded with the awful megacity version of Carnival in Cologne which occupied the entire city centre. It was a huge mistake to travel over this weekend, but final drinks at Sunner im Walfisch and Papa Joe’s Jazzlokal (which is a year-round party venue anyway) managed to be fun enough in its own right to drown out the horrors elsewhere.
You would think further attempts at border crossing would have been curtailed after that, but I found myself in the borderlands twice in a month.
Wrocław is a city I visit regularly, one of the most unheralded large cities in Europe. Drinks at the central bierheller Spiz and the wonderful art nouveau bar/club/café Art Café Kalumbar are mandatory, while we discovered some new bars built under the arches on route to the train station, the best of which was the antiquey bar Sielanka, which almost but not quite made up for the atrocious and borderline criminal vandalism of Graciarnia (now Graciarnia Pizza and Crafts) formerly one of the best bars in Europe, now simply a lifeless, poorly designed venue. Paka Pub is also a favourite of mine, an in-the-know cheap local’s place with a giant lizard decoration and Poutnik (a hard to find but superb Czech lager) for 8pln. Magic! To cap the evening off, I watched as an extremely drunk person faceplanted from their position at the bar. Tip for the inebriated: Falling asleep sat on bar stools may be hazardous for your health.
From here I took the bus to Görlitz, a fairly long journey via Legnica, a crumbling city but one that looked like it may have potential to be restored, with many proud Austrian era buildings simply disintegrating through neglect.
Görlitz had been on my mind long before the allure added to by its role in the filming of The Grand Budapest Hotel because city is cloven in two by the border river between Germany and Poland. I elected to stay in Zgorzelec, the Polish side of the river, with the bridge to Görlitz and international border across only 100 metres from my guesthouse.
Over the course of the next day and a half I must have crossed their border well over 20 times. The back and forth of those of different nationalities really gave a flavour of border life that I didn’t experience on the previous trip to Germany, Belgium and Netherlands.
Görlitz is firmly middle class, middle aged and set up for day trips. On a cold March weekend there were few day trippers and virtually no nightlife to speak of. The best bets were the lovely Bierblume, an ad hoc, but nevertheless charming operation by a keen brewing enthusiast (who also dabbles in cider, but trust me: order his Dunkel) where locals and couples can pop over for home-brewed cider and beer, and a ‘Kino pub’ – an increasingly popular format where films are screened in an otherwise low key drinking venue. You can sit and enjoy the film or talk quietly and let it blend into being background ambience.
Despite the twee, staid surroundings of Görlitz‘s altstadt, its cultural antithesis, the cult beer shop Manni’s Tanke is located slap bang in the middle. Unpretentious would be a euphemism: some say the service is harsh enough to strip layers off your skin, but such a reaction appears to be entirely based on whether the owner likes the look of you.
Lastly, a beautiful little thing came together in Görlitz . My bus was due to arrive after normal closing time for GR-LI Brau, a nano brewery unusually set up in normal retail premises. However after an exchange of emails they agreed to keep open for my arrival, and I spoke to the braumeister Martin about what was essentially his labour of love, a husband and wife operation, before taking home 3 beers to try. His commitment and passion, often getting up at the crack of dawn to maintain operations, left a real mark on me.
There was enough time to have a day trip from Görlitz and my choice was to visit Bautzen, a town with a beautiful medieval ring wall overlooking a river, and unusually hosting a Serbian minority called the Sorbs. Street signs are bi-lingual as these comprise approximately 20% of the population.
The town itself was beautiful and really rewards taking it slowly, with every footstep affording you new angles and perspectives. Unfortunately, as can often happen, the main pub of interest, legendary Gaststätte, Radeburger Bierstube was closed and there was nothing much doing other than the suburban Bautzner Brauhaus which served up a delicious kellerbier (while the locals spied me suspiciously and generally brought the experience down). No new inscription for Bautzen‘s pubs yet, sorry!
After a surprisingly modern and cheap train (which was tricky to locate and book tickets for online, seemingly obscured from view on purpose) from Zgorzelec, I was back in Wrocław for an afternoon, and as you can imagine, did not waste any time enjoying myself.
Meanwhile, back at home….
Days out in York and Hull, the discovery of the cosy and ungentrified Crown Inn at Lofthouse during an enjoyable country walk in Nidderdale.
Of all the trips planned in 2019 this was the one I was most looking forward to, and not specifically because of the bar culture. In 2013 I visited Bosnia for the first time and it proved to be a profound experience in terms of opening my eyes to the world around me. Even visiting the bar Zlatna Ribica in Sarajevo, helped with that even acting as major inspiration for starting our guide in the first place. The country Bosnia itself remains a fascinating blend of East and West that not even a war and the systematic displacement of people has managed to completely ruin.
Part of the reason for Bosnia’s appeal is that it takes a long time to get anywhere, turning each city or region into a sandbox. You cannot very easily hop from town to town. They are all journeys and real undertakings that wind between gorges, forests and vast mountain ranges; bear in mind I have also only taken these journeys in good weather.
That is the fun part, the boring part is the delays, not least at the border when you try to get into Bosnia from Croatia, which thanks to the ‘Neum corridor’, Bosnia’s only geographic link to the sea, involves a total of 4 checkpoints, adding nearly 2 hours onto the overall journey from Dubrovnik to Mostar. The alternative, travelling to Trebinje is virtually a non-starter, with an unreliable, infrequent bus and no guarantee of onward passage to Mostar very easily.
But anyway, moving onto the nightlife, Dubrovnik’s becomes ever more corporate and middle class by the visit, I’m afraid. It isn’t all bad news though. There is still plenty of charm to be found in the steps and rat runs of the old town. A beer focused bar has opened up on the other side of the main street (albeit a fairly bland one), however easily the best venue, Caffe Bar Libertina was worryingly locked up during the duration of our stay. There are a couple of so-so- craft beer bars, and outside of those expect to find the same mediocre caffe bars and wine bars, charging 30-50% more than they do elsewhere in the country and delivering a rather staid, unnecessarily cosseted experience. Sometimes it’s better just grabbing a beer from the shop and enjoying it in the sunshine.
Mostar, by contrast was richly enjoyable; there really is no way to undersell its beauty. The remote location and sense of accomplishment to reach it adds to the experience. The old town, albeit small, is currently in a condition where it convinces as a Turkish style village. The rest of the city has a mixture of Austrian, Yugoslavian and East Slavic influence, crumbling infrastructure and a number of literal bomb sites which have never been properly demolished and replaced since the war. Mostar’s central pub the Black Dog is situated outside one of the most beautiful ensembles imaginable, with Ottoman buildings and a cascading waterfall running underneath its terrace. The pub receives inundations of backpackers, who seem to leave almost as soon as they arrive, but is generally enjoyable in the lulls between them arriving and leaving. There are some reasonable caffe bars elsewhere in town, a newly established craft scene (with central taproom) and a decent cellar pub NoFlash, however: don’t expect miracles.
Sarajevo was fruitful, as in between 2013 and 2019, the information that can be gathered with ease online has grown exponentially and become more accessible via wi-fi. We discovered the Turkish inspired bars Birtija and Barhana in the čaršija area, further west finding Festina Lente, which retains a Bosnian feel while adding something different and Vucko Gastro Pub which is a well executed modern, but social pub. In the former’s case you can find eclectic décor, in the latter, they have an encyclopaedia of beer to try.
We visited the central brewery Sarajevska Pivara of course, with its beautiful Austrian style beer hall, and Zlatna Ribica which was as good as ever, perhaps even better than our previous visit in terms of the overall experience. One of my favourite places in the world.
Further afield there are new taprooms and neighbourhood bars which we didn’t reach, but look promising – in particular Pivnica Semizburg.
Sarajevo can now be added to a host of other European cities where it can be said it is possible to have a night out entirely in some of the best bars in Europe. We also enjoyed a good laugh at the sheer incompetence of the city authorities who, while we were there, proudly announced that their trams had been cleaned, and in return, prices would be going up!
A long journey to the isolated town of Jajce followed. The 7am bus made for a challenging wake-up for my partner (in fact such an hour would have been a challenge for her on on a working day, let alone a holiday) but her ability to sleep on public transport is far better than mine. Despite nodding off most of the 4 hour journey, I managed to get her to briefly acknowledge the Bosnian pyramids, some remarkably angular pyramid-shaped hills near Zenica, which, depending on who you speak to, are taking extremely seriously or regarded as a deliberate hoax. I am unsure where anyone got the time to shape then forest those things, but if they did, fair play to them.
Jajce arrives after a long wind through gorgeous remote countryside, the town famous for its central mosque and the Pliva waterfall, one of the icons of Bosnia. This was the first time I visited and it proved well worth the effort, with a small, well-contained array of historical sights, naturally commanding views, and the remarkable falls which dwarf anything the UK has to offer. Jajce also had some peculiarity such as several dozen stray dogs which all seem to have been born and crossed with the same corgi. A Labrador with a corgi’s legs and face was particularly odd.
Jajce’s big surprise came when during a quiet riverside walk after dinner a coachload of tanked-up Muslim women in were dropped off around 9pm, with the coach having been around the villages collecting them, who then proceeded to party the night away until around 4 in the morning.
The combination of calls to prayer and relentless music coming from the main street made us both wish we had booked accommodation further out of the centre.
The bars we visited were low key and down-to-earth one winning the prize for most generic pub name ever ‘Beer Pub’, though this was the best, with its cosy furniture, exposed brickwork and rock soundtrack. They also had some beers brewed nearby, a turnup for the books, and evidence brewing is taking root in Bosnia.
The last stop on the trip was Banja Luka, capital of the quasi-nation Republika Srpska and a considerably larger place. Flatter, noisier and full of concrete this place not only looked but felt Serbian by contrast with the green hills and twisty medieval stone of Jajce. Banja Luka offers one small Austrian style street, a few mosques, a slightly neglected fortress by the river and a ferociously impressive Orthodox cathedral. Outside of that it is a ho-hum type place considering its size, certainly the least impressive capital city I have visited, although saying all that, we had a pleasant time in some extremely good weather.
There were several 7/10 standard venues which didn’t quite make the grade for our site, but Pivnica Spao Remen just sneaked onto our guide with a good mix of amenities and local life. You will find a few Irish style pubs and a craft beer venue, along with some workaday caffe bars. Distinctive venues are thin on the ground, if they are there at all.
As with any thoroughly enjoyable holiday it was over in a flash.
Back in England….
Work took me to Hull on several occasions, with excuses to try backstreet classic The Whale Bone, Sam Smith’s Ye Olde Blue Bell, the clutter-bar Fretwell’s and micro pub Hop & Vine, all of which are terrific venues, doing what they do better than most, and come highly recommended.
After booking a chunk of time off and aborting plans to visit Belarus via Lithuania, I instead decided to visit via Germany. Cheap flights to Cologne meant the classic combo of lunch and several 0.2ls of Päffgen Kölsch at Lommerzheim, before a time-honoured visit to Papa Joe’s Biersalon which was ticking over nicely in the early afternoon.
The train to Nuremberg was heavily delayed before the speedy bugger clawed back at least half an hour somewhere between Frankfurt and Wurzburg, despite some dramatic thunderstorms in the valley.
Nuremberg was as lovely as ever, though quiet and grey, in contrast to the blinding sunshine and heat when I visited at the same day a year earlier. Classics were visited: Hausbraurei Altstadthof, Hutt’n, Bierwerk, Kloster, Mr Kennedy, WeissbierHex, Kater Murr and Bar Fusser, but we also managed to pay a visit to the local favourite Landbierparadies, not situated in the Altstadt but just about walkable from the hauptbahnhof. It is a beautiful Gaststatte which really emphasizes the cross-over between Czech hospoda and trad German pub-restaurant. They serve kellerbier from a wooden barrel in a stone jug for a very affordable price.
Further enjoyment was had on trips to Bamberg and Forchheim, now pretty much mandatory add-ons to every Franconia visit. Yes, on account of the beautiful scenery, also through both being at the core of the traditional German beer experience.
Schlenkerla, Spezial and Fassla are core venues to visit in Bamberg city centre (though the last one is not essential in my view), while in Forchheim, our first visit to Brauerei Neder uncovered the possibility of drinking Landbier from a steinkrug for 2 euros 30 among locals in a beautiful authentic venue. It shot straight into our Top 100 Bars In Europe 2019. Things got even more unreal at Josef Greif brewery where I drank a half litre of helles – good stuff too I might add – for sub 2 euros. I didn’t think I would ever see that in Germany. Tradition was displayed in other ways too, as I saw a man order a ‘schnitt‘ (a quickly tapped serving of beer designed to be quaffed), which presumably cost less than a euro.
Upon arrival in Vilnius – yes – the odd decision was made to hop from Germany to Lithuania mid-trip – we of course sought out the Snekutis pubs as soon as possible. Each of them are slightly different. One is a wacky country shed, the other a genteel lunch pub and the latter set out for a younger crowd with more taps, live events and tv screens. They are all effective in their own way.
Other than the buzzing Uzupis district bar Spunka, I had no previous inclusions on our guide, but this changed as we explored more of this lovely city. Baras Suo and Who Hit John very much fit into the ‘small buzzy bar’ format, Baziliskas was a cosy friendly option and an outstanding cocktail bar/ruin pub type venue Salionas, which is based in the old writers guild and is superbly decorated and very atmospheric, shooting straight into the upper reaches of our Top 100 Bars In Europe 2019!
When we left Vilnius I definitely felt we had a true overview of what was on offer in the centre. In comparison, we weren’t in Kaunas for long enough to add to the current recommendations, while Trakai is simply too small a place. It was a hell of a day out though. Look at the weather…
HUNGARY – Budapest
Another year, another trip to Budapest. 7 trips in as many years, and over that time we have watched the Ruin Bar scene morph from its zenith, where there were as many locals as tourists, to being overrun with tourists, especially at night. The bars are still great, but they now do miss something. The closure of the iconic Wichmann’s Kocsma last year (due to retirement) was something of an ending of an era. This has since been added to by closures of some of the most memorable ruin bars, Kuplung, Ellato Kert and as of January 2020, Ankert. Those glory days of 2010-2015 are behind us.
Nevertheless, there were new discoveries – we felt Potkulcs had an edge and a pleasing local crowd, and the more pub like Legenda Sorfozde and Czech beer focused Jaromir 68 provided a different type of offering that were well worth adding to the stock of existing bars. Naturally, we spent plenty of time in our #1 Bar In Europe 2019 Szimpla Kert, a tad more expensive nowadays but still a fantastic experience.
The journey is not over however. We have researched several alternative pubs and bars which locals visit, while the future of the Ezpresszo, a dying breed of bars is still up for grabs. We really want to go back and spend some time visiting those. We will of course visit Szimpla Kert though, don’t worry.
ITALY – Cinque Terre/Genova
The trip to Cinque Terre was never one I expected to yield a haul of great pubs. As one of the most touristic places for middle class and middle aged travellers, the expectation was there would be bland soulless cafes or pretentious wine bars. In large part, that proved to be the case.
We were nevertheless pleasantly surprised to find Monkey ArtPub, a brilliantly located and young-feeling craft beer bar with a nice enough décor, in Vernazza. It is hidden away with no google maps locator but has a small junction nearly to itself. A short train ride away is historic folk tavern Zio Bramante in Manarola, which seems to have the same local fondness as a smugglers cove pub like Ye Dolphin in England.
We had enough time to visit La Spezia and Genova as well, and with limited time available we found 2 very good bars in each. Firstly, a courtyard bar Loggia de Banchi with some atmospheric decor (and just the right kind of busy), and Quattro Canti, a tiny beer-focused pub in one of Genova‘s seedier districts. We would like to have uncovered more, but this was as much of a relaxing holiday with my partner as it was a forensic exploration of the bars.We got to see a bulldog being cooled down with spray from a watering can, so you can’t complain, really.
There were no foreign excursions in August, however we spent a lot of time hiking and travelling in England.
Out in Hebden Bridge we visited the White Lion at Heptonstall, an old favourite, which was very quiet but we were kept entertained by the screamingly camp owner. Later on we spent the afternoon at The Fox and Goose, one of the best English pubs I have visited for some time. A community focused venue which has a conscious appreciation of everything that makes a down to earth pub so good.
In London we visited the mega-weird and wonderful Viktor Wynd museum and bar in Hackney, and The Dove, Belgian pub on Broadway market. We added some lovely Thameside pubs, The Mayflower and The Grapes, along with a first visit the wonderful London institution of Gordon’s Wine Bar near Embankment, which shot straight into our Top 100 Bars In Europe 2019.
It was an altogether enjoyable month of drinking, eating and –importantly – exercise!
This trip was a personal adventure above a bar-finding one, a first hiking holiday abroad, where the plan was to cross the Slovakian and Polish border at its highest point, the summit of Mt Rysy. The first night was spent in Strbske Pleso, which had a nice pub called Furkotka, with some soft furnishings by Eastern European standards, much more akin to an English pub. The second was spent at 2500m after climbing from Strbske Pleso to Chata Pod Rysmi, one of the experiences of my life, which you can read about by following the attached link to our feature article.
While a refuge hut, this also to all intents and purposes qualified as a pub, with communal seating, a bar hatch, beer on tap and social conversation.
Due to extreme weather overnight, passing Rysy was too dangerous to attempt, so the next day involved descending the way we came. The first hour was sketchy enough that the disappointment of retracing our steps was overcome by the focus required not to topple off the edge of things. Eventually we came to the tree line, the wind calmed and before long we were in Strbske Pleso, where we had started. From there were travelled to the altogether unexciting Slovakian town of Poprad, had a pint in their very bland brewery tap (extremely good beer though) and caught the bus to Zakopane.
Zakopane is the central hub for hiking and winter sports in Poland, and memorable for the fact nearly every building is unique, with chunky wooden edifices and intricate carvings. It is a really beautiful, distinctive place, yet not one with a great degree of nightlife. Over a couple of nights, the only find worth telling you about was Piano Bar, a neighbourhood pub to all intents and purposes, whose social function was actually slightly obscured rather than assisted, by overly chunky furniture and artsy pretence. Nevertheless, it was warm, cosy, and lively with some interesting touches such as swing seats at the bar area itself.
From there it was on to Kraków, where we stayed in Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter. This is not uncharted territory, as we have previous written a Days Out guide to the district. Several core venues, some of which were founding inclusions in our guide were visited: the wonderful Alchemia, Viva La Pinta, Eszeweria, Strefa Piwa, Singer, Omerta, yet we also discovered some new ones such as Mleczarnia and Once Upon A Time which carried on the antique aesthetic which defines the quarter. Both joined our guide.
Karczma Smily, near the riverside was the counterpoint, a wonderful rustic country pub that felt more like being in Zakopane with its huge chunky wooden furniture and grill-your-own lunch options, were it not for the Vistula river and fine terrace views of Wawel Castle.
In terms of the tourist effect, Kraków is currently where Prague was circa 2010 and where Budapest was in 2013 before becoming over-saturated, reaching an agreeable balance between tourist appeal and genuine good value. The bar scene is still superb as our day’s out feature confirms, and hasn’t yet been totally overrun with tourists.
ITALY – Lecce, Brindisi, Bari, Bitonto
Our first trip to the Italian south took my partner and I to the region of Puglia, the heel of the boot. This area has had a bit of a ‘moment’ in the last few years, so we were curious as to how gentrified the cities had become.
Counter to our apprehension, the destinations we visited were not overrun with tourists in the slightest. Lecce was a beautiful city with some fun beer-centred pubs scattered around the fringes of the old centre such as Prophet, Bluebeat and Rubens. The centre itself was a selection of unexciting wine and cocktail bars but nevertheless, there was a pleasant lively buzz to the city in the evening.
Brindisi was even less touristic, its small centre feeling a lot more provincial. It must be said the place was rather sleepy. Many bars open late in Italy, similar to Spain, and we were waiting for that to take off, but it never really did. We still found Spinnaker, a pub with a nautical theme which deserved and received an inclusion to our guide.
Then it was off to Bari for 3 days, discovering 2 bars in the centro storico that were head and shoulders above the rest, Opus Pistorium (< which we wrote about here) and Chat Noir, both brooding and red with fairylights and boudoir type feel. The former was found almost by just walking past, something which is brilliant when it happens but also leaves me cursing my research skills to have overlooked it in the first place.
Bari also has a decent beer scene with a central brewery tap in the rabbit warren old town (which still remains pleasingly free of tat and rip-off merchants), and several small beer bars dotted around the city, the best of which were Faros and BurBeero. In the suburbs the cult pub Storie Del Vecchio Sud provided the liveliest atmosphere and a really characterful effort. This was where locals were hanging out, the booze was cheaper and the vibe unpretentious to say the least.
Overall, for a number of reasons it was an enjoyable trip. Quirky at times, distinctly outside the gravitational pull of the most popular Italian regions and mostly the better for it.
BELGIUM – Brussels, Mechelen, Bruges
My sister had not been to Belgium before, while I had never travelled on the Eurostar. It seemed appropriate with a looming (yet ultimately not executed) Brexit deadline we should take the respective opportunity before any onerous customs changes took effect.
We stayed in Brussels, with a half day in Mechelen and a day out in Bruges.
Brussels is a city I have explored very well already, and our time there was mainly spent covering a large number of the core pubs: Goupil Le Fol, A la Mort Subite, Monk, Au Daringman (< full review attached), La Fleur en Papier Dore, Le Coq. I was happy to include La Brocante, a neighbourhood brown café in the Sablon, and Le Cirio, which I had previously thought was too much of a brasserie until I walked past in the evening to find it had morphed into a bar of sorts. In any case, it is a wonderful venue, and fits in with the ‘grand café’ concept. I think I will pop by for a baguette and glass of ‘italien geuze’ on every future visit to the city.
Mechelen was a new one on me and it made a big impression. While I was aware of its large medieval gatehouse and cathedral, the ensemble in the city centre takes a big dollop of Ghent and adds to it a smattering of Bruges, both impressive in terms of monuments, while in the back streets genteel and pretty. For drinking, I was informed the café scene has suffered of late. I did not have too much time to explore but Hanekeef, (recommended in Regula Ysewijn’s amazing book Belgian Café Culture) was as nice as I expected, a really old-timer bar stuffed with cockerel items and regulars. The second find Tilt was more of a long shot, but ended up being a fascinating trip. More of a volkscafe, a thoroughly unpretentious community run pub with a very long standing owner, Rozeke Raymaekers. Cheap, friendly and entirely local, we wrote about it almost as soon as we got home. Check the link above to read our full profile.
Lastly, on our trip to Bruges there was no time to explore new options and so sticking to our own Days Out In Bruges route, we time spent in Café Vlissinghe, De Garre and t’Brugse Beertje proved more than adequate, 2 of them being 10/10 venues, after all. The city was bustling but not jam-packed, which is about the best you can hope for from this super-popular destination, and very little had changed, indeed, when you visit Bruges that’s kinda what you’re hoping for.
Back at home….
As we returned via Eurostar I took the opportunity on a rare Monday evening to visit two pubs normally closed at weekends in London, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and Ye Olde Mitre, 2 glaring omissions from the guide and my personal wish-list. Both were wonderful, but the former was truly out of this world fantastic and well worth a 10/10 rating, every inch a Dickensian London tavern.
A trip to Durham, a city I had not visited since I was a child was a wet but enjoyable day out, as Fresher’s Week was under way and the town was buzzing.
The Victoria Inn was a venue I had read about in advance and is such a wonderful community pub, with many old items of historical interest and a labour of love for the proprietor Michael Webster. Follow the link to read our full profile!
We also enjoyed the Dun Cow with its low ceilings and sliding door access from the alleyway, and the Colpitts Hotel, possibly the friendliest Sam Smiths pub I have visited, which actually lives up to the social focus the owner claims to want.
CZECHIA – Prague, Beroun, Karlstejn
My brother and I spotted an opportunity to return to Prague after discussions with a mutual friend whose cousin and family live in the district of Vinohrady. It was a perfect excuse, particularly with Ryanair’s new Manchester route driving down prices locally.
November is a good time to visit Prague, as crowds reduce during a pre-Christmas lull. Yes, it can be dreary weather in November but in comparison to getting voluntarily kettled while walking down ul. Karlova to the sound of All I Want For Christmas, it wins.
I have still not visited the city in Spring or Summer, and I wonder how much difference it would make.
Without trying too hard, I was impressed how many of the best pubs we covered: U Hrocha, U Cerneho Vola, U Zlateho Tygra, U Rotundy, U Jelinku, U Prasivka, U Sadu, Nad Viktorkou, U Rudolfina, U Medvidku, U Vejvodu. In all venues we got seated and either fed or watered.
Prices have jumped across the board since our last visit in March 2018. 45kc now represents decent value in Prague for a Pilsner Urquell, while the days of sub 30kc pints are numbered. Even U Rotundy, for so long a socialist era stalwart now charges 31kc for a Staropramen 10. Nevertheless, U Prasivka is a die-hard Czech local, and you can still find a 0.5l of Chotebor for 25kc. These days, that’s nearer countryside prices.
We were staying less than a minute away from Kovadlina U Lazni, which had been on my radar for some time, and was a deserved inclusion to the guide. It is simply a homely good value corner pub with decent meals, sport on TV and comfortable seats, yet combines everything well enough with enough individuality to stand out.
As part of our trip I also took us to Karlstejn castle, stopping first at Beroun’s brewery tap. Based the other side of major roadworks, in amongst some near-derelict buildings, it was worth dragging us down there for the look on the faces of my fellow travellers. Priceless. However once inside, there is a really lovely pub that does a great selection of beer at good value and terrific food. Dark wooden fittings, big tables, brewery ephemera and steaming hot food, it’s an insider tip for lunch, though not quite pubby and drinks focused enough to deserve an inclusion.
On return to Prague our final evening visiting some of the very best central venues, luckily finding a table in each (a table of people departed U Zlateho Tygra the moment we arrived) and enjoying the setting sun over the Vltava made for a truly brilliant afternoon.
ROMANIA – Timișoara
Doncaster Airport’s increasing Wizz Air presence is opening up a host of new destinations. I spotted Timișoara’s inclusion earlier in the year and had always been keen to visit the birthplace of the Romanian revolution. You never know how long these routes, particularly the more obscure ones, will last.
Timișoara itself is a living museum to faded, near abandoned art nouveau buildings, both sad and yet intensely gothic. Anyone keen on a haunted house will love its peeling facades, fanciful towers and lovingly ornate décor on show.
Unfortunately the local beer market is dominated by macro breweries locking up and restricting the offerings at various bars. Timisoareana is far from the worst beer going, but seeing, the same brands Ciuc, Silva and Ursus on rotation soon becomes tiring. There is a small craft scene with an independent bar and bottle shop in the city centre, and the unfiltered Timisoareana (which can be sampled at their central bierhalle) is quite a decent beer, all things considered.
The bar scene is quite scattered, but the core area, if there is one, comprises two apartment blocks whose interiors have been repurposed to make bars, Cuib d’Arte and Atelier Beerotheka. You can lounge in the courtyards and anterooms, not quite a ruin-pub but closer to it than most. These deserved inclusion on our guide.
The best bar was Scârț, connected to a museum dedicated to communist consumerism, effectively a mock apartment stuffed with pre-1991 goodies. The bar itself is full of such decoration as well as plenty of amenities – books, board games and musical instruments, while you can even see plays being performed from time to time. It was the heart of ‘alternative’ Timișoara without being overly hipster and certainly a refreshing lack of corporate feeling.
A couple of days is adequate in this city, which is lacking 1 or 2 key attractions and far away from external sites of interest, but its an enjoyable enough weekend to spend and comes with an atmosphere that feels far away from home, further than the slightly more cosmopolitan Cluj-Napoca felt last year.
POLAND – Wrocław
As if 1 trip to Wrocław wasn’t enough, we came around for dessert. With the temperature plunging and the Christmas Markets in full swing, a busier than usual stare miasto had to be navigated, but fortunately Wrocław has innumerable bars to help deal with that issue.
The central braukeller Spiz is the perfect hub for an evenings entertainment, and the answer to many ‘where next?’ questions. Art Café Kalumbur is a quirky, unique and moody venue for bohemian lounging and revelry. Paka Pub is the perfect little bar to have in your pocket when it’s crowded in the centre and you need a backstreet option, and by far the best in the world of those kinds of bars to also feature an enormous lizard on the wall. Meanwhile, Mleczarnia does antiquey old times café bar as well as any in Kazimierz.
As I was leading a group of 6 others around the city, it proved a good opportunity to put all this research into practice. Give or take the fact some are a lot more easily pleased, feedback was positive and I took a lot of encouragement from that fact.
…end of year thoughts….
If you read all of that, or even skim-read it, then firstly thanks, but you may also think my life looks like a constant whirlwind of movement. In reality it’s quite a lot more prosaic than that, given I am doing this in between my day job. These are approximately 1/6th of my year, perhaps a higher proportion if you include pubs I explore local to my residence in Leeds.
Moving on to the site itself, we have made some significant progress increasing the profile of the page, increasing visitors sixfold, but most of the opportunities to widen exposure further will require a significant further investment of time.
Although I made some major changes to the appearance and useability of European Bar Guide, I completed ‘only’ 16 profile reviews last year, yet visited over 100+ previously unvisited venues which deserved inscription. At this rate there will be far more on our guide than possess a full review, which was certainly not our intention.
Trips Coming in 2020: We already have trips to Munich, Bratislava, Brno, Olomouc, Prague, Wroclaw, Jelenia Gora, Walbrzych, Swidnica, Vilnius, Verona, Basel, Colmar, Freiburg am Breisgau filling us in until April! A potential return to Slovenia beckons in May, then who knows after that? Not I…
Aims for our website in 2020: I need to focus on producing more profiles, getting exposure through local news and beer/pub magazines. Any sort of increase in our site performance in 2020 will represent consolidation of what was very much a growth year in 2019.
I hope you will join me as we continue on this journey, hopefully with our favourite bars remaining wonderful – and open! This certainly couldn’t happen without the deluge of recommendations I receive from all of you, and the encouragement I get from your great feedback. Thank you for reading!