April 19th-24th – Poland 🇵🇱 – Trip#5 of 2023

You are reading Part 4 of 4 on April’s trip around Europe’s best bars! If you want to start reading at an earlier part in our journey please backtrack to:

Part 1: Slovakia, Austria and Slovenia 🇸🇰 🇦🇹 🇸🇮

Part 2: Croatia 🇭🇷

Part 3: Czechia and Germany 🇨🇿 🇩🇪

In this final part we travel to several of Poland‘s 🇵🇱 central cities: Wrocław, Poznań, Bydgoszcz, Toruń, Warsaw and Łódź!

Day 1: Wrocław & Poznań

Due to frequency of flights and affordability I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Wrocław since my first visit in 2016. It belongs among a handful of cities where I could be dropped anywhere and roughly know my way around. Due to perhaps no more than its unfamiliar looking name, UK tourism really hasn’t taken off there in the same way as Kraków, even though many of its main features – castle aside – are actually reasonably comparable. A beautiful old town, network of waterways, visible heritage stretching from the middle ages to the 19th century connected by a modern tram system – sound familiar? It also has hundreds of little gnomes – that part is different, but I thought you’d like to know about it.

It would only be a fleeting visit on this occasion, but that wasn’t to say we wouldn’t be going to any bars! An early visit to Literatka 🇵🇱, a café bar on the central square gave a glimpse of what the evening atmosphere would be like, but for late morning visit I didn’t get enough of an impression to say for sure. There’s a backroom used for smoking and I understand it is popular with local functionaries and for a while the artistic crowd. Service was friendly and it’s somewhere we’d return to – much later at night.

After lunch at a nearby Bar Mleczny, I had a walk to the cathedral island, market hall and park, before returning to one of our Top 100 Bars in Europe, Art Café Kalambur 🇵🇱. While it’s a shame to not have been able to visit later at night (when the atmosphere is electric it is a beautiful environment to be in at any of time of the day, with its art nouveau stylings and funky adornments. A cinema, café, snack bar and later club/dance hall, this is a versatile, brilliant venue.

I drifted towards two other Wrocław classics, the first being the town square Brewpub/Ratskeller, Spiż 🇵🇱. Calling the venue iconic seems an anodyne description these days, devalued with overuse. It undersells just what a fixture this place has been in the lives of local residents. A cellar venue with huge terrace on the square, allowing for a great experience in summer or winter. Their own brews are last-generation and focus on Polish/German styles, but are not without merit. The beer is often served with bread and home-made bacon lard.

Moving to an altogether more sensual experience, a café bar that for all the world could fit in among the many antiquey, olde-world bars in Kazimierz, in Kraków. After nearby Graciarnia was ruined by some idiots and turned into an ineffective and overrated pizza joint, Mleczarnia 🇵🇱 has carried the flag for this style of bar in Wrocław. Candlelight, vintage furniture and low lighting effectively moves forward time, so while it may have been early afternoon, you can easily feel you are approaching early evening. You lose track of time. Have a beer, take a look at their cakes and pastries. While away the hours in a bubble of relaxation of harmony.

Breaking the spell was the thought of needing to catch the train to Poznań. Fortunately the walk takes you past one of the city’s key nightlife areas, a series of bars built under the railway arches on Wojciecha Bogusławskiego, for a while one of the seedier areas of the city. There are still a couple of sex shops and the occasional dodgy character around but these days it is leaning towards becoming gentrified. One of these bars, Sielanka 🇵🇱 is on our guide, but we decided to try somewhere else, and Cinema Paradiso 🇵🇱 looked worth a try. Part of the decision making came down to the fact people were inside unlike virtually all of the other dozen bars. On entry we discovered a tidy little pub which will prove a convenient stop off/fallback option before a train or tram, or even when going for a night out. The beer selection is a step up for this sort of place with Czech options on tap and a few Polish craft cans in the fridge. Didn’t make the guide but definitely pause for thought. Here are the two duff photos I took of it:

Poznań, by contrast is a city we hadn’t visited since 2016. We were assured by local residents that it was easily the equal of Wrocław. That remains to be seen – but it does nevertheless have an attractive city centre. I wasn’t to know but on arrival that city centre was a building site. Every lane, main road, side alley was surrounded by metal fencing and the paving had been removed. It made getting around a real pain in the arse and of course spoiled the views. This is as good as it got as when we returned the rain turned it into a quagmire:

From a bar going perspective, I was excited return to some of our favourite haunts. Alas, Za Kulisami 🇵🇱 was closed on a Wednesday, but it would be only a 2nd visit to a Top 100 Bar In Europe, Piwna Stopa 🇵🇱. This pub (English name: Beer Foot) is simply superb in everything it does. Melding top quality Polish craft beer with a well-tended garden, a truly cosy, convivial and social interior, and stonking pub grub. It is one of those places that’s painfully far from home, one that I’d make my local within 5 minutes of moving to the area.

After a rest at the apartment we tried a couple of venues for the first time. One, Dragon Social Club 🇵🇱 has gained some level of reputation at home due to it being the local pub for Ben Aitken, author of ‘A Chip Shop In Poznan‘ when he lived in the city. The interior has a purposefully colourful, collegiate feel with some niches that will appeal to different groups and that is perhaps its strength, turning what is in places a quite flowery, loungey venue into somewhere you’d still find punks hanging out. It made our guide, first and only inclusion of the day!

Final stop of the evening (remember this had been a seriously long day out) was at Na Piwek 🇵🇱 , a basement bar and craft beer joint. The combination of the two ought to have worked, yet while it was hardly a disaster, something about the shape of the venue, furniture choices and general ambience failed to fire, despite several groups of people being there. Photos may make it look better than it actually was.

That was the end of the evening, and we woke up ahead of our first ever visit to Toruń, where we would find the best bar of our entire trip.

Day 2 – Toruń – Gingerbread, Copernicus and Brick Gothic

Imagine a country with affordable first class rail travel, where you look at the uptick in price and think – ‘You know what? Yes.’ You’re thinking of Poland, where premium train travel can be obtained very affordably – on its own merits too, not just in comparison to Western nations. I arranged mine and headed to Poznań station, stopping along the way at Fort Colomb 🇵🇱, a bar set in the limited remains of an old Napoleonic fortress. As well as being extremely convenient, it is a nice little pub too, with the vaults of the building on show, a fire installed and little niches. Most of the furnishing and product is regular and mainstream but it just inched over the line by our reckoning.

The weather improved over the course of our journey to Toruń and on arrival rail passengers were treated to the splendid sight of its UNESCO world heritage city centre from the bridge passing over the Vistula river. Of all the new places I visited this made the strongest positive impression. While it can’t beat Kraków or Gdansk for scale, it is a beautiful old place with a set of attractions that make it an ideal stop-off. A night or two here will be very well spent, trust me on that.

Our first move bar-wise was to check out the city’s central brewpub, Jan Olbracht 🇵🇱. This well-financed operation in a historic old town building has been carefully designed to exhibit the historical features of the building, give some hints to the glory years in its Hanseatic era pomp and show off some seriously impressive modern finish too. The exposed brick, black wood, copper brewkit and yellow neon signage is really complimentary, with some flair applied too, booths set into what seem to be the inside of huge barrels. The complex is sprawling and perhaps the only real criticism is that they could have made the central bar room more communal and pubby. Their regular beers are competent rather than spectacular, although they have a creative side-line in more adventurous brews too. It deserved an inclusion to our guide.

Next stop was one of Toruń’s craft beer bars, Deer Bear 🇵🇱. This is connected to a brewery of the same name who have a national reputation. The focus is – predictably – on IPAs and sours which were all hitting the mark. The interior was pleasant with some exposure of the historic beams and brick, but the layout slightly lacks a social focal point. That said, the actual people in the bar were chatty and it had a friendly feel. If you lived here you’d find yourself in this bar a lot. Overall it just sneaked an inscription on our guide.

The next venue was a way west of the city centre with no alternatives nearby, making it a risky all-or-nothing endeavour. However, from our advance research I had to try. And boy, was it worth it! En route, a sudden thunderstorm boiled up and I was hopping between tree cover for the last 15 minutes before reaching our destination, the fantastic Czarny Tulipan 🇵🇱 (English: Black Tulip). I hadn’t expected the building itself to be so striking, a brick turn of the century effort which had taken on an almost haunted house quality. On approach two windows were gleaming with warmth and light, and it suddenly looked far bigger than the images online had suggested. You walk up the porch stairs to be greeted by a supremely cosy, characterful and aged bar with a quality of light that places you in an instant feeling of ease – not just ease but a bond to the place. The side rooms were actually filled with 2 pool tables in use – not what I had expected for a vintage type bar, but it is clear this neighbourhood pub is versatile and accommodates a range of needs well. This is also seen in the pricing which was among the lowest anywhere we visited in Poland. At this stage we will let the photos speak for themselves:

How do you follow that? Well, thankfully with a walk to burn off one of the two strong beers I had sunk. On returning to the centre the pace had picked up in town seemingly, so decided to visit two basement bars for some lively atmosphere. One, Przepompownia 🇵🇱 was a nice battered old hangout but lacking customers, the other, Kredens 🇵🇱 was kind of the other way around, a little tacky and full with a young crowd.

It’s annoying when you arrive at a venue and it’s closed when the information published says it’s open, but occasionally leaving it too late to arrive can be no-one else’s fault but yourself. The next, final, unsuccessful effort was a mixture of the two. I arrived at Tutu Jazz & Whisky Club 🇵🇱 with around 40 minutes before the scheduled closing, but it was emptying out and the guy at the bar apologised as he was closing it up. I should have left a bit more of a margin, really. The frustrating thing is, it looked pretty decent.

Day 2 – A day in Bydgoszcz

With Bydgoszcz and Toruń only 45 minutes apart by train, there was no urgency to get up and about so after a lie-in I explored more of the gorgeous old town – soon to be improved with a renovated riverside/promenade area. The Town hall tower, Copernicus exhibition and Gingerbread museum were all well worth doing and the hour hand reached over the yardarm to – yes, you guessed it – bar time!

The first stop was a survivor, an old local’s hangout stretching back to the 90s (maybe longer), U Kaduka 🇵🇱. Whatever else you may say, it’s an honest operation, clearly somewhat of an institution but lacked some personality. Décor was non-descript and it didn’t give off the impression I was hoping it would.

This left room for just one more venue before getting the train. A better outcome, Krajina Piwa 🇵🇱 was a really nice place blending all aspects of pubbage well. A strong selection of Polish craft on tap and in the fridge, a nice, not overbearing seafaring theme, featuring a piano, upturned barrels at the bar top and a link to a restaurant – they may even be owned by the same operation. Service was friendly and helpful, and with the station only a few minutes walk away, it was ideal. It’s now on our guide.

Bydgoszcz (pronounced Bidd-Gosh-tsch) appeared to have a modest hitlist of a lot of what you expect from historic Polish cities. The reality is it is quite low key and understated with a nice, if slightly under-exploited riverside area, a nice, if slightly under-exploited market square and a funky little cathedral with colourful painted interior. There was no way a city of 350,000 people was not going to have a few great bars, until we discovered that actually, no – those bars don’t exist.

Somehow I ended up getting pointed to Pub Parnasik 🇵🇱. It was unbelievably drab as well as towny, getting things off to a pretty terrible start in Bydgoszcz.

After check-in and a rest, we headed out hoping for at least something a little better. That emerged in the shape of neighbourhood craft beer bar Kraftodajnia 🇵🇱. On arrival it seemed like a pretty safe bet, if a little unimaginative. The beer selection was very decent and hopes were high until my choice – a hefeweizen was undrinkably bad. The staff took a little persuading but agreed and I switched to a beer which was thankfully fresh as a daisy. The pub was near totally absent of people but even with an evening crowd I’m not convinced it would quite pass the threshold.

I assumed the next venue, Prolog9 🇵🇱, a rock/punk pub with craft beer would be likely to have at least a couple of groups hanging out. Not only was it dead, but the service sucked and the furnishings inside looked more like the locker room of a goth football team than somewhere you’d want to spend time. I like rock pubs, but not this one. The Black IPA was all kinds of meh, too.

With things going from bad to worse, and no sign of a let-up, I reluctantly headed to Piwo – Ty nalewasz 🇵🇱. I wasn’t expecting it to be guide worthy, but this bar has a sampler format where you load a card with money then pour your own beers. Half the taps were not overly interesting, however several were, and I at least got to have some fun, even in what was mostly a typical mainstream towny bar. It’s a good gimmick and so long as there are 4 or 5 beers worth trying, you can sit back and just about forgive everything else. It won’t make our guide though.

This was the 20th day of the trip, and I have to confess I threw in the towel after one final try – OGIEŃ Craft beer & pizza 🇵🇱. Neither bar, nor pizzeria, a typical hybrid place. Good beer, good food, middling value, but so little to write home about I didn’t even bother taking a photo, it seems.

If you find any great bars in Bydgoszcz then firstly, congratulations – you did a better job than me, but secondly, please let me know!

Day 3 – The capital city Warsaw beckons

The journey from Bydgoszcz to Warsaw is pretty straightforward – the train is modern, and the route is flat and boring, enlivened only by the odd sight of a deer, hare or kestrel in the field. Excitement was building though, as I had never visited Warsaw before though was well aware of the attractions in the capital and the differences between it and other Polish cities.

Due to an absence of affordable accommodation more centrally I was booked in right at the end of the line, so decided to break up the transfer, walking to the restored (rebuilt from scratch) old town for lunch, then a tram to Praga, Warsaw’s alternative end, to the first venue, W Oparach Absurdu 🇵🇱. A bar fitting for Kraków’s Jewish Quarter Kazimierz, this felt familiar and instantly likeable, if not perhaps as dramatic mid-afternoon. It was nice to see a healthy beer range, not only Browar Amber on tap but a big fridge of craft beer too. Vintage furniture, fairy lights and Persian rugs. You’ve seen it before, but it’s well done.

There was a bit of time available to check out another bar in the area before check in at 3pm and I spotted a craft beer bar not far around the corner, the supremely generic titled Beer Station 🇵🇱. With a range of Lithuanian options and a few Russian voices, I didn’t get the impression this was a Polish outfit. A neighbourhood multitap bar created on a budget, in a strange way the lack of finesse actually improves it and gives it a tiny bit of personality. There wasn’t much else to report though. It will do the job if you’re in the area but needs another dimension to be worth considering for an inclusion.

Based in Gocławek, literally the end of the tramline, it was about half an hour there and back from downtown Warsaw, so every decision had to be made with that in mind. After a rest I emerged, visiting the very cool Neon Museum before a park walk to Fregata 🇵🇱. Reportedly a survivor pub from well before the fall of the Iron Curtain, this supposedly offered retro vibes, good value and neighbourhood life. It did, but all of you will have felt the difference between a vibrant old survivor and a dog-eared one. This rather fell into the latter camp. It was also possibly too foody to really consider either.

The theme of feeling vaguely underwhelmed persisted at the next stop, Kicia Kocia 🇵🇱. It came highly recommend and had an interesting brutalist entrance but inside the vibe was a colourful café trying to be all things to all people, with the inevitable feeling of dilution – not a strong ‘bar’ feel. It feels harsh to criticise an operation not doing anything actively wrong, but a vague sense of cynicism to the whole thing dragged it down. It was at least busy and it serves a neighbourhood that isn’t brimming with alternatives.

I thought it best to head towards the city centre, so stopped off at Pardon To Tu 🇵🇱, a high-ceilinged modern bar on the corner of an intersection. Busy with a mainstream crowd, there was something distinctive to the décor, but perhaps the sum was less than its individual parts. Further underwhelming vibes, but the black IPA was very tasty. The bar was a lot busier than the photos below make it look, with a large busy terrace full of people.

Changing style and tempo after these slightly underwhelming (or is it over-hyped?) venues, I went to downtown Warsaw aiming to find a speakeasy cocktail bar named BackRoom 🇵🇱. There are well-hidden ‘secret locations’ and those hiding in plain sight. The unmarked entry to this bar looks identical to any of the other apartment doors you’ll find in this complex and eventually I co-opted the help of a local resident. On entry, the bar was over-stocked with staff versus customers. I’m not sure how many moustachioed bros it takes to say Hi to one person, show them a menu and then rustle up a cocktail but apparently the answer was north of 6. All the same, the cocktails really were excellent. Décor fairly good, the back-room seemed to me the nicest part, bookish study type surroundings but without a reservation I had to settle for a space at the bar itself, which was still good to see the staff at work.

Staying on the cocktails for now, I walked across a few blocks to a much more open, neighbourly venue, Aura 🇵🇱. Far smaller than any images really show, this is a corner bar with a wall of booze from floor to ceiling, (accessible via a ladder), Persian rugs on the wall with arched mirror. Quite odd. A duo of hyper, possibly dosed-up guys exchange banter and do everything at a manic lick. This does give it a much more informal, fun atmosphere and I quite liked it – cocktails are very decent too. This is where I suddenly noticed myself having a profuse nosebleed which was quite embarrassing for 5 minutes or so.

The evening ended somewhere unplanned. I walked past Armand 🇵🇱, only to be impressed by what I was seeing inside. You have to give these things a go and not just remain fixed on an on-rails itinerary. For all my careful research, this impromptu bar I chanced upon was better than the 6 previous bars I had swotted up on – it just goes to show. An atmospheric place, the gilded Deco signage outside doesn’t quite fit the interior which is more pleasingly bohemian. Colourful but brooding, each little vintage table is cute and dinky with its own lamp, and the vibe had reached that lovely buzz of happy, spirited conversation. The bar serves up a decent modern range across the board – it’s unlikely anyone, even craft beer or whisky specialists will be disappointed.

Stalked by the fear of missing the last tram to Gocławek, I set off earlier for home than had I been based more centrally – a lesson to learn for next time perhaps. It had been an interesting first day, even if it hadn’t hit the top heights.

Day #4 – Warsaw Uprising, Wooden Shacks, Wine Stalls, Market Halls, Ruin Pubs

Starting the day with culture before fun, the Warsaw Uprising museum was as good as hoped. Thought provoking, sprawling, and placing a snapshot in time in its wider context without losing the poignancy of individuals or moments. If you just want to look at a big plane, you can do that too. I also wanted to visit the Fotoplastikon, the oldest stereoscopic theatre in Europe, but I, and others, failed to gain entry despite stalking the courtyard and ringing the bell over and over. They also weren’t picking up the phone. A trip up the magnificent Palace of Culture and Science would do instead, and afterwards I found myself near-ish another starred drinking venue on my map – Karczma 🇵🇱.

Karczma – a throwback rustic country diner – by the main station in the capital city seemed perversely backwards enough to hold some interest, and on approach I could barely believe this surviving shack, no doubt an eyesore to the property developers whose apartment blocks dwarf it, still stood, let alone a business operating in it.

With kindly service, basic Polish pub grub and very well tapped beer (if still macro industrial Polish lager) at a very good price, this venue was naturally charming in its refusal to bend or break. It really delivered and I could see why it has attained almost cult status locally.

Shortly after I left it was apparent the future remains uncertain for the business, which is a small tragedy. A venue like this will not be returning to Warsaw, that’s for sure.

The closest place nearby was the flipside of the coin. Uwaga Piwo 🇵🇱 was meticulously clean, modern and with a range of cutting edge craft beers, making use of the ex-industrial space creatively with a series of machines you could wander around to look at. It was also empty, soulless, sterile and fairly unfriendly/disinterested. Attached to a shopping mall, it felt more like drinking in the bar of a bowling alley than a pub. No doubt some readers would still rather come here. Dare I say it’s less good than these photos make it look?

Revamped market halls are often good spaces to find bars/drinks businesses when they are on the up, and for a change of scene we decided to visit Niewinność Wine Bar 🇵🇱 in Hala Gwardii, one of at least 3 branches of this business in the capital. The friendly welcome was appreciated, really helpful, personal and curious too, making me feel right at home and helping me decide. This business serve several wines from the barrel, all of which were well outside the UK’s normal distribution and ecosystem. The stall has been made more bar-like with plants, bunting and an extension from what is a tiny little retail unit. While overall it didn’t quite meet the criteria for our guide as a venue, any wine buffs could do a lot worse than popping here.

The whole day so far had been schizophrenically changing styles and vibe so why stop there? Our next venue, back into downtown, was Café Paragraf 🇵🇱. A survivor from the socialist era, purposefully pickled in aspic, 6 decades and counting have passed as fashions have swung away from their favour and back again. An intriguing narrow venue with a smoking room behind the bar and strong ‘1990s high street solicitors reception area’ vibes, a glass of ‘Belfast’, a nitro keg dark beer (brewed in Poland) was the ideal retro choice. I was unaware this beer had such cult status in Warsaw as it is barely visible in any other city I have visited in Poland (which at the current count stands at 19). While there was a lurid appeal, I don’t think I would return here unless I was with friends to hangout and chat with.

After a break and a rest, it was time for a final evening in Warsaw. I took a 2nd trip to W Oparach Absurdu 🇵🇱 to see what it was like at night. The answer? Very nice.

The next venue was a little out on a limb, always a chance of adding further mileage for little reward, but you have to try these things. Or maybe I just have to try these things then tell you about them? To się wytnie 🇵🇱 is a genuinely alternative venue that is part of the arts and cultural scene with live gigs (including an ambient act who were playing when I arrived) and community events. When I arrived at this unmarked venue which more resembled a squat, I tried the door (which was wedged open with a mat) to find a busy bar room with people sat around the live act, and a small bar to the back. Friendly and welcoming, there was a spread of drinks and snacks for guests, but I thought it best to actually invest in the business and went to the bar.

During my research I also discovered a courtyard cluster of vaguely alternative leaning bars in the Praga district along 11 Listopada. Several bars including a club share outside space meaning there is a fairly open atmosphere of mingling and wandering which I personally really like.

The first bar of these was Skład Butelek 🇵🇱, one of those sepia-toned vintage places with first floor clandestine rooms and a cool ground floor bar area. This got the evening off to a great start. I was surprised at the time of night there were still some families knocking around, who presumably arrived earlier and had forgotten to leave.

Things were really hotting up now after a vaguely underwhelming previous day, and peaked at Chmury 🇵🇱, the neighbouring bar to Skład Butelek and Hydrozagadka. Chmury ticks so many boxes. It’s fun, it’s cool, there’s a great outdoor area and a funky, distracting interior of lampshades and Twin Peaks décor, street food, surprisingly good range of craft cans and far more besides. The atmosphere was bubbling up nicely as there was an event coming up next door, so this was the pre-club drinks spot. It was my favourite venue in Warsaw and it looked like I’d saved the best til last.

Our next stop, Łódź, isn’t a long trip away from Warszawa Zachodnia station, so after a lie in we got going in a leisurely fashion. This proved a decent decision as Łódź didn’t exactly prove a showstopper of a city. Unlike most of the historic cities which are based around a central square, Łódź is based on one huge, long thoroughfare, Piotrkowska over 4km from end to end. Low-rise and actually not particularly modern/industrial, the city has an inheritance of 19th and early 20th century architecture that is crumbling away. On arrival not many bars were open yet, but we started at the retro nostalgia bar 07 Bar 🇵🇱.

This is a trend lots of businesses have tried to seize on, but this one did a reasonable job, particularly upstairs where there are views of the main streets and a nicely curated selection of vintage furnishings.

The next stop didn’t exactly fill us with huge excitement in advance, but ended up being an enjoyable visit, Piwoteka Narodowa 🇵🇱. On entry the impression was ‘so far so craft beer bar’, a large venue with spacious seating widely set apart from each other, and a good selection to choose from. On further inspection I noted 2 cask handpumps and inquired if either was in business – yes! This is a moment of excitement as true cask beer is very difficult to come by on the continent, but Poland has more than most, a positive cultural exchange from the influx of Poles in the mid-late 00s to the UK, many of whom came home with a taste for the stuff. After enjoying that I was invited by a group a girls to hang out with them for a couple of hours which was a really nice was to spend the afternoon.

After a break (needed after working our way through the menu), I emerged fresh(er) to explore the evening bar scene, beginning at the basement venue Biblioteka 🇵🇱. One of those decent cellar venues with exposed vaults, and the predictable quasi library décor. Mainstream but welcoming and versatile, really the only shortcoming was the last generation choice of drinks. Improve that and you’ve got a very strong venue on your hands.

Next up, an unfortunately pretty quiet bar Chmielowa Dolina 🇵🇱. It wouldn’t be uncharitable to say it hasn’t got what’s necessary to produce a sense of comfort and atmosphere in the absence of people. What’s worse, the service was pretty surly too, as though I’d offended them by walking in the room.

Still, some people seemed to be having worse evenings than me:

Running out of options, we tried Jabeerwocky 🇵🇱, which I really didn’t like. Grey, start, bad acoustics, really nothing to get into at all.

To inject some fun into proceedings I ended the night at Pijana Wiśnia 🇵🇱 🍒 This chain bar has become a bit of a cult venue, specialising in cherry liqueur. Well-financed with eye-catching décor – barrels and textures made from glass and red lights accentuating. If you have a group of friends together it’s a very good venue.

Day #5The trip comes to an end in Poznań

It was April 24th and with over 3 weeks away and 150+ venues visited it was time to draw things to a close. A long train journey retracing steps to Poznań where we revisited Piwna Stopa 🇵🇱 and Dragon Pub 🇵🇱 before heading to the airport.

There we go.

8 new cities covered in 24 days, 54 new entries to our guide across 7 countries!

The top finds were:

Czarny Tulipan, Toruń 🇵🇱

Chmury, Warsaw 🇵🇱

Jazzland, Vienna 🇦🇹

Gutruf, Vienna 🇦🇹

Valhalla, Zagreb 🇭🇷

Loos American Bar, Vienna 🇦🇹

W Oparach Absurdu, Warsaw 🇵🇱

Pub Gambrinus, Maribor 🇸🇮

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.