As far as truly ‘local’ activities go, relaxing with a book or a laptop and slowly sipping coffee in a café surely ranks near the top. Yet very few travelers allow themselves the luxury of spending time doing next to nothing in a café. There are simply too many other things to do and see. Therefore, kicking back in local cafés becomes something of a guilty pleasure for many. As much as I love to see people checking one sight after another in Prague, I have to confess that it also makes me a bit sad because relaxing in a café provides some unique insights into the local culture and should be something you do in between sights.
Luckily, there is a strong coffeehouse culture in Prague, and the city’s historic cafés have long been included among the must-sees. Almost every guidebook features top traditional coffeehouses, and if you google ‘Prague's Best Cafés’, you will get a lot of advice on the ‘best’ cafés.
However, this also means that cafés that once oozed with local atmosphere now hardly have anything to offer beyond their history and their polished wooden floors, big picture windows, and unique interiors. And because these places are crammed with guidebook-carrying tourists, the waiter tends not to care if you are coming back. Ordering a cup of coffee in these establishments can be a huge mistake and the locals have moved on, and so did the atmosphere that made the cafés so appealing in the first place.
The Cafe Slavia, the atmospheric The Cafe Louvre and the only Cubist-style coffeehouse in the world, Grand Cafe Orient, are three examples of cafés destroyed by tourism. Established in 1863, Cafe Slavia became a meeting place for artists and intellectuals – it’s regular patrons once included Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jaroslav Seifert and the composers Smetana and Antonin Dvorak. Today, it is packed with tourists hunting for pictures of beautiful Art Deco architecture and the astonishing views of Prague Castle.
Cafe Louvre is another café of this kind. The Parisian-style café with a billiard hall is part of the First Republic's heritage, and its famous patrons included Albert Einstein, Karel Čapek and Franz Kafka. However, the combination of crowds of tourists, coffee of poor quality and disinterested waiters makes me pass this establishment by without any regret.
The Grant Café Orient is another remnant of the past. However, for a rare chance to see cubist architecture up close, I recommend that you enter the fabulous geometric balustrade and climb the teardrop-shaped stairwell to the Grand Café just to see the really beautiful interior with many interesting details and a narrow terrace. Do not order anything, just look.
Two traditional cafés that we still like (although we would not order coffee there) are Café Imperial and Café Savoy. The former is an Art Deco gem with ornate mosaic and tile-covered interior. Ask for some Czech classics such as Braised Veal Cheeks or Marjoram Braised Lamb Shank and observe the steady stream of local businessmen and ladies, all wearing smart suits, having their lunch. The latter is a charming little spot to for a rich breakfast before a stroll around the Petrin Hill.
So, what are the atmospheric local coffee shops I want you to discover and spend some downtime in? My first-choice café is Al Cafetero. This small, non-smoking, family run café is true coffee lover’s paradise. The owner will be your most accommodating host, offering samples, souvenirs and a friendly chat. Try the delicious, awesome-tasting coffee made from a vacuum pot, but be prepared to be offered neither milk nor sugar with your coffee.
Můj šálek kávy ("That's my cup of tea") - This place is what a coffee shop should be: great coffee, good atmosphere, nice staff, convenient hours and it a really ‘local’ vibe. The baristas turn out some of the city's best espressos and drip coffee. You can stop by for breakfast in the morning, for a tasty lunch in the afternoon, or just sit down with your book/newspaper/laptop after dinner and catch up on your reading.
Café Lounge - This Malá Strana spot combines elegant interior (formerly a residential apartment) with nice food, friendly service and good-quality coffee. You can easily spend hours here reading, talking or just looking around and sipping some gorgeous Moravian wines. Besides, it is a non-smoking café with a lovely garden.
Dům kávy is a perfect place to purchase premium coffee beans, coffee makers, grinders, espresso machines, etc. Although more a shop than a café, Dům kávy serves one of the best cappuccinos in town.
What I like about these five cafés is that despite their appealing atmosphere, locals still far outnumber tourists, the coffee is great, the staff is friendly and reliable, and the cafés are still what they should be – places to linger over coffee rather than take photos. And I hope that doesn’t change.