We have one rule whenever we travel: we visit the main sights early in the morning or late in the evening to beat the crowds, and see the other, more local things during the day. When we visit a city, we prefer to see how people live there today, and not necessarily how they lived there in the past. And Prague is no exception. Especially during the high season, we recommend getting up early, seeing the sights before all the other people get to see them, and then just walk and explore the surrounding districts. And the Karlin is a place you should not miss if you travel like us - it has a great local feel and great places to eat and drink. That is why we sometimes visit it with the guests of our Prague Foodie Tour and that is why we think it is worth a visit even during the off-season.
Karlin is also a great place to see how gentrification happens in the Czech Republic today. Jan’s father used to live in Karlin in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was not a great neighborhood back then. Living just across the street from “U Zabranskych” pub, where the Czechoslovak Communist Party was founded in 1924 and which, later in the 90s, used to be a place frequented by Neo-Nazis in a district known for a large Roma population, the place was rough. But then, Karlin was nearly destroyed during the 2002 floods. And the flood seems to have flushed most of the old things away.
The past decade and a half has been a time of dramatic growth and renewal for Karlin, with developers coming in, eager to fill in the gaps left behind the buildings that needed to be torn down with new offices and lofts. In the 1990s we would have never thought we would want to live in Karlin, but the leafy streets (Karlin is the only Prague district with a grid layout) near the city centre seem more and more attractive each year. (Sadly, the real estate market did get the memo, and the prices and rents did go up accordingly, although it would be wrong to equate Karlin with places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn. People don’t really get gentrified out of a neighborhood yet - we do not have the income inequality for that.) Karlin is cool because it is both hipster and new on one hand, and raw and old on the other hand.
Where to stay in Karlin
There are only a few hotels in Prague that successfully lure in locals from the neighborhood into the lobby, and Pentahotel is one of the few. Sure, this is a utility hotel that will not wow you with pampering, spas and 5-star services, but it's still a great budget option that allows you to connect with the district while being easily accessible from the centre. The best of both worlds, if you will. (How the heck do we know this? We stayed here for a few days. That's what happens when you commit to non-simultaneous home exchange and later forget about it. But that's a totally different story.)
The biggest hotel in the country when opened in 1971, the Olympik was the center piece of the planned Olympic village as part of Prague’s big to host the 1980 Olympics (withdrawn after Moscow submitted its own bid). The Olympic went through complete remodeling after a big fire in 1995, but it’s still very much old school. And old school here means Communist. We’re putting it here for three reasons: (1) it’s the second of the two real hotels in Karlin, (2) it can be interesting if you’re into that kind of thing, (3) Jan’s dad used to work as a receptionist in the Olympik and allegedly still holds the record for running up the stairs from the ground floor to the last floor. (That competition was held each year and Jan’s dad had a lot of opportunity to practice during long night shifts.)
Where to eat in Karlin
Hamburk, a pub at the main Karlin square that was there for ages (Jan and his father used to frequent it some thirty years ago), housed in a former customs office (that’s why the name, as the office was processing goods shipped by river boats coming from Hamburg) has been recently remodeled and opened as another branch of the Lokal pub. What does that mean? Tasty and affordable Czech food and fresh Pilsner Urquell from the tank. Which is enough to make anyone happy, really. We would go there for a nice schnitzel, perhaps goulash and, most importantly, "rakvicka se slehackou" ("the little coffin"): a classic Czech pastry we like to eat with take-away coffee from Kafe Karlin nearby.
No, it’s not the Starbucks at the Krizikova subway stop. Krystal Bistro was really the first flag of gentrification of the Karlin district, and has been loved by the locals ever since. The focus on the kitchen is on Czech and French classic comfort food with craft beers by Matuska and liquors by the likes of Zufanek. This is your “safe bet” if Lokál is too basic and Eska is… ahem… “too fermented”. We go there for one thing: their amazing fruit dumplings, the best in town for sure.
Opened in late 2015 and receiving the Bib Gourmand award from thee Michelin guide a year later, Eska restaurant has become the destination dining restaurant in Prague, drawing usually younger crowds from all corners of Prague for what Martin Stangl, former sous-chef at the Michelin-star La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise, thinks to be "nouvelle Czech cuisine". Come here for freshly baked bread, soup and breads with spreads during the day, and a fine dining experience in the evening. Eska also serves specialty coffee. The combination of all of the above makes for great and wildly popular brunches during the weekends.
Garage True Canadian Deli
Especially on a cold day, or after a long night, we have a tip that will keep on giving… job security to Prague’s heart surgeons. The Garage True Canadian Deli serves Poutine, a dish invented in Quebec, probably in an effort to enslave, or fatten, the rest of the world. Our tip is the Mississippi, which so bad it’s good: French fries with cheese curds, gravy, pulled pork and fried onions, served in a paper takeaway box, will fill you up for the rest of the day. The first reaction? Delicious. The fries. The pulled pork. The curds. The gravy. Love it! But then comes the guilt part but your arteries will be clogged so much you may not live to see the guilt part, so it’s a win-win. Sorta.
Proti proudu bistro
A nice bistro for breakfasts and small snacks during the day. Beautifully designed, the Proti proudu bistro is a dream come true for the enthusiastic owners (who love to travel and wrote a Sicilian cookbook): they are always on the premises and make sure the atmosphere is neighborly and welcoming. We have had a few brunches and always loved them, despite not being crazy about their coffee. The same people have opened Avocado Gang, a bistro with a focus on - you guessed it - avocados on Lyckovo namesti square nearby. It features what must be one of the most Instagrammed tables in the entire city.
Whenever we are in Karlin and fancy some Asian flavores, the soups at Woker will always scratch that itch. Wokker is undeniably mostly a take-away Asian fast food place: the counter fits three or four at best. Probably not a destination dining place worth a separate visit to Karlin, but the cooking is solid. Surely warms you up and clears the sinuses on a cold day.
Presto MEAT MARKET
Whenever we walk by, we just marvel at the long lines during the lunch hour. (They even have a tent outside on the street to accommodate all the meat-hungry diners.) But there's no wonder Presto Meat Market is popular: Czechs love their meat, and the concept of the "new butcher shop" that not only serves raw meat but also cooks it and serves it to customers, as exemplified by the Nase maso butcher shop in the Dlouha street, is a winner. If you're craving meat in the Karlin district, this is the place.
Nejen bistro opened a few weeks before Eska, and we know it got Eska’s managers worried: they used the same high-end grill, the Josper. And the grill is still the epicenter of the kitchen’s output: the chefs take simple ingredients and try not to mess them up. This is a beautifully appointed restaurant with a casual feel with some very ambitious plating and affordable lunch specials that again caters to the hungry diners from the offices around, but it clearly is an upgrade from the lunch-forward bistros all around. Evenings will offer great food and a solid wine list. Good stuff.
Grils was a brave project from the start: partly financed by a crowdfunding project (although still in the Ambiente family) and proudly run by two young ladies (Grils is an anagram of Girls), it served cool rotisserie chicken to the hungry crowds of yuppies from the offices around. And it worked. Until the big fire and the need to redesign the entire concept. Now Grils (none of the young ladies who founded it work there anymore) has to refocus on solid fast food with pulled chicken and pork served to the hungry crowds of yuppies… drinking beer at Dva Kohouti with whom it shares the spacious courtyard, become the de facto kitchen of the tap room. But it still is a fun place that serves solid food that goes well with the beer. Our tip: the bao-style pork belly with red cabbage, ideally eaten in the Karlinske namesti park.
It is not secret we’re not huge fans of vegetarian restaurants in Prague. We just think they’re not great restaurants on their own if you disregard the fact they’re vegetarian. But when we did a round of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Prague, Podolka’s Karlin branch came on top as one of the best vegetarian restaurants in town. This is a no-thrills restaurant that is casual and fun, and the food is solid. If you want to eat vegetarian in Karlin, we suggest this place.
Confession: we’re not so crazy about Antoninovo pekarstvi, the little chain of neighborhood bakeries. We just wish the product was a tad better. That said, most locals absolutely love the little bakeries, and the Karlin branch is no exception, and who are we to argue? This branch has sadly replaced Simply good, which was an amazing little bakery that clearly, in the end, couldn’t, but it does complete the “vortex of food” on the Karlinske namesti square, formed by Lokál Hamburk, Grils, Dva kohouti and now Antoninovo pekarstvi. One notable thing: soft serve ice-cream in the summer.
Ice-cream sandwiches and gin and tonics? You had us at, well, ice-cream sandwiches and gin and tonics. Both of these things, as served by Parlor, are good: the vast selection of gins includes the local favorite, Mr Zufanek’s creations, and the ice-cream is made by Creme de la Creme, our fave in the city. And on a hot summer evening, what is a better combination than these two things? Exactly. Great fun interiors, too.
Where to drink in Karlin
Muj salek kavy
Muj salek kavy is without a doubt one of the best cafés in town and a place that has heralded the comeback of the Karlin district: people are willing to travel across the town to have their coffee or breakfast there, and we don’t blame them. Doubleshot, very popular local coffee roasters and the owners of the cafe, have recently opened a barista centre next door, soon to hold public cuppings and coffee-centered events. Their outdoor seating is one of the best places in Prague to enjoy a cup of delicious coffee and some small snacks to go with that.
Just one step above a hole-in-the-wall operation, Kafe Karlin, a diminutive espresso bar run by the Kávový klub (“Coffee Club” famous from their farmers’ market presence) serves one of the best cups of coffee in Prague. Two small tables in two corners, a bar… and that’s it. They do have a bottle of Slivovitz on the shelve in the back and if you ask politely, you just might get a shot from it, which is handy, especially in the winter. But their coffee is the star here. Ask about their kolache. They have them occasionally and they ain’t that bad. Alternatively, combine with a rakvicka on Lokál Hamburk’s window sill..
Veltlin is a gem of a place: a small designer wine bar that serves natural wines from what used to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To understand what they do, please read our interview with the founder and owner, Mr Bogdan Trojak, here. Located right next to Tea Mountain, Veltlin is a great place for couples and groups who want both wine and tea: you can order both in either Veltlin or Tea Mountain. They are friends so they have no problem with their guests drinking tea in the wine bar or wine in the tea room.
It’s truly amazing how casually and seemingly effortlessly Dva kohouti has become one of Prague’s favorite craft beer places, despite being one of the youngest. But then again, that’s no wonder when you think about who stands behind the brewery/tap room: Adam Matuska, arguably one of the most famous craft brewers in the country, and Lukas Svoboda (and with him, the well-oiled machine that is the Ambiente restaurant group) who is in charge of the beer service at the Lokál pubs. This ticks nearly every single box: great craft beers on tap, generous outdoor seating and atmospheric tap room inside, loyal following of local office rats and cool vibes. If you like craft beers, this is a must, whether you’re in Karlin or not.
We know. We don’t particularly understand tea (yet), and you may not understand tea, either, but Tea Mountain, the best tea room in a city flooded with tea rooms, is definitely worth a visit. Martin, the owner, and his staff will guide you through their selection without making you feel intimidated. Have we mentioned the design of the room? Yes, it is modern, minimalist and fantastic. We would have a hard time finding a better place in Prague to stop down for a minute and plan the rest of the day in a quiet, relaxing atmosphere.
A non-smoking pub with a curated selection of six beers on tap and nearly 300 Czech and imported beers in bottles? What’s not to like? We always recommend Pivovarsky klub for beer lovers on the entry into the Karlin district as a relaxed and non-intimidating place to peek into the rich world of Czech beers. They serve some food, too, but we’d prefer Lokal Hamburk or Krystal for that.
Na brehu Rhony II
Why the "no. 2" at the end of the title? The "On the banks of the Rhone" wine bar in one of the new developments near the riverside, which clearly focuses on Cotes du Rhone wines (duh), is the second location of a popular wine bar near the Naplavka farmers market. The philosophy is the same: good, affordable wines in a nice environment, and some small snacks (think cheeses, rillettes and so on) on the side. The Karlin location is partly self-service for the boxed wine, but they sell bottled wines, too.
Bad Flash Bar
The Karlin location of Bad Flash Bar, originally hailing from Vrsovice, is a surprisingly quiet, contemplative place for a beer bar. It retains all the things that made the original location a favorite: 12 taps of local and interesting foreign beers, many, many more in the fridges, and their own brewed beer as a bonus. This completes the Karlin’s craft beer trinity: Pivovarsky klub for the older folk, Dva kohouti for the people ready to paaaaarty, and Bad Flash for the guys who check off beers on Untappd.
What to see in Karlin
Lyckovo namesti square
A whiff of the Belle Epoque period in Karlin, the district with a “black soul”. This picturesque square with a park and arguably the most beautiful primary school in the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire is a great place to sit and just enjoy the view.
Kaizlovy sady park
Just a block from the Lyckovo namesti square, the nwely renovated park shows just how much things have changed since the 2002 floods. What used to be a let's-walk-faster-and-clutch-the-purse-even-tighter area is now a beautiful, serene park that calms the senses.
Modelled after Paris’ Les Invalides and completed in 1737, Invalidovna is one of the biggest self-contained Baroque buildings in the country and one of the first social projects interested in the well-being of war veterans, designed to provide for their affordable housing. Heavily damaged in the 2002 floods (the rare manuscripts stored inside were originally frozen to protect them from water damage), it is now waiting for proper funding, remodeling and repurposing. But that does not mean it is closed to the public: check online if they have a tour of the interiors while you’re in town. It’s definitely worth it.
Named after the area’s ZIP Code, this “Live Park” is a gentrifying urban liberal’s wet dream. Build on a former illegal landfill thanks to the effort of local activists who did not like the way the river bank looked, Pristav 1860 fulfills many functions: a bar, an outdoor theatre, a design exhibition, an outdoor co-working office, fruit orchard, whatever tickles your fancy on a hot summer day. A great secluded place out of the way. Best way to get there? The little “ferry boat” from the Holesovice district that forms part of Prague’s public transport system.
The tunnel for pedestrians and bikes (it’s part of one of the official cycling routes through Prague) built in 1953 to connect Karlin and Zizkov districts under the Vitkov hill has always been a place clouded in urban myth, suggesting that any walk through it is an invitation for robbery, rape or murder. Nonsense. Now that TIMO, a graffiti artist, has embellished the Karlin entry with the word “neboj” (“Don’t be scared” in English), you got nothing to worry about, really. (And it has always been just urban myth anyway.) You have not been to Karlin or Zizkov unless you walked through the tunnel, so please do. Don’t be scared. Really.
Stepping into the courtyard of the former barracks is like stepping into a parallel universe where unaffected by the outside world: no traffic, no cars, no advertisements, just a large area in the middle of the barracks slowly falling apart, the biggest sandbox for kids you’ve ever seen, and tables and seats for the adults. Also included: a coffee shop, gallery and exhibition space (in the barracks’ former pool) and an outdoor cinema in the summer. This is a must if you are seeking alternatives to spending Prague among the hoards of tourists in the city centre.
Main Point Karlin
Just at the entry to the Karlin district behind Negrelli’s bridge (you can still see the smoke marks under the arches where locomotives used to operate decades ago and where cars run today), Main Point Karlin is one of the symbols of Karlin’s post-flood era. The winner of many architectural awards, Main Point is one of the greenest office buildings in Prague, the Czech Republic, or Europe for that matter.
Originally a factory hall converted to an exhibition space, Karlin studios is a complex of 17 studios rented to Czech and international artists and often show off pieces and collections by contemporary artists who work there. A great place to visit.
St Cyril and Methodius Church
Opened in 1863 as one of the biggest churches in the Czech Republic, the St Cyril and Methodius Church located on the Karlinske namesti square is the natural centre of the district and a place of reference. The interiors of the church are surprisingly stunning and beautiful. To see the Roman Catholic church in use, visit the services at noon on Mon, Wed, Fri and Sat. For more info, click here.
Karlin Synagogue (former)
An interesting place that we sometimes stop by during our Prague Foodie Tours if the group includes someone who’s into Jewish history. Built in the same year as the church on the Karlin Sq., this little synagogue tucked away at Vítkova 13 was sold to the Czech Hussite church in 1950 since very few Jews actually made it back from the Holocaust. The facade tells the whole story: an informed eye will see a schul, with two clear arches typically showing the Ten Commandments, but with a cross installed at the top of the building. A telling representation of the ultimate faith of most synagogues in the Czech Republic after WWII.
Vitkov National Memorial
The Vitkov National Memorial is one of the best “sights” in Prague. The 1930s functionalist building commemorates the Czechoslovak soldiers who died in WWI and used to house the embalmed first Communist president of Czechoslovakia. Today it is home to an exhibition about the history of Czechoslovakia. The best view of Prague from the top of the building. One of the few places that truly inspire national pride in many Czechs.
Where to shop in Karlin
Karlin farmers market
The farmers’ market on the Karlin square right next to the St Method and Cyril church (make a point of peeking inside - the decoration is surprisingly beautiful) was one of the earliest and is still one of the most popular farmers’ markets in town. They are open on Saturday mornings only but if you are there at that time, make sure you don’t miss them. (Closed for winter.)
We know that hulling classic pottery made in Carlsbad, Czech Republic probably isn’t the reason why you came to Prague in the first place, but you may just change your mind when you see this small shop that sells a great selection of Thun pottery at very reasonable prices. We always check the size of our bag if the large saucer will fit in, and so will you.
Rony Plesl, one of the best and most famous glassworks designers in the Czech Republic, has his studio in Karlin, too. If you are really interested in what he does, the studios are open by appointment only. A great opportunity to peek inside the studio of one of the best young designers that carry on the Czech glassmaking tradition into the 21st Century.
A bottle of rare rum as a souvenir from Prague? Why not? It is hard to visit Warehouse #1, one of the best liquor stores in Prague (and surely the most beautiful and the coolest one) and not want to buy a few bottles. And with a tasting room for serious shoppers in the basement, one can easily spend an hour or two there.