Oh, the “Free Republic of Zizkov”. The Montmartre of Prague. No, this is not your daddy’s sightseeing district. It gets real in Zizkov. The district has always had a rough edge. Originally a workers’ district serving the booming industry of the 19th Century, it was seen as too hilly for high-quality architecture, and thus became home to cheaper developments with characteristic courtyards in the middle. And it has retained its edgy, working class feel until this day.
For most of the locals, Zizkov has become synonymous with Prague’s underground and classic beer pubs. This is a bohemian place that plays by its own rules, and a pub is never too far. Yes, Zizkov is definitely run down and probably not your first choice if you’re looking for a place to start a family, but it has its undeniable charm with vistas that oversee the cobbled streets and green areas. Most importantly, it can be a reality check and a more authentic alternative to the somewhat Disney-fied centre of the town that can be overrun by tourism. And today the lower rent and liberal attitudes have attracted younger crowds to move in and start new businesses. Zizkov is becoming alive again, and you can witness its rebirth in real time today. Here’s where we would go.
Where to eat
Let’s be honest here: the Zizkov food scene may be very popular among the locals, but its eateries will not push the envelope of modernist cuisine or wow Michelin guide inspectors with their tweezer work. It is perhaps telling that many of them offer some of Prague’s finest (or should we say greasiest) hangover food, and the offerings go well with two things Zizkov has plenty of: beer and hills.
One of our friends claims The Tavern serves the best burgers in town. Well, we’re not so sure. (We like the nearby Dish more.) But what we know is that The Tavern always has a great, cheery atmosphere and probably the best soundtrack in town. And the food is happy, too: honestly, if you’re eating the things they serve there, you must believe, just for a minute, that you’re going to live forever. Because you won’t if you continue eating like this: all kinds of burgers and French fries mixes with pulled pork and cheddar cheese on top and so on. Yes, the Tavern serves some of the greasiest hangover food you can imagine. But hey, it’s fingerlickin’ good, and we won’t tell.
If you’re a Czech, you must love U Kurelu. This is EXACTLY what a Zizkov pub looked like when we were growing up. The second spot by the owners of The Tavern combines the cooking of the Tavern with some classic and craft Czech beers, some cocktails, and a nice pub atmosphere. A really relaxed place where locals and expats meet on Fridays to eat and drink their woes away. And hey - it totally works.
La Bottega Gastronomica
Living is easy when food is as good as in La Bottega Gastronomica, one of the Italian bistros of Riccardo Lucque’s empire. Designed by Edit! architects (seated in Zizkov themselves), the bistro is an airy, beautiful place that overlooks the Mahlerovy sady park around the TV Tower. Come here to get your fix of good pasta, hams, cheeses, vegetable salads and good Italian wines. We come for breakfast sometimes but are not huge fans of their pastries. Still, this is a stylish Italian place that will satisfy.
The newest location of our most favorite Mexican restaurant in Prague has something the other two don’t: a sizable outdoor seating section. Which is great in the summer. We have a love affair with many of their menu items but their mango margaritas and their cochinita and al pastor dishes are our absolute favorites. We are glad this is not nearer to our home because we would spend a lot of money here.
Pivo a parek
“So, what do you have?” - “Beer.” - “Sure. That sounds lovely. I would actually like to have something with that. Do you have something to eat?” - “How about a hot dog?” - “Fantastic!” That’s the transcript of pretty much every conversation the staff of this little pub has with its customers. Because the two items on Pivo a Parek's menu are... wait for it... beer and hot dogs. And the name of the multi-tap pub means “Beer and Hot Dog”, too. Their Borivojova street location is spanking new but the other location over at Vinohrady has been open for about three years and you can visit it too. If you want to have two beers and two hot dogs, that is.
Jirak farmers’ market
The Jiriho z Podebrad square farmers’ market may be tiny, but unlike other markets in Prague that only open on Saturdays, this one is your only market option open from Wednesdays to Fridays. A nice, neighborly atmosphere and good coffee and seasonal produce. The food is a hit-or-miss affair, but it’s a nice place to start or end your Zizkov journey.
An Italian bistro? So what else is new? But Bisos has been fairly good in doing things, and is a good - and less flashy - alternative to La Gastronomica. Also a nice place for a brunch over the weekend.
Arguably the best Pho in town is best consumed with your eyes closed. Yup, the original and the smaller location of Pho Vietnam is not beautiful - or known for pristine interiors - but the food makes up for it. The Pho Bo is huge, and the broth is fragrant and delicious. BTW, you won’t believe it, but the first ever food ever served on our first ever food tour was Pho Bo Tai at this Pho Vietnam… …to a Vietnamese-American. Don’t laugh.
Prague does not boast many decent sushi places but if there are a few, Hanil is actually one of them, and it has been for quite some time. The aging Czech Maitre D’ is the face and the soul of the place that combines sushi with Japanese and some Korean dishes. The sushi is actually very nice and more visual than most.
This hole-in-a-wall operation is kinda famous among US visitors because it was mentioned in a TV travel show. It’s actually more famous among visitors than among the locals. Beyond the novelty value (a super grumpy owner unwilling to share a word, or eye contact, with the customer through the small window in a Communist-era prefabricated panel house), the strudels are not that great. But a nice quirky stop if you’re up for it.
Our friend Bara swears Le Caveau serves the best baguettes in town. The French bistro/bakery/wine shop is wildly popular among the locals and boast a fantastic locations very near the Jirak farmers’ market. Hard to get a seat here during peak hours.
Where to drink
Zizkov is your place if you want to experience the famed Prague beer culture. The pubs here are the way Czech like them: cheap, simple and noisy. Avoid the classic pub if you like good food and don’t like smoking: only U Kurelu is a non-smoking pub of all of the ones listed below (and has good food). Be prepared to feel a bit old if you go to some of the local hipster favorites.
Riegrovy sady beer garden
“Wow. Just like a rock concert.” This is what Jan’s Slovak cousin and her boyfriend said when they first visited the biggest beer garden in town with the capacity of 1400 guests. Allegedly, they go through a keg in less than 15 minutes on a good night. Sure, the Pilsner here is not as great as in some other places in Prague, but still: if you want to see a football match or make friends quickly, this is your place. Also, the location under the leafy trees in the middle of the Riegrovy sady park is perfect. Who says beer and romance can’t go together? Just buy two beers, and meet your loved one on the park’s grassy slope that offers a fantastic view of the town.
"Our home bar. A large assortment of whiskey and good cocktails on top. Order a Long Island to go in the afternoon and take it for a walk to the Riegrovy sady park.” This is what the guys at We Are Burgers had to say about the Malkovich bar when we asked them about their favorite places in Prague. Do we need to add anything? Perhaps that the owner allegedly does look like John Malkovich. Coincidence?
A softly-lit bar right opposite the legendary Nad Viktorkou pub serves some of the strongest cocktails in town and the philosophy of the place is very close to the man whose name it bears. Which means nights here don’t tend to end well. Also, their CZK-7-small-beer-Sundays should be made illegal.
Two locations, two different animals. The Beergeek shop at Slavikova offers a plethora of beer bottles from a well-curated selection. Definitely a great purchase that can be opened in the Riegrovy sady park nearby and consumed al fresco. (Yes, that’s legal here.). The Beergeek bar at Jiriho z Podebrady square (which may not technically be in Zizkov, but it’s close enough) is a place where bearded men in flannel shirts serve beers to other bearded men in flannel shirts. But the thirty beers on tap here include some of the best in town.
Talking about Zizkov pubs is like bringing coal to Newcastle. Everybody knows that this is THE place for the classic Prague pub. When we went to college, that meant super cheap beer and you-can-do-whatever-you-want-and-we-wont-ask-any-questions attitude. The classic pub of this type is U vystrelenyho voka - we did celebrate a few birthdays there in college, and they all had a pretty much unhappy ending due to the extensive beer consumption. Enter on your own risk, and whatever you do, just don’t order any food. Other classic pubs have been making progress, at least as far as craft beers are concerned. U sadu is a very popular pub with nearly a dozen beers on tap, and an extensive food menu, which is not necessarily a sign of quality. But for beers? Why not. U slovanské lípy, the “Oldest Pub in Zizkov”, offers ten beers on tap, including some pretty special ones from time to time, just like its sister pub nearby, Hostinec u vodoucha. One more time, a reminder: these places are authentic, but not necessarily beautiful or welcoming. They may make memories but not because of the food but because of the atmosphere.
One of the few breakfast places in Zizkov is also a very popular student hangout. Make sure you check out their quiet seating in the courtyard and the 35M2 gallery of modern art next door.
A nice, neighborly cafe with owners that bake cakes and make small snacks and home-made ice-cream. The place sits about twenty and the staff is so nice you will forget the imperfections. A nice place for a contemplative stop in the middle of your journey.
Looking for a refuge on a sunny day with decent coffee? We guarantee that nobody will find you in the Coffee Corner, a hippie-slash-hipster oasis attached to a camping ground for mostly Dutch and English campers. The beans are taken from European micro-roasteries (Berlin’s Five Elephant and Brno’s Rebel Bean on our visit) and the resulting coffee is decent, but not the best in town. But they have Morocco-style beds and wifi, and every day feels like a Sunday, so what’s not to like?
Things to see
Yes, it’s hideous. Yes, it’s built on an old Jewish cemetery. (It was actually removed decades before.) Yes, it was supposed to be stage one of a rebuilding process planned by the Communists and hated by the locals. Yes, it was named the “second ugliest building in the world" by one survey. Yes, creepy babies by David Cerny are crawling up and down on it. But you know what? We actually kinda like it. It has changed the landscape for Prague forever and we got kinda used to it. You can take the lift to the cafe to see Zizkov from the top. Just don’t get anything to eat there. And no, it was not used to jam signals from the West.
Nakladove nadrazi Zizkov
The Zizkov Freight Railway Station, built between 1931 and 1934, is now listed as a prime example of Constructivism in architecture, and after a long dispute between the authorities, the developer and the local community, it is hopefully destined to become a cultural and educational centre as planned. It has a distinctly industrial feel and thus serves as the perfect venue for many cultural events: you sure don’t have the feeling you’re going to break something valuable there. The perfect place for photography if you are into that kind of thing.
Dating back to 1928, the theatre has been resurrected by the young artists surrounded around the "Prazska petka” (The Prague Five) group of artists and today brings an eclectic mix of music and theatre performances to the local masses. The interiors have been redesigned by Frantisek Skala, one of the most popular Czech artists, and combine historic with modern, and natural and symbolic. The theatre brings in anything from hip hop to jazz and world music, make sure you check out their program. If the program includes a show by “Tros Sketos”, drop everything and buy tickets. That is Mr Skala, Mr Najbrt (the designer behind Cestr and many other things), and Mr Rona (the author of the Kafka statue in the Old Town) fooling around. A memory for ages.
VITKOV NATIONAL MEMORIAL
Czechs are not a nation of patriots, but if there’s a place where Jan could see himself waving the Czech flag like a maniac, the National Memorial at the Vitkov hill would be that place. The monumental memorial dedicated to the Czechoslovak soldiers who passed away during WWI was turned into a Communist leader mausoleum in the 1950s and sports the third biggest military statue in the world and a fascinating exhibition about the history of Czechoslovakia. It also offers the best view of the Zizkov district and the town if you pay admission to the deck at the roof. And you definitely should. It’s worth it.
The Parukarka park, formerly the city’s hanging ground, is now a popular hanging spot in the summer and a popular bob-sleighing destination in the winter. It includes a charming outdoor pub that serves beer and soda. And by charming, we mean totally run down, hole-in-a-wall establishment. If the shed had any walls, that is. The only thing that would make the experience complete would be if you wore an old, dirty AC/DC denim jacket. Rock’n’roll references aside, the park includes one of the best views of the city, and nuclear bunkers underneath it.
Zizkovske divadlo Jary Cimrmana
It is very hard to describe the phenomenon of Jara Cimrman to a foreigner. You see, the problem with Jara Cimrman, one of the biggest Czechs who ever lived, and a person admired by virtually everyone here, is that he has never really existed. Still, he is the author of many very popular plays, which were all “discovered” by the members of this Zizkov-based theatre, and each play performance is preceded by a small scientific conference about the play’s discovery with various presentations, because this is science and historical facts, people. It is quite telling that the quirky theatre dedicated to an author who never existed is located in Zizkov.
The mother of all independent cinemas in the city, the Aero (which also runs Svetozor and Bio Oko cinemas) is easy to miss, with hardly any signs on the street. But walk through the building to the courtyard and you will have entered an entirely different world. A world where young people actually travel across the city to see great independent movies, and perhaps have a few beers and some snacks with it. Tap into that world and buy yourself a ticket. Don’t worry: the movies are only subtitled, so if the original audio is in English, you’re totally fine.
The Zizkov bike route
Jan loves this place: after spending the summer holidays at his grandma’s in Eastern Slovakia, he would take the overnight train to Prague and the bike route, replacing a former railway line, was the last part of his journey before he would get to the main train station. He would stand in the train’s corridor and watch the run-down courtyards with the drying laundry and people smoking cigarettes and he knew he was home. Today, you can walk the same route from the Krejcarek area (see Coffee Corner in this post) to the Main Train Station. About two miles of pure visual gold, if you like run down and old and picturesque, that is.
Where to shop
Whenever somebody asks us what is the best souvenir money can buy in Prague, we always point to the TV Tower. In its shade, you will find the Botas 66 shop, opened by the two young designers who managed to resurrect the old brand of Communist-era sneakers to the hipster favorites they are today. A pair will not ruin your bank account, and you’ll have a souvenir you can brag at home for years to come. Did we mentioned they are cool? And the shop is, too.
Forget Herschel. Move over, Mismo. The real hipster bags come from Zizkov. The people at Playbag have been making high-quality bags for some time, but now have a super cool shop in the Borivojova street. Great bags? Check. Fun interiors? Double check. And now you can double-rainbow your hipster status with socks by Kempink, sold in the same shop.
Musictown record store
It only makes sense to buy a vinyl record here in Prague: the Czechs are an unparalleled superpower of vinyl LP-production, making more than one half of their global production, and the biggest manufacturer of them along produces some 14 million yearly. And playing them on a Pro-Ject, a Czech-made turntable and the winner of many awards, just completes the circle. Starting your vinyl journey could not get easier than in Musictown, one of our to-go places for vinyls, new and used.
A refuge for those who love analogue photography and think the digital camera is a soul-less creation of the modern times. The Polagraph gallery presents works by young photographers who fell under the spell of the Polaroid photography, and adds some home-made graphic arts and stationary to boot. Don’t blame us for spending more money there than you thought you would.