“Let’s not hide the good places – let’s turn the bad places into good ones”: The Honest Guide guys discuss their new book and lots more

Photo: archive of Janek Rubeš

Janek Rubeš is the face of Honest Guide while Honza Mikulka does the camera and all the technical stuff. Their videos, highlighting great spots to see in Prague and warning visitors of scams to avoid, are huge and their YouTube channel has over 435,000 subscribers. Now they have produced the book Honest Guide Prague, with illustrations by Eliška Podzimková, text by Rubeš and photos by Mikulka. I discussed the unorthodox guide book with the two guys outside their “second home”, the pub Lokál U bílé kuželky.

Photo: archive of Janek Rubeš

Mikulka: “We’ve been always thinking that we could make a book, because we’ve been doing videos for quite some time.

“But we figured we can never touch them and we thought it would be nice to have something in our hands which would be useful, not only for tourists, but also for us.

“I think that mostly we made the book for ourselves.

“It’s the same with the videos. We don’t really think about what people need – we’re always thinking, What would we like?

“That’s how we got the idea that we could do a book that would make us happy.”

Janek, do you use guidebooks yourself? When I was coming here I was thinking, I have guidebooks but they’re all kind of gathering dust and the last time I brought one somewhere was some years ago.

“We don’t really think about what people need – we’re always thinking, What would we like?”

Rubeš: “I don’t think I’ve ever used a guidebook as in a guidebook, if we’re speaking about Lonely Planet and stuff like that.

“I can imagine using some other kind of book, like architectural tips, which I just used with my friend when we travelled to Portugal, or when we travelled to New York.

“That’s something we did with our book. It’s not really a ‘guidebook’ in a way.

“It’s more of places we like. There’s no addresses, there’s no locations, it doesn’t really tell you how to get there or which tram to use or opening hours.

“It’s just 50 places we like and it’s sort of like, Hey look, here’s my personal story from my life and here’s a nice picture about it.”

We’re at one of the places in the book, the pub Lokál U bílé kuželky. Why did you include this place, Honza?

Janek Rubeš,  Honza Mikulka,  photo: Janek Rubeš
Mikulka: “We call this place like a second home. It’s our base camp.

“This is place that for us has some uniqueness to it.

“It’s right next to the Charles Bridge, which is the main tourist path. Every tourist goes there, but they never turn off that path.

“And right here, right next to the bridge, is a great local pub where you can meet friends.

“You can meet people that you normally meet maybe in the office or on the streets of Prague.

“I don’t even remember when we discovered it. It was, like, 2011 and we just kind of fell in love with it.

“Also they have the best beer in Prague.

“I know that’s a really hard thing to say and a lot of people think that their pubs have the best beer.

“But I’m pretty sure this is the place.”

Some people know this is your favourite place because you’ve spoken about it before. Do people come here expecting to meet you guys?

“Even 8 a.m. will get you a relatively empty Charles Bridge and Old Town Square.”

Rubeš: “I think almost every day – and they’re quite happy when they meet us.

“Some people are actually shocked when they meet us, either here or on the street.

“They’re like, What are you doing here?

“Our reply is always, Well, we live in the city and we visit the places we recommend.

“It’s not that we recommend places that we don’t go to. We actually visit 99 percent of the places we show in the videos or in the book.”

One of the places that’s in the book – well, it’s not actually a place, it’s an idea – is “empty Prague”. How does one experience empty Prague?

Rubeš: “You do this: you hop on a time machine and you go back 30 years in time [laughs].

“Or there’s another device which you can use, which is an alarm clock, and you set it to an early hour.

U Jelínků,  photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová
“It doesn’t need to be that early. Even 8 o’clock will get you a relatively empty Charles Bridge and Old Town Square.

“I describe it in the book as a totally different city. Because the city is struggling with mass tourism that has turned it into something totally different from the Prague I remember as a kid.

“So if you actually want to see the streets, see the buildings, see the architecture, see everything, you better wake up early.”

I was amused by one thing in the book. You guys warn people that if they go to certain old school pubs like U Jelínků they may get a frosty reception. Do you have any tips, Janek, on how people should behave when they go into these places, if they’re not to be thrown out, or whatever?

Rubeš: “Behave like yourself – I guess that you shouldn’t behave differently.

“But expect that you may get some looks and you get kicked out or you may not get served.

“I don’t think you should really adjust yourself.

“Just be normal and I think if you are and you fit in, that’s the right place for you.”

Do you like these places where there could be a negative reaction, Honza?

Mikulka: “Those places have their own unique atmosphere. I always say that if you come with a smile then you will probably be fine.

“I think with U Jelínků it took five or seven visits before I was eventually served a glass of beer.”

“Most people act naturally with people who are positive.

“If you go and be grumpy, then yeah, you will probably get looks.

“If you complain about everything and say things like, Hey, this glass is kind of dirty… the truth is the glass will be dirty – it’s kind of the aura of the place.

“So the best thing to do is to put some things aside and try to enjoy it as is.”

Rubeš: “It’s fair to say that even we will sometimes have a very hard time to order a beer in some of these places.

“The first time I went to U Zlatého tygra it took some time to get a beer.

“And I think with U Jelínků it took five or seven visits before I was eventually served a glass of beer.”

Janek, you say in the book that you were thrown out of the pub U Černého vola. Is that actually true?

Rubeš: “Well, what I did was I ordered a beer that is called a šnyt, which is a type of beer that they serve at Lokáls.

“And the guy was really, really mad at me. He said, If you want a šnyt go to Lokál, you idiot!

“He really was not happy with me. So I finished that beer he gave me – he gave me a regular beer, something totally different – and then I just left [laughs].”

Janek Rubeš,  Eliška Podzimková,  photo: archive of Janek Rubeš
And a šnyt is a kind frothy beer, with extra head, is that right?

“The very short definition is that it’s a small beer in a big glass.

“Because [in deep voice] you know, a man would never order a small beer – that’s girly stuff.

“So that’s why you order a šnyt.”

One thing also you include in the book is a paternoster. There’s one at Czech Radio and every time I show it to people who don’t know them, they love it. Is there anything in Prague that if you show it to people, they are guaranteed to go “wow”? Something that always impresses visitors?

Mikulka: “I think people are very often amazed by the architecture.

“We have a tip – we say, Always look up.

“Some people, some tourists, forget that, quite often.

“And if we remind them, they usually go, Oh wow, I’ve never noticed that.

“That’s also a great tip for locals.

“This is a good example. This building we’re sitting next to… we had been sitting here for, I don’t know four years, and once we looked up and saw something that we had missed the whole time.

“And we were like, This can’t be true.

“If you covered everything from three metres and above, you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were in Paris, Prague, Dubrovnik, London – they’re all exactly the same.”

“So that’s one thing you can do everywhere, I guess.

“It’s right there [points upwards].”

Rubeš: “It’s a white pin. The pub is called By the White Pin [U bílé kuželky] and we never noticed it – it’s there in the corner.”

Also one reason to look up in Prague is that at street level so many places are ugly. But then, from around three metres up, they are something else entirely.

Rubeš: “It’s not necessarily that they would be ugly – that’s a difference of tastes. But they’re the same as in every other city around the world.

“So if you covered everything from three metres and above, you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were in Paris, Prague, Dubrovnik, London – they’re all exactly the same.

“That’s why we’re saying, Enjoy empty Prague, because all these places are closed and suddenly you can see the difference and you’re not being distracted by the clutter that is on the bottom level of the street.”

As in your other work, you warn people about scamming and you give them advice on how to avoid scamming. Is being scammed such a common experience for visitors to Prague?

Mikulka: “We actually get emails or Facebook messages all the time from people who even watch our videos but maybe missed a couple of them and they still got tricked into something.

“The problem with these scammers is that they’re really good at tricking people and are always developing new ways of doing that.

“Sometimes we’ll be sitting in a pub, like here, and somebody comes along who has been scammed.

Photo: archive of Janek Rubeš
“I think it’s still a big issue. Some people are aware of it.

“But even if one person gets scammed, that’s a bad thing.

“He’ll remember that for such a long time. No matter how he enjoys the place, this will be the number one thing he will remember.

“If someone asks him, Hey, how was Prague? he’ll say, Oh yeah, they scammed me – and, yeah, maybe I saw some bridge or whatever.”

Janek, you travel quite a lot. Do you think the level of scamming is higher here? Or is it just comparable to in other big cities in Europe, say?

Rubeš: “I can’t really tell. But I do know, I would say, around 95 percent of the scams that happen in Prague and I quite often look out for them in other cities.

“I was just in Lisbon and I could see the same scams happening there as happen in Prague, for example with the ATMs [with exorbitant service charges] and extremely – and when I say extremely, I mean 10 times higher – overpriced stores.

“So I guess it happens to any city that has mass tourism: Paris, Lisbon, Barcelona, Venice.”

I realise from reading your book that there were several places that I didn’t know in it and probably should know, for example Garden Café Taussig and Českavárna Portheimka. I presume you guys must know pretty much everywhere in Prague?

Rubeš: “We absolutely do not. We discover new places almost every day.

“If you read the book very carefully, you will find out that we’re both from the left side of the river, from the area around Anděl, Újezd and Malá Strana, so that’s where we suggest people to go, most of the time.

“So I think we should move to Žižkov and to Vinohrady and Nusle to discover more and more places.

“But Prague has so much more to offer than the two of us know.”

Is there any part of you that doesn’t want to mention places in your book or in your videos, for fear that more people would go to them and they would lose the magic thing that made them so attractive in the first place?

Honza Mikulka,  Janek Rubeš,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
Mikulka: “I remember we were struggling with one bar, that we would never show it, and now it’s in the book: the Čili Bar.

“They have amazing chili shots. You can’t order two, you have to order at least three, which means a good night ahead of you.

“We also promised ourselves that we would probably never tell about Kuchyň, at Prague Castle, and we did – we have that in the book as well.

“So I’m not sure. I always felt that we would keep some things secret, but I think maybe I came to the realisation that it’s much better to share the good places.

“Because if more people can share a good place it means that it can stay there and pay the rent.”

Rubeš: “My answer always is, Let’s not hide the good places – let’s turn the bad places into good places.

“Still in the city centre there’s 90 percent bad, tourist places.

“So I think we should convince the bad places that they can also be nice places that will be welcoming, and not only to tourists but also to locals.

“Because as of right now there are more places in the city centre where Czechs and people from Prague are not allowed – and are sometimes literally kicked out the front door.

“That’s something I cannot really live with.”

Why are they kicked out? I’ve never seen this.

Rubeš: “Well, it’s happened to me quite a few times. One time is mentioned in the book.

“It was in the restaurant nearby which is called Kampa Park.

“I just asked if I could have a beer with a view, even though the beer was around 200 crowns – I wanted to enjoy it.

“And they said, No, it’s all reservations and it’s only for food – you can sit in the corner here.

“I don’t want to live in a city where you can’t even go into a place just because you’re Czech, because they know my wallet isn’t as thick as a foreigner’s wallet.”