Prague café culture
When you think of café culture, the outdoor terraces of Paris, the coffee houses of Vienna, or the espresso bars of Milan may be the first things that come to mind. But although lesser-known, Prague has its own quirky café culture that rivals its more famous counterparts.
Prague inherited the legacy of its past as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and grand Viennese-style coffee houses such as Kavárna Slavia and Café Louvre are a testament to that. Just as coffee houses were the centre of social and intellectual life in Paris and Vienna, so these two Prague art-deco giants played host to a wide array of artists, writers, actors, and other members of the intelligentsia, including composers Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, the brothers Karel and Josef Čapek, and friends Franz Kafka and Max Brod, providing the setting and location for them to discuss their ideas, hold meetings, and write. Kavárna Slavia also served as the meeting place for dissidents during the Communist period, which counted among its members poet Jiří Kolář and future president Václav Havel.
But Prague has much more than just the grand and the historical to offer the café lover. The Czech capital has a wealth of quirky, independent cafes nestled among its quiet streets. The typical Czech café is bare and stripped-down, with wooden tables, old furniture, some art on the walls, and usually contains a piano lurking somewhere in a dark corner. There is never more than one person working at any given time. The menu is typically simple and sparing, containing a selection of hot and cold drinks, alcohol, and no food – if food is offered it is usually only of the cheese and olives variety. The tables are usually half-empty, and you regularly see people nursing a single cappuccino for hours as they sit and read or chat with friends, which begs the question of how such places manage to stay afloat – but this is only part of their mystery and their charm. Such cafes include the Skautský Institut café, Dejvice’s café Alibi, the Bohemian-feeling café Montmartre, and the hidden Tynská literarní kavárna.
These cafes, with their affordable prices and lack of impetus to hurry you along, are a favourite haunt of students. They tend to come alive at night, when crowds gather and people switch from coffee to alcoholic drinks. Sometimes the Prague café tends towards the downright bizarre. Kabinet in Dejvice is full of taxidermied birds, exotic plants, and mysterious items that look like they were taken from someone’s eccentric grandmother’s attic.
Naturally, you find chains like Starbucks and Costa Coffee dotted around Prague as well, but unlike in some cities, where these outlets are the only option if you want a place to sit and have a cup of coffee, Prague has so much more to offer if you only know where to look. While more modern and generic hipster establishments have also taken their place among the city’s cafes, Prague will always be the place where you can sit curled up with a good book in a moth-eaten armchair in a hidden café somewhere, sipping your cup of coffee for hours, and no one will tell you to leave.
Anna Fodor is a British writer with Czech and Slovak roots, who found her way to Prague at the age of 22. She is a graduate of English Language and Literature from the University of Leeds and has an MA in Linguistics from University College London. She likes to write about Czech life and society from the perspective of somebody on the periphery.