The Czech Republic , is a small landlocked country in Central Europe, situated south-east of Germany and bordering Austria to the south, Poland to the north and Slovakia (with which it used to form one country of Czechoslovakia) to the south-east.
After the First World War, the closely related Czechs and Slovaks of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire merged together to form the new nation of Czechoslovakia. During the interwar years, the new country's leaders were frequently preoccupied with meeting the demands of other ethnic minorities within the republic, most notably the Sudeten Germans and the Hungarians. A poor relationship with the German minority (20% of the overall population) was a particular problem that was capitalized on by Hitler and used as "rationale" for the dismemberment of the nation before the outbreak of WWII. The country was annexed and brutally occupied by Germany during the war. After World War II, Czechoslovakia expelled most of its Germans by force and many of the ethnic Hungarians under direction of the Potsdam Conference. However, the nation was very blessed in the fact that it emerged from the war more or less physically intact as it avoided the fate of the massive air bombardments and invasions that leveled most of the historic neighboring cities in Germany, Austria, Poland and Belarus. The country fell within the Soviet sphere of influence and remained so by force until 1989.
In 1968, an invasion by Warsaw Pact troops ended the efforts of the country's leaders to liberalize Communist party rule and create "socialism with a human face". Anti-Soviet demonstrations the following year ushered in a period of harsh repression and conservatism within the party ranks. In November 1989, the Communist government was deposed in a peaceful "Velvet Revolution".
On 1 January 1993, the country underwent a "velvet divorce" into its two national components, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Now a member of NATO (since 1999) and EU (since 2004), the Czech Republic has moved toward integration in world markets, a development that poses both opportunities and risks.
The Czech Republic is not a large country but has a rich and eventful history. From time immemorial Czechs, Germans, Jews and Slovaks, as well as Italian stonemasons and stucco workers, French tradesmen and deserters from Napoleon’s army have all lived and worked here, all influencing one another. For centuries they jointly cultivated their land, creating works, which still command our respect and admiration today. It is thanks to their inventiveness and skill that this small country is graced with hundreds of ancient castles, monasteries and stately mansions, and even entire towns that give the impression of being comprehensive artifacts. The Czech Republic contains a vast of amount of architectural treasure and has beautiful forests and mountains to match.
The Czech flag (see above) is the same one formerly used by Czechoslovakia, having been readopted in 1993.
Although the modern adjective bohemian refers to Bohemia, that usage was based on a broad stereotype and also a poor grasp of geography, so don't expect the Bohemians you meet to be nomadic or anti-conventional artistic/literary bohemians, or to see anything out of Puccini's "La Bohème". And no, Bohemian Rhapsody (its lyrics sprinkled with Italian and Arabic) is not a local anthem!
So the word Bohemia/Bohemian came from the name of the Celtic tribe, which occupied the region around the first 4 centuries of the first millennium. The region, which politically started off as an independent Czech Kingdom, eventually passed on to the Austrian Empire before being combined with Moravia-Silesia and Slovakia to form Czechoslovakia after WWI. The term had ended up meaning more or less "Czech" by the end of the 19th Century with the awakening of Slavic nationalism. However, it was also used to refer to any inhabitant of Bohemia, including the vast number of Germans that used to inhabit the region until the end months of WWII.
Moravia, along with Bohemia (the other half of the Czech Republic), was among the first regions of continental Europe to undergo the Industrial Revolution; however it did not experience the mass urbanisation of Bohemia. The region is therefore still home to gorgeous vineyards, orchards, fields full of "organic" produce, and filled with scenic mountain vistas and cute little villages. Even the regional capital, Brno, is renown for its small town charm. There is an extremely extensive rail system, and the region contains historic factories such as Zbrojovka Brno (weapons) and the Zlin Bata factory (shoes).
The dialects of Czech spoken in Moravia are very different from those spoken in Bohemia, particularly in Prague. A foreigner trying to master the language will often find himself at loss. Moravians pride themselves on their dialect and learning a few stereotypical regionalisms may go down well (or terribly, depending on just what it is you think you're saying and what you end up saying).
The region's strategic location at the Moravian Gate (a pass through the imposing mountain ranges of Central Europe) has led to a confluence of a great amount of history. The Celts gave way to post-Roman Germanic tribes, who themselves were displaced by the Slavs. Around 900 AD, Moravia was the central region of the Great Moravian Empire, stretching from Germany to the Ukraine, before a long period of affiliation with the Bohemian Kingdom (creating a territorial unit almost identical to the modern Czech Republic). The rise of the Hapsburgs led to Moravia becoming a part of the Austrian Empire, and later Austria-Hungary, and a massive influx of German immigrants. In 1918, following WW1 the region became a part of Czechoslovakia, which remained the only democratic country outside of Western Europe until Nazi occupation in 1938. In the aftermath of World War II, the Soviets expelled the German population and in 1947 the communists seized power in a coup d'etat. In 1968, after Czechoslovak efforts to democratise, the Warsaw Pact (led by the Soviet Union) invaded the republic, and two harsh decades of social and political 'Normalisation' followed, accompanied by a heavy Soviet military presence. In 1989 the communist regime collapsed, in 1999 the Czech Republic joined NATO and in 2004 the European Union.
The abolition of border controls has taken place only several years ago and is beginning to profoundly influence Moravia. Countryside and cities once separated by barbed wire are now beginning to seamlessly grow together, however the borders are still felt and it may take many years for the region to heal and for cross-border physical and social connections to reappear to Poland and Austria. No such divisions are really felt at the Bohemian-Moravian and Moravian-Slovak borders though, physically nor socially, and crossing them is quite similar to crossing English-Welsh and French-Spanish frontiers.
The Czech Republic has 14 political regions which can be grouped in eight historical regions:
These are at least nine interesting cities selected to represent variety of Czech urban areas. For more exciting destinations, see the individual regions.
Czech Republic is a member of the Schengen Agreement. For EU and EFTA (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland) citizens, an officially approved ID card (or a passport) is sufficient for entry. In no case will they need a visa for a stay of any length. Others will generally need a passport for entry.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented the treaty - the European Union (except Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: Not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union.
Airports in Europe are thus divided into "Schengen" and "non-Schengen" sections, which effectively act like "domestic" and "international" sections elsewhere. If you are flying from outside Europe into one Schengen country and continuing to another, you will clear Immigration and Customs at the first country and then continue to your destination with no further checks. Travel between a Schengen member and a non-Schengen country will result in the normal border checks. Note that regardless of whether you travelling within the Schengen area or not, some airlines will still insist on seeing your ID card or passport.
Keep in mind that the counter begins once you enter any country in the Schengen Area and is not reset by leaving a specific Schengen country for another Schengen country, or vice-versa.
As of January 2011 only the nationals of the following non-EU/EFTA countries do not need a visa for entry into the Schengen Area: Albania*, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia and Herzegovina*, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Japan, Macedonia*, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro*, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, San Marino, Serbia*/**, Seychelles, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan*** (Republic of China), United States, Uruguay, Vatican City, Venezuela, additionally persons holding British National (Overseas), Hong Kong SAR or Macau SAR passports. These visa-free visitors may not stay more than three months in half a year and may not work while in the EU.
However, all British Overseas Territories citizens except those solely connected to the Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas are eligible for British citizenship and thereafter unlimited access to the Schengen Area.
Further note that
(*) nationals of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia need a biometric passport to enjoy visa-free travel,
(**) Serbian nationals with passports issued by the Serbian Coordination Directorate (Serbs residing in Kosovo) still do need a visa and
(***) Taiwanese nationals need their ID number to be stipulated in their passport to enjoy visa-free travel.
Ruzyně Airport – located about 10 km west of the centre of Prague, (Praha in Czech), is a hub of Czech national carrier – Czech Airlines (ČSA), a SkyTeam member.
Other international airports are in Brno (with flights to London, Moscow, Barcelona and Prague), Ostrava (flights to Vienna and Prague), Pardubice, Karlovy Vary (flights to Moscow and Uherské Hradiště).
There are dozens of low-cost airlines going to/from Prague. Ryanair flies to Brno from London and Girona and to Prague from Dublin. Other nearby airports are Nuremberg (200 km) and Munich (320 km) in Germany, Vienna having a bus shuttle to Brno city (260 km to Prague, 110 km to Brno) in Austria, Wroclaw (200 km) in Poland (might be a good idea if you want to go to the Giant Mountains) and Bratislava (280 km to Prague, only 120 km to Brno) in Slovakia.
In order to transfer from Ruzyně Airport to the centre of Prague and beyond, you can take:
International bus service runs from many cities in Europe with direct connections from Germany, Netherlands, Slovakia, Switzerland, Austria etc. Good service is offered by Eurolines and Student Agency .
International train service runs from most points in Europe with direct connections from Slovakia, Poland, Germany, Nederland, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania and Ukraine. If you are in Bavaria, Saxony or Thuringia, the cheapest way to get to the Czech Republic is to take a "Bayernticket", "Sachsen-Ticket" or "Thuringen-Ticket" (up to 5 people per ticket, which costs 25 EUR; only regional trains) to the border and then buy a Czech ticket on-board (with 30 Kč surcharge). The Bayernticket is valid in fast trains from Nuremberg and Munich to Prague. Interrail train ticket and Eurail train is valid without any surcharges in almost every czech train (except supercity trains).
The Prague metro carries around 400 million passengers a year. It is fast, efficient, clean and easy to use. Its three lines consist of about 50 km of tracks running mostly underground, and some 50 stations.
IDOS offers an exceptionally useful website with integrated timetables for all trains and buses in the Czech Republic, including all intra-city and inter-city transports. The German and English versions are also available here.
There are domestic flights from Prague to Brno and Ostrava, operated by CSA Czech Airlines . There were also flights operated by Discovery Link, from Prague to Uherské Hradiště, but this airline stopped its flights in 2005.
A cheap and excellent means of travelling between Prague, Brno, Plzeň and Liberec are the buses from Student Agency. A regular line to Ostrava via Olomouc was introduced recently. Apart from this operator there are many other bus companies that link Prague and many other cities, even remote villages, regularly. The buses leave Prague from Florenc (main) bus tation, Černý Most and Zličín bus stations (all are Metro stations too). Except for the Praha-Ostrava line, the buses are a bit faster and cost less than the Czech trains (not considering discounts). Usually, you do not have to book a seat but if you travel on Fridays or during holidays from or to Prague, it is recommended. Timetables are available on the IDOS website.
Driving in the Czech Republic is not as expensive as it is in other countries, but there are certain specific things that must be kept in mind.
The first thing is that the Czech Republic is a zero tolerance country. It is illegal to drive a motor vehicle under the influence of any amount of alcohol, and violations are very heavily punished.
The Czech drivers may seem aggressive sometimes, especially in Prague, but it is far from "madness" as it is found in southern Europe countries for instance.
In order to drive on the well-kept motorways, however, you need to purchase a toll sticker. These stickers cost about CZK 220 for seven days (for vehicles lighter than 3.5 tonnes), but can be purchased for longer periods of time (1 month or a year). If you do not have a toll sticker on your car when you drive on the motorways, the fines can be very steep (CZK 5000 minimum).
Make certain that you purchase the correct toll sticker: there are those for vehicles under 3.5 tonnes in weight and those for vehicles between 3.5 and 12 tonnes. Vehicles larger than 12 tonnes in weight must use an on-board unit ("premid" unit) to pay tolls based on distance.
The condition of many roads is continually improving, but to be economical and fast, drive on the motorways as much as possible, although if you want to get to remote parts of the country you will not avoid side-roads that may be a little bumpy sometimes.
Speed limits in the Czech Republic are usually 130 km/h on motorways, 90 km/h off the motorways, and 50 km/h in towns. Petrol is inexpensive compared to the rest of Europe (CZK 31 / 1,25€), but it is expensive compared to the United States.
Traffic fines can usually be paid on the spot.
Trains in Czech Republic are operated mostly by state-owned company České Dráhy (Czech Railways). For journey plan we recommend an excellent online timetable covering all Czech trains, buses and city transport.
The trains go even to the most remote locations of the Czech Republic and unlike buses, they also operate regularly during off-peak hours. However, outside the modernized main corridors, the standard of travelling is often the same as it was in the 1970's, and therefore it is quite time consuming to get to the provincial towns or villages. The trains tend to meander around the countryside and while this may sound like a nice afternoon ride, it's usually more hassle than it's worth. However, things are changing constantly and we can expect some further modernization in the near future.
The normal train ticket price can be discouraging, but Czech Railways offer a plenty of discounts. For return ticket there is a 5% discount, for group of travellers (even two travellers are considered as a "group") the first two people have 25% and every other has 50% discount.
For journeys between larger cities you can buy an e-ticket , which are generally cheaper than bus. The earlier you buy it, the cheaper it is. The e-ticket isn't bound to particular train, only to a specific day and route. You'll print the e-ticket and change it at station counter to regular ticket. You can buy these tickets directly at station counters too, but at least one day in advance. Say you would like a SporoTiket.
The e-shop offers also some international tickets , which are often much cheaper (sometimes over 50%) than tickets purchased at a train station. However there is a limitation, that e-tickets from abroad to Czechia are valid only with the e-ticket from Czechia to abroad and both tickets must be stamped by Czech conductor. All international tickets you must purchase at least 3 days in advance.
Regular travellers can use a customer card (In-karta), which offers 25% discount for normal and return train tickets and 5-10% for domestic e-tickets. Its price can be recovered quickly but it takes some time (about one month) to issue the card and you need a photograph. You have to fill in a form and add a passport photo. You will get a paper card. After one month you will get a chip card.
The complete discount list you can find at Czech Railways , but only in Czech.
There is an unofficial English page about Czech train travel tariff, but not quite up to date. And consider a calculator of international ticket prices. It uses same system as cash desks at train stations, so its interface can be a bit user-unfriendly for a newbie.
If you travel in a group on weekends, you can use a daily pass SONE+ for unlimited travelling on Saturday or Sunday. It is valid for group up to 2 adults and 3 children. There is whole-network variant for 550 CZK and regional variant for 200–275 CZK.
Although many train stations were repaired and modernized, the rest is still like a trip back in time to the communist era. There is no need to be afraid but try to avoid them in the late night hours. Trains are generally safe (there are regular police guards assigned for fast trains) and very popular mean of transport and they are widely used both by students and commuters. Prague has a pretty good network of local trains connecting it with suburbs and surrounding cities and the tickets bought for these trains are valid for municipal transport. The new and developing Esko Prague system is efficient to use.
The basic ticket for bike costs 25 CZK for one train or 50 CZK for whole day. You load and unload your bike by yourself. Long-distance trains (with suitcase symbol in timetable) have a luggage wagon, where the train staff will care of you bike, but the ticket costs 30 CZK for one train or 60 CZK for whole day. Some trains (with squared bike or suitcase symbol in timetable) require compulsory reservation for bikes for 15 CZK at counter or 100 CZK at train staff.
Smaller pets in cages or bags may travel for free. Bigger dogs must have a muzzle and must be on a leash. Prices are 15 CZK one train or 30 CZK for whole day.
The Czech Republic is an excellent place for cycling. There are lots of pleasant country lanes, cycling marked paths and picturesque villages along these paths (always with a pub...), it's easy to find the way, and the trains have bicycle racks in the baggage section for when you get tired. Try cycling in South Moravia region (close to Austrian borders) where you can find dozens of well-marked paths that will lead you through beautiful countryside full of vineyards, vine cellars and colourful villages.
Also border mountains (Krkonoše, Šumava, Jeseníky etc.) are more and more popular among mountain-bikers. There are usually no fences along the trails but always keep to the marked paths here as these mountains are "CHKO" (i.e. protected as national natural heritage) and you can be fined if you cycle "off the beaten track".
CzechCycling.info is a non-profit website with cycling information for Prague and surrounding areas.
In addition to walking in the cities, there are a great number of hiking paths and scenery-rich trails going through the Czech Republic's forests and natural areas, and the Czech Tourist Club (Klub českých turistů) has mapped and marked these trails so that walkers can easily locate and navigate thousands of kilometres of scenic paths, in fact it is probably the best maintained system of marking in Europe. You can buy maps of their paths on their website , or in the Czech Republic in most bookstores, tobacco shops or museums (green maps, marked with the organization's symbol and the words EDICE TURISTICKÝCH MAP KČT 1:50000 at the top). These maps are based on military maps and very precise. It's also possible to go by train to a small village at the edge of a forest and find the on-site map of the surrounding area, and four possible paths will be visible, marked in red, yellow, green, and blue nice tourist maps . Nearby such a map will be a set of directing signs, usually posted to a tree, pointing the initial direction on any of the coloured paths. The path's colour will be marked on trees throughout the path: three short horizontal bars, the outer two white and the innermost the colour of the path you're on. This symbol at times will appear as an arrow, indicating a turn. Bus and train stops will also be indicated on signs. You can also register to become a member of the Czech Tourist Club, where you can camp for 30–50 Kč a night in cottages around the Czech Republic.
Hitchhiking is very common and some drivers stop even on places where they shouldn't.
Take care to use very a clear gesture with the thumb pointing upwards. A gesture looking like you are pointing to the ground may be mistaken for prostitution solicitation.
As a word of advice, if you are hitch-hiking through the Czech Republic from the south to the German town of Dresden, never go to or past Prague unless you are in a ride going all the way to Dresden. Prague itself has no major and continuous beltway, so residents of the area must maneuver a ring of major and local roads to get around the city from south to north. Therefore the great majority of traffic you will encounter is going into the city. Past Prague, the previously major highway turns into a two-lane mountain road through local villages, in which again, the great majority of traffic is local and international travelers are hesitant to stop.
Try a letter-sized (A4) piece of paper with the destination written on it so it is clearly visible where you would like to go. See some other Tips for hitchhiking.
It is possible to hitch-hike with smaller dog, although "waiting time" will be longer. Expect another dog in the car.
The main language spoken is, not surprisingly, Czech. The Slovak language can also be often heard, as there is a sizable Slovak minority and both languages are mutually intelligible. Czech people are very proud of their language, and thus, even in Prague you will not find many signs written in English (outside of the main tourist areas). Many older people, especially outside the large cities, are also unable to converse in English, so it's good to learn some Czech or Slovak before your arrival. However, most young people speak at least some English, as it has been taught in most schools since 1990.
Most Czechs speak a second and often a third language. English is the most widely known, especially among younger people. German is probably the most widely spoken second language among older people. Russian was taught very extensively under communist rule, so most people born before c. 1975 speak at least some Russian (and often pretty well). However the connection with the communist era and the Soviet led invasion in 1968 (as well as today's Russian-speaking criminal gangs) has given this language some negative connotations. It is also not very useful with younger people, as it is not, despite the common misconception, mutually intelligible with Czech (beyond some similar words and simple sentences). Other languages, like French or Spanish, are also taught in some schools, but you should not count on it. People may also understand some basic words or simple sentences in other Slavic languages (Polish, Serbo-Croatian, etc).
The Czech and Slovak languages are very difficult for English-speakers to grasp, as they, like their sisters, can be tongue-twisting languages to learn (especially Czech) and take time and practice to master, especially if you're not really familiar with the other Slavic languages, including Russian. However, if you can learn the alphabet (and the corresponding letters with accents), then pronunciation is easy as it is always the same - Czechs and Slovaks pronounce every letter of a word, with the stress falling on the first syllable. The combination of consonants in some words may seem mind-bogglingly hard, but it is worth the effort!
The Czech language has many local dialects, especially in Moravia. Some dialects are so different that they can be sometimes misunderstood even by a native Czech speaker from a different region. However all Czech people understand the standard Czech (as spoken in TV, written in newspapers and taught in schools) and should be able to speak it (but some are too proud to stop using their local dialect).
See also: Czech phrasebook, Slovak phrasebook
Czech Republic has an excellent and sophisticated system of trail blazing, marked trails are about everywhere. Choose an area, buy a hiking map for the area (best brand is "Klub českých turistů", 1:50000 military based maps covering the whole country, available in most large bookstores) and go.
Many places in the Czech Republic are great for swimming, and there are many designated public swimming areas (called koupaliště). A list of places suitable for swimming is available here: . However, be aware that in hot weather the quality of the water in some places can fall below EU standard regulations.
Although the Czech Republic is a land-locked country, it does have a lot of nudist/naturist beaches near lakes. A full list is available here: . Full nudity on other beaches is legal, but rare, and usually only happens in non-crowded places.
There is a Pub Crawl that meets every night under the astronomical clock in the Old Town Square of Prague at 9:15. Its cheap and they take you to some cool pubs, bars and you end up at a night club. Its a really good way to see what the Prague night life is really like. Even in the off season.
Geocaching is a popular sport in the Czech Republic, there are thousands of caches both in the cities and in the country. Czech caches are listed on geocaching.com, the descriptions are often bilingual (Czech and English).
Czech Republic is one of the very few (if not the only) country to have an official chimney climbing association - "Svaz českých komínářů" or the "Union of Czech Chimney Climbers" - a state-registered civic organization of people who climb factory chimneys and cooling towers as a leisure activity and also take part in industrial architecture history documentation as well as chimney maintenance and preservation. Post a message here to apply for membership: .
The currency of the Czech republic is the koruna (crown), plural koruny or korun. The currency code CZK is often used internationally, but the local symbol is Kč (for Koruna česká). 1 koruna is made up of 100 haléř (haléřů), abbreviated to hal., but coins are only issued in whole koruna values from October 2008 on.
The exchange rate is approximately 25Kč = €1, 30Kč = £1 GBP, 20Kč = $1 (US), or 16Kč = $1 (Canadian). As of 29 Nov 2010, €1 = 24,74Kč (Google)
Coins are issued in 1Kč, 2Kč, 5Kč (all stainless steel), 10Kč (copper-colored), 20Kč (brass-colored) and 50 Kč (copper-colored ring, brass-colored center). Notes are issued in 50Kč (pink), 100Kč (aqua), 200Kč (orange), 500Kč (red), 1000Kč (purple), 2000Kč (olive green) and 5000Kč (green-purple). See some banknote samples . Be aware that all 20Kč banknotes, haléř coins, and older-style 1000Kč and 5000Kč banknotes from 1993 are NOT legal tender.
Some major stores (mainly bigger chains) will accept Euros, and it's also fairly common for accommodation providers to quote the price in Euros.
Never exchange money on the street. Also, if you're in Prague, don't exchange it in the banks. The "real" exchange rate you should be looking for can be found here. There is no "black market" with better rates, but there is a good chance you'll end up with a roll of worthless paper. Be very careful when you are exchanging money at a small exchange kiosk. They try to use tricks in order to give you a bad exchange rate. Ask for the total amount you will get and recompute it by yourself. Do not trust "0% commission" in big letters signs (usually there is "only on CZK buy" amendment in small letters). On this website you can get good overview of reliable exchange places and rates. In any case, ones gets the best rates by using ATMs instead of changing cash.
Major stores throughout the country accept Visa and EC/MC, as do all the tourist stores in Prague.
Tipping is a standard 10%, and is not normally added to the bill. Don't be confused by the percentage figures listed at the bottom of the bill - by Czech law, a receipt must show the VAT paid (20% in most cases) - the VAT is already included in the final amount, and you should add 10% to this. It is normal practice to give the waiter the tip before you leave the table. Tip is not obligatory - if you weren't satisfied with services offered, don't bother tipping.
In a vast majority of better restaurants located in major cities you can pay by credit card (EC/MC, VISA), but don't be surprised if a few will not accept them. Make sure to check the door for respective card logos when entering the restaurant or ask the waiter before ordering. Czechs sometimes use special meal tickets (stravenky) to pay in some restaurants - these are tax-preferred and subsidised by employers. You won't get these tickets unless you get a job in the Czech Republic, just don't be surprised when you see them.
Traditional Czech food is hearty and suitable after a hard day in the fields. It is heavy and quite fatty, and is excellent in the winter. In the recent time there was a tendency towards more light food with more vegetables, now the traditional heavy and fatty Czech food is usually not eaten everyday and some people avoid it entirely. However nothing goes as well with the excellent Czech beer as some of the best examples of the traditional Czech cuisine, like pork, duck, or goose with knedlíky (dumplings) and sauerkraut.
A traditional main meal of a day (usually lunch) consists of two or three dishes. The first dish is hot soup (polévka). The second dish is the most important part, very often based on some meat and side-dish (both served on the same plate). The third, optional part is either something sweet (and coffee) or small vegetable salad or something similar.
Czech cuisine knows many different kinds of soup (polévka). The most common are bramboračka - potato soup (sometimes with forest mushrooms), hovězí vývar - clear beef soup (sometimes s játrovými knedlíčky - with liver dumplings), gulášovka - thick goulash soup, zelňačka - thick and sour cabbage soup, česnečka (strong garlic soup, very healthy and tasty, but do not eat this before kissing), kulajda - thick soup with forest mushrooms and milk, hrášková polévka from young green peas, čočková polévka from lentils, fazolačka from beans, rajská polévka - tomato soup, and many others. A special case not to everyone's tastes is dršťková polévka made from cow stomach. Rybí polévka - thick fish soup made from carps (including its head, some innards, roe and sperm) is the traditional soup of the Christmas Dinner.
Some soups are eaten with bread, sometimes small croutons are put inside the soup just before eating. Soup can be also eaten as the only dish, especially for a smaller dinner.
The second dish (main course, hlavní jídlo) of a meal is (in the traditional cuisine) often the famous heavy and fatty part, very often based on pork, but also beef, chicken, duck, or other meat. Important part of most main courses is side-dish (the whole dish including the side-dish is served on one plate) - usually cooked or baked potatoes, fries, rice, pasta or the most typical side-dish of the Czech cuisine - knedlíky.
Knedlíky (usually translated as dumplings) come in many different kinds. Most kinds are used as side-dish, however some kinds with filling are used as dish by itself. The most common type, always used as side-dish, are houskové knedlíky (bread dumplings). These are cooked in a shape of a cylinder, which is then cut into round slices about 8 cm in diameter remotely resembling white bread. Houskové knedlíky are served with Czech classics such as guláš, similar to Hungarian goulash but with a thinner sauce and less spicy; Svíčková na smetaně, beef sirloin with a creamy root vegetable (carrot, celeriac, parsnip) sauce, served with a tablespoon of cranberry sauce, a slice of orange and whipped cream; Vepřová pečeně se zelím a knedlíkem locally named as Vepřo-knedlo-zelo, the combination of roast pork, knedlíky and sauerkraut. The latter combines very well with the world-famous Czech beer, the major brands being Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Budvar, Staropramen, Velkopopovický Kozel and Krušovice. If you are lucky enough to enter a pub serving Svijany, you should definitely order it, as it is believed to be one of the most delicious brands worldwide.
Another common kind is bramborové knedlíky (potato dumplings), the slices are smaller, more yellow in color, and are also always served as a side-dish. A typical combination is roasted meet (pork or lamb for example) with spinach and bramborové knedlíky or duck with sauerkraut and bramborové knedlíky (or combination of bramborové and houskové knedlíky). Less common are chlupaté knedlíky (hairy dumplings, but there are no hairs, don't panic), which are not sliced but cooked in shape of balls. They are also usually served with roasted meat and either sauerkraut or spinach.
Other Czech dishes include pečená kachna, roast duck again served with bread or potato dumplings, and red and white sauerkraut; moravský vrabec, known as 'Moravian Sparrow', but which is in fact pork cooked in garlic and onions; smažený kapr, fried carp breaded and served with a very rich potato salad and eaten on Christmas Eve; pečené vepřové koleno, roast pork knee, served with mustard and fresh horseradish; bramborák, garlicky potato pancakes; smažený sýr, breaded deep-fried edam (the most popular cheese in the Czech Republic) served with boiled potatoes or french fries and tartar sauce; párek v rohlíku, long, thin hot dogs with crusty rolls and mustard or ketchup. If you must, you can always get hranolky - french fries. And of course, the ubiquitous zelí (raw cabbage), which is served with absolutely everything. Game is also very good, and includes dishes such as kančí, wild boar, bažant, pheasant and jelení or daňčí, both types of venison. These are almost always served either with dumplings and red and white cabbage, or as guláš.
Don't expect a wide selection of zelenina, vegetables, unless in the countryside - peppers, tomatoes and cabbage are the most commonly-seen side dishes, often served as a small garnish.
Visitors may be surprised when they find "American potatoes" in the menu. These are actually potato wedges, usually spiced.
Generally, probably the best place to really try the Czech cuisine is to be invited for such a meal to somebody's home. However, it is not so easy, because people today tend to prepare simpler and more international foods. Traditional Czech cuisine is often reserved to Sundays or some holidays or prepared by old grandma when her children visit her. This is not a rule, but it is a common situation. In common restaurants, even the better ones, the traditional Czech food usually does not match what the old grandma serves. This does not mean that the food is bad or not tasty, but it is missing something that the home preparation can provide. In luxurious restaurants specialized in Czech cuisine, the food can be excellent, but the luxurious style and creative improvements by the chef often do not match the style of the traditional folk cuisine. Again, this is not a hard rule. Sometimes you can compliment the food in a restaurant "As if my grandma prepared it."
There are some dishes that are usually not served in any restaurants or pubs, are usually made at home and are worth trying if you have the opportunity. Brambory na loupačku ("potatoes to be peeled") is a cheap and simple meal usually made in the countryside. Whole unpeeled potatoes are cooked in a big pot and put in the pot itself or a bowl on the table. You just take a hot potato from the pot, peel it yourself, put some salt, butter, and/or curd (tvaroh) on it and eat it. Drink it down with lot of cold milk. For such a simply meal it can be incredibly tasty, especially when eaten in the countryside after a day spent outside and chatting over it.
Picking mushrooms in forests is a very popular activity in the Czech Republic. Probably not surprisingly, collected mushrooms are eaten then. In restaurants, usually only cultivated mushrooms are used. If forest mushrooms are served in a restaurant, then usually only as a minor addition to a meal. Homemade mushroom meals are a completely different story. A classic example is Smaženice (the name is based on the verb 'smažit' - to fry), also known as míchanice (to mix) - forest mushrooms, the more kinds the better, are sliced to small pieces, mixed and stewed (with some fat, onion, and caraway). Later, eggs are added to the mixture. Smaženice is served with bread. Smažené bedly are whole caps of parasol mushrooms coated in breadcrumbs and fried. Černý kuba (literally black jimmy) is a traditional Christmas fasting meal made from dried mushrooms and peeled barley. Houbová omáčka (mushroom sauce), served with meat and bread dumplings is also popular. Fresh or dried mushrooms make also a nice addition to bramboračka s houbami (potato soup with mushrooms). Kulajda is a soup from mushrooms and cream. Soups and sauces are the most likely forest mushroom meals to find in a restaurant, because they contain relatively small amount of mushrooms.
If you want to pick mushrooms by yourself, be careful. There are hundreds of species, some of them very tasty, some merely edible, but some poisonous or even deadly. There is also a species used as a hallucinogenic drug. A tasty and edible species may look very similar to a deadly species. If you do not know mushrooms very well, you should be accompanied by an experienced mushroom-picker.
Also try traditional beer snacks, often the only food served in some pubs (hospoda, pivnice), and designed to be washed down by a good beer:
If you want a warm, bigger, and more complicated meal which goes excellently with beer, get some of the typical Czech meals based on fatty meat (pork, duck, or goose) with sauerkraut and knedlíky (dumplings). Another excellent option is a whole pork knee with horseradish and bread (ovarové koleno s křenem).
Czechs like sweets but consumer patterns are different compared to France, USA or the UK. As everywhere some traditional treats have become a mass-market production for tourists, others are pretty difficult to be found.
Try also the wide variety of rich cream cakes usually found in a Kavárna (a cafe), or a Cukrárna (a shop which sells all things sweet together with ice cream and drinks, found throughout the Czech Republic and often the only place open in small towns and villages on Sundays). Czech cakes are similar to their Viennese cousins due to the shared history of both countries under the Austro-Hungarian empire. Sample also Vídeňská káva (Viennese coffee), coffee served with a mountain of whipped cream.
Finding a vegetarian meal in the Czech Republic is not as difficult now as it once was. In tourist areas at least, such as Prague and the Bohemian Paradise, most restaurant menus contain a vegetarian meals category (bezmasá jídla or vegetariánská jídla) with 2-3 options. People may have their own interpretation of 'vegetarian' though, and it is not uncommon to find dishes such as "broccoli bacon" or prawns listed under "vegetarian meals". In traditional restaurants the choice in vegetarian food is usually limited to fried cheese, dumplings (knedlíky), omelette, potatoes (cooked, baked, fried or as 'potato pancakes') and sometimes a Greek salad or cooked vegetables. Be advised that vegetables practically always have to be ordered separately, even if they appear to be part of the dish: e.g. the vegetables listed in a menu option called "potato pancakes with vegetables" are most likely a garniture consisting of a few leaves of lettuce and a slice of tomato.
Bigger towns have foreign cuisine restaurants, mostly Italian and Chinese, which can serve you meat-free dishes such as vegetarian pasta.
The Czech Republic is the country where modern beer (pivo in Czech) was invented (in Plzeň). Czechs are the heaviest beer drinkers in the world, drinking about 160 litres of it per capita per year. Going to a cosy Czech pub for dinner and a few beers is a must!
The best-known export brands are Pilsner Urquell (Plzeňský Prazdroj), Budweiser Budvar (Budějovický Budvar) and Staropramen (freely translateable as "Oldspring"). Other major brands which are popular domestically include Gambrinus, Kozel (goat), Bernard (a small traditional brewery, with very high quality beer), Radegast, and Starobrno (made in Brno, the capital of Moravia). Other fantastic beers worth tasting are Svijany and Dobřanská Hvězda. Although many Czechs tend to be very selective about beer brands, tourists usually don't find a significant difference. And remember, real Czech beer is only served on tap – bottled beer is a completely different experience. High-quality beer can almost certainly be found in a hospoda or hostinec, very basic pubs which serve only beer and light snacks. Take a seat and order your drinks when the waiter comes to you - going to the bar to order your drinks is a British custom! But beware, the handling of the beer is even more important than its brand. A bad bartender can completely ruin even excellent beer. Best bet is to ask local beer connoiseurs about a good pub or just join them.
Beers are sometimes listed by their original sugar content, which is measured in degrees Plato (P/°). The difference is generally apparent in the final alcohol content. Normal beer is about 10° (such as Gambrinus and Staropramen, which results in 4% ABV), lager 12° (such as Pilsner Urquell, which results in about 4.75% ABV). The latter is stronger and more expensive, so you should specify which one you want when you order.
Czech lager is nothing like the fizzy lagers found in many other countries. Instead, it has a very strong, hoppy, almost bitter flavour, and goes very well with heavy dishes like duck or pork and dumplings or strong cheeses. It always has a thick head on the top when it is served, but do not be afraid to drink "through" it, it is fun and it slowly disappears anyway, nevertheless do not drink the beer too slowly as the fresh cold taste (especially in hot summers) quickly fades – the "true" Czech connoisseurs do not even finish this "tepid goat," as they call it.
Wine (víno in Czech) is another popular drink, particularly wine from Moravia in the south-eastern part of the country where the climate is more suited to vineyards. White wines tend to be the best as the growing conditions are more favourable for them. For white wines, try Veltlínské zelené (Green Veltliner), Muškát moravský (Moravian Muscatel), Ryzlink rýnský (Rhine Riesling) or Tramín (Traminer), or red wines such as Frankovka (Blaufrankisch), Modrý Portugal (Blue Portugal, named after the grape, not the country), or Svatovavřinecké (Saint Lawrence). Also try ice wine (ledové víno) made when the grapes are harvested after they have frozen on the vines, or straw wine (slámové víno) made by leaving the grapes to ripen on straw) – these wines are more expensive and are similar to dessert wines. Bohemia Sekt is also popular with Czechs, and is an inexpensive sweet, fizzy wine, similar to Lambrusco, and drunk at celebrations. The best places for wine are either a wine bar (vinárna), or a wine shop (vinotéka) which sometimes has a small bar area too.
For spirits, try Becherovka (herb liqueur, similar to Jagermeister, tastes of a mixtures of cloves and cinnamon, and drunk as a digestive), slivovice (plum brandy, very popular as a pick-me-up), hruškovice (pear brandy, less fiery than Slivovice), and so on. Spirits are made out of almost every kind of fruit (Plums, Peaches, Cherries, Sloes, etc.). Czech unique tuzemský rum (made from sugar beet, not from sugar cane as the Cuban rum, sold under brands like Tuzemák to conform with EU market rules). Be careful as all are about 40% alcohol.
For non-alcoholic drinks, mineral waters are popular, but tend to have a strong mineral taste. Try Mattoni, or Magnesia, both of which taste like normal water and still claim to be good for your health. If you want bubbles, ask for perlivá. If you want it non-carbonated, ask for neperlivá. Sometimes you can see jemně perlivá – it is "lightly bubbled" water. Kofola, a coke-like drink is also very popular, and some Czechs say it is the best thing the communists gave them. Many restaurants don't make any difference between "sparkling water" and "sparkling mineral water".
Restaurants and pubs do not offer water for free. Not surprisingly, as beer is the national drink, it is usually the cheapest drink you can buy, with prices ranging from 15–60 Kč (0,50–2 EUR) per half litre, depending on the attractiveness of the pub to tourists. Drinks are brought to your table, and often each drink is marked on a small slip of paper which is kept on the table in front of you, so you can keep count of what you have had. When you are ready to leave, ask the waiter for the bill – he or she will calculate the bill according to the number of marks on the paper. It is common to share tables in busy pubs and Czech people will ask Je tu volno? (Is this seat free?), before they sit down.
Try also svařák, hot mulled wine served in all pubs, and outdoors at Christmas markets, grog, hot rum and water served with a slice of lemon - add sugar to taste, and medovina, mead, again usually served hot, and particularly good for warming up at a cold winter market. Finally, if you are heading into Moravia, try burčák, a speciality found only around the end of the summer, or early autumn. It is extremely young wine, usually white, and is the cloudy, still fermenting stage in wine production when the wine is very sweet, and very smooth to drink. It continues to ferment in the stomach, so the alcohol content at the time of drinking it is unknown, but it is usually high, creeps up on you, and it is very moreish. Czechs say that it should only be drunk fresh from the vineyard, and many small private wine makers are passionate about it, waiting up into the night for the moment when the wine reaches the "burčák" stage. You can see it at wine festivals around the country, and sometimes in markets or wine bars too.
Grocery stores do not sell what Americans consider over-the-counter drugs, such as aspirin. You will need to go to a pharmacy (lékárna), which is usually open between 8AM and 7PM, Mondays to Fridays. There are 24-hour pharmacies in the bigger cities, and you should find an address for the closest one to you listed in the window of the nearest pharmacy to you. If you are in Prague, the most central 24-hour one is in Prague 2 - on the corner of Belgická and Rumunská streets - they dispense both prescription and non-prescription drugs from a small window on Rumunská out of hours - ring the bell if there is no-one there.
Tap water is good, although the chlorine can be quite strong.
A reputable hospital in Prague is Nemocnice na Homolce, Address: Roentgenova 37/2, Prague 5 (tel 257 272 350). There is a foreigners' clinic (Cizinecké oddělení) there with English-speaking receptionists who can make appointments for you. Most doctors speak some English, and the level of care is of a very high standard.
Central Europe and parts of the Czech Republic have ticks (Ixodes ricinus) which can carry Encephalitis or Lyme Borreliosis. Ticks hide in grass and bushes (well, in fact, they sit on trees, but as they often fall down, stay off the tall grass nevertheless), so try to stay on trails and inspect exposed areas of skin after a hike. Vaccination against Encephalitis is available and recommended. If you want to bushwhack, make sure you have the vaccination and wear long trousers. A good insect repellent (which contains DEET), might be helpful, too. Ticks like to cling to any soft, warm, well-perfused areas of your body (undersides of knees and elbows, skin around ankles, groins, neck area, behind your ears etc.) and if not removed, they'll suck your blood until they grow about 1 cm big. Never try to scratch a tick off or pull it out, because damaging it can cause you a serious infection. The sooner the tick is removed, the smaller the chance of infection. Either ask a physician to remove a tick for you, or try to remove it by yourself: lubricate your finger with any greasy lotion and gently wag a tick from side to side until it wobbles free. Then flush it down the drain - never crush or burn it to avoid infection. Watch the affected spot: if you see a growing red spot developing there anytime during next several months, immediately visit your physician and tell him about that - you might have contracted Borreliosis. It is dangerous, but it can be easily treated with antibiotics during early stage. Be wary that American vaccination against Borreliosis most probably won't work against European strains (B. afzelii and B. garini). Note that ticks are sometimes present even in city parks, including Prague.
Czechs don't appreciate when foreigners incorrectly assume that their country was part of the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire -- both definitely false -- although it was part of the Soviet Bloc and, until 1918, an Austro-Hungarian territory. Commenting about how "everything is quite cheap here" comes across as condescending about the country's economic status.
If you are knowledgable about the Czechoslovakian communist regime following the second world war, bear in mind that this is still a sensitive issue for many and that it is easy to upset people in discussions on the subject.
Czechs are one of the most atheist people in the world. This is true especially in large Bohemian cities. Don't assume that anyone you do not know believes in God or has a passion for Christianity. Respect that and your religion will also be respected.
Always say hello (Dobrý den) and goodbye (Na shledanou) when you enter and leave a small shop as it is polite.
While dining at a restaurant with a host's family it is customary for THEM to pick up the bill, the opposite of most Western standards. However don't assume they will - but also don't be surprised if they do.
When entering a Czech household, always remove your shoes. Czechs usually wear slippers or sandals when inside a house and never their outdoor shoes. Depending on how traditional the host family are, they may insist you change immediately into house shoes as a hygiene precaution, though this is rare. At the very least they will offer you some to keep your feet warm.
The vast majority of Moravians will take no offence to being called Czechs, and consider themselves to be both. If you are attempting to speak Czech, beware of the complexities and slight differences between the terms 'Čechy' (Bohemia), 'Česko' (Czechia) and 'Česká republika' (Czech Republic). Much like a Welshman would raise an eyebrow over his country being called England, using the term 'Čechy' (Bohemia) to refer to the entire Czech Republic may not be appreciated by a Moravian. Since there are no mainstream separatist movements in Moravia, and there is definitely no ethnic conflict, it is infinitely more likely you'll be showered with kisses and plied with alcohol for simply making an attempt to speak Czech.
There are three main mobile phone operators using the GSM standard, their coverage is very good (except in some remote, mostly uninhabited areas). If you find using roaming with your own operator too expensive or you want to have a Czech phone number, you can buy an anonymous prepaid card from any of the three main operators. However, the pricing schemes are usually quite complicated and some investigation may be necessary to find the ideal solution (even with the prepaid cards, operators offer various schemes including various additional 'packages'). GPRS and EDGE is widely supported, 3G networks support is in its beginnings (O2 and Vodafone, mostly in Prague). The fourth operator (U:fon) uses some custom standards and you have to buy special hardware from them.
There are still some telephone boxes available, but they are gradually vanishing since the advent of mobile phones. Some still accept coins, but most of them require special prepaid telephone card.
You can call emergency numbers from any phone for free (even without any card). The universal emergency number 112 is functional and you can use it, however you will reach only a telephone operator who will need to contact the real emergency service for you. To save precious time, it is best to call directly the service you need: 150 for firefighters, 155 for medical emergency, and 158 for state police.
Wifi is available in many restaurants, especially in larger cities. You may need to ask a waiter for the passphrase. There are also some hotspots available on the streets and some city quarters (for example in Prague) offer free wifi coverage for everyone. However such coverage is usually very slow and unreliable and you may need to create an account (using a web browser and the page it is automatically redirected to) to be able to use it. In most larger cities, there are also several internet cafés available.