Strolling across the Charles Bridge or having a dinner under Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock is not something most locals would consider either fun or bearable.
Unless, it turns out, they do it in the middle of a pandemic.
The restrictions on travel put in place because of the coronavirus have slashed the number of visitors to the Czech capital by more than 73% in 2020, according to the city’s official statistics. While disastrous for Prague’s economy, the tourist exodus was a revelation for many of its citizens who were suddenly able to reclaim their city and enjoy its beauty in a slower pace.
Prague’s historical center became livable again – and its political and community leaders are trying to find a way to keep it that way even after the crowds of tourists return.
“All of these beautiful places suddenly reemerged,” said Matej Velek. “All the glitz, the cheap, tacky souvenirs and the flashing signs that try to lure you to spend money, all this stuff vanished incredibly quickly once the tourists disappeared.”
Velek, Prague born and bred, belongs to a growing contingent of locals trying to revive the city’s many forgotten public spaces. He is one of the team behind Kasarna Karlin, part community meeting spot, part a beer garden with open air cinema, a playground and a cafe in an abandoned swimming pool. The venue occupies the huge courtyard of disused military barracks in Karlin, a neighborhood that was badly damaged during Prague’s devastating 2002 floods.
The state-owned building had been deserted for years awaiting a possible renovation at some point in the future when Velek and his team managed to convince the authorities to allow a local nonprofit to use the venue for community and cultural purposes until the redevelopment starts. Ever since it opened in 2017, it became one of the neighborhood’s favorite spots. And while the complex has seen a lot of a bureaucratic back and forth involving various government departments in recent years, Kasarna Karlin has become something of a blueprint for community projects – so much so that representatives of other cities visit the venue to get the know how.
Kasarna Karlin is far from a lone star in the neighborhood. Less than five minutes walk away, another abandoned building has recently turned into Bar/ak, an artsy cafe featuring local musicians and artists. Down by the river, Harbour 18600 now hosts open-air cinema, music events and lectures in a space that used to be an illegal dump site just a few years ago.
Kasarna Karlin’s success among locals has earned it a spot in guidebooks like Lonely Planet. Slowly, it became a place where residents mix with tourists. That’s still unusual in Prague. Locals tend to stay away from the most touristy places, while visitors rarely venture outside of the historical center.
It’s something the city is keen to change. Prague has been a magnet for tourists for a long time. But their rising numbers have become a worry for its residents, who feel overrun by rowdy groups looking for a big night out.
Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib told CNN last year that the city welcomed nine million tourists in 2019.
“That’s about the same as Rome, which is twice the size of Prague,” he said, admitting that the swelling numbers of tourists, some coming primarily to party, have been causing problems.
Like other cities in similar situation, Prague has put in place a “nighttime mayor” whose task is to find a better way to handle the crowds.
Hrib has also stepped up the attempts to rid the city of fraudulent tourist traps and visual pollution and to regulate the likes of Airbnb. “These types of services have a very negative impact on the residents’ quality of lives, mostly because of noise, and they also make housing more unaffordable for young people, so finding a solution is a priority,” Hrib said.
Hrib’s team is keen to reinvent Prague as a more than just a bachelor party destination.
“We care the most for more conscientious tourists who respect the fact that tourism must not be detrimental to the lives of the locals,” he said. “Prague simply cannot be just an open-air museum for tourists, we need to stop the outflow of locals from the city center.”
The vast majority of international visitors doesn’t venture beyond the historical city center. But Hrib is keen to show them Prague has a lot more to offer – which it certainly does.
Cultural venues and events have been popping up seemingly everywhere in Prague in recent years. Once obscure places have been revamped into urban hotspots – some with the help of the city, others by independent communities and volunteers.
The Rasin Riverside, south from the city center, rose from a near abandonment to popular hipster hangout to a mainstream tourist destination within a decade. Some locals preferred the spot when it was still a bit rough around the edges and are moaning its evolution into a more polished space, but the riverbank’s rising popularity gives tourists a chance to sample something a little bit different.
Holesovice, a residential neighborhood across the river from Karlin, was also badly damaged during the 2002 floods. And like Karlin, it too has been transformed beyond recognition from a rundown place to an artsy district with plenty to see and experience.
The DOX Centre for Contemporary Art has become the neighborhood’s epicenter of art since it first opened in a former factory in 2008. Other venues mushroomed around. Vnitroblock, a vast industrial chic cafe and an event space focused on design is just 10 minutes walk away. Around the corner, Jatka 78, formerly a slaughterhouse, is now the place in Prague to see contemporary circus, avant-garde theater and dance.
The venue is currently undergoing refurbishment, but the show must – and is – going on in a temporary circus tent erected in the nearby Prague Exhibition Grounds. Called Azyl78, the venue will be offering “asylum” for performance artists throughout the summer.
Jatka 78’s co-founder and director Štěpán Kubišta is particularly proud of the international nature of the institution he helped to build. The venue regularly hosts foreign troupes and is one of the few theaters in Prague serving locals and tourists alike.
“Culture in Prague is still done mostly for and by the locals, there aren’t many international events, both in regards to the performers and the audience,” he said. Of the dozen or so theaters funded directly by the city, all but one are currently focused on Czech language drama and thus are off-limits to most visitors. “If we want to attract tourists who are interested in culture rather just partying, we need to offer them more options,” he said.
It’s a tradition started by one of Prague’s most famous residents, the country’s former President Vaclav Havel. When he hosted Bill Clinton in 1993, he showed him around the castle, then took the then-President to a legendary, if somewhat grubby, jazz club Reduta.
The art cluster that has grown in Holesovice over the past decade has become something of an inspiration for other Prague neighborhoods.
“Holesovice is a great example of a neighborhood that has been revamped from the bottom up into almost an official art district … and although it has since become perhaps too gentrified, it has shown others that these types of projects make sense,” said Marie Kasparova, the director of Za Trojku, a nonprofit that operates two publicly funded community culture centers in Prague’s Zizkov district.
Zizkov, once known as the slightly rough neighborhood lying under Prague’s famous TV tower, has always had a diverse cultural scene. From the U Vystrelenyho Oka pub that has long been the beating heart of Prague’s underground scene, to independent art galleries and the newly reopened events space in the functionalist Radost building, Zizkov, Kasparova says, has something for everyone.
She is looking to follow Holesovice’s example in introducing more contemporary art into the district, while maintaining its appeal to the neighborhood’s long-time residents. “When people walk into a gallery showing contemporary art, they can sometimes get a bit frightened, not sure what to make of it. We want to bring art to people in a way that isn’t scary, through themes they can relate to,” she said.
To attract more locals into the arts venue, Za Trojku has started organizing more community-focused events. Later this month, it’s hosting a mini festival of house plants and urban gardening. Last year’s event attracted millennials and pensioners alike. “We want to open up the space to the local people so that they know it’s here for them,” Kasparova said. “If they get used to coming here for the events that appeal to them, like the houseplant swap, they might eventually come to see art they might have previously dismissed as something that’s not for them.”