A Day in Pilsen, The Beer Capital of the World

I’m always a little nervous when introducing you to a new destination. What if I spell its name wrong? What if I bring you no original insights? But today, the pressure is higher than ever, for I am about to introduce you to Pilsen – the place I consider my hometown!

For the fourth biggest city in a small European country, Pilsen has not done badly for itself. The Bohemian stronghold is known and loved by millions of people worldwide, all because of a single export. Sadly that export isn’t me, but we share many characteristics at present – we are both reddish in colour (note: I’m no longer sunburnt, but I just dyed my hair ginger), strive to make people happy but may cause a headache when consumed in large quantities. Yes, the correct answer is beer!

But there’s a lot more to this humble city than a chilled pint of everyone’s beloved amber nectar. I’ve decided to take it upon myself to introduce you to the city’s many beautiful sights, including those outside of the brewery. Here is my 24 hour itinerary – a guide to making the most of a day in Pilsen, the beer capital of the world!

10am: Visit Pilsner Urquell Brewery

While I’d hate to advocate day drinking on this site, I’m going to have to do just that… yet again! I’m sorry, it’s simply the right thing to do here. It’s not about you being an uncontrollable alcoholic, it’s about you soaking up local culture any way you can. Do have a big breakfast though, because you never know just how much you might grow to enjoy said culture.

Whether you’re a beer fan or not, going on the Pilsen Urquell brewery tour is a must. The 100-minute tour costs around 190 Kč ($9) and is well worth the money. What I’m really trying to say is – I promise you’ll be able to get your drink on at the end, at no additional cost.

For those of you completely unfamiliar with this glorious beer, let me give you a little background. The first batch of Pilsner Urquell, the beer which sprung Pilsen to international fame, was brewed in the city in 1842. Since then, this first pale lager beer has inspired brewers worldwide – in fact, nine out of ten beers consumed in the world today are derived from it. Without the humble Pilsner Urquell, there would be no Heineken, Beck’s or Coors – in fact, I’m pretty sure there would be no beer pong without it either which would make frat parties incredibly dull.

If you’d like to learn more about Pilsen, beer and the Pilsner Urquell brewery look out for an upcoming article covering just that topic – but for now, let’s move on to our next stop.

1pm: Traditional Czech lunch at “U Svejka”

If you’re on a diet, I don’t recommend you order anything but a side salad in the Czech Republic. Honestly – Czech cuisine was certainly not designed to keep people lean. Having said that, the food is pretty damn delicious and you’d be a fool not to try it at least once! From delicious potato dumplings to succulent meat to thick creamy sauces, it’s comfort food at its absolute best. Before you order, you should check out my friend Drew’s guide to Czech food!

If you’re completely famished, restaurant “Na Spilce” in the brewery’s courtyard is meant to be great but I have another recommendation –  restaurant “U Švejka“. You can get from the brewery to this cosy locale in less than fifteen minutes – you’ll find it tucked in a side street next to the main square, patiently awaiting your arrival.

Švejk, whom the place is named after, is a famous literary character from Jaroslav Hašek’s “The Good Soldier Švejk” – the most translated Czech novel of all time! The book discuses some very serious themes including war, corruption and religious hypocrisy but because of its genius mix of satire and dark comedy it’s a very enjoyable read. At some point in the book, the author writes: “I suffered the misfortune that I sat down at a table and started drinking one glass of beer after another.” So follow in the soldier’s footsteps and suffer some misfortune at lunch. Not too much though – you’ve got places to go!

2pm: Tour the city’s historical underground

If those cold beer cellars weren’t enough for you, you should also check out the city’s historical underground network  – an impressive system of tunnels running underneath the entire Old Town. The underground is accessible from the Brewery Museum in Veleslavínova street, which is a great excuse to steer the conversation back to beer… again.

The combined tour of the underground and the museum will last 120 minutes and set you back about 200 Kč ($9). Pilsen is the place to learn about drinking history and the museum is well-worth a visit for all beer aficionados. Savour it, because our next stop involves no drinking…

4.30pm: Explore the Square of the Republic

No, silly – that doesn’t mean you should skip it! Give me a chance here! Once the drinking is done and over, Pilsen is frequently passed up in favour of its more touristy counterparts – with Prague less than an hour away by car, is the city really worth your time? Aside from the delicious beer, is there really anything interesting? I’d say so! It is no accident that Pilsen has been chosen as the European Capital of Culture for the year 2015. As you can see from the photo above, the city is currently undergoing large-scale reconstructions, but it will be more than ready to welcome visitors next year in its full glory!

The dominant feature of the city’s main square is St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral, a Gothic church dating back to the 13th century. At 102.3m (335 ft) its tower is the highest in the Czech Republic, which is pretty damn impressive. You can go up the spire to gaze upon the city from above, but if you’re not too keen on climbing all of its 301 stairs I’ve got you covered too – you’ll just have to wait till 7pm!

I’ll graciously let you opt out of the climb, but I’m hereby ordering you to at least peak inside the cathedral. I’d hate to get bossy with you, but it must be done because the interior is incredible and not seeing it would be a big shame.

The Moravian town of Telč gets all the praise for its delightful dollhouse-like dwellings, but I reckon Pilsen is a fair contender. It’s less polished, but the city’s home to many architectural wonders.

Perhaps the most beautiful building on the square is Pilsen’s renaissance town hall, which was built in 1554-1559 based on the designs of Italian architect Giovanni de Statia. On its left side, you will see a large column which was built in 1681 out of gratitude for the end of a plague epidemic which struck the region. I promise the lesson’s over now – there’s just so much history woven into the city’s fabric!

There is just one more thing you have to do. I’m not superstitious but I like to keep all my bases covered, so no trip to Pilsen’s main square is complete without visiting the angels. Say what?! Let me explain – the angel (or “andelicek” as he is affectionately known here) is a tiny figure near St Bartholomew’s Cathedral said to grant wishes. Just touch its silver head and ask him for a favour – you never know…

5.30pm: Visit the Great Synagogue

Aside from being home to the most famous brewery in the world and the tallest church tower in the Czech Republic, Pilsen has one more claim to fame. Its Great Synagogue is the second largest synagogue in Europe, preceded only by the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, and the third largest in the world.

The beautiful space, located right in the heart of the city, houses frequent exhibitions and concerts. The entrance fee is only 60 Kč ($3) and 40 Kč ($1) for students, which is enormously reasonable.

During my visit, the exhibition on display was Miloslav Kubec’s “Man, Who Are You?” – a project featuring the Czech photographer’s black and white prints. I found his series of portraits depicting life in the 60s very poignant and would recommend the exhibition to any photography enthusiast.

The synagogue was founded in 1888, but only opened its doors in 1893. The initial project drawn by Viennese architect Fleischer, heavily based on Gothic elements, was deemed too close to St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral on the main square and scrapped. It wasn’t until Emanuel Klotz shifted the architectural style in a more Romantic, neo-Renaissance direction that the project got the green light. Overall, the building’s architecture emphasises the synagogue’s non-Christian character through a vibrant mélange of international elements, ranging from Arabic ceilings to Russian Orthodox domes to a large Star of David displayed proudly in the front.

The synagogue suffered greatly in the past century. In the photo above, you can clearly see two bullet holes but no one is quite sure who pulled the trigger – the Nazi soldiers who occupied the city during World War II, the American soldiers who liberated it on 6 May 1945 or the Russian communists who took over in February 1948. One thing is certain though – Pilsen’s vibrant Jewish community of 2,000 was crushed when most of its members were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in January 1942. Nowadays, there are only around seventy Jews left in the city, a true testament to the extent of racial cleansing inflicted by the Nazis.

Interesting side note – after seizing power, the Communists tried to suppress all acknowledgment of the US army’s involvement in liberating Pilsen and the rest of Western Bohemia. But after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 which marked the end of the communist rule in Czechoslovakia, the city did all it could to set the record straight. Every May, Pilsen holds an annual Liberation Festival attended by many American and Allied veterans. Way to honour the past!

7pm: Eat cake at “CrossCafe Sky” 

Phew, that was exhausting, wasn’t it? Now I think it’s time to have your cake… and eat it, too. I hate that saying – why on Earth would you buy a cake and not eat it? Wasteful much? But I digress… “CrossCafe Sky” is located on the sixteenth floor of “Business Centre Bohemia” – one of Pilsen’s tallest buildings –  which ensures beautiful views of the colourful city below.

If you get to the cafe at 7pm, you’ll be just in time for the sunset. As you can tell from the photos I went a little earlier, but whatever the case it’s well worth a trip. Even if the weather isn’t cooperating, there’s a steady supply of cake to numb the pain. I love their soy chai latte and my cousin (pictured above) swears by their cheesecake, but this is sugar we’re talking about – it’d be hard not to like whatever you order!

8pm: Going Out!

If you’re still full of energy and/or still buzzing from those beers, you might want to check out some of the local clubs. I’ll be honest – Pilsen is no match for Prague’s crazy nightlife… but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a grand time! I recommend you start your night off in Dominik Cafe with some cheap beers or cocktails. The place is filled with chatty locals and looks like a cosy wooden Canadian cottage, which adds to the friendly ambiance. If your companions start to bore you, you can just kick back and watch sports on one of the big TVs, which is a plus.

If you’d like to get your dancing on afterward, you should check out Pantheon – the biggest and most luxurious club in Pilsen. Frequented by Czech celebrities – most of whom are models! – and equipped with two VIP lounges, the place is a fun place to party. It does look like a nuclear bunker from the outside but seriously – don’t let that fool you. If you’d prefer something a little more low-key, your best bet is Andel (can you tell the locals have a thing for angels?) – a lovely cafe which is transformed into a fun bar by night.

And that is it – by now you should be worn out and ready to sleep. If not… well, I’m clearly no match for you and I want to know your secrets!

Have you ever been to – or even heard of – Pilsen? Do you think the city merits a visit?