My Hidden Prague

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STRAINS of soaring voices echoed down the well-worn cobblestones of Prague's Old Town. For days, leaving the neo-Baroque library where I write, I'd heard the same music spilling down Bartolomejska Street -- though like a ghost it always seemed to disappear just as I approached. Making a guess, I stuck my head through the doorway of what seemed to be an abandoned building with peeling plaster and dingy windows. Inside, weird paintings decorated the walls, and rough-hewn furniture had been cobbled together. As I entered a long, dark room, a chorus of young women returned to their task: knocking out a spot-on, spine-tingling version of Mozart's Requiem in the middle of a lazy afternoon.

So many scenes in Prague display similar touches of the city's standard-issue strangeness, a quotidian surrealism that often blends the elegant with the near-hallucinatory, that makes the modern Czech capital a hard-to-understand place, especially for outsiders like myself. But after 12 years of living here, I've come to make the city my own, figuring out how Prague's various parts fit together and finding charming attractions and unexpected beauty just about everywhere I look.

This, despite having settled in one of the most overexposed parts of the city: its historic center. Less than five minutes by foot from Namesti Republiky and its immense Art Nouveau palaces, and 10 minutes from the Gothic steeples of Old Town Square, my wife, Nina, and I set up house among the most romantic views, as well as the biggest busloads of tourists, the lamest of souvenir shops and the most inauthentic of pubs.

And yet I quickly got over the downsides of living "downtown." Instead, what I discovered amid all the gimcrackery were overlooked joys that most tourists probably never saw: a kind of hidden Prague, both old and new, where every day meant another elegant statue or beautiful facade I'd never noticed before, another renovated park or refurbished embankment, another cool new bar or restaurant that was not yet in the guidebooks.

Inspired by Vzorkovna, the cafe where I had encountered the angelic chorus, I decided to spend a few days tracking down Prague's best hidden attractions and new developments, or at least those that were unknown or new to me.

Based on my own experience, I'd recommend not skipping the tourist zone. Avoid the Royal Way, the city's historic coronation route, to be sure, but don't miss the city's newest brewpub, Pivovar U Tri Ruzi, which opened right off the route earlier this year. Meaning "At the Three Roses," the pub can be hard to spot among the area's galleries and bars. But the handful of beers produced here are real head-turners, including a solid, almost sugary Vienna lager and an excellent polotmavy, or half-dark. The burgers here are some of the city's best.

And take the warnings about places like Wenceslas Square with a grain of salt -- at least during the daytime. Prague is a very safe city, and many of the grittiest areas -- including Wenceslas -- are finally getting cleaned up. When our family happened by the square one morning this spring, we discovered that the western half had just gone car-free, creating a huge additional amount of space for shoppers and strollers, and transforming much of Vaclavak, as locals call it, into a much friendlier area for pedestrians. After visiting the city's best spirits shop, Kratochvilovci, to track down a bottle of Hammer Head whiskey --  the bizarre, pre-Velvet Revolution Czech single malt released a couple of years ago to rave reviews --  you can step out into the broad, car-free street with impunity and admire the grand facades on either side. A similar situation is under way at Hlavni Nadrazi, Prague's main train station, where a renovation is finally shaking off the last of its Communist-era décor.

Despite the central position of the Vltava River, which threads through the city like a needle, the waterfront has long been overlooked. Lately, however, you can find a lot happening along the river, from the bustling Saturday-morning farmers' market along the Rasinovo Embankment in New Town to Jazz Dock, one of the city's best spots for live music, on the other side in the Smichov neighborhood. Here, great international acts like John Abercrombie and the Legendary Pink Dots, as well as local favorites like Tony Ackerman and the Kasparin Quartet have performed in the three and a half years since it opened.

When I stopped by Jazz Dock for an after-work cocktail this summer, I was as amazed by the club's cool waterside location as I was by the refurbished playground I spotted from its riverside patio. Called Detsky Ostrov, or Children's Island, and connected to the embankment by a footbridge, the grounds included great new sandboxes, jungle gyms, swings and slides, with plenty of shady trees and lots of benches for parents. Bigger kids were trying out their first skateboards in a small skatepark, and members of the city's Nigerian community playing pick-up soccer games offered to let me join in. Nina and I would have to bring our children by sometime soon, I thought.

While Prague's public transportation works extremely well and crooked cabdrivers are much less common than they used to be, the best way to get a feel for the city is in a pair of comfortable shoes. My own walk to the library each morning is so full of new sights that I often have to stop myself from taking more pictures or from writing down another new address. After dropping off my son at his preschool in the Petrska neighborhood, I walk the breadth of Old Town, from its northeast to its southwest corner, taking in the full sweep of old Prague.

Without adding more than a couple of minutes to my 20-minute commute, I can explore innumerable variations of my journey: sometimes I stroll directly down Na Prikope, the city's main shopping strip, dodging the tour groups and buskers and taking notice of newly opened stores downtown like the Lavmi boutique at Truhlarska 18, which sells unusual, locally designed wallpaper, lamps and other housewares.

Sometimes I walk down rustic, unmodernized streets like Provaznicka and V Kotcich, enjoying views that look just like the rest of the city did before the Velvet Revolution. Often I take one of the many mysi diry (mouse holes), the little passageways that run between Old Town streets like Celetna and Stupartska. If you see a gate or a doorway at a crook in the road like the two at the end of Michalska Street, check if it's unlocked. In all likelihood, you'll find a hidden pathway.

Many such paths offer wonderful views, as I discovered when I struggled to find something that seemed as of it would be impossible to miss: a new walking and biking trail in the Zizkov neighborhood, after hearing it described recently by Pitr, a neighborhood friend.

"It's very long, and fairly private," Pitr said. "But the interesting thing is that it's almost completely hidden. If you don't know exactly where it is, you will never find it."

I made the mistake of not taking Pitr completely at his word, and after fruitlessly searching the area for half an hour, I gave him a call. Armed with fresh instructions, I backtracked toward Hlavni Nadrazi, near the top of Wenceslas Square, then walked east up Seifertova Street.

Passing under a railway bridge, I saw an elderly couple walking an even older dachshund and followed their route up an embankment to what had once been a small railway branch line. Hemmed in by elder trees and lined in some sections with herb gardens, it had been paved the previous year, creating a path directly behind some of Zizkov's most beautiful 19th-century apartment buildings. The voyeuristic views onto each pavlac, or communal balcony, offer a clear sense of what life --  hanging laundry, chatting with neighbors --  on those balconies must have been like 50, 60 or 100 years ago.

Even natives can be surprised by the city, as I discovered when I decided to check out new developments in the Karlin neighborhood with my Prague-born, Toronto-based friend, Matej. Before we had found our apartment in the center, Nina and I had originally wanted to live in the area, which is northeast of Old Town and south of the Vltava. Karlin was cheap and somewhat rundown, but with great architecture and a very real neighborhood feel that stemmed from its narrow streets and its setting between the tree-covered hillside and the river.

MATEJ and I were both shocked to see how much had changed in recent years. We started by having lunch at the Red Hot Chilli restaurant, opened in May of last year and perhaps the best of the many new places in Prague specializing in Vietnamese cuisine, offering crisp and aromatic summer rolls and sweet-and-sour bowls of bun bo nam bo, a beef and noodle salad, right on the district's main street, Krizikova.

Afterward, we walked over to the park in front of the sprawling elementary school on Lyckovo Namesti --  my vote for the prettiest square in Prague, though a complete surprise to Matej --  and admired its immense, Mucha-style murals dating from the early 20th century. On some of the nearby buildings, we could still spot a few scars from the high-water line of the flood of 2002, but many had been recently repainted in pink, yellow and other flowery pastels.

After taking a few photographs, we stopped by the neighborhood's new coffeehouse star, Muj Salek Kavy, where we stopped for a knockout cup of estate coffee --  something that I always thought could not be found in Prague --  from Graciano Cruz of Panama, accompanied by a fat slice of spicy-sweet carrot cake.

Then we headed back down Krizikova to a wine bar called Veltlin, where we found a dark, intimate little salon and an array of bottles with a surprising theme: all were sourced from the winemaking regions of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, focusing on the region's most traditional varietals: Czech veltlinske zelene as well as its better-known Austrian cousin, grüner veltliner; Zweigeltrebe from the Czech Republic's Moravian wine region; and Zweigelts from Trentino, in northern Italy.

Waiting for our glasses gave us a chance to catch our breath, and Matej took a moment to send his wife, Chelsea, a text message. When he'd finished, he said that he'd been repeatedly writing to tell her how much Prague had changed, how different things were from the last time they'd visited.

They were, I replied, but much of it seemed to depend on knowing where to look. Lyckovo Namesti probably was Prague's prettiest square, but I doubted that it was featured on any postcards, which usually picture bucket-list sights like the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle. Most tourists --  even most locals --  wouldn't know how many things had changed in Karlin, or even the very existence of the wine bar we were sitting in, which had opened only three months earlier; Muj Salek Kavy and Red Hot Chilli were only a year older than that. Karlin itself was well off the radar, though another mouse hole -- a long tunnel through the base of Vitkov Hill --  connected it to Zizkov, exiting right next to the new hiking and cycling path I'd discovered.

From there you could walk in seclusion almost all the way to Old Town, where any number of hidden passageways spilled between the old streets, and where any number of strange new discoveries were yet to be found.

IF YOU GO: HOTELS

Prague's 10-year mania for building new hotels finally appears to be over. Despite the increased competition, the top three high-end options have remained the same elegant troika as in earlier years: the Mandarin Oriental (Nebovidska 1; 420-233-088-888; mandarinoriental.com/prague), Rocco Forte's Augustine (Letenska 33; 420-266-112-233; theaugustine.com), and the riverside Four Seasons (Veleslavinova 2a; 420-221-427-000; fourseasons.com/prague). In November, a Web search found double rooms at the Four Seasons starting at 295 euros, about $378 at $1.25 to the euro, without breakfast.

More affordable and far quirkier is a new arrival, the Fusion Hotel, which offers both artsy, boutique-style rooms and dormlike group lodgings, with a rotating ground-floor bar and two cool restaurants packed with locals (Panska 9; 420-226-222-800; fusionhotels.com). Doubles at 80 euros, including breakfast.

EVAN RAIL, a frequent contributor to the Travel section, is the author of the Kindle Singles "Why Beer Matters" and "In Praise of Hangovers."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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