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Inside the Blatouch cafe, bookcases are lined with novels you can read over lunch and then purchase.
Inside the Blatouch cafe, bookcases are lined with novels you can read over lunch and then purchase.

Grandeur and grittiness collide in Prague Add to ...

Charles Bridge, Old Town Square and Prague Castle usually top most visitors' must-see list for the Czech capital. But if you're looking for a break from the beaten track, there's much more to explore just beyond Prague's popular tourist zones. The edge of Prague district 2, where the dual neighbourhoods of Vinohrady and Zizkov meet, is one of the city's most dynamic areas.

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Even to long-time residents, the division of Prague's municipal districts tends not to mean an awful lot. And since the boundaries between neighbourhoods have shifted so many times over the city's long and tumultuous history, it never seems entirely clear where Prague 2 meets Prague 3, and where Vinohrady ends and Zizkov begins.

To the southwest, Vinohrady is a charming and prestigious residential neighbourhood, named after the vineyards that once populated the area.

Zizkov, on the other hand, has traditionally been home to the working class, although, in recent years, it has gradually become a hot spot for young, expatriate students and English teachers, drawn to cheap rent and its central location.

These days, thanks to the increasing gentrification of Zizkov, its boundary with Vinohrady - somewhere between the park, Riegrovy Sady beer garden and Jiriho z Podebrad subway station - has become all the more blurry.

Here, you won't find the overpriced medieval-themed eateries and chintzy Bohemian glass souvenir shops that flood Old Town. Nor will you find the vendors selling "Czech me out" T-shirts in abundance along Wenceslas Square.

Instead, just east of Wenceslas Square, you'll discover low-key delis specializing in chlebicky, the dainty, traditional Czech open-faced sandwiches; neighbourhood potraviny, or convenience stores, often run by the city's surprisingly sizable Vietnamese immigrant population; and the occasional antikvariat shop full of antiques and curios. You'll also find high-end wine bars, sleazy dives, specialty boutiques, thrift shops, chic salons and discount barbershops - and you'll get a sense of Prague as it's experienced by those who live there.

A LUSH BEER GARDEN The elements of a good beer garden couldn't be simpler: a cluster of picnic tables and fresh beer on tap, all set up in a lush, green park. There's something both liberating and luxurious in the simplicity of enjoying a cold, refreshing pivo out in the open, under a canopy of trees. Pent up during the long, bitter Czech winters, residents eagerly anticipate the opening of the city's beer gardens each year, as it signals the start of warmer weather. The beer garden at the centrally located Riegrovy Sady is a favourite among residents and expats, serving local beer at around 30 koruna ($1.50) a pint. The food, although limited to grilled sausages and pickled Czech hermelin cheese, makes for a satisfying snack. Riegrovy Sady; restauraceriegrovysady.cz

The Sudicka restaurant offers meal-sized salads as an alternative to traditional protein-heavy fare.

SALAD, IN PRAGUE? Most Czech restaurants serve mainly large portions of meat and dumplings, but this intimate, casual restaurant bucks the trend by offering delicious, meal-sized salads and couscous dishes in addition to the standard protein-heavy fare. Sudicka, "the cellar," gets its name from a former coal storage and laundry facility beneath the 1902 art nouveau house it occupies. With its exposed brick walls and distressed wood furniture, the cellar today is a warm, comfortable space, made all the more pleasant thanks to its friendly service - not always a quality local restaurants value. Sudicka also prides itself on its large selection of wines, including many from the eastern Czech region of Moravia. Nitranska 7; 420 (222) 511-609; www.sudicka.cz

ARTISTIC CHEMISTRY Sure, you can buy generic watercolours from the hawkers on Charles Bridge. But if it's original, contemporary art you're looking for, check out the Chemistry Gallery, a small but funky exhibition space dedicated to promoting the work of young Czech painters, sculptors and photographers. U Kanalky 4; 420 (773) 588-075; www.thechemistry.cz

The Chemistry Gallery is a small but funky exhibition space.

KAFKA OR KUNDERA? COFFEE OR WINE? A literary café, with well-worn rugs and a dark wood bar, Blatouch is a cozy spot where you can unwind and deliberate the merits of Kafka versus Kundera over coffee or a glass of wine. Its walls of books, which are for sale, and clientele of academic types make you feel smarter just for being there. Soak in the atmosphere indoors or kick back on the sidewalk patio, overlooking a public fountain. The kitchen serves light dishes, including pastas, sandwiches and salads. Americka 17; 420 (222) 328-643; www.blatouch.cz

CLIMBING BABIES Don't bother paying the 150 koruna (around $8) fee to ride the elevator up the Zizkov TV tower. Even on a clear day, the view is a little hazy, because of the scratched glass. But this piece of Soviet-era architecture is definitely worth checking out, if only from the outside. Starting in 1985, during the Communist occupation of Czechoslovakia, this monstrous space-age-looking tower was erected for what conspiracy theorists believe was to block Radio Free Europe and other pro-democracy broadcast signals from the West. In a display of wry, dark, Czech humour, the tower today has been transformed into a canvas of modern art. Giant, faceless model babies, created by Czech bad-boy artist David Cerny, crawl up its exterior walls. Mahlerovy sady 1; 420 (267) 005-778; www.tower.cz

CHEER FOR THE HOME TEAM You don't need to know the language to understand the passion Czechs have for football. Started in 1903, the Viktoria Zizkov football club is one of the oldest soccer teams in the country, and it's a favourite among the working class. The Viktoria stadium is located deeper into Zizkov, technically in Prague 3, but it's a great place to people-watch and to experience the fan spirit. Just stay away from the soccer hooligans. Seifertova trida; 420 (221) 423-427; www.fkvz.cz

WHERE TO STAY

Czech Inn Groan-worthy name aside, the Czech Inn turns the concept of the European backpackers' hostel on its head. You won't find any dingy, cramped and fetid rooms here. While it still offers shared accommodation for travellers on a shoestring budget, the Czech Inn is more stylish boutique hotel than hostel. Private rooms are also available. Shared rooms start at $15 a night; private single rooms start at $52. Francouzska 76; 420 (267) 267-600; www.czech-inn.com

Le Palais Hotel This luxurious five-star hotel, constructed as a residential palace in 1897, has won numerous accolades, including the Czech Republic's Leading Boutique Hotel from the 2008 World Travel Awards. While the guest rooms are outfitted with modern comforts, such as heated marble bathroom floors and air conditioning, they retain a regal air. Some rooms even have the original fresco ceilings by Czech painter Ludek Marold. Rooms start at around $200. U Zvonarky 1; 420 (234) 634-111; www.palaishotel.cz

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