Kavarna Obecni Dum, in Prague, Czech Republic
Czech Republic

The Grandest Prague Cafés

The grand cafés of Prague are a tour through the city’s intellectual golden age. Frequented by historical figures like Einstein and Kafka, they played a key role in shaping 20th Century philosophy…

Like most cities in Central Europe, Prague has a long history of café culture. It is here, in the grandest Prague cafés that the country’s history was made. 

Café Culture: Europe’s Cultural and Intellectual Life

Years ago, I read a book about the Vienna Circle. The Circle was a group of intellectuals who included the mathematician Kurt Gödel and the philosopher Wittgenstein. They gathered in a grand café in Vienna regularly. It was in this café that many of the ideas which shaped the 20th Century were formed. 

The grand cafés of Prague are no less illustrious. In the grand Café Slavia, Czech historical figures like the composer Antonín Dvořák and film director Miloš Forman met regularly. Café Louvre boasts of being a favourite haunt of Albert Einstein. The café in Hotel Paříž was frequented by international surrealists, including the French poet André Breton. 

The End of an Era and New Beginnings

This golden era was sadly brief, a mere few decades around the turn of the century, including those heady interwar years. After the Second World War, the communists took over. These grand Prague cafés become symbols of the intellectual bourgeoisie.

Coffee became an unnecessary, expensive luxury, and the opulent interiors of the cafés were seen as an unnecessary indulgence. The communist regime shut down the cafés or converted them for other use during this time.

The irony, of course, was that these cafés functioned as an affordable place for the intellectual class (who, despite their status in society, were not particularly well off) to study, work and meet. Here they had a comfortable space in which to think, bright electric lights at night to work, and heating, all for the price of a coffee.

Not long after the Velvet Revolution, however, Prague’s indomitable spirit brought back all the intellectual and cultural trappings of its heyday. Private investors with the means (and some without) took risks and resurrected their beautiful cafés, reviving an essential facet of Czech city life.

Café Savoy

First on the list of the grand Prague Cafés is Café Savoy. Take a walk from Prague’s Old Town, crossing the Legionnaire Bridge, and you’ll find Café Savoy to the left. Its coffee cream colour facade is elegantly decorated with Rococo flourishes, with its name printed in Art Deco font. We opened its glass panelled doors and stepped into a different time.

The Neo-Renaissance entrance to Prague's Café Savoy.
The entrance of Café Savoy has a distinct turn of the century flair

MH TIP: Visiting Café Savoy for Brunch

We had read about long waits for brunch but did not experience any when we arrived around noon. We were here during the Christmas period – maybe the delays were in the summer. That said, not long after we were seated, the café began filling up quite quickly. We would thus recommend coming to the Café Savoy for brunch around eleven in the morning.

The first thing that caught our eyes was the ornate Art Deco ceiling. This ceiling, like the rest of the café, was built in 1893, during the heyday of Prague cafés. I loved the ceiling’s simple geometric layout and the contrast against its intricate patterning and gilded embellishments.

The Grand Prague Cafés During the Communist Era

We can understand a bit of Prague’s Grand Cafés during the communist era by looking at the history of Café Savoy’s well-preserved ceiling. This ceiling is protected as a piece of Czech heritage and is listed as a Neo-Renaissance work of art. The owners of the café, fortunately, had the great foresight to cover up the ornate ceiling during the communist era, thus saving it from being destroyed. The irony of it is that the café dining halls were a popular place for the communist party to recruit new members.

Dining room of the grand café Savoy with its opulent heritage ceiling
The entrance dining hall of the Café Savoy features an impressive Art Deco ceiling

It was like this for many of the other grand Prague Cafés. During their communist years, they were drab places, their beautiful interiors stripped or hidden.

A waitress standing in front of a wall of wine and a Czech language newspaper, in a café in Prague
Snapshot in a grand café: a wall of wine, the maître d’, and the daily newspaper

Today, the dining halls of the Savoy boast a classic style, with classic 1920’s furniture. Although it is very recently restored and has modern flourishes, it remains a Grand Café through and through.

Brunch at the Café Savoy

When I cracked open the menu, I was immediately nostalgic for the time I studied in Budapest. Classic cafés in the former Austro-Hungarian empire have a style of breakfast that is unique in Europe. The breakfast menu here was quite extensive. Along with the usual suspects (eggs scrambled, boiled, fried or poached), there were also novel items like croissants stuffed with savoury fillings and traditional soups. The Czech breakfast for two included poppy seed rolls and came served with locally produced apple cider.

A savoury croissant stuffed with pork and herbs
A croissant stuffed with stewed pork, caramelised onions and herbs

We ordered a croissant filled with stewed pork, onions and herb, and a meat plate with duck, pork, beef and lamb. And two glasses of Czech wine to go with it all, of course.

The food was excellent. The croissant was buttery, crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The pork filling was creamy and delicious. Every piece of meat on the platter was done to perfection. The meat was tender and juicy inside and caramelised on the outside. After I finished the meal, I found myself wondering why more restaurants didn’t serve savoury filled croissants.

The cake display in the Café Savoy in Prague
The dessert fridge at the Café Savoy

Why We Recommend Café Savoy?

Of all the cafés, I thought the Savoy had the most exciting menu. It has many traditional dishes with a twist, or modern recipes with a classic touch. It also serves up some excellent platters where you can have a little bit of everything if you’re feeling indecisive.

A plan view into a kitchen of a grand café
An interesting architectural feature of the Café Savoy is the bird’s eye view into the kitchen, tucked away along the stairs to the W.C

Café Louvre

If there is one Prague café you have to visit, it is Café Louvre. It’s probably the most authentic of them all. Located on the first floor of the Louvre Palace, its location on an upper floor deters tourists.

Neo-Renaissance building in Prague which is home to café Louvre
The exterior of Café Louvre, with the name of the café in large neon lighting

Therefore, its clientele is mostly Czech. Its owner prides the café on its conservative menu, which keeps the same items for many years. If they wanted to, patrons could keep ordering the same dishes for a decade or more!

When we were there, we did encounter a few other tourists. Many of them tended to have newly bought books by Franz Kafka laid out on the table beside their meal. In general, the crowd was a good one – Czech regulars or tourists who were there to soak in the café’s history.

Traditional European Café in Prague where Einstein used to dine
The interior of the casual dining area in Café Lourvre, with windows facing Národní Street

The moment you step into the café, you get a strong sense of its tradition. Although its interior was redone in the early 90s, the vibe is going back to its origins in 1902. The unique thing about Café Louvre, though, is the service. The waiters here are classically trained waiters. That might sound weird if you’re not from a place where waiting tables is considered a profession – but in many cities in Europe, being a waiter is a lifetime dedication.

A small tortoise in a tank in the grand Café Louvre
The official pet of the Café Louvre – a small tortoise

Here, the waiters are operation staff and behave like it. They keep everything moving efficiently while maintaining an unhurried air, and it is a true art. I think the older waiters here have been around since the café reopened after its restoration in 1992

Café Louvre’s Famous Patrons

Café Louvre’s claim to fame is that Albert Einstien was a regular. He often visited when he was teaching in Prague before World War I. It can also boast of other well-known figures like Franz Kafka, who was a member of the German Philosophical Circle. This Circle met regularly at the café every fortnight, discussing ideas that would greatly influence the 20th Century.

The Grand Café Telephone Network

At the entrance to the casual dining hall of the café is a large map of Prague. On this map are a ring-dial telephone and several buttons listing different prominent cafés in the city. In those days, household telephones were not a thing. Prague’s cafés were often used as offices for the Czech literati, who communicated with each other through the grand cafés telephone system. All the cafés listed in this blog post were connected through this system, in those days.

An 18th Century telephone network of the Prague cafés
A telephone network used to join all the of Prague’s cafés. Patrons often used the cafés as offices, where they could easily get in touch with other people

The First Café Lit with Electric Lights

Equally as important as the telephone network were the electrical lights of Café Louvre. It was the first café in all of Prague to be lit by electric lights. This simple fact of life now, was a luxury then. Having bright electrical lights meant people could now discuss and work on ideas over books, late into the night.

An elegant and simple Art Deco hallway of a Prague Café
The simple yet elegant Art Deco styled hallway of the Café Louvre

Café Culture and Women

Although men and women have equal rights now in all of Europe, this was not always so. It was only at the beginning of the 20th Century that women began to be included in the social and cultural fabric of Europe. Café Louvre played its part by being one of the first places in Prague where women were not merely tolerated but welcomed on their own or with their female friends. 

The Food at the Café Louvre

The food at Café Louvre is excellent. Most of the dishes on the menu have been there a long time, and improved upon incrementally, over the years. The menu is very Central European – that is meat with gravy and potatoes or bread dumplings. There are also several vegetarian options and an extensive selection of cakes and desserts.

Traditional beef goulash with bread rolls
Classic beef goulash, served with bread rolls

We visited the Café Louvre a couple of times because we liked its ambience and the food. Prices here are very affordable, with each meal going under €30 for two.

Traditional Czech liver soup from the Café Louvre in Prague
Traditional liver soup – this centuries old Czech dish is rich and flavourful. The liver dumplings are a mix of liver meat and grains

We tried the beef goulash (it’s listed under Czech Cuisine, although it’s a Hungarian dish) and the liver soup on one visit. We then returned on Christmas Eve to sample their Christmas menu. Booking a restaurant for Christmas Eve can be a bit of a pain, so if you want to have a traditional Christmas lunch somewhere without the fuss, Café Louvre is an excellent place for it.

The Christmas special at Café Louvre - winter carp with cranberry sauce
Café Louvre’s Christmas Carp special, Carp served with root vegetables and cranberry gravy

Here you get to sample the Christmas Carp, something that is unique to the Czech Republic. Carp tends to be fatty – so fatty it’s not edible most of the year. However, around Christmas time, they use up most of their fat stores. This makes them suitable for eating, so the Czech eat them during this season. They are served with a rich, sweet vegetable and fruit sauce – not unlike the sauces often served with rabbit or lamb. It’s an unusual choice of meat, but a very Christmassy dish none the less.

Cherry and poppyseed strudel, a staple dessert of many Prague cafés, here served with ice-cream
A classic Central/Eastern European pastry – cherry and poppyseed strudel. Like all strudels, it is best served with vanilla ice cream

Why We Recommend Café Louvre?

We love its cosy, laid back and personal atmosphere. We came back to Café Louvre the most times because we felt comfortable here. I think it is because this café is the only one of the list that is a real café. People come here to socialise, talk about ideas and even read.

Black and white photographs of Prague café life at the turn of the 19th Century
Vintage photographs of the grand Prague cafés that were once connected by this telephone network. The one labeled ‘Obecní Dům’ is the current café in the Prague Municipal House (covered in a section farther down the post)

Kavárna Slavia

Continue walking down Národní Street, towards the Vltava River, and you will see the Grand Café Slavia to your right. There’s no missing this most prominent of the Prague cafés, located as it is, right on the banks of the river. We passed it so many times during our week in Prague. Located right by the Legionnaire Bridge and the Národní Theatre, it conveniently sits along the way to most attractions in the city.

The Neo-Renaissance/ Secessionist architecture of the exterior facade of Café Slavia
The building of Café Slavia, as seen from the start of the Legionnaire Bridge

While strolling along the river bank, we often looked into it – its warmly lit interior inviting and full of life. The heaving plates of food brought to the tables by the waiters, hot and delicious.

Café Slavia’s Famous Patrons

The Bohemian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke was one of Café Slavia’s patrons during its early years. He visited the café often when he was a student of letters in Prague in the 1890s. Franz Kafka also visited it often. It is unlikely that these two writers ever crossed paths in Café Slavia, as Rilke had already left for Munich when Kafka (who was eight years younger) began his career in Prague. It is nevertheless fascinating to note the importance of this cafe through the generations of intellectuals that influenced much of European thought. 

The warm interior of a Prague grand café, filled with patrons and waiters
Café Slavia is popular with tourists due to its convenient location and great view along the banks of the Vltava

In more modern times, Café Slavia is a popular place for entertaining political dignitaries that come to visit the Czech Republic. Obama visited the café while he was serving as president of the USA, as did Vladimir Putin and Pope John Paul II. 

Refurbishment in the 90s

Like the other Prague cafés, Café Slavia had suffered throughout the World Wars and the Communist Era. It did, however, keep its function as a café and was not repurposed for other uses.

During the First World War, the Germans renamed it Café Victoria, but likely kept most of its original decor. I’m not sure if the communist reinstated its name during their regime, but they definitely did not refurbish it with respect to its original interior. After the Velvet revolution, everybody was itching for a return to the golden age of Bohemian intellectual life. 

A stone plague declaring 'Café Slavia opened here in 1881'
A slightly hidden plaque on the outside of Café Slavia informs passers by of the history of the café

The president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, who was also a patron of the National Theatre across the street, insisted on it reopening. He went so far as to submit a petition to ensure that the café would be quickly reinstated to its former glory. In 1997, it finally reopened, to the great joy of theatre-goers and lovers of cake.

Why We Recommend Café Slavia?

Did we already mention the cake? Well, yes, cake. But we think foreign dignitaries are often brought here for the beautiful view of the Vltava and its reasonably priced menu. If you get a table along the window facing the riverbank, it might even be possible to see the Charles Bridge.

An 18th Century style oil painting of a man in suit succumbing to the green fairy, which represents absinthe
This painting has a prominent location in the café. The green fairy represents absinthe, of course

Kavárna Lucerna

One of the “hidden” secrets of Prague is Lucerna Palace. Vácslav Haval, the grandfather of the President Václav Havel, built it between 1907-1920. The gallery, along with the café in it is a beautiful example of Art Deco and Art Noveau architecture. Then, as now, the gallery is filled with many shops and cultural facilities, including a concert hall and movie theatre.

An 18th Century shopping gallery in Prague - the Lucerna Palace
View onto the shopping gallery of the Lucerna Palace from inside Café Lucerna

The Lucerna Café, therefore, is a popular place for people who are waiting for things to happen in the gallery. They are mostly locals waiting for a movie to start or a concert to begin. Many are men and women who have just finished a shop in the galleries and are resting over a coffee before heading back home. It’s a slice of everyday life in a truly stunning location.

Art Movements of the Early 20th Century as Seen through Café Interiors

Of all the Prague Cafés, Lucerna is the most different in architecture. The turn of the Century had seen significant shifts in taste and a strong desire to break away from tradition. Instead of the elegant, brightly lit Neo-Renaissance interiors of the other cafés, we get the bold lines of the Vienna Secessionist movement.

Art-Deco styled café interior with elaborate metal decorations and elegant wallpaper
Well behaved pets are treated as members of society and welcomed in this grand Prague Café. Note the architectural details behind the bar – including the ornate Art-Deco grate that looks like it’s from David Lynch’s Dune

The most notable features are the stately, polished wooden beams in the ceiling which are most unusual and make a grand statement. The Art Deco style, being so different from anything that had come before was a favourite of the secessionists. Café Lucerna is predominantly Art Deco, and you can see this in the lighting and the impressive grate over the bar.

Patrons in the Art-Deco café Lucerna in Prague
Café Lucerna is often visited by groups of locals who have come to Lucerna Palace to shop or watch a show

No natural light enters the bar, so it’s always lit artificially. This means the beautiful lamps are still the first thing one notices upon entry. In fact, it looks like a 1920s Jazz club always, no matter the time of the day. 

Why We Recommend Café Lucerna?

I’m a big Art Deco/Art Nouveau fan, and I’ve been on a few tours taking me to many places with really fascinating interiors, but Café Lucerna is one of the best. It feels like something right out of a period movie. If you are into art from this time period, you cannot miss Café Lucerna.

Striking heavy wood beams decorated with steampunk chandeliers
View from behind the bar – I particularly love how the lights are distributed across the wooden beams in the ceiling

Kavárna Obecní Dům

Perhaps the most impressive of the Prague cafés is Kavárna Obecní Dům. We visited this on Christmas Eve, when many other places were either closed or booked out. Luckily this place was still open because there were shows going on in the Municipal theatres, and it stayed open to serve the patrons.

The impressive Art Noveau entrance of the Prague Municipal House
The grand entrance to the Municipal House. Its Art Noveau exterior is crowned with a beautiful mosaic by Czech artist Karel Spillar, titled “The Apotheosis of Prague”. No less important is the intricate metal-work over the door, a great example from the Arts and Crafts movement

The municipal house itself is incredibly impressive. At its entrance, a beautiful Art Noveau Mosiac greets visitors as they enter. As for the café, its elegant and bright interior really made me feel like I had entered a palace.

Art and Architecture Inside the Municipal House

Before entering the café, we would recommend taking a wander around the interior. If you get a chance to catch a show in one of the ceremonial halls, you absolutely must. Not least because the ceilings have some incredible mosaics by the most exceptional Art Nouveau artist of all times – Alphonse Mucha.

Grand marble staircase leading up towards the concert halls of the Obecni Dum
Grand, red-carpeted stairs leading up towards the event halls of the Municipal House

The hallways of the building are expansive and spacious, giving one a sense of grandeur. To be honest, many public buildings in Prague are very grand – this is the Municipal House, so it is even more ambitious than most. The building is built on a triangular-shaped piece of land. Because of this, it has many odd twists and turns in its corridors.

The Architecture of the Kavárna Obecní Dům

I read that the mirrors which line one side of the main dining hall were a unique design feature at the time the café was installed.

The brightly lit interior of the Municipal House café
The brightly lit interior of the Municipal House café. Note the mirrors lining the right wall

Today, we’re used to having mirrors indoors to give the illusion of space; back then this was a genuine innovation. Some art critics attribute the mirrors of the Kavárna Obecní Dům at having influenced black light theatre, which entertains the audience through optical illusions. (I admit it’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s an amusing conclusion nonetheless.)

A marble stairway swooping down through a grand corridor
The stairs inside Obecní Dům sometimes twist at odd angles because of the inherent triangular shape of the building

Review of the Food at the Municipal Café

For food, this was my favourite café. The menu was traditional and not fussy. But although the dishes were simple, they were very well prepared. Like the other cafés there is a focus on regular meals. There was a choice of beef, veal, lamb or pork in gravy, served with either potatoes, croquettes or bread pudding.

The brightly lit and warm interior of the Municipal House café, one of the Prague cafés that were opened on Christmas eve
The Obecní Dům Café was packed with patrons on Christmas Eve

The only way to describe the food was that it was tasty. The meats were very tender, having incorporated all the gravy. The sides provided an excellent accompaniment and a means to transport the rest of the sauce into your mouth.

Beef steak with baked potatoes
Beef steak with roast potatoes
Lamb, coquettes and spinach
Goulash with bread dumplings
Goulash with bread dumplings

We ordered lamb, spinach and croquettes, goulash with bread pudding and beef steak with potatoes. They were all great, although I think my favourite was the lamb.

Cakes from the Grand Cafés of Prague

The Prague Cafés are mainly known for their cakes. Some of them have been immortalised in a collection of recipes from the grand cafés of Central Europe: Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Cafés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague

The Czech interpretation of a black forest cake is stuffed with cream and cherries
Black forest cake
The dessert cart at the Obecni Dum cafe
Dessert cart
A chocolate cake topped with lots of raspberries and filled with cream
Fruit and cream cake

We had a lot of cake on this trip. Unfortunately, we got too excited most times to remember to take photographs of the cakes before shoving them into our gobs. So we only have photos of these from the dessert cart from Kavárna Obecní Dům. It has around 10 – 15 different types of rich cakes falling mainly into two categories. Mostly creamy with fruits or nutty with chocolate. I’ve eaten a lot of cake in this part of the world and can say that the cakes here are representative of the cakes from the region. 

Wooden Art-Noveau curving stairway
An elegant curving staircase leads to the upper salons of the café

There are a few things that differentiate them. Firstly, the “sponge” part of the cake is at least 50% nuts. Cakes here were already on their way to being gluten-free a long time before it was even a thing. Secondly, if there are fruits on the cake, they are not decoration. They are part of the cake filling, at least an inch think on the top layer. Finally, they use as little sponge as necessary to hold the shape of the cake. This means you usually end up with a very rich, creamy cake which is far superior to their counterparts farther west.

The Prague Municipal house on a rainy night
The Obecní Dům, brightly lit at night, its lights reflected in the wet streets of Prague

Nejen Bistro

Before we flew over to Prague, we had booked several trendy restaurants to dine at. However, we didn’t make it to any of them except Nejen Bistro. (Unless you count Café Savoy, which is owned by Ambiente, a group that operates a number of these other restaurants.)

The elegant entrance to Nejen Bistro
The elegant entrance to Nejen Bistro

We did not make it to all those restaurants because many of them were not in the old town, and after a long day sightseeing, tramping too far from our hotel just didn’t seem worth it when there were so many great options right at our doorstep.

Open kitchen at Nejen Bistro
The open kitchen in the bistro where you can see the food being prepared

But, we did make it to Nejen Bistro and were glad we did. At least we got to try some modern Czech cuisine, and we were not disappointed. To be honest, I’m not sure if the food here is particularly Czech or a more general modern European Fusion style. Whatever the case is, it was excellent

The Food at Nejen Bistro

We ordered the daily fish, which came served in crab broth and brown butter, and “carrots on fire”.

Grilled fish with crab broth
Grilled fish with crab broth

The fish and carrots were cooked on their charcoal grill, where they also do most of their mains. The chef knows how to work the grill, I can tell you that. The food was cooked to perfection – caramelised and tender on the inside, nicely roasted on the outside.

Grilled sardines with a salad of sea plants
Grilled sardines with a salad of sea plants

I enjoyed the crab broth (which was more like a gravy than a broth) and thought it was a great combination. The dish with the carrots, I have to say, was once more the most inventive vegan meals I’ve had. It had a variety of different textures, which I loved. The roasted crunch of the carrots went nicely with the crunch cereal base, and there was a lovely smokey flavour over everything.

Top down table view of a hipster dinner in a Czech restaurant
Dinner at Nejen Bistro

Conclusion

Prague’s cafés are more than just places to have coffee or a meal. They are many pieces of living history we can all experience when we visit. Here, good food, history and a slice of everyday life come together to give a perfect impression of Prague as the cultural capital that it is. There are many more that we didn’t get to visit, but would love to the next time we return to Prague.