Difference between revisions of "Czech Republic"
Revision as of 11:21, 22 October 2012
The Czech Republic ,  or Czechia  is a small landlocked country in Central Europe, situated south-east of Germany and bordering Austria to the south, Poland to the north and Slovakia to the south-east.
The Czech Republic is not a large country but has a rich and eventful history. From time immemorial Czechs, Germans, Jews and Slovaks, as well as Italian stonemasons and stucco workers, French tradesmen and deserters from Napoleon’s army have all lived and worked here, all influencing one another. For centuries they jointly cultivated their land, creating works that still command our respect and admiration today. It is thanks to their inventiveness and skill that this small country is graced with hundreds of ancient castles, monasteries and stately mansions, and even entire towns that give the impression of being comprehensive artifacts. The Czech Republic contains a vast of amount of architectural treasure and has beautiful forests and mountains to match.
The Czech region was inhabited by Celtic tribe Boii for the first 4 centuries of the first millennium. The Celts gave way to post-Roman Germanic tribes. Later, Slavs arrived and, in the 9th century they founded the Great Moravian Empire, stretching from Germany to Ukraine. After fall of Great Moravia the Bohemian Kingdom was formed, creating a territorial unit almost identical to the modern Czechia. The rise of the Habsburgs led to Czechia becoming a part of the Austrian Empire, and later Austria-Hungary, and a massive influx of German immigrants.
After the First World War, the closely related Czechs and Slovaks of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire merged together to form the new nation of Czechoslovakia. During the interwar years, the new country's leaders were frequently preoccupied with meeting the demands of other ethnic minorities within the republic, most notably the Sudeten Germans and the Hungarians. A poor relationship with the German minority (20% of the overall population) was a particular problem that was capitalized on by Hitler and used as "rationale" for the dismemberment of the nation before the outbreak of WWII. The country was annexed and brutally occupied by Germany during the war.
After World War II, Czechoslovakia expelled most of its Germans by force and many of the ethnic Hungarians under direction of the Potsdam Conference. However, the nation was very blessed in the fact that it emerged from the war more or less physically intact as it avoided the fate of the massive air bombardments and invasions that leveled most of the historic neighboring cities in Germany, Austria, Poland and Belarus. The country fell within the Soviet sphere of influence and remained so by force until 1989.
In 1968, an invasion by Warsaw Pact troops ended the efforts of the country's leaders to liberalize Communist party rule and create "socialism with a human face". Anti-Soviet demonstrations the following year ushered in a period of harsh repression and conservatism within the party ranks. In November 1989, the Communist government was deposed in a peaceful Velvet Revolution.
On 1 January 1993, the country underwent a "velvet divorce" into its two national components, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Now a member of NATO (since 1999) and EU (since 2004), the Czech Republic has moved toward integration in world markets, a development that poses both opportunities and risks.
The Czech flag (see above) is the same one formerly used by Czechoslovakia, having been readopted in 1993.
Habits and Customs
Although the modern adjective bohemian refers to Bohemia, that usage was based on a broad stereotype and also a poor grasp of geography, so don't expect the Bohemians you meet to be nomadic or anti-conventional artistic/literary bohemians, or to see anything out of Puccini's "La Bohème". And no, Bohemian Rhapsody (its lyrics sprinkled with Italian and Arabic) is not a local anthem!
So the word Bohemia/Bohemian came from the name of the Celtic tribe Boii. The term Bohemian had ended up meaning more or less Czech by the end of the 19th Century with the awakening of Slavic nationalism. However, it was also used to refer to any inhabitant of Bohemia, including the vast number of Germans that used to inhabit the region until the end months of WWII.
Moravia and Czech Silesia
Moravia, along with Bohemia (the other half of the Czech Republic), was among the first regions of continental Europe to undergo the Industrial Revolution; however it did not experience the mass urbanisation of Bohemia. The region is therefore still home to gorgeous vineyards, orchards, fields full of "organic" produce, and filled with scenic mountain vistas and cute little villages. Even the regional capital, Brno, is renowned for its small town charm. There is an extremely extensive rail system, and the region contains historic factories such as Zbrojovka Brno (weapons) and the Baťa factory in Zlín (shoes).
The dialects of Czech spoken in Moravia are slightly different from those spoken in Bohemia, particularly in Prague. Moravians pride themselves on their dialect and learning a few stereotypical regionalisms may go down well (or terribly, depending on just what it is you think you're saying and what you end up saying).
The region's strategic location at the Moravian Gate (a pass through the imposing mountain ranges of Central Europe) has led to a confluence of a great amount of history.
The Czech Republic has 14 political regions which can be grouped in eight historical regions:
These are at least nine interesting cities selected to represent variety of Czech urban areas. For other exciting destinations, see the individual regions.
The Czech Republic is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented this treaty - the European Union (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union. This means that there may be spot customs checks but no immigration checks (travelling within Schengen but to/from a non-EU country) or you may have to clear immigration but not customs (travelling within the EU but to/from a non-Schengen country).
Please see the article Travel in the Schengen Zone for more information about how the scheme works and what entry requirements are.
Travel document requirements
For EU, EEA and Swiss nationals, passports and national identity cards only need to be valid for the period of their stay in the Czech Republic.
For all other nationals, passports/travel documents must be valid for a period of at least 90 days beyond the expected length of stay in the Czech Republic/Schengen Area.
Foreign nationals whose stay in the Czech Republic will exceed 30 days are required to register within 30 days on their arrival in the Czech Republic with the Alien and Border Police. In case you stay in a hotel or similar institution, the provider of the accommodation should arrange this registration for you.
Children inscribed in their parents´ passports are allowed to travel with their parents up to the age of 15. Once the child has reached the age of 15, a separate passport is necessary.
Visit this webpage of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic for more information on what constitutes a valid and acceptable travel document for the purpose of entering the Czech Republic.
Other international airports are in Brno (with flights to London, Moscow, Rome, Bergamo, Eindhoven and Prague), Ostrava (flights to Vienna and Prague), Pardubice, Karlovy Vary (flights to Moscow and Uherské Hradiště).
There are several low-cost airlines going to/from Prague (e.g. EasyJet from Lyon). Ryanair flies to Brno from London and Bergamo. Other nearby airports are Nuremberg (200 km) and Munich (320 km) in Germany, Vienna having a bus shuttle to Brno city (260 km to Prague, 110 km to Brno) in Austria, Wroclaw (200 km) in Poland (might be a good idea if you want to go to the Giant Mountains) and Bratislava (280 km to Prague, only 120 km to Brno) in Slovakia.
In order to transfer from Ruzyně Airport to the centre of Prague and beyond, you can take:
International bus service runs from many cities in Europe with direct connections from Germany, Poland, Netherlands, Slovakia, Switzerland, Austria etc. Good service is offered by Eurolines  and Student Agency . Cheap tickets from Poland are offered by PolskiBus .
International train service runs from most points in Europe with direct connections from Slovakia, Poland, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia; in summer also from Romania, Bulgaria and Montenegro.
EC trains operate every two hours from Berlin or Hamburg to Prague and Brno. Direct overnight sleeper car serves Cologne Frankfurt and Karlsruhe. Cheap tickets to Prague (and sometimes to Brno) are available at German Railways website , if bought in advance. The price begin at €19–39 for seat and €49 for couchette.
German Railways operate express non-stop buses every two hours between Nuremberg and Prague, fully integrated to German railway tariff. If you have an InterRail or Eurail pass, consider that these buses require compulsory reservation.
There are two daily trains from Nuremberg and two from Munich to Prague, but they are slower than the abovementioned bus, because of slow and curvy (although pictoresque) railway at southwestern Czech border. The cheapest way is a Bayern Ticket  (€21 for one person, €29 for group up to 5 people) to the Czech border combined with Czech domestic ticket (see #Cheap ticket combinations).
If you cross the border in a local train (not EC or EN), consider taking advantage of the Bayern-Böhmen-Ticket  or the Sachsen-Böhmen-Ticket . In the vicinity of the Czech-German-Polish three country border, you may profit from the unified fare of the ZVON transport system 
There is one direct EC train from Warszawa to Prague and other two to Ostrava, continuing towards Břeclav and Vienna. There are also direct sleeper cars from Warszawa and Kraków. The ticket for the daytime train costs €19–29, if bought at least three day in advance. For night trains there are is no such a cheap offer, but you can use a tricky combination, see #Cheap ticket combinations.
In local trains (not IC or EC), it is possible to buy a special cross-border ticket (Polish: bilet przechodowy) which is valid between the Czech and Polish (or vice versa) border stations and costs only CZK 15 or PLN 2. You can buy it from the conductor on the train (or completely ignore it if the conductor does not emerge before you reach the other border station, which happens) and combine it with domestic tickets of the two countries. In the vicinity of the Czech-German-Polish three country border, you may profit from the unified fare of the ZVON transport system: .
As parts of former Czechoslovakia, the trains between Czechia and Slovakia are frequent. EC trains operates every two hours from Bratislava to Prague and Brno, and from Žilina to Prague and Ostrava. There is one daily train from Banská Bystrica, Zvolen and Košice to Prague and Ostrava. All these cities have also a direct overnight sleeper car connection to Prague.
Regular oneway ticket to Prague costs €27 from Bratislava and €42 from Košice. There is a return discount of (roughly) 30% called CityStar. Slovak railways  also offer discounted online SparNight tickets in advance - e.g. the day train from Bratislava to Praha costs €15 and night train including couchette reservation from Košice to Prague €27.
Cheap tickets to Prague, Brno and Ostrava are available at Austrian Railways website , if bought at least 3 days in advance. The price begins at €19 for Vienna-Brno, €29 for Vienna-Prague and Linz-Prague.
If you cross the border in a local train (not IC, EC), you can take advantage of discounted return ticket EURegio .
Cheap ticket combinations
The full-price international tickets are quite expensive, so if no commercial discount fits your needs, you can combine domestic tickets to save money:
The border point names are:
The Gr. means a border point to distinguish them from stations with the same name.
IDOS  offers an exceptionally useful online timetable, that covers all Czech trains, buses and city transport and many train and bus lines abroad.
A cheap and excellent means of travelling between Prague and other major cities are the buses from Student Agency. These buses are usually a bit faster and cost less than the Czech trains (not considering discounts). On some routes (e.g. Prague to Brno) this is marginal, but on others such as Prague to Karlovy Vary or Liberec, there is no direct train connection so the buses are by far the best option. Usually, you do not have to book a seat but if you travel on Fridays or during holidays from or to Prague, it is recommended. You can reserve seats online at the Student Agency website, . Apart from this operator there are many other bus companies that link Prague and other cities and towns, even remote villages, regularly. Most buses leave Prague from the central bus station at Florenc, but other major bus stations can be found at Na Knížecí (metro station Anděl), Černý Most, Zličín and Roztyly, all of which are located next to metro stations.
Local bus travel between small towns and surrounding villages is usually operated by companies named ČSAD (district name), a remnant of the nationwide state-run company Československá Autobusová Doprava from communist times. On local buses you simply tell the driver where you're going and pay him a fare as you get on.
Timetables for both local and long-distance bus travel are available on the IDOS website.
The Czech drivers may seem aggressive sometimes, especially in Prague, but it is far from "madness" as found in some southern Europe countries.
The Czech Republic is a zero tolerance country. It is illegal to drive a motor vehicle under the influence of any amount of alcohol, and violations are heavily punished.
In order to drive on the well-kept motorways, however, you need to purchase a toll sticker. These stickers cost CZK 310 for ten days (for vehicles lighter than 3.5 tonnes, price as of September 2012), but can be purchased for longer periods of time (1 month or a year). If you do not have a toll sticker on your car when you drive on the motorways, the fines can be very steep (CZK 5000 minimum).
Make certain that you purchase the correct toll sticker: there are those for vehicles under 3.5 tonnes in weight and those for vehicles between 3.5 and 12 tonnes. Vehicles larger than 12 tonnes in weight must use an on-board unit ("premid" unit) to pay tolls based on distance.
The condition of many roads is continually improving, but to be economical and fast, drive on the motorways as much as possible, although if you want to get to remote parts of the country you will not avoid side-roads that may be a little bumpy sometimes.
Speed limits in the Czech Republic are usually 130 km/h on motorways, 90 km/h off the motorways, and 50 km/h in towns. Petrol is inexpensive compared to the rest of Europe (CZK 37 / 1,40€), but it is expensive compared to the United States, as it is heavily taxed.
Traffic fines can usually be paid on the spot.
The use of headlights is mandatory at all times. Failure to have your lights on while driving may result in a police fine.
Trains in Czech Republic are operated mostly by state-owned company České Dráhy  (Czech Railways). In 2011 RegioJet (a subsidiary of Student Agency) began operating modernised trains between Prague and Ostrava.
The trains go even to the most remote locations of the Czech Republic and unlike buses, they usually operate regularly during off-peak hours and during weekends. However, outside the modernized main corridors, the standard of travelling is often the same as it was in the 1970's, and therefore it is quite time consuming to get to the provincial towns or villages, the trains tending to meander around the countryside.
The normal train ticket price can be discouraging (roughly CZK 1.40 per km), but Czech Railways (ČD) offer plenty of discounts. Return ticket gives you a 5% discount, and a group of travellers (even two travellers are considered as a "group") is treated roughly as "first person pays full price, others pay half price". Therefore ask for "skupinová sleva" (group discount) and/or "zpáteční sleva" (return discount).
For journeys between larger cities you can buy a discounted ticket called SporoTiket Česko , which is generally of the same price or even cheaper than bus. The earlier you buy it, the cheaper it is. The ticket isn't bound to particular train, only to a specific day and route. You'll buy it online (it is bound to your name and Passport/ID number) and print it yourself. You can buy these tickets directly at station counters too, but at least one day in advance.
The ČD e-shop offers also international e-tickets called SporoTiket Evropa , which are often much cheaper (sometimes more than twice) than tickets purchased at a train station. However there are limitations: only major destinations are subject to this discount, tickets cannot be used to travel to the Czech Republic, but only for one-way or return trips starting in the Czech Republic, they must be stamped by Czech conductor, purchased at least 3 days in advance, bound to the specific train and passenger name, they are non refundable and you must print them before the journey on your own printer.
Regular travellers can use a ČD loyalty card, called In-karta IN25 , for CZK 150 (3 months), CZK 550 (1 year) or CZK 990 (3 years). It offers a 25% discount for normal and return train tickets and 5–25% for the SporoTiket Česko. Its price will pay for itself quickly. You have to fill in an application form at the ticket counter and provide a photograph. You will get a temporary paper card immediately and start using the discount. After three weeks you will get a plastic chip card.
The complete list of discounts can be found at the ČD website .
There is an unofficial English page  about Czech train travel tariff, but not quite up to date. And consider a calculator of domestic  and international  ticket prices. It uses same system as cash desks at train stations, so its interface can be a bit user-unfriendly for a newbie.
If you travel in a group on weekends, you can use a daily pass SONE+ for unlimited travelling on Saturday or Sunday. It is valid for group up to 2 adults and 3 children. The pass is valid in all trains including IC and EC, but in SC you need a compulsory reservation. The whole-network variant costs CZK 600 and regional variant costs CZK 200 to 275. Buying online and printing the ticket yourself gives you a small discount of 3% and you'll avoid the queue at the station.
Although many train stations were repaired and modernized, the rest is still like a trip back in time to the communist era. There is no need to be afraid but try to avoid them in the late night hours. Trains are generally safe (there are regular police guards assigned for fast trains) and very popular mean of transport and they are widely used both by students and commuters. Therefore especially the principal rail axis Praha-Pardubice-Olomouc-Ostrava is crowded during peak times (Friday and Sunday afternoon) and seat reservation is recommended.
Prague has a pretty good network of local trains connecting it with suburbs and surrounding cities called Esko (S-Bahn). The Prague public transport tickets (e.g. CZK 32 for 90 minutes) are valid on these trains (Os and Sp category) for travel within the area of Prague.
Taking bikes or pets on the train
The basic ticket for bike costs CZK 25 for one train or CZK 50 for whole day. You load and unload your bike by yourself. Long-distance trains (with suitcase symbol in timetable) have a luggage wagon, where the train staff will care of your bike, but the ticket costs CZK 30 for one train or CZK 60 for whole day. Some trains (with squared bike or suitcase symbol in timetable) require compulsory reservation for bikes for CZK 15 at counter or CZK 100 at train staff.
Smaller pets in cages or bags may travel for free. Bigger dogs must have a muzzle and must be on a leash. Prices are CZK 15 one train or CZK 30 for whole day.
The Czech Republic is an excellent place for cycling. There are lots of pleasant country lanes, cycling marked paths and picturesque villages along these paths (always with a pub...), it's easy to find the way, and the trains have bicycle racks in the baggage section for when you get tired. Try cycling in South Moravia region (close to Austrian borders) where you can find dozens of well-marked paths that will lead you through beautiful countryside full of vineyards, vine cellars and colourful villages.
Also border mountains (Krkonoše, Šumava, Jeseníky etc.) are more and more popular among mountain-bikers. There are usually no fences along the trails but always keep to the roads or marked cycling paths here as these mountains are National Parks/Reserves and you can be fined if you cycle "off the beaten track".
CzechCycling.info  is a non-profit website with cycling information for Prague and surrounding areas. Good source is also Mapy.cz  - switch the map (via Změnit mapu - Turistická) to see cycling routes in violet color.
In addition to walking in the cities, there are a great number of hiking paths and scenery-rich trails going through the Czech Republic's forests and natural areas, and the Czech Tourist Club (Klub českých turistů)  has mapped and marked these trails so that walkers can easily locate and navigate thousands of kilometres of scenic paths, in fact it is probably the best maintained system of marking in Europe. You can buy maps of their paths on their website , or in the Czech Republic in most bookstores, tobacco shops or museums (green maps, marked with the organization's symbol and the words EDICE TURISTICKÝCH MAP KČT 1:50000  at the top). These maps are based on military maps and very accurate. It's also possible to go by train to a small village at the edge of a forest and find the on-site map of the surrounding area, and four possible paths will be visible, marked in red, yellow, green, and blue nice tourist maps . Nearby such a map will be a set of directing signs, usually posted to a tree, pointing the initial direction on any of the coloured paths. The path's colour will be marked on trees throughout the path: three short horizontal bars, the outer two white and the innermost the colour of the path you're on. This symbol at times will appear as an arrow, indicating a turn. Bus and train stops will also be indicated on signs. You can also register to become a member  of the Czech Tourist Club, where you can camp for 30–50 Kč a night in cottages  around the Czech Republic.
Hitchhiking is very common and some drivers stop even on places where they shouldn't.
Take care to use very a clear gesture with the thumb pointing upwards. A gesture looking like you are pointing to the ground may be mistaken for prostitution solicitation.
As a word of advice, if you are hitch-hiking through the Czech Republic from the south to the German town of Dresden, never go to or past Prague unless you are in a ride going all the way to Dresden. Prague itself has no major and continuous beltway, so residents of the area must maneuver a ring of major and local roads to get around the city from south to north. Therefore the great majority of traffic you will encounter is going into the city. Past Prague, the previously major highway turns into a two-lane mountain road through local villages, in which again, the great majority of traffic is local and international travelers are hesitant to stop.
Try a letter-sized (A4) piece of paper with the destination written on it so it is clearly visible where you would like to go. See some other Tips for hitchhiking.
By thumb with pet
It is possible to hitch-hike with smaller dog, although "waiting time" will be longer. Expect another dog in the car.
The main language spoken is, not surprisingly, Czech. The Slovak language can also be often heard, as there is a sizable Slovak minority and both languages are mutually intelligible. Czech people are very proud of their language, and thus, even in Prague you will not find many signs written in English (outside of the main tourist areas). Many older people, especially outside the large cities, are also unable to converse in English, so it's good to learn some Czech or Slovak before your arrival. However, most young people speak at least some English, as it has been taught in most schools since 1990.
Most Czechs speak a second and often a third language. English is the most widely known, especially among younger people. German is probably the most widely spoken second language among older people. Russian was taught very extensively under communist rule, so most people born before c. 1975 speak at least some Russian (and often pretty well). However the connection with the communist era and the Soviet led invasion in 1968 (as well as today's Russian-speaking criminal gangs) has given this language some negative connotations. It is also not very useful with younger people, as it is not, despite the common misconception, mutually intelligible with Czech (beyond some similar words and simple sentences). Other languages, like French or Spanish, are also taught in some schools, but you should not count on it. People may also understand some basic words or simple sentences in other Slavic languages (Polish, Serbo-Croatian, etc).
The Czech and Slovak languages are very difficult for English-speakers to grasp, as they, like their sisters, can be tongue-twisting languages to learn (especially Czech) and take time and practice to master, especially if you're not really familiar with the other Slavic languages, including Russian. However, if you can learn the alphabet (and the corresponding letters with accents), then pronunciation is easy as it is always the same - Czechs and Slovaks pronounce every letter of a word, with the stress falling on the first syllable. The combination of consonants in some words may seem mind-bogglingly hard, but it is worth the effort!
The Czech language has many local dialects, especially in Moravia. Some dialects are so different that they can be sometimes misunderstood even by a native Czech speaker from a different region. However all Czech people understand the standard Czech (as spoken in TV, written in newspapers and taught in schools) and should be able to speak it (but some are too proud to stop using their local dialect). Some of them are even unable to speak standard Czech but write it correctly.
Czechs have different writing style, and the Slovak language is softer. The vocabulary is similar, with occasional words not understood. The younger generation born after the dissolvent of Czechoslovakia are growing apart and have problems to understand each other.
The currency of the Czech republic is the koruna (crown), plural koruny or korun. The currency code CZK is often used internationally, but the local symbol is Kč (for Koruna česká). 1 koruna is made up of 100 haléř (haléřů), abbreviated to hal., but coins are only issued in whole koruna values from October 2008 on.
The exchange rate is approximately 25Kč = €1, 30Kč = £1 GBP, 20Kč = $1 (US), or 16Kč = $1 (Canadian). As of 5 April 2012, €1 = 24,66Kč (Google).
Coins are issued in 1Kč, 2Kč, 5Kč (all stainless steel), 10Kč (copper-colored), 20Kč (brass-colored) and 50 Kč (copper-colored ring, brass-colored center). Notes are issued in
Some major stores (mainly bigger chains) will accept Euros, and it's also fairly common for accommodation providers to quote the price in Euros. At shopping areas along the Austrian border and petrol stations in the whole country change is given in Euros, but supermarkets and similar stores in downtown Prague (and probably other cities) return only Kč, even though they accept €.
Never exchange money on the street. Also, if you're in Prague, don't exchange it in the banks. The "real" exchange rate you should be looking for can be found here . There is no "black market" with better rates, but there is a good chance you'll end up with a roll of worthless paper. Be very careful when you are exchanging money at a small exchange kiosk. They try to use tricks in order to give you a bad exchange rate. Ask for the total amount you will get and recompute it by yourself. Do not trust "0% commission" in big letters signs (often there is an "only when selling CZK" amendment in small letters, and buying CZK still includes a commision). On this  website you can get good overview of reliable exchange places and rates.
Generally, exchange offices on the airport, rail stations and main tourist streets do not offer a good rate. Local people exchange money in exchange offices in less frequented areas, such as around the "Politických vězňů", "Opletalova" or "Kaprova" streets. In some cases, one can get a better rate by using ATMs instead of changing cash.
Major stores throughout the country accept Visa and EC/MC, as do all the tourist stores in Prague.
Czech Republic has an excellent and sophisticated system of trail blazing, marked trails are about everywhere. Choose an area, buy a hiking map for the area (best brand is "Klub českých turistů", 1:50000 military based maps covering the whole country, available in most large bookstores) and go. Marked trails can also be seen on online maps .
Many places in the Czech Republic are great for swimming, and there are many designated public swimming areas (called koupaliště). A list of places suitable for swimming is available here: . However, be aware that in hot weather the quality of the water in some places can fall below EU standard regulations.
Although the Czech Republic is a land-locked country, it does have a lot of nudist/naturist beaches near lakes. A full list is available here: . Full nudity on other beaches is legal, but rare, and usually only happens in non-crowded places.
Tipping is a standard 10%, and is not normally added to the bill. Don't be confused by the percentage figures listed at the bottom of the bill - by Czech law, a receipt must show the VAT paid (20% in most cases) - the VAT is already included in the final amount, and you should add 10% to this. It is normal practice to give the waiter the tip before you leave the table. Tip is not obligatory - if you weren't satisfied with services offered, don't bother tipping.
In a vast majority of better restaurants located in major cities you can pay by credit card (EC/MC, VISA), but don't be surprised if a few will not accept them. Make sure to check the door for respective card logos when entering the restaurant or ask the waiter before ordering. Czechs sometimes use special meal tickets (stravenky) to pay in some restaurants - these are tax-preferred and subsidised by employers. You won't get these tickets unless you get a job in the Czech Republic, just don't be surprised when you see them.
Traditional local food
Traditional Czech food is hearty and suitable after a hard day in the fields. It is heavy and quite fatty, and is excellent in the winter. In the recent time there was a tendency towards more light food with more vegetables, now the traditional heavy and fatty Czech food is usually not eaten everyday and some people avoid it entirely. However nothing goes as well with the excellent Czech beer as some of the best examples of the traditional Czech cuisine, like pork, duck, or goose with knedlíky (dumplings) and sauerkraut.
A traditional main meal of a day (usually lunch) consists of two or three dishes. The first dish is hot soup (polévka). The second dish is the most important part, very often based on some meat and side-dish (both served on the same plate). The third, optional part is either something sweet (and coffee) or small vegetable salad or something similar.
Czech cuisine knows many different kinds of soup (polévka). The most common are bramboračka - potato soup (sometimes with forest mushrooms), hovězí vývar - clear beef soup (sometimes s játrovými knedlíčky - with liver dumplings), gulášovka - thick goulash soup, zelňačka - thick and sour cabbage soup, česnečka (strong garlic soup, very healthy and tasty, but do not eat this before kissing), kulajda - thick soup with forest mushrooms and milk, hrášková polévka from young green peas, čočková polévka from lentils, fazolačka from beans, rajská polévka - tomato soup, and many others. A special case not to everyone's tastes is dršťková polévka (tripe soup). Rybí polévka - thick fish soup made from carps (including its head, some innards, roe and sperm) is the traditional soup of the Christmas Dinner.
Some soups are eaten with bread, sometimes small croutons are put inside the soup just before eating. Soup can be also eaten as the only dish, especially for a smaller dinner.
The second dish (main course, hlavní jídlo) of a meal is (in the traditional cuisine) often the famous heavy and fatty part, very often based on pork, but also beef, chicken, duck, or other meat. Important part of most main courses is side-dish (the whole dish including the side-dish is served on one plate) - usually cooked or baked potatoes, fries, rice, pasta or the most typical side-dish of the Czech cuisine - knedlíky.
Knedlíky (usually translated as dumplings) come in many different kinds. Most kinds are used as side-dish, however some kinds with filling are used as dish by itself. The most common type, always used as side-dish, are houskové knedlíky (bread dumplings). These are cooked in a shape of a cylinder, which is then cut into round slices about 8 cm in diameter remotely resembling white bread. Houskové knedlíky are served with Czech classics such as guláš, similar to Hungarian goulash but with a thinner sauce and less spicy; Svíčková na smetaně, beef sirloin with a creamy root vegetable (carrot, celeriac, parsnip) sauce, served with a tablespoon of cranberry sauce, a slice of orange and whipped cream; Vepřová pečeně se zelím a knedlíkem locally named as Vepřo-knedlo-zelo, the combination of roast pork, knedlíky and sauerkraut. The latter combines very well with the world-famous Czech beer, the major brands being Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Budvar, Staropramen, Velkopopovický Kozel and Krušovice. If you are lucky enough to enter a pub serving Svijany, you should definitely order it, as it is believed to be one of the most delicious brands worldwide.
Another common kind is bramborové knedlíky (potato dumplings), the slices are smaller, more yellow in color, and are also always served as a side-dish. A typical combination is roasted meet (pork or lamb for example) with spinach and bramborové knedlíky or duck with sauerkraut and bramborové knedlíky (or combination of bramborové and houskové knedlíky). Less common are chlupaté knedlíky (hairy dumplings, but there are no hairs, don't panic), which are not sliced but cooked in shape of balls. They are also usually served with roasted meat and either sauerkraut or spinach.
Other Czech dishes include pečená kachna, roast duck again served with bread or potato dumplings, and red and white sauerkraut; moravský vrabec, known as 'Moravian Sparrow', but which is in fact pork cooked in garlic and onions; smažený kapr, fried carp breaded and served with a very rich potato salad and eaten on Christmas Eve; pečené vepřové koleno, roast pork knee, served with mustard and fresh horseradish; bramborák, garlicky potato pancakes; smažený sýr, breaded deep-fried edam (the most popular cheese in the Czech Republic) served with boiled potatoes or french fries and tartar sauce; párek v rohlíku, long, thin hot dogs with crusty rolls and mustard or ketchup. If you must, you can always get hranolky - french fries. And of course, the ubiquitous zelí (raw cabbage), which is served with absolutely everything. Game is also very good, and includes dishes such as kančí, wild boar, bažant, pheasant and jelení or daňčí, both types of venison. These are almost always served either with dumplings and red and white cabbage, or as guláš.
Don't expect a wide selection of zelenina, vegetables, unless in the countryside - peppers, tomatoes and cabbage are the most commonly-seen side dishes, often served as a small garnish.
Visitors may be surprised when they find "American potatoes" in the menu. These are actually potato wedges, usually spiced.
Meals You Usually Do Not Get in a Restaurant
Generally, probably the best place to really try the Czech cuisine is to be invited for such a meal to somebody's home. However, it is not so easy, because people today tend to prepare simpler and more international foods. Traditional Czech cuisine is often reserved to Sundays or some holidays or prepared by old grandma when her children visit her. This is not a rule, but it is a common situation. In common restaurants, even the better ones, the traditional Czech food usually does not match what the old grandma serves. This does not mean that the food is bad or not tasty, but it is missing something that the home preparation can provide. In luxurious restaurants specialized in Czech cuisine, the food can be excellent, but the luxurious style and creative improvements by the chef often do not match the style of the traditional folk cuisine. Again, this is not a hard rule. Sometimes you can compliment the food in a restaurant "As if my grandma prepared it."
There are some dishes that are usually not served in any restaurants or pubs, are usually made at home and are worth trying if you have the opportunity. Brambory na loupačku ("potatoes to be peeled") is a cheap and simple meal usually made in the countryside. Whole unpeeled potatoes are cooked in a big pot and put in the pot itself or a bowl on the table. You just take a hot potato from the pot, peel it yourself, put some salt, butter, and/or curd (tvaroh) on it and eat it. Drink it down with lot of cold milk. For such a simply meal it can be incredibly tasty, especially when eaten in the countryside after a day spent outside and chatting over it.
Picking mushrooms in forests is a very popular activity in the Czech Republic. Probably not surprisingly, collected mushrooms are eaten then. In restaurants, usually only cultivated mushrooms are used. If forest mushrooms are served in a restaurant, then usually only as a minor addition to a meal. Homemade mushroom meals are a completely different story. A classic example is Smaženice (the name is based on the verb 'smažit' - to fry), also known as míchanice (to mix) - forest mushrooms, the more kinds the better, are sliced to small pieces, mixed and stewed (with some fat, onion, and caraway). Later, eggs are added to the mixture. Smaženice is served with bread. Smažené bedly are whole caps of parasol mushrooms coated in breadcrumbs and fried. Černý kuba (literally black jimmy) is a traditional Christmas fasting meal made from dried mushrooms and peeled barley. Houbová omáčka (mushroom sauce), served with meat and bread dumplings is also popular. Fresh or dried mushrooms make also a nice addition to bramboračka s houbami (potato soup with mushrooms). Kulajda is a soup from mushrooms and cream. Soups and sauces are the most likely forest mushroom meals to find in a restaurant, because they contain relatively small amount of mushrooms.
If you want to pick mushrooms by yourself, be careful. There are hundreds of species, some of them very tasty, some merely edible, but some poisonous or even deadly. There is also a species used as a hallucinogenic drug. A tasty and edible species may look very similar to a deadly species. If you do not know mushrooms very well, you should be accompanied by an experienced mushroom-picker.
Also try traditional beer snacks, often the only food served in some pubs (hospoda, pivnice), and designed to be washed down by a good beer:
If you want a warm, bigger, and more complicated meal which goes excellently with beer, get some of the typical Czech meals based on fatty meat (pork, duck, or goose) with sauerkraut and knedlíky (dumplings). Another excellent option is a whole pork knee with horseradish and bread (ovarové koleno s křenem).
Czechs like sweets but consumer patterns are different compared to France, USA or the UK. As everywhere some traditional treats have become a mass-market production for tourists, others are pretty difficult to find.
On the street
Try also the wide variety of rich cream cakes usually found in a Kavárna (a cafe), or a Cukrárna (a shop which sells all things sweet together with ice cream and drinks, found throughout the Czech Republic and often the only place open in small towns and villages on Sundays). Czech cakes are similar to their Viennese cousins due to the shared history of both countries under the Austro-Hungarian empire. Sample also Vídeňská káva (Viennese coffee), coffee served with a mountain of whipped cream.
Finding a vegetarian meal in the Czech Republic is not as difficult now as it once was. In tourist areas at least, such as Prague and the Bohemian Paradise, most restaurant menus contain a vegetarian meals category (bezmasá jídla or vegetariánská jídla) with 2-3 options. People may have their own interpretation of 'vegetarian' though, and it is not uncommon to find dishes such as "broccoli bacon" or prawns listed under "vegetarian meals". In traditional restaurants the choice in vegetarian food is usually limited to fried cheese, dumplings (knedlíky), omelette, potatoes (cooked, baked, fried or as 'potato pancakes') and sometimes a Greek salad or cooked vegetables. Be advised that vegetables practically always have to be ordered separately, even if they appear to be part of the dish: e.g. the vegetables listed in a menu option called "potato pancakes with vegetables" are most likely a garniture consisting of a few leaves of lettuce and a slice of tomato.
Bigger towns have foreign cuisine restaurants, mostly Italian and Chinese, which can serve you meat-free dishes such as vegetarian pasta.
The Czech Republic is the country where modern beer (pivo in Czech) was invented (in Plzeň). Czechs are the heaviest beer drinkers in the world, drinking about 160 litres of it per capita per year. Going to a cosy Czech pub for dinner and a few beers is a must!
The best-known export brands are Pilsner Urquell (Plzeňský Prazdroj), Budweiser Budvar (Budějovický Budvar) and Staropramen (freely translateable as "Oldspring"). Other major brands which are popular domestically include Gambrinus, Kozel (goat), Bernard (a small traditional brewery, with very high quality beer), Radegast, and Starobrno (made in Brno, the capital of Moravia). Other fantastic beers worth tasting are Svijany and Dobřanská Hvězda. Although many Czechs tend to be very selective about beer brands, tourists usually don't find a significant difference. And remember, real Czech beer is only served on tap – bottled beer is a completely different experience. High-quality beer can almost certainly be found in a hospoda or hostinec, very basic pubs which serve only beer and light snacks. Take a seat and order your drinks when the waiter comes to you - going to the bar to order your drinks is a British custom! But beware, the handling of the beer is even more important than its brand. A bad bartender can completely ruin even excellent beer. Best bet is to ask local beer connoiseurs about a good pub or just join them.
Beers are sometimes listed by their original sugar content, which is measured in degrees Plato (P/°). The difference is generally apparent in the final alcohol content. Normal beer is about 10° (such as Gambrinus and Staropramen, which results in 4% ABV), lager 12° (such as Pilsner Urquell, which results in about 4.75% ABV). The latter is stronger and more expensive, so you should specify which one you want when you order.
Czech lager is nothing like the fizzy lagers found in many other countries. Instead, it has a very strong, hoppy, almost bitter flavour, and goes very well with heavy dishes like duck or pork and dumplings or strong cheeses. It always has a thick head on the top when it is served, but do not be afraid to drink "through" it, it is fun and it slowly disappears anyway, nevertheless do not drink the beer too slowly as the fresh cold taste (especially in hot summers) quickly fades – the "true" Czech connoisseurs do not even finish this "tepid goat," as they call it.
Wine (víno in Czech) is another popular drink, particularly wine from Moravia in the south-eastern part of the country where the climate is more suited to vineyards. White wines tend to be the best as the growing conditions are more favourable for them. For white wines, try Veltlínské zelené (Green Veltliner), Muškát moravský (Moravian Muscatel), Ryzlink rýnský (Rhine Riesling) or Tramín (Traminer), or red wines such as Frankovka (Blaufrankisch), Modrý Portugal (Blue Portugal, named after the grape, not the country), or Svatovavřinecké (Saint Lawrence). Also try ice wine (ledové víno) made when the grapes are harvested after they have frozen on the vines, or straw wine (slámové víno) made by leaving the grapes to ripen on straw) – these wines are more expensive and are similar to dessert wines. Bohemia Sekt is also popular with Czechs, and is an inexpensive sweet, fizzy wine, similar to Lambrusco, and drunk at celebrations. The best places for wine are either a wine bar (vinárna), or a wine shop (vinotéka) which sometimes has a small bar area too.
For spirits, try Becherovka (herb liqueur, similar to Jagermeister, tastes of a mixtures of cloves and cinnamon, and drunk as a digestive), slivovice (plum brandy, very popular as a pick-me-up), hruškovice (pear brandy, less fiery than Slivovice), and so on. Spirits are made out of almost every kind of fruit (Plums, Peaches, Cherries, Sloes, etc.). Czech unique tuzemský rum (made from sugar beet, not from sugar cane as the Cuban rum, sold under brands like Tuzemák to conform with EU market rules). Be careful as all are about 40% alcohol.
For non-alcoholic drinks, mineral waters are popular, but tend to have a strong mineral taste. Try Mattoni, or Magnesia, both of which taste like normal water and still claim to be good for your health. If you want bubbles, ask for perlivá. If you want it non-carbonated, ask for neperlivá. Sometimes you can see jemně perlivá – it is "lightly bubbled" water. Kofola, a coke-like drink is also very popular, and some Czechs say it is the best thing the communists gave them. Many restaurants don't make any difference between "sparkling water" and "sparkling mineral water".
Restaurants and pubs do not offer water for free. Not surprisingly, as beer is the national drink, it is usually the cheapest drink you can buy, with prices ranging from 15–60 Kč (0,50–2 EUR) per half litre, depending on the attractiveness of the pub to tourists. Drinks are brought to your table, and often each drink is marked on a small slip of paper which is kept on the table in front of you, so you can keep count of what you have had. When you are ready to leave, ask the waiter for the bill – he or she will calculate the bill according to the number of marks on the paper. It is common to share tables in busy pubs and Czech people will ask Je tu volno? (Is this seat free?), before they sit down.
Try also svařák, hot mulled wine served in all pubs, and outdoors at Christmas markets, grog, hot rum and water served with a slice of lemon - add sugar to taste, and medovina, mead, again usually served hot, and particularly good for warming up at a cold winter market. Finally, if you are heading into Moravia, try burčák, a speciality found only around the end of the summer, or early autumn. It is extremely young wine, usually white, and is the cloudy, still fermenting stage in wine production when the wine is very sweet, and very smooth to drink. It continues to ferment in the stomach, so the alcohol content at the time of drinking it is unknown, but it is usually high, creeps up on you, and it is very moreish. Czechs say that it should only be drunk fresh from the vineyard, and many small private wine makers are passionate about it, waiting up into the night for the moment when the wine reaches the "burčák" stage. You can see it at wine festivals around the country, and sometimes in markets or wine bars too.
Grocery stores do not sell what Americans consider over-the-counter drugs, such as aspirin. You will need to go to a pharmacy (lékárna), which is usually open between 8AM and 7PM, Mondays to Fridays. There are 24-hour pharmacies in the bigger cities, and you should find an address for the closest one to you listed in the window of the nearest pharmacy to you. If you are in Prague, the most central 24-hour one is in Prague 2 - on the corner of Belgická and Rumunská streets - they dispense both prescription and non-prescription drugs from a small window on Rumunská out of hours - ring the bell if there is no-one there.
Tap water is good, especially in Prague although in small towns, the chlorine can be quite strong.
A reputable hospital in Prague is Nemocnice na Homolce, Address: Roentgenova 37/2, Prague 5 (tel 257 272 350). There is a foreigners' clinic (Cizinecké oddělení) there with English-speaking receptionists who can make appointments for you. Most doctors speak some English, and the level of care is of a very high standard.
Central Europe and parts of the Czech Republic have ticks (Ixodes ricinus) which can carry Encephalitis or Lyme Borreliosis. Ticks hide in grass and bushes, so try to stay on trails and inspect exposed areas of skin after a hike. Vaccination against Encephalitis is available and recommended. If you want to bushwhack, make sure you have the vaccination and wear long trousers. A good insect repellent (which contains DEET), might be helpful, too. Ticks like to cling to any soft, warm, well-perfused areas of your body (undersides of knees and elbows, skin around ankles, groins, neck area, behind your ears etc.) and if not removed, they'll suck your blood until they grow about 1 cm big. Never try to scratch a tick off or pull it out, because damaging it can cause you a serious infection. The sooner the tick is removed, the smaller the chance of infection. Either ask a physician to remove a tick for you, or try to remove it by yourself: lubricate your finger with any greasy lotion and gently wag a tick from side to side until it wobbles free. Then flush it down the drain - never crush or burn it to avoid infection. Watch the affected spot: if you see a growing red spot developing there anytime during next several months, immediately visit your physician and tell him about that - you might have contracted Borreliosis. It is dangerous, but it can be easily treated with antibiotics during early stage. Be wary that American vaccination against Borreliosis most probably won't work against European strains (B. afzelii and B. garini). Note that ticks are sometimes present even in city parks, including Prague.
The Czech Republic, along with its neighbours Slovakia, Austria, Poland and Hungary, is part of Central Europe. Often in Western Europe and North America it is incorrectly referred to as an "Eastern-European" country, and most Czechs are very sensitive about this- many will even pre-empt the ignorance of some foreigners by asking "What part of Europe would you say the Czech Republic is in?" Get on their good side by answering "Central Europe", not Eastern!
Czechs don't appreciate when foreigners incorrectly assume that their country was part of the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire – both definitely false – although it was part of the Soviet Bloc and, until 1918, an Austro-Hungarian territory. Commenting about how "everything is quite cheap here" comes across as condescending about the country's economic status.
If you are knowledgable about the Czechoslovakian communist regime following the second world war, bear in mind that this is still a sensitive issue for many and that it is easy to upset people in discussions on the subject.
Czechs are one of the most atheist people in the world. This is true especially in large Bohemian cities. Don't assume that anyone you do not know believes in God or has a passion for Christianity. Respect that and your religion will also be respected.
Always say hello (Dobrý den) and goodbye (Na shledanou) when you enter and leave a small shop as it is polite.
While dining at a restaurant with a host's family it is customary for THEM to pick up the bill, the opposite of most Western standards. However don't assume they will - but also don't be surprised if they do.
When entering a Czech household, always remove your shoes. Czechs usually wear slippers or sandals when inside a house and never their outdoor shoes. Depending on how traditional the host family are, they may insist you change immediately into house shoes as a hygiene precaution, though this is rare. At the very least they will offer you some to keep your feet warm.
Never mention the Czech towns and places with their former German names, when asking for directions (e.g. referring to Karlsbad instead of Karlovy Vary etc.) or while chatting with the locals. Czechs will be offended and they will regard it as ignorance and a lack of respect towards themselves.
The vast majority of Moravians will take no offence to being called Czechs, and consider themselves to be both. If you are attempting to speak Czech, beware of the complexities and slight differences between the terms Čechy (Bohemia) and Česko (Czechia). Much like a Welshman would raise an eyebrow over his country being called England, using the term Čechy (Bohemia) to refer to the entire Czech Republic may not be appreciated by a Moravian. Since there are no mainstream separatist movements in Moravia, and there is definitely no ethnic conflict, it is infinitely more likely you'll be showered with kisses and plied with alcohol for simply making an attempt to speak Czech.
There are three main mobile phone operators using the GSM standard, their coverage is very good (except in some remote, mostly uninhabited areas). If you find using roaming with your own operator too expensive or you want to have a Czech phone number, you can buy an anonymous prepaid card from any of the three main operators. However, the pricing schemes are usually quite complicated and some investigation may be necessary to find the ideal solution (even with the prepaid cards, operators offer various schemes including various additional 'packages'). GPRS and EDGE is widely supported, 3G networks support is in its beginnings (O2, Vodafone and T-mobile, mostly in Prague). The fourth operator (U:fon) uses some custom standards and you have to buy special hardware from them.
There are still some telephone boxes available, but they are gradually vanishing since the advent of mobile phones. Some still accept coins, but most of them require special prepaid telephone card.
You can call emergency numbers from any phone for free (even without any card). The universal emergency number 112 is functional and you can use it, however you will reach only a telephone operator who will need to contact the real emergency service for you. To save precious time, it is best to call directly the service you need: 150 for firefighters, 155 for medical emergency, and 158 for state police.
Wifi is available in many restaurants and most cafés, especially in larger cities. In particular, all branches of Starbucks, KFC, Gloria Jeans Coffee and Costa Coffee offer free access. You may need to ask a waiter for the passphrase. There are also some hotspots available on the streets and some city quarters (for example in Prague) offer free wifi coverage for everyone. However such coverage is usually very slow and unreliable and you may need to create an account (using a web browser and the page it is automatically redirected to) to be able to use it. In most larger cities, there are also several internet cafés available.