Taking the $57-a-Day Challenge in Prague
In 1991, the last time I set foot in Prague, it was the Czechoslovakian capital, and things were so cheap to a Western college student bearing hard currency that if you ordered an ice cream cone and didn’t like the flavor, you were tempted to throw it away and get another one. Beer by the half-liter cost pennies. The most prominent crowds downtown were not of tourists but political gatherings in Wenceslas Square during the early days of democracy.
Things have changed.
Stare Mesto, the Old Town, is not a frugal paradise. Swarovski crystal shops and restaurants selling overpriced Czech cuisine abound. Tourist crowds line up to pay 120 koruny, about $5.20, for scoops of ice cream plopped into the unholy offspring of a doughnut and a sugar cone known as a trdelnik. (Forget throwing it away, I wasn’t buying it in the first place.)
But the city is still a relative bargain. On a frugal-minded visit to what is now the capital of the Czech Republic, I decided to set my budget at the typical daily wage of a Prague resident, or at least what several online sources told me it was: 1,300 koruny, or about $57 a day.
Walking around Stare Mesto is free, as long as you bring a guidebook and are willing to eavesdrop in brief spurts on other people’s tour guides, as I did to hear about what the skeleton on the famed astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall stands for. (“I’ll give you a hint, it’s not gluttony.”) But most of the time, you’ll want to be out of there. Luckily, moving around Prague couldn’t be easier. A three-day transit pass on the official Litacka app cost me 310 koruny for Prague’s fantastic tram and subway system. With the pass on my phone and thus no need to validate tickets or go through turnstiles, it felt like a punctual, hygienic and omnipresent friend was constantly giving me a ride.
For lodging, my cousin Michael, a journalist based in Prague, suggested the Zizkov neighborhood, a once downtrodden and still not entirely uptrodden neighborhood across the train tracks east of downtown. That’s where I found Hostel Sklep, where I paid 538 koruny a night for a private room furnished in a style I’d call Pre-Ikea Austere. But it was comfortable enough, the shared bathroom clean enough, and the free breakfast met all five of my criteria for a great frugal meal: It was cheap, generously portioned, nongreasy, traditional and tasty, -thanks to fresh bread and a zesty egg spread called vajickova pomazanka that I loved.
But free and cheap will only get you so far in Prague. The city’s rich cultural attractions do not always cater to scrimpers. I found that out Day 1 at the Museum Kampa, a private modern art institution housed in a revamped mill complex on the Vltava River that weaves through the city. What began as a collection of works by exiled or persecuted Czech artists under Communism, now occupies galleries that meander off a staircase that leads up to a lookout above.
I cheaped out on the 270-koruny all-access ticket, and instead paid 100 koruny to see just the permanent collection. That was a mistake: it was totally unclear what was permanent and what was not, and no one spoke enough English to tell me. I wandered into galleries and was frequently ejected; by the time I found someone who I could communicate with (in French), she told me there were only two galleries included in my ticket and I’d already been to both. Apparently, word had spread among staff that a certain bumbling tourist had been too cheap to shell out for the whole museum.
From then on I set my cultural budget at 300 koruny a day, and did much better. Sure, you can enter the Prague Castle complex and wander around for free, even stepping a few feet inside the 14th century Cathedral of Saint Vitus. But my 250-koruny ticket got me inside the castle itself, as well as Golden Lane — tiny cottages nested within the castle’s exterior walls that were originally inhabited by archers and for a short time in the 20th century, by Franz Kafka. It also gave me full run of the Cathedral, to take in the eclectic 19th and 20th century stained glass and (more intriguing to me) a marvelous 17th century oak relief depicting Prague’s Old Town when it was four centuries less old. Another day, I shelled out 290 koruny for the Museum of Communism, which gives a colorful (if a bit snarky) history of a drab time.
Some places were still too expensive, so where I could, I substituted cheap activities for expensive ones, giving up the 15th century Jewish cemetery, (350 koruny, as part of entry to the Jewish Museum in Prague) for the New Jewish Cemetery (where a 20 koruny guide and map makes a walk through the vine-covered graveyard much more interesting). Opened in 1890 and with a striking gap in burials for several decades during and after World War II, the cemetery is best known as Kafka’s burial site. I approached his grave with low expectations, but ended up chatting there with a middle-aged Slovak who recalled for me how in his school days Kafka was underground literature. (The author’s work was banned until 1989.)
A 20-koruny visit to the Blesi Trhy Praha, which translates as Prague Flea Market, and a free stroll through Sapa, Prague’s Vietnamese market, which resembles a cross between a warehouse and a strip mall, kept me largely under budget. I say “largely” because, well, the beer in Prague is really good.
On two of my four nights in town, I did break the cap by not stopping at one (or two) extra-crisp Czech pilsners, an overdraft that I feel most beer-worshipping Prague residents would understand and approve. My cousin Michael certainly did, as he took me out for “a” beer on a Monday night that turned into four or five starting at the Prague Beer Museum with its large (but not cheap) selection of Czech beers and wound to U Sudu, an underground labyrinth of high-arched brick ceilings and packed with beer-drinking students, a few of whom we dragged into 20-crown games of foosball. I commented on how the place was surprisingly full late on a weeknight. “You never know what’s going to happen in Prague,” Michael said. “Sometimes Monday nights are the best nights.”
Another night, one beer turned into three at Vinohradsky Pivovar, a highly regarded brew pub (disclaimer: Michael’s friends are part-owners). I loved the pilsner there so much that for the first time I can remember, I voluntarily drank it even though an IPA was available.
I should note that I also occasionally ate well on the cheap. I kept snack spending to a minimum by packing Tatranky bars, old-fashioned chocolate-covered wafers, that cost me five to 10 koruny at the supermarket. Pulling them out of my pocket turned out to be a neat party trick, evoking double-takes from Czechs surprised to see a foreigner eating a childhood favorite. It was more or less how I would react coming across a group of Chinese tourists in Times Square unwrapping Ding Dongs.
Aside from a couple of bargain Vietnamese meals at the market, I stuck with Czech cuisine throughout. A cafeteria-style restaurant, Havelska Koruna, was amazingly located right in Stare Mesto. There’s a slight markup for the location, and a 39-crown add-on if you can’t resist the fruit dumpling topped in creamy sauce, but it was still a great deal. Czechs were tickled I ate there as well. “That’s where we used to go when we were younger and had a hangover,” said Kristyna Pekarkova a Prague native who I met through Michael. She is 24.
The best bargain meal I had — easily satisfying all five frugal criteria — was the glistening quarter-duck stuffed with potato dumplings at U Bansethu. And the most unexpected was at Dejvicka Nadrazka, a place several Czech friends told me I “had to” go because it was one of the city’s last restaurants housed in a train station.
I invited the Prague-dwelling beer expert (and New York Times contributor) Evan Rail to join me there for lunch. When I arrived, he told me my Czech friends must have been playing a practical joke, for this was the diviest of dive bars, with a food menu limited to two kinds of sausages and a disc of marinated cheese. “My wife said, ‘What are you going to have for lunch, beer and zelene?” he said. (Zelene is a cheap peppermint liqueur.)
Actually, I think my friends had meant for me to go at night, when things are livelier and divier. But I kind of liked the daytime crowd, which included a man with a bushy white mustache reading the paper over a beer and a diminutive older woman wearing a red vest over a furry periwinkle sweater who struggled to hoist herself up onto a high bar chair. And the food actually turned to be pretty good: we ordered one of everything, 50 koruny for a hot sausage, 25 for a pickled one, and the cheese for 45.
Still, I felt I owed Evan a make-up, so we hopped a tram to the Holesovice neighborhood where I treated him to an espresso and dessert at Emil Gaigher cafe, a traditional spot serving goodies like medovy trojhranek, a triangular five-layer slice of cake held together with caramel and cream and topped with ground walnuts for a bargain 17 koruny, and a caramel coated cream puff called a vetrnik karamelovy for 24.
Taking the sausages and sweets together as a whole, the meal was greasy and sugary, but also traditional, cheap, delicious and filling. There’s no need to meet all five frugal requirements at every meal.
Seth Kugel is the former Frugal Traveler columnist and author of “Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious,” an informal philosophy of travel.
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