Prague Shopping: 16 Distinctively Czech Products to Bring Home
Previously known mainly for its beer and ice-hockey (both for a very good reason), today's Czech Republic - and, primarily, its capital city Prague - is seen among the top European tourist destinations emerged following the breakup of the Soviet Bloc. A shooting ground for some Hollywood blockbusters (like "Mission Impossible"), Prague is a lure for architecture and history buffs, and can offer many other delights to those interested in finely-made and tasteful things. To learn which, check out this guide!
Image Courtesy of: Sarah Ackerman
1. Czech Porcelain
Compared to other Czech handicrafts, porcelain is relatively new. Thun, the first and best-known Czech porcelain manufacturer, was established in the town of Klášterec in 1794. The company is headquartered now in the village of Nová Role, near Karlovy Vary, where large deposits of white clay and other raw materials attracted so many porcelain makers that Karlovy Vary became known as “the capital of porcelain.” While Thun is justifiably famous, there are many other quality labels available in Prague shops. What you buy is a matter of taste, budget and intent – whether you want collectibles or durable kitchenware for everyday use. You will find plenty of both at Dana Bohemia, which carries the noted pink line of Thun products, as well as a large selection of pieces from Leander and Concordia, known for its Bernadotte relief set. A few steps away, the Original Bohemia shop offers a full collection of that label, and a large assortment of items from Český porcelán Dubí with the distinctive “blue onion” pattern. Dana Bohemia is located at Narodní 43, open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. - 7 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. - 7 p.m. Original Bohemia is at Perlová 10, open weekdays 9 a.m. - 6 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. Individual pieces start at 200 korunas, larger pieces at 1,000 korunas, and full sets typically range from 6,000 – 13,000 korunas.
2. Kovap Mechanical Toys
For more than 50 years, the Czech company Kovodružstvo Náchod, now better-known by the shortened name Kovap, has been turning out heirloom-quality mechanical toys. Marvels of craftsmanship, the trucks, buses, fire engines and construction and farm vehicles reflect high standards of design and production – there are 300 steps involved, from tin plate to finished product – as well as the countryʼs labor-intensive communist heritage. The most popular vehicles, for example, are not flashy racing cars but incredibly detailed wind-up tractors with rubber tires, four working gears (including reverse) and functional steering. Thereʼs also a full line of farm accessories: trailers, harrows, tilling and sowing machines. And while communism may have narrowed the manufacturersʼ world view, it did not entirely wipe out their humor and sense of whimsy. You can also find a vintage circus truck, hearse and cable car. Kovap toys show up in many souvenir and toy shops; for the best selection, try the Rocking Horse Toy Shop a few blocks from Prague Castle. Located at Loretanské náměstí 109/3, open seven days 9:30 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. Prices range from 295 – 1,995 korunas.
3. Bohemia Crystal
The pride of the Czech Republic, and rightfully so, glassmaking in Bohemia dates back to the 1200s. Over the intervening centuries, Czech craftsmen developed a reputation for turning out some of the finest glass products in Europe. Artisans from many countries came to perfect their skills at places like Střední Umeleckoprůmyslová Škola Sklářská in Kamenický Šenov, reputedly the oldest glassmaking school on the continent. Today, the array of blown glass, painted glass, engraved glass and cut crystal available in Prague shops is dizzying. At Moser, individual items start at 900 korunas; wine glass sets at 1,800 korunas; and bowls and vases at 2,500 korunas.
4. Designer Fabric Accessories
Pragueʼs vibrant arts community includes an impressive number of homegrown designers who have turned their talents to creating bright, bold departures from the usual gift shop fare. One of them is Babeta Ondrová, winner of an Elle Décor International Design Award for her imaginative use of colors and creative designs in a variety of accessories and household products. Her specialty is wallpaper, especially for childrenʼs rooms – beautiful to look at, though not very practical to take home as a souvenir. But visitors will find a delightful array of other products at her Lavmi shop, not far from the Palladium mall. Ondrová has applied her custom silkscreens to shirts, tote bags, place mats, bed linens, oven mittens, clock faces, fabric paintings and the covers of notebooks and diaries. Her aprons are particularly striking, done in modern, eye-catching patterns. “We try to be different,” says Ondrováʼs partner and sometime shopkeeper Jan Slovák. One look around the shop will show you how well theyʼve succeeded. Located at Trhlářská 18, open Monday – Friday 10 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. Aprons are 350 korunas, tote bags 450 korunas.
In every other country in the world, cubism was a style of painting. In Czechoslovakia, it went far beyond that, providing inspiration for architects and designers who adapted its principles to create everything, from signature buildings to distinctive kitchenware. Tourists and architecture buffs come from around the world to see sights like the cubist lamppost on Jungmannovo náměstí and the House of the Black Madonna in Old Town, which houses the Museum of Czech Cubism. Attached to the museum is Kubista, an upscale gift shop that allows you to take a classy piece of cubist design home with you. The selection ranges from large lamps and chandeliers to small picture frames, but the gems of the collection are the everyday items like cup and saucer sets, ceramic and porcelain boxes, glassware and vases. Done in bold patterns and striking shapes, they are both stylish and functional. Even among museum shops, Kubista is unique, an organic extension of a historic art movement. Located at Ovocní trh 19, open Tuesday – Sunday, 10 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. Individual pieces start at 395 korunas, sets at 1,495 korunas.
6. Bohemian Lavender
Botanicus is a rarity in the Czech Republic, a company that puts traditional material and practices to use to create refreshingly modern products. Founded in 1992 along the lines of an old-fashioned apothecary, Botanicus maintains large organic gardens where it grows a variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables that are used to make natural cosmetics and body care products. No less a personage than Prince Charles visited the Botanicus gardens when he toured the Czech Republic in 2002, where he talked organic farming and planted two trees. The centerpiece of the Botanicus product line is Bohemian lavender, a combination of strains selected and developed to thrive in local climactic conditions and yield a fragrant aromatic oil. On the shelves in this store you will find lavender lotion, oils, skin cream and shower gel, among other products. And if lavender isnʼt your favorite, just follow your nose to the dozens of other creams, oils, soap, candles and fragrances. Just watch for Chinese tourists, who regularly overrun the shop and stock up on items to sell back home. Located at Týn 3 in the Ungelt courtyard in Old Town, open daily 10 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. Individual items start at 125 korunas, gift packages at 350 korunas.
7. Personalized Objects d'Art
If you are around the Artěl gift shop in Old Town for any length of time, you will see a familiar sight: visitors who do a double-take as they walk in and realize that the life-size dog standing by the door is not real, then try to puzzle out exactly what it is. No one is prepared for the shop assistant to open a carefully concealed door on its back and show plenty of room inside a very clever suitcase. Or, if you prefer, a handbag. Local artists Lucie Mares and Marie Silondi turn out these highly original pieces, usually as custom orders. Give them a picture of your dog, and they will create an identical bag or suitcase. Another local artist, Janja Prokič, does something similar on a smaller scale, creating mesmerizingly lifelike bird pins. She is also happy to do custom orders, though there are far fewer avian pet owners – and the pins on display are usually captivating enough. While youʼre at Artěl, be sure to check out the original line of glassware designed by shop owner Karen Feldman, an American expat. Located at Celetná 29 (entrance around the corner on Rybná), open daily 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. Bird pins range from 4,700 – 6,700 korunas, depending on the size; dog bags are 25,000 korunas, midsized suitcase 75,000 korunas, full-size suitcase 100,000 korunas.
Puppet-making is more than a pastime in the Czech Republic. Itʼs a craft that dates back to the Middle Ages, first making a recorded appearance around the time of the Thirty Yearsʼ War. Czech puppeteers toured Europe in the 18th century, while at home puppet theater became a highly evolved art form, often with a political subtext during the turmoil of the 20th century. The National Marionette Theater in Prague stages a puppet production of Mozartʼs Don Giovanni that has been packing in crowds of tourists for years. What all this means for visitors is an astonishing variety of marionettes that make great gifts for kids, from small kitchen witches to whopping winged three-headed dragons. You will find one of the best selections at Pohádka in Old Town, which is not shy about attracting the tourist trade – there are plenty of commercial marionette characters like Popeye, Charlie Chaplain and the popular Czech icon Good Soldier Švejk. But alongside those are a charming selection of devils, angels, princesses and brides, dwarves, sprites and other fairy-tale characters in sizes well-suited for small hands. Located at Celetná 32, open daily 9 a.m. - 8 p.m. Prices vary by size, starting at 295 korunas for small figures and up to 4,995 for large ones.
9. Alice Abraham Clothing
If the Czech Republic seems stuck in another era, thatʼs because in many ways it is. The creaking, antiquated trams, crumbling infrastructure and limited selection on most supermarket shelves are testimony to a 40-year period of stagnation under the communists, when the country was closed to the Western world. This is also true of fashions; particularly in the winter, itʼs hard to find anyone on the street who isnʼt dressed in shades of black and grey. But a few progressive designers are brightening the scene, none more than Alice Abraham, whose shop in the Lucerna shopping complex near Wenceslas Square is a pastel and neon wonderland. Abraham spends a lot of time abroad, tracking down fabrics, materials and manufacturers to realize her colorful visions. As a result, the dresses, blouses, jackets, jewelry and accessories in her shop are unique – she designs all the clothing, and has everything else custom-made to her specifications. Little wonder that TV stars and other local luminaries can often be found in her shop, looking for a new gown for the upcoming awards dinner or ball. Located at Vodičkova 34 (inside Lucerna), open Monday – Friday 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. Blouses and jackets, 7,700 – 15,000 korunas; jewelry, purses and other accessories, 1,200 – 5,400 korunas; dresses, 16,700 – 91,000 korunas.
10. Art Nouveau Collectibles
At the turn of the 20th century, the city fathers of Prague summoned all the countryʼs best architects and artists to the capital to help create a monumental municipal center. Built over seven years, Obecní dům (Municipal house) is now one of the most beautiful buildings in the Czech Republic, a lavishly decorated art nouveau palace that houses a 2,000-seat concert hall, salons, offices and restaurants, and features stunning decorative work throughout. The gift shop at the rear of the ground floor (to the left of the grand staircase) offers a lovely collection of jewelry – pins, necklaces and rings done in sumptuous art nouveau motifs. Eye-catching and original, they come in a variety of styles, colors and prices. Turn your back to the street windows for a moment, and you could be 100 years in the past, savoring the aesthetic delights of a Victorian parlor. Obecní dům, náměstí Republiky 5, gift shop and information center open daily 10 a.m. - 8 p.m. Expect to spend on jewelry 695 – 12,600 korunas; frames, 1,400 – 2,500 korunas.
11. Czech Spa Wafers
Two of the most famous spa towns in Central Europe, Karlovy Vary and Mariánské lázně, also mark the birthplaces of Czech spa wafers, one of the few foods in the Czech Republic officially recognized as a protected regional specialty by the European Union. Large, light and sweet, with a consistency similar to altar bread, the wafers were created in the 18th century as a crisp delicacy for spa patients, imprinted with the emblem of their manufacturer. Mass production started in the 1850s, and took off on a large scale in the 1920s with the invention of a custom baking pan. Recent variations have become more elaborate, with chocolate and hazelnut filling. They are perfect for a tasty and emblematic souvenir of the Czech Republic, packaged in sturdy, lightweight boxes that travel well. You can find Czech spa wafers in most grocery stores. A more charming place to pick them up is the outdoor Havelská Market in Old Town, where you will find other local food and craft items available at more than 50 booths. Located on Havelská between Melantrichova Street and Uhelný trh, open daily 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Spa wafers are 40 – 50 korunas/box.
12. Hand Painted Silk Scarves
Alfons Mucha is a national icon in the Czech Republic, where he was born in 1860 and died in 1939, in the wake of the Nazi invasion. By then, he was one of the worldʼs best-known illustrators, launching a thousand imitators with his ornately detailed posters, lithographs and paintings, which came to embody the art nouveau style. Muchaʼs masterpieces are on view throughout Prague – he designed one of the stained glass windows in St. Vitus Cathedral. A representative collection of his works is on display at the Mucha Museum near Wenceslas Square, which has a gift shop with the artistʼs most popular images emblazoned on everything, from t-shirts and mugs to cards, books, pins, tin boxes and jewelry. Many of the items are standard tourist fare, but there are a few standouts, including a handsome collection of hand-painted silk scarves decorated with motifs from Muchaʼs paintings. They offer a fresh, stylish take on some familiar themes. Mucha Museum, Panská 7, open daily 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Scarves range from 1,500 – 1,900 korunas.
13. Czech Wooden Toys
Handmade wooden toys are a longtime tradition in the Czech Republic, particularly in Moravia, the eastern portion of the country. Today, they offer a reminder that sometimes simple is best; durable, colorful and perfect for imaginative play, these wooden artifacts usually outlast their modern plastic counterparts. Enduring classics and favorites include puzzles, pull toys on wheels, “walking” toys that roll or waddle down ramps, puppet theater sets and bright animal figures suspended on springs to brighten a babyʼs crib or playpen. For the best selection and prices, visit the lively Tradiční české hračky (Traditional Czech toys) shop in Old Town, where staff members are happy to accommodate English speakers. Along with a large assortment of toys for small children, there are swords, shields, riding horses and more advanced games for older kids. The shop also has a full line of toys featuring Krteček, the “little mole” who is the countryʼs most popular childrenʼs book and cartoon character. Located at Havelská 11, open daily 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. Individual pieces start at 95 korunas.
14. Bohemia Paper
This unobtrusive shop tucked in a corner of Kinsky Palace on the east side of Old Town Square is where Czech President Václav Klaus orders his personal stationery, invitations and greeting cards. When you walk in, you will immediately know why. Bohemia Paper embodies a long history of papermaking, engraving and bookbinding in the Czech Republic, revived in 1991 by master printer Jan Petr Obr. Drawing on an extensive library of historic engravings, antique maps, botanical drawings and art nouveau designs, Orb has produced a handsome line of stationery, announcement and greeting cards and other specialized paper products. Many of the cards are hand-colored, and the engraving, embossing and letterpress printing techniques are exquisite. You will find a richly detailed collection of cards, stationery and gift box sets on display. Or if you are feeling really extravagant, one of the accommodating staff will help you order personalized correspondence paper, business cards, invitations or announcements. Located at Staroměstské náměstí 12, open Monday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m., Tuesday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Wednesday 10:30 a.m. - 6 p.m., Thursday and Friday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Cards start at 50 korunas, paper sets at 395 korunas.
15. Czech Beer
The Czechs will tell you that their beer is the best in the world, and they ought to know. Per capita, the Czech Republic consumes more beer than any other country. After you taste a Pilsner Urquell or Krušovice fresh from the tap in a pub, you will know why. Crisp and flavorful with a slightly bitter finish, Czech beer goes down easy and packs a kick. Because Czech beer shipped to other countries has to be pasteurized and pumped full of preservatives, itʼs worth picking up some of the real thing to share with friends and relatives back home. Pilsner Urquell, the worldʼs first pilsner beer, is top of the line; Gambrinus, made at the same brewery, is also good. The dark Krušovice has a surprisingly light quality; Budvar is the original Budweiser; and Staropramen is the Czech Republicʼs proud working-class brew. Small brewery labels, like Bernard and Lobkowicz, are also worth trying. Czech beer is rated by degrees – 10 degree, 11 degree, 12 degree – with the alcohol content increasing as the numbers rise. Most people can handle a 10 or 11 with no problem; 12 is for professional drinkers, and approach the occasional 13 at your own risk. A good place to find a complete selection of Czech beer is the supermarket on the lower level of Tesco, Narodní 26, open Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. - 9 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. Single bottles of beer start at 16 korunas; expect to pay 23 korunas or more for Pilsner Urquell.
Banned throughout much of the Western world for decades, absinthe never fell out of favor or legal production in the Czech Republic, where it has been manufactured and sold for almost 150 years. In fact, some reviewers date the modern revival of interest in absinthe to 1989, when the Velvet Revolution opened the country to Western tourists who were free to sample the spiritʼs intoxicating effects. Long considered the preferred choice (and inspiration) of painters, writers and the artistic demimonde, absinthe is now commonly available in almost every liquor store, potraviny (grocery store) and supermarket in Prague, sprawled across the shelves in a dizzying array of varieties and colors. Generally speaking, the brighter the color, the lower the quality – you definitely donʼt want anything that looks like red or green antifreeze. Top of the line, and the most expensive, is King of Spirits, made in Prádlo, a small village in west Bohemia. A good place to sample some of the better varieties is the Absintherie, where you will also find a vintage collection of bottled absinthe and, for the really daring, mixed drinks like an absinthe martini. Located at Jilská 7, open daily 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. Prices for a good bottle of absinthe range from 695 – 1,495 korunas.