For many people, Plzeň means beer. This is true, at the very least, in the German form of the word. Pilsner Urquell, for lots of beer aficionados, represents a lager style of beer. Many tourists who travel to the second biggest city in Bohemia do this to see its monuments and churches, but it’s safe to say that most do so because of the brewery, a small distance from the centre of the city.
It’s impossible not to see the renowned gateway, the symbol that is displayed on each of Plzeňský Prazdroj label, which gives Urquell its Czech branding.
The brewery complex is open from 8.30am-6pm Apr-Sep, and to 5pm Oct-Mar, but entry is by guided tour only. It’s good to know that unless you book in advance tours in English are at 12.45pm, 2.15pm & 4.15pm. A guided tour costs 150 CZK per adult and 80 CZK per child. At the end of the tour you will be taken to the old cellars for a glass of this unpasteurised golden nectar.
Following a tour of the brewery, tourists can go to the Prazdroj eatery next to the entrance. North-east of the central square, NáměstíRepubliky, in Veleslavínova, is a quaint, historical, yellow home that’s now the great Brewery Museum. This has its own beer-hall called: ‘Na Parkánu‘.
But Plzeň (Pilsen) has more to offer than just beer. The old town has been constructed on a large scale and is surrounded by big boulevards that separate it from the industrial city that encircles it. Established by King Václav the second in 1295, the location of the city in the centre of 4 rivers was instrumental in its success. Following a harsh period after the 30 Year War in the seventeenth century, Plzeň expanded again rapidly in the nineteenth century, when both the armaments works of Skoda and the brewery were established in 1859 and 1842 respectively. This explains the large percentage of turn-of-the-century dwellings, including the railway station and ornate apartments.
Comparable homes in Náměstí Republiky are usually over-shadowed by gabled baroque and Renaissance homes, and by St.Bartholomew’s lofty church. Most of the Gothic sand-stone church distracts from the truth that this is Bohemia’s biggest city plaza.
You can scale the three hundred and thirty five-foot-high (one hundred and two metres) steeple, which is the republic’s tallest. A different tower, destroyed in 1925 by lightning, was never reconstructed. The humility of the interior of the church isn’t helped by the garish stained glass, but its high altar does feature a stunning fourteenth century Madonna.
The plague column of 1686 is located northwards of the church (on top of which is a gilt Madonna), as is the dark, sgraffiitoed town hall of the Renaissance period. The Friary of the Fransiscians, located south of the square, has wonderful Gothic interiors in spite of its’ baroque style facade. Behind this, the re-built West Bohemia Museum contains an extensive amount of fourteenth century armour, amongst other artefacts. To the square’s west, in Prešovská, tourists can go to the huge Oriental-style Great Synagogue, which is among Europe’s biggest, renovated in 1998. Near to this, the neoclassic Tyl Theater wouldn’t look amiss in the Ringstrasse in Vienna.
The Patton Memorial Pilsen Museum
The Patton Memorial Pilsen Museum tells the story of how the American army liberated Plzeň in 1945 – hence the reason why it is named after one of the US’ most famous generals, who was in charge of the liberation. One of the highlights is the evocative messages left by former US soldiers who have revisited Plzeň since the war, as well as the museum’s response to those stating that the Soviets actually liberated Plzeň, not the Americans. It is open from 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm every day except Monday. Entry is 60 CZK (40 CZK for concessions) and you can find out more by visiting www.patton-memorial.cz.
The Great Synagogue
Found in the west of the Old Town, this is the third largest synagogue in the world – only the synagogues in Jerusalem and Budapest are larger. It was built in 1892 by the Jews living in Plzeň and nowadays is also used for concerts and art exhibitions. It is open from 10am until 6pm every day except Saturday and the cost of entry is 60 CZK (40 CZK for concessions). Find out more at www.zoplzen.cz.
Old Town Hall
This Italian Renaissance inspired building was built in the mid seventeen hundreds and houses a detailed model of the old city inside. Outside there is a plague column, built in 1681. It is open from 8am until 6pm.
Bring warm clothes and explore the old passageways below the city. The history of these tunnels goes back to the 14th century when they were used for beer production and possibly defence. Address: Veleslavínova 6; Admission: 90 CZK. Open: 10am-6pm Apr-Dec, 10am-5pm Feb-Mar, closed Jan; English tour 1pm daily.
Tip: If you travel with children you might wish to visit the local zoo. The zoo features quite a lot of exotic animals and is rated as one of the best in the Czech Republic. Address: Pod Vinicemi9; Admission: 120 CZK and 90 CZK for children. Open: 8am-7pm Apr-Oct, 9am-5pm Nov-Mar. Next to the zoo is the theme park, DinoPark.
Where to Eat
This pub/restaurant is found inside the Pilsner brewery. The food is traditionally Czech and above average in terms of taste, however the real star is the beer, brought directly from the brewery. Find out more at www.naspilce.com.
For beer lovers, this microbrewery is a must visit, especially if you are looking for a lovely beer garden to have lunch in. The prices are good and you can order anything from steak through to salad, all complemented by excellent homemade beer (including yeast beer). Find out more at www.pivovargroll.cz.
Beer always tastes better from where it is sourced, and Pilsner Urquell fans will definitely develop a thirst when they tour the brewery. Na Parkánu is a good place to find an unpasteurised, fresh pint of Pilsner. This is a cosy pub with a pleasant garden adjoining the Brewery Museum, which is decorated with copper and wood accents (www.naparkanu.com). Alternatively, you could stretch your taste-buds at Klub malých pivovarů (www.klubmalychpivovaru.cz), where various kinds of regional micro-brews are served.
Visiting Plzeň in early May is quite an experience for everyone, but can be particularly fun for Americans. Although most of the Czech Republic was liberated from the Nazis by the Soviet Red Army, Plzeň was liberated by U.S. troops under the command of Gen. George S. Patton, who took the city on the morning of May 6, 1945. The city still marks the liberation with a big festival during the first week of May. It is a quite a sight to see dozens of Czechs driving around in old U.S. Army jeeps and everyone dressed up like an American GI. The city also goes on a five-day bender as part of the celebration, so it is a really fun party regardless of your nationality.
In mid-August, the city hosts a modest music festival called Jazz on the Streets. This is a fun and relaxed way to enjoy some magnificent concerts performed by top Czech musicians. Although quite a bit mellower than the May celebrations, visiting during the music festival is a fun way to experience the musical spirit of Plzeň.
Anxious to capitalize on its beer heritage and always happy to have a reason to celebrate, Plzeň has started its own Oktoberfest called the Pivní Slavnosti, which runs from the end of September and beginning of October. A traditional, old fashioned beer fest, Plzeň’s offers a wider range of beer s and just as good music as Munich’s Oktoberfest, but lacks the bustling crowds and ludicrously high prices.
For more information on Plzeň events, contact the City Information Center Plzeň.
Tourist Information Center
Trying to be as visitor-friendly as possible, the City Information Center Plzeň located at Náměstí Republiky 41, 301 16 (www.plzen.eu) is packed with literature that will answer all of your questions. The office is open daily from 9am to 6pm.
The American Center in Plzeň located at Dominikánská 9 (www.americancenter.cz) is just off the main square. It has English-language books and magazines, as well as computer terminals and a handy cafe with Wi-Fi. There’s also a “California-style” restaurant in the basement that serves American fare like cheeseburgers and club sandwiches. It is open Monday to Friday from 8am to 8pm.
Plzeň is centered around Náměstí Republiky. All of the sights, including the brewery, are no more than a 15-minute walk away.
Getting to Plzeň from Prague is equally easy by bus as it is by train. Several fast trains make the 90 minute trip daily from Prague’s Hlavní Nádraží. Second class train tickets cost about 150 CZK. To get from the train station to the Plzeň town center, walk out the main entrance, take Americká Street across the river, and turn right onto Jungmannova towards the main square.
A slightly quicker and less expensive option when travelling from Prague to Plzeň is to take one of the Student Agency buses that run hourly during the day from Prague’s Florenc bus station. The trip takes one hour and costs 100 CZK.
By car, Plzeň is just 70km (43.5 miles) down the D5 expressway. Once you’ve cleared the traffic getting out of central Prague, the trip takes around 45 minutes. Upon arrival in Plzeň, drive to a paid parking lot or use pay parking on the street. Parking rates run about 20 CZK an hour.