Pilsen, or Plzeň in Czech, is the third largest city in the Czech Republic. Located in West Bohemia, Pilsen is one of the oldest cities in Central Europe, dating back to 976. It has been a crossroads for trade, one of the leading industrial cities in the world, and a melting pot where Jewish, Czech, and German cultures met.
2015 marks Pilsen’s elevation to the European Capital of Culture, which makes it the perfect time to go see the sights in the Czech Republic’s fourth largest city. Here’s some things to do in this crown jewel of Bohemia.
Take in the Sights
Although it was the center of Austro-Hungarian and Czech manufacturing for large amounts of time, Pilsen is not your typical industrial city. The center’s architecture combines features from several eras of Czech history— ranging from the 13th Gothic splendor of St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral (with the largest tower in the Czech Republic) to the Neo-Renaissance stylings of the Museum, whose current home was opened in 1913. Of special note is the Moorish Revival architecture of the Great Synagogue, which is the second largest synagogue in Europe.
Pilsen’s scenic center is also criss-crossed by a number of promenades and parks, which are perfect for picnics in the afternoon or lounging in the evening. Live music performances take place all summer long at a variety of outdoor cafes and bars. Take a stroll along the river or visit the botanical gardens— Pilsen boasts a great variety of green spaces in many parts of the center.
See a Puppet Show
Although Czechs all throughout the country love puppet theater, Pilsen is the undisputed heart of the art form in the Czech Lands. Legendary puppeteers such as Josef Skupa and Jiří Trnka both called Pilsen home, and you can still see their legacy today in the city gallery (which boasts an excellent collection of both of their works) and in the puppet shows performed around town. The Puppet Museum (located on Náměstí Republiký) boasts an extraordinary amount of puppets from the 19th and 20th century, as well as hands on exhibits for children of all ages.
As part of Pilsen’s status as the European Capital of Culture, several visiting puppeteers and puppet theaters will be also visiting the city and performing. For example, from August 28th to the 30th, the Spanish puppet theatre Carros De Foc will be bringing their gigantic puppets to Pilsen for a public exhibition. Other companies such as Divadélko JoNáš have year round performances for both children and adults. More information can be found at: http://www.pilsen.eu/tourist/
Drink an Unfiltered Pilsner Urquell
Beer brewing has a long tradition in the Czech Republic, but the world-famous Pilsner Urquell beer has a relatively recent history in an ancient city. In 1839, the town officials voted to create a public brewery in order to satisfy local demand for better beer. In order to do so, they invited the Bavarian master brewer Josef Groll, whose family ran a brewery. More importantly, Groll had also begun experimenting with new techniques of brewing beer.
Pilsen proved to be an ideal location for Groll’s experiments. The local water in Pilsen (an essential component of any brew) was unusually soft, and the Czech hops imported from Žatec were known for their mild, spicy, and earthy flavor. The combination of these ingredients, plus Groll’s Bavarian fermentation techniques resulted in a completely new style’of beer— the Pislner. Today the Pilsner style of beer brewing is so famous that you can find pilsner beers all over the world, but the original remains famous.
If you’re interested in seeing how modern day Pilsner Urquell is made, the brewery offers tours in English and Czech. Or if you’re just interested in having a cold beer on a hot summer day, the pub Šenk na Parkánu (Veleslavínova 59/4) is the only place in the world to find unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, an experience worth having and repeating.