From Kafka to Kundera – go for a Prague literature tour and discover the Czech capital’s cultural heart
Take a single glance at the city of a hundred spires, and it’s little wonder that Prague has long inspired scribes to pick up their pens. From the literature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the revolutionary writing that defined the Communist era, from authors the likes of Kafka and Kundera to Rilke and Havel, the Czech capital has long been both literary host and muse. Tuck a notebook into your bag and add some Czech writers to your reading list, then – from Prague bookstores and literary museums to landmarks of Kafka in Prague, there’s much for book lovers to admire on a Prague literature tour.
First, the accolades: at the end of 2014, Prague officially joined the ranks of the UNESCO Cities of Literature. The city was chosen thanks to both its “outstanding literary heritage” and its “vibrant contemporary scene”: home to the world’s densest network of libraries in the world, grassroots publishers and events, independent bookstores and literary prizes, it rightly ranks among Europe’s top writerly hubs.
For visitors looking to immerse themselves in the lives and books of their favourite local authors, the best way to get a feel for the Prague literature scene is to set out on foot and explore. And if your favourite writer happens to be Kafka, then you’re especially in luck – there are numerous landmarks relating to Kafka in Prague. Begin your explorations at the corner of Kaprova and Maiselova Streets, in Prague’s Jewish Quarter – Kafka was born in a house on this site in 1883. From there, his childhood was spent in a number of addresses near the adjacent Old Town Square. Go for a neighbourhood amble, and see if you can spot the statue dedicated to the author (it depicts Kafka on the shoulders of a headless figure).
Kafka even resided for a short spell in a house on the scenic Golden Lane near the Prague Castle, making the landmark worth a wander. And for those looking to pay their respects, his grave can be found at the New Jewish Cemetery, where you can follow Jewish tradition and leave a pebble behind in tribute. Then there are the bohemian literary cafes. Kafka – alongside figures like Rilke and Havel – Kafka was known to frequent the Café Slavia, which is still open today. At this point in your wanderings, a coffee stop serves as both refreshment and homage to past luminaries. Order an absinthe coffee if you’re seeking something a touch stronger.
Once you’ve seen the sights outside, head indoors to the Kafka Museum for further exploration. One of the most renowned literary museums in Prague, the institution explores both Kafka’s childhood in Prague – including letters to family members, drawings, and other mementos dating from the author’s life – as well as his literary legacy. (Note that the museum visit isn’t complete without a stop at the rather controversial fountain outside).
While it’s not exclusively literary, those interested in the Prague of Milan Kundera – one characterised by Communist rule and surveillance, and described in landmark works like The Unbearable Lightness of Being – would do well to discover the Museum of Communism, which provides a fascinating window into this troubled time period.
Then there’s the Prague Literature House, which has become a landmark for visiting authors today. Founded in 2004, the organisation seeks to celebrate German-speaking Czech writers the likes of Kafka, Brod, and Rilke (German and Czech were both official languages here into the 20th century) with lectures, an ever-expanding library, and other literary events.
Paris has the iconic Shakespeare and Co, and Prague has, err, Shakespeare & Sons. And the Globe. Both Bard-referencing Prague bookstores are worth a visit for English speakers – the former has been a Prague literature staple since 2002, while the latter, the largest English bookstore in the city, has been on the scene since 1993. The two hold regular author readings and literary events, have on-site cafes, and offer cosy nooks for those after a spot of afternoon reading.
If you’re looking to brush up on your Czech, then the sprawling Palác Knih Neo Luxor is certainly one of the best bookshops in the city for some browsing – it is, after all, the largest bookstore in the Czech Republic. With a new stack of books under your arm, spend the rest of the evening at the Tynska Literary Café. The café attracts modern bohemians with its laidback atmosphere, coffee, and beer – though, if you time your visit right, you may just stumble upon a literary event.