The Czech town of Plzen is known as the birthplace of one of the greatest beers on the planet - Pilsner Urquell. It's a very easy and worthy trip from Prague if you've half a day to spare, or if your route goes from Prague to Munich or vice versa, as a recent trip of mine did.
Getting to Plzen and beyond
As we were traveling with four of us, and needed a place near Prague to wait for the fourth, we found Plzen was the perfect spot. Especially because the Bayern Pass gives you a great discount from two to five travelers and starts its area of effect from Plzen on inward to Bavaria, so it was the perfect spot.
If you're traveling to Munich and around, then the Bayern Pass is an absolute necessity. It allows you to travel as a single person for a 24 hour period for 25 euros, plus 6 euros for each additional passenger. Than means, you can go from Plzen to Munich for 49 euros for four people. Add 40 from Prague and you've 89 euros. You've just saved up to 311 euros with that trick.
The Bayern Pass is easy to get - you can either download a pass from the Deutsche Bahn app on any Android or Apple phone, or follow the link above. You pay with your card and download the ticket. You can print it or just use it on your phone. If you don't plan on stopping in Plzen, you can just buy a ticket to Plzen for that train, then continue your journey with your already downloaded/printed Bayern Pass without ever getting off the train (the same vice versa). You can buy tickets from Plzen using the Deutsche Bahn app or the CD (Cesky Drahy) app, and then show your ticket from your phone if the conductor asks. The DB app is in English and super easy to use, the CD app is not so easy as it's all in Czech, but one can still figure it out with some fiddling around.
Since you just saved 311 euros, feel free to use your savings to thank me and buy my book. It'll be great entertainment on your ride.
Plzen is a beautiful small town. Small at a bit over one hundred thousand, though still the fourth largest city in the Czech Republic. There are several reasons to visit Plzen: it’s the home of the modern pilsner style of beer - the word “pilsner” comes from the German name of the city, Pilsen – there’s the Pilsner Urquell brewery, there’s a cute though small old town, and it was just the European capital of culture, so I imagine there are loads of other things to do there. There’s also a vibrant university culture there, so there are any number of activities going on - from theater to concerts - at any time of the year and week while the university is in session.
View of Plzen old town along the stream
We would have done the brewery tour at Pilsner Urquell if I had not done in before and my guests hadn't done brewery tours a thousand times before. If you haven't done a brewery tour, then this one is definitely one of the best you can ever do (second oddly, to Coors in Golden, Colorado). The booking site switches to Czech, but don't worry, under the tab "Jazyk" on the left, you can select English-speaking tours ("prohlidky" in Czech). Click "pokracovat" to continue and purchase the tour.
Old Town Square
So, not having a firm plan on what to do, we left the train and walked the 15 minute stroll to the center of the Old Town. There’s a nice stream that runs to the side of the Old Town, which makes some great views of the city’s few towers along the way. Finally, in the middle looms the massive Cathedral of St. Bartholomew (as viewed in the banner of this blog), which makes for the centerpiece of the town and can be seen from most vantage points throughout Plzen - it's spire is the tallest in the Czech Republic. It was built in the 14th century in the Gothic style and underwent several renovations due to fires, Hussites, and lightning strikes - as most churches in the Czech Republic.
walking towards the Old Town Square
You can take a trip up the bell tower for a few crowns, or just sit and enjoy the view at the beergarden in the center of the square. While we were there – and indeed, almost every time I’ve been there – there was a festival going on, where vendors were selling the typical souvenir wares from the lambskin goods and wooden puppets to the sausages and langoses that accompany most Czech festivals.
at the Old Town Square
Where to eat?
For dinner, we decided to use TripAdvisor to find the “best Czech restaurant” in town, though with TripAdvisor you are usually cursed with some of the most touristic places. From that, we selected Na Parkanu, which indeed, is the most touristic place in town, boasting a direct underground tap to the Pilsener Urquell brewery. The restaurant is a “typical Czech restaurant”, complete with the restaurant service you should come to expect during your visit in the Czech Republic. They have refined the art of ignoring the customer until they’re ready to serve, which is usually about 20 minutes into the visit.
Don’t go anywhere in Czechia expecting prompt anything – but then, there aren’t any claims to fast food for these restaurants, if that’s what you want then go to the McDonald’s down the street. They also don’t make claims to any polity either, so if that’s what you want, go to Vienna. The food itself was decent, but nothing outstanding, and the beer, despite being "served via the underground tap from the brewery", didn't taste as full as it should have. In the past, I was more impressed with the pirate themed restaurant, Restaurace Plachetnice right down the street. And of course, who wouldn't be, it's pirate themed!
Inside Restaurace Plachetnice
We also took a short coffee stop at a café on the main square called Nykty's Cafe. Prices there were the Czech average, and the interior was something of a “cute modern chic”, meaning, my wife would have loved it. Lots of pastels, curved furniture and over-sized bean bags. It had friendly service and a good toilet, so it worked well for our purposes of waiting for the train. However, the robot controllers of the lights in the toilet must have thought they were assigned to disco mode, as they go into strobe mode after three minutes of usage time. Definitely not an epileptic friendly place, especially for those epileptics cursed with constipation.
The Science Museum
Though we didn't go on this trip, I've also been to the science museum of Plzen, Techmania, which boasts a really cool planetarium, lots of fun little science experiments for kids, and an interesting exhibition on how Skoda made tanks for the Nazis and also make some of the best trains in the world (Skoda actually founded Techmania and its right next to the Skoda factory). You will have to take a tram or taxi to get there, as it's not so convenient to the Old Town.
A Skoda tram in Old Town Plzen
A final note on trains
From there, we headed back and met my wife on the train to utilize the Bayern Pass. We caught a CD train that was headed direct to Munich. However, CD does work some of the best trains I’ve traveled on in Europe. They’ve got wifi, dining cars, electric outlets, and are all spacious and comfortable. The trains are also some of the cheapest in Europe, something that makes Czech Republic that much better for Bohemians, both Czech and artistic alike. Usually the trains are named after some famous Czech, like the CD Franz Kafka or the CD Vaclav Havel while the German Deutsche Bahn names theirs after famous Germans, and be warned, the German trains, though nice by American standards, definitely take a second to the Czech ones. I think we were on the Franz Kafka. This enjoyment would only be momentary, since after a few hours we’d be at our first German destination, Schwandorf.