Most European cities can be boiled down into weekend getaways with must-see lists and Instagram posts. Party cities like Prague, meanwhile, are usually defined by raging hangovers on the way back to the airport.
But if you’re visiting the Czech Republic and would rather dive into the country’s culture and history that the nearest boozy pub crawl, we’ve rounded up the ultimate list of books, films, and music, contemporary and historic, to start digging into before or after your trip. We’ve also intentionally avoided selecting the likes of Czech icons Dvořák, Kafka, or Kundera, giving everyone the chance to learn something new.
Set in 1930s Prague, with all the qualities of the Czechoslovak New Wave, The Cremator is a darkly comical horror. It tells the story of simple-minded cremator Karel Kopfrkingl, and his slow descent into both madness and Nazism — inspired in equal parts by the emerging role of fascism, as well as Tibetan Buddhism. Originally an adaptation of the harrowing novel by Ladislav Fuks, the film has achieved a unique status in its own right, revered for its macabre atmosphere. The evocative, hypnotic soundtrack is also a particular standout: it was recently “rescued, remastered, and reincarnated” by London-based label Finders Keepers, which described it as one of the “greatest underexposed European horror films of all time”. Perhaps more importantly, The Cremator stands as a great reminder of the immense losses faced by the Czech Jewish community, with the film’s director Juraj Herz himself being a survivor of the Holocaust.
Winner of the 1996 Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, as well as the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, Kolya is the last Czech film to have bagged an Oscar. (Czech cinema scoring only two more Oscar nominees since then.) Kolya has since entered the canon of Czech filmography, both as one of the most successful Czech films of the past three decades, and as a benchmark for global ambition. A much lighter watch than The Cremator, Kolya still highlights the many changes in Czech society over the past four decades, depicting the decay of the late 1980s and the sudden fall of communism during the Velvet Revolution, while telling a deeply personal story about an ageing bachelor who finds himself tending to a Russian boy left behind by his émigré mother.
Despite the band’s beginnings as a simple side-project, Dukla has quickly turned into one of the most well-known names in Prague’s indie scene. What makes Dukla particularly appealing is the way it portrays the atmosphere of 20-something aimlessness, be it in their lyrics shaped by the minute details of daily routines or their Dream Pop-inspired sound, which echoes the late nights and early mornings they so often sing about, naming metro stations and clubs stuck in the zeitgeist of Prague’s youth.
From what initially started as a therapeutic project shaped by personal tragedy, post-punk band Pris have released some of the most interesting music to make it to the Czech capital over the past few years. Yet even without understanding the deeply personal lyrics, Pris’ debut Naše Večery is undoubtedly a worthwhile listen, mixing dark, droning synths with melodic choruses: a musical message of hope even amid the darkest of struggles.
First published in 1961, Wernisch has quickly become one of the most prolific Czech writers of the 20th century, penning thousands of poems, articles, and anthologies. Although Wernisch’s work can be challenging and overwhelming, it is his undoubted playfulness that makes him so appealing. His imaginary landscapes demand repeated reading, both due to their vivid imagery, as well as owing to the unreliability of their narrator. Wernisch has managed to retain that characteristic unreliability in his own life, publishing whole books under fictitious pseudonyms, namely that of Václav Rozehnal, a name which also became blacklisted by the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Owing to his productivity, the easiest pick is the anthology In The Puppet Gardens, comprising a selection of his famous poems from several decades, highlighting some of the quintessential idiosyncrasies in Czech literature.
Shaped by the turmoil of 20th century Czech history, Tučková’s writing has been applauded for focusing on the often-diminished position of women in Czech events and literature. By placing women in some of the country’s defining national narratives, be it the expulsion of Germans following the Second World War, or the totalitarianism of Communist Czechoslovakia, Tučková has created a much-needed voice for women in popular Czech literature, which otherwise often features heavily gendered tropes. Perhaps most famous of her works, The Zitkova Goddesses remains a definite standout, telling a vast, generational story of medicine women and their oppression by the Catholic church, Nazi terror, and Communist officers.