Labeled for years, if not decades, as the dirty, crime-ridden misfit of Prague’s right bank, Karlín has undergone something of a resurrection since the floods of 2002 swept away a lot of its grime. Some might call that the turning point. Others argue it wasn’t until big-name developers swept in a few years later and laid claim to many of the district’s weed-infested land parcels, quickly turning Karlín into one of the city’s marquee office zones, which includes Amazon Court and the International Business Center among others. A string of boutique cafes and restaurants soon followed. As did higher rents and better landscaping.
A walk down its tree-lined main artery, Křižíkova street, reveals a new tea room (the elegant Tea Mountain) here and a cozy wine bar (Veltlin) there. Not far away are old favorites like the go-to Vietnamese lunch spot Red Hot Chilli, cozy Korean mainstay Bibimbap Korea and coffeehouse rock star Můj šálek kávy. Though only three years old, the cafe is credited as being the first in a tidal wave of fresh businesses that has rapidly reshaped the Karlín dining scene. The lineup now includes a number of chains (Mamacoffee and Bageterie Boulevard) as well as one-of-a-kind gems like Peter’s Burger Pub, stationed in a lovely green corner house just down from the Vítkov Hill pedestrian tunnel that links Karlín to Žižkov.
“When you are here on the weekend, it feels like a small village,” observes Jaroslav Tuček, one of the owners of Můj šálek kávy. “It’s a mix of everyone. We have all the hipsters and a lot of expats live here, too.”
There is indeed a Rockwellian sort of intimacy that creeps out on the weekends when all the office parks fall dark, and construction, for the most part, grinds to a halt. The streets are fairly quiet as joggers and families visit the farmer’s market at Karlínské náměstí or stroll through its equally charming twin, Lyčkovo náměstí, home to arguably the most ornate elementary school in all of Prague.
The small-town vibe is hardly a stretch, as Karlín, named after an Austrian empress, was once an independent town before joining Prague in 1922.
Sokolovská, the district’s other key roadway, offering a direct connection via tram between New Town and Libeň, is a mash-up of dingy mini marts, casino non-stops, scrappy fast-food takeaways, though more polished local favorites have sprung up in recent years including Polevkarna, Krystal Mozaika Bistro, the build-your-own salad place, Chop’d, and the just-opened coffee joint, Kafe Karlín. In January, the Czech food blog Scuk.cz reported that the Ambiente Group would bring its Lokál chain to Sokolovská 81/55 this spring.
While the neighborhood has clearly come a long way in a short amount of time, it still seems, in many respects, like a work in progress. Karlín’s biggest eyesore, the Florenc transit hub, lies on the other side of its viaduct, the longest in the Czech Republic. Sure, the Hilton’s just around the corner and the sleek S9 Florenc office space took over the vacant lot next to Jurys Inn. The popular Karlín musical theater and the Prague City Museum sit on either side of the renovated bus terminal. But, despite all its best efforts, Florenc has been unable to shake its undeniable creep factor. The area attracts unsavory figures who loiter near the highway underpass, in front of the metro station and, more troubling, outside the front doors of Česká spořitelna. Clearly, not a place for nighttime frolicking.
When Kamil Skrbek first moved to Karlín, he was sorely unimpressed: the neighborhood looked rundown and forgotten. But his father told him to be patient, change was just around the corner. How right he was.
“Karlín’s still missing certain things. The infrastructure is not really good, but it’s changing really quickly,” says Skrbek, who heads space2let, a family-run apartment management business, which rents out two buildings in Karlín. “I like the parks here and the river, and we have Vítkov, which is still kind of undiscovered.”
These days, there seems to be very little left of this Prague 8 borough that has not been thoroughly explored and picked over. Its proximity to the center has made it a hot commodity. District administrators recently made city-owned flats available for sale, while the Czech state is busy trying to offload cultural heirlooms, like Invalidovna, a sprawling baroque building that was once a dormitory for disabled veterans. It now acts as storage for military archives and is occasionally open to the public.
Karlín Studios is also on the list of historical properties that will one day be torn down and converted into more office space and apartments.
“So far, the construction plan has been postponed every year, but it is still going to happen,” says Caroline Krzyszton of Futura, the non-profit behind Karlín Studios. “In about three to five years, the building will be destroyed.”
In 2005, Futura converted a former industrial factory hall along Křižíkova street into 3,000 sqm of studio and exhibition space for local artists as well as a documentation center for the Foundation of Contemporary Art. The studios organize about 10 shows a year, including “Wolf of the Night II: Winter”, currently running until March 16. Admission is free.
Krzyszton explains that Karlín Studios was among the first of its kind in Prague. The neighborhood was still affordable when Futura originally signed the lease on the old factory building.
“Now this is less and less true,” she says, adding that neighborhood is “slowly being totally reconstructed into a big office center.”
Each year, the area is becoming more expensive, Krzyszton says, “and the former inhabitants of Karlín are moving away, changing the face of the quarter.”
What are you favorite Karlín haunts?