Those of us who’ve lived in Prague for long enough consider ourselves tour guides at least in an unofficial capacity. Taking the shortcut to Prague Castle via New World, regaling visitors with the view of the city over Petřín — who among us doesn’t have these tricks up our sleeve?
But for anyone who thinks they’ve seen and done it all when it comes to experiencing some of the Czech capital’s most breathtaking and commonly visited sites, think again. A new tour aims to wow even jaded locals with access to one of the world’s most beautiful libraries, as well as a lesser-known monastic gem, and a pair of breweries along the way.
The new Beer & Baroque Highbrow Brew Tour is the brainchild of academics and Prague residents, Bonita Rhoads and Vadim Erent, who together in 2014 founded Insight Cities, a 100-member network of local historians across Central Europe offering a wide array of intimate cultural guided tours of Prague and the Czech Republic as well as Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, and Salzburg.
The tour takes visitors behind the scenes of two extraordinary local monasteries with famous breweries, both located on the scenic 22 tram line: the 12th-century Strahov monastery and the lesser-known and older Břevnov, home to the oldest monastic brewery in Bohemia.
“We felt that it made a beautiful doubleheader cultural and social afternoon to be drinking beer and learning beer and Baroque history in these exquisite environments on the edge of and then outside the center,” says Rhoads.
Given the current travel restrictions and the subsequent impact on the tour-guide industry, she says the experience — and price — has been reconfigured for locals who may consider guided tours the realm of the selfie-stick set.
“It’s a rough moment for us in the travel industry,” says the native New Yorker who earned her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale and was a lecturer at Prague’s Charles University and professor at Brno’s Masaryk University before co-founding the company with Erent, her husband and partner.
“Yet, we also see a unique opportunity for local travel lovers to indulge in exploring their own cities. People forget to take the time to discover the intriguing sites, fascinating architecture, and compelling stories in their own backyard,” she says, adding that summer/fall 2020 poses a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see major European capitals sans crowds.
The Beer & Baroque Highbrow Brew Tour is led by Erent, an art critic and photographer, who was born in St. Petersburg but did graduate work in Slavic Studies at the University of Chicago. Two native Czech guides, a Charles University professor and a researcher at the Academy of Sciences also lead the tour.
The tour begins at the Strahov Monastery whose libraries and cabinet of curiosities can be viewed from a new perspective (on our tour Erent literally took us behind the ropes for 30 minutes — most tourists only get a glimpse of the libraries from the doorway).
Indeed curiosities and fascinating insights abound. Erent, a gifted storyteller, highlights locked cases of forbidden books occupying the upper level of the Theological Hall and important details from the frescoes adorning the majestic ceiling, widely considered one of the most stunning of any library in the world.
The Philosophical Hall, a bit less ornate but no less impressive, contains a gift from Napoleon’s second wife, one of a few women to be allowed in the libraries, an intricate wooden bookcase with gold details, housing botanical tomes and a catalog from the Louvre.
A secret passage, disguised by a door with a faux book spine gives way to a winding staircase that reaches the upper level. A guard demonstrates a table that conceals a chair and folds out into a ladder.
A tea set hidden in a book, a dodo-bird mummy, narwhal tusk, and cannonballs from the Swedish occupation at the end of the Thirty Years’ War occupy the cabinet of curiosities.
Across the Strahov courtyard lies the St. Norbert Brewery, named for the order’s patron saint, where dark and amber beers have been brewed since the 17th century. We fuel up on fried carp and stout, bread, spreads, sausages, and more historical tidbits, before moving on to Břevnov, which houses one of the city’s oldest religious ruins in its crypt.
A monk named Aleš walks us around the deserted church sanctuary while speaking about architects Kryštof and Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer who were responsible for designing the current High Baroque appearance of the monastery.
In a particularly exciting moment, Aleš opens a basement crypt to reveal the extensive — columns, windows, and all — Romanesque ruins of the original smaller church founded in 993 AD by Boleslav II and Bishop Adalbert.
The tour continues into the monk’s typically inaccessible dormitory building and ceremonial hall, where yet another ornate ceiling waits to be admired. Empress Maria Theresa once visited; a portrait of her hangs in the hallway. The tour concludes with a chance to explore the grounds and Orangerie and, of course, more beer tasting.
The Břevnov Monastery brewery dates back to the 10th century and in fact, may even be the place where Czech beer was first brewed.
It’s a fitting place to unwind after nearly four hours of touring — but for locals like us who attend the tour, it will also feel like somewhat of a homecoming, savoring a tasting flight of beer with eight samples of Břevnov’s famous lagers and stouts, utopenci, and nakládaný hermelín in the company of Prague families enjoying their afternoon, not a tourist in sight.
For anyone with a passion for historical quirks, who’d like to gain some extra knowledge about Prague this summer, Insight Cities offers a number of other tours at “staycation” rates for locals, including an Art Nouveau and Cubist walk given by Rhoads that was named by The Guardian as one of the world’s best architecture tours and by The Week as one of Europe’s five best architecture tours
“I think our intimate, small group tours are perfect for locals because we go beyond the headlines and love dialogue,” says Rhoads who always enjoys having knowledgeable locals on her tours.
“And we have been told that we help to open up our cities in new ways even to decades-long and native residents,” she says.
Beer & Baroque Highbrow Brew Tour
Duration: 4 hours
Price: 1760 CZK for locals
Includes: Historian guide, entrance behind the ropes at Strahov Library, two small beers at Strahov Brewery, entrance into the Břevnov Crypt, flight of beer with 8 small samples at Břevnov Brewery (additional food is self-paid).
To book a tour with Insight Cities as part of its “Staycation” specials see here.
This article was written in cooperation with Insight Cities. To read more about our partner content policies, see here.