Welcome to Plzeň, European Capital of Culture 2015

A rugged, working class city best known for making cars and brewing beer, Plzeň will take its crown as European Capital of Culture in 2015. Gavin Haines finds the Czech city a worthy heir.

If you’ve ever been to the Czech Republic, I’d wager a glass of the local brew that you didn’t make it to Plzeň. Not many do. A blue-collar city that brought the world pilsner beer and Skoda cars, it sits in the shadows of nearby Prague and competes for stray tourists with some of western Bohemia’s prettiest spa towns.

But in a few days' time, Plzeň will step out of the shadows and claim its crown as European Capital of Culture 2015, an EU designation that it will share with Mons in Belgium.

To mark the occasion, Plzeň has a packed schedule of cultural events that will see abandoned warehouses transformed into cavernous exhibition spaces and the baroque Old Town used as an open-air art gallery. Films will be screened, concerts will be performed and Plzeň will party.

If you’re planning on dropping in on the jamboree – and I recommend you do – here’s what to do while you’re there:

1) Kick back in Republic Square 
Dominated by the towering spire of St Bartholomew’s Cathedral, Republic Square is flanked by the colourful facades of baroque townhouses, which the aesthetically challenged Soviets earmarked for demolition. Fortunately this act of architectural vandalism never materialised and the handsome market square endures. A great spot to people watch, it hosts a farmers' bazaar every other Saturday.

Baroque facades abound in Plzeň's Republic SquareBaroque facades abound in Plzeň's Republic Square
Gavin Haines

2) Take a brewery tour
In the 1800s everyone in Plzeň was at it: brewing beer, that is. But the industry was rife with cowboys and quality was poor, so locals decided to build one regulated brewery to be run by the city.

Pioneering brewmaster, Josef Groll, was appointed to develop the beer and in the course of his work he invented pilsner. The recipe hasn’t changed since 1842 and this amber-coloured lager is still produced at the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, which serves unpasteurised, unfiltered pilsner straight from the barrel. You’ll struggle to find a better pint.

Looking for the best beer in Plzeň? Then look no further...Looking for the best beer in Plzeň? Then look no further...

3) Caress the ‘lucky angel’ 
Folklore dictates that a Plzeň hangman – deemed too impure to enter church – used to pray at the railings of St Bartholomew’s Cathedral in Republic Square.

Also renowned for his healing powers (evidently he gave and took away), the hangman was spotted caressing the head of an angel on said railings and since then locals have followed suit, believing it will bring them good health.

This angel face has been worn away by superstitious localsThis angel face has been worn away by superstitious locals
Gavin Haines

4) See a show at the New Theatre
Characterised by its striking design and remarkable proportions, the New Theatre was unveiled in 2014 and is the first purpose-built playhouse to open in the Czech Republic for half a century.

Dubbed the ‘democratic theatre’, this exciting cultural attraction has no mayor’s box or presidential loge, just 461 seats for its ‘equal’ patrons. Much of the 2015 cultural performances will take place here.

The striking New Theatre was unveiled in 2014The striking New Theatre was unveiled in 2014

5) Visit the Brewery Museum
You might think Plzeň’s darkest day came when the Nazis rolled into town, but locals attribute it to the time when 36 barrels of bad beer were unceremoniously dumped by the authorities in 1838.

This sparked a brewing revolution in Plzeň, which visitors can learn more about in the Brewery Museum. There’s a good boozer out the back when the tour is done.

A history of beer explained in Plzeň Brewery MuseumA history of beer explained in Plzeň Brewery Museum
Gavin Haines

6) Discover Plzeň Historic Underground
Beneath the cobbled streets of the Old Town lies an eerie, subterranean labyrinth of tunnels dating back to medieval times. This clandestine network – which winds 19km (12 miles) beneath Plzeň – can only be explored with guides, who share stories from its darkened nooks.

The eerie nooks of Plzeň Historic UndergroundThe eerie nooks of Plzeň Historic Underground

7) Sate your appetite in Stara Sladovna
This dimly-lit, medieval-themed restaurant serves hearty Bohemian cuisine at reasonable prices. The lively atmosphere, excellent draught beer and open fire add to the ambiance, particularly on a chilly evening.

Occupying a former malt house, the restaurant’s menu is rather meat centric (the roast pork is divine) and there is hot mead to wash it down.

Head to Stara Sladovna for mead, hog roasts and open firesHead to Stara Sladovna for mead, hog roasts and open fires
Stara Sladovna

8) Prop up the bar in U Šenku
Every week a horse and cart delivers several barrels of unpasteurised, unfiltered Pilsner Urquell to U Šenku, one of the few pubs trusted by the brewery to look after this delicate beer.

In its raw form, this pilsner has a short shelf life and requires careful treatment, which the bar staff at this traditional boozer duly give it. One of the best watering holes in town.

Another delivery bound for the cellar at U ŠenkuAnother delivery bound for the cellar at U Šenku
Pilsner Urquell

9) Watch FC Viktoria Plzeň at home
One of the strongest outfits in the Czech league, FC Viktoria Plzeň plays at the Štruncovy Sady where they have hosted the likes of Man City and Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

Located near the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, the stadium is a veritable fortress for the team and offers a great night out for visiting football fans.

The hallowed turf of Štruncovy Sady, home to FC Viktoria PlzenThe hallowed turf of Štruncovy Sady, home to FC Viktoria Plzen
FC Viktoria Plzen

10) Imbibe art in public places
Throughout 2015, Plzeň’s baroque Old Town, leafy parks and abandoned industrial units will be transformed into open-air art galleries as the authorities aim to “confront people with art”.

Sounds aggressive, but it isn’t. Displaying work by local artists, the temporary installations will celebrate the city’s industrial heritage and baroque aesthetic.

Art installations will abound in Plzeň's public spacesArt installations will abound in Plzeň's public spaces in 2015
Mayabun / Thinkstock

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