Inside the Surreal, Secret World of Prague's Contemporary Arts and Culture Scene

Dozens of contemporary art galleries and unique, sometimes bizarre venues line Prague's outskirts, offering alternatives to the more traditional museums and architectural sites.

Over the past half-century, since pulling itself out of the ruins of the second world war, Prague has become one of Europe's most fashionable cities, hosting over 10 million tourists in 2017 alone. Drawing in the crowds with its ornate castles and mystical past (as well as its reputation for incredibly cheap beer), the city tops must-see lists for travelers seeking a quintessential European experience.

Around the early 2000s, many people began to complain that the influx of tourism had sucked the life out of the city, turning it into a hollow shell around the heavily commercialized, overcrowded Old Town Square. Contemporary art and cutting-edge creativity were hard to find. In 2009, gallery owner Katherine Kastner told the New York Times, "Fifteen years ago, everyone thought that Prague was going to be what Berlin ended up being now. And then something happened, and we went into a kind of Dark Ages. And I think that we're on the way back up again. I see a lot of things happening and a lot of enthusiasm."

via Flickr

Since then, Kastner's predictions have been continuously coming to fruition. The Old Town Square might be beyond help, but now, dozens of contemporary art venues line Prague's outskirts, offering alternatives to the more traditional museums and architectural sites.

Much of the recent excitement is thanks to David Černý, whose controversial installations present unexpected shocks to anyone who stumbles upon them. Černý is known for works including "Car With Legs" and "Two Peeing Guys," as well as many other scandalous pieces that have garnered him international recognition. There's also the "Zizkov TV Tower With Crawling Babies," which is exactly what it sounds like—little silver babies hang from a 216-foot television tower in an eerie, postmodern display that might be a comment on TV's tendency to consume the youth or maybe just a tribute to absurdity. The installation was supposed to be temporary, but the public loved it so much that it's now a permanent fixture.

Image via mywanderlust.net

Černý paved the way for many other modern artists, founding an artistic nonprofit called the Meet Factory, a cinema-studio-collective that funds programming and education for all ages. 2009 also saw the opening of the DOX Center for Contemporary Art, a massive warehouse-turned-gallery located along the idyllic Vltava River. There's also the fashionably international Hunt Kastner gallery, located in the equally fashionable Zizkov district, and hundreds of other galleries that can be found all over the city, including the cubist House of the Black Madonna, recently reopened after extensive renovations.

The DOX Center, via prague-stay.com

Visual art isn't the only creative field that's experienced the magic of Prague's quickening artistic pulse; the city also offers a thriving underground music scene. If you know where to look, on any given night you can bounce from an electronica show in a former nuclear shelter (aka the hip underground club Bunkr Parukaka) to Reduta Jazz Club where once upon a time, Bill Clinton played the saxophone. The city has also produced some notable musical talents, including Marketa Irglova of the film and Broadway show Once, and the Roma singer Věra Bílá, whose songs are based on traditional folklore.

In terms of venues, the city offers an endless selection. For the classical music lover, there's the Prague Philharmonia, renovated in 2017, and for those seeking a more immersive experience, there's the 52-room Aria Hotel—where each floor features a specific genre of music, and each soundproof room is styled after musicians from Billie Holiday to Beethoven. The hotel is staffed by its own professional musicologist, on site to provide recommendations to guests seeking out their next event.

Arla Hotel via worldtop7.com

Everywhere, there's another secret oasis to discover. Wander through the right mysterious door, and you might find yourself in one of Prague's many unconventional performance spaces, such as the Nákladové nádraží Žižkov, a theatre-gallery-dance club hybrid located in an abandoned train station, and Jatka78, a circus located in an abandoned slaughterhouse. Much of Prague's contemporary art follows this pattern of taking the shells of historic places and ideas and filling them with new life, and in fact, the city's cultural revival can be seen as more of a return to its illustrious past than the start of a new era.

No matter what kind of experience you're seeking, be it gallery hopping, dancing all night, staring at metallic babies positioned high above, or communing with the ghosts inside the world's most haunted astrological clock, Prague is the perfect place for you.


Image via Matador Network


Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @edenarielmusic.

Read More from Journiest

Subscribe now

Related Posts
Travel

5 Countries to Visit This Fall

As the weather starts to chill out, we're just getting warmed up to travel

It's not winter yet!

So that means, we're all about that fall travel. It's a beautiful time of year to be outside in many countries, soaking up the colorful landscapes and fresh air. Here are our picks for the top places to visit this fall.

1. Germany

Pexels

Burg Eltz Castle is a magical step back into the Middle Ages that's been here for more than 850 years.

2. Switzerland

Pexels

The red leaves in Bern are absolutely striking.

3. Italy

Pexels

Nothing like the sheer beauty of the formidable Italian alps.

4. Peru

Pexels

Machu Picchu beckons visitors from near and far this fall.

5. Mexico

Pexels

It's not too cold to skip the beach!

Everyone has heard of the murder-hotel where dark shadows creep at the edge of your vision, or the abandoned house where the furniture moves each time you leave the room.

But sometimes the places set up to capture the fun and fright of the Halloween season for paying customers can be far more horrifying than any ghost stories. These "fake" haunted houses will leave you genuinely haunted.



Pennhurst Haunted Asylum

So spoooky!

Thomas James Caldwell

Pennhurst Asylum was in operation from 1908-1987 in the small town of Spring City, Pennsylvania. While we don't have all the records of the residents' experiences there, it doesn't take much imagination to realize that this building was home to true horrors. In many ways, 1908 wasn't that long ago, but in terms of mental health treatment—especially in small-town Pennsylvania—it was absolutely the dark ages. This was the time of lobotomies, straight jackets, and shock therapy. Whatever the jump scares and fake blood contribute to the fear you will feel walking through Pennhurst Asylum's aging, echoing halls, they can't come close to the deep, sinking feeling caused by the deep history of torment that has left its imprint on the very fabric of the place. Four spooky skulls out of five.

💀💀💀💀/5

Haunted Trap House

Like this, but less 90s

In Centreville, Maryand, in the year 1989, a group of visionaries were struck by a bolt of inspiration. What if—instead of zombies and werewolves and demons, and all the stuff out of children's nightmares—what if they filled their haunted house with the real-world nightmares that were actually infesting their city, killing their residents, and generally afflicting every corner of the entire nation. Thus, the Haunted Crack House was born. Since renamed the Haunted Trap House, it's ostensibly an educational experience on the dangers of drug use, it features simulations of overdoses, arrests, and shootings, as well as actual former convicts who are paid to draw on their real experiences to make your visit as terrifying as possible. This kind of fetishizing of human misery to capitalize on the Halloween season is as despicable as it is spooky. Four-and-a-half skulls out of five.

💀💀💀💀/5

McKamey Manor

He technically consented to this

A $20,000 reward? A 40-page waiver? These figures have garnered a lot of attention in recent headlines. Supposedly this is the "scariest" haunted house experience in the country. Who could resist the temptation of that once-in-a-lifetime experience, combined with the chance to win a big cash prize? Unfortunately, that is exactly what Russ McKay wants. There's a reason he's put so much work into the legal side of his operation. Rather than gassing up neutered chainsaws and chasing you around in a hockey mask, McKay has opted for producing actual, real, straight-up torture. You may not find the decorations and costumes that scary, but you will absolutely fear for your life when you consent to be water-boarded with fake blood. For being operated by a man who is clearly an unhinged psychopath, McKamey Manor ties the Haunted Traphouse, with four-and-a-half spooky skulls.

💀💀💀💀.5/5

Donald Vann's House of Horrors

Donald Vann murdered eleven people. Happens to the best of us, but it does present a problem. How do you dispose of all those bodies? Donald's solution was to open a haunted house and put his victims' decaying remains on display as props. Props to him. For eight months he prepared his fetid, malodorous horrors, before debuting on October 1st. Unfortunately, you won't be able to visit his house of horrors, because he has since landed in some legal trouble—board of health, maybe?—but I'm sure for the lucky few who were able to visit during its brief tenure, and witness Vann's "psychotic smirk," I'm sure the nightmares they're left with keep on spooking.

💀💀💀💀💀/5

Every Hell House in America

realitypod

In the same vein as the Haunted Traphouse, Hell Houses are church presentations intended as educational experiences that warn kids and teens away from the path of sin. Their methods for achieving this obviously vary, but according to The Washington Post, you can generally expect the following: "A devil ushers a gay man dying of AIDS into the fiery pit. A teenager who is raped at a drug-filled rave commits suicide and also goes to hell. A young girl hemorrhaging from an abortion repents at the last minute." Awful. Truly sickening. What kind of trauma are they inflicting on these children to prop up their outdated ideologies? Six spooky skulls. Where'd that extra skull come from?? Nobody knows…

💀💀💀💀💀💀/5


Destinations

The 10 Best Ethically-Conscious Zoos Across America

From coast to coast, these zoos are doing their part to help wildlife.

With fall weather making us all eager to spend more time outdoors, it's the perfect time of year to pay a visit to the zoo.

Just about every major city has a zoo where visitors can get up close and personal with wild animals, but of course, not all zoos are created equal. Particularly if you've watched Tiger King, you probably already know that some zoos do much more harm than good.


Thankfully, there are also many zoos who are doing great work in conservation efforts and creating the best environment possible for their animals and the animal lovers who want to visit them. Below, we've rounded up just a few of the most ethical zoos in the United States.

San Diego Zoo

As one of the most popular zoos in the country, the San Diego Zoo specializes in endangered animals and focuses on saving them from extinction. They also partner with other zoos around the world to share their research in rehabilitation and conservation that would be difficult, if not impossible, to conduct in the wild.

Austin Zoo

Located on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, the Austin Zoo started as a goat ranch and has gradually grown into one of the state's most animal-friendly zoos. Now boasting over 300 animals from over 100 species, the Austin Zoo operates with a mission to assist animals in need, taking in exotic animals that need to be rescued or rehomed due to a variety of reasons.

Indianapolis Zoo

With a strong commitment to conservation, the Indianapolis Zoo supports efforts around the world to save endangered animals and their land. They are home to over 1,400 animals in habitats that closely mimic those of the wild and have been adopting more eco-friendly practices in addition to their conservation efforts.

Woodland Park Zoo

Located in Seattle, Washington, the Woodland Park Zoo is one of the country's most ethical zoos. They focus on recreating their animals' natural habitats as closely as possible, and the zoo also has conservationist breeding programs on-site to help grow the populations of endangered species.

St. Louis Zoo

Not only is the St. Louis Zoo free to visit, but it's absolutely massive; here, you'll find 19,000 animals from 600 species over a sprawling 90 acres. According to their website, the zoo has "witnessed dozens of cheetah births, hatched and reared endangered Micronesian kingfishers and returned Puerto Rican crested toad tadpoles to ponds in their native homeland—to name only a few successes." The St. Louis Zoo also has a program called the WildCare Institute, which takes a holistic approach to healing troubled ecosystems.

Bronx Zoo

The Bronx Zoo might not be the first attraction you think of when it comes to New York City's outer boroughs, but it offers a much-needed slice of wildlife in the concrete jungle. This zoo is home to award-winning habitats that span over 265 acres. Outside of the city, the Bronx Zoo employs thousands of conservationists who work to protect endangered exotic animals in the world's most threatened environments.

Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

In addition to impressive worldwide conservation efforts, the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium—located in Omaha, Nebraska—features the world's largest geodesic dome. This dome creates a realistic desert environment that acts as a home to countless animals and plants.

Columbus Zoo

Ohio's Columbus Zoo houses over 7000 animals from over 800 species. They've made great strides in breeding endangered animals, such as the three polar bear cubs who were born at the zoo in 2016. The Columbus Zoo also boasts a massive 100,000-gallon coral reef tank, and some of the country's best primate habitats.

Alaska Zoo

It should come as no surprise that the Alaska Zoo is a fantastic place to see your favorite arctic and subarctic animals. Located in the city of Anchorage, this zoo focuses on arctic creatures you won't find at your zoos in the continental United States. They especially focus on polar bear rescue.

Denver Zoo

Colorodans are known for their love of the great outdoors, and their appreciation for Mother Nature translates into the practices at the Denver Zoo. They were the first zoo in the country to go above and beyond usual conservation efforts by getting rid of traditional enclosures, creating realistic habitats for their 4,000 creatures from over 600 different species.