According to a recent survey, the British alone spend an astonishing £1 billion on souvenirs every year. With the concept of local and responsible travel gaining momentum and finding favour with travellers everywhere, it goes without saying that giving back to the local community shouldn’t stop at where you stay or where you eat; it should extend to where you shop.
As one of the most popular mini-break destinations in Europe, Prague is weighed down with an abundance of souvenir shops and markets offering goods of varying qualities and authenticity. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the knickknack hawkers crammed around the hot spots of Charles Bridge, Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square are mafia-run money-laundering operations and should therefore be given wide berth. Still, even elsewhere, sifting through the cheap imitations and tourist tat to uncover that bona fide little piece of Prague can be a daunting prospect. Fortunately, there are several gifts that do not fit into the kitsch category and are worthy of your hard-earned cash.
My [insert name here] went to Prague and all I got was this lousy [insert any of the following here]
If authenticity is not an issue and kitsch is what you’re after, here are some of the worst offenders:
Matryoshka dolls: That they are called Russian Nesting Dolls should be a bit of a giveaway that they do not hail from the Czech Republic. This does not seem to deter the hordes that gaily procure one believing it’s a national treasure. Other Russian mementos include ushankas (furry hats), military apparel and memorabilia, and amber.
Absinthe: This version has had all of the fun stuff taken out and a lot of migraine-inducing colours and additives put in. If it’s those much-hyped hallucinations you’re after, make sure you hold your breath for a couple of minutes after downing your shot.
T-Shirts and sweatshirts (made in China, naturally) emblazoned with the following logos:
- Prague drinking team
- Czech me out / Czech mate
Oscar Wilde said that “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit,” but he’d obviously forgotten about punning…
The Real Deal
Just to show that it’s not all bad, here are the souvenirs that should make your shopping list:
Handmade wooden marionettes and toys: Puppet theatre is a long-established custom in the Czech Republic, harking back to the morality plays enacted in town squares in the Middle Ages. This is a strong artisanal tradition handed down through the generations and involves a high level of craftsmanship, which means you can feel suitably smug that you are supporting a vibrant local trade and preserving the country’s cultural heritage.
We recommend you check out these shops: Galerie Marionette (U Lužického semináře 7) and Marionety (Nerudova 51), both in Malá Strana near Prague Castle. Old Town’s Havelský trh (market) is also a great place to find items like wooden toys and marionettes. Manufaktura (see below) also produces some fabulous handicrafts.
Bohemian garnet (granat): This gem is mined in the hills near Turnov in the north of the country and is famed for its particularly vivid shade of red. If you’re short on space (but not on cash), then some bespoke jewellery makes an ideal gift.
Popular retailers include Cesky Granat (Celetna 4) and Granat Turnov (Dlouha 30), both not far from the Old Town Square. Remember that unless you’re buying an antique (or a fake!) you should always receive a certificate of authenticity with your purchase.
Becherovka: This traditional Czech spirit is made from a blend of herbs and spices and renowned for its restorative properties (in moderation, of course). Drunk on its own or with tonic – a refreshing concoction called Beton – this is one alcoholic beverage that you can claim with conviction is good for your health without sounding like a prime candidate for the 12-step program. As with all alcohol, Becherovka can be purchased in any supermarket or local shop (potraviny) and there’s always Duty Free if you’ve left it to the last minute.
Other handicrafts: For some great smellies and natural skincare and cosmetic products, head over to Botanicus, one of the first bio stores in Prague. They have a great range of locally sourced and produced eco-goods (food, toiletries, aromatherapy oils, herbal tinctures and household products). Botanicus has a number of outlets across Prague, but their flagship store is in Ungelt, just off Old Town Square.
Another local favourite to have a nose around is Manufaktura, which has an extensive collection of natural beauty products and traditional handmade gifts. The Olga Havel Foundation (a human rights organisation set up in the 1990s) has a shop at number 19, Zlatá ulička (Golden Lane), in Malá Strana, where you can buy a range of gifts and handicrafts all created by people with mental and physical disabilities.
Mucha Memorabilia: The Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) continues to be one of the Czech Republic’s most famous artistic talents. He was thrown into the limelight when he designed a poster for the play Gismonda starring Sandra Bernhard – Paris’s leading lady in the late 1800s. You can pick up reproductions, postcards, posters, photos, calendars, glass, jewellery, hand-painted silk scarves, books, mugs, lamps and handmade notepaper at the museum gift shop on Old Town Square.
Bohemian cut glass and crystal: Although quintessentially Czech and undeniably beautiful, its fragility makes it a risky souvenir to take home; nobody wants to lug a beautiful vase thousands for miles only to have it turned to dust by the sausage-fingered airport baggage handlers’ gentle touch.
If you’re willing to take the plunge, check out Moser glass on the famous shopping street Na Příkopě (just off Wenceslas Square), Erpet Bohemia Crystal (Old Town Square) or Celetna Crystal (Celetna street, just off Old Town Square).
A lot more practical way to get your mitts on some crystal is by purchasing jewellery that incorporates crystal beads. The town of Jablonec has been one of the largest producers of beads worldwide since the 17th century and the international Jablonex brand has a fantastic selection of crystal and glass costume jewellery from fashionable and funky to elegant evening wear. Jablonex has a store on Wenceslas Square and in the Palác Flóra shopping mall in Vinohrady. The Korálkárna bead shop on Újezd also sells individual beads for the dexterous and artsy-craftsy inspired to string together a more personal bracelet or necklace.
Czech Porcelain: Either the blue onion motif (affectionately known as the cibulák) or the Thun-brand porcelain have the stamp of authenticity, as they have been produced in the country since the late 1700s. Dům porcelánu, in between IP Pavlova and Náměstí Míru, has an extensive selection of quality porcelain from which to choose.