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Pearls of Central Europe
by Corina Maritescu
April 8, 2010
Prague

The capital of the Czech Republic, Prague is a city with a rich history of creation and dissidence. Formerly a part of the Soviet Block, Prague was one of the only European cities to see artistic and intellectual growth during a Communist regime. In 1968 the “Prague Spring” movement resounded throughout the country in urban and rural environments alike. Writers, musicians, politicians, filmmakers and other media producers bound together, and some of the greatest Czech figures, including One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest director Milos Forman, were influenced by the country’s newfound freedom.

The Prague Spring was eventually squashed by a Soviet invasion, and it took twenty more years for the world’s only non-bloody overthrow of Communism to extricate the city from the Block. But the decades spent under a totalitarian regime bred a culture of dissatisfaction and liberal thinking that resonates to the present; today, the Czech Republic is one of the most freethinking and gay friendly of the former Communist states.

Prague’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender scene is influenced by its rich expat community. The Old Town, Prague 1 district’s point of convergence, is a bustling tourist area, housing Prague’s galleries and its incredible Jewish District. It is the city’s sightseeing hotspot. On the lower bank of the Vltava River, Old Town Prague is home some of the city’s best hotels and restaurants. The Clarion Hotel (Hradební 9, cpihotels.cz) is a gay-friendly luxury establishment located among the busy cobblestones streets in the heart of Prague. Just steps away from this hotel, visitors can shop for cheap Bohemian crystal, famous Czech marionettes and other tourist souvenirs.
Still in Old Town, The Iron Gate Hotel and Suites (Michalska 19, irongate.cz) welcomes tourists to a 14th century building. While the hotel's façade preserves all of its architectural features, the inside has been beautifully restored. This hotel was named one of the best historical renovations in Prague during the mid 2000s. It sits hidden on a winding cobblestone street, a few minutes away from the bank of the Vltava river.

Prague 2’s Vinohrady area is the city’s upscale residential neighborhood and the heart of Prague’s gay and lesbian nightlife scene. In this neighborhood, stay at The Sieber (Slezska 55, sieberhotel-prague.com), an unassuming and stylish boutique hotel minutes away from nightlife hotspots. If you’d rather explore Prague on your own, you can rent apartments starting at 90 euros for two people, with a modest fee for each additional person in the group. The best way to book your apartment is through The Saints (Polska 32, praguesaints.cz), a Prague-based gay-owned and operated travel agency. The Saints can also arrange private and group tours of lesbian or gay nightlife at your specific request.

As far as food goes, veggies be forewarned: the Czech Republic is one of the greatest meat consuming countries in the world, and Prague’s food culture is famously based on beer, meat and potatoes. Also, a meal in Prague is not, is not, as in America, a time to meet with friends and relax—going to the pub for beer afterwards, however, is more like it. And that’s not a bad thing, since the Czech Republic is well known for its beer (a quick tip—try a mix of half dark and half light beer and you’ll never want to go back to monochrome). A good restaurant to go to on your way out to a club is Pizzeria Gusto (Vinohradska 83) in Vinohrady. This is a cozy establishment perfect for dinner for two and it serves a range of food, from traditional Czech plates to great Italian dishes.

Café Erra (Konviktska 11, erra.cafe.sweb.cz) is a favorite lesbian hangout, and a good bet for those looking for good conversation and information on the local scene with their coffee and sandwiches. Café Erra’s alternative, minimalist vibe draws out a mixed crowd of LGBT folks, students, expats and locals, and the cocktails served there are delicious.

For all those veggies out there (you know who you are), Old Town’s Lehka Hlava (Borsov 2, lehkahlava.cz) is a definite must. Located on the smallest street in Prague, this restaurant is an enclave of vegetarian and vegan food. Their menu changes every other week, and their lunch specials are a quick, cheap way to refill for other explorations. A favorite of Prague residents, Lehka Hlava is only steps from the Karlovy Bridge, the quickest way to make your way to Mala Strana, the western bank of the Vltava and the home of the Prague Castle. You’ll recognize the castle from the hundreds of movie scenes shot here, one of the most recent being from the James Bond Casino Royale flick. No Bond Girls here, but you will find incredible views of the city and some of the best desserts around.

If you’re ready to go out, make your way first to Jampa Dampa (V Tunich 10, jampadampa.cz), a favorite with lesbians and a good place to spend the first few hours of your night. A two-story locale, Jampa Dampa serves cocktails and food upstairs and a healthy dose of dancing downstairs. Cross Club (Plynární 23, crossclub.cz) is another favorite hangout spot, not a designated gay bar, but a hot locale with an industrial feel and gay-friendly staff. Cross Club is serious about its performers, too, so check the website before coming for great live hip-hop, electronica, r and b, and dance shows.

After drinks here, you can head over to Valentino (Vinohradska 40, club-valentino.cz), a gay men’s club by definition and the best European techno/dance party this side of the Vltava. Chances are you won’t find too many local gay women here, but if you’ve come in a group and you want to get your moves on, this is definitely a must. Friends (Bartolomejska 11, friends-prague.cz) is possibly the club most geared towards American visitors, with their karaoke nights and their DJ spin cycles. Step in here and you’ll feel closer to home, making—ahem—friends from all over the world. 


Vienna

A short train ride away from Prague is Vienna, one of the most beautiful, culturally rich and historically impressive cities in Central Europe. The centre of the Austrian capital became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, and a quick walk through the city will show you why: the winding streets are speckled with elaborate statues, and every corner is another historically notable structure. Most of Vienna’s sights are either within walking distance of one another, or a short subway ride away—and the city boasts one of the fastest, most efficient, and definitely cleanest public transportation networks in the region. Like Prague, Vienna offers a variety of apartment living opportunities for those who wish to feel the pulse of the city, with Danobis Vienna (danobis-vienna-apartment.at) being a good resource.
 
There is a lot to see in Vienna, but an absolute must is the MuseumsQuartier, a short stretch of city space lined with cultural institutions, from the Museum of Natural History to Vienna’s Contemporary Art Museum. The Leopold Museum, still on the strip, houses world renowned impressive Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt collections, both of which are show stopping.

Another stop you have to make while you’re in Vienna is at the Schonbrunn Palace (schoenbrunn.at), the most popular sight in the city. Located just a short subway ride from Vienna’s centre, the Schonbrunn’s luxurious rooms and lavish gardens were the summer visiting grounds of Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria, Franz Joseph’s rebellious wife. Known to history as Empress Sisi, she was  a free thinker in a strict and normalizing society who famously disregarded conventional court protocol.

Another famous area of Viennese culture is, of course, the food. Viena-style coffee and Wiener schnitzels have their share of notoriety, and with good reason. Serving coffee in Vienna is an art: the carefully foamed café latte is quickly followed by the two complementary biscuits in any of the city’s cafés.

Bar and restaurant Café Willendorf (linke wienzeile 102, villa.at/willendorf), a favorite with Viennese lesbians, is a good place to start your sampling of local food culture. Their menu changes frequently, and their food is always fresh and portioned generously. A definite must is Café Savoy (Linke Wienzeile 36), one of Vienna’s most famous establishments and original home of the delicious Sacher Torte, a dessert that is best experienced, not described. This posh locale dates back to the Imperial era, and lines are often long, so go on one of your slower days.

The Frauencafe (Lange Gasse 11), whose title literally translates into “Women’s Café,” is a women and trans-only welcoming eatery. Originally founded as a collective by a group of lesbians who wanted to give their sisters a safe space, this café runs less like business—and more like family.

In recent years queer life in Vienna, which has always been vibrant, has seen an impressive growth. Gay culture is now part of the everyday Viennese life. The Rainbow Parade (regenbogenparade.at; July 3rd this year) is one of the biggest LGBT celebrations in Europe, attracting an estimated 120,000 visitors annually. Set to the backdrop of the Ringstrasse and surrounded by centuries-old architectural and cultural heritage, this is a parade the likes of which you’ve never seen before. Vienna’s queer film festival, Identities (identities.at), a celebration of LGBT film and filmmakers rivaling many others around the world (held in alternate years  (plan on going in June 2011) is another noteworthy event.

Viennese gay nightlife is home to some of the best parties in the region, with events catering to queers of every musical persuasion and all of their straight allies. It is not uncommon to find LGBT parties sharing a venue with straight parties. Heaven (heaven.at) is a weekly Saturday queer dance part happening at Camera Club (Neubaugasse and Mariahilfer Strasse) that you will definitely want to check out when you’re here. Miss Candy, one of Austria’s most famous drag queens, promotes this party, so you know you’re in for a treat. Also at Camera Club, monthly G-Spot (gspot.at) is a favorite with queer women, and caters to a musically diverse crowd.

A monthly bash worth checking out is Homoriental (homoriental.wordpress.com),
a dance party with a multicultural crowd. Created mostly for lesbians, transfolks and genderqueers, Homoriental is, like most Viennese parties, open to everyone. In June this party will be celebrating its 11th anniversary, so they must be doing something right! Head over here if you’re in the mood for oriental, Turkish and Balkan tunes, with a dance and electro-pop spin.

And just in case you’re not in Vienna while one of these parties is going on, you can check out Why Not (Tiefer Graben 22,
why-not.at), a friendly gay bar with an electrifying dance floor and accomodating staff. Fog machines and top 40 beats are
a staple of this bar, so be ready to go all out. The top floor is a chill lounge, a good bet if you’re looking to spend some much needed quality time with your partner, or your friends.

Both Vienna and Prague have much more to offer; hopefully, this guide will get you on your way. n
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