It doesn’t take a connoisseur to know that the city of Pilsen is the spiritual home of beer. You can tell from the name that Pilsner lager was born here, and this the perfect place to quench your curiosity for the Czech Republic’s most famous export. The old town has long ties with this industry, and is well worth your time, particularly the architecture around the Square of the Republic, where charming gothic and renaissance buildings are among the attractions that jostle for attention. Here you’ll discover the Czech Republic’s tallest church tower, and the third-largest synagogue in the world, while you can also delve in the city’s underworld where endless subterranean tunnels have survived since medieval times. They used to make and store beer down there too! Let’s explore the best things to do in Pilsen:
Also see: Best places to visit in the Czech Republic.
1. Plzenské Pivovary
For a starting point look no further than the brewery that exports Pilsner Urquell to more than 50 countries worldwide. Urquell was the first-ever blond lager, created in 1842 and its game-changing bottom-fermentation process was the ancestor of around two-thirds of all beers consumed in the world today. This SABMiIller facility is actually a number of breweries in one place, and English-speaking tours take place three times daily. You get to see the new and old brew houses, water purification plant, “lagering” caves and the packaging line. It’s a great choice for people who want a “How it’s Made” style experience for the world’s favourite alcoholic beverage.
2. Beer Museum
It’s a given that Pilsen should have one of the world’s top beer museums, and the attraction is in a 15th-century brewhouse no less. You’ll get the lowdown about the Czech Republic’s close relationship with beer, perusing a whole load of beer-related curios. You can also step into a historic Pilsen-style pub or investigate all the instruments needed to produce beer through the ages, and all the different ways of drinking it. There’s a malt shop, malt kiln, and you’ll get to tour the brewhouse’s original medieval cellars. Of course, the whole visit will culminate with a well-deserved glass of Pilsner Urquell.
3. The Pilsen Historical Underground
Above the surface Pilsen has changed a lot over the centuries, but underground things have been left untouched since medieval times. So don’t pass up the chance to venture into the underworld on this hour-long tour that walk you through a maze of tunnels and cellars. At the start you’ll find out about the ingenuity involved in the early beer-making process, when ice was kept on an upper level and its melt-water sluiced down into the fermentation vats in cellars beneath. You’ll also see some 20 wells and pits, and discover how these tunnels were a key part of the city’s defences during times of siege.
4. Cathedral of St. Bartholomew
Certainly the crown of old Pilsen’s architectural ensemble, the first stone of this sublime building was laid in 1342. Unlike many churches of its kind in Europe this cathedral is the same now as when it was ordained, which makes it one of the country’s national cultural monuments. An interesting feature of St. Bartholomew’s is how the tented shape of the cathedral’s roof allowed the building to be used for services even before its walls were completed. When it was finished the tower was a record-breaker, and it is still the tallest church tower in the country.
5. Town Hall
Ever since the 15th century this building, loved for its magnificent renaissance facade, has held the same municipal purpose. It was purchased by the city in 1407 to be the Town Hall, as it was the largest building in Pilsen. After a fire the Italian master-builder Giovanni de Statia was drafted in to give the building some decorative elan. Above the first floor the facade has a sgraffito, a kind of fresco, depicting the city’s coat of arms and famous historical figures. Entrance to the Town Hall is free and there’s no need to join a guided tour. Have a poke around and don’t forget to see the scale model of Pilsen’s historical centre just beyond the foyer.
6. Great Synagogue
There has been a Jewish population in Pilsen since the 1300s, and at one point there were five synagogues in the city. This is one of the two remaining and is massive, ranking as the second-largest in Europe and third in the world after Jerusalem and Budapest. Nowadays it’s more of a poignant reminder of a population that was ripped away from its home in the 20th century, but the interior has a decorative Moorish-style design well-worth seeing. Post-war the building was renovated and today the Great Synagogue has a dual purpose, being a place of worship and a concert hall with its own orchestra because of its perfect acoustics and classical organ.
7. Pilsen Zoo
A modern animal attraction that doesn’t believe in bars, Pilsen Zoo is officially Western Bohemia’s most popular day out. Following a big overhaul in 1996 the zoo has adhered to the highest European standards for animal-keeping. Forty of the species here are on the European Endangered Species Program and the zoo assists the breeding programmes for dwarf and fat-tailed dwarf lemurs. In all there are 6991 animals from 1210 species, and children will love the Humboldt Penguins and Pygmy Hippos, which have to be the cutest animals in the world! One ticket will also give you access to the botanical gardens and the DinoPark, inhabited by moving models of all your favourite dinosaurs.
8. Museum of West Bohemia
This museum weighs in as one of the largest in the Czech Republic, and has a whopping two million items in its collection. Military historians come here just to see the Pilsen City Armoury, which has a wealth of itemised weapons spanning three centuries. What really sets the collection apart is the huge array of firearms, reaching back to the most primitive armaments that were designed tear through castle walls, and also includes genuine muskets from the 30 Years’ War. If you’re a design enthusiast then don’t miss the museum’s lovely art nouveau library, which holds numerous first editions.
9. Techmania Science Centre
The car-maker Skoda funded this interactive museum, which is actually contained by one of the brand’s former facilities. It’s a place that balances education and fun to help get kids thinking about science in creative new ways. The centre is vast, at 3000 square metres, and is crammed with games and experiments. Many of the exhibits require kids to get involved and active, putting physical and chemical principles into action. Trained experts also put on demonstrations, for instance with static electricity and exploding bubbles. Adults with an interest in automotive history will be keen to see the permanent exhibition on the history of Skoda, where you can see the world’s first fibreglass chassis from 1963.
10. Plague Column
Marian Columns cropped up across central Europe in the early-modern age to mark the end of plague outbreaks, celebrate a lucky miss, or even to try to ward off a local outbreak during an epidemic. This one is set in the Square of the Republic right next to the Town Hall, and dates to 1681 when the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II fled to the Pilsen as the disease was spreading across Central Europe. It was designed by local architect Kristian Widman and has a gilded statue of Madonna with child on its plinth.
11. Republic Square
When Pilsen’s central square was first conceived it was the largest city plaza in all of Europe. All around are elegant gothic and renaissance buildings, with many of Pilsen’s most significant monuments such as the Cathedral of St. Bartholomew, the Town Hall and the Plague Column. If there’s a big event taking place in Pilsen then you can be sure that there will be something worth seeing in the square. During the Pilsen Liberation Festival in early-May war veterans complete their parade here with a display of vintage military vehicles and hardware. Pilsner Fest in August is the country’s biggest beer festival, with live music and tents for all of the local brews.
12. Puppet Museum
This compact museum on the Square of the Republic is rooted in Bohemian culture, with a display that details the history of puppetry in Pilsen. For centuries roving puppeteers would travel from town to town, but by the 1800s a permanent stage had been established at this location. Shows weren’t just for children, as they often contained sharp satirical and bawdy humour. Exhibits here contain puppetry artefacts relating to all of the famous families practising this art-form down the years. The best part for kids will be the room in which you can pull the strings yourself and the staff will demonstrate some of the time-honoured puppetry techniques.
13. George Patton Museum
Bohemia’s only military museum commemorates the American General who commanded the United States’ Third Army during the Second World War. The Czech Republic has a special relationship with Patton, whom they credit with the country’s liberation. Don’t miss this one if you’re into military history, as the collection extends to more than a thousand items. It will throw you right into the atmosphere of chaos during the last months of the war, recreating the bombing campaign that saw Pilsen’s Skoda plants destroyed. On show are weapons, documents, military paraphernalia, field rations including unopened food cans, as well as an emotive exhibition of contemporary photographs.
14. J.K. Tyl Theatre
Pilsen’s main theatre is a multi-disciplinary venue that has a vibrant calendar of performances. To give you an idea, there 18 premieres a year here. The theatre retains a roster of specialist local performers who take part in ballet, opera, musicals and dramas. The schedule is very high-brow, with operas such as The Barber of Seville and dramas that include works by Shakespeare and Chekhov, performed at the J.K. Tyl in the last few years. For broader entertainment international hits like Monty Python’s Spamalot and Chicago have also had runs here. Check the listings when you arrive and see what tickles your fancy.
15. Bohemia Sekt Winery
Now, although beer is Pilsen’s speciality, this part of Bohemia is south enough to produce a range of wines. But if there’s a family celebration in Bohemia you can be sure that a bottle of Bohemia Sekt sparkling wine will be on hand. You can visit the place where it’s made to find out about the seven decades worth of local expertise that goes into each bottle. The winery is from the post-war period when beer-making facilities were converted for wine production and the French oenologist Louis Girardot introduced the best French practices. After a two-hour tour you’ll come away wiser about one of the country’s best-loved brands.