At the end of our epic summer road trip, I stayed traveling for a few nights. Mike and I parted ways in Munich (a great city to end our holiday) and I went eastward to the Czech Republic. While I planned this leg of the journey I knew one stop that had to make the itinerary was Karlovy Vary. It’s a scenic spa town in the West Bohemia region of the country and besides relaxation, there are a lot of things to do in Karlovy Vary. I was thrilled to have the chance to experience them and czech the city off my Europe bucket list – see what I did there?
Since the mid 19th century, European and international celebrities, politicos and high society figures have flocked to Karlovy Vary. It was the “it place” for spa treatments and a low-key getaway. You can still feel that vibe in the city today. It has an Old World charm with art nouveau facades on gilded architecture, tiled streets and potted palm trees (which I assume go away in the winter). The feeling of “old money” is everywhere, especially in the spa district along the river. It’s no surprise that James Bond: Casino Royale filmed some scenes along the spa district’s river promenade.
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The city has been so popular with the celebrity class that it hosts the annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, one of the oldest in the world. It’s the place to be and be seen whether you’re from Los Angeles, New York or London. Well, I’m a normal Philly guy who took a train from Munich to Karlovy Vary.
Here’s my list of the best things to do in Karlovy Vary, whether you’re famous and wealthy or nothing of the sort.
Relax in The Spas of Karlovy Vary
As you may have guessed, the reason most people go to Karlovy Vary is for the thermal baths. The alternative name for the city, Carlsbad, literally means Charles watering place or Charles bath. It’s one of the best things to do in Karlovy Vary so visiting the spas for a relaxing day is at the top of our list.
The hot springs that the city was built around have attracted great names like Napoleon, Peter the Great, Sigmund Freud and Danny Devito. There are 13 major hot springs that flow into the city and they are pumped all over, including the mineral baths.
You’ve got plenty of spa options in the city of Karlovy Vary and the largest is Elizabeth Spa. It’s was built in 1906 to cover the high demand for spa treatments in Karlovy Vary. It was named after the beloved Austrian Empress Elisabeth and is still the most visited spa in the city and perfect for a day of relaxation.
Almost every hotel has a spa and offers traditional spa services. One of the most well-known spa hotels in Karlovy Vary is the Grandhotel Pupp. It was built in 1701 and has played a major role in the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and the history of spa culture in the city (not to mention a Bond movie). At this time you can visit the spa for the day even without staying at the luxury hotel.
Explore The Colonnades in Karlovy Vary
Visiting the colonnades in Karlovy Vary was one of my favorite parts of the entire Czech Republic leg of this trip. Firstly, they look gorgeous and I like to be around pretty things. The best reason is because of the thermal spring bubbling into the fountains of the colonnade.
The first one I visited was The Mill Colonnade. It’s comprised of 124 Corinthian columns which form two walkways and a nave. It is one of the most iconic structures of Karlovy Vary and was built to house fountains from the city’s hot springs.
As mentioned, the city has 13 major thermal springs and the Mill Colonnade receives flows from five of them. Each one varies in temperature and history, and they are all believed to possess medicinal properties. This is due to the high mineral content of the water.
The Mill Colonnade took ten years to construct, from 1871 to 1881. It’s the largest and most grandiose of the Karlovy Vary colonnades.
You should also visit the older Market Colonnade. It was opened in 1883 and is a wooden, Swiss-inspired colonnade. It’s named for the Market Spring which seeps to the colonnade along with the Charles IV Spring and Castle Spring.
Also pay a visit to the Hot Spring Colonnade. It’s the third structure built over these springs. It also includes a separate pavilion for the Hot Spring geyser which gushes 12 meters into the air.
When you visit the colonnades, you should buy a ceramic flask to collect and sip water from the fountains. The drinking devices are available for purchase all over the city and prevalent at kiosks surrounding the colonnades. Most only accept cash, so be sure to come prepares. The ceramic drinking cups also make a great and unique souvenier.
Find Panoramic Views At The Karlovy Vary Lookouts
One of the best things to do in any city is a get a great panoramic view. Luckily for anyone visiting Karlovy Vary, there is no shortage of lookouts and they’re all short hikes from the city.
Perhaps the most famous lookout is the Diana Observation Tower. It sits atop Friendship Hill and is free to enter and climb. It’s 35 meters tall, made of brick and opened in 1914. The tower was immediately popular with spa guests and still is today. The views of the mountains and town below are stunning and it’s about a 35 minute hike from the spa district to Diana Lookout Tower.
A second lookout to visit is the Deer Leap Tower (sometimes called Deer Jump Arbour). This lookout is the oldest in the town, opening in 1804. It’s defined by the stag statue perched on a rocky overcrop overlooking Karlovy Vary. It’s a bit easier to reach by foot and only 10 minutes from the spa district.
A few other lookouts exist like the Goethe Lookout. It’s historical, but not oriented towards the city, so you have a mountain view. You can also visit Peter the Great Lookout which is a spot that the Russian Tsar rode to in 1712. He traveled there by horseback with no saddle and the story led the town to erect a formal lookout in the spot 150 years later with a monument and his bust. You can also hike about 20 minutes to the Charles IV Lookout. It’s another great view and feels more authentic and less touristy.
Whether you hike to all the lookouts or pick one at random, it’s great to view the city from above. Many lookouts are connected by forest trails and you can use the funicular at Gradhotel Pupp to make your journey easier.
View The Churches of Karlovy Vary
The Czech Republic is a rather secular country, but there are still a few houses of worship in the city that are worth visiting. They each have a stunning exterior and even are even more impressive inside.
The first is the Catholic Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. It was built in the Baroque style between 1733 and 1736. The church is located in the heart of the spa district, very close to the hot springs of the city. It’s defined by two onion-domed spires facing the promenade.
The second church you should visit is the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Peter and Paul. It’s the largest and most important Russian Orthodox church in the country. The cathedral was built from 1893 to 1900 in the Byzantine style, so it looks almost out of place in the Czech city. It’s defined by the five golden copulas and ornate walls of the interior.
Both of these holy buildings are worthwhile stops in the city of Karlovy Vary and require up to 30 minutes.
Have a Local Food and Drink Experience
In Karlovy Vary you’ll find every type of international cuisine as well as local Czech foods. Even the pickiest eater will have no problem finding a good meal in the city. You’ll also find plenty of Czech beer on tap like the standby’s Pilsner Urquell, Budweiser and Staropramen. If you want to try some truly local tastes that are unique to Karlovy Vary, you should get a shot of or drink made with Becherovka and a spa wafer.
Becherovka has been poured in the city for over 200 years. It’s an herbal bitters that was originally used for medicinal purposes. The drink can be found in almost every pub, restaurant and bar in Karlovy Vary and the city is where it was first manufactured years ago. You can even tour the original plant, which is now the Jan Becher Museum, named for the inventor of the liquor.
Karlovy Vary wafers or Karlovarské oplatky are as old as at least 1788 when they first appeared in a city guide called Karlsbad, Beschrieben zur Bequemlichkeit der hohen Gäste (Description of the city of Karlovy Vary for the use of vacationers). The cooks at spa hotels would create these wafer confections and sprinkle them with sugar. They were served to spa guests between treatments and after soaking in the thermal mineral waters of Karlovy Vary.
Today you can find Karlovy Vary wafers sold on every corner of the town. There are kiosks in the promenade, which is where I tried one, and they’re not something I’d keep in my pantry, but they’re okay. It’s probably an acquired taste that I just have to go back and try again.
Museums and Day Trips From Karlovy Vary
Besides the spas, churches, colonnades and unique food and drink – there are some noteworthy museums and a day trip I have to recommend. That is, of course, if you have time between relaxing spa treatments.
Check out the Karlovy Vary Museum. It’s a 150 year old museum documenting the art, history and spa culture of the city. Another popular museum is the Museum of Glass Moser. It’s dedicated to the life and work of glassmaker Ludwig Moser and home to the famous Moser crystal.
While in Karlovy Vary, you should also spend half a day at Loket Castle, a short trip from the city. It’s a 12th century Gothic castle sitting on a massive rock formation overlooking the Ohre River. It was built in 1230 and is about 12 kilometers from Karlovy Vary. The castle is open for tours daily from 9:00 – 17:00 and it’s a great thing to do in the city since there is no castle to visit in Karlovy Vary proper.
Now You're Ready For The Best Things In Karlovy Vary
This spa town in West Bohemia is the perfect place to relax and unwind, but there are still a lot of things to do in Karlovy Vary. When you’re not getting a sea salt rub, relaxing in a mineral water pool or being massaged, get out and explore this beautiful town.
Karlovy Vary is rich with history, reminds you of a bygone era and tugs at something inside of you. Maybe it’s the lingering effects of the mineral waters, but there’s something magical about the town and hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as me when you visit.
Please leave your thoughts below and let us know what you think of the city if you visit.
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