It seems every cobblestone in the Czech Republic leads you to a new way to spark the senses, from the aroma of roasting pork knuckle in a forest village to glittery art nouveau cafes crowning Prague‘s historical center. The country is all at once rooted in Slavic tradition yet brimming with artistic and civic innovations.
Yes, the tales of perfect and plentiful cheap Czech beer do ring true, but this central European gem is so much more than that. Imagine soaking in Bohemian spas, sleeping in castles and hiking to a subterranean river.
Roam Around Rock Cities
Along the Czech-Polish border, cities of rock rise from the earth, ready to enchant visitors with their peaks and crags. It’s the stuff of Czech fairy tales — sandstone formations with fanciful names like “mouse hole,” “sugar loaf,” and “elephant square.” Within the Adrspach-Teplice rock region, you’ll find waterfalls, a turquoise lake with local boat rides and cozy pubs to quench explorers’ thirst.
The area is home to one of Europe’s largest breeding sites for the peregrine falcon, which is protected by federal law. You’ll also most likely see rock climbers and jumpers. Stay the night in nearby Trutnov and take a train to the rocks early in the morning so you and the falcons can have them all to yourselves.
Walking trails vary from easy to more arduous; email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on specific routes.
Skip Between Chateaus
Two chateaus and their captivating landscapes in grapevine-rich South Moravia are not only mere miles apart, but they’re also both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the grandiose Chateau Valtice, you can make like Liechtenstein aristocracy by sampling the wares of an award-winning wine salon. Learn about Czech viticulture here and then meander through the showy halls and gardens.
Neighboring Chateau Lednice is where the Liechtensteins spent their summers. The interior drips with ornate wood carvings, and the English park outside is dotted with whimsical monuments, such as a Roman obelisk and an Islamic minaret. Rent a bike to cover more ground and pack a picnic to eat with your newly purchased Moravian wine.
Go Houby Hunting
Forget beer — Czechs and mushrooms (houby) go hand in hand. Wild mushroom foraging from May through October is a national hobby that not only gets people out into fresh air but also provides a bit of earthy nature on the dinner table. Mushroom-rich areas around Prague include the Kunratice Forest and Obora Hvezda, though weather conditions and numbers of pickers can dictate where the ‘shrooms are most prolific.
The best rule of thumb for anywhere in the country is to head into woodsy areas that get decent sun the day after a good rain. Don’t forget a sharp knife, a clean basket and a big appetite. But beware! Poisonous varieties do exist, and it’s imperative that you consult a field guide and/or knowledgeable local. Contact the Czech Mycological Society for assistance and check out this Prague TV guide for helpful photos. If you don’t feel comfortable going independently, join Prague Off the Map’s four-hour mushroom picking tour.
Soak in Bohemian Spas
The warm, mineral-rich groundwater of West Bohemia has been renowned for its relaxing and restorative properties for centuries; Beethoven, Goethe and Casanova were all devotees. Three Czech towns — Karlovy Vary, Marianske Lazne and Frantiskovy Lazne — form an opulent “spa triangle” where treatments can be found for a steal compared to Western prices.
Aside from the curative elements of a visit, the cake frosting-esque colonnades and frescoes bedecking these spa centers are pure eye candy. In Karlovy Vary, purchase a porcelain cup and follow the locals around to decorative fountains for swigs of spring water, or visit Moser glassworks or the factory that produces the Czech herbal liqueur Becherovka. And then go for another massage.
For another, more “hoppy” wellness option, head a few miles south of Marianske Lazne for a proper spa experience in a bath of — you guessed it — Czech beer. Connect with the Chodovar Brewery in Chodova Plana for more information.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Prague and Karlovy Vary by Mostly Sunny Tourist
“I purchased the tiniest cup I could find, a dainty porcelain cup the size of a thimble. It had a handle on one side and a spout on the other. I filled it about half full from one of the gushing fountains. The water was warm, so I let it cool down. This was probably a mistake, because I don’t think that you notice the taste so much when it’s hot. When I ran out of excuses I took a tiny sip. Immediately after I did this I poured the rest of the water out on the grass. I guess that meant no cure for me!” Read more!
Behold the Bones
While spending time with skeletons may not sound seductive, the “bone church” in Sedlec, near Kutna Hora, really is a sight to behold. Adorned with the bones of tens of thousands of plague and war victims, the Gothic church and its basement ossuary are fetching in a macabre sort of way. Fibulas, ribs, skulls and malleus (ear bones) form pyramids, chandeliers and even a coat of arms.
The site for the adjoining church was decided by a Cistercian abbot after he sprinkled dirt from the Holy Land there. When the plague hit in the mid-14th century, it became a highly sought-after burial place. Around 1511, a half-blind monk exhumed skeletons and stacked the bones, and in 1870, a local woodcarver was employed to put them in order; he arranged them into the elaborate designs you can see today.
The nearby town of Kutna Hora is a must-visit as well, with its lovely historic center and a medieval silver mine. Tour companies offer day trips from Prague, but it’s cheaper and quite easy to go by train yourself.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Perfectly Praha by Barbara S.
“We took a train to Kutna Hora to see ‘bone chilling’ Kostnice (the Bone Church) where everything in the interior is made up of bones from a nearby spot that had been used as a burial site for centuries. In the 19th century a Czech woodcarver, Frantisek Rint, came up with this unique solution for using the bones.” Read more!
Hike Like a Czech
Avoid the tourist crush and go where the Czechs go: into the woods. There is an extensive network of color-coded trails throughout the country, with every meter marked on easy-to-read maps available at knihovas (bookstores). The trails are maintained by Czech Tourist Club volunteers who clear obstructions, pick up waste and lovingly paint strips of red, yellow, green and blue on trees, posts and rocks so you won’t get lost. There’s no better way to find quaint villages and crumbly castle ruins, and hikes are available for every level of ability and fitness.
While there are endless options for stellar hikes, two particular areas offer very different flora and fauna. The Trebon region is flatter and full of picturesque woods and peat bogs, and has been named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve for its rich marshes and water birds. Hikes can be found at the Trebon city website. In contrast, the environs of Cesky Raj have hillier trails that wind through thick conifer forests and volcanic sandstone pillars, not to mention peaks capped with medieval ruins. For more information, see .
Follow in Kafka’s Footsteps
Franz Kafka may have been a blip on the literary scene when he was alive, but posthumously, he’s been recognized as one of the paramount writers of the 20th century. In fact, a handwritten manuscript of his novel “The Trial” was purchased for almost 2 million dollars — not bad for a guy plagued with worry over being mentally and physically repulsive. You can trace his peculiar story with tour guide Ivan (Franz-Kafka-Tour.com) from Prague’s Old Town buildings and cafes to the Jewish cemetery where he was laid to rest.
The Kafka Museum details how Prague, which he called a “little mother with claws,” affected his prose. It also exhibits the city’s topography as presented in Kafka’s writing.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
My stay in Prague by Pavol
“I would highly recommend a visit of Prague Castle. You can feel the atmosphere of old time. There’re guards by the gates (like those in Buckingham palace in London). The Golden Lane, with the small houses and the house where Franz Kafka used to live, is amazing. I couldn’t believe people could possibly live there.” Read more!
Catch Some Zs in a Czech Castle
Castles and chateaus aren’t just for princesses. Slip into royal slumber after eating, drinking and being merry in one of many stately structures around the country.
Suggestions? At Chateau Heralec, you can unwind above a 17th-century orangery. The 14th-century Chateau Hruba Skala offers archery lessons and rock climbing, among other outdoor activities. At Stirin Castle, check out the chapel’s Baroque altar festooned with Venetian mirrors. And for a more spartan experience, the Cejkovice Chateau has basic rooms from the era of the Knights Templar in the Czech Republic’s wine region. A bit of online research will turn up myriad options.
Enter the Mouths of the Moravian Karst
Straight out of a Jules Vernes novel, you can float down a subterranean river and weave through a toothy labyrinth of dripstone stalagmites in the caves of the Moravian Karst. These spectacular caverns extend about 57 miles, with five currently open to visitors. They were discovered in the early 20th century and are remarkably well preserved. Visit CaveMK.cz for info.
The karst are popular with locals, so be sure to reserve tickets ahead of time in the summer months. A cable car and two trains are available to assist people in getting around the region.
Mix Beer and History
If the first pilsner ever to be created is still going strong worldwide, you can assume the formula is a winner — but you’d better have a taste for yourself! Visit the Pilsner Urquell Brewery in the Bohemian city of Pilsen for a tour on the history and production of the golden brew, and then polish off a few samples straight from oak barrels at the end. Check for tour times in English.
You may also want to check out Pilsen’s charming and informative Brewery Museum, located in a 15th-century house that documents beer brewing and drinking over the centuries.
Pilsen’s historical importance isn’t limited to its famous brewery. It has one of the largest synagogues in the world, a heady Gothic cathedral and the unique George Patton Museum, which documents Czechoslovakia’s liberation from the Nazis by U.S. troops.
Best Time to Go to the Czech Republic
April, May, September and October will have mild weather and fewer tourists than other times, but many museums, galleries and castles outside of Prague are only open during high season: summertime, when the crowds and humidity can be unbearable. July and August, along with Easter and Christmas/New Year’s, are when you’ll be in competition with vacationing residents for lodging and transportation, especially in Prague and the mountain resorts. Winter can be freezing cold, which is great for skiing but not so pleasant for everyday sightseeing.
Czech Republic on a Budget
Even though the Czech Republic is part of the European Union, the Czech crown is the official currency and enjoys strength and stability. Some stores, restaurants and hotels will accept euros, although the exchange rate may not be favorable. Youth and family hostels abound, as do rental apartments, guesthouses and inns. During the summer, universities open student dorms to visitors for economical lodging. Take in the free open-air theater at Divoka Sarka in late summer. For the most part, however, April and October have smaller crowds and cheaper rooms. Anytime you visit, avoid eating near tourist sites. Venture a bit further for less expensive canteens and cafes.
–written by Emily Rankin