“If you neglect to recharge a battery, it dies. And if you run full speed ahead without stopping for water, you lose momentum to finish the race.” – Oprah Winfrey
When it comes to tourism in Czech Republic, you’re probably familiar with a few of the country’s top tourist attractions – like the Prague Castle in Prague, the Český Krumlov State Castle, The Pilsner Urquell Brewery, Pilsen, or the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora. But what do you know about Karlovy Vary?
Karlovy Vary, also known as Karlsbad in German is an old German glamorous spa town. It has been a fashionable destination for many famous European figures, from Peter the Great to Charles the IV, to famous composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin to literary figures like Tolstoy and Kafka who were drawn to the healing properties of the hot springs.
It is also home to one of the oldest and biggest film festivals in Central & Europe, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, which attracts famous A-listers to this town every year in July. With the hot spring being a healing haven and a picturesque backdrop for the art scene, it is fitting that Karlovy Vary is another favorite town to visit for wellness lovers and art & cultural buffs. Here’s how to experience the best of the town.
Sip, Savor and Go Spring Water Tasting
In the old town (along Masaryka street) you’ll find people walking up and down the pedestrian zone, lined with beautiful colonnades and fountains flowing with spring water waiting for you to stop, fill and taste. Mineral spring water in its pure form is an acquired taste. In Karlovy Vary, the temperature of the water varies greatly, so depending on the mineral make-up of the spring and the temperature, the water can taste a bit salty.
Tip: Before you start tasting the water buy yourself a decorative porcelain cup with a drinking spout. You can get them at souvenir shops and kiosks on the street at various price ranges. The fancy cups help to protect you from the danger of your water bottle melting and releasing all those BPA toxins into your water since the thermal spring water is hot.
Start your walk and tasting near the Spa Hotel Thermal. You can’t miss the building because it stands out from the rest of the city buildings. It is a concrete building built during the Communist era. A stark contrast to the elegant Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture you see in the city.
As you walk along the path, you’ll notice a lovely park, opposite the Spa Hotel Thermal with weeping trees and a scenic pond. From there you’ll come to the first of three main tasting areas.
The Park Colonnade
An ornate pavilion where you’ll find spring water gushing out of a sculpted snake spout.
The Mill Colonnade
Next you’ll see the Mill Colonnade. A large Roman colonnade with a gallery of columns that contains five springs. The water here is hot.
The Hot Spring Colonnade
Following the Mill Colonnade you’ll come to the Hot Spring Colonnade, a modern glass and concrete building. Inside you’ll come across more fountains to drink from. What you want to see here is the Hot Spring Geyser. This is the hottest spring in Karlovy Vary and it spurts thermal water up to 12 meters high at 72 °C (162 F). As it is so hot, it is distributed into five spring vessels to different temperatures appropriate for drinking.
Need a break
Try a spa wafer. It’s a local tradition. They come in a variety of flavors. It reminded me of the bread you would get if you attend mass at a Catholic Church but the size of the spa wafer was as big as my head. I personally didn’t find them amazingly delicious but when in Karlovy Vary, why not try it. There’s a place that sells this inside the Hot Spring Colonnade. But word on the street is the locals favorite is at U Jachyma which is located near the Grandhotel Pupp.
Visit Dobrá čajovna Tea House. This is a delightful Middle Eastern tea haven that serves vegetarian dishes and a great selection of tea in a cellar that has a calming vibe. Or get a smoothie or fresh juice at Rubin (located next to Peter House, across the street from Mill Colonnade).
Try Karlovy Vary’s local beer, Karla IV beer named after King Charles the IV.
Try the Becherovka Along the spring water tasting zone, you’ll find a booth shaped like a green bottle. Here you can buy the locally produced herbal liquor that is known to aid digestion. However, I would suggest to Visit Jan Becher Museum where you can learn about this herbal potion, tour the old cellars and also get a free tasting.
Go Hiking in the Slakov forest
In Karlovy Vary there are many trails you can take to get a stunning view of the city. Before you head for any hikes, stop by the Karlovy Vary Tourist Center or ask your hotel for a map and free brochure on Karlovy Vary walks.
There’s one by the *Grandhotel Pupp where you can hike up to Deer Leap lookout, Diana Watchtower and Charles IV Observation Tower.
Or if you are lazy you can take a funicular all the way up to the Diana Tower. Explore the area a bit, walk to the Charles IV Observation Tower and then walk down the Deer Leap Lookout and catch the funicular at the Deer Leap station down.
*Grandhotel Pupp is an iconic 5-star hotel that has served as a model hotel for the hotel in Grand Budapest Hotel. And has appeared in Casino Royale and Last Holiday starring Queen Latifah. Pupp is pronounced ‘poop’
Head to the Spa
As Karlovy Vary is famous for being a spa town, one must pamper oneself.
Note: There is a difference between the Czech Republic and North America spa culture. The spas in Czech Republic are more clinical in nature where many people will visit the spa to treat health ailments (I will write about this in another post). For now, know that other than a massage the treatment list tends to be clinical in nature.
If you don’t have any specific ailments in mind you want to treat, I would suggest keeping it simple. Finding a facility where you can book a massage and can access thermal water treatments or has a thermal pool to experience bathing in the spring water that is believed to have healing powers.
Where to Go
The Castle Spa (Zámecký Lazne) has a thermal water pool that is beautiful, but to access the facility you need to book a treatment. And their treatment offered are very short in length and on the clinical side.
The Windsor Hotel also offers thermal water treatments you can book and can take a dip in their pool.
Elizabeth V Day Spa or Spa 5 is a more traditional spa. They offer a variety of wellness treatments and beauty related treatments including thermal water baths, massages, peat wrap, hot bath with mint, champagne face mask. They also have a pool, but it is not mineral springs just regular water.
Tawan Thai House Nikolina Looking for something less clinical, head to the Tawan Thai House Nikolina. You can get a hot chocolate massage or hemp seed oil, coconut massage. They also offer a variety of baths including green tea, milk, aromatic, beer, coconut and red wine.
If you choose to go the clinical procedures route, I would suggest staying in Karlovy Vary longer and have an intention. Booking yourself in for a wellness program where you would meet with a physician and have a pre-spa check-up/ consultation to understand what is needed. They will then suggest the treatments that are right for you and explain how it will be beneficial to you rather than you just picking something to try. I simply picked something I wanted to try and the experience felt very lackluster.
Catch a Film at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
If you are in Karlovy Vary in July when the Karlovy Film Festival is happening, why not catch a premiere of a film. Who knows who you may bump into and see in town.
Other General Things
Getting to Karlovy Vary
The best way to get to Karlovy Vary is by bus, as it takes less time than the train. Take RegioJet (formerly Student Agency) bus. It’s about a 2-hour journey. The cost is less than $10 one way and drops you off just outside of the old center of Karlovy Vary at the Dolní Nádraží Station, which is about a 15-minute walk.
Day trips from Karlovy Vary
Thinking of places close by Karlovy Vary, check out Loket – a cute little medieval town that is less than half an hour away known to be very scenic and a favorite place among the film industry to shoot movies in. And if you are not spa-ed out check out, Marianske Lazne (Marie, another spa town less than an hour away.
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