Travel journalist Auburn Scallon originally came to the Czech Republic with plans to stay for just one year. This worked out about as well as the notorious Czech suggestion to go out for “just one beer”. Now, after visiting every kraj (region) at least once, the co-author of the new Moon Guide to Prague, Vienna and Budapest, and upcoming Moon Prague & Beyond shares some favorite destinations across the country.
If You Love Both City Life and Natural Beauty…Liberec is the first place I lived in the Czech Republic and remains near and dear to my heart. The city sits roughly one hour north of Prague, with regular bus connections from the Černý Most bus station. I enjoy taking visitors on a cable car ride to the retro-futuristic Ještěd Hotel and Tower on a mountaintop. The rare white tigers (Bílí Tygři) at the Liberec Zoo gave the local ice hockey team its name. On a sunny day, you’ll find half the town walking around the Liberec reservoir or drinking Svijany beer in the grass. Radniční sklípek serves classic Czech meals underneath the town hall and my go-to cafes, who take coffee and cake seriously, are Kavarna Bez Konceptu and Mikyna Coffee & Food Point.
If You Prefer Views for Days and Being Outdoors…I would call myself an amateur hiker at best, but a day in Bohemian Paradise (Český ráj) shows me why so many Czech friends choose to get lost in nature every weekend. The train ride from Prague to the small town of Turnov is easy to do without a car, and a walk through the streets shows a quieter pace of life than the Czech capital. Once you enter the protected nature reserve and climb uphill, you’re rewarded with views from Hlavatice Lookout Tower (Skalní vyhlídka Hlavatice) and the sandstone rock “skyline” visible from Jan’s Viewpoint (Janova vyhlídka).
If You Want to Relax and Recharge…The moment I arrive in Karlovy Vary after a two-hour bus ride west of Prague, my shoulders start to relax. Add another half-hour in the salt caves at Elisabeth Spa and that calm opens up my lungs, which has been a saving grace after a few stubborn winter colds. Before you scoff at the Brutalist cement architecture of Hotel Thermal among the pretty pastels lining the river, take a look from above (it’s designed to look like classic film camera) and swim in their gorgeous basement pool. The camera-themed design is inspired the annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
If I had just one meal to eat in Karlovy Vary, it would be a three-course, French-inspired dream at Le Marche – keep an eye on the sidewalk on your walk there for some musical squares to dance on the street. It’s hard not to feel like royalty while tasting the free-flowing mineral springs in the ornate colonnades, previously visited by King Charles IV and a string of royal leaders. You can get a feel for some of the famous names in a mini-Walk of Fame around the brick courtyard of the Grand Hotel Pupp. Before heading back to Prague, try the herbal liquor Becherovka (jokingly referred to as ‘Karlovy Vary’s 13th Spring’) that truly “tastes like Christmas” no matter what time of year you visit.
If You’re Charmed by Churches, Chocolate, and Contemporary Art…Kutná Hora works great as a day trip from Prague, less than an hour train ride east of Prague, but spending one night there gave me a chance to explore even more of the city. The church trio of the Sedlec Ossuary (or “bone church”), Church of the Assumption, and St. Barbara’s Cathedral usually get all the (admittedly well-deserved) attention. I would also recommend a few additional hours to explore the cleverly curated Gallery of the Central Bohemian Region (GASK) and stop into the adorable Chocolate Museum. My ritual Kutná Hora meal is kulajda soup (with dill, egg, and potato) at Staročeská restaurace V Ruthardce, with the occasional bonus of a drink at Blues Café or sophisticated dinner of fresh flavors at Čtyři sestry (Four sisters).
If Beer, Puppets, and Military History Sound Intriguing…Every time I’m in Pilsen, I find more reasons to want to stay longer. The Pilsner Brewery is obviously the big beer name in town, and the smaller brew pubs like Beer Factory, Pivstro, and Pivotečka will wake your taste buds up from a lager-only haze with some variety. Before you start indulging in microbrews, turn your eyes to the interior beauty of the Great Synagogue and the view from the top of St. Bartholomew’s Church spire. A bus ride out to Purkmistr Beer Spa and Microbrewery includes the best beer spa experience I’ve tried so far, happily immersed in a hoppy bath with the resident lager on tap within reach. I was moved by the military tribute of US Liberation efforts in the Patton Memorial and had much more fun watching a mechanical puppet show (with 100-year-old marionettes!) than I ever expected at the Puppet Museum. For a glimpse of less tourism-centered life in Pilsen, a walk along the rainbow-painted riverside leads you to DEPO 2015, a maker’s space with industrial art exhibits, a metallic view tower, and a café decorated in millennial succulent-and-palette style.
If You’re Looking for Good Food, Nightlife, and City Views…As an outsider with no major stake in the Brno vs. Prague debate, I can safely say that I enjoy the capital cities of Bohemia and Moravia with equal enthusiasm. The Ossuary of St. James, with its skeletal sculptures and classical music soundtrack, both relaxes and fascinates me. A ballet performance is one of my favorite language-neutral experiences while traveling anywhere abroad, which brought me to the geometric design (and comfortable seats) of the Janáček Theatre and its colorful fountain brightening up a cement courtyard. I could spend an entire day comparing skyline views from different perspectives at St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral the Old Town Hall tower, and Špilberk Castle before going underground to the nuclear-shelter-turned-history-museum at 10-Z Bunker.
I love the song-filled streets during the Marathon of Music Festival in August and the specialty coffee scene (introduced to me by European Coffee Trip’s local caffeine connoisseurs). I would struggle to pick fewer than five favorite places to eat or drink in Brno (which is why I wrote a guidebook), so I’ll limit myself to the vegetarian paradise of Forky’s, the eclectic international cuisine at Soul Bistro, and the cocktails at the “Bar that doesn’t exist” (Bar který neexistuje). A 2.5-hour train ride each way from Prague deserves at least one night’s stay in my book, which I recommend spending in the Alfons Mucha bedroom at Hostel Mitte.
If You Like Your Chateau Visits with a Glass of Wine…When I learned that the Czech Republic’s 100 best wines were available to taste in the cellar of the Valtice Chateau, which also included a Baroque theater, I knew I’d found my South Moravian itinerary. I prefer the quiet nearby town of Mikulov as a home base in the Lednice-Valtice area. Mikulov’s scenic views (can you tell this is a theme of my kind of travel?) include the Mikulov Castle gardens, Holy Hill, the Church tower of St. Wenceslas, and the rooftop jacuzzi at Hotel Galant, worth the surcharge. The spacious rows of the Jewish Cemetery in Mikulov are a stark contrast to Prague’s cramped and crooked headstones, giving an idea of the difference in religious life among this community (growing more complicated throughout the centuries). On the practical side, the hospitality pros at Hotel Piano offer sweet dreams and an excellent breakfast after sampling the local wines at Vinotéka Volařík.
If You Love Baroque Art, Religious History, and Peaceful Streets…Of all the cities on this list, Olomouc is my latest love. With three visits under my belt, I’m still drawn back to this Moravian beauty roughly two hours east of Prague by train. As a fine arts fan, I can sing the praises of dance and opera at the Moravian Theater and the summertime Baroque Festival. Olomouc is sometimes called the “spiritual capital” of a country known for its atheist streak, illustrated by the Archdiocesan Museum, St. Wenceslas Cathedral (with hourly organ demonstrations), Church of St. Mortiz, and a Holy Trinity Column filled with meaning in every individual detail.
Olomouc’s artistic side goes beyond Christianity with a collection of Baroque fountains modeled after Roman gods, which make a great scavenger hunt around the city. Even if you never enter the Museum of Modern Art (which would be a shame) the exterior is entertaining with a mural on the neighboring building, a curated graffiti tunnel across the street, and a David Černý sculpture hanging outside. The Astronomical Clock in Socialist Realism style from the 1950s is surprisingly less religious than Prague’s, replacing saints with depictions of the working class of the proletariat. Entrée Restaurant lives up to its title of one of the country’s best restaurants, and Miss Sophie’s Olomouc is where I lay my head whenever possible.
Some of my favorite Czech cities, towns, and villages (not all listed here) have been found by a chance game of jumping on an unplanned train ride and seeing how many stops we want to go. What I can say for sure is that getting outside of the capital, as lovely as Prague is, gives you a much wider look at the landscape of life in the Czech Republic, and it rarely disappoints.