Karlovy Vary is an aesthetic pleasure to eyes, its architecture is simply stunning! I have heard about Karlovy Vary many times, mainly as a place where Russians go for medical treatment and to relax. After all, it is a spa city. So, in my child’s mind, when I did not really pay attention to the word treatment, it was a place to have fun and do nothing: what else a kid could wish for 🙂 I still remember a TV programme about Karlovy Vary, where the presenter said how beautiful the city is and showed some of its streets. And I knew for sure that one day I will go there. Dreams come true, you know 🙂 When I was planning my trip to Czech Republic, I decided that I would go there in any case, and I did not care about the distance. And when I came there, I realized I had no idea what to do in Karlovy Vary. I guess that’s a sin of mine, to come unprepared 🙂
There are no castles, palaces or fortresses here, no fancy museums, nothing that one usually finds in famous tourist places. People really come here for medical treatment, I saw many of them walking with sticks together with trainers, I heard them discussing their doctors and illnesses. So, you may ask me: What to do in Karlovy Vary then? Why to go there? And I will tell you: Enjoy its atmosphere, stunning architecture, wonderful parks and views from above. Spend a day just walking around and contemplate its beauty.
My first and most vivid memory of Karlovy Vary is people drinking 🙂 When I started my walk along the river I saw many people, men and women, drinking something from funnily shaped cups. It took me some time to realize that they were drinking local mineral water, which is believed to have healing effects. And here are the cups:
Like I said, I had no idea about things to do in Karlovy Vary, so first thing I did was to find a tourist information center. It was nowhere close to the bus station, so I just went to the first travel agency I saw and asked for a map with the sights 🙂 It was an agency with Russian-speaking staff, and I got my map 🙂 And then I saw it, the tourist information center: it is right between the Mill and Market Colonnades in Lázeňská street, but it was closed both times I passed it by.
Frankly, Karlovy Vary exceeded my expectations, and I would gladly go there again. But before I start with the things to do in Karlovy Vary, let me give you some practical, but boring information 🙂 Like the fact that public toilets in Karlovy Vary are not free, but cost 10 Czech Crowns 🙂
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When to visit Karlovy Vary
If you go to Karlovy Vary as a tourist, not as a patient, then I would say that it is better to visit it when it is warm and sunny, the parks are green and flowers are blooming. I went there at the end of May and loved it: it was just perfect. I guess in summer it becomes really hot, so I would advise going to Karlovy Vary in May or September. But there is a very important event happening in summer. Did you know that Karlovy Vary is a very famous destination among film lovers? Every year a huge film festival is held in the city, attracting directors and actors. 2019 festival is planned for June 28 – July 6. There is an award for outstanding contribution to the cinema, and Robert de Niro, Michael Douglas, Judi Dench, Susan Sarandon, John Travolta, Mel Gibson, Richard Gere and many others are among those who received it. I guess it is worth enduring a bit of hot weather 🙂
How to get from Prague to Karlovy Vary
This is the easiest part. I used Prague as my base city and travelled for one day to other places and Karlovy Vary is one of them. After an easy Google search I found an excellent bus company – Regiojet – that drives from Prague’s ÚAN Florenc station to Karlovy Vary more than ten times a day for 5-7 EUR and the same price for the return ticket. The ride takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes, the buses are very comfortable, have Wi-Fi connection and multimedia displays to watch movies and listen to music. I booked my tickets online before I came to Czech Republic, and the best thing is that you don’t need to print the ticket: you just show the bus attendant your unique number and take your seat.
What to do in Karlovy Vary
The Regiojet bus from Prague has two stops in Karlovy Vary: first, it stops close to the Smetanovy Sady and then follows to the bus station. Naturally, it is more convenient to get off at the first stop, and this is what I did. After that I just followed the river, and below are the interesting places in the order I saw them on my way to the Japanese Garden at the other end of Karlovy Vary.
I guess Smetanovy Sady is the first park you will see in Karlovy Vary on your way from the bus station to the city center. There is a spa center, Elizabeth’s Baths, right in the park, with a swimming pool. It is my understanding that it is open to everyone, well, to everyone who pays 🙂
Speaking about the park itself, there is a flower carpet right in front of the Elizabeth’s baths, and they change the layout of flowers to write the current date.
Dvořákovy sady/Park Colonnade
Dvořákovy sady is a nice park with many benches, and the majority of them are under the sun, which is not really helpful on a hot day 🙂
What really grabs attention in the park is the so-called Park Colonnade. This long structure with intricate elements was erected in the 19th century, and is all that was left from Blanenský Pavilion, a concert hall and restaurant. There is a hot spring there, and I tried to get some water, but it was so crowded that I could not do it.
At one end of the Park Colonnade there is a small shopping center: just a piece of information for shopping lovers 🙂
Orthodox Church of St Peter and Paul
The Orthodox Church of St Peter and Paul was built at the end of the 19th century, and wealthy Serbians and Russians donated money for its construction. It was nice to see such a familiar sight in Karlovy Vary, as I consider the Russian churches beautiful and their colors are so vivid and cheerful. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the inside of the church, as it was closed, but I suppose it is very much like other Russian churches: richly decorated with paintings and murals. So, you better go there during the daytime, from 9 AM till 5 PM.
Mill Colonnade is a very impressive structure. It was built at the end of the 19th century by the same architect who built Rudolfinum in Prague. There are five hot springs in the colonnade, and the water is drinkable. But the water is hot, so you will need a glass or a bottle or, even better, one of those funny cups, to cool it after you fill your vessel.
I think that the Market Colonnade is much more beautiful than the Mill Colonnade. This one is wooden, painted white and richly decorated, it definitely stands out compared to other buildings. It was built at the end of the 19th century as well, and there are three mineral springs inside.
Pay attention to the Holy Trinity Column: this impressive statue next to the Market Colonnade is hard to miss. It was erected to show the gratitude of people living in Karlovy Vary who did not suffer from the plague outbreak in the 18th century.
And while you are at the colonnade, buy oblatka, a local variety of wafer. They cost 10 Czech Crowns (about 0.40 EUR) and come with different fillings, people seem to like them, but, frankly, I didn’t 🙂
Church of St Mary Magdalene
The current building of St Mary Magdalene’s Church was erected in the 18th century. But it is not the first church on this place: the original Gothic church was built in the 14th century and rebuilt in the 16th century, but suffered greatly from multiple fires. It is my understanding that it is open to visits only during the services.
Sundial is a sun calendar on the ground right in front of the Church of St Magdalene. I am not sure how it works, but there is an informational board explaining it, so take your time to read it. The funny thing is that I passed the sundial several times without noticing it. I guess I did not expect it to be on the ground 🙂
There are many panoramic decks in Karlovy Vary, more than five. Unfortunately, I had time for two of them only. When I was at the Market Colonnade, I took the stairs up on its left, as my map said that the street above was the way to climb up to Jeleni Skok or Deer Jump. Well, my map was right, and it was not its fault that that path was on reconstruction, so I had to search for another way up. I found it close to the initial track and started my ascent. It was not that hard, and it definitely helped that I was under trees. And when I was at the lookout, I was disappointed: I could not see as much as I hoped I would see.
But I decided not to give up and continued my ascent to the Peter’s Height lookout, which is about 17 meters higher than Jeleni Skok. And the view from there was truly spectacular! I could see the whole city from above: Karlovy Vary was spread before my eyes. Every street, every notable structure was clearly seen from there. The famous Russian tsar Peter I left his trace here: first, he rode a horse up the hill, which at that time was almost impossible to do as there was no path. Hence the name of the lookout, Peter’s Height. Actually, Peter I visited Karlovy Vary a couple of times and loved it. He said that he felt much better after the treatment in the city.
Not far from Peter’s Height there is a restaurant Jeleni Skok – yes, like the first lookout. And I tried there deer goulash which was very good. But the best part of the dinner was the view!
Emperor’s spa or Imperial baths
This is the only place I paid to enter. I saw it by chance, on my way to the Japanese Garden, and I could not miss visiting this impressive building. For 50 Czech Crowns I got to see the public baths the way they looked in the beginning of the 19th century. It was one of the most prestigious spa institutions in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Imperial Baths, known now as Lazne I, in addition to its spa and medical facilities, had a huge hall with various equipment for medical gymnastics. It is called Zander Hall, after Dr. Gustav Zander who invented a therapeutic method of exercise that involved using machines. In the hall there are pictures of these machines.
The Imperial baths stopped serving their initial purpose in the 1980-es, and the Zander Hall was converted into a casino. Now the building needs quite a renovation, but the hall is still very impressive. And nowadays it is used as a venue for the Karlovy Vary film festival.
PS: Frankly, I thought that I would be charged extra to use the toilet here, but luckily I was not 🙂 Why I thought so? Because in Prague I had to pay to use the toilet in Prague Castle despite paying for the full ticket.
Church of St Peter and Paul
This church is very small, it is different from the Orthodox one I mentioned above and it is definitely overshadowed by it. Frankly, there is not much special about this church, it is just a tranquil place to sit alone. It belongs to Czechoslovak Hussite Church Congregation and is open to visits since 8 AM to 6 PM. In my opinion, the church of St Peter and Paul is not a place to put on your bucket list, but if you are at the Emperor’s spa, you may well peek in for a couple of minutes.
Parks around the Japanese Garden
The Japanese Garden… I expected so much! Beautiful flowers, arranged in specific layouts, lush bushes, but no… Silly me, my general knowledge of the Japanese gardens was not enough to realize that it is a stone garden. While everything in Japan has its own significance, I did not appreciate this garden. It is quite far from the center of Karlovy Vary and I went there just to see it.
Luckily, the parks around the garden are spectacular, and even if I did not have time to truly explore them, that half an hour I spent there was enough to understand that I would love to go there again.
Walk along the river
This is by far the most important thing to do in Karlovy Vary. I think that the most architecturally beautiful buildings are located along the Tepla River, not only the colonnades and the parks I mentioned above. Just stand in the middle of every bridge, sit on the benches, of which there are plenty, and contemplate the splendid view. And don’t forget to have a look at the dark and tall Hotel Thermal, built during the Soviet era and looking really strange compared to other buildings in Karlovy Vary. I don’t know about you, but I had a feeling that it did not belong there 🙂
What to do in Karlovy Vary: places I did not have time to go to
I am not a big fan of museums, so if I missed any in Karlovy Vary, I would not be upset. What I really regret is that I did not have time to climb many of the panoramic decks like Diana, Charles IV, Tři kříže (three crosses) and Camera Obscura ones. Judging by my climb to Jeleni Skok deck, the way up itself is as spectacular as the view from above.
Diana observation deck seems to be the most famous among them. If you do not want to hike up, you can take the funicular at Grandhotel Pupp which will take you to the lookout tower. Unfortunately, the funicular is not free, so click here to see the opening times and prices.
Is one day in Karlovy Vary enough?
No, in my opinion, one day in Karlovy Vary is not enough. I could easily use at least another half of a day, as I did not get to climb the Diana and Charles IV panoramic decks and I would love to do it. While I saw almost all the interesting parts of the city, I could use a couple of hours more to spend some time in its magnificent parks around the Japanese Garden. My only condition is that the weather is sunny. So, I would say that a day and a half is much better. Actually, that was my initial plan, as I did not want to hurry, but I had to change it to one day only.
Fun part: James Bond in Karlovy Vary
As I told already, Karlovy Vary is popular among film lovers not only thanks to the film festival. A couple of famous movies, Shanghai Nights or Last Holiday, for example, were filmed there. But the most notorious is Casino Royale from the James Bond series. If you remember the movie, you have all the right to say that Karlovy Vary was never mentioned there. And it is true: the main part of Casino Royale is set in Montenegro, but it was filmed in Karlovy Vary. If you pay close attention to the movie, you will see the Mill Colonnade when James Bond and Vesper take the car from the train station when they arrive to their destination. While they drive to their hotel, which in reality is the famous Grandhotel Pupp, they pass by the white Market Colonnade. And the casino where they play is the Emperor’s Spa. So, if you are a fan of the movies, you can safely say that you visited the filming locations 🙂 Even more, you can stay in Grandhotel Pupp: it is not the cheapest one, but who cares 🙂
Accommodation in Karlovy Vary
If you visit Karlovy Vary for one day only like I did, meaning you come in the morning and leave in the evening, you will not need accommodation in the city. But if you decide to truly enjoy the city, there are dozens of hotels on offer. Frankly, I think that the city of Karlovy Vary is a huge hotel 🙂 Of course, the prices vary, and if you are ready to shed some bucks you can stay in the above mentioned truly luxurious Grandhotel Pupp, where prices range between 130-600 EUR per night depending on the season and the room type.
Another luxurious hotel that definitely dominates the cityscape of Karlovy Vary is Hotel Imperial. You will see its huge building from the panoramic decks of the city. And, as the hotel is located on a high hill, there is a cable car that runs from the center of Karlovy Vary up to the hotel. The price range is between 90-260 EUR per night depending on the room type.
But you don’t have to pay hundreds of euros for a room, there are much cheaper options, not luxurious, but very decent. For example, Pension Astra offers apartments for 25-35 EUR per night per person. Villa Rosa has single and double rooms for 45-80 EUR per night depending on the room type. You can find the same price range in Penzion 33. For 50-80 EUR per night you can stay in a suite in Pension Napoleon.
Many hotels offer different procedures, like massage, wraps, cleansing and some medical services as well, just check the respective place.
As I visited Karlovy Vary as a tourist, I can’t give you any information on its spas or medical services, but I hope there is enough information for you to spend a wonderful day there 🙂
If you are interested in other 1 day trips from Prague, consider a visit to Karlstejn Castle.
Budget for one day in Karlovy Vary
As always, I give you my budget:
Bus tickets – 13 EUR
Entrance fees – 2,5 EUR
Food (including lunch at Jeleni Skok, oblatka and water) – 14 EUR
And don’t forget about toilets 🙂