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Updated: 18th August 2023
Sometimes you arrive somewhere, gawp a little bit too much, and then admit it’s worth the hype. For me, that place was Český Krumlov, a real-life fairytale town – complete with a castle, of course – in Czechia’s (Czech Republic) South Bohemia region. But perhaps I’m not the first person to tell you how magical this river-hugging chateau-crowned spot is? Certainly, many people had showered me with stories of their love-at-first-sight meeting with this mediaeval marvel. Though if anything, that had actually put me off visiting.
That’s not to say the Czech Republic hasn’t long held a special place in my heart. Prague was the first city break I took my mum on as a finally-earning-money adult. Karlovy Vary was the city where I had my first thermal spa getaway. Kutna Hora is where I learnt that churches can be coated with bones. And last year, in Brno, I discovered just how fine Czechia’s wines could be.
But I’d always purposefully bypassed South Bohemia. I didn’t believe Český Krumlov could actually be worth that much hype while not being totally overrun with fellow tourists. However, with the country celebrating its 30th birthday this year – and indeed, it being the 15-year anniversary of my own first trip to the country – I found myself back, this time passing through South Bohemia while overlanding from Italy to the Baltic States.
So I decided to stay a while and turn my trip into a long weekend in South Bohemia, and wow, am I glad I did! This region, rich in ponds, lakes, castles, and cute towns, left me in awe; my only regret was not staying longer.
My journey in South Bohemia didn’t start in Český Krumlov but rather in the regional capital České Budějovice, easily reached from Prague – a very intentional choice. Recommended to me by a friend from Prague as a more lived-in example of Bohemian life (plus much more affordable accommodation), I made this underrated city my base for the four days I spent hopping between the other cute towns and fabled castles of South Bohemia. With a well-connected bus and train station, everywhere that I wanted to visit could be reached in less than an hour.
But that’s not to say České Budějovice doesn’t deserve its own in-depth visit. Just this month, it was announced that the city would be one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2028.
Dating back to its original founding in 1265 by the then Bohemian king, Ottokar II, the mediaeval city is rich in South Bohemian culture. Presiding over the regional museum, a vast and photogenic town square, and a varied history of production from porcelain to pencils, the laid-back location is further enhanced by the meeting of two rivers: the Vltava and Malše. It’s also just a short drive or bus ride from the mighty Hluboká Castle.
However, the city has another side beyond the Baroque-style architecture and mirror-like lakes. Known as Budweis in German (the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire prior to WWI), České Budějovice has been home to the similarly named Budweiser Budvar beer brewery since 1895. One of many famous brewers in the world – and one of many in the Czech Republic – you can take a tour and, more importantly, a tasting in the brewery itself.
Top three things to do in České Budějovice, South Bohemia
Explore the Old Town’s highlights
České Budějovice is easily explored on foot, and many of the main attractions can be found leading away from the extensive Přemysla Otakara II Square. See the 18th-century Samson Fountain in the middle, peek inside the Baroque town hall, and climb the 16th-century Black Tower for views across the city.
Visit the Museum of South Bohemia
Perhaps the most important museum in the region, this grand building houses a fascinating collection of provincial artefacts and interactive displays. With the information in English, you can easily start to understand the region’s history and see some well-preserved examples of traditional life alongside more generic natural history collections.
Enjoy beers in the Budweiser Brewery
Book a tour and tasting of one of the world’s most famous breweries, located just a short walk from the city centre.
State Chateau of Hluboká
Before this trip to South Bohemia, I hadn’t even heard of the State Chateau of Hluboká, one of Europe’s most impressive Romantic castles and a very easy half-day trip from České Budějovice.
Constructed as a royal seat in the 13th century, the building changed appearance many times. Falling into private hands in the late 18th century, the chateau has had two major redesigns since, firstly in the Baroque style and then later in its current Romantic reconstruction.
Thankfully, the state recovered ownership of Hluboká Chateau after the end of WWII, and its gorgeous gardens, impressive and lavish halls, and panoramic towers are now open to the public again. Most of the castles and palaces in South Bohemia and the Czech Republic have very strict no photography rules in the interior rooms, hence why you’ll mainly only see photos of the grand exteriors online. However, you can usually take photography from the towers and areas outside of the interior rooms and halls.
Opting for one of the four tour options – this also seems very commonplace in the Czech Republic, where you need to book (sometimes in advance) timeslot-defined guided tours to the part of the building which interests you most – I was swept away for an hour of history. With teardrop chandeliers, portraits of royalty, and ornately decorated wood-panelled rooms aplenty, the interior is magnificent as you’d expect.
Having added the tower to my ticket option, I could climb the deer-head-decorated staircase up to Hluboká’s highest point. From here, the small town below, backed by dense forests, looked like a pop-up book, while a network of lakes near and far added cerulean splodges to the panorama.
Top three things to do in Hluboká nad Vltavou, South Bohemia
Tour the State Chateau of Hluboká
The grounds and exterior of the chateau are free to enter and open to all, while a ticket for the tower costs a few euros. To enter the building, you’ll need to book a tour (available in a few different languages), and if you’re coming in the summer, it’s best to reserve your time slot online in advance. There are a few different tours to choose from (Private Apartments, Kitchen or the impressive Representative Rooms) – if you have the budget to do all three, great, but I was more than happy with my singular tour and tower ticket.
Stroll through the town of Hluboká nad Vltavou
The State Chateau isn’t tucked away from the real world anymore and is actually amidst the town of Hluboká nad Vltavou. Small, pretty and with plenty of great coffee shops, it’s worth walking around the town after you descend from the castle to peek into the two churches and take a coffee.
Walk or boat around the Munický Rybník lake
From the top of the tower, it’s this expansive lake which stands out most. You can take a boat out on the lake or just walk around it and enjoy a picnic for lunch – I found it surprisingly calm, given how popular the chateau is.
Arguably South Bohemia’s crowning glory, and now one of the most popular places to visit in all of the Czech Republic, Český Krumlov is a literal fairytale. Like I said, I had been dubious about visiting since I saw the explosion of gorgeous photos on Instagram in recent years. Yet, arriving on a warm summer’s day in July, I was pleased to see that Český Krumlov was far from overrun, and that was on a weekend.
Wrapped inside a horse-shoe-shaped section of the Vltava River, the mediaeval Old Town is storybook personified. Cobbled streets, colourful squares, and soaring towers all add to the painting-like panorama, while the impressive 13th-century castle overlooks it all from a high.
But the castle’s appearance has changed greatly since its first construction. The impressive Renaissance extension was constructed in the 16th century, while the unique aqueduct-like Cloak Bridge was built in the 18th century, replacing an earlier wooden structure. Regardless of dates, it’s mighty impressive and holds the title of the second largest castle in the country after Prague – no mean feat given the much smaller size of Český Krumlov
Inside, it’s equally lavish, with elegant carriages and upscale furniture decorating the ornate halls, complete with detailed wall paintings and frescoed ceilings. There’s also an incredibly well-preserved and restored Baroque Theatre, one of only two in Europe still preserved in this style, visitable with a separate ticket.
Beyond the hulking castle complex and pretty gardens, the rest of the Old Town unfurls in its shadow. Gorgeous at every turn, I can see why this has become one of the country’s most popular day trips, but there are still plenty of excellent independent bars – both along the river and down side streets – to enjoy a perfect pint of craft beer.
At one of those spots, Bistro 53 Beer Point, I was lucky enough to meet a local rafting guide Michal, who I had read about in an article about the city’s over-tourism problems before arrival. He told me all about his rafting company, which uses the same traditional boats and methods as the old production rafts from the 11th century. With a Na zdraví, as we clinked glasses, I ended my day with a smile, happy to see that ancient traditions and conversations were still very much alive in this busy corner of South Bohemia.
Top three things to do in Český Krumlov, South Bohemia
Tour the State Castle of Český Krumlov and the gardens
There are five different tours you can take inside the castle, which can all be booked online in advance if you want to guarantee entry. The grounds are free to enter; however, the tower ticket is combined with the Castle Museum.
Enjoy some river rafting in the summer
Given Michal’s great beer banter, I’ve got to give a particular shout-out to his traditional rafting company, Voroplavba. These flat timber rafts have been a tradition of the Vltava River for nearly one thousand years, and it’s a great way to see the city from the water. Alternatively, pack rafts and kayaks give another way to loop the Old Town by water.
Get lost in the Old Town
Walking around the Old Town here is a photographer’s dream, with plenty of museums covering everything from art to torture. Bragging numerous amazing viewpoints, such as Seminární Zahrada, the tower, or the raised area near the bus station, Český Krumlov looks good from all angles. After you’ve had your fill of cobbled streets and river strolls, settle in on one of the floating pontoons with deck chairs for a refreshing brew.
Surrounded by artificial lakes and fishing ponds, quaint Třeboň is perhaps Czechia’s perfect countryside city. Getting off the bus from České Budějovice, I made a beeline for the Spolský Potok lake, tracking the shore and canals before entering Třeboň Old Town via the historic gates.
One of South Bohemia’s historic spa towns, Třeboň is a popular getaway for locals looking to recharge and reconnect with nature. That’s not to say the city is without storied architecture, and the 12th-century Gothic Saint Giles Church and Renaissance-style State Chateau of Trebon are two of the standouts.
Entered via an enclosed courtyard, the chateau operates in the same style as others in the region, with three different tours to choose from. One will guide you through the more impressive Rosenberg interiors, while the others, which I didn’t experience, enter the Schwarzenberg suites or the stables.
For me, Třeboň was more of a standout for the cobbled streets and natural walks nearby, and I’m glad I made time to squeeze a visit into my last day before continuing to Prague.
Top three things to do in Třeboň, South Bohemia
Tour the State Chateau of Třeboň
Three types of guided tours are offered through the chateau, and tickets can be purchased online in advance. However, this is less visited than some of the region’s other castles, so you likely don’t need to book as far ahead.
Stroll along the canals and lakes
Třeboň’s ‘Golden Network of Canals’ and carp-loaded lakes and ponds were Middle Ages engineering marvels. From the back of the town, you can track the canal out towards the lake, where in summer, boats and watersport rentals are available. The Dům Štěpánka Netolického museum explains more about the pond system.
Explore the Old Town
Quaint and compact, Třeboň’s Old Town highlights can be visited in a couple of hours. Above the market square, the Old Town Hall’s tower provides the best views in the city, and the historic Saint Giles Church is worth a peek. Or, just chill out in the Regent Brewery with a local brew.
The Lakes Beyond
South Bohemia is so much more than castles and cute towns, though, and this region is famed for something else: ponds and lakes. Since the 12th century, numerous bodies of water have been established and created, both for fishing and recreational use. This makes South Bohemia a fantastic summer getaway – especially in a landlocked country – as you can cool down, take a dip, or enjoy watersports.
With plenty of dense forests and untouched corners, it’s a natural paradise for long leisurely hikes or even cycling between some of the Czech Republic’s most impressive castles on canopy-covered tracks.
Some of the most impressive clutches of ponds are found around Třeboň, where a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve protected the canals, ponds and flooded plains, which were established back in the 15th century. Nowadays, they fit into the scenery like a perfectly sized glove, but plenty of years of hard work went into creating these bodies of water, with historic engineering techniques re-shaping the landscape.
However you spend your time in South Bohemia, my biggest advice is to not just come on a day trip to Český Krumlov from Prague. There is plenty of history and heritage to explore in the region other than the most famous chateau, and I can’t tell you how nice it was to experience the Czech Republic beyond the big cities and see the nation’s more natural side.
If you have longer than I did, you might also want to check out the beer-heavy city of Plzeň (Pilsen), the various tree walkways such as Lipno, or seek out even more castles – there are plenty of Europe’s hidden gems to be found in South Bohemia.
I visited the Czech Republic as part of my own big trip through Europe this summer and was subsequently invited to write this article by the Czechia tourism board as part of the country’s 30th-anniversary campaign, #Czechia30, highlighting regional experiences.