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Updated: 8th December 2020
Like a child let loose in their first toy shop, the novelty of wandering around Karlovy Vary, armed with a porcelain mug in search of hot-spring waters, excited me no end. Coming across these water-fountains doesn’t just provide the warming sensation of taking a sip, but warms the soul too.
These simple springs serve as a congregation point for communities to come together for chatter while gaining some much-needed heat on the snow-covered winter days. For child-like visitors such as myself, eager to be part of the Spa Cup crew – even if only for a few days – they provide curiosity with a ready-made souvenir.
Nestled amongst the dense forests and rivers of West Bohemia – not to be confused with castle-heavy South Bohemia – Karlovy Vary has long provided tourists with treats of springs and spas – in fact, it was created for that very purpose. With the promise of relaxing waters and wellness benefits, the spa town has grown over the centuries to become one of the most picturesque and famous spa destinations in the Czech Republic and Europe.
The story takes us back to the 14th century when the Czech King stumbled upon a spring while hunting for deer and wanted to make something of the uniqueness of the water.
Over the years, many famous names have come to visit what Karlovy Vary has become today. An almost impeccable mix of grand spa hotels, public baths, forests, intricate architecture, captivating colonnades and towered buildings rise up and down the hills in and beyond this underrated European city. It’s not just a spa destination where you simply check-in and relax, although that is very much possible, it’s a city of culture and creativity, her beauty shining from any angle.
I’ve never really been a ‘relax at a spa get-away’ kinda guy. I’m restless and avoid pampering, much more comfortable wandering for hours on end getting blisters rather than bath-bombs. My preferred interaction with locals leans more toward a chat about local culture or politics at a bus stop than in silence, face down on a massage table.
Thus, I surprised myself when I decided to visit Karlovy Vary as a side trip from the Prague Christmas markets. Scrolling through the seemingly never-ending choice of outstanding spa hotels online, I finally plumped for a grand and traditional-looking building on the outskirts of the city. With a lush-looking wellness centre attached, forests on my doorstep, and the delightful streets of Karlovy Vary a short drive away, it seemed I was very much about to become that ‘relax at a spa get-away’ kinda guy.
Checking in to Retro Riverside Wellness Resort
Essentially a custom-designed spa destination, Karlovy Vary has no shortage of beautiful spa resorts. I’d toyed with the reasonably priced Parkhotel Richmond before opting for the extremely good value Retro Riverside Wellness Resort – drawn in by the fairy-tale architecture of the building.
While it is slightly outside the city, this meant it felt like a true escape. Dense trees packed around the hotel, while it had direct access to the river – a small pier being home to little boats, which in the summer months offer visitors the chance to see the destination from another viewpoint. If you’re coming to visit Europe in January, then you’ll also find some great promo deals here.
The food was fantastic, as was the service – the Italian restaurant makes for a great evening meal if you don’t want to venture outside by dark. The rooms were modern and peaceful and came with balconies – I had been tempted to book a suite in the tower, with a corner bathroom overlooking the views, but decided that was a bit excessive for someone who isn’t a ‘relax at a spa get-away’ kinda guy.
The spa itself though turned out to be an absolute highlight, the pool was peaceful, while the actual spa-circuit and the additional warm water pools perfectly decorated – managing to balance traditional with modern features well.
Okay, looks like I might be becoming a spa get-away kind of guy after all – but on to equally as important stuff, what to do in Karlovy Vary itself.
Get acquainted with the Spa Cup concept.
Perhaps you are used to doing your souvenir shopping at the end of your trip? Well, in Karlovy Vary, it should be first on your list, as that souvenir is going to come in handy quickly.
Porcelain is a big thing around here, and the delightful porcelain spa cups which line the racks and shelves of local shops and stores are a regional spa-town institution.
The unique design of these spa cups means there is a spout attached, which starts close to the base of the cup – imagine if a mug and a tea pot had a small child, and you get the (very strangely described) picture.
It’s with these cups you’ll be able to warm yourself from the hot springs throughout the city. Simply pull it out from your pocket and place it under the spring for a warm drink (be careful; some of these waters are extremely hot). Also, if you’re like me (hello British people) then you might start keeping tea-bags in your pocket too. How many places in the world can you brew your own cup of tea from a spring in the centre of a city? This is a truly special, lesser-visited destination in Europe.
Most of the central springs can be found under the colonnades of the city. There are quite a few fountains around, and the temperatures seemed to vary slightly between each spring, and the design of each one varied.
Admire the architecture while being soothed by water
Not content with wowing us with waters, Karlovy Vary is also an incredibly beautiful city. The architecture is grand, intriguing, and non-uniform, with buildings in various styles next to each other, creating this unique layout.
Most of the architecture in the city is either neo-Baroque or neo-Renaissance, and the historic centre is compact to explore by foot – mainly following the Tepla River, which flows down the centre of the pedestrianised area. Porticos and arcades provide cover from the elements if needed.
Many of the most beautiful buildings are spa hotels or thermal pools. Other grand structures, such as the Baroque Church of St. Mary Magdalene, are impressive in and out.
The Mill Colonnade is perhaps the city’s most famous, with the spring underneath here seemingly popular with the locals. However, my interest was more in the Market Colonnade, carved from wood in Swiss style, and the Park Colonnade, crafted from cast iron, transformed into a concert hall.
Speaking of concerts, the Karlovy Vary Theatre, which opened in the late 1800s, is spectacular, inside and out (especially in some of the entrance hall areas). Do try to snag tickets for a performance or pop your head in just to see the decor.
Visit the city centre Spas.
If you decide to opt for a hotel that doesn’t have its own spa facilities or simply want to try a different spot, you have various options in the city centre.
The Elizabeth Bath is perhaps the one to visit, the grand building is over one-hundred years old, and offers many wellness treatments alongside the hot-spring waters.
Further along, an imposing concrete (almost brutalist-looking) building with a thermal pool overhanging the city might be a nice photo spot in summer; just don’t look behind you at the eye-sore.
Head high for the best views
While the city is absolutely dreamy at street level, strolling along the Tepla and sipping on your Spa Cup, for some of the best views, you’ll need to head higher up.
The backstreets of the city themselves offer some delightful scenery and also give access to pretty side streets and staircases to many viewpoints.
The Deer Jump Lookout is so named because of the statue of a deer, and here you’ll be able to capture some wonderful photos down on the city and admire the incredible opulent Hotel Imperial, one of the most expensive and renowned hotels in the city which sits high above Karlovy Vary.
One of the most famous lookout spots in the city is the Diana Tower. However, I was being cheap and didn’t want to take the funicular and pay entrance, so I skipped it. However, I’d misunderstood that it was only a few quid for the cable car, and it’s accessible on foot if you don’t want to do the funicular. So, I messed up there and wish I had, as the photos look fantastic, as you can see just how hidden away in the forest Karlovy Vary is.
“Who has not been at the Diana Observation Tower has not seen Karlovy Vary” is a saying from their marketing department, and it turns out they might have been right!
Visit in Spring for the cherry blossoms
While I loved visiting in winter, just before Christmas, when the festive decorations and snow made the city feel really magical, I saw some photos of Karlovy Vary during the spring, and it also looks very beautiful. Dotted around the city and on some squares during this time, you’ll be able to see the cherry blossoms, adding even more colour to the cityscape.
Getting to Karlovy Vary
If you haven’t hired a car for your trip to the Czech Republic, no worries, you can easily get from Prague to Karlovy Vary by public transport. In this instance, take a bus or coach over the train, as the route is more direct, frequent and quickest. There is public transport in the city and many of the hotels and spa resorts outside the centre offer transfers in and out.
Looking for more day trips from Prague? How about visiting UNESCO Kutna Hora for its unique architecture – including a chapel of bones!