Karlovy Vary is one of the most beautiful little towns I’ve seen in the Czech Republic and in all of Europe. It’s claim to fame is its famous thermal springs that are transformed into essentially water you can drink from the various springs in the town.
It’s a perfect day trip from Prague and remains one of the most popular towns in the Czech Republic to visit. Karlovy Vary, or Carlsbad, is located in the west of the Czech Republic near the border with Germany.
History of Karlovy Vary
Karlovy Vary is named after Emperor Charles IV. The story goes that he had the town built at the end of the 14th century after the discovery of a hot spring of which the healing water had cured his injured leg. Carlsbad and its spas boomed in the 17th century when it was mainly visited by rich aristocrats from Russia, Poland and Saxony. The most prestigious visitor to Karlovy Vary was Peter The Great. Over the centuries, the town has been privileged to receive many famous visitors like, Goethe, Ludwig von Beethoven and Chopin.
Nowadays, it attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year that come to enjoy the natural hot spring water and its healing effects.
Prague to Karlovy Vary
By public transport: you can get to Karlovy Vary from Prague either by bus or by train. Tickets for the train can be bought at the Prague Main Railway station or for the bus at the Florenc Prague station. If you go for 1 day, it’s better to take the bus, since it is faster. The train will take you around 3,5 hours and by bus just over 2 hours. The bus is around 150 CZK or about €6 one way.
Alternatively, you can book a day tour with literally countless different companies in Prague. This is one of the most popular day trips after all so you can expect to find many offers. These day trips will put you with a bigger group where you’ll drive to the town and do most of the same things as what I’ll recommend in this post. The cost is about €50-€60 for the day including transportation and sometimes lunch.
I personally don’t think this is necessary as once you get to Karlovy Vary, it is so easy to explore on your own. You don’t really need a guided tour to tell you how to drink the spa water. I’d save the money and take the bus here!
We drove here from Germany as part of a small little road trip through the Czech Republic. Karlovy Vary is on the western border with Germany so it is a natural stopping point before Prague.
What is the spa scene in Karlovy Vary?
The most famous thing and the main reason Karlsbad draws the crowds is because of the spa water. So I will be honest. Prior to coming to Karlovy Vary, I read about the spa water and I had assumed it would be like going to the spa in Germany as the town is right on the Czech-German border. I assumed it would be get into your bathing suits (or be butt naked because that’s how it is done in Germany), and go relax in thermal pools and steamy saunas. Not so dissimilar to the thermal baths in Hungary.
Oh boy was I wrong. I was fully getting ready to get my hot tub on until I talked to the host at my apartment who informed me that the spa is in fact, drinking spa water. Yes, you heard me right. The spa life in Karlsbad is all about drinking the thermal spring water.
So are there any spas at all?
Yes, fear not. There are spas in the town for you to relax and indulge in. Many of the hotels have spas and pools and you can visit most of them without staying at the hotels. However, I was fully expecting big grand baths like the ones in Budapest and not just a small and normal pool.
There is a beer spa in town as well that allows you to bathe in a pool of beer. No joke, you can bathe in malt and barley. All the while you have a tap where you can fill up your beer to drink as you wish. The cost of this was €70 per person which I wasn’t in the mood to pay but it makes sense considering how much hops needs to be used to fully bathe a person.
Drink at all the collonades
So now that you understand what the spa scene means, you can get ready to drink the spa water. The name of the game is to buy a traditional cup and walk around the town visiting the numerous “colonnades”. These colonnades are old buildings constructed to extract the thermal water to be drank.
Each colonnade has a different theme and history. They have numerous different springs where you can drink from and each spring will have a temperature label next to it.
How does the water taste?
The water itself is…unique. If you’ve never had thermal water before, prepare for a bit of a shock at first. The water tastes of iron and sulfur and is unpleasant in the beginning. I was a bit appalled to be honest. However, I found it to be like beer, but at a hyper-accelerated pace. While I hated the taste when I first tried it as a kid, it grew on me as the years went on.
I started with a few sips, then found myself drinking the water by the glass. I had gotten used to the flavor, and even started enjoying it. There are also numerous health benefits that I read about, but the one of that stood out to me the most was the natural laxative effect. I will straight up say that yes, it does work. It’s great, if not necessary to process the heavy Czech foods you’ll be eating.
Buy a traditional glass mug
Before you start, you’ll want to buy a glass mug which is the traditional vessel to drink the water from. These glass mugs are sold all over the town and you’ll find them in various street vendors offering all different shapes and sizes. These glasses are specially designed for the thermal waters. There is a glass handle that doubles as a straw for you to drink the water from without having to tilt the glass towards your mouth. The ceramic helps absorb the heat of the water which can be up to 65c!
Of course, you are not obligated to buy one of these glasses. You can easily use your own water bottle to fill up the thermal spring water. However, it’s all part of the experience and it just looked the part. These glasses can be anywhere between €3 for a very small one to €10 for bigger ones. I got one right in the middle for about €6. If you are paying in euros, stay alert because some of the stands will try to rip you off with terrible exchange rates from Euros to Czech Korunas.
Once you are equipped with your traditional cup, it’s time to go on your hot spring water bar crawl.
The Mill Colonnade
Built between 1871 and 1881 in a neo-renaissance style, Mill Colonnade (Mlynska Kolonada) is one of the most beautiful structures in Karlovy Vary and the symbol of the town. With 132 meters, this is the largest colonnade in Karlovy Vary with 12 allegorical sandstone statues on the roof and 124 Corinthian columns.
The Mill Colonnade is the biggest structure in the city so you literally cannot miss it. It houses 5 of the 15 thermal springs where you can drink from so get your mugs ready. Each spring will be at a different temperature which will be clearly marked. I prefer the hotter springs as I feel that the hotter the water, the less you can taste the iron-y flavor of the spring water.
The Park Colonnade
The Park Colonnade is located a hundred meters from the Mill colonnade in Dvořák’s Park. It was built according to the design of renowned Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer between the years 1880 and 1881.
The richly carved wooden Tržní kolonáda (Market Colonnade) was built in Swiss style according to the design of highly reputed Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer between the years 1882 and 1883. The colonnade underwent an extensive reconstruction in the early 1990s. Inside the Market Colonnade, you may find the seeps of three mineral springs: the Charles IV Spring, the Lower Castle Spring, and the Market Spring.
Walk slightly uphill from Market Colonnade, and you will shortly find yourself (it’s a one-minute walk uphill) at yet another popular colonnade.
Castle Colonnade (Zamecka Kolonada) has two parts, the upper part, a beautiful pavilion featuring stone columns, and hot springs. The upper part is accessible to the public, but the lower part is only for guests of the Castle Spa.
Hot Spring Colonnade
Located in the center of town, the hot spring colonnade is located in a modern looking building as opposed to the traditional style constructions of the other colonnades. It looks a bit out of place to be honest but it makes sense as it was constructed in 1975 during Soviet times. Let’s be honest, the Soviets were not known for their beautiful buildings.
Nevertheless, this colonnade offers some of the warmest spring water in the town at 72c!
Freedom Spring Arbour
This little octagonal wooden structure was the first place I drank water at as it was next to the place I bought the glass mugs. It’s a beautiful little structure with shade and fantastic views of the town. There is one spring here.
Admire the architecture of Karlovy Vary
One of the first things you’ll notice when arriving at Karlovy Vary is just how beautiful the architecture is. It’s a mix of Baroque and Art Nouveau, but all around grand and beautiful. Unlike Cesky Krumlov which offers a more bohemian medieval charm, Karlovy Vary screams high class, grandiose, and the immaculate.
As soon as you walk through its streets, you can’t help but notice just how beautiful the buildings are. The level of detailing and finishing is immaculate and it feels like every building is cleaned on a regular basis. It almost feels a bit too perfect with the river and small bridges that highlight it.
I would simply just walk the length of the town which won’t take you more than 15 minutes and get lost in its beauty.
ORTHODOX CHURCH OF ST. PETER & PAUL
After undergoing expensive renovations in 2016, the Orthodox Church of St. Peter and Paul in Karlovy Vary is a must-visit place.
This Byzantine-style white-walled church from the 19th century has five gold-covered cupolas and is worth visiting even though you are not planning to go inside. The architecture is astonishing, and it resembles many of the immaculate Orthodox churches I saw in Kiev, Ukraine. It’s a quick 10 minute walk from the city center and is well worth to see this architectural beauty in a town that is already overflowing with it!
Stay at the Madonna Apartments in the city center
Karlovy Vary has no shortage of accommodation options. This beautiful town has something like 3,000 rooms available for tourists which is insane considering the size of the town. Most of the buildings in the old town have been turned into hotels or apartments and you have some incredibly beautiful options to choose from.
I was looking for something on the cheaper side and settled on the Madonna Apartments in the city center. This apartment was spacious and had a balcony that had just beautiful views of the main strip of Karlovy Vary. For €80 a night in the peak summer months, I found this to be quite a good deal. Breakfast and coffee from the balcony in the morning was pure bliss.
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