To understand the Czech Republic you need to know a bit of history. I promise! This will be brief. In 1989, the country of Czechoslovakia left communist rule through the “Velvet Revolution”.
This was a peaceful government transition, done without violence. In 1993, the country split (again peacefully) into two: the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. For the traveler, these changes are meaningful for one important reason: facing change, the Czech Republic embraced hospitality and tourism.
Because of this, the country is a traveler’s dream. It’s easy to navigate, and the friendly people are often fluent in multiple languages. English speakers especially have no problems communicating.
Prague is the capital city, and where most travelers will start. It’s both bohemian and fairy-tale-like. Bohemian because it literally was known as Bohemia until the early part of the 20th century.
But you’ll also see your share of “non-conformists,” at least in the sense of people who have come to find something. The city is fairy-tale-like because it’s cobblestone streets zig-zag through Gothic churches, gates, and bridges. The city was only bombed once (accidentally) in World War II, so there is a definite feel of history. It’s literally under your feet: walking on cobblestones can take some practice!
I jokingly call Prague “Europe for Beginners.” Everything in the city is easy. The residents are friendly, and multi-lingual. The subway system is simple to use. And it’s inexpensive. So inexpensive that when I last visited we were looking online for transportation from the airport. We found “Prague Airport Transfers,” but we wondered about the price. It didn’t seem to cost enough, which led me to believe it was sketchy. A quick search found that their prices were in line with every other agency. They provided excellent service for a fair price.
The same went for tours in the city. You can get a private tour of Prague Castle at a more than reasonable price. Prague is well-suited for walking tours. It’s fun to have the intimacy of a private tour where your guide talks about growing up in the shadow of Prague Castle. There are even a few ghost tours, where you can learn about the “goat chariot from Hell” (really, I’m not kidding).
Old Town Square is the center of activity for travelers. The Prague Astronomical Clock is a fantastically detailed device that draws crowds throughout the day and night. It was installed in 1410, and is the oldest clock in the world that is still working. You’ll want to check it out several times while in the city.
Fortunately, it’s so centrally located, that you’ll pass it repeatedly. There are an impressive number of shops surrounding the Old Town Square. You’ll find everything from inexpensive (and sometimes poorly made) t-shirts, to expensive glassware. If you’re a shopper, you’ll love the city.
If you want to get out of Prague, you can easily take day trips. Again, you can usually hire a private driver for a very reasonable rate. Our driver gave us a running commentary about the fields, farming, and how the small towns we passed through had evolved. Karlovy Vary (often called Carlsbad in English) is a beautiful mountain town known for it’s springs. When I think of the Czech Republic, my thoughts always turn here.
The water is considered healing, and it flows from taps through the town. The water is free, but you’ll want to buy one of their special spa mugs. It’s useful throughout the trip, but it’s also a souvenir that will have memories attached to it. The town itself sits in a valley and cradles two rivers: the Tepla and the Ohre.
The buildings in Karlovy Vary are brightly colored, and ornately decorated. They almost looks like a massive sculpture made of sugar. Most of the architecture is Renaissance, but you’ll see everything from Art Nouveau to Secessionist work here.
There are several spa houses and hotels in Karlovy Vary. Perhaps the most famous is the Grand Hotel Pupp (and yes, it’s pronounced “poop”). You’ll recognize this Grand Lady from films such as “Last Holiday” (2006, with Queen Latifa), and “Casino Royale” (2006, with Daniel Craig as James Bond).
These are both good films to watch before your visit. “Last Holiday” gives you a wonderful Czech feel. You can even stay for a spa vacation. Most packages include an physical from a doctor who will prescribe when and how much of the healing waters to drink. Beware though, the water will go through some people very quickly!
Dining here is all about the experience. Many restaurants are formal, “old Europe” style. The atmosphere is the thing, and these restaurants boast beautiful wooden bars, and rich carpeting. You can also dine at a cafe, watch the river go by, and do some people watching.
Karlovy Vary also hosts a yearly International Film Festival that draws crowds. Check the schedule before traveling. If you attend the festival though, you’ll likely be bumping elbows with celebrities. The town is small, and you could be sitting at a table next to Brad Pitt. Bear in mind, prices will likely be higher during the festival.
Near the town, you’ll find Moser Glass. They’ve been producing high-quality glassware since 1857. They give tours of their facility, and you can watch their entire process of heating, molding, and pressing. You can get as close as you dare, but the furnaces produce heat of up to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit (1093 degrees Celsius).
You’ll watch the talented craftsmen working on the glass, and your guide will explain the process. They have a retail store, and you’ll want to spend some time looking at their incredible creations. If you’re looking for special glassware, this is the place to come. But it’s also a peak into the glass-making culture.
I once heard someone jokingly say that they wanted to spend a year in Prague “really getting to know myself.” Funny, but the Czech Republic is actually a wonderful place for reflection.
There is an interesting contrast between the ancient buildings, and the modern hospitality centered people. It’s a place that embraces change while keeping a firm hold on the past.