In the very heartland of Central Europe, the Czech Republic bubbles up in a confident medley of Bohemian history, Moravian charm and Slavic panache. Its cities brim with Gothic wonders, its towns burst with Baroque majesty and its backcountry boasts eye-watering forests, cave systems and mountains. Check out this list of the top destinations to visit when hitting the road in this much-loved section of Europe.
No list of the Czech Republic’s top destinations could possibly be complete without at least a mention of its iconic capital, which rises from the winding meanders of the Vltava River in the heartlands of Bohemia in a symphony of the Gothic, the Baroque and the Medieval. Steeped in history, the so-called City of a Hundred Spires is famed for its gloriously adorned Old Town, anchored on one photogenic central square that comes complete with a curious astronomical clock and the pointed turrets of the Church of Our Lady before Tyn. Travelers can also wander between the saintly statues of the Charles Bridge and up to Prague Castle (one of the largest on the continent), seek out the haunting ghosts of Kafka’s pages, or simply indulge in a medley of unpasteurized Czech beers, Bohemian dumplings and one of Europe’s liveliest nightlife scenes. Also browse our guide on the best things to do in Prague.
2. Cesky Krumlov
A fairy-tale pop-up of a town that crowns a series of bluffs on the edge of the Vltava River south of Ceske Budejovice, Cesky Krumlov is one of the veritable jewels of South Bohemia. Its Old Town bears a well-deserved UNESCO tag for its maze of medieval streets, 13th century relics and layers of architectural history – much of which has remained unspoilt by conflict and war. However, the undisputed piece de resistance here has to be the soaring bulwarks, bridges and keeps of Cesky Krumlov castle, where Rococo parks and painted towers, the enthralling Church of St Vitus and even a moat laden with black forest bears all draw huge crowds of visitors right throughout the year.
3. Castle Karlstejn
A towering monument cast in stone to the revered Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, Castle Karlstejn soars above the verdant Czech valleys just south-west of the capital at Prague. It’s a glorious Gothic array of turrets and gatehouses that’s come to be one of the most visited medieval relics in the nation. Travelers who come here are invited to scale the hill and pass under the two-storey port houses and into the central courtyards, where the so-called Big Tower and Chapel of the Holy Cross once held the priceless Royal Jewells and Imperial Regalia of the Czech kings. The views are another matter: rolling out to encompass the undulating hills of Bohemia and forested hinterland of the country on all sides.
Pulsing with an indelible student energy during term times from its place in the southern depths of the Czech Republic, Brno – the regional capital of South Moravia – belies its local rep as a rather sleepy place with some of the country’s top drum and bass clubs and a booming café culture to rival both Prague and Vienna. There’s also a gorgeous Old Town district to see; the second largest in the country, where the spiked Neo-gothic towers of the Cathedral of St Peter and Paul stand watch over cobbled squares and the eerie tunnels of the Brno Ossuary lurk underground. Spilberk Castle crowns a bluff in the midst of the town too, while Brno Reservoir is a hubbub of recreational activity during the summer, offering boating, swimming and al fresco drinking opportunities aplenty. Check out out our 15 best places to visit in Brno to learn more.
Sat just on the northern edge of Moravia, where the Czech Republic gives way to Silesia and the Polish borderlands, Ostrava is a down-to-earth gem of a city that fuses historical beauty and Baroque brilliance in its old town with an interesting mix of Soviet Realism, Russian Brutalism and post-industrial sprawl. Visitors can make a beeline for institutions like the Michal Colliery and unravel tales of Ostrava’s interesting industrial past, or walk through the city’s deeper histories between the neoclassical facades of Masaryk Square. Then there’s the resurgent Lower Vitkovice Area to explore, complete with glass elevators and viewing platforms, the Gong exhibition centre and monumental blast furnaces to name just a few of the enthralling sites. Learn more in our guide to the best things to do in Ostrava.
6. Karlovy Vary
Regal, rich and oozing with all the charm you’d expect of a onetime royal retreat where the likes of Russian tsars and Beethoven met between the spas and bathhouses, Karlovy Vary (erstwhile Karlsbad) is unquestionably one of the most beautiful destinations in all of Bohemia. It comes decorated in elegant neoclassical styles, peppered with gorgeous fin de siècle builds and arrays of Art Deco fountains, all of which sit nestled neatly in the wooded valleys that enfold the famous mineral streams of the Tepla River. Visitors should be sure to check out the curious range of experimental holistic treatments that are on offer in the various spa centres here, going from sulphurous immersion baths to Turkic hammam sessions. And if that’s not for you, then check out the al fresco cafes on Vridelni Street, or head to the hills for some hiking, Bohemian style. Also see our guide on Karlovy Vary.
100,000-strong Liberec is a charming and laid-back North Bohemian town that’s a great place to experience the Republic’s curious mix of Slavic, Germanic and Austrian cultures. The whole city is shrouded by the spiked top of Jested Mountain, which marks the beginning of the Jizera range that rises in a medley of Nordic ski tracks and fir forests on the very edge of Poland. Here, the main landmark of the city soars in hyperbole: the hotel and panoramic restaurant of the Jested Tower crowning the hill. Meanwhile, in the town below – connected to this famous ridge by cable car – are the painted faces of Liberec Castle and oodles of gorgeous 19th century townhouses, not to mention some of the country’s most prestigious university departments.
8. Ceske Budejovice
The namesake and home of what’s still arguably the Czech Republic’s most iconic beer, Ceske Budejovice is awash with microbreweries, beer halls and traditional Czech taverns alike, making it without question one of the top spots to come and sample a traditional Slavic pivo (beer). The place was founded way back in the 13th century by King Premysl Otakar II, who now lends his moniker to the pretty array of colonnades and burgher mansions that forms the city’s central square. This is encircled by a crisscrossing web of cobblestone streets and adorned with the gilded Baroque carvings of Samson’s Fountain, while various museums chronicle the fascinating history of South Bohemia and the Budejovicky Budvar Brewery on the northern edge of the town remains one of the top draws.
Hikers, bikers, water sports enthusiasts, skiers and snowboarders and Nordic walkers alike all flock to the lakeside mountain town of Lipno, which enjoys a beautiful location amidst the soft hills and contoured valleys of the Cesky Krumlov District, just a stone’s throw from the border with Austria. Small and compact, the town is a prime base for delving into the picture-perfect backcountry of South Bohemia, and comes complete with a 21-kilometer in-line skating circuit, a pretty reservoir, the interesting Lipno Dam and a range of red and blue ski runs that are perfectly suited to beginner and intermediate riders alike.
10. Moravian Karst
A land of more than 1,000 caves and grottoes, gorges and canyons, the Moravian Karst sprawls out over a whopping 92 square kilometers just north of the city of Brno. It’s famed for its array of breathtaking geological wonders, going from the sculpted stalactites and colossal stalagmites, underground rivers and sinkholes of the Punkva Caves to the domed chambers and winding corridors of the vast Amaterska system. The place is also home to the great Macocha Gorge – the largest sinkhole canyon of its kind in all of Central Europe that plays host to the bubbling headwaters of the Punkva River. Hiking, caving and biking opportunities abound here, and travelers can also seek out the Josefov blast furnaces and Chateau of Rajec nad Svitavou nearby.
Proudly off-the-beaten-track and bursting with student bars and coffee shops, Olomouc is one of the Czech Republic’s hidden gems. It can be found planted on the plains of eastern Moravia, oozing with more than 2,000 years of history that has its roots in Roman times. Shaped by the Germans, the Swedes, the Slavs and the Bohemian kings alike, the city hosts wonderful sites like the Saint Wenceslas Cathedral and Saint Maurice Church between the old ramparts of its onetime castle. However, it’s the UNESCO-attested Holy Trinity Column on the sprawling central square that really takes the biscuit; a masterful and honorific rendition of the Central European Baroque style that’s seen nowhere else on the continent!
Former European Capital of Culture holder (an honour which Pilsen shared with Mons in Belgium), and homeland of the now famed strain of beer that is its namesake (first brewed here by the Bavarian Josef Groll in the 19th century), Pilsen conceals oodles of interesting sights and attractions beneath its Old Town sea of red-tiled roofs. Yes sir, travelers can gawp at the great spires of St Bartholomew’s Cathedral, delve into one of Europe’s largest subterranean civic passage systems, see the curiously arabesque Great Synagogue and wonder at the elaborate Renaissance décor of the town hall by Giovanni de Statia. And when it’s time to sample that ubiquitous beer, the Pilsner Urquell brewery awaits, along with oodles of classic tank pubs and Czech taverns where unpasteurised brews flow from the taps.
13. Kutna Hora
Once the great economic rival of Prague that rose to prominence with the discovery of silver in the nearby hills of the Central Bohemian Region, Kunta Hora still bears all the hallmarks of a once rich and regal centre. Just take the magnificent spires of the Church of Saint Barbara, or the Italian Courtyard, where royal mints and erstwhile silver emporiums ooze with a certain medievalist nostalgia. Then there are the red-tiled roofs and Bohemian historicity of the Old Town; much less touristy and somewhat more authentic than its counterpart in Prague. Visitors here should also be sure not to miss the Kostnice Ossuary, where row upon row of human remains and elaborate chandeliers, statues and altarpieces made from human bones all make for one seriously haunting experience.
14. Bohemian Paradise
The first ever natural reserve in the Czech Republic is an enchanting land of towering hoodoos and canyons, curious chiselled cliffs, cascading gores and rugged hills, all dressed in sweeping dashes of pine forest, crisscrossed by winding hiking trails and dotted with the romantic silhouettes of castles like the precipitous Trosky keep. Visitors touring the region can delve into ancient rock towns that protrude almost organically from the sandstone ridges they stand on, explore dramatic dolomite caverns at Bozkov, see folksy timber architecture between the rustic villages, go lake hopping, kayaking or canyon scaling, enjoy horse riding in the shadow of ancestral chateaux – the list goes on!
15. Krkonose National Park
The impossibly beautiful and wild reaches of the Krkonose National Park can be found straddling the border with Poland in the extreme northeast of the country. Cut through by babbling mountain streams and dressed in swathes of mist-topped fir forests, this rugged land levels out at a peak on the summit of Snezka Mountain (the highest in the Czech Republic and entire Sudetes Range besides). Oodles of walking trails make their home here too, and ski fields pop up ad hoc in the winter months to boot, offering travelers an opportunity to really immerse themselves in the landscapes of meadows, knee timber, towering spruces, lichen-spotted rocks and rolling alpine vistas.