In the 19th century the Bohemian spa resort Karlovy Vary was the place to be. The polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said it was one of only three cities in the world that he would like to live in.
Karlovy Vary was the height of fashion, and the Old Town today is testament to this old-world appeal, enriched with neo-renaissance and baroque promenades, colonnades and hotels, and of course, thermal springs.
It is still the most distinguished spa resort in the Czech Republic, a destination for high-end R&R that sits on the northern edge of the Slavkovský Les, a beautiful swathe of forest-covered highlands.
1. Mill Colonnade
There’s no better place to start than this emblematic landmark, a dignified, twin-aisled walkway flanked by 124 columns in the heart of the old town. Here the Spa Orchestra puts on free concerts throughout the year, and five of Karlovy Vary’s 13 hot springs emerge along the colonnade.
Each spring is labelled with a plaque detailing the waters’ temperatures and mineral contents, and the best thing is that you can bring your own cup to sample the waters as you stroll.
It’s completely free and open at any time of day. And if you don’t have a cup don’t worry because spa cups are sold everywhere in the Old Town.
2. Spa Treatments
Karlovy Vary abounds with day spas, hotels and wellness centres, and you’re sure to find the spa that suits your needs and budget. Most visitors opt for treatment courses that last a week or more.
People have been coming to Karlovy Vary for the water’s curative properties since the 14th century, and the story goes that the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV was the first to be treated here after finding a spring bubbling through the ground while on a hunt.
As you might figure, the list of treatments available is endless, but the most popular involve hydrotherapy, mineral water drinking cures and plenty of fresh air.
3. Moser Museum
Karlovy Vary was a centre of excellence for several trades, but none more prestigious than glassmaking. In 1893 Ludwig Moser established his glass workshop here, which remains a reference point for the craft to this day.
At one point in the early-1900s Moser was the crystal supplier to the Emperor of Austro-Hungary, the Persian Shah and the King of Great Britain. You can come to the Moser Museum to get to know the process, from design to glassmaking, cutting and engraving.
And naturally there are large collections dating from the earliest pieces to the glassworks’ more recent items.
4. Hotel Thermal
This building really doesn’t fit in with the rest of Karlovy Vary, but that’s what makes it cool. It’s a 10-storey tower block from the 1970s, a Soviet artefact that contrasts with the delicate architecture of the Old Town. And although it was unpopular at first it has become accepted as a landmark.
For one thing, Hotel Thermal offers the only public outdoor pool to be found in the centre of the town. At the start of July the annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival rolls up here – it’s the leading cinema event in the region and celebrated its half-century in 2015.
Recent festival guests include Harvey Keitel, Helen Mirren, Michel Gondry and Judi Dench.
5. Diana Tower Lookout
Getting to this sight at the summit of Friendship Hill depends on how intrepid you’re feeling. If you’ve got the energy you can make the climb along forest trails, and the most comfortable time to do this is in spring, early-summer and autumn.
The other option is to jump on the scenic funicular, which departs Karlovy Vary every 15 minutes and takes three minutes to reach the top. The Diana Tower is from 1914 and offers views that extend 70 kilometres on a clear day, free of charge (apart from in January).
Accompanying the tower is a restaurant and mini-zoo, and you can also explore the lovely woodland up here.
6. Vrídelní Kolonáda
Vrídlo is the best-known of all of Karlovy Vary’s hot springs. At 72 °C it’s also the hottest, and bursts from the ground at such pressure that it reaches a height of 12 metres, kicking out 2000 litres every minute.
This geyser is contained inside Vrídelní Kolonáda, a functionalist building from the 70s, along with four other springs, all of which can be sampled for free. For newcomers the water can be pretty strange, so don’t worry about taking more than a sip!
Go underground for a tour of the spa’s inner workings and to see how the town’s famous aragonite crystals are formed.
7. Jan Becher Museum
Karlovy Vary is the hometown of another famous Bohemian artisan. Josef Becher was an early-19th-century pharmacist who developed his own medicinal tonics, and after gaining success his son Johann built the business up and began to produce one drink, Becherovka, on a larger scale.
Nowadays the Becherovka is the Czech Republic’s national liqueur. At the Jan Becher Museum you’ll see the original distillery and artefacts, and find out how Becherovka is brewed and stored.
Admission to the museum includes a tasting session, but beware: This stuff can take some getting used to! Pick up a bottle as a souvenir from the museum’s shop.
8. Church of St. Mary Magdalene
Right next to the Vrídelní Kolonáda is this grand church that goes back to 1737, and is one of the most valued pieces of high baroque heritage in the country. You can take a look inside during the summer months, and will get to see a spectacular altarpiece, a gothic statue of the Madonna and Baroque Eucharist sculptures.
In the crypt you can negotiate the church’s elaborate baroque foundations and another altarpiece carved from the aragonite that forms around Karlovy Vary’s thermal springs.
The church has superb acoustics, so try to get a seat at one of the regular concerts held here.
9. Grandhotel Pupp
On a hillside with a commanding view of Karlovy Vary is this stately 228-room hotel with a history that stretches back more than 300 years. It takes its name from Johann Georg Pupp, a local confectioner who came to own the building by marriage.
During a century of prosperity his descendants expanded the hotel, and by the early 20th century the building possessed the neo-baroque design you can see today.
Grandhotel Pupp is the last word in opulence in Karlovy Vary, welcoming the rich and famous from around the world, and was also a shooting location for the 2006 Bond movie Casino Royale.
10. Stará Louka
In a city known for its grand walkways, Stará Louka stands out as the esplanade of choice. This is one of the most photographed scenes in the city; a street of handsome old townhouses on the north bank of the Tepla River framed by the evergreen Slavkovský Les hills.
Along the street you’ll come across boutiques, cafes and restaurants. It’s the perfect place for friends and families to take a leisurely stroll on the weekend, and stop by a riverside terrace for a coffee.
On the opposite bank is the Nova Louka, where the palatial Nezval Theatre can be seen.
11. Church of St. Peter and Paul
With its five golden domes there’s no missing this imposing orthodox church, which is modelled on the Byzantine Church of the Holy Trinity in Moscow.
It dates back to 1897 and is unmistakable evidence of Karlovy Vary’s strong Russian influence, which continues to this day. The church’s interior is adorned by invaluable paintings, frescoes and other decorations.
The centrepiece here is a relief depicting the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great. Many of these works were sponsored by wealthy Russian patients seeking treatment in Karlovy Vary.
12. Exercise in the Hills
Connecting with Karlovy Vary are more than 180 kilometres of colour-coded trails for walks and bike rides that wind through the hills around the town.
On the way you’ll always find something interesting to see, as these paths have been used for centuries and various lodges, lookouts and resting points have been established in this time.
The Charles IV Lookout for example is a neo-gothic tower from 1877 that stands 514 metres above sea level, while the Deer Leap also offers a beautiful panoramic view and can be identified by the statue of a mountain goat that sits atop a large rock next to the platform.
13. Postal Court
Tucked in the hills just to the south of the town, the Postal Court was originally a stable for postal horses but because of its location became a staging post for tourists walking and riding through the scenery around Karlovy Vary.
After a while a restaurant was established here, and the venue eventually took on great importance as a place for the spa’s wealthier visitors and citizens to rub shoulders. Inside this neo-classical building are a variety of ceremonial halls, and in the French-style grounds you’ll see two spectacular pavilions.
The dance pavilion, with its covered terrace, is the standout.
14. Market Colonnade
A white and intricately-carved wooden building, the Market Colonnade was only meant to be a temporary structure, but has stood the test of 100 years. It was constructed by Fellner and Helmer, Viennese architects responsible for many of Karlovy Vary’s spa buildings and has a splendid pillared arcade at the front.
The Market Colonnade is home to two springs: The Market Spring and Charles IV Spring, which come out at 62 and 64°C respectively.
Within the colonnade is a relief that shows the famous and mythic discovery of Karlovy Vary by Charles IV in the 1300s.
True to its reputation as one of the region’s foremost destinations for the wealthy in the early-20th century, Karlovy Vary has welcomed golfers for well over a hundred years and offered the first courses anywhere in Bohemia.
Now there are three within a few minutes of Karlovy Vary, and another seven in the wider region. The oldest is Golf Resort Karlovy Vary, which is a plush 18-hole course set in upland forest.
Another local choice is the Golf & Racing Club, where the course actually sits within Karlovy Vary’s racing circuit that dates back to before the First World War.