Think of Olomouc as Moravia’s own version of Prague. It’s of the Czech Republic’s best places to visit for architecture, culture and religious heritage and there’s a historic preservation zone here that is surpassed only by the Czech capital for size and wealth of buildings. Olomouc goes all the way back to Roman times and has a host of monuments that have stood the test of time through hundreds of years of turmoil and war. What’s great for you and me is that this university town doesn’t attract a great deal of tourism despite having two World Heritage Sites and being the capital of Moravia right up to the 1600s. Let’s explore the best things to do in Olomouc!
1. Holy Trinity Column
Central Europe has many plague columns that were built to commemorate outbreaks and credit God for stopping them, but the Holy trinity Column is surely the most splendid you can find. It’s a World Heritage monument, was built in the early-1700s, and the people who know at UNESCO say that it’s unmatched in its baroque design. One of the things that makes it special is that every stonemason, artists and master craftsman who worked on the column was local to Olomouc. Within the column is a small chapel with highly-detailed stone reliefs depicting events from the bible, including the crucifixion.
2. St. Wenceslas’ Cathedral
To give you an idea of scale, this gigantic cathedral, at more than 100-metres in height, is the fourth-tallest building in the Czech Republic. It’s second only to the equivalent cathedral in Prague when it comes to size, and is the largest cathedral in Moravia. Originally the building had a romanesque design, having been founded right back in the 1100s. 19th-century restorations gave the building its intricate neo-gothic appearance, but the interior layout has remained unchanged since medieval times. In the 20th century both Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II visited St Wenceslas’.
3. Hradisko Monastery
You can only get in to see the interior of this grand building on Thursdays, but many will be happy just to get a picture of its spires, towers and ornate gateways from the outside. It started out as a Benedictine Monastery in the 1000s, and when the Benedictine Order was expelled from the city in the 1200s they were replaced by the Premonstratensians, who remained until the monastery was closed in the 1700s. After that it became a Napoleonic prison camp and then a hospital, which it has remained since. If you do manage to join a tour you’ll see some wonderful sculptures, reliefs, chandeliers and ceiling frescoes.
4. Olomouc Town Hall
With its white stucco facade and towering black spires, this is gothic structure is easily the most cherished secular building in the city. For six centuries it has dominated economic and political life in Olomouc, and still houses the city council and offices. As it’s a working building access can be restricted, but you can join a guided tour in the summer to see the various chambers and the gothic chapel that is connected to the building. Every working day at 11:00 and 15:00 you can also scale the town hall’s 76-metre tower to look out over the city.
5. Astronomical Clock
On the north side of the Town Hall, Olomouc’s astronomical clock was first built in the 1400s, but after picking up damage in the Second World War it underwent a few interesting changes. Communism had just arrived in Olomouc, so the clock was redesigned in the social realist style. Now, instead of saints there are depictions of workers and engineers, while the dial displays the birthdays of Lenin and Stalin, as well as the International Day of the Worker. Much of the communist paraphernalia around Olomouc disappeared after the Velvet revolution, so this clock represents an off-beat memorial to the city’s soviet years.
6. Baroque Fountains
Olomouc has a collection of six ostentatious fountains, dating to the late-1600s and early-1700s. They are a source of great civic pride here, and have survived so long thanks to the foresight of the city’s planners. After Olomouc’s buildings where piped up to the water supply, these fountains would have been obsolete, but were retained as emergency reservoirs to fight fires. The fountains have a Roman theme, five depicting mythological figures and one devoted to Gaius Julius Caesar on horseback, who, legend has it, founded Olomouc 2000 years ago. The historic fountains are joined by modern additions, like the Arion fountain in the main square, which recounts the legend of a poet thrown overboard from a boat and rescued by a dolphin.
7. Kroměříž Castle and Gardens
Easily reached to the south of Olomouc, Kroměříž is a typical Moravian town, with a fine collection of historic buildings. The most prestigious is Kroměříž Castle, which is where successions of the Archbishops of Olomouc lived from 1770 onwards, and where scenes from the 1984 movie Amadeus were shot. After a previous version of the building had been wrecked by the Swedes the influential Liechtenstein family commissioned the Italian-Swiss architect Filiberto Lucchese to build a new palace in the Baroque style, complete with pleasure gardens. Today the building is a UNESCO site, as the baroque garden, with its neat, formal hedgerows, has hardly been altered since it was first laid out.
8. Church of St. Moritz
The battle-ready tower of this church, which goes right back to the 14th century, looks like it belongs to a fortress, with its square, crenellated walls. Inside there’s lots that makes the church special. The big story is the church’s Engler organ because you won’t find many larger in Europe. Every autumn there’s an international organ music festival in the city and naturally this piece, which was installed in 1745 and has more than 10,000 pipes, is at the centre of the event. Other than to admire the church’s preserved architecture, the other reason to visit St. Moritz is for the fine panorama of old Olomouc from the top of that castle-like tower.
9. Helfštýn Castle
These commanding ruins are right at the top of the list for daytrips from Olomouc. Helfštýn is a fortress on a scale that is almost unmatched in Central Europe. Helfštýn, which saw off the Swedes, Danes and Turks in its time, is only 35 kilometres east of Olomouc and stands at the summit of a hill next to the River Bečva. The castle goes right back to the early-1300s and blends gothic elements with a more refined renaissance style. Head inside for exhibitions on medieval metal-based crafts like blacksmithing and minting, while the castle’s long ramparts make fantastic viewing platforms today, as they did centuries ago.
10. Svatý Kopeček
At 400 metres this hill, a few kilometres from the centre of Olomouc, means many things to many people. For the religious it’s been a pilgrimage site for hundreds of years. At the top there’s a monastery with a magnificent baroque Basilica of the Visitation, which welcomed Pope John Paul II in the 90s. Alternatively you could simply visit Svatý Kopeček for the exercise, wandering through the forest around the hillsides. Olomouc Zoo is also here, and it has made great use of this natural setting, housing everything from giraffes to lions in spacious enclosures, while in the aquarium you can see sharks on the prowl.
11. Archdiocesan Museum
This is Olomouc’s essential museum, with free entry Wednesday and Friday. It integrates parts of Olomouc Castle, as well as the former Bishop’s Palace which has some precious romanesque stonework. These are the oldest pieces of architecture in the city, with elements such as windows and archways that date way back to the 12th century. The museum is the place to learn about Olomouc’s history as a spiritual centre. Over three floors you’ll be able to browse hundreds of religious artefacts, artworks and sculptures that have been collected since the 1600s.
12. The Moravian Theatre
Easily spotted on Horní náměstí, this venue has dominated Olomouc’s cultural scene since the 1920s. It is home to the Moravian Philharmonic, which is the region’s premier orchestra. The Philharmonic takes part in the many events on the city’s social calendar, such as the International Organ Festival and Dvořak’s Olomouc, which is a series of concerts devoted to the famous Czech composer in May and June. When you visit the city, check the listings to see what’s on at the Moravian Theatre – there’s a lively schedule of of ballets, operas, musicals and plays.
13. Ice Hockey
Next to football Ice Hockey is a Czech national sport. If you’re from western Europe then there’s a good chance you won’t have seen Ice Hockey supported with the kind of intensity you’ll find in Olomouc. So get down to the stadium in Hynaisova, where Hockey Club Olomouc battles it out against rivals from across the Czech Republic. After a long spell in the 2nd division Olomouc won promotion to the country’s top league in 2015, so is back in the big time. The Czech Extraliga season runs throughout the winter and these fast-paced, full-contact matches are a fine way to see how many of Olomouc’s locals get their kicks on the weekends.
14. Olomouc’s Parks
If you check a map you’ll see that Olomouc’s parks encircle the city where the fortified walls used to be. In Bezrucovy Sady a large fragment of the old walls is still standing and you can climb up to the ramparts to walk between a couple of the towers. This park is also decorated with statues, the oldest of which are four baroque sculptures of Hercules from 1757. Smetana is a more formal park, with a long and elegant avenue flanked by tall and perfectly-trimmed hedges. You can track down the stately pavilion here for a cup of coffee at the cafe, or potter around the botanical greenhouses belonging to Palacky University.
15. Bouzov Castle
This is a classic fairytale castle, around 30 kilometres northwest of Olomouc. There’s been a fortress here on a knoll overlooking deep forest since the 1300s. For centuries it belonged to the Teutonic Order, but during this time gradually fell into disrepair. So in the 1800s it was restored by a Bavarian architect to match an idealised vision of medieval courtly life, and this is what makes Bouzov Castle a useful shooting location for Czech and German movies. All the elements of a romantic castle are here, with a moat, crenellated walls, drawbridges, bastions, and a watchtower eight storeys high that you can climb for panoramic countryside views.