Karlovy Vary, also known as Carlsbad, is well worth adding to your Czech itinerary. This beautiful city in West Bohemia is the largest spa resort in the Czech Republic.
Easily one of the loveliest towns in the country, Karlovy Vary's well-preserved historic architecture, beautiful colonnades and hot springs make it a must-visit destination. The town is famous for numerous thermal springs and a geyser scattered around its city centre. Twelve of these dispense drinkable thermal water with healing properties.
But it's not only the thermal baths that make this place so appealing. Karlovy Vary is a beautiful town with regulated traffic access, meaning the old town centre is exclusively for pedestrians. The city centre offers many narrow historical streets and walking paths, perfect for enjoying a leisurely stroll or a romantic evening walk along the river.
Karlovy Vary is conveniently located about 120 km from Prague, making it a popular day trip destination. However, if you have the time to say overnight, then do - it’s well worth it. Here just a few reasons why.
The legend behind the beautiful spa town of Karlovy Vary dates back to 600 years ago when Emperor Charles IV and his entourage went hunting in the local forests. While chasing a deer, the Emperor's dog stumbled upon a boiling pool at the point where the most abundant geyser now rises - the Vřıdlo.
At first, the hunters were worried that their dog fell into the hot water and was burned. But to their surprise, instead of his wounds burning, they healed! When Emperor Charles IV saw this remarkable incident, he decided to take a dip himself and his body was also miraculously healed.
Inspired by this incredible healing power of the water, he decided to found a settlement in the area and granted it royal privileges in 1370. This is how Karlovy Vary became one of the oldest spa towns in the Czech Republic and still attracts visitors from near and far today.
The thermal waters have different temperatures ranging from 15.3 to 73.4 °C, making them ideal for bathing. The mineral water has a very distinct taste and smell due to its high mineral content, but don't let that discourage you. It has many medicinal effects. It's said to boost the metabolism, stimulate the digestive tract, reduce cholesterol and more.
If you choose to drink the water, sip it in moderation. Especially if it’s your first time, you might find that it can work all too well in moving along the digestive tract.
A trip to Karlovy Vary wouldn't be complete without trying one of the city's most beloved treats - spa wafers (Karlovarské oplatky).
Spa wafers are made of two thin, crispy wafer sheets made using a traditional recipe from the mid-18th century. One of the main ingredients that give it its distinct flavour is local spring water. They're typically filled with a sweet hazelnut mixture, but you can also find other flavours, such as almond, cocoa, vanilla or cinnamon.
The wafers are nicely decorated with symbols of the city, featuring a thermal spring and a deer, as a tribute to Charles IV - founder of Karlovy Vary.
You can buy packaged boxes of spa wafers in the supermarket or local shops that make great gifts or souvenirs to take home. But you can also get them fresh from street vendors. Of course, they taste the best when warm.
Whenever I think about spa wafers, I feel nostalgic because my grandmother always used to bring some to me from her thermal spa treatments.
The colonnades are one of Karlovy Vary's most iconic landmarks. They're long, covered walkways with hot springs under their roof, often lined with historical columns and arches.
Karlovy Vary has five spa colonnades, each with unique architecture. They were built in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Take a leisurely stroll along the colonnades and Teplá River and enjoy the special historic atmosphere.
The largest and perhaps the most beautiful colonnade in Karlovy Vary is the Mill Colonnade (Mlýnská kolonáda). It’s an example of the Neo-Renaissance style and has 124 columns
The Hot Spring Colonnade (Vřídelní kolonáda) might not be the most visually pleasing building due to its communist-era design, but it hides the underground geyser. You can drink the healing water with a special spa cup directly from the geyser fountain.
The Castle Colonnade (Zámecká kolonáda) consists of three separate structures, the Lower Castle Spring Colonnade, the Sun Bath, and the Upper Castle Spring Colonnade. It was built to connect with the Market Colonnade (Tržní kolonáda) into a single promenade.
Karlovy Vary is home to a thriving cultural scene with plenty of art galleries and museums. The Karlovy Vary Theatre is also an architectural masterpiece that provides interesting cultural events and performances.
The town hosts the annual world-renowned Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, with a more than seventy-year tradition. Every year in the summer, you can meet the most talented artists and stars of the cinematic world.
Besides Film Festival, many talented jazz and classical musicians flock to Karlovy Vary throughout the year, adding to the city's vibrant cultural scene. The Karlovy Vary Symphony Orchestra is one of the oldest orchestras in Europe.
The municipal spa parks and gardens in Karlovy Vary are a perfect addition to healing spa treatments and baths.
The most impressive and popular of them is Smetana Park. The main highlights of this park are a building of Elisabeth Baths, a fountain, statues and a four-rowed alley of manicured lime trees.
There are also other small parks in town, such as a Japanese Garden and Dvořák Park, with its beautiful lake only steps away from the city centre.
The forest surrounding Karlovy Vary offers many hiking trails. A pleasant hike through the Ohře River valley and the Svatoš Rocks leads to stunning Castle Loket. The hike takes about 2.5 hours.
Travel back in time as you explore the cobblestoned streets of this charming city. The historic centre is packed with beautiful tall buildings in various architectural styles, from Neo-Classicism, Neo-Baroque and Neo-Renaissance to Art Nouveau.
The Golden Era of Karlovy Vary was in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century when the spa attracted many European elites. The architecture has been well-preserved. The most iconic buildings here include the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, the Colonnades and the Grandhotel Pupp Hotel.
There are also plenty of other tourist attractions in and around Karlovy Vary, such as the Moser Museum, Municipal Theatre and the Becherovka Museum dedicated to the inventor of Becherovka and much more.
Fun Fact: Grand Hotel Pupp was a filming location for the James Bond movie Casino Royale.
For traditional Czech cuisine, head to Staroslovanská kuchyňa (Old Slavic Cuisine). Czech food pairs perfectly with the locally-brewed beer - try Karlovy Vary Starý hrad light or dark or Karlsbaderbeer half-dark.
For a coffee break and exceptional desserts, check out Cafe Elefant on Stará Louka Street, one of the town’s main shopping streets. It's an elegant coffeehouse connected to Hotel Elefant.
The desserts are delicious, and the outdoor balcony is a prime location to take in Karlovy Vary's lively atmosphere. All their desserts taste amazing, so you can't go wrong with any option. My personal favourite is raspberry cheesecake or honey cake, called marlenka.
Becherovka is a popular Czech liquor that has a pleasant herb-like flavour. It's made from a signature blend of around thirty herbs and spices. A bottle of the bittersweet Becherovka is a special inexpensive gift or souvenir from Karlovy Vary.
Make sure to add Jan Becher Museum to your Karlovy Vary itinerary, and take a guided tour which explains the process for distilling Becherovka.
The liquor has been produced in Karlovy Vary since 1807, according to a traditional recipe from the legendary pharmacist Josef Vitus Becher. The on-site Becherplatz restaurant is a great place to grab a bite after your tour.
One of the top things to do in Karlovy Vary is take a walk to one of the Lookout towers surrounding the town. The most picturesque lookout tower is Goethe, however here are some other beautiful spots to admire the view.
Tower - View of Charles IV. (Vyhlídka Karla IV.)
Tower of Goethe (Goethova vyhlídka)
Deer Jump Lookout (Jelení skok)
Three Crosses Lookout (Vyhlídka Tři kříže)
The most comfortable way to get to the Diana Observation Tower is by funicular departing from Grand Hotel Pupp. There is also an option to use the lift instead of climbing the stairs of the observation tower. On top of the hill, you'll be rewarded with a great view of an entire city.
The other lookout points don't offer the convenience of a funicular ride, but the breathtaking views make it well worth the effort. It’s also worth making a detour to Castle Loket before heading back to Prague. It’s a short 14 km drive from Karlovy Vary, or you can simply take bus number 6.
Planning a trip to Karlovy Vary? Stay at Hotel Romance in an Art Nouveau building in the centre of town.
Last Updated 30 August 2023