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Inside: Just 75 miles from Prague, the spa town of Karlovy Vary charms visitors with colorful architecture and top spas. Here’s everything you need to know to plan the perfect Karlovy Vary spa getaway.
Also known as Karlsbad, Karlovy Vary translates as “Charles Bath” and was named for Charles IV, King of Bohemia who founded the city in 1370.
In the eighteenth century, Karlovy Vary was a popular tourist destination for both elites and creatives. High profile visitors in those days included Beethoven, Tolstoy, Wagner, Brahms, Karl Marx and Tsar Peter the Great.
But the start of World War I brought tourism to an abrupt halt and it never fully recovered its former glory.
What is Karlovy Vary known for?
But thanks to a wealth of Karlovy Vary spas and hot springs, today this charming town has begun a bit of a tourism resurgence.
Karlovy Vary is famous for bubbling hot springs, colorful, whimsical architecture and, most importantly, the Karlovy Vary spa experience!
And now is the time to go before the rest of Europe discovers this hidden Czech gem.
How to Get from Prague to Karlovy Vary
While Karlovy Vary does have an international airport, its flight offerings are extremely limited. However, it’s just 75 miles from Prague’s international airport (PRG). It’s also very well connected to both Germany and Prague via train and bus.
We arrived by train from Nuremberg with a connection in the Czech town of Cheb, which took about 2 ½ hours total. The trip from Prague to Karlovy Vary takes 2 hours by bus but a little over 3 hours by train due to the many stops along the way.
Therefore, when we departed from Karlovy Vary to Prague, we opted for the RegioJet bus. And we were pleasantly surprised at the comfortable ride on the bus for an incredibly inexpensive price (just 6€ each).
The most frequent bus service to Karlovy Vary runs from the Prague Florenc Bus Station.
How many days do you need?
Thanks to the Karlovy Vary’s compact town center, you can see a lot in just a single day. Of course, one day isn’t nearly enough time to enjoy all the spa services available. So do yourself a favor and plan on spending at least 2-3 days.
What’s the best time of year to visit?
Like the rest of the Czech Republic, Karlovy Vary is most popular with visitors during the sunny summer months of June – August. However, I find the spring and fall to be the best months to visit. For example, in May and September, you’ll find fewer crowds and lower hotel rates.
The same can be said for much of continental Europe.
There’s also plenty to see and do even if you visit in the winter months (like we are). You’ll also score the lowest hotel rates and better availability at the most popular spas.
Karlovy Vary’s Christmas Market
The Czech Republic is well known for fantastic Christmas markets and Karlovy Vary is no exception. The market’s 2022 dates have not yet been announced but you can find more information on their official website here.
Best Hotels in Karlovy Vary
Hotel Romance – Since our visit falls over Valentine’s Day, I couldn’t resist choosing this hotel located squarely in the center of town. The hotel was built in 1899 and some rooms have lovely views over town. The Castle Spa is directly across the street, so this hotel makes a great choice for spa-goers.
Grand Hotel Pupp – For a luxurious stay in Karlovy Vary, it’s impossible to top the majestic Grand Pupp Hotel. Dating back to 1701, this elegant, historic hotel sits directly on the river and offers a full wellness spa including saunas, pools, and a salt cave. It’s also famous for hosting the annual Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
Revelton Studios Karlovy Vary – If you’re on a budget, there’s no better choice than this modern aparthotel. As one of the newest hotels in town, rooms are freshly decorated, spotless and well appointed. Most rooms are single room studios with small kitchens. Larger rooms have sleeping lofts and are great for families. While a little further away from the heart of town than the other two choices, it’s still within walking distance.
Top 5 Things to do in Karlovy Vary
Before we start tackling the top local sights, our first stop in town is to pick up our very own Karlovy Vary spa drinking cups!
That’s right, the hot springs in Karlovy Vary are for drinking, not soaking (well mostly, at least)!
And not only is a spa drinking cup the perfect souvenir from your visit, it’s a must for sampling all of the local hot springs. The spa cups come in all shapes, sizes, colors and designs. And conveniently, we find them readily available for purchase on just about every corner!
1. Hot Springs!
Now that we’ve got our cups, it’s time to start sampling the healing benefits of the local waters! Full disclosure: I don’t much care for the earthy taste of the waters. However, my husband is immediately a fan and tries them all.
There are 12 hot springs around town to sample. You can get a map and list of their locations from your hotel front desk or at the Infocentrum. Here are a few to try:
Hot Spring Colonnade – (Open 6am-7pm) This spring produces 2000 liters of water per minute from a jet. Designed by Jaroslav Otruba, the modernist hall replaced an older, more traditional colonnade which was damaged after the war. The colonnade has several small springs for visitors to sample the waters, as well as a café and tours of the underground.
Market Colonnade – Built in 1882, the intricately-carved wooden colonnade was built in the Swiss architecture style and is the most unique structure in town. Within the colonnade, you’ll find three mineral springs: the Charles IV Spring, the Lower Castle Spring and the Market Spring.
The Mill Colonnade – The largest colonnade in town and a popular gathering place. In the summer months, you’ll often find live music here. However, year-round, you’ll find five mineral seeps inside to sample.
Special Mention: The Lázně I and Lázně III are both beautiful spa buildings – Lázně I was used for the casino setting in the movie Casino Royale.
2. Visit a spa…even a Beer Spa!
As I mentioned, the mineral hot springs of Karlovy Vary are primarily for consuming rather than soaking.
However, there are two large spas in town that also make use of the water’s high mineral content for bathing. Both are more “medical spas” than decadent, relaxation spas but you can still soak in a warm bath or schedule a massage:
Castle Spa – The more modern of the two. A 2-hour entrance ticket runs from 700 CZK- 950 CZK depending on the season and allows access to the thermal mineral water pool and two types of saunas.
Elizabeth Spa – The other option is the Elizabeth Baths which features Communist-era baths downstairs and a variety of spa services upstairs. The prices are reasonable and the building itself is worth a visit just for the retro historical feel.
The Original Beer Spa Karlovy Vary!
In addition to visiting the Elizabeth Spa for a mineral bath, we also find another fun option for Valentine’s Day…the Original Beer Spa (Spa Beerland)! Finally, a spa we can both get on board with – spa for me, beer for my husband.
I had him at beer.
This unique spa treatment is based on traditional Bohemian healing practices and takes place in hand made, 1,000 liter whirlpool tubs made of Royal Oak.
What’s actually in the beer bath?
The bath itself is composed of the local thermal waters, brewing yeast, hops, malt, and natural extracts. While enjoying your 20-minute beer soak, you can also partake of the light & dark beer taps next to your tub for drinking.
After the bath, you move to the nearby genuine wheat straw bed (because, why not?) to relax and allow your body to absorb the vitamins and extracts from your soak.
It is slightly more comfortable than it looks, but thank goodness they provide a blanket to cover the straw.
While relaxing on the bed we continue to enjoy our beers and they provide home-made beer bread for a snack. The whole process takes an hour and is definitely the most unique spa experience I’ve ever had. My husband loved it.
Bonus: Our skin was super soft after!
3. Enjoy the View from the Diana Observation Tower
To get there, take the funicular railway from the Grand Hotel Pupp. Or, if you’re in the mood for a hike, a number of tree-lined walking trails lead to the tower on the hill. Head up for the incredible panoramic views over the town and the surrounding mountains.
4. Sample the Spa Wafers
As a spa town, Karlovy Vary is most famous for its spa wafers. These can be found everywhere around town, whether a street stand or a grocery store. They come in a variety of flavors, are incredibly cheap and are best experienced when served warm.
5. Try the Local Liquor
Becherovka is a local liquor created by Jan Becher and is widely available around town. It comes in the original herbal flavor and in a lemon version. It’s definitely an acquired taste that – like the thermal waters – I do not manage to acquire during our visit.
But I will say the lemon version is tolerable.
Is Karlovy Vary expensive?
Not at all. Overall, the Czech Republic is an incredibly affordable European destination and Karlovy Vary is no exception. We found hotel rates to be very reasonable compared to Prague and the same is true for meals and spa prices.
In fact, I can’t think of a spa destination anywhere in the world that’s a better deal than Karlovy Vary.
Top 3 Instagram-Worthy Pics
If you’re like me and always looking for the best shots in any given destination, here are my picks for Karlovy Vary’s best photo ops:
To wrap up…
You may not find the traditional spa experience in this medical wellness destination, but that was part of what I loved about it. Karlovy Vary’s vibrant architecture, quiet charm and unique spa treatments (hello, beer spa!) are all part of what makes this Czech town such a special place.
Now that we’re living in Europe in the middle of so many jam-packed tourist destinations, I’ve learned to truly appreciate the rare finds that remain relatively off the tourism radar.
Karlovy Vary is definitely one of those gems worth a visit!
Looking for another terrific day trip from Prague? Don’t miss the charming Czech town of Český Krumlov or the hidden gem of České Budějovice:
Read More: Cheers to České Budějovice!