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. The town is famed for bubbling hot springs, colorful, whimsical architecture and, most importantly, the Karlovy Vary spa experience!
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.
But thanks to a wealth of Karlovy Vary spas and hot springs, today this charming town has begun a bit of a tourism resurgence. And now is the time to go before the rest of Europe discovers it!
How to Get 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. To or from Prague, the trip 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 Karlovy Vary for 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.
Best Hotels in Karlovy Vary
Hotel Romance Puškin – Since our visit fell 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.
Grandhotel Pupp – For a luxurious stay in Karlovy Vary, it’s impossible to top the majestic Grandhotel Pupp. 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 you start tackling the top local sights, your first stop in town should be to pick up your very own Karlovy Vary spa drinking cup! 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, you’ll find them readily available for purchase on just about every corner!
1. Hot Springs!
Now that you’ve got your cup, it’s time to start sampling the healing benefits of the local waters! Full disclosure: I didn’t much care for the earthy taste of the waters. However, my husband was a fan and tried 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 Springs 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 Colonade – The largest colonnade in town and a popular gathering place. In the summer months, you’ll often find live music here. However, year around, 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, you will find two large spas in town that also make use of the water’s 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 Baths – 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 found 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. 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 (you read that right…pics in the image gallery link below) to relax and allow your body to absorb the vitamins and extracts from your soak. It was more comfortable than it sounds, but thank goodness they provided a blanket to cover the straw.
While relaxing on the bed you can continue to enjoy a beer and they provide home-made beer bread for a snack. The whole process takes an hour and was 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 Grandhotel 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 which 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 did not acquire during my visit. But I will say the lemon version is tolerable.
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!