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Karlovy Vary – the luxurious refuge of 19th century aristocrats

This spring we spent a few days in the Czech resort of Karlovy Vary, known for its thermal springs with healing water, the picturesque landscape of a forested valley and the impressive buildings that combine influences from several architectural styles – a legacy from those who managed the place over time.

Almost at every step around the city center, there are postcard worthy views to enjoy and share photos with friends to make them jealous of your SPA town adventure – especially if the sky is clear and sunny – we caught some grey spring days which made us a little sad, but the feeling passed quickly thanks to all the beauty around us.

Located in the western part of Bohemia, Karlovy Vary is the most popular and most visited spa resort in the Czech Republic. It is about 130 km west of Prague and less than 40 km from the German border. In German, it is called Karlsbad, meaning “Karl’s Baths”, after Charles IV, King of Bohemia, who founded the city over 6 centuries ago – this also being the official name of the city while it was part of Germany.

Since the 19th century, the resort was very popular among the “higher circles” of society, being frequented mostly by the aristocratic families of Europe and various celebrities of the time, especially after the therapeutic effects of the mineral waters found here have been described in the books of well-known doctors. High dignitaries, heads of state, famous composers, writers and international celebrities passed through here.

At that time, the Romanian resort Băile Herculane was enjoying the same success, but today many of the impressive buildings that housed important people of the century offering luxury services are abandoned and left in desolation, their past grandeur is now just a timid ghost haunting the majestic natural landscapes in the area.

After the First World War, Karlovy Vary was incorporated into the independent territory called Czechoslovakia for the next 19 years until 1938, when it became part of Nazi Germany under the name of Karlsbad. The city got back the name of Karlovy Vary after World War II, as part of Czechoslovakia during the Soviet period until 1989, when the communist era ended in the region.

Thus, due to the cultural heritage built by the troubled history of the city, today you can often hear on the streets of Karlovy Vary, besides Czech language – Russian and German, Russian being predominant – it can be heard in the majority of the resort’s hotels, restaurants and shops, while most of the tourist businesses are owned by Russians.

This is one of the few popular tourist destinations in Europe where speaking English won’t help you much – we met very few people who knew how to answer our questions in English, we were lucky that one of us speaks Russian, so we managed to communicate easily.

How to get to Karlovy Vary

Only 6 kilometers away from the Karlovy Vary city center is an airport with the same name, but at a quick glance on the official website, it seems that the only flights operated there are to and from Moscow, and in 2018, only 45.000 passengers passed through its gates, probably 99% of them being Russians.

There are also two train stations in Karlovy Vary where trains from a few destinations arrive, especially on domestic routes and some from Germany. The ticket prices are much higher than for buses though.

We arrived to Karlovy Vary from Prague by Flixbus. The journey takes about two hours, the coaches are very comfortable, with air conditioning, free Wi-Fi, power sockets, toilet and large space between the seats. Depending on the season, the number of daily or weekly buses and ticket prices may vary, but in general, if purchased in advance, tickets can cost as little as 5 euros or less outside the busiest season. After researching all the transport options, we thought this one was the best and we had a very positive experience, so we highly recommend it.

Spa treatment options in Karlovy Vary

Karlovy Vary is very different from what we expect to find in a spa town known for its thermal waters. If in Budapest, for example, there are lots of thermal baths with relaxation and swimming pools, here most of the spa treatments are based on drinking water from the 13 hot springs of the resort.

Tourists go from one hot spring to another and drink water from a kind of a flattened mug ending in something resembling a straw, which can be purchased from the numerous stalls and souvenir shops in the area. We were not very attracted to this “procedure”, especially considering that in some springs the water temperature is over 70 ° C. However, at least one of us had a hard time abstaining from buying a cat-shaped mug. 🙂

Visitors are not allowed to take spring water with them in bottles – you can only drink it right there by the springs, so if you don’t want to buy a traditional mug, bring one with you to taste the waters that are said to have healing properties, improving a number of conditions, especially of the digestive system.

Although most hotels in Karlovy Vary have a SPA area with thermal water pools, in most cases, access is allowed only to those staying at that particular hotel, and the thermal baths are part of a treatment plan prescribed by the in-house doctor, along with other procedures.

However, we couldn’t leave the resort without having a hot bath, so we went, for an authentic experience, to the baths no. 5 (Lázně V in Czech) or the Elizabeth Baths – named after the famous princess Sissi. The SPA building with beautiful architecture is right in the city center, at the end of a well maintained park. As we understood, this is the only public bath that is still open and administered by local authorities.

The part with the thermal pool and sauna is located in the basement of the building, while in one of the wings there are several treatment rooms (balneology, physiotherapy, massage, recovery and rehabilitation procedures, salt cave, etc.). There are also some beauty salons and similar services.  A restaurant can be found on the ground floor.

The hallway leading to the thermal pool looks like a clinic from a few decades ago, with numbered doors and small signs saying what procedure is done inside, and the smell is very… specific.

About the baths … there’s not much to say. Maybe we became spoiled after visiting many other thermal baths in Europe, but these don’t really deserve their name. The water is barely warm, you cannot spend a longer period to relax in it because you get cold. It was an interesting experience, but most likely we wouldn’t return here.

Most hotels in Karlovy Vary offer a variety of treatments for different conditions, including doctor consultations to get prescriptions for specific procedures. But, as we said above, most of the time you have to stay at the respective hotel in order to benefit from them on their premises. We preferred to explore the city and the surrounding hills instead of laying in a warm bed, wrapped in all sorts of healing thingies. Not that we don’t like spa treatments, but just to gather more info to tell you in this article. J

What to visit in Karlovy Vary

  1. The Colonnades

Even if you’re not a fan of mineral waters with weird taste, it is worth taking a tour of the beautiful colonnades housing some of the thermal springs. They are some architectural jewels scattered in several places in the central part of the city.

In total, there are 5 colonnades designed by famous architects from Austria and the Czech Republic who have left their artistic mark on each of these impressive buildings.

  1. Diana Tower

Diana observation tower is easily accessible from the city center, on foot or by funicular, from the station next to Grandhotel Pupp, which you cannot miss – it is an imposing building, also known for many scenes filmed here for the famous movie Casino Royale. However, to make sure we give you good directions, this is the hotel 🙂 :

On foot, it is an about half an hour climb on paths among trees, the track is quite easy, no exceptional physical condition is necessary to pass it without difficulty. During the climb, there are some spots from which the view over the city is worth all the “sport”.

The funicular runs every 15 minutes and can transport up to 40 people, the trip takes only about three minutes. When we visited, it wasn’t crowded at all, some free space was even available in the cabins. Tickets can be purchased from its base and the price for an adult ticket is 60 crowns (approximately 2.5 euros) in one direction and 90 crowns (about 3.5 euros) for a round trip. There are discounts for children, families, people with disabilities, etc.

Although the trip is quite short, a ride in the over a 100-year-old funicular is a nice experience that we recommend.

The Diana Tower was built in 1914 and is 25 meters high. Admission is free, and the access to the observation platform is possible either by the elevator or by climbing the 150 circular steps.

The view over the city is wonderful, it is said that on clear days you can see some tens of kilometers away from there.

After climbing down from the tower, captivated by the sight, we went to explore the surroundings and found a small zoo, where we enjoyed meeting the ponies Noddy and Nancy, goats Viktorka, Misha, Diana and Julie, pigs Lily and Apollo, peacocks Romulus and Frosty.

There are several forest tracks in the area, on the hills surrounding the city, for relaxing or more active walks and fresh air.

  1. Jeleni skok

Before reaching Diana, the funicular has an intermediate station at Jeleni Skok (Deer Jump), but we chose not to get off there and explore the area on foot the next day, climbing through the forest.

The route is marked all along and there are lots of signs – it is very difficult, almost impossible to get lost. There is also a restaurant up there, but it was closed at that time, so we had more time to admire the scenery.

  1. Imperial Spa

An impressive building, designed by two Austrian architects in the Renaissance style with classical influences, stands tall in the central area of the city: the Imperial Baths or the Baths No.1 (in Czech: Lázně I).

At its time of glory, it was one of the most modern and luxurious buildings of its kind, offering innovative treatments, procedures and facilities for those years. Today, fragments of its former grandeur can still be seen.

Along a bright hallway with large windows, there are numerous treatment rooms for thermal and mineral baths, with private changing cabins and showers, colorful tiles and stained glass windows. Most of the rooms are closed and in a deplorable condition now, only a few are kept to be seen by visitors.

The building can be visited only partially, for a small fee, in some rooms being hosted art and photography exhibitions.

  1. Wax Museum in the church

We didn’t really visit this place, just walked past it while exploring the streets of the city and found its placement interesting, so we decided to include it in the list of sights to visit. So if you go there and you don’t like it – it’s not our fault, we didn’t do anything! 🙂

  1. Traditional cafes and shops

While strolling through the city center and admiring the beauty of the surrounding buildings, among expensive shops, luxury brands and sparkling jewelry that steal your eyes from the windows, you can also see smaller cafes and shops with traditional products and affordable prices.

Do not leave Karlovy Vary without tasting the famous oplatky, a kind of large and round wafer with all kinds of delicious fillings: chocolate, pistachio, vanilla, apple and cinnamon, peanuts and many more. We couldn’t help but savor each one: fresh and warm.

And since we are talking about local sweets, also try a trdelnik, which is not as traditional as the Karlovy Vary wafers, but just as tasty. It is actually a small version of the chimney cake you’ll find in many cities in Europe under different names. Here, they were filled with ice cream, chocolate and fruit – it was impossible for us to pass by it and not try some!

  1. There’s more to Karlovy Vary than the city center

Don’t spend all your exploration energy only in the central part of the resort – the secondary streets can be just as beautiful, and having a predominantly hilly relief, the view over the city is wonderful!

Conclusion

Did we like Karlovy Vary? Yes! Are we really glad we went there? Of course, yes! Would we return to this postcard worthy spa resort? Yes, after… 30 – 40 years – when we will be two nice old people without much of a momentum for wandering the surrounding hills and rather eager for a massage, a warm wrap, a comfort for the brave legs that have taken us all over the world for decades, as we couldn’t get tired of traveling, exploring, discovering.

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