Whenever I have heard the term “Bohemian” in my life, I instantly envision hippies and people who live a free, wandering gypsy lifestyle. To me, being Bohemian never meant that you were a person who lived in Bohemia and it never occurred to me that Bohemia could actually be a real place, until now. Who knew that within the borders of The Czech Republic lies a land called Bohemia that stretches across to the German border and is truly a well-kept secret. After visiting this hidden triangle of mountainous villages and rolling green valleys known for their volcanic hot springs, I now understand why.
Visiting spas and enjoying the healing properties of natural hot springs in the Czech lands has a tradition going back hundreds of years. It has earned a reputation as one of the best in the world, which some famous visitors have come to the Czech spa towns to find out about for themselves. Here, you can experience all of the senses and let yourself be pampered in a world of elegant spa houses, exquisite, blossom-filled gardens. But this region has a lot more to offer than just their famous mineral hot springs. Rich in history as well as culture, here are my top 10 things you must do when visiting the key spa towns of Karlovy Vary, Mariánské Lázně, Františkovy Lázně and Jáchymov.
1. Drink the Magical Waters in the spa town of Karlovy Vary
Karlovy Vary, otherwise known as Carlsbad, is a magical hidden town in the mountains that is famous for two things; their healing hot springs and their annual Film Festival akin to Cannes. Just an hour and a half drive from Prague airport, you will find yourself driving through farmland, then lush, green forests, and then up a windy mountainous road that spills into a valley lined with the adorable baroque buildings that make up the spa town of Karlovy Vary.
This spa town may be one of the cleanest, quaintest places I have ever been. As you walk around, you feel like you are walking through a gingerbread town. Every building is painted in pastel colors, the streets are cobblestone and wind alongside two rivers that converge in the town below. Parts of the river are hot because of the infamous hot springs that bubble up into 12 fountains throughout the town.
When I first heard “hot springs” I assumed there were springs that you could climb into with your bathing suit. I found myself packing a bathing suit and getting ready to walk around the town until I noticed everyone carrying porcelain cups with them and saw ornate hand-painted porcelain mugs with straws for sale. I stopped and asked someone what the deal was with the porcelain cups and realized that as people stroll through the town, they stop by these fountains and fill up their cups straight from the hot springs and drink from them.
The thermal springs here in Karlovy Vary have been called by the Europeans “miracle mineral water” over the centuries. Visitors all over Asia and Europe have traveled all the way to Karlovy Vary and stay for about one to six months just to drink the healing mineral water every day to cure different illnesses.
Mineral water prepared from the thermal spring salt is beneficial and can heal conditions like fatty liver, obesity, stomach ulcers, diabetes, kidney stones, chronic hepatitis, parasites, Chron’s disease, and much more.
I tried drinking the water myself and it tastes like drinking a glass of warm water filled with copper pennies in it, it doesn’t taste good, but centuries of proven wisdom is worth trying!
2. Float down the River to Loket Castle
Between Karlovy Vary and Sokolov is a tiny town of less than 5,000 inhabitants that is worth a visit for those seeking a quiet spot to recharge. Founded in the 13th century, Loket, meaning elbow in Czech, lies nestled in a crook of an arm of the Ohře River surrounded on three sides by water.
Originally the residence of the Czech king and Roman emperor Charles IV, Loket was where he came to rest and hunt game.
Charles IV allegedly loved the place despite the fact that his father John of Bohemia kept him locked up here in the dungeon for several years during his childhood. The central focal point of the town is the 12th-century gothic Loket Castle. Once known as the Impregnable Castle of Bohemia, because of the thickness of its walls, it is one of the oldest and most historical stone castles in the Czech Republic. With only a bridge and a small bit of land to connect it to the mainland, the town has been preserved from most modern development. The quiet, narrow, winding cobbled streets and small squares virtually devoid of car traffic give the feeling of being back in time and the castle and village surrounding it look like a set from the fairytale Beauty and the Beast.
Canoe rentals can be found along the river banks that loop around the town and there is nothing better on a hot day than to float down this relaxing river that connects Karlovy Vary and Loket. You can even walk the same 17km trail along the river from Karlovy Vary if the mood strikes you. The river walks here are long and lovely and perfect for picnicking, playing, or just chilling out and doing nothing.
3. Uncover a Holy Relic found in Becov Castle
The historical center of the town of nearby Bečov is dominated by a complex of one of the best-preserved Czech castles built in Late Gothic style. What is so beautiful about this castle is that it blends three very different architectural styles and the grounds have been meticulously kept and perfectly preserved over the centuries, but what has made this castle famous is their “ Indiana Jones-esque” story that happened back in the 80's.
The year is 1985 and the police are on a treasure hunt searching for some sort of valuable item which is located somewhere in the country and which an American historian is interested in. They only have a few clues and it is almost impossible to solve the case. In the end, after weeks of searching old archived library texts, and secret passageways in local castles, they discovered a buried treasure hidden under the floor of the chateau chapel in Bečov Castle: a beautifully decorated golden casket dating back to the 13th century used to store the remains of St. Maurus. This reliquary is one of the most beautiful examples of medieval gold smithery and is the second most valuable relic in the Czech Republic after the crown jewels. The wooden core is richly decorated with gilded silver, as well as antique gems. When the owners of the castle, The Beauforts were forced to leave Bečov after World War II had ended, they secretly buried the reliquary under the floor in the castle chapel where it lay hidden for almost 40 years!
4. Witness the Singing Fountain in Mariánské Lázně
Hidden in the beautiful green mountain forest of West Bohemia, is a tiny spa town called Mariánské Lázně. This beautiful town dotted with romantic colonnades, charming pavilions, pleasant cafes and hotels also are endowed with many healing mineral springs, except unlike Karlovy Vary, they are not hot. This town, rich in history, is less known than Karlovy Vary and more calm and relaxing. Known for their cultural, theater, and orchestral performances, Mariánské Lázně is also famous for its beautiful architecture.
The most iconic building in this town is the Colonnade of Maxim Gorkii, all made out of cast iron and ornately carved wood. You can sip on mineral springs here and stroll through the colonnade, but the most memorable part is visiting their “singing fountain”. On every odd hour, the fountain dances to one of many famous compositions played throughout the day. In the evening, the fountain lights up from within and adds to the display, through lights embedded beneath the water. It felt like a mini Bellagio fountain display and is like the social center of the town where everyone congregates.
5. Tour the Royal Glass Factory
The Moser Glass Factory is a must-see and is only 5 minutes outside of the spa town of Karlovy Vary. The Czech lands have a centuries-long tradition of glass and crystal making and this is the ideal place to learn about it. Known for blowing handcrafted glass for centuries for royalty and celebrities, here you will learn about modern glassmaking techniques as well as the traditional lead crystal techniques. The most interesting part of the tour was walking through the actual Moser complex and watching their artisans work in real time, creating glass masterpieces.
In the main factory, the glassmakers work in teams of three and work in the most precise, amazing assembly line you will ever witness. The first glassblower gathers a glob of molten glass on the end of a long metal tube and then hands it to the next guy. The second glassblower then puffs air through the tube and when the glass balloon is the right size, twirls it in wooden molds to give the shape of the object being made. When this is done, another glob of molten glass is added and the whole thing is passed to the third and most experienced member of the team, who forms the stem and base. When the object is fully formed it is passed to another worker, who carries it to the cooling ovens. It is amazing that they can create and entire set that perfectly matches the shape of each other all by hand! Your will be blown away by these guys!
6. Climb or cycle through a Fairytale Forest
The Czech Republic, despite being on one of the most densely populated and fastest-growing continents in the world, has managed to maintain its glorious primeval forests. Climbers, cyclists, and Sunday strollers can enjoy the surrounding spa forests with several marked paths that lead you through the lush forests to interesting look-out points. One of these paths will lead you to the natural monumental granite rocks known as Hans-Heiling Rock (Svatošské rocks). Here you will find a wonderland of stone formed by the wind, rain, and river erosion.
Slavkov forest is located in the middle of the “spa triangle” between Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) and Františkovy Lázně. This region has been very important to the Czech Republic over the years for housing rich mineral resources like tin, silver, copper, zinc, lead, uranium, and semi-precious stones. Although the area has been mined continuously over the years, The Slavkov forest is a protected landscape that lies in-between the three spa towns. Even though these towns have high tourist traffic, not many people know about these hidden forests and they have remained a calm, mountainous, sanctuary for people to relax or spend the day hiking around in.
7. Go back in time to the town of Ostrov
Ostrov is a little-known town in the Karlovy Vary region, but has the oldest, most interesting history of the area. The origin of the settlement traces back to the beginning of the 13th century, back when the town was just an old medieval church surrounded by a cemetery and straw huts housing Germanic tribes. Almost on the German border, Ostrov is quiet and quaint now, but during WWII the castle served as Nazi concentration camp. The population of Ostrov multiplied after WWII with a boom of uranium mining in nearby Jachymov. The extensive housing blocks from the 1950s forming the new part of Ostrov are considered one of the best examples of socialist realism architecture in the Czech Republic.
The beautiful Bohemian town of Ostrov has held the title of "royal town" since the late Middle Ages. In the olden days, the citizens of Ostrov lived in total opulence since the town lay on the trading route from Prague to Eger. It had also managed to acquire an obscene amount of wealth through the collection of taxes. In 1434 it was pledged to the noble family of Schlick, who built a Renaissance palace rivaling Versailles as a residence there. The Schlicks had amassed a fortune from the mines in Jáchymov, and this enabled them to invest in such an expensive architectural style. They spent years building acres of sculptured, manicured gardens that at one time was called, “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” It was so wealthy, that historical texts describe the Koi fish in their garden fountains as being adorned with jewelry and pierced with diamonds! Although these gardens don’t exist anymore, evidence of the royal splendor of the old days can still be seen in the converted Baroque palace, the Maison de Plaisance, and the former palace grounds.
8. Listen to Opera in the Amphitheater
Traveling back to the magical village of Loket, in July the town plays host to the annual Loket Summer Cultural Festival held in an outdoor amphitheater right below Loket Castle on the Ohře river. The festival features performances by the Czech National Opera, but a variety of both classic and modern music events are held in this unique open-air environment. People from all of the nearby towns stroll, float, and cycle down the river to get to this amphitheater right on the water to watch an amazing performance with the dramatic backdrop of the Loket Castle. Nestled in the “elbow” or the 90-degree turn of the river and built into a hillside, the natural acoustics are amazing!
9. Tour the famous Becherovka and Jan Becher Museum
To enjoy Karlovy Vary with all your senses, you must not miss the tasting of the traditional herbal liqueur Becherovka, which is produced only here. Becherovka was produced the first time in 1807 in a drugstore owned by the chemist Josef Becher. Initially, he was selling in bottles as the stomach medication drops. Now manufactured as a liquor instead for the past 200 years,the exact recipe of ingredients was passed as a family secret from father to son. These days the recipe for Becherovka is known only by two people who are preparing a mixture of spices and herbs once a week. The specific taste is also influenced by two weeks of aging in oak barrels and reportedly also by the environment of Karlovy Vary.
You can taste Becherovka practically in every Karlovy Vary pub, restaurant or bar. It is served either chilled in a liquor glass, or in the mixed drinks, of which the most popular is “Beton” (Becherovka and tonic).
10. Pamper yourself and find magical cures in each spa town
Although I am a total adventurer and want to squeeze every experience out of a place to the last drop, sometimes I just have to learn to relax! It is impossible to come to the West Bohemian spa triangle without getting a spa treatment myself. Not doing so would mean that I missed the entire reason that people travel thousands of miles to come to this region. Relaxing massages, whirlpool baths in thermal water, pleasant warm compresses and wraps are not just for people with ailments, anyone can indulge in these services.
There are many spa houses and hotels offer both the traditional spa treatments, as well as many variations of wellness and beauty programs. For the ladies, there are even cosmetic wraps and anti-cellulite treatments as well as massages and thermal baths, but my favorite spot was the spa inside of the Hotel Imperial.
The decadent Hotel Imperial, which has I think the best view of all of Karlovy Vary, sits on the top of a mountain overlooking the valley and town below. In fact, you have to take a funicular that burrows through the rock to get down to the town below. The exit of the funicular pops you out right in the heart of Karlovy, just steps from the Grand Hotel Pupp and all of the action of the film festival during July. This stately hotel has one of the best spas in town and the suites all with 15-foot ceilings were so grand and luxurious. Even if you are not staying here, coming to enjoy the spa and have a cocktail afterward is a must-do!