It was only by a lucky coincidence that we came across Karlovy Vary. One of our contributors was in the Czech Republic working on a story for the BBC (which can be read by clicking here) about the old Soviet uranium mines that zigzag their way underneath the mountains in this region of the country. However to do that story required a place to stay – that place, in the end, happened to be the biggest town in the region, Karlovy Vary.
Seeing this fairytale place, and not writing about it would have been impossible.
Our contributor had never previously visited Karlovy Vary before stepping off the train from Prague that Autumn day, and first impressions weren’t great. The train station is a few hundred meters outside of town, and it takes 20/30 minutes of walking (often criss-crossing busy roads) to finally get into the center of Karlovy Vary. Yet while that walk was dull, a little bleak, and somewhat arduous, Karlovy Vary was the complete opposite.
Simply put, the town is grandeur personified. Building after building is painted in differing bright colors, with the facade of each one somehow still blending into its adjacent neighbor. Those colors also worked perfectly with the town’s surroundings – Karlovy Vary sits in a deep valley, with thick forests encircling it.
Named Carlsbad in German, Karlovy Vary is most famous for it’s spa resorts, and is especially popular with Russians – in fact there are direct flights to Karlovy Vary from Moscow. And water is the common theme throughout the town. A raging river rushes through the city center bringing an usual but welcome backdrop of noise as you walk the streets, whilst throughout the town hot springs gush out of the ground – some encased within grand buildings, other just out in the open streets. Just be careful when walking beside them – they’re very hot! In fact the hottest spring in Karlovy Vary is Vřídlo (which unsurprisingly means “hot spring”), and this spring ejects water 12 meters into the air at a very toasty temperature of 73 degrees Celsius!
But really this town is made up of quirky details, buildings and places, and every corner you turn has another surprise or architectural delight. Even the hotel our writer stayed in had a glass lift that rose out and above part of the rooftop in order to get to the top floors – giving a partial panorama of the whole town. If it reminds you a little of the glass elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – then that’s what it was like!
But fundamentally this is a town that’s proud of its heritage, and of the supposed healing qualities in the water. Which is why there are dozens of taps throughout Karlovy Vary where tourists and locals can drink water directly from the ground and the famous hot springs. That also why shops up and down Karlovy Vary sell specialized bottles and flasks so tourists can bottle the stuff up to either drink as they wander the streets, or to take home with them.
But while there’s lots to look at and admire in Karlovy Vary, there’s also a variety of things to do in here too. Here’s a quick run-down of a few of our top things to do in Karlovy Vary:
Things to do and visit in Karlovy Vary
Visit a Karlovy Vary spa!
This is what the town is famous for, and why people have been coming here for centuries. In fact Karlovy Vary is believed to have the highest concentration of hot healing springs in the world. Book yourself into a spa, and enjoy a slow and luxurious pace of life for a few hours and hopefully leave feeling re-energised.
The water is believed to be help people with ailments such as aches and joint pains, whilst in the small nearby village of Jachymov, there is even a spa that uses uranium wastewater, which they claim can help against even life-threatening sicknesses such as cancer (something I’m dubious about……..). Regardless, this is a super interesting place, with a really varied and unique spa culture – and definitely worth a few hours of your day.
Get an idea and history of Soviet hardship
Historically, this area has a fascinating albeit sad history.
The village of Jachymov (20 minutes outside of Karlovy Vary) has a museum and visitor center with relics from Jachymov prisoner camp.
As one of the largest and most brutal Soviet detention centers, prisoners (most of them were political prisoners) were forced to mine the surrounding mountains for hour after hour every day. Sadly many lost their lives, succumbing to illness or due to collapsing mines.
The museum (Krajské muzeum Karlovarského kraje – Hornické muzeum Jáchymov) can be found on the road running through the village, right beside the main square, and gives a very poignant look back at what prisoners had to go through. There isn’t much English spoken here, but the museum can also take you to a former mine, if you can make yourself understood!
Walk the Mill Colonnade
One of the grandest parts of Karlovy Vary, the Mill Colonnade is a column-clad walkway (think ancient Rome), that has several hot springs within it.
It probably sums up Karlovy Vary better than any other part of the town, with the grandeur, hot springs, and lush greenery around it. It’s the postcard picture of this stunning town.
It’s also possible to go underground and see the thermal springs underneath Karlovy Vary, just ask at the Tourist Information Centre on Lazenska 14 Street.
Take the cable car up to Karlovy Vary’s century-old observation tower
Situated on a hilltop above Karlovy Vary is the Dianaturm, a beautifully constructed hexagonal observation tower built in 1914.
While the ride up to the tower on the cable car gives breathtaking views of Karlovy Vary – as does the view from the Dianaturm itself – there’s two other great reasons to make the trip up here. There’s a delicious hilltop restaurant, and a butterfly museum!
Visit the glass museum
Karlovy Vary is famous for its spa and hot springs, but it’s also world-renowned for the decorative glass made in the town.
Luxury glass maker Moser (founded 1857) is based in the town, and it’s possible to visit the company, do a tour, and visit the dedicated museum.
Popular with the rich and famous around the world, the museum and tour gives a first-hand look into the lives of the world’s super wealthy.