I’ve written recently about how small towns draw me in more than big cities. Karlovy Vary was no exception; I really enjoyed my time in Prague but I loved my visit to this small picturesque city in western Czechia. Read on to laugh at my ignorance and then find out more about this charming town.
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Situated in western Czech Republic, the easiest way to get to Karlovy Vary is from Prague. It’s one of the most popular Prague day trips, along with Pilsen and Brno. You can get a private cab or a private tour, or you can always take a Flixbus like my group did. The Flixbus from Prague was inexpensive and quick, and you can find another route coming in from Frankfurt (Germany). Trains come in and out of Karlovy Vary as well: but while train travel may seem romantic, the bus is faster and cheaper.
More Czechia: A Guide to Visiting Prague
My (Hilarious) Experience
I’ve had a pretty busy year, so I didn’t have that much time to pour into researching Karlovy Vary. Once I read a couple of blog posts that highlighted it as a must-visit in the Czech Republic, I wrote it down and moved on. I recall reading the key words “hot springs” and “spa,” so I mentally filed that away and moved on.
After three grueling days crisscrossing Prague’s cobblestone streets, my body was quite tired. I was looking forward to nothing more than relaxing in a hot spring bath. My husband, sister, brother-in-law and I had planned this little trip to Karlovy Vary together, and I really hyped up the hot spring bath aspect to them (this is called foreshadowing).
We checked into our hotel around 3pm. I asked the front desk host about the hot springs and he provided me with a city map and told me about a public bathhouse. Bingo! I tucked away the map and we all decided to explore the city on foot before having dinner. As we walked south along the river, the town got more and more charming. The trees were lovely with fall colors and each pastel-painted building was more picturesque than the last. We located the public bathhouse and inquired about their hours, and got a pamphlet written in confusing English. It delineated prices for spa treatments and massages. I couldn’t find out anything about a mineral pool.
As we walked along the river, we noticed everyone carrying strange porcelain mugs with a straw for a handle. Hm. A little while later we saw people filling their mugs with water from little fountains near the ground.
What had happened was…
After dinner, we got our swimsuits and headed to the bathhouse. We entered the front door and everything was dark. I felt a little bit like I was in a horror movie, in a dark abandoned hospital with hallway after hallway of closed white doors. Finally, after tentatively wandering through the whole place, we found the public bath.
Except it was a public pool. Like, I came all the way to Karlovy Vary to spend time at the YMCA. Confused but undaunted, we all paid for a 90-minute pass anyway. We changed in the locker room and emerged in a large hall with a lap pool, kiddie pool, hot tub, and therapy pool. I was very disappointed, especially because the hot tub was barely warm. The therapy pool had stations where we could sit on jets or get massaged by a strong stream of water, which was the highlight of the evening. I tried to get my 90 minutes’ worth by visiting the steam room, as well.
We changed back into our normal clothes in the locker room. After a chilly walk back to our hotel (towels weren’t provided by the pool), hot showers were taken by all and we regrouped to laugh about what a ridiculous boondoggle the whole experience had been.
So, that’s how I traveled halfway around the world to spend time at a mediocre municipal pool.
The famous Karlovy Vary hot springs are for drinking, not bathing. You can find some private thermal baths (think fancy bathtub) at nice establishments like this one. However, be prepared to pay luxury prices for this. Bathing in group hot springs is not part of the Czech tradition.
Let me take a moment to comment on the nuances of words like “hot springs” and “spa.” While Karlovy Vary is filled with hot springs and spas, and neither of these words is used incorrectly in context, I was looking for a hot spring bath, but didn’t know the vocabulary I needed to make the distinction.
When You Go
In Karlovy Vary there are four main attractions:
1. Hot springs – as I mentioned above, I was under the wrong impression in regards to what the hot springs actually were. Along the mill colonnade, you will find at least 15 small fountains each flowing from a hot spring with a different mineral makeup and different temperature. The water is for drinking and is said to help many ailments. Many street vendors sell special cups for this. Be careful not to drink too much, the unfamiliar minerals might upset your stomach.
2. If you are dead-set to soak in hot water, you will want to find a health treatment like these at Hotel Thermal (and reserve your room here). Most of the nicer hotels will offer treatments such as massages, mud wraps, etc. Some hotels require a doctor’s examination before treatment. Let me be clear: If you want to soak in a natural hot spring, go to Hungary instead.
3. Diana Observation Tower offers an amazing viewpoint where you can see the buildings of Karlovy Vary lining the river. In the fall, the view is particularly spectacular. However, when we went, the funicular railway was closed for repairs and remains closed until February 2019.
4. You will hear a great deal about Grandhotel Pupp, and that’s because this hotel was used as a filming location in the 2006 Bond film Casino Royale. Its use as a movie set continues a long history of famous guests such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Napoléon Louis Bonaparte, and more. It’s located at the south end of the city, where the river bends. You can see it set a beautiful backdrop in the last photo of this post.
Also on The Voyageer: Where I’ve Been – Where I’ve Loved
We all stayed at the charming budget-friendly Hotel Kavalerie, which featured the best continental breakfast of all our hotels. The most popular spots in town are located along the river near the hot springs. Grandhotel Pupp was a filming location used in the James Bond movie Casino Royale. Find lodging to meet every budget here.
Photos by Doug and Staci Jackson for The Voyageer.