Let’s start with a quick game. Hands up everyone who’s been to the Czech Republic! OK, great. Now… keep your hands up if you went to literally anywhere other than Prague. Wow. That’s a lotta hands that just dropped down.
Yep, Czech Republic (officially called Czechia, but known as Cesko at home and Czech Republic nearly everywhere else) is an odd one. Its capital, Prague, is one of the most visited cities on Earth, logging more tourists in 2016 than Miami. Yet the rest of it remains shamefully underexplored. And while its teeny tiny size of 78,866 km² – smaller than South Carolina – means there ain’t much that space for off-trail wandering, what is there manages to pack as much of a punch as countries five times its size. Think Czech Republic is just Prague and beer? After visiting these places, you may have to think again.
10. Karlštejn Castle
Castles! The Czech Republic has them in spades, and then some. First as the independent kingdom of Bohemia (the Western part of Czech Republic), then as an outpost of the Holy Roman Empire, and then as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czech Republic saw a spree of castle building even other European nations consider excessive. It’s a fact* that you can climb any hill in the country, look in any direction, and see at least half a dozen spectacular examples of defensive architecture (* fact may not actually be true).
The most spectacular of all this multitude of castles? Karlštejn.
Founded by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1365, Karlštejn is barely a stone’s throw from Prague – assuming that your average stone throwing range is around 30 kilometers. But, hey! Never mind that, check out this incredible castle! One of the most fairy tale like structures ever built, Karlštejn is both beautiful and authentic. Surrounded by thick forest, it rises unstoppably above the canopy, a collection of turrets and towers that could act as the setting for any Disney film. Though, given how unbelievably cold the area gets in winter, you’ll probably feel like that film is Frozen 2.
9. The City of Olomouc
OK, it’s time to leave Prague’s orbit and strike out east, for the country’s lesser visited side. Czech Republic is comprised of two distinct regions: Bohemia in the West, and Moravia in the East. Classically, Moravia is the lesser visited of the two. Despite its reputation for fine wines and finer walking, it’s long been seen as the ugly stepsister to Bohemia’s Cinderella.
Yet Moravia has at least one jewel in its crown that could give even Bohemia a run for its money: the baroque city of Olomouc.
Lonely Planet has called Olomouc the Czech Republic’s best kept secret, and it’s easy to see why. A vibrantly colored old town surrounding a vast cathedral, and topped off by not one but two meandering, cobblestoned town squares, Olomouc is the kind of city visitors to Europe always dream of seeing. Plus, it’s still undiscovered enough that you won’t have to fight jerkbag tourists clutching selfie sticks for the best view!
The centerpiece is the Holy Trinity Column, an 18th Century stone marvel that tops out at 35 meters (114 feet, in real measurements) and is listed by UNESCO.
8. Sedlec Ossuary
An hour outside of Prague, Sedlec Ossuary first shot to fame in the 14th Century, when a local Abbot scattered soil from the Holy Land across the cemetery. 30,000 people clamored to be buried there as a result and, over the following centuries, Sedlec became the hippest burial place in Central Europe.
This led to what we’re gonna euphemistically call “overcrowding,” and the monks eventually decided something needed to be done with all the excess bones. So, in 1870, they hired a guy named František Rint and asked him to work his magic. In Rint’s case, that evidently meant black magic, because he took one look at the overcrowded ossuary and decided to turn it into a house made of human bones.
Today, Sedlec is a macabre masterpiece made out of 40,000 skeletons, all arranged into decorations that are either fascinating or horrifying, depending on how highly you rank on the Goth scale. There are bone chandeliers, bone shelves, bone candle holders, and a skeleton of a crow, made out of the skeletons of humans. Brrr!
7. Loket Old Town
If the tiny town of Loket in Bohemia seems familiar to you, don’t worry: you’re not accidentally regressing to a past life as a Czech villager. Loket is the location where Casino Royale was filmed, along with nearby Karlovy Vary (the movie is set in Montenegro, but whatever, right?). That means you can sit out on the main square, by the fountain, and be quietly smug in the knowledge that Daniel Craig’s buttocks once shared that very space.
“But wait!” You might be saying, “I didn’t watch Casino Royale!” Well, fear not, hypothetical interrupter, because there’s more going for Loket than just whatever traces of Daniel Craig’s DNA might be lying around, just waiting for some enterprising list writer to make a clone out of them. The old town is knock out gorgeous, what with its winding cobblestone streets and castle perched above a sinuously curving river. Plus, there’s an annual motocross race and opera festival – not at the same time, sadly.
The whole shebang lies at the most extreme western point of Czech Republic, 140 kilometers from Prague and practically hugging the German border. Its history is so clearly Teutonic that it was even used as a location in All Quiet on the Western Front.
6. Hruboskalsko Rock Towers
Right, we’ve covered cities, towns, and boneyards, but so far we’re missing something kinda important. Ask most Czechs what they’re most proud of in their adorably tiny country, and they’ll likely answer “the nature.” The Czech countryside is the sort of place Goldilocks would go nuts for. It’s not too mountainous, not too flat; not too wild, not too tamed; not too forested and not too agrarian. In other words, it’s just right.
All of which makes our task of picking just one place from this gentle, rolling, picture perfect landscape somewhat difficult. We’ll spare you the agonies that went into our decision. Suffice to say, there was simply nowhere that could compare to the unpronounceable Hruboskalsko Rock Towers.
To find this strange wilderness of rock skyscrapers, you’ll first need to go to Ceský ráj, the first national park in the Czech Republic. Founded in the 1950s, it’s small even compared to such parks in Britain. But when you’ve got these great rock monsters to marvel over, who’s measuring? As a bonus, if you walk there, you get to experience all that countryside we were waxing lyrical over earlier.
Right down at the bottom of Moravia, so southerly that it’s literally bumping up against the Austrian border, sits a town designed to give your optic nerves quivers of joy. Mikulov is the sort of ancient hill town other ancient hill towns wished they looked like; the Chris Pratt of the ancient hill town world, if you will. Perched high above the best vineyards in the entire country (did we mention it’s on a hill?), this baroque delight is like all the best bits of the Czech Republic rolled into one.
For one thing, it’s beautiful, with a blend of Italian and local architecture that’s earned it the nickname “the Italian pearl of Moravia.” For another, its surroundings are second to none. In a single bike trip, you can cycle over the protected limestone plateau of Palava, kick back in one of Pavlov’s historic wine cellars, visit the grand chateaux of Lednice and Valtice, and cross the UNESCO protected park linking them, a delicately sculpted landscape known as “the Garden of Europe” (the formula “it’s the X of Y!” sure is popular with Czech Republic’s tourist board). What else can we say? Except, perhaps, go to Mikulov!
4. Ostrava’s Industrial Ruins
Despite its international reputation as a place of castles, beer, and pretty old towns (see basically everything above), it’s worth remembering not all of Czech Republic comes from the Disney guide to quaint. It’s a working country, with a large working class, and a history of heavy industry. In the far-eastern city of Ostrava – right on the Polish border – those unlikely traits manage to combine into something that’s all sorts of spectacular.
Vítkovice is out of a dystopian sci-fi film. A city of steel girders, decaying ironworks, giant blast furnaces, and industrial machinery that’s been left to rot, it’s the sort of place you could imagine the next Blade Runner sequel being filmed. Try walking through here on a winter weekday, when there’s no one else around, and you’ll probably feel like you’ve accidentally walked into the aftermath of Armageddon. It should be ugly, but the whole combination is so overwhelming and unique that it goes all the way around into being beautiful again.
The best time to go is when the Colors of Ostrava festival is on in July, a giant music festival that takes place entirely in the steel city’s ghostly ruins.
3. Ceský Krumlov
Ceský Krumlov is the reason Bohemia gets all the love, while poor old Moravia is left sobbing on the sidelines. If there’s one thing to venture outside Prague for in the whole of Czech Republic, it’s this little town located in South Bohemia, by the Vltava river. A collection of low-lying, red roofed Renaissance houses surrounding a really big – and really pink – castle, it’s the type of town bucket lists were invented for.
For real, you should hear the way Lonely Planet raves about this place. Or, y’know, any other guidebook. There are museums galore, winding streets, ancient houses, restaurants where you can eat meals modeled on the food of medieval nobility, shaded parks to sit in beside the river… the list goes on. It’s like someone distilled the entire essence of the country’s best bits into a single town three hours outside Prague.
Still, it’s not all sweetness and light. Ceský Krumlov is the epicenter of tourist chaos in Czech Republic, which means visiting often feels less like a pleasant life experience, and more like battling your way through a Thunderdome full of dingbats clutching digital cameras.
2. Prague’s Old Town
Look, we hate to do this. We really do. After that opening about how there’s more to Czech Republic than just Prague? Yet, here we are, discussing the Czech capital like we’re working for the Prague tourist board. Awkward.
But what else could we do? For all it may rankle Czechs that their capital gets all the attention, for all it may be swarming with waves of tourists determined to make your trip as hellish as possible, for all it may be an absolute cliché, there’s no avoiding one salient fact. Prague is a beautiful city. More than that, it’s vibrant, exciting, steeped in history, and overwhelmingly grand. Much as we hate to say it, if you’re visiting Czech Republic, you really, really need to visit Prague.
Where do we even start? We could tell you about the thousands of spires that make the city look like it’s reaching to heaven. Or maybe we could tell you about the cobblestone squares with their brightly lit Christmas markets. Or maybe… you know what? Just take our advice. If you’re ever visiting Europe, make sure Prague is on your list.
1. Brno’s Nightlife
Well, this is gonna ruffle some feathers.
Brno is Czech Republic’s second city, a sleepy metropolis of 400,000 that doubles as the center of Moravia. Ask anyone from Prague, and they’ll tell you that it’s a pretty-ish place let down by being terminally boring. To which you should probably respond by telling them their information is like five years out of date. While Prague’s smugly been climbing its way up the most visited cities rank, Brno has quietly been turning itself into the top Czech place for anyone who likes beer, food, coffee, or partying.
We ain’t joking. Brno is home to the official winner of the best bar in Czech Republic awards. It’s home to the best cocktail bar in the nation, plus two other runners-up in the official top 5. The coffee there wins international awards. Heck, the New York Times wrote Brno’s food and drink scene up in an article that probably caused much wailing in Prague.
Well, wail all you like, denizens of Prague, because Brno is now officially where Czech good times are had. From the retro Bar Který Neexistuje (‘the bar that doesn’t exist’), to uber-cool Super Panda Circus, to the award winning Zelená Kocka (‘green cat’) beer hall, Brno has it all. We guess we’ll see you there.