For most of the year, the city of Karlovy Vary (known as Carlsbad in German) is laid-back, with a stream of mostly spa patrons and Russian visitors meandering along the collonaded main drag as peacefully as the Teplá River bubbles through the center. But come the first week in July, the city, nestled into a forest-rimmed valley, is transformed. Everything changes as the annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival takes over the Hotel Thermal and other venues and backpackers rub elbows with Hollywood stars at screenings and what feels like nonstop celebrations.
Karlovy Vary, thankfully, can hold its own under either circumstances, and has as much charm to possibly outshine the celebrities that descend upon it as well as brighten even a quiet day. And a walk through the candy-colored city can be a tinsel-town tour, as blockbusters like Casino Royale and Shanghai Knights have featured the ritzy Grandhotel Pupp, among other gilded locales.
The whole of the rolling west Bohemian region is noted for its spa towns, which also notably include Marianske Lazne and Frantiskove Lazne. But it is Karlovy Vary that is the spa king – fittingly, as it is named after King Charles IV, who according to legend first stumbled across the mineral springs on this spot in 1370 and proclaimed their healing properties.
Since that time, patients and visitors alike have come from across the continent and beyond to sample the famed waters, which are prescribed for a variety of ailments, in particular gastrointestinal and metabolic disorders. Anyone can try them, though, and a stroll alongside the Teplá River stopping in at the different fountain springs is a must for any visitor to Karlovy Vary. The mineral waters vary in saltiness and temperature, so are not to everyone’s taste, and most are lightly naturally carbonated. Most of the many souvenir stands and shops around town sell the traditional ceramic drinking glass – a flat jug with a narrow spigot, often painted with the folksy Bohemian onion pattern – which makes for a good memento.
Starting at the Hotel Thermal (a severe, socialist-era building better appreciated for its function than design), an ideal walk is to cross the manicured Dvo?ák Park and follow the winding main road, stopping in to sample the waters at the five collonades, each dedicated to several signposted springs. Information at each stop describes the waters‘ properties.
The first, the Park Collonade, dates to 1880, and contains the coolest waters at 30 degrees Celsius at the Snake Spring. The hottest is to be found at the aptly titled Hot Spring Collonade (dating to 1969-75), which is the fifth along the route, where the thermal waters bubble at 72 degrees Celsius. There are also several beautiful spa buildings containing historic bath houses; one of these, Lazne I, was frequented by Franz Josef.
Strolling through the city center is also a feast for the eyes. The hotels and restaurants that line the promenade are a catalogue of grandiose Germanic architecture, with many buildings rising steeply out of the valley’s slopes. Many restaurants have outdoor seating that spills onto the sidewalks, while overlooking the river, and featuring menus in German, Russian and English.
From behind the Grandhotel Pupp, toward the end of the promenade, a cable-car ascends to the Diana Lookout Tower, which provides sweeping views of the city and the surrounding lush countryside. This is also a good starting point for hiking along the well-marked trails that follow the ridge and loop back down to the promenade. Another hike takes you past the dazzlingly ornate and golden-domed Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, modeled after the Byzantine Church of the Holy Trinity near Moscow.
No visit to Karlovy Vary would be complete with a visit to the Jan Becher Museum, which tells the history of the city’s herbal liquor, Becherovka. The recipe, comprising 32 herbs including cinnamon and anise, is only known to two people living today. This two centuries’ old concoction used be marketed as an elixer for stomach ailments and arthritis. Today, it is one of the country’s most popular liquors. Mixed with tonic, it’s known as a “beton“ in local pubs, but is most often consumed in straight shots more suited to sipping than shooting.
Likewise, make sure to sample Karlovy Vary’s famous spa wafers, which are either sold packaged in most shops or fresh from stands dotted around the main thoroughfare. For more substantial fare, it’s worth a slight splurge to dine at Hotel Promenada’s restaurant, which has ranked as one of the top restaurants in the country. Its elegant interpretation of Czech and international dishes attracts celebrities and laypeople alike. And the rustic vibe provides a fitting environment to sample a nice selection of Moravian wines. For the more budget- and bio-conscious, the cozy Kus-Kus cafeteria-style eatery has a range of vegetarian and organic daily meals priced under 100 Kc.
Between April and November, spend a few hours relaxing at the open-air, heated thermal pool connected to the Hotel Thermal. Located cliffside above the hotel with views over the promenade, it’s the perfect place to soak after a hike. Year-round, the beautiful Castle Spa nearby offers half-day, full-day and weeklong packages for spa treatments and relaxation.
While technically a city, complete with suburban sprawl, the picturesque center is easily explored in an afternoon; from Prague, Karlovy Vary is a two-hour direct bus ride. For a day or weekend trip, it’s worth combining with a venture farther afield in the forested landscape or to the off-the-beaten track, fairy-tale town of Loket – which, like Karlovy Vary, doubled for Montenegro in Casino Royale — just 20 minutes away by bus. Loket has an excellently preserved medieval castle, its own brewery (St. Florian) and, in summer, an outdoor amphitheater that uses the winding river and castle as a stunning backdrop.
Jan Becher Museum
T.G. Masaryka 57
Tel. +420 359 578 142
01 Karlovy Vary
Tel. +420 353 225 502
Written by Guest Contributor Fiona Gaze for EuropeUpClose.com. Fiona Gaze is a food and travel writer based in Prague.