12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in the Czech Republic
Although one of the continent's smaller nations, the Czech Republic won't disappoint travelers looking for a taste of Central Europe. Given its size - and thanks to a first rate public transit system - it's an easy country to get around, particularly for those planning on spending the bulk of their time exploring the nation's beautiful capital, Prague. Yet while Prague boasts an inordinate number of excellent attractions, there are enough out-of-the-way attractions to warrant exploring by car. Highlights of a trip to the Czech countryside include many excellent national parks and conservation areas, one of the most popular being the aptly named Bohemian Paradise, an area of outstanding natural beauty characterized by numerous splendid rock formations and many fine old castles (another area worth visiting is Podyjí National Park in Moravia with its large unspoiled forests). Along the way, you'll stumble across numerous old villages and towns, many unchanged since medieval times and home to fine old churches, palaces, and public squares, all of them worth a visit.
1 Prague Castle
For most travelers, the focal point of a visit to the Czech Republic is Prague Castle (Pražský hrad). In the city's Hradčany neighborhood and dating from the late 10th century, Prague Castle has been central to Eastern European history for centuries, and once housed Holy Roman Emperors, the Habsburgs, Bohemian kings, and, more recently, the Czech Republic's President. Over the course of its 1,000-year history, the castle - the largest in the world in terms of area - has undergone many dramatic changes in architectural style, evidence of which can be seen in the numerous buildings constructed within its walls through the centuries. Highlights include beautiful St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George's Basilica, the Powder Tower, and the Golden Lane with its medieval workshops. Of particular note is the Old Royal Palace with its magnificent Vladislav Hall, so big it was used to host knightly jousting tournaments, as well as the adjoining 16th-century Royal Garden with its spectacular Singing Fountain. (English language guided tours and audio-guides are available.)
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2 Prague's Charles Bridge
It's impossible to visit Prague without taking the time to traverse the city's most important river crossing, the spectacular Charles Bridge (Karlův Most). This famous structure spanning the River Vltava was built in 1357 and has many unique points of interest along its 520-meter span, including numerous fine statues. Perhaps the most famous are those of the bridge's namesake, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, as well as one of John of Nepomuk dating from 1683 and honoring the country's most revered saint (he was deliberately drowned in the Vltava in the 14th century). The bridge is extremely popular among tourists for its fine views, some of the best of which can be enjoyed (along with the chance of avoiding the crowds) at dawn and again at dusk.
3 Brno's Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul
High above the old city of Brno is the beautiful Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, one of the Czech Republic's most important national monuments. In addition to its splendid exterior, the exquisite Baroque interior of this 18th-century masterpiece is well worth exploring. Also of interest is its crypt, home to numerous old tombs as well as remnants of the original city walls. Other highlights include the building's two 84-meter-high towers. Added in the early 20th century, they're home to a rather unique noontime bell that is notable for being rung an hour early, at 11am, a tradition that dates back to its founding and which commemorates the city successfully tricking its besiegers into ending their attack early. Also in Brno is the 13th-century Špilberk Castle (hrad Špilberk), home to the Brno City Museum, as well as the fascinating Tugendhat Villa, built in 1930 and one of the most important examples of modern architecture from the early 20th century in Europe.
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4 Český Krumlov Castle
Dominating the old town after which it's named, Český Krumlov Castle is a huge castle dating from the early 13th century that is remarkably well preserved given its age. Much of what stands today in this UNESCO World Heritage Site stems from the 17th century, including the Rosenberg Ballroom and the Renaissance Hall, the Royal Apartments, and the Chapel of St. George. Also worth seeing is the castle's old Baroque theater, built in 1682 and with much of the equipment added later in the 18th century still used for special performances. Other highlights include historic collections of paintings and tapestries, along with fine décor and period furniture. The Český Krumlov Castle complex comprises 40 buildings, including fine old palaces, castle courts, and gardens, and can easily take the best part of a day to explore. (English language guided tours are available).
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5 Bone Collectors: Czech Crypts, Tombs, and Cemeteries
Spread across the Czech Republic are a number of fascinating locations dedicated to preserving the remains of those slain in war or killed by diseases such as the terrible plagues that gripped Europe in medieval times. But what makes these places even more interesting are the often bizarre way in which these centuries-old human relics are displayed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the small town of Sedlec, home to the famous "Bone Church," the Gothic All Saints Chapel. Here, the curious will be rewarded with a chance to see the remains of some 70,000 people who died between the 14th and 16th centuries displayed in rather chilling artistic fashion, including coats of arms, chandeliers, chalices, and bells. A similar effect was created at the Brno Ossuary where the remains of some 50,000 people were found stacked in heaps in archways and used as decorative displays and ornamentation. A little less spooky but impressive for its sheer size is the spectacular Schwartzenberg Tomb, a huge crypt dedicated to one of the country's most powerful dynasties.
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6 The Colonnades and Spas of Karlovy Vary
Often referred to by its old German name of Karlsbad, Karlovy Vary is a must-visit for anyone interested in an authentic spa experience. Established in 1358, Karlovy Vary has for centuries been a popular destination for Europe's elite, from royalty (Peter the Great) to famous composers and writers (Beethoven, Chopin, and Goethe), all drawn here to the hot springs. Evidence of the town's 13 main springs (not to mention its countless smaller springs) are everywhere, from the magnificent fountain in the midst of the Tepla River that shoots jets of water 14 meters into the air, to the spa-influenced architecture of its many exquisite Neoclassical and Art Nouveau colonnades with their drinking and bathing fountains. The town is also an important cultural destination, home to a number of art galleries and museums, as well as the popular Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, one of the oldest film festivals in Europe.
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7 Spectacular Libraries: The Clementinum and Strahov Monastery
Three of Europe's loveliest (and oldest) libraries can be found in Prague. The largest, the National Library of the Czech Republic, is in the magnificent Clementinum (Klementinum), a sprawling complex of historic Baroque buildings that once housed a Jesuit College and book collection. After the expulsion of the Jesuits, the property and its collections passed to the state, allowing the public the chance to enjoy the spectacular Library Hall with its sumptuous ceiling artwork. Coincidentally, it was another religious location, the 12th-century Strahov Monastery (Strahovsky kláster), that was to provide the city with perhaps its most magnificent libraries: the Philosophical Library with its exquisite furnishings and ceiling paintings, and the Theological Library consisting of a splendid Baroque room with beautiful painted frescoes and stucco work (the libraries also house numerous rare manuscripts, including the nearly 1,200-year-old Strahov Gospel).
8 Glassworks of Karlovy Vary
In addition to its many fine spa resorts, the lovely town of Karlovy Vary remains one of Europe's most important glassmaking centers, an industry that has thrived here for more than 150 years. A fascinating excursion is to the Moser Visitor Centre, part of the Moser glassworks established in 1857 and which, thanks to the skills and craftsmanship of the local glassmakers it employs, is widely considered one of the world's leading manufacturers of decorative glass. Tours of the facility include a chance to learn about the history of glassmaking, to see some 2,000 fine examples of decorative works in the Glass Museum, and to visit the factory floor to watch glassblowers at work. (English language guided tours are available.)
9 Kutná Hora
If you're able to visit just one Czech town apart from Prague, you couldn't do much better than Kutná Hora. Just 80 kilometers east of the capital, Kutná Hora was once home to one of Europe's leading silver mines, the wealth from which helped finance many of the town's most beautiful structures (much of the town has now been declared part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Highlights include the Baroque St. Barbara's Cathedral, built in 1338 and notable for its beautifully decorated interior and frescoes (some of which feature mining references), along with a large mural entitled The Vision of St. Ignatius. Also of note are the town's old mint, housed in the splendid Italian Court (Vlassky dvur), and the former palace of Bohemian King Vaclav IV.
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10 The Bohemian Paradise
One of the most beautiful corners of the Czech Republic is in Eastern Bohemia: the spectacular Bohemian Paradise (Český ráj). This area of outstanding natural beauty is notable for its many massive rock formations that seem to stick up out of the ground like so many giants, seemingly unsupported and defying all laws of physics. Now a UNESCO Geopark, the region draws hikers and sightseers from across Europe for its stunning sandstone hills, natural bridges, and tall basalt columns and outcroppings, all accessible by a first-rate network of trails and scenic drives. It's a region that also boasts many fine old castles, including Kost Castle and Trosky Castle. Start your adventure in the town of Turnov, home to the Bohemian Paradise Visitor Center, where you can access a great deal of tourist-related information and maps of the region.
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11 Konopiště Chateau and the Archduke's Trophies
One of the Czech Republic's loveliest palaces, Konopiště Chateau - just 50 kilometers southeast of Prague - offers a number of good reasons to be included on your travel itinerary. Established in the 13th century and given its current Baroque form in the 18th century, this superb French-style four-winged chateau is famous as the final residence of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose untimely assassination is credited as having started WWI (the bullet that killed him is on display in the chateau's museum). A consummate (possibly obsessive) hunter, many of the Archduke's more than 300,000 animal trophies can be seen on display here, all carefully catalogued over a 25 year period, along with many original artifacts he once owned, which are spread across his sumptuous residential apartments. Other highlights include a superb collection of ancient weapons and armor, an indoor shooting range complete with moving targets, and a lovely garden with numerous statues and outbuildings.
Address: 256 01 Benešov
12 Hluboká Castle
A short drive north of the city of České Budějovice, the huge white Neo-Gothic Hluboká Castle (Hluboká nad Vltavou) is often said to be the most beautiful of the Czech Republic's many fine castles. Built on the site of an older 13th-century fortress, the current castle was constructed in the 1660s and was given its present Gothic Tudor style - loosely based upon that of England's famous Windsor Castle - in subsequent extensive renovations. Highlights of a visit include its huge hedge mazes and lush foliage, along with its fine interior woodwork, stained glass windows, and furnishings. Also of note is the castle's extensive collection of art, including numerous pieces by leading Czech artists.
Address: 373 41 Hluboká nad Vltavou