One of the great things about travel is that it allows you to be someone you’re not. Feel like being an archeologist? Then grab your fedora and head for some ruins. Want to explore new worlds? Strap on a backpack and walk out into the great unknown. How about a writer? Take a seat at pretty much any European café and scribble something pithy on a napkin (I swear, I don’t do that). Travel is sort of a mild form of cosplay, one that permits you to feel different about yourself without going to the ridiculous lengths of dressing up.
One particularly attractive place to let your imagination run is Karlovy Vary, also known as Carlsbad. Just a short bus or train ride (2-3.5 hours) from the Czech capital of Prague, Karlovy Vary is one of Europe’s best-known spa towns, reaching its peak of fame in the 19th century. Some of the century’s most celebrated figures have taken the waters here including Polish composer Chopin, German writer Goethe, and Turkish statesman Ataturk.
Little has changed in Karlovy Vary (its population has hovered around 50,000 for more than a century), and the spas are still this town’s main trade, drawing in the world’s wealthy as they seek the solace of its healing waters. Luckily, you don’t have to be a multimillionaire to experience what a day at Karlovy Vary would have been like for a 19th-century aristocrat. Just pick an appropriately snooty name, a top hat or bonnet, and follow the guide below for a refined stroll along the banks of the Teplá, ending in your own day at the spa.
How and When to Arrive
Karlovy Vary makes an excellent day trip from Prague. It’s particularly enjoyable in the fall when the tourists have thinned out, but the weather is still pleasant. And while the most authentic way to reach the town is by train (300 Koruna one way), to get the most out of your visit (and a little extra sleep) it’s better to take the bus (160 Koruna one way), which have multiple departures each hour from Prague Florenc. If you can, you should try to reach Karlovy Vary around 8 AM. This places you ahead of the main wave of tourists and is still early enough to watch Europe’s old rich go about their morning libations.
Once you are in Karlovy Vary, walk east to T.G. Masarkya Street. Follow the road until it terminates, turning right on to Zahradni, which follows the Teplá River. You’ll notice the unfortunate Hotel Thermal, a legacy of the Czech Republic’s communist past, on the right bank. Try to ignore it the best you can; it will soon be out of view, anyway. Zahradni will take you around the Park Colonnade (the last remnants of the 19th-century Blanenský Pavilion) and then back to the Teplá River. When you reach the bridge, turn right on Mlýnské nábř staying on the left bank. This is Karlovy Vary’s main promenade.
The Water Cure
What has drawn Europe’s elite to Karlovy Vary for the last two centuries is its mineral-rich water. Formed at depths of around 2,500 meters, the water boils to the surface at varying temperatures. The alleged health benefits are too numerous to categorize here, but taking the “water cure” as it’s called is believed to alleviate everything from apoplexy to the flux. Personally, I’m a bit skeptical, but there are people willing to pay thousands of dollars for a doctor’s advice on how much and from which fountain to drink. You’ll find these eccentric spendthrifts practicing light calisthenics around Karlovy Vary’s 15 public springs while drinking from peculiar porcelain glasses that look like miniature flattened tea kettles. They tend to be most active (if that’s the right word) in the morning, before retreating to their five-star accommodations during the day.
Now that you’ve finished gawking, it’s time to join in! As you proceed down Mlýnské nábř, you should notice a number of tourist shops selling the very same oddly shaped porcelain spa cups. Supposedly, the cup itself amplifies the medicinal qualities of the water. Find one that suits you (around 250 Koruna) and begin sampling the waters. You’ll notice that each spring has a slightly different taste and temperature. The water is perfectly fine for consumption (as well as for those with consumption), but be careful, drinking too much may leave your stomach slightly unsettled from the heavy mineral content.
By now you should be somewhere near the Mill Colonnade, finished in 1881. This is Karlovy Vary’s most important and largest colonnade housing five springs. It was here that Europe’s elite would take the water cure in good weather or bad and is a beautiful example of neo-Renaissance architecture.
From here, continue at your leisure down the left bank of the Teplá River, taking in the different colonnades and springs as you go. At a turn in the river, you will notice another Brutalist building housing Karlovy Vary’s Vřídelní kolonáda or Spring Colonnade, the town’s first spring. This is where Karlovy Vary’s spas get their hot water. Inside, a geyser shoots 12 meters in the air.
After taking a look, return to the left bank and continue your stroll. Up ahead you should see a magnificent neo-Baroque building. This is the Grandhotel Pupp, and you may recognize it from the 2006 film Casino Royale. Most of the hotel dates to the late 19th and early 20th century. The hotel’s Café Pupp is a perfect place to stop and refresh in style with a coffee or, if you are so inclined, something with a bit more kick (about 100 Koruna).
The Height of Sophistication
Now that you’ve gotten your caffeine injection, or whatever your pleasure may have been, it’s time for some exercise! Aristocrats didn’t just come to Karlovy Vary for the waters but also for the fresh air and superb hiking that the surrounding hills provide. Karlovy Vary’s most famous hike is to the top of Friendship Heights (Výšina přátelství) where you can climb the Diana Observation Tower for a panoramic view of the town and its surroundings. While the tower is free, for those short on time or just too lazy (or drunk) to walk, a funicular built in 1909 will take you to the top for 45 Koruna one way (80 Koruna return).
Once you’ve had your fill of impressive views (and if its fall or winter, a cup of mulled wine), make your way back down the hill and cross the Teplá just past the Pupp complex, taking a right on Mariánskolázeňská. It should be just about time for lunch, and while there are quite a few options to satisfy your hunger, I personally recommend Restaurant Le Marché, which is just a short walk down Mariánskolázeňská. A two-course gourmet meal served in an elegant French country-style room will only set you back about 350 Koruna.
The Rather Bearable Lightness of Wellbeing
After lunch, begin heading back towards the center of town, stopping at Kaiserbad Spa on your left. This massive 19th-century spa is currently under renovation but parts are open to the public. Viewing the old photographs of Kaiserbad Spa while pacing its dilapidated halls and baths make this place well worth a visit.
In addition to Kaiserbad Spa, you may want to check out the 18th-century baroque church Mary Magdalene as you head back. And don’t forget to pick up some Karlovarské oplatky (the town’s famous wafers) along the way.
Once you reach the bridge on Zahradni (just before Hotel Thermal), cross back over the river and continue to T.G. Masaryka. Across the street, you should see a beautiful park with a stately spa. This is the Elizabeth Baths, established in 1906 and still operating today. There are numerous spas in Karlovy Vary but most have modern facilities and treatments. Only Elizabeth Baths still retains some of the charm of 19th-century wellness, like cast iron bathtubs and aging medical instruments. It is also reasonably priced, and a soak and 50-minute massage should cost you no more than 1,200 Koruna. Just remember to make an appointment in advance!
By now, it should be time to head back to Prague. So pour yourself a brandy and enjoy a fine cigar. The last train out of Karlovy Vary departs at 7:15 PM. If you missed it, make sure you grab the bus at 7:49 PM as the next one doesn’t leave until 3:44 AM!
Transportation: 320 – 600 Koruna (12 – 23 Euros)
Food and Beverage: 450 – 650 Koruna (17 – 25 Euros)
Spa Treatment: 1,200 Koruna (50 Euros)
Souvenirs and Incidentals: 250 – 500 Koruna (10 – 20 Euros)
Total: 2,120 – 2950 Koruna (80 – 115 Euros)