Day Trips from Prague
Prague and Surrounds, Czech Republic
“You can spend a month in Prague and not meet a single Czech person,” says political scientist John Gould. With its internationally renowned architecture and favorable local currency, Prague has been making great strides in the world of international tourism since the Czech Republic became independent country in 1992. Thanks to the current Czech government’s pouring millions of dollars into the capital to help reconstruct the damage done by decades of neglect under the communist regime, Prague has once again regained its point of prominence and is fast becoming one of the most popular European tourist destinations.
But there is much more to the Czech Republic than the tourist-centered life that pervades the Charles Bridge or the near-by StarÃ© Mesto (Old Town), places where you can actually meet the local people and taste the local brew without having to compete with thousands of other foreigners for a place in line or a seat at the pub. And with a country as small as the Czech Republic, it rarely takes more than a day to visit. But with the jewels this nation holds, you may want to stay longer.
Kutna Hora and Sedlec (SED-lets)
This small town is a relatively well-known destination, due in part to its dedication on the UNESCO world cultural heritage list, but mostly because of its proximity less than an hour’s train ride from the nation’s capital. Kutna Hora is a great destination for a day trip because there is almost exactly one day’s worth of things to see and do in the town. You can still take a tour through the mines that go under the city and hold a bit of the silver ore that made the city famous. Back in medieval times, this region was one of the top silver producers in Europe, and the extraction of that precious metal helped make the city prosperous for centuries.
So what does a city do with such wealth? Two things. First, it builds a fantastic Gothic cathedral with views over looking the valley and surrounding countryside, a destination not to be missed. But apparently, they also build an ossuary with the bones of former parishioners. Or at least that’s what they did in the adjacent town of Sedlec, which boasts what is hopefully the world’s only building decorated with human skeletons. Everything within the walls of this building is constructed out of bones, from the alter to the four temples in each corner, even the three chandeliers which shine down on the rest of the room are made out of the bodies and skulls of former humans. It’s an interesting architectural feat, especially for those who are just visiting from the old streets of Prague, but not really something for the faint of heart or those opposed to blatant displays of morbid design.
Everyone enjoys relaxing with a nice cold beer after a long day of touring, especially in a country that is world renowned for the stuff. So why not go to a place where the touring is sitting down with a cold one? Plzen is not exactly the most scenic of cities outside of the old town square, but, by this point in your Czech visit, you will probably be thinking that once you see one old town square, you’ve seen them all. But no visit to the nation, which is number one for per-capita beer consumption, is complete without a visit to the city which made that beverage we all love famous…and so good!
Plzen hosts the Czech Republic’s most famous and most popular brewery, the one which boasts the title of being the first producer of pilsner (named after the town), and is the home of the country’s well-known Pilsner Urquell. And luckily, the brewery gives tours to visitors, complete with trips through the curing cellars, where you can sample the pre-filtered beer directly from the oak casks before making your way to the pub which serves some of the freshest beer you can get.
And being one of the largest cities in the country, you can get up to eight trains a day directly from the capital to Plzen, allowing you to wake up in Prague and be sipping the good stuff directly from the source less than two hours later. This trip is an essential pilgrimage for any beer lover. Look at it as a sort of history lesson. But for those who may be deterred, thinking that a visit to the beer capital of the world would be nothing more than a pointless drunk fest…well, just wait until you try the beer.
MariÃ¡nskÃ© LÃ¡zne and Karlovy Vary
After your day in Plzen, you can either choose to take one of the evening trains back to Prague, or opt for the more practical approach, staying the night and getting on your way the next morning. This will put you well within striking distance of MariÃ¡nskÃ© LÃ¡zne, a smaller, more intimate (and significantly less expensive) version of the famed spa town of Karlovy Vary. Not as well known as its neighbor, MariÃ¡nskÃ© LÃ¡zne offers some great spas and a wonderful main drag where you can walk from shop to shop with an eclectic clientele interspersed with locals and tourists.
Or, if you’re not opposed to another hour and a half on the train, you can go all the way to the real thing and see how the other half lives, first hand. A true tourist center, Karlovy Vary has been well-known to wealthy businesspeople and heads of state for centuries, attracting everyone from the Czar to Mozart. Now it is a destination for many of the more affluent German and Russian families to see and be seen. And while you may not find many of your tax bracket in the streets, the glitz and glamour that attract them make it a marvelous place to wander around and pretend you fit in before heading back to your hostel bunk in Prague.
It can be tempting to stay within the boundaries of the relatively more Germanic Bohemian province, but a trip the Czech Republic would not be complete without spending time in the more traditional Moravia. While a little further a field, Moravia boasts some of the most brilliant highlights of the country without the sometimes overwhelming throngs of people. I should probably note off the bat that I am partial to Olomouc, having lived there for about four months. But that in no way taints my impartial perspective, except to say that making a trip to the Czech Republic which does not entail a day trip to Olomouc is simply irresponsible. And if you are one of those people (like myself) who frequently plans trips and itineraries based on Lonely Planet recommendations, don’t miss this opportunity to catch a fantastic hideaway that the infallible editors failed to visit.
Olomouc is actually the Czech Republic’s fifth largest city with a population of just over 100,000 people. Nestled conveniently about two-thirds of the way between the two largest cities of Prague and Brno, it is a great day stop between the two, and an excellent chance to see some of the oldest architecture in the country. Legend has it that Olomouc was founded by Julius Caesar, a belief that any local will proclaim as fact, and in his honor the city has erected a fountain in the middle of the HornÃ Namnesti (Upper Square).
An interesting historical tidbit, the Upper Square has gone through a variety of different names since in its history. Beginning as Ferdinand’s Square under the Hapsburgs, its name changed to Masaryk’s Square after World War I in honor of the leader of the first Czechoslovak Republic. It then changed to Hitler Square under Nazi occupation before taking the name of Comrade Stalin after the second World War. After the 1989 revolution, the people and the government opted for the less politically turbulent and more topographically accurate title of Upper Square. But I digress.
Olomouc is well known for its fountains, and there are five other Baroque spouts throughout the area. In addition, you can feel free to explore the local UniversitÃ¡s PalackÃ©ho (Palacky University) which, along with old town, is contained within the ancient 15th century walls which used to surround the city. Olomouc is, if nothing else, one of the best places to wander that I have ever been. The people are friendly and helpful, and you are not immediately identified as a tourist. And if there is a language barrier in one of the local shops or pubs, almost all of the students (there are 15,000 of them) speak a fair amount of English and are more than willing to help out. And if they don’t have classes, chances are they will invite you out for a drink or just offer to show you around to practice their English. They’re very kind like that.
Pronounced BUR-no, it is the capital of the province of Moravia and the second largest city in the Czech Republic. Depending on what sort of train you take, it can take anywhere from 2.5 to 4 hours to make the 255km journey from Prague to Brno, so make sure you check the schedule ahead of time (www.idos.cz has all of the train and bus schedules in English and German). When you first get to Brno, it will seem much the same as Prague or any other city with its hustle-bustle attitude and grungy train station. But once you walk about three blocks up the hill toward the center of town, you will see that it has much more of a small-town feel than any other city you have been to.
In the spring, summer, and fall, don’t miss out on the equivalent of a farmer’s market in the square at the very center of town. Just follow the crowds, and get used to pushing and shoving in order to see what sort of produce is available. A word to the wise, these farmers usually don’t speak any English and rarely utter a word of German (they all speak Russian, but that’s a bit of a sore subject) so don’t bother trying to bargain. It may seem counter-intuitive, but if you just hold up what you want, have the proprietor give you a price, and then give them whatever sum that you deem appropriate, it will almost always be more than enough. The castle overlooking the city is a great spot to catch views of the city, but don’t bother looking South towards the grey industrial part of town. The rest of the city is gorgeous from this vantage point, and you don’t want to taint your impression.
About as far away as you can get from the capital and still be in the same country, Lednice offers a great retreat for those who have grown a little weary of the constant beer drinking in Bohemia. Straddling the Austrian border (I actually strayed into that country by accident when I was meandering through the vineyards, only to be escorted back by some amiable Austrian border guards), this area is the heart of Czech wine country. If you are able to find an overlook, such as the castle in next-door Mikulov, the scene is simply breathtaking, with vineyards flowing across the rolling hills into the Austrian countryside.
The white wines from this region are well known in Central Europe, but the reds leave a bit to be desired. Still, at the prices they charge (you can get a top shelf bottle for about $12) there is little room to complain. And many vineyards offer deals providing for lodging, wine tasting, and a well-matched traditional dinner for a nominal fee. It’s a great way to get away from the big-city feel of Prague and Brno without running into the thousands of tourists who flock to Kutna Hora and Karlovy Vary.