The town of Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic has been known for hundreds of years, particularly to Germans and Russians, as a spa town, often referred to as Carlsbad. For one day and one night, Mark and I “indulged ourselves” in its good food, beautiful architecture, and spa treatments.
Astute readers, maybe you noticed that I put “indulged ourselves” in quotes. That’s because by Western standards, Karlovy Vary isn’t a very expensive place to get some R&R.
Mark and I took the slow train from Prague, buying the tickets at the station, which cost about US $7 per person and chugged along for about 3 hours—making stops, which is what makes it the slow train—before it arrived at Karlovy Vary station.
From there, taxis of course waited in the wings for departing passengers, but we opted for the much cheaper option of taking the bus. It leaves across the street from the train station. The bus going into town is the one furthest away from the station. This set us back 25 CZK per person: about a dollar.
We exited the bus in the early evening. It was the end of November. It was dark. It was snowing. I had a roller bag, and I had to drag it across cobblestones. This was by far the worst part of my short time in Karlovy Vary…
…because then, we turned a bend and I saw the town.
It was so beautiful. The photos aren’t sufficient to do it justice. All my irritation melted away. As we descended into the central area, I felt like I was stepping into a children’s book illustrated with pictures of wintry old-time Europe. Russians in fur hats and muffs strolled by. Shops were lit up against the gloom. Buildings lined the hills.
By chance, we passed the first of the famous mineral hot springs on our way to check into our hotel. We decided to stop and take a drink!
These aren’t what you might traditionally consider hot springs, as in a pool that you step into. These are literal hot springs, bubbling up from the ground, that the town has seen fit to commemorate with spigots and plazas.
Lore has it that the water from these springs can cure ailments. This, of course, is just some traditional woo-woo, but we tried 9 of the springs throughout the city, and the differences in flavor were interesting (some were incredibly gross). They often taste of iron and other minerals.
We checked into our hotel and wandered around looking for something to eat. We eventually stumbled upon our first fancy and serendipitous location of the short trip: the Hotel Embassy restaurant.
This place is the real deal. Excellent service, great cuisine, chilled glasses for Becherovka, the Czech liquor produced in Karlovy Vary, and a bill that ends up being about half what you’d pay for a comparable service restaurant in the U.S. Our bill came to about $50—kind of midrange until you consider that the restaurant is in the lobby of a four-star hotel and includes at least five drinks plus entrees and a dessert. You could definitely do it up for less if you’d like to eat here, so consider stopping in for a drink. The staff speaks good English and the food is delicious. The only downside, as in much of the country: for the asthmatic, smoking is still permitted in the dining rooms.
A Becherovka stand. They are serious about this stuff.
After a night in Hotel Palatin, a small but friendly hotel in the main part of town where the room felt like I’d stepped back into the nineties with its big, clunky silver TV and primarily white motif, we decided to go for a spa treatment. If you stay in any hotel in Karlovy Vary, ask your hotel which spa they are affiliated with—it will likely get you a discount. We did a same-day booking at a spa called Zamecke Lazne and got a 10% discount.
I mention above that pampering yourself isn’t expensive. Granted, we received off-season prices, but a two-hour session for us was about 800 CZK each, or $40 per person. It included a major and minor “procedure” and unlimited use of the public mineral baths.
How long should you stay in Karlovy Vary? To see everything, I would recommend two to three full days, especially in summer. But the place is pretty small—you probably don’t need more than that.