Czech Republic

Howdy! Today we will be learning all about the Czech Republic thanks to a recent visit by Michaela Claudino the Director for Czech Tourism North America to one of my video chats.

In case you are not familiar, the Czech Republic is a small country – roughly the size of South Carolina – with a population of 10 million people, 1.3 million of those in its capital city of Prague.

Now most of you may be familiar with Prague – which we will discuss – but we will also head outside of Prague and talk about all the other great areas of the country you should be visiting as it is an incredibly diverse country. In addition to 14 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, they have about 2000 castles and chateaus, more than 40 protected historical towns, 33 spa towns, beautiful parks, and great hiking and biking opportunities.

Whew – lots to cover so let’s not waste any time! Fasten your seat belts and let’s head to the Czech Republic for a look around!

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Czechoslovakia, Czechia Or Czech Republic?

The first thing we did was clear up the question about the country’s name because people still are not sure if it’s Czechoslovakia, if it’s Czechia or if it’s Czech Republic. The country is called the Czech Republic today. However – it was called Czechoslovakia until 1993 when they split very peacefully with their neighboring country Slovakia. So now there are two separate countries – Czech Republic and Slovakia. However, Czech Republic is very often referred to as Czechia as well – but Michaela shared that she is not a huge fan of that because she feels that not only can it be confused with other countries but not a lot of people know how to spell it. Therefore, she always refers to it as the Czech Republic as she thinks that’s the safest way to go – and I agree.

So Where Is The Czech Republic?

The Czech Republic is part of the European Union or EU and sits in the center of Europe. Now, many people still think the Czech Republic is in Eastern Europe and Michaela says this is sort of a relic from the past because they used to be part of the Eastern Bloc during communism. But if you look at the map – geographically – they are really in center Europe. In fact, their capital city of Prague is actually further west than Vienna. So, they position themselves as a Central European country with their neighboring countries being Poland, Germany, Slovakia and Austria. It is also interesting to note that Prague is really within an hour and a half by plane from all of the major European capitals making it a great place to add to your trip, start your trip or just to fly into and then take a train to see other European destinations. Also, important to note is that although they are part of the EU, and are members of the Schengen zone, they are not using the Euro yet – instead they use the Czech Crown.  And Michaela said this is good news because the dollar stretches a little bit further there.

How Do I Get Around?

It is really easy to travel around the Czech Republic thanks to a great public transportation that’s easy to navigate. And I want to point out to you guys that you can actually fly into Vienna or Berlin or Budapest and take a train to Prague – so if you have too many connecting flights and we have direct flights to one of these other international airports it’s really a great alternative. And – living in Europe for two years myself ­– Switzerland – I took the train everywhere and I can attest that taking the train to Prague was super easy, so I totally advocate for that. As for distance by train from the European capitals – between Prague and Vienna it’s about five hours, between Prague and Budapest it’s about seven hours – you can do an overnight train if you like, Prague to Salzburg is about six hours and Prague to Berlin is about five hours.

How About Language – Any Barriers?

From my personal experience, English it’s widely spoken so you’re not going to have that much of a language barrier. And Michaela agreed but added that she always says that if you’re not sure, talk to the younger generation because they all learn English in schools now. For instance, the generation of her parents who are in their 70s – that might be a little challenging but will always be happy to help you. But if you grab a youngster on the street and ask them, they pretty much all study English and speak, to a certain degree, very fluently.

Let’s Talk About All The Amazing Things About Prague!

You have to start with Prague first – it is definitely a must see. It’s one of the best preserved cities in the world actually and in Europe for sure. It’s not a huge city – just 1.3 million people as we mentioned in the beginning. The historical city center is walkable, and it’s recommended to walk. In fact, they don’t really recommend driving in Prague because, number one, the public transportation is super easy and number two, the historical city center is so compact and small that you can really walk everywhere, and Michaela highly recommends doing so – with good shoes of course. She also commented that you need to have good shoes because there are a lot of cobblestone streets – so bear that in mind. But if you need to use the subways or if you need to use the streetcars it’s easy to do and it’s very affordable as well – a day pass costs only about $5.00.

Castles: I love that there’s so many castles here and the first one we talked about was Prague Castle, which is actually the largest castle complex in the world. Prague Castle is the seat of the president and if you were to visit you should save an entire day for it because it’s not just one building – it’s a complex of buildings. You can go up and walk through the courtyards and the beautiful gardens that surround it – you can very easily spend a day just in the gardens themselves per Michaels. While you are there you can also visit the museums and the church and the interiors of many of the buildings.

Towers and Spires: Prague has many nicknames and one of them is The City of 100 Spires because when you see an aerial view of Prague you see tons of little spires and towers. And Michaela recommends that when you are in Prague that you should climb at least one of these towers and just take in a view of Prague from up high.

History: One of the things that I really love about Prague is the history. There is a lot of Jewish history and I think it’s somewhat lost because a lot of stuff goes into Budapest and people forget that there are a lot of moving pieces here as well. And Prague really is unique in a way because it wasn’t damaged during the Second World War unlike some other cities – for instance in Poland or even in Hungary. So, it’s really preserved the way it was. You have buildings from the 9th century all the way through today and the Jewish quarter in Prague is pretty well known as it’s also in the historical city center and is one of the best preserved Jewish quarters in central Europe. Prague is also home a Jewish museum as well as a number of synagogues – and the synagogues look quite different from each other. For instance, you have the Spanish synagogue which is actually decorated in the Spanish style which is very different from the old school – it is very humble with no decorations. There are services still in some of the synagogues so you can definitely visit and it’s a great option for Jewish groups or somebody who’s looking for their Jewish heritage. There are great kosher restaurants as well. The Jewish community is small but it’s still active.

Accommodations: There are a lot of different hotels and accommodations to choose from – from budget up to luxury. Prague has no short of good infrastructure – they have 50 five star hotels and 244 four star hotels – which Michaela thinks is kind of crazy and she shared that she thinks they have more hotel beds than Vienna. Bonus – the prices are very good too. If you compare the price of a five star hotel in Prague and with a five star hotel in other major cities – for instance in some of the Western countries, you really find it not cheap, but affordable and you get good value for the money that you’re spending.

Architecture: We talked a lot about the history which is the first thing you see when you are in Prague, but Prague is kind of a fun blend of modern and old.  For instance, there is the statue of Franz Kafka – who is very much present everywhere in Prague – right in the city center. Franz Kafka was a writer of German origin who lived and worked in Prague, and this is a statue created by David Černý, an artist who is known for modern art in public places. He created his head as moving pieces – the silverplates sort of start moving and then one point they come together and become Frank Kafka’s head. Michaela said she likes it, but some people are sort of against it – she thinks it gives a really nice vibe to the city as it gives you the old and the new. Then there is the Dancing House which I think this is an amazing piece of architecture. Music is everywhere in Prague so if people want to go to the concert of course they can and there are musicians on the street – music is very strong throughout the entire the Czech Republic. The Dancing House is called the Dancing House because it resembles a dancing couple – like Fred and Ginger. It’s situated on one of the embankments of the river among art nouveau buildings and at the beginning people were not so sure about it per Michaela, but now it’s part of the landscape and people love it. There’s even a great restaurant on top of one of the towers (with the rest being used for office space).

Museums: Let’s talk a little bit more about the contemporary side. Another amazing structure is at the DOX Center for Contemporary Art – which is a modern art museum. One of the spaces they have there is an airship called Airship Gulliver that connects two of its buildings. Michaela noted that it is an interesting piece of architecture and it’s in a neighborhood of called Holešovice district, which is very up and coming so if you venture out from the city center, which she strongly encourages you to do, you will find many interesting places to visit. But at the DOX Center they do readings, exhibits and other events and she mentioned this to show that Prague is not only about old buildings. So, hey if you have a group of millennials or youngsters that want to just go and explore, they have plenty of things to see besides just churches. And for you teachers out there who want to do a living classroom, this is an amazing destination. Or if you’re homeschooling your kids, I mean have them walk in history and the present – it is amazing for this.

Green Spaces: Michaela said that when she was putting this presentation together, she realized that Prague is actually among the top ten most green cities in the world, with 56% of the area of Prague covered by parks or green spaces. And with everybody still thinking about social distancing, here’s an amazing opportunity where you can social distance yet still enjoy. And these parks are within walking distance from the city center – so Letna Park for instance – it is on a hill that you just climb up and you get this beautiful view of the city center.

Gastronomy: Now let’s talk about food because as ya’ll know by now – food to me is easiest way to local cultural immersion and when you break bread with somebody you realize you’re not so different after all! And the gastronomy in the Czech Republic does not disappoint – offering you many opportunities from local to high end dining. The Czech Republic – generally speaking – has a cuisine that is very similar to German cuisine because they were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So, schnitzel, potato salad and other foods come from its Hungarian side. Traditionally the meals in the Czech Republic are on the heavier side and as Michaela noted they are meat eaters – they like their meat! That being said there are a variety of restaurants. There are vegetarian restaurants, there are high end or Michelin starred restaurants and more – so there’s something for everybody. Oh, and the Czech beer is very popular so you must visit a Czech pub to experience the beer!

Art: If you’re looking for things to buy and bring back, something typical from the Czech Republic is definitely Czech glass. You can either go for a traditional cut and design or more modern as there are a lot of young artists that work with Czech glass and that are also very successful overseas and have stores in the city center. Basically, anything glass related is really known to come from the Czech Republic with Bohemian crystal being one of the most famous brands. And then of course the most popular jewelry in the Czech Republic is the Czech garnet, which is a red stone and is actually mined in the Czech Republic, so it is specific to the area. So, you guys with the red garnet stone for your birthstone – you gotta go to the Czech Republic!

Day Trips From Prague

There are so many places that you can easily go just for the day while you are in Prague. Michaela suggests at least three days in Prague and then if you have a few more days you can add on some day trips or you can rent the car and just drive around the country.

Castles: There are 2000 castles and chateaus in the Czech Republic and there’s quite a few right outside of Prague – within 15 minutes of the city center. They include Karlstein, Krivoklat, Konopiste and Nelahozeves so there’s definitely no shortage of castles. For these day trips you can either take the train or I can arrange a tour for you. Some of them have tours in English but otherwise you can join a Czech tour and they will give you text to read to tell you about the history and you can just walk along with the group to see the inside. And these luxury castles and chateaus – some of them even have accommodations – how amazing is that to spend the night in one of one of them! So, after you’ve done your sightseeing for three days in Prague, now you’re ready for a weekend somewhere in the countryside where you can feel like a princess or prince or queen and king! Michaela also talked about Chateau Mcely, which she has been to. They have a huge garden, and they have their own natural ponds, and you can even do a little workshop and learn about their cosmetics that are very sustainable and ecofriendly making it a great experience. You can also rent a bike and bike around the area. And then, at the end of the day, you still have all the services and amenities that you need. Needless to say, a stay in a castle is highly recommended for a little pampering after three days of sightseeing and walking on the cobblestones.

Kutna Hora: About an hour from Prague is a town called Kutna Hora which you can take a direct train from Prague to. Michaela gushed that she really likes this little town.  It’s a small medieval town that used to be really important in the Middle Ages because it was home to silver mines making it one of the richest towns at that time. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well because of the Saint Barbara cathedral that is an impressive cathedral. But – it is also very well known for the “bone church” or the Sedlec Ossuary that’s a chapel made entirely out of human bones as a memorial to the people who died during the plague in Middle Ages. Talk about something really unique to see! Kutna Hora also has great restaurants, and a great art gallery and it’s just a perfect day trip where you can walk around the town, sit down and have lunch and then you can explore a little bit more.

Now Let’s Talk About Bohemia

There are 14 different sort of regions in the Czech Republic but the very basic sort of division of the Czech Republic would be Bohemia and Moravia. Bohemia is the western part of the country and Moravia is the eastern part. There are no clear borders or anything – this is just a historic geographical division. And – the name Bohemia doesn’t have anything to do with the word bohemian meaning artsy or free spirited – instead it comes from a Celtic tribe that settled in the area called the Boiohaemum tribe. Side Note: I asked Michaela to explain this because I didn’t want you to think of the bohemian culture and that it was related to that. I wanted to make sure that you guys were educated because Bohemia in different countries means different things.

South Bohemia: South Bohemia is south of Prague and really close to the border with Austria. It’s one of the most picturesque regions in the Czech Republic and is home to the famous town of Cesky Krumlov which many of you may have heard of as well. It’s another UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s about 2 1/2 hours from Prague one way. Some companies offer it as a day trip, but Michaela advised that she wouldn’t do it as a day trip because if you think about it, that’s about five hours that you spend just traveling back and forth. A lot of people just go on a day tour and spend the day, so there are a lot of people during the day. But – come evening – this is when you want to be there when everybody leaves, and you have the town to yourself, and you can stroll through the medieval streets and really enjoy the town properly. And this is why I always recommend “let’s do a night in a location” so you really have the town to yourself. And there are great accommodations including hotels and even small apartments that you can rent. Cesky Krumlov is also home to the second largest castle complex in the Czech Republic, the Cesky Krumlov Castle. Michaela said one of her favorite things – that not a lot of people know about – is a unique baroque theater that exists in the castle complex from the 18th century. There are only two such theaters left in Europe – this one and the other one is in Sweden. You do have to book a tour ahead of time as they only allow certain number of people in – even pre-COVID it was pretty restricted. They give you a backstage tour and show you how the theater functions and take you backstage to show you how the mechanism works – it’s all very interesting. It is not a working theater, although they do some unique events there like when the heads of state come, they put on a little performance, but otherwise it’s closed and is more like a museum. It really is unique because since they were made out of wood a lot of the theaters burned down in the past and just disappeared but this one was preserved and high on our list of recommendations to visit. And heck, for the right connections and the right budget this could be a destination wedding! And these really are beautiful, picturesque towns and very Instagramable. For those of you guys who want to do some remote working, here you’ll be working in an area of history and culture and beauty all wrapped into one! South Bohemian is also home to the Hluboká castle – which is one of the most beautiful in the country built in the old architectural style. There are a lot of small towns with beautiful squares that you can take it at your own pace and admire the beauty. There’s also great countryside in this area and also near Prague. They don’t have huge mountains like the Alps or anything, but they have a lot of highlands and valleys which makes it great for moderate hiking and biking which is something that Czechs love to do. They have one of the densest networks of hiking trails in the world and the way they are marked is very unique. For those of you guys into hiking and biking I totally recommend this area. You can also book a bike tour if you like so you aren’t going it alone. It’s not strenuous terrain because it’s mostly flat and you go through smaller towns and villages, so you really get to feel the country from a different perspective. And again, this is all part of the soft adventure that is wellness. It’s that mind, body, spirit experience and a great opportunity to enjoy the fresh air, the culture and just enjoy being outside in nature.

West Bohemia: Speaking of wellness, West Bohemia is really known for its spas. You might have heard about a town called Karlovy Vary – also known as Carlsbad, and then there is Mariánské Lázně and also Františkovy Lázně. They are the three most famous spa towns in the Czech Republic, and they create the so-called “spa triangle” in the western part of the country.
Fun Fact: Karlovy Vary – or Carlsbad – has been featured in many movies such as Casino Royale with James Bond and Queen Latifah’s Last Holiday where her last wish to go to Carlsbad and get pampered in an old school European spa. Now – the spas in general in Europe are not secluded areas in the middle of nowhere but rather they are towns that were built around the spas or the mineral springs. They feature beautiful architecture, great hotels, good food and shopping, a lot of culture and in the summer, they have concerts – and of course you can get the massages and other services that spas are known for. Another Fun Fact: The European spas are medical spas predominantly, so you will see a lot of Czechs who go there for three weeks – as it’s paid for by the insurance – maybe after surgery or for some kind of rehabilitation. So ultimately, they are not what we consider spas to be here in the US – which are a sort of rehabilitation for the mind, body and spirit. But in addition to the programs for people who are recovering after certain procedures they absolutely offer the wellness element. You can do weekend packages with massages and facials and all that – and you get to experience all this in a beautiful setting. One More Fun Fact: At Karlovy Vary you actually get a little sippy cup, and you can taste the waters – although they don’t taste that good per Michaela!  Then there are spas with a twist like the “beer spa.” Yes, the town of Pilsen, which is the most American town in the Czech Republic because it was actually liberated by Americans after the Second World War is home to a beer spa. Pilsen actually celebrates America every year during their “Freedom Festival” where they have everything American and even the veterans who were in Pilsen during the during their liberation still come back to Pilsen. So, it’s a very American city and they really do a good job keeping those relationships alive. And of course, they are the home of Pilsen beer, and they have a spa where you can take a beer bath!

And Lastly, Let’s Talk About Moravian

Moving southeast we now head to the region called Moravian which is another very picturesque region. It is really close to Vienna so if you are flying into Vienna, it’s actually less than an hour from Vienna to Brno, which is the largest city in the region and the second largest city in the Czech Republic. Brno – where Michaela is from – is a very different vibe from Prague. It’s not as historical but they have really beautiful architecture and its home to a lot of universities so there’s a lot of young people – a lot of international students also come there. You see more locals here than in Prague. There’s also a great food scene – one of the top in the Czech Republic actually right now because it comes from the people in Brno who are really investing in the in the area. It is definitely a must experience. Here you will find another UNESCO World Heritage Site called Vila Tugendhat. Vila Tugendhat is a modernist villa from the 1920s built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who was a famous architect. He erected it for a Jewish family named – you guessed it – the Tugendhats. At that time, it was, and still is, an absolute masterpiece of functionalism and of modern architecture. As we mentioned this is from the 20s so at that time it was breaking traditions with its clean lines and huge windows. Unfortunately, the family didn’t spend much time there because then the war came, and they had to leave. But it has a really interesting history. For instance, during Communism it used to be a daycare and so it just sort of shows the history of the Czech Republic a bit.

About an hour from Brno – and three hours from Prague – you can visit the Lednice – Valtice Cultural Landscape – yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site that the Czech Republic is home to. It is a complex, one of the largest landscaped areas in Europe, featuring two castles connected with beautiful gardens. As Michaela put it – imagine it’s like Versailles – only in Moravia!

Now we talked about beer already – which is more of a product Bohemia, However, Moravia prides itself on its wines. They don’t produce a lot of wine so most of the wines are actually consumed within the country. They grow the grapes mostly in South Moravia which is the region that borders Austria and there are a lot of vineyards and wine cellars you can visit –there are even bike trails that take you through the different wine cellars so you can bike and do some wine tasting along the way. There are also great caves to be found here – who knew that the Czech Republic has a cave system – and it’s one of the largest. There is also an underground river so you walk part of it and then you can get on a boat and see the rest of it from the water. Very impressive!

Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends that unvaccinated travelers should avoid nonessential travel to the Czech Republic.

For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements Czech Republic click here.

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What do you think? Ready to head to the Czech Republic? I know I am! And trust me when I say Michaela is an amazing resource to have on our side and she’s going to help me make sure that you guys have the most amazing experiences all throughout the Czech Republic!
For more details on things to see and do in the Czech Republic, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!

Namaste!

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