This post may contain affiliate links.
Karlovy Vary Spa
If you’re looking for the best things to do in Karlovy Vary, also known as Carlsbad, search no further.
An elegant spa town in the Bohemia region of the Czech Republic (a European country now called Czechia), Karlovy Vary has fairytale architecture, steaming mineral springs, woodsy walking trails and plenty of spas.
This travel guide will help you plan your trip.
Karlovy Vary, Czechia – Day Trip From Prague
I can’t get enough of Czech spa towns, and Karlovy Vary (also known as Carlsbad) is one of the biggest, most glamorous spa towns in Europe.
As a spa expert who has written about European spas for some pretty heavy-hitting publications like the New York Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Toronto Star (she says humbly), I can tell you Karlovy Vary Spa makes a great day trip from Prague.
I’ve made several trips here, and while Marianske Lazne is my favorite Czech town for a long term spa vacation, you can’t beat lively Karlovy Vary for a weekend or a day trip.
Check out a Full Day Karlovy Vary Tour from Prague here.
One Day in Karlovy Vary
You can easily visit Karlovy Vary on your own as you can pretty much sightsee in a line from one end of the pedestrian spa promenade to the other.
For much of that time you’ll be blinking in astonishment at the pastel-coloured villas and hotels that rise up through the Tepla River valley like a pale rainbow confection.
The rest of the time you’ll want to follow this things to do in Karlovy Vary guide.
A Brief History of Karlovy Vary
Karlovy Vary was founded in the Middle Ages by Charles IV, the King of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Emperor. Supposedly he discovered the hot springs while out on a hunting expedition.
Even today, the spa town’s claim to fame is its mineral-rich thermal water that gushes up from some 79 different springs.
Thirteen of these springs are used for drinking cures and you’ll find fountains sprinkled all over town.
Drinking Mineral Water
Here’s the crazy thing about visiting Karlovy Vary: Drinking mineral water becomes an adventure as you move from pavilion to pavilion sipping from the various springs.
It’s like a wine tasting …. with no wine! How fun is that? Right? Right?
But back to the history of Karlovy Vary. In the 18th and 19th centuries the town became the spa destination of choice for many of the European rich and aristocratic, hosting A-list visitors such as Beethoven, Tolstoy, Mozart, Kafka and Peter the Great.
Don’t Diss the Karlovy Vary Spa Cure
While many North Americans scoff at the healing power of hot springs, the European mindset is different. Karlovy Vary hot springs have been used for centuries to treat various health problems such as digestive issues, gout, diabetes and arthritis.
There is a huge range of wellness treatments available like thermal water baths, mud packs and even weird things like gum irrigation.
(I gave gum irrigation a shot. It’s not much fun, but it does get the circulation going in your gums. If you know, you need circulation in your gums.)
The hot springs in Karlovy Vary and other Czech spa towns are considered so healing that the Czech government regularly subsidizes spa stays for its citizens with certain medical conditions.
And can I just say, for the amount of time I spend at Czech spas – and the fervour of my devotion to them – I should be granted honorary citizen status so I can have subsidized spa cures too.
Starting Your Karlovy Vary Tour
For this self-guided walk we’ll start at the north end (the bottom) of the spa zone and work our way up (which is south).
And yes, north would logically mean up, but it doesn’t work that way in Karlovy Vary, but somehow makes sense when you’re there.
If you’re coming from the bus station cross the busy street and look or ask for directions to the pedestrian street of Masaryka, a diagonal street that will lead you up to the spa centre.
Don’t make the mistake I made the first time I visited Karlovy Vary:
I was too shy to ask directions and ended up crossing the Tepla River and heading straight out of town. By the time I finally found the spa quarter I was exhausted.
Prefer a private tour? Check out this Private Karlovy Vary Tour from Prague here.
Things to Do in Karlovy Vary
The second thing to do in Karlovy Vary (we’ll get to the first in a minute) is to walk around and drink it all in.
When I drink it in, I mean both the water and the lavish Art Nouveau and Baroque architecture, with a sprinkling of communist concrete to mix it up.
All along the pedestrianized spa zone you’ll find beautiful colonnades and gushing fountains just waiting for you to stop, sip and savour … or make a face because you think the steaming slightly sulphurous water is disgusting.
(Unless you’re like me, and find drinking spring water as exciting as a good Bordeaux.)
The First Thing to Do in Karlovy Vary – Buy a Porcelain Cup
Fancy porcelain cups with built-in drinking spouts are the traditional way to sip spring water in Czech spa towns.
You can pick up a cup from any souvenir shop or kiosk on the street. Go all out and get a gold-rimmed designer cup you’ll treasure forever, or get the cheapest one you can find.
Why Buy a Spa Cup?
- Sampling the mineral water is the main activity in Karlovy Vary and you want to get with the program.
- Because some of the thermal springs are so hot a plastic water bottle is in danger of 1) melting and 2) releasing all those BPA toxins into your healing water, which defeats the purpose of drinking it in the first place.
Pass By the Spa Hotel Thermal
Armed with your souvenir spa cup, amble along the spa zone that follows the Tepla River. You’ll know you’re going the right way when you’ll pass the concrete Spa Hotel Thermal.
Guidebooks love to call the Spa Hotel Thermal ugly (and it is), but it’s actually a fine example of Socialist Brutalist Architecture.
If you want to soak, it’s also where they have an outdoor mineral pool.
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
The Thermal Hotel is the hub of the glamorous Karlovy Vary International Film Festival held each July. It’s one of the oldest film festivals around. (Read more about the Hotel Thermal’s intriguing history.)
Check Out Dvořák Park
Opposite the Spa Hotel Thermal you’ll find Dvořák Park, named for the composer Antonín Dvořák.
It’s a lovely stretch of green with weeping trees and a scenic pond, and is a good place to loll around, relax or hunt up the statue of Dvořák himself.
Walk Through the Park Colonnade
Next you come to the Park Colonnade, an ornate bit of Viennese ironwork from the 19th century.
The pavilion that once surrounded it is long gone, but if you wander down to the end, you can sample your first taste of spa water at the Snake Spring.
The water of the Snake Spring pours out of a sculpted snake spout at a temperature of 30C (86F).
I’ve heard the spring is named for the grass snakes that used to hang around the colonnade. Wait – did I say snakes? Don’t worry, I’ve been assured they’re not there anymore.
A Note About the Spa Water of Karlovy Vary
The mineral makeup of each spring is very similar, but the temperatures vary greatly, which means there are different levels of dissolved salts and minerals in each spring.
That’s why they taste different, too.
Stop at the Impressive Mill Colonnade
The next major colonnade you’ll see is the Mill Colonnade. You can’t miss it. It’s a long arcade of sturdy Corinthian columns that lend a certain amount of gravitas to the art of drinking spa water.
You can sample the water from the five fountains here, but be warned: the spa water is piping hot.
(This is when your plastic water bottle will warp and you’ll really wish you’d bought that spa cup like I told you to.)
History of the Mill Colonnade
The Neo-Renaissance Mill Colonnade wasn’t popular when it was built in the late 1880s. Maybe it was too stately for the spa-goers’ taste.
Now it’s one of the main landmarks in town, although with all those fountains it’s not so much a landmark as a water mark if you think about it.
Don’t Drink Too Much Water
It’s at this point, usually, that I start to feel like I’m drowning from the inside because I’ve drunk too much thermal water.
Please be more sensible and restrained about drinking thermal water than I am. It can cause digestive issues if you overdo it.
Where are the Toilets in Karlovy Vary?
With all this water drinking you’ll need to find a bathroom at some point. You will be pleased to know there are public toilets at one end of the Mill Colonnade – bring change because there is a small fee.
Glance at the Peter House
While you’re at the Mill Colonnade glance across the river and you’ll see the Peter House. This half-timbered building is one of the older buildings in town.
Built between 1706 and 1709, it’s now a pizza restaurant, which seems a big ignoble for a heritage building but maybe it’s really good pizza.
A plaque outside is dedicated to Peter the Great, who, in a typical show of manly prowess, helped build by hand a house across the road.
Don’t Miss the Market Colonnade
By now you may be getting tired of viewing fountains and colonnades but there are two more watery things to see in Karlovy Vary. One is the frothy-looking Market Colonnade.
Inside is the Charles IV Spring. This is said to be the original spring that Charles IV soothed his ailing legs in back in the 14th century when it was nothing more than a steaming pool in the forest.
The white wooden building is so darn pretty it’s impossible not to photograph.
You might, however, get the urge to start elbowing other selfie-happy tourists out of the way because they keep wandering into your shot. Calm down. Relax. Have a drink of water.
Try Some Becherovka
If the crowds are really getting to you, look out for a booth shaped like a big green bottle and buy a shot of Becherovka.
This famous herbal liqueur produced in Karlovy Vary acts as a digestive aid and is as much a part of the ‘Karlovy Vary drinking cure’ as mineral water.
I used to take a bottle back with me to Canada and have a wee sip every night, hopeful (but not very) that it would bring me good health.
See the Church of St Mary Magdalene
Near the Market Colonnade is the Baroque Church of St Mary Magdalene built in 1737. If it’s open you can peek inside to see the ornate altar and a Gothic statue of Mary.
Orthodox Church of Saint Peter and Paul (A Side Trip)
Travel tip: A little off the Karlovy Vary sightseeing trail, in the slightly-faded but very gracious district of Westend is another stunning church worth seeing, the Orthodox Church of Saint Peter and Paul.
Go Into the Hot Spring Colonnade – A Major Landmark
Across the Market Colonnade is brusque-looking Hot Spring Colonnade. Here you’ll get a sense of the Czechia’s communist past through its geometric concrete-loving architecture.
Find the Hot Spring Geyser
Inside the Market Colonnade there are a number of fountains to drink from. The spring you’re here to see is one of the most famous Karlovy Vary attractions, the Hot Spring Geyser.
A burst of thermal water that can leap up to 12 metres high, the Hot Spring Geyser is Karlovy Vary’s answer to Yellowstone’s Old Faithful.
It’s the hottest spring in Karlovy Vary at a mind-boiling 72 °C (162 F).
Take a Coffee Break at the Elegant Café Elefant
It may seem, at this point, that the only thing to do in Karlovy Vary is to drink. That’s a valid point, but at least at the historic Café Elefant you can have cake, too.
Opened in 1715, this lovely café is located at Stará Louka 30. Think chandeliers, white columns and gold mouldings … if it was good enough for Beethoven it’s good enough for you.
Karlovy Vary spa town has plenty of boutiques so you can spend a lot of time … spending.
Looking for a souvenir? Pink porcelain and Bohemian crystal are two of the main things to buy in Karlovy Vary.
Eat Spa Wafers Hot Off the Grill
In all honesty, I don’t find spa wafers all that exciting, but in Karlovy Vary they’re a tradition.
My favourites are the hazelnut and it seems like a ritual to buy them at U Jachyma at 34 Stará Louka just before you come to the Grandhotel Pupp.
Gaze at the Grandhotel Pupp
At the end of the spa zone is the legendary Grandhotel Pupp. This lavish 5-star property was the model for the hotel in the movie the Grand Budapest Hotel.
It’s also featured in the James Bond flick Casino Royale and the comedy Last Holiday starring Queen Latifah.
With a history that dates back to the 1700s, the Grandhotel Pupp is the most luxe hotel in Karlovy Vary, and yes, the correct pronunciation sounds a bit like ‘poop.’ Just let it go.
Take the Funicular to the Diana Tower Lookout
You may think your tour is over, but the best is yet to come. If you walk to the right of the Grandhotel Pupp you’ll find a funicular to take you up to the Diana Lookout Tower in the wonderful Slavkov Forest.
At the top you can climb the 150 steps (or take the elevator) up the watchtower for some spectacular views.
If you like hiking you can walk up to the Diana Watchtower from town. There are so many trails and interesting things to see in the hills around Karlovy Vary, I can’t begin to describe them.
Oh, wait. I already did. Read my Karlovy Vary Deer Leaping Walk article to read about that adventure.
Other Karlovy Vary Attractions
That’s it for the walking portion of this ‘things to do in Karlovy Vary’ travel guide, but if you’re spending more than a day here or you still have energy to spare, there are plenty of other things to do in Karlovy Vary.
Tour the Becherovka Visitors Center
One of the most popular places to visit in Karlovy Vary is the interactive Jan Becher Museum, now called the Becherovka Visitors Center.
Why visit? Because finally you can drink something stronger than water.
Remember the liqueur Becherovka we were talking about earlier? The Visitors Center is dedicated to this legendary herbal elixir.
What Can You Do at the Becherovka Museum?
- Tour the old cellars
- Learn how the history of Becherovka is entwined with the history of the spa town
- Do a Becherovka tasting (everyone’s favourite part)
The Jan Becher Museum is located in the original factory at T.G.Masaryka 57. Essentially this is back where we started from. Visit the website for more info.
A Karlovy Vary Tradition – The Moser Glass Factory
If buying a porcelain cup with a spout isn’t enough of a breakable souvenir for you, tour the Moser Glass Factory.
It was back in the 1800s that Ludwig Moser opened a glass workshop in Karlovy Vary, and his celebrated Bohemian crystal soon became the toast of the Austrian Hungarian monarchy.
What Can You Do at the Moser Glass Factory?
- Hear about the history of Moser Glass and learn about the fine art of glassblowing
- Watch master craftsmen and their apprentices transform molten glass into gleaming bowls and vases
- Shop for fine crystal souvenirs
FYI: You’ll be cruising past some pretty hot furnaces so now that I think about it, you might want to visit the glass factory before you do your Becherovka tasting.
Check the Moser Glass website for tour times and prices. It’s located at Kapitana Jarose 46/19. You can take Bus No. 1, 2 or 22 from the bus stop Tržnice (Market hall) in the city centre.
Karlovy Vary Spa Treatments
A Karlovy Vary spa treatment is part of the fun. Traditionally, spa vacations here are full packages that run for a week to three weeks, but as Karlovy Vary tourism increases, there are more options for day spas.
Many hotels offer some sort of spa treatment options and, as a spa fanatic, I think delving into the traditional world of Czech spas is one of the absolute best things to do in Karlovy Vary.
It’s not for everyone though. Treatments are much more clinical than in North America, and your naked body isn’t always carefully hidden from the therapist’s view.
Where to Spa in Karlovy Vary
If you’re staying at a hotel, it will likely have an onsite spa where you can try a thermal water bath or get a massage. If not, you have a few other options.
Spa tip: In the Czech Republic it’s not traditional to bathe in public hot springs pools, but rather to book a private bath at one of the spas.
Elizabeth V Day Spa – Spa 5
One place I like for its traditional curative spa atmosphere – though again, it might too clinical for some – is the Elizabeth V Spa.
At least it used to be called the Elizabeth V Spa, named for the Austrian Empress Sissi, but now it seems to be called Spa 5. And sometimes the Elizabeth Baths.
Located at the beginning of the spa zone, even before the Spa Hotel Thermal, Spa 5 is a white Neo-Baroque building at the foot of flowery Smetana Park and very grand looking from the outside, though sparser inside.
If you want an authentic Czech spa experience, it’s a good Karlovy Vary day spa to try.
The Elizabeth Baths offers treatments such as thermal water baths, massages and inhalations of thermal water (good for respiratory issues).
They also have a pool, but it’s regular water not mineral springs. If you want the thermal water, opt for a mineral bath.
Soak in an Outdoor Hot Springs Pool
One place you can soak in an outdoor thermal pool is at the Saunia Thermal Resort at the Spa Hotel Thermal. (Remember that hotel with the Brutalist architecture?)
Saunia also has an extensive range of saunas and offers spa treatments. Check it out here.
You can’t beat the location, and even if the hotel is ugly I spent a week there and am quite fond of it.
Getting to Karlovy Vary From Prague
There are two train stations in town. If you’re taking the train to Karlovy Vary from Prague, and you probably won’t be as it’s a 3.5 hour journey each way, you’ll end up at the Horní Nádraží Station.
From there you can take a bus or a taxi to the spa zone.
If you’re taking the train to Karlovy Vary from Marianske Lazne, you will end up at Dolní
Prague to Karlovy Vary by Bus
If you’re taking the bus from Prague, you should arrive at the Dolní
Cross Zapadni Street and look or ask for directions to the pedestrian street of Masaryka, a diagonal street that will take you towards the spa centre.
If you’re travelling from Prague to Karlovy Vary by car or bus it takes about 2 hours.
Tourist Information: There are two tourist information centres in Karlovy Vary. One is at T.G. Masaryka 53, not far from the bus station. The other is in the centre of the spa zone at Lázeňská 14.
Hotels in Karlovy Vary
There are many hotels in Karlovy Vary and something for every budget.
At the top end of the spectrum is the Grandhotel Pupp. I loved my stay here. Who wouldn’t?
I’ve also heard good things about the Quisisana Palace, a Neo-Baroque building that dates back to the 19th century.
If you want a true traditional Czech spa experience, people have recommended the Dvořák Spa Hotel.
The three hotels I’ve stayed at are the Spa Hotel Thermal, the Grandhotel Pupp and the Hotel Imperial – I talk more about them in this Karlovy Vary hotel article.
Day Trips From Karlovy Vary
If you’re looking for places to see outside Karlovy Vary, think about visiting the historical town of Loket, less than a half an hour away.
Marianske Lazne (Marienbad) is probably the spa town closest to my heart and you can do it as a day trip from Karlovy Vary by train. Check out this Spa in Marianske Lazne blog post to learn more about it.
Is Karlovy Vary Worth It?
Even if you have no interest in spas, Karlovy Vary is worth the trip because it’s one of the prettiest European towns you’ll ever see. If you like thermal water you’ll be in waterlogged heaven.
Hopefully this travel guide will help you plan your stay, whether you’re spending one day in Karlovy Vary, a weekend, or settling in for a longer stay.
For more info on Europe read Top Destinations in Europe or visit my Europe Travel category page.