The heartbeat of most countries pulses from the towns, villages, and small cities dotting the countryside. Even in well-developed countries, the pace of life changes outside of urban city-centers. This proved true throughout much of my travels this past year, and also in the Czech Republic, where three days sightseeing in Prague offered just a tantalizing glimpse of Czech culture.
South of Prague, however, is another very touristy Czech city — but this one is small and easily navigated. Bonus? Interactions with the locals around town is unavoidable if you visit for a couple of days. Or in my case, ten days.
Český Krumlov is cute and charming despite being overrun with tourists. Well, actually it’s only touristy during the day, but once the day trippers return to Prague, Vienna, or Salzburg, it quiets, which changes the dynamic between the remaining tourists and locals. Český Krumlov is a popular day trip spot not only because it’s close to other capital cities, but also because the town’s center is a UNESCO site recognized exemplary examples of medieval, renaissance, and baroque architecture. Since my cousin and I had time to spend exploring, we decided to stay for quite a bit of time in an amazing little hostel we found, Hostel Postel — the women running it were as sweet as could be, it was cozy and warm, and free wifi and tea took it up a notch to downright special! (If you’re visiting on a mid-range budget, Pension Tiffany is completely lovely, or you can find a nice apartment for rent on Airbnb).
1. Get lost wandering around town.
The town seems as though it was pulled straight from a fairytale. The city center fans out from around an ornate tower and castle that rise from the banks of the Vltava river (this is the same river that runs through Prague and under the famous Charles Bridge). The river makes a Greek Omega shape around the center of the town ( Ω ) so throughout your wanders to continually pass over the banks of the rushing river. And wandering is the name of the game here. The town bursts with cute boutiques and shops selling everything from handmade soaps to carved wooden children’s toys.
2. Follow your nose to the coffee and sweets.
As you explore and familiarize yourself with charming Český Krumlov, catch the scent of freshly brewing coffee and sweet cinnamon-y dough. The city boasts a number of coffee shops (if you’re into the coffee scene, Nonsolocaffé at Latrán 72 does a great pour) and you can easily find trdelník, which is a sweet treat you cannot leave Czech without trying.
3. Climb 162 steps to the top of the castle tower.
The castle tower stands guard over the city and is a gorgeous, unique tower you won’t find elsewhere. In the renaissance style, this tower stands six-stories tall and the bright, marbled pink exterior glistens in the sunlight. The view from the top is worth few dollars for entry because you’ll have sweeping views of the green countryside. You can see for miles, and it’s from here that you can admire the unique pattern of the Vltava River as it snakes through the city center.
4. Tour the castle complex.
The castle grounds are extensive and lovely in the summer — shady and verdant, making it easy to feel you are subsumed in nature as you explore. My friends and I packed a budget lunch of cheese and tomato sandwiches and boiled eggs, so we feasted in the castle grounds after we had climbed the tower. The castle, once belonging to the Rožmberk family, is one of the best preserved in Europe, and the second largest in Czech Republic, so it’s unmissable when you are in town. Be sure to take the guided tour of the Baroque Theater, which is a real highlight.
There are captive bears in the castle complex, and this is my one complaint about visiting the castle. I don’t recommend that you spend money to see the bears up close. You will see them in the moat-pit from the tower, but it’s not the most ideal situation for the bears. Unlike some zoos in the world, or wildlife attractions, there is no educational or conservation element to the zoos, so it’s ethically sketchy that they are still there, in such a small space. The story goes that two bears have been at the castle entrance since 1707, which is fun and interesting until you see the concrete pit where they live. Consider this your warning that it’s all a bit sad.
5. Enjoy riverside vegetarian eats.
Although Czech Republic is not, generally, vegetarian-friendly, you won’t starve in Český Krumlov. Laibon is delicious Indian and Middle Eastern restaurant with a stunningly pretty location right on the water.
6. Find a cozy pub to share a drink and conversation.
Chat the evening away with locals as you sip a frosty pint of Czech beer. Because many tourists leave by the late afternoon, the pubs are friendly places to pass the time with friends you’ve met at your guesthouse or hostel, or locals. Gypsy Bar is always hopping and offers live music and a great experience every night of the week. (And if you are a beer lover, there is even a brewery tour in town).
7. Raft on the Vltava River one sunny morning.
Rafting in Český Krumlov is one of the most fun adventure-filled activities you will find in the region. It’s a fast-paced river at points, and slow and gentle at other points. And although it’s easy and caters to tourists, during the summer you are just as likely to meet locals as you float down the river, past smaller villages, pretty nature, and so much more. You’ll end at a 13th-century abbey and the rafting company waits for you there and shuttles you back to town. (There are a few companies in town, we used Malecek Rafting & Canoe).
8. Settle into a slower pace of life.
It’s not that there’s a lot to do in Český Krumlov — there’s the rafting and the castle, of course. But it’s not a city where you should plan to fill every moment with activities, but instead plan on many hours relaxing in pubs, cafes, riverside restaurants conversing with friends. It’s this precise element that made me love the town.
A quick video of my wanders through town so far, with a tour from Tower:
Quick Facts: Visiting Cesky Krumlov
Sleep: Hostel Postel is a phenomenal budget spot in town, while Pension Tiffany offers a nice mid-range experience. No matter which property you choose, ALA get a $25 discount on their first Booking.com reservation. And although I stayed in a hostel, if you want an entire home or apartment, Airbnb has some beautiful options and is my go-to when I want comfort and space.
Eat/Drink: Laibon is the best spot in the city for vegetarians, and offers tasty food anyone would enjoy. Rožmberská bašta is a fun and completely local spot that is hard to find, so mark it on your map carefully. Gypsy Bar is a must-visit for live music and a great atmosphere.
Do: Talk a morning walk through town, pop into shops and cafes. Sit by the river and sip coffee or tea. Raft on the Vltava for a full morning. Eat all the things. You can’t go wrong with a few days in town — trust me, you won’t be bored!
Transport: The town is completely walkable. You can easily take a bus from Prague (3 to 4 hours) or any of the close capital cities.
Guidebook: For more nuance and town history as you wander, use the Rick Steves Prague & Czech Republic.