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I enjoyed a winter break to Prague - but it was a different city that stole my heart

Prague was a special treat, but it was Karlovy Vary that stole the show

A split image of the Prague astronomical clock and a young man playing in the snow
Matthew Moore
Matthew MooreOnline News Writer & Diversity and Inclusion Lead
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Hidden gem is definitely a phrase that we love using when it comes to travel reviews - that little hotel in the countryside, the dreamy English village that is the setting of the next huge period drama, but when it comes to the city of Karlovy Vary, it truly does earn this moniker.

While the historic location is certainly known in its native Czech Republic and other European nations, whenever a Brit thinks of the country, it will be the capital city of Prague that first springs to mind. However, just under two hours outside of Prague, by car or public transport, this spa city lies in the gorgeous Czech mountains, and while it's not the location of period dramas, huge films have used its picturesque buildings and streets for their movie scenes.

Perhaps it was because when we arrived in the city during a cold December day we were in the middle of a flurry of snow, but the beauty of Karlovy Vary was plain to see upon arrival. When Winter Wonderland was written back in 1934, it must have been this place that served as inspiration, as I was immediately put into the mood for Christmas despite being a bit 'Bah humbug' about the season beforehand.

Karlovy Vary in the snow© Henryk Sadura
Karlovy Vary completely stole my heart

During our time in the historic city, where legends say King Charles IV discovered a hot spring which became the town's first spa, we visited the Moser Glassworks, which produces the most luxurious Czech products with its army of glassmakers and quality checkers. One huge highlight of our trip involved a visit to the Emperor Spa.

The elegant building was originally a spa for royalty and the rich and famous, but has now been transformed into a cultural centre, housing a small concert hall. Most of the interiors have remained unchanged, meaning you can still glance around some of the old facilities and view the iconic staircase where James Bond and Le Chiffre met in Casino Royale.

Film has a long history in the surrounding mountains, with Shanghai Nights also having been filmed in the city, while James Bond also dined at the Grandhotel Pupp with Vesper Lynd, which still sells 007-themed cocktails, shaken not stirred. Pop along in July and you can spend time at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, while the aforementioned hotel has the names of movie stars carved into the paving stones on its drive.

An ornate building© Matthew Moore
The Imperial Spa was majestic

For those who just want to soak in the beauty of the surrounding area, it's incredibly easy to do so, with the streets being an Instagrammer's dream, while the Diana funicular can sweep you into the mountains and the Diana observation tower that gifts unparalleled views of the nearby forests and mountains. Nestled right next to it is the century-old Diana Restaurant. Fashioned like an old hunting lodge with a roaring fire and wide-open spaces, the establishment offers some of the best food in the area and is a total meat-lovers dream. Vegetarian and vegan options are on hand, but you will find across the whole of the Czech Republic that these dishes aren't their main priority.

Given that I mentioned its heritage as a spa city, it would be remiss of me not to mention the spa credentials still on offer. Various natural springs dot the city, including a spring water walk, but at the centre is the thermal spa baths, located at the Hotel Thermal. You don't need to be a guest at the hotel to enjoy the facilities and during these wintery days, you will come to love the heated outdoor pool. As I swam around in the waters, I entirely forgot the outside temperature was at -2C, giving me a shock when I felt how cold my hair was. Just outside the main pool is a heated jacuzzi that is certainly the spot to unwind, beer in hand, while the interior still offers spa staples like saunas and steam rooms, with the steam being a particular favourite of mine, with its soothing music and low lighting make it the perfect spot to sit back and relax.

Now, I can rave about how great Karlovy Vary is until I'm blue in the face, but that is not to discount Prague under any circumstances. Karlovy Vary is the perfect day trip for you, but Prague should still be your main base of operations with a raft of activities, restaurants, and Instagram-worthy views to snap up.

Where to stay

A hotel room
The Andaz Hotel is the place to stay

When figuring out where to stay in Prague, you can do no better than at the Andaz Prague. This five-star hotel is located in the middle of the city and is just minutes away from metro stations and incredible sights. In less than ten minutes you can be viewing old guardhouses that marked the boundaries between Old and New Town or the Municipal House, which is one of the most impressive buildings I've seen in my life, with its art nouveau stylings.

The entire of the Andaz matches its surroundings and the bedrooms are a dream, and even feature a 3D lion carving just above your bed. As for the bed, you can't get a better night's sleep than with the dreamy queen-sized we slept in. An active concierge service is available to fulfil your every whim, including bringing a mouth-watering lunch direct to your room.

Special cocktails inspired by the scents of perfume populate the bar and the breakfasts served are just what you need in the morning to get you out into the city, no matter the weather (and we had a lot of snow). And given that many of us may be partial to a full English, you will be able to track one down on the hotel's menu.

A selection of spa treatments are also available, and while I sadly wasn't able to experience these, my eye was firmly planted on what sounded like a divine white chocolate treatment.

What to do in Prague

Prague was so beautiful in the snow© Kajano
Prague was so beautiful in the snow

As a bustling city, Prague has plenty to do and if you're a sight-seer, the historic location is the perfect break for you. Wandering around the streets of Old Town, you do feel like you're back in the medieval period with the stone buildings and cobbled paths, and around every corner there is some worthy of your Instagram grid.

Special highlights included the House of the Black Madonna, a building designed in the Cubism art movement, a snowy trip to the St. Vitus Cathedral and the ultimate tourist destination of the city: the Prague astronomical clock. The gorgeously-designed clock is attached to the Old Town Hall and is the oldest astronomical clock still in operation. And as many a local will tell you, the surrounding area gets very busy ahead of a new hour as throngs gather to watch 'The Walk of the Apostles' which strikes the new hour.

And for specific experiences, the Manufaktura shop offers shelves of Czech cosmetics and locally-sourced items, which are perfect gifts for family when coming back home.

The interior of the Beer Spa
The Beer Spa was unusual but you will fall in love with it

But the most notable experience I had during my three-day stay was the Beer Spa. Karlovy Vary may be home to many spas, but this unique one is located right in the heart of Prague, a ten-minute drive from the Andaz. And yes, you are bathing in beer, well natural extracts that would be brewed into beer. Now, I understand the idea of this might raise an eyebrow, but the extracts help to relax skin pores and with high vitamin B and enzymes also boosts skin regeneration.

The experience is an hour long and alongside the beer baths are an ice room and sauna and a straw bed, which I highly recommend only lying on with a towel. Elsewhere, you can sample beer bread and get free unlimited light or dark beer for the entire experience, and trust me, there is nothing like relaxing in what is akin to a beer jacuzzi with a pint in hand.

Where to eat

Prague has many restaurants for you to settle in for a nice meal - from the traditional to the experimental to ones that allow you to soak in your surroundings, and thankfully I experienced all three during my time there. To start with, there was the Municipal House Brewery, a traditional Czech beer hall with accordian players and plenty of meaty dishes that you'll more than likely be wanting to go for the half-portions when asked. Most starters are served cold, and to tell you the truth I wasn't too impressed with my pâté, but when it came to my meal, I was more than happy.

A playe with fish on it© Matthew Moore
Food did not come better than this

For my experimental dining experience, I had an incredible six-course meal at the Štangl restaurant, which is located just opposite the Forum Karlin. Each course was paired with a different wine, and if you weren't feeling the whole six courses, you could get a smaller three-course option. But trust me, you will want to experience all six of these treats. All the courses are prepared to bring out the tastes that you want, and considering I am not a fan of zucchini or mushroom, I was more than happy to finish off the dishes where these ingredients took centre stage.

But when it came to the food, the highlight had to be the river lunch cruise booked through Prague Boats. The food was not of the same standard as the Štangl, but its buffet-style offerings of goulash, cold meats and pasta were just what you wanted as you enjoyed a leisurely cruise up and down the River Vltava. In the snow, it was truly a winter wonderland and I would happily have done two or three trips on the cruise just to take in this magical city.

Getting there

While there are many ways to get to Prague, the best way has to be with British Airways from London City Airport. Nestled in the heart of the city, it's so easy to get to, just a DLR trip away, and check-in is a doddle, as is the return trip. Flying in business was the way to go with a delicious onboard meal served, all the drinks you could want and priority boarding, what more do you need in cold British and Czech weather?

British Airways Holidays offers three nights at the 5* Andaz Prague from £503pp in January or February 2024. This includes British Airways Economy flights, 23kg luggage and daily breakfast.

Book your trip to Prague now: Prague Holidays | Deposits from £60pp

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