The word wellness evokes images of high-end spas in island locales, expensive face and body treatments, and detox vacations that cater to the rich and famous. But wellness is not just the buzzword du jour. It’s become an important daily ritual for us all. And when that tradition needs to be extended, spa retreats and hotels meet the demand.
Spa towns and wellness hideaways abound, running the gamut from treetop yoga retreats in Costa Rica to Swiss mountain chalets with fresh air in abundance. One of the most heralded but affordable spa towns is Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. A UNESCO World Heritage spa town, Karlovy Vary welcomes nearly 500,000 tourists a year, thanks to an abundance of natural beauty, therapeutic hot springs, and luxurious spa hotels.
Set on the confluence of the Rivers Ohře and Teplá in Bohemia, not far from the German border, Karlovy Vary has been a renowned wellness retreat since the 14th century when Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV “discovered” a hot spring while hunting deer in the surrounding forests. Fast forward 500 years and Karlovy Vary became the it spa town for dignitaries, royalty, and even cultural icons—think Goethe and Beethoven. Today, the city is the second most visited destination in all of the Czech Republic, surpassed only by Prague 75 miles to the north. With 15 natural thermal hot springs, numerous spa hotels, and a world-renowned film festival, there is no better time than the present to visit.
While still glamorous thanks to plastic surgery sites aplenty, Karlovy Vary has become more humble over the years. Many spa hotels offer packages for short- and long-term stays and nearly every hotel has a swimming pool or sauna of some kind on-premises, making it affordable for most visitors.
COVID decimated the town’s tourism and a post-COVID boom is happening, with visitors from all over the world heading to Karlovy Vary for much-needed rest and relaxation and maybe, a nip or tuck or two.
Of the many spas in town, a number are open to the public for a small fee and offer an affordable place to recoup on a day trip from Prague or a long weekend. Then there are the luxurious spa hotels that afford guests a variety of well-known and perplexing treatments—CO2 baths anyone? Here is my list of the top wellness and spa destinations in Karlovy Vary.
An opulent symbol of the city, one that is hard to miss if you’re arriving by train, the Elizabeth Baths should be your first stop in this spa town. Set amid ample gardens, the historic spa, which has been around for more than 100 years, is a popular rest stop for visitors looking to unwind after an exhausting train or bus journey. Choose from more than 60 treatments, from specialized baths to massages to thermotherapy and hydrotherapy treatments. If you’re only in town for a short time, head to the large pool complex, which features an infrared sauna, a steam room, and a hot tub, ideal for relaxation. Two hours in the pool will only set you back 9 euros.
Hot Springs & Colonnades
As one of 13 UNESCO Great Spa Towns of Europe, Karlovy Vary has long been known as the go-to place in Eastern Europe for thermal therapy. With 15 hot springs in the town proper (80 total in the region), visitors have a wealth of wellness to choose from.
After Charles IV put Karlovy Vary on the map as a destination for hydrotherapy, 16th-century physician Vaclav Payer suggested that the thermal water should be ingested instead. Hence, the drinking cure—which spread to other historic spa towns such as Vichy, France, and Bath, England—was born. Town architects built wooden colonnades and walking paths into the forest to make it easy for the elite to imbibe. Today, the 15 original Karlovy Vary hot springs are still in use. Set at different temperatures and spread out throughout the town, each spring boasts its own medicinal effect (although most people stop after sipping a few).
Grab a souvenir porcelain spa cup at any kiosk in town and head to the springs, which sit under expansive stone, wood, and cast-iron colonnades that harken back to a more romantic time. The Vřídlo spring at the Hot Spring Colonnade in the center of town is the most popular and easy to drink for first-timers, who might wrinkle their noses at the smell of sulfur. Extend your stay a week and a doctor will prescribe a drinking regimen to treat your joint or digestion ailments.
One of the oldest hotels in Karlovy Vary, the Grandhotel Pupp boasts more than 100 rooms and suites with forest or river views. Originally built in 1701, the hotel began as a meeting hall and ballroom for the local aristocracy. Wars, occupation, fires, and internal disputes couldn’t destroy the hotel, which is named for Franziska and Johan Pupp, the original owners of the complex. Today, the hotel retains the Pupp name but is an independent entity.
The neo-Baroque facade gives way to modern rooms fit for a king or James Bond—the hotel was featured in several scenes in 2006’s Casino Royale. Expect floral wallpaper, bright pops of color on headboards and coverlets, and baths with bidets.
Like most hotels in Karlovy Vary, the Grandhotel Pupp has its own spa, complete with a swimming pool, meditation pool, Finnish sauna, and steam room. Guests get free access but must pay extra for soothing treatments such as the Shirodhara massage, which opens the third eye, and the peat bath.
Modern and Brutalist, the Hotel Thermal is an eye-catching complex near the promenade and river in Karlovy Vary. With more than 270 rooms, the hotel is a hotbed of activity when the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival rolls around every July.
Outside of that busy month, guests are treated to clean, minimalist rooms with river views and a spa facility like no other in town. Unlike most hotels in Karlovy Vary, Hotel Thermal boasts an indoor and year-round outdoor swimming pool, the latter featuring natural local spring water. Treat yourself to the herbal sauna where essential oils and aromatherapy will clear your mind of external stressors.
Spa Forest Walks
Not every wellness activity in Karlovy Vary is indoors. Forest walks and promenades are a local tradition, dating back to the 16th century when doctors advised patients to become one with nature. Discover nearly 111 miles of trails and paths that lead from the Baroque beauty of the city to the freedom of the Ore Mountains. The difficulty of the paths is designated by color but you’ll find plenty of lodges and lean-tos where you can rest, have a picnic, or shelter from the rain. The five lookout points—Charles IV, Vitkova Hora, Goethe, Aberg, and Diana—offer impressive views of Karlovy Vary and a pleasing respite from doing laps indoors.