No other country quite makes you feel as if you have dropped into the pages of a classic fairy tale. All the elements to create the setting are present, striking Gothic buildings, charming town squares surrounded by decorative facades and impressive medieval country castles set in deep forests, still populated with bears and wolves. With little effort, it is possible to forget the modern world and enjoy a colourful journey back to simpler times.
The Czech Republic has a turbulent past, suffering from invasions from successive expanding empires, but also gaining from the changing cultural influences. The country was formed in the early 12th century as the Kingdom of Bohemia and became part of the Hapsburg Monarchy together with Austria and Hungary, in 1526. After the First Word War the region became independent Czechoslovakia until it was occupied by the Germans in 1939. After the war it became a communist country under Soviet influence, finally freeing itself of occupation after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The Czech Republic separated peacefully from Slovakia in 1993.
Visitors to the Czech Republic usually first experience Prague, the magnificent capital city on the Vltava River. Whilst the city today has several exciting neighbourhoods each with a unique character, the stars of the city are the atmospheric Old Town by the river and the storybook Palace overlooking the city from its hilltop. The Old Town is a collection of wonderful squares filled with historic, architectural gems linked by winding, cobbled streets housing delightful shops, restaurants and drinking dens. Crammed with excellent museums and theatres, this entrancing section can also be enjoyed by simple aimless wandering. The Palace area is joined to the Old Town by the celebrated Charles Bridge, lined with looming religious statues. The 9th Century Prague Castle is a huge complex of buildings in many classic architectural styles. St Vitus Cathedral, inside the castle, has magnificent views over the city from its 100-metre tower. Prague really demands a couple of days to experience this charismatic city.
However enticing, Prague is not the only delightful destination. In Southern Bohemia, near to the Austrian border, Český Krumlov is the ultimate fairy tale town. Small, but bursting with charm and character, this town has a truly magical feel. In the north-west of the country lie a series of Spa towns developed in the 19th century, such as Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary. These elegant resorts grew from the demand for the local mineral waters and are still beautiful places to relax in.
Exploring the country further offers more captivating towns and cities such as the brewery town of Plzeň and the gorgeously pretty town of Telč. The lesser-visited eastern province of Moravia also provides great destinations including the historically-rich cities of Brno and Olomouc. Throughout the country are fantastic castles and country houses, legacies of conflict and successful trade. Some castles are very well-preserved with rooms full of art and refined furniture, whilst the chateaux and country houses of wealthy families rival the best that France or Italy can offer.
To complement the visual and cultural treats, the Czech Republic has a fine culinary tradition of good, healthy, local food with an emphasis on hearty quantity. A dish of roast duck, red cabbage and dumplings should satisfy most hungers and served, of course, with famously the world’s best beers. The centuries-old brewing industry has provided ample choice of quality beer and this is matched by some lovely still and sparkling wines.
There is no bad time to travel to the Czech Republic. Summer offers wonderful weather for hiking, riding or exploring the cities. Autumn and Spring are great for the colours of the countryside and even the icy grip of winter provides a suitable excuse to enjoy hot food, mulled wine and Christmas markets.