Going Back to Karlovy Vary
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This small Czech town is seeing a resurgence in tourism, thanks to technology.
By Sean Williams
Europe’s tourist landscape is changing fast: Younger travelers, armed with apps and social media, are stepping off the beaten track in huge numbers. And thanks to cheap flights, new technology and a sharing economy, a new generation is discovering places that had fallen off the tourist map over the years, but are now experiencing revitalization.
The small, beautiful Czech town of Karlovy Vary is known for its hot springs, classic architecture and the lavish Grandhotel Pupp — the massive venue on which Wes Anderson modeled the Grand Budapest Hotel and the backdrop for James Bond’s high-stakes poker faceoff in 2006’s Casino Royale. It’s just two hours away from Prague, Europe’s sixth-most visited city, which attracts over 5 million visitors yearly. Karlovy Vary draws just 270,000. But that represents a 50 percent increase over the past 12 years. Thanks to a new influx of travelers, it’s emerging from the shadows of its storied neighbor.
… famed for its springs and location, nestled in the deep-green hills of western Bohemia.
Karlovy Vary (meaning, literally, “Charles’ Bath”) was founded in 1370 by a holy Roman emperor of the same name. It became a premier tourist spot, famed for its springs and location, nestled in the deep-green hills of western Bohemia. Most of the city’s piebald townhouses and Roman-style colonnades sprung up in the 18th century, as it grew as the preserve of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s rich and famous. Today, the town still bears that luxury, from hilltop hotels to a multitude of spas and massage outlets. Top-end stays like the Pupp and Hotel Thermal — a giant, brutalist block dumped by Czechoslovakia’s former communist regime — offer lavish treatments and massages. Just a few minutes away, however, you can get an hour’s rubdown and four hours’ entrance to Castle Spa for just $88.
But Karlovy Vary’s New Town is where the smartphone set is likely to roam: Republica Coffee offers urbanites a familiar mix of latte art and facial hair, while the Charleston combines hearty Czech food with a cheap, smoky bar that stays open well into the night. Sample Becherovka liqueur for an authentic local taste. New upstart restaurant Le Marche, run by celebrity chef Jan Krajč, offers fine dining at affordable prices.
Not everyone is a fan of the new, changing Karlovy Vary — especially in the New Town, where one local man, Jan, said: “This was our corner. Now it is all a tourist site.” Neither is it as cheap a tourist site as many nearby cities: Drinks are only a touch below those in Western Europe. Expect to pay at least $50 for a high-end meal for two.
It’s not just Airbnb that’s helping tourists discover off-the-beaten-path spots. It’s also budget airlines that are taking “slots in slightly lesser-known places,” says London-based futurist Tamar Kasriel. So now there are more places on offer that travelers wouldn’t have normally considered. Plus, “people just travel a lot more,” adds Bart van Poll of travel site Spotted by Locals. “Fifty years ago, it was amazing if you visited Paris. Now people are fed up with … the Eiffel Tower. They want to see other things and experience things like a local.”
Towns like Karlovy Vary are changing to meet the demands of a new savvy travelers. For those of us without a James Bond budget, that can only be a good thing.