Updated: Feb 27
The Hipster's Choice
For many years now, Prague has completely dominated tourism in the Czech Republic, so much so that most other towns are, unfairly to say the least, put in the shade. Even Lonely Planet has changed the name of its guide to ‘Prague and the Czech Republic’, devoting over half its publication to the capital. Whisper it quietly, but Olomouc ('Olo-moats') may just be the hip new choice to go in Czech for those weary with Prague’s sugar-coated sights. A lively student town with a population of around 100,000, Olomouc lies in central Moravia in the eastern half of Czech, roughly half way between Prague and Krakow. As the erstwhile Moravian capital, the town retains a sense of regional importance without ever feeling flashy. Locals are rightly proud of their graceful old town which dates from the 11th century; while the trickle of foreign visitors who make it here feel privileged to have discovered such an under-rated gem.
After Prague, Olomouc has the second largest and second oldest preservation zone in the Czech Republic. Most visitors will find themselves drawn to Horni Namesti (Upper Square), which contains a wealth of architectural sights. The splendid 15th century baroque Town Hall in the centre of the square with a tapering tower features a highly unusual astronomical clock on one side, almost completely destroyed by the Nazis and remodeled during Communist years to display scenes of proletarians at work to mark the passing hours rather than saints. Just across from here is the UNESCO-listed Holy Trinity Column, a magnificent 18th century monument ornately decorated with sculptures of various saints. It is supposedly the biggest single baroque structure in Central Europe. Head via Dolni Namesti (Lower Square), east to the old city walls through pretty Bezruc Park – ideal for a picnic or romantic stroll - and up to the city’s grandest church, the Wenceslas Cathedral, dating from 1131 but rebuilt in the 19th century in neo-gothic style. The nearby Archbishop's Palace is also well worth a look, not least for its impressive 15th century frescoes. Another church just to the west of here and past the university buildings – St Michael’s – is recommended for a climb of its bell-tower and superb views of the city. A short stroll from here is the impressive Olomouc Museum of Art which features three levels of excellent contemporary Czech painting and sculpture. In 2018, an interactive museum experience opened up in the city's fortress walls, giving the visitor an impression of the previous importance of what is in the present day an unassuming, provincial city.
Off the Beaten Path
Olomouc gradually reveals its layers and pays spending time just strolling around and soaking up the atmosphere, discovering its charms. There are many gable ends given over to imaginative street art. Its parks and rozarium (botanic gardens) are well worth seeing, while an unusual architectural project lies in the suburbs, where an old grain silo has been converted into a family house. One of Czech’s draw cards is of course its beer, and dropping into any of the countless cafes and bars to sample a brew or two is a must. One of the best in town is Svatovaclavsky Pivovar, a micro-brewery which also features a beer spa in which you can relax in a bath of beer for an hour!
Moravia isn’t only famous for its beer though, producing decent local wines too, which can be sampled in one of the many ‘vinarna’ (wineries) around town for a fraction of the price in western Europe. Another Czech passion is ice-hockey, and Olomouc has a pretty decent team and stadium to which, if you visit during winter months, you might go to see a fight and hope a game breaks out. Further afield, a stroll to the north-east of the town and over the Morava River takes you to Hradisko Monastery, a beautiful baroque building, whilst bus 11 from the train station takes you to Svaty Kopecek (Holy Hill), rising to the east of the town, containing another splendid monumental church and giving great views of the city and its surrounds. A short walk from here is the city zoo, containing over 300 species, and lovely forests which offer countless walking opportunities if you fancy exploring the environs. Hiring a bike would be a great idea to get here as roads are generally very quiet and cycle-friendly. A great day trip would be to Helfstyn Castle, a fantastic romantic ruin atop a hill some 40km to the east of Olomouc. Another very worthwhile castle within driving distance is Bouzov, an early 14th-century fortress. Built on a hill between the village of Hvozdek and the town of Bouzov, it also commands great views and is in very good condition. The nearby Javoříčko Caves are a superb choice for anyone with kids - a guided tour around this magical underground world full of weird rock formations and stalactites, costs about €10 each and takes 45 minutes. Bring a jacket, as the temperature down there is always about 10°C. Finally, Litovel is a small town nearby which is well worth a day trip. Famous for its brewery and delicious beer, it's a pretty town in its own right and deserves a wander and of course a few beers on one of the bars on its square.
Hitting the Hay
Although Olomouc lacks any kind of hostel scene, the superb Poets’ Corner Hostel more than makes up for this. Centrally located, right on the edge of the old town, it is one of the best hostels in central Europe. Comprising two dorm rooms and four cosy privates, all decorated with stylish old-school wooden furniture, it is reasonably priced with dorms starting at €10 and private rooms starting at €30. Run by friendly, knowledgeable and sociable staff, the hostel is also the best place for local information, tips and ideas about what to see and do in Olomouc. The hostel is calm, relaxing and friendly. If you are looking for something a bit upmarket, look no further than the Hotel Arigone, a great little boutique hotel in the University area with wooden beams, parquet floors and stylish furnishings with a cosy wine bar. Housed in an 18th century building, it oozes class and atmosphere, and is still reasonable at about €40 per person with breakfast. Hotel Trinity is a very good upmarket option - central, very well-appointed rooms and excellent breakfasts make this an outstanding choice for anyone wishing to splash out more. Rooms start at around €70 a night for this four star pad.
While it is hard to argue Olomouc can compete with Prague on the culinary front, it still punches above its weight for a small Czech city. A great place for a curry is excellent authentic Kathmandu. A great selection of well-executed and fairly-priced curries are on offer. Nepalese food, cooked by a Nepalese chef. For traditional Czech fare, Hanacka Hospoda is a good option, with enough fried cheese, goulash, dumplings and sausages to sink a ship. Drapal, another gastro-bar on two levels, serves much the same function, as does the afore-mentioned Svatovaclavsky Pivovar. Be sure to try the locally-produced pungeant Olomoucké tvarůžky cheese. It also serves great beer. One more great option for sampling great Czech food and beer is at Moritz, which is also a micro-brewery. Sample some delicious dark and light beers whilst munching on goulash, dumplings or fried cheese. If it's something more fast-food oriented you're looking for, there's a great new burger joint called The Buns - fresh, juicy, flavourful meat and tasty fries abound here. Finally, for vegetarians, there is the popular Koza Zustala Cela, serving delicious meat-free burgers, pasta, soups and salads.
For bars, you are spoilt for choice but for typical Moravian ambiance, you should check out U Floriana or Ponorka (aka Submarine bar), the latter being somewhat of a local institution and centre for local gossip, animated discussion and general revelry. U Kudeja is a little way out of the centre but serves an array of Czech micro-brews on tap and has a characteristic Czech bar atmosphere, while the above-mentioned Moritz produces its own beers on the premises and is another lively place for a pint or three. Newly-opened bar Retro Pivnice is getting rave reviews from locals. For the Crafty beer drinker, Lokal Lokal Industry pub is the place to go and sample a massive array of local craft beers. So good it was named twice. Meanwhile, for music buffs the Tibet Jazz Club is a comfortable venue for local bands playing jazz, blues, rock or reggae. Vertigo and Metro clubs provide typically grungy student appeal for anyone wishing to drink into the wee hours. The former plays more rock and alternative, the latter styles itself as a chillout club.
The closest international airport is Brno, but practically speaking Prague is the best option with many destinations offering cheap budget flights with the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair. From Prague, the express train takes about 2-3 hours and runs several times a day. Significant train reductions can be had for bookings of two or more. From Bratislava in Slovakia you’ll need to change in Brno; coming from Krakow is much cheaper if you get off the train or bus at Cieszyn, walk over the border and get a train from the Czech side.
The hit-and-miss resource www.wikitravel.org has a very informative link on Olomouc, while the excellent Czech site in English www.discoverczech.com has many hints and ideas about Olomouc and the surrounding area in general. The good people at Inyourpocket.com now do a guide to Olomouc too. The Poet's Corner website offers plenty of practical information, including ten great day-trips from Olomouc: hostelolomouc.com. The Rough Guide to Czech has sadly been discontinued, although the website still exists: www.roughguides.com. The ever-reliable Lonely Planet still exists for Czech in hard copy, even if it’s become Prague-centric. America’s safest travel writer Rick Steves has written a middle-aged American-friendly travel guide called Europe Through the Back Door which includes Olomouc. No sniggering please.
No serious and cultured traveller to the Czech Republic should ever go without either Franz Kafka or Milan Kundera in their pockets; The Trial by Kafka is a brilliant parable about living in a totalitarian bureaucratic nightmare, while The Joke subtly satirizes the Czech state during Communism. Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk is a comic classic about a soldier who defects from the army during WW1 and comes up against an implacable state machine. More light reading can be had in the form of Terje B Englund’s Czechs in a Nutshell, which answers questions as varied as why Czech men are partial to wearing socks with sandals and why Czech women are not averse to extra-marital affairs…
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