The Czech Republic: the Bohemian Heart of Europe

When you travel to the Czech Republic, the country’s vast and ancient history confronts you. Once a great kingdom and empire in its own right, the Great Moravian Empire and later the Kingdom of Bohemia, the country later became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after World War I, it combined with present day Slovakia to form Czechoslovakia. Within a short time, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, setting the stage for World War II.


Czechoslovakia was fortunate. Despite being occupied for the entirety of the war, the country was not a prominent staging ground for any major battles. Consequently, the historic architecture of the region has been able to reach us today unscathed, making a vacationer’s experience much like stepping backwards in time. After weathering a communist takeover until the late 1980’s, Czechoslovakia removed its Russian overlords during the relatively peaceful Velvet Revolution. Shortly thereafter, the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated peacefully in what’s been referred to as the Velvet Divorce. In keeping with the popular notion of the Bohemian (named after Czech’s largest region) the republic’s first president Vaclav Havel requested the US to name legendary rock stars Lou Reed and Frank Zappa US ambassadors to the Czech Republic.


Since the 1990’s, the Czech Republic has resurged as one of Europe’s great vacation hotspots. If you travel to the Czech Republic, you’ll step into a fairy tale land that’s surprisingly affordable for even the most humble backpacker.


Getting in, out, and about the Czech Republic


The Czech Republic participates in the Schengen Agreement, which allows US travelers to enter and stay anywhere in the Schengen Area, which covers most of Europe, for up to 90 days within a six month period without having to apply for a special visa. All you need is a passport that will remain valid for at least 90 days after your departure from the Czech Republic.


Because of the relaxed nature of border controls in the country, it is relatively easy to cross into the Czech Republic without getting your passport stamped. However, the Czech Republic still requires foreign travelers to have an entry stamp on their passports while in the country or potentially pay a fine. To avoid any such difficulties, some travelers may find it necessary to request a passport stamp. US travelers, like many other non-EU travelers, must register their presence with the local authorities within three days after entry. Typically your hotel automatically registers you.


Mountains, hills, forests, and rivers make up the geography of the Czech Republic, making it great country to tour by car, bicycle, or on foot. Numerous train lines run from each town as well as bus services, so it’s easy to get around the Czech Republic. If you rent a car, be aware that some of the roads are not in the greatest shape. Be sure and purchase the insurance. A system of hiking trails and bicycle paths allow hikers and cyclists access to a wide range of the country’s interior.


While there are no specific vaccinations required for entry into the Czech Republic, some travelers opt to get vaccinations against Hepatitis A or B or against rabies. Taking these vaccinations depends on whether your travels take you to extreme impoverished areas or locations where bat bites are likely. If you camp in the Czech Republic between the months of March through October, beware of possible exposure to Lyme disease or encephalitis through tick bites. While there is no way to vaccinate against Lyme disease, a vaccination against encephalitis is available. It involves a three shot process over the course of a year. Check with your local doctor to see if any of your travel plans suggest a need for vaccinations.


The traveler’s tongue


The official language of the Czech Republic is Czech. It’s a Slavic language, which can be difficult for English speakers to learn because when written it often runs many consonants together without any vowels to clarify pronunciation. Fortunately, English has been widely taught for the past two and a half decades, so many people speak it fluently as well, particularly in the larger cities of Prague and Brno.


Outside of the two cities, and among older Czechs, English fluency is not as common. Most Czechs are multilingual, however, with German, Slovak, and Russian being popular additional languages that you may hear spoken. If you plan on traveling outside of the major cities in the Czech Republic, it’s a good idea to know how to speak some Czech words and phrases because you will likely run into a situation where it’s necessary.


Because of its brief existence as a communist country as part of the so-called Eastern Bloc, it may be tempting to think of the Czech Republic as part of Eastern Europe, but the Czechs do not see themselves this way but consider themselves central Europeans instead. Reference to Czech as an eastern European country can communicate an offensive subtext even if unintended. Although the country is mostly secular, remain respectful when entering the numerous gorgeous churches and cathedrals in the country and remove your hat, or do not be surprised if someone disparages your behavior.


Money matters in the Czech Republic


While the Czech Republic is a part of the European Union, it still uses its own currency, the koruna or crown. Internationally the symbol for crowns is CZK but locally it’s also written Kč. Prices in the Czech Republic can be far less expensive than in other parts of Europe, but it frequently depends on the proximity to tourist areas.


The good news for backpackers and budget travelers is the Czech Republic can be experienced comfortably for little money. Hostels average around $10 to $30 USD a night per person in Prague, although some can be found for as little as $3 USD a night. Meals can run as low as $5 USD, but you’re best off budgeting for around $10 USD. A budget traveler can reasonably get by in the Czech Republic for under $50 USD a day.


For travelers looking for a less bare bones kind of vacation, midrange three star hotels average around $90 to $115 USD a night per person, but can go as low as $50 a night per person, and it is even possible to find 5 star accommodations for as low as $120 per person per night. Keep in mind that the closer you get to tourist centers such as the Old Town area in Prague, the more expensive things are, but that prices drop off quite a bit the further from these centers that you are.


Tipping 10% at meals for good service is appropriate. Some higher end restaurants will include the tip on the bill, but this is not to be confused with the VAT which is a tax on all goods and services within the EU. Major credit cards are accepted in many places but not everywhere in the Czech Republic. Usually a business will display the logos of the different types of credit cards it accepts.


Highlights of a vacation in the Czech Republic


The Czech Republic offers a number of memorable activities. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Enjoy world class beer and wine. The names of some of the towns in the Czech Republic are synonymous with great beer. Plzn is the town where the pilsner style of beer was invented, and if the name Budvar does not sound familiar, you might recognize its Germanized version, Budweiser, the word for someone from the town of Budvar. If you’re a beer drinker, you will find much to enjoy particularly in the Bohemia region of the Czech Republic, whereas the region of Moravia is more well known for its wines.
  • Wander through beautiful Praha. The city of Prague (pronounced locally as Pra ha) is a must see. A castle on a hill dominates much of the Prague sky line and many of the city’s roads are lined in cobblestone. The Old Town area features an astronomical clock that’s fun to watch when the hours change, as well as shops and theaters throughout. Walk along the Charles Bridge to see numerous artists at work or gaze out yourself over the Vtlava River that runs through the city. The Josefov section of the city is an ancient Jewish ghetto with a huge cemetery and a museum housed in several buildings in the area.
  • See the city of Brno. While not as popular as its northern counterpart, this city has numerous museums, art galleries, and fantastic architecture. Check out the underground tombs at the Capuchin Monastery or head over to Spilberk Castle, once the seat of the Moravian Empire, and later a notorious prison for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Just north of Brno are the Macocha Caves where you can cruise through an underground river on a boat.
  • Celebrate the Easter holiday Czech style. The Czechs have a rather unique approach towards celebrating Easter, and this can be a fun time to people watch. All the girls design beautiful and ornate wooden eggs, while the boys make switches that they decorate. Instead of hunting for Easter eggs, the boys chase the girls and spank them (lightly) with their switches so that the girls will give them their eggs, as well as candy and other treats.


Other great places to check out include the quaint town of Český Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Bohemian Paradise, a great place to hike north of Prague where you can come across gorgeous castles and chateaus. A Czech vacation is certain to enchant and you don’t have to break the bank.