Side trips from the Czech capital
KarlÅ¡tejn castle, near Prague. (John Elk III/LPI)
Many visitors to Prague never set foot outside the Old Town, Castle and Mala Strana. Understandably so, with so much to see in the city. But Prague is just the capital of a diverse, dynamic country of 10 million people, and it is well worth getting out to experience a slice of Czech life, for a few hours at least.
These easy day trips from Prague are all served by the country's efficient, and cheap, public transport system. Use the iDnes train and bus route planner to figure out your journey.
These are something of a Czech obsession, and rightly so, given that the countryside is dotted with hundreds of fairytale castles and chateaux. Most of them used to belong to the Austrian aristocracy, who enjoyed a pompous, lavish lifestyle that at times bordered on insanity (the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for example, is said to have shot 300,000 animals on his Bohemian estates).
The guided tours can be staid and a bit didactic, so it is best to amble around on your own where possible. Most castles, however, are situated in picturesque natural surroundings or carefully manicured grounds, and touring them - perhaps taking in a hike and topping it off with a foamy pint of Czech beer - is a great way to relax and learn a bit about medieval Bohemian history at the same time.
- Karlstejn: take the train from Prague's Hlavni Nadrazi, trains leave every hour and take 40 minutes
- Konopiste: take the train from Hlavni Nadrazi or bus from Florenc bus station to town of Benesov (around 45 min), and then a 30-minute walk
- Krivoklat: take the train from Hlavni nadrazi, changing at Beroun (takes around 1hr 45 minutes)
The 12th- century silver mining town of Kutná Hora lies 70km east of Prague. For centuries it competed with Prague for political, economic and cultural supremacy over Bohemia, and much of the medieval town centre, a Unesco site) has been preserved intact. Each cobbled square is a former mine entrance and there is a brilliant guided tour of the former mines (hard hats supplied) available at the Czech Museum of Silver from April to November.
Make sure you see the incredible St Barbora's Cathedral, which hovers above the horizon like a gothic spaceship. At its creepy "bone church", whose interior is decorated with the bones of 40,000 victims of the Great Plague and the Hussite Wars, you can literally stare death in the face.
Direct trains leave every two hours to Kutná Hora - Hlavní nádraží (Main Station), a 40 min walk from the town centre,. So when you arrive, hop on the little connecting train to Kutná Hora - město. The bone church is a 15 min walk from the main station in a suburb called Sedlec.
This industrial city 90 km west of Prague has a certain gritty charm, not least because of its importance to the local beer culture.
The Czechs have been brewing beer since the 9th Century, and still drink more of it (158 litres per capita) than anyone else on the planet. Plzeň (Pilsen in German) has been the home of modern brewing since 1842, when Bavarian brewer Josef Groll combined Plzeň's remarkably soft water, pale malts and local Saaz hops in a unique bottom-fermented brewing process to produce Pilsner Urquell (Plzeňský Prazdroj in Czech) - a soft, pale lager now imitated around the world.
The story of Pilsner is eloquently told at the Pilsner Urquell Brewery Museum, which also houses the entrance to the city's labyrinth of underground tunnels. They wind beneath the city's streets for 20 km, and 750 metres of them are open to the public. (You will be gasping for a pint when you resurface.) Plzeň's Moorish Great Synagogue, meanwhile, is the second largest in Europe.
Plzeň is a hour and 40 minute train ride from Prague's Hlavní nádraží/Main Station. Direct trains leave every hour.