Prague is heaving. Long popular within Europe, since 2015 direct flights linking the city with Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu have been introduced, further increasing tourism. In 2018, it saw 7.9 million visitors, including 6.7 million from overseas – a year-on-year increase of 26 per cent.
The famous Charles Bridge is packed, even at sunrise, Old Town Square is a sea of twirling selfie sticks, and there are queues outside every trdelník kiosk believing the tales spun about this ‘traditional’ chimney cake (spoiler alert: it’s all lies).
There’s little wonder: romantic for couples, irresistible to history lovers, and an affordable option for stag and hen parties, the Czech capital is hardly short on appeal. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to experience it.
First up, go outside of peak season. That means avoiding Christmas and summer in favour of spring and autumn. The city will be just as beautiful, and the residents considerably less stressed.
Secondly, spread out. The neighbourhoods surrounding central Prague are where real Czech life happens. Explore Smíchov (transformed from being a grimy part of town into one of the best places to see live music), Vinohrady and Žižkov (residential but tourist-friendly with cafes and bars).
Otherwise, bypass Prague altogether and head to some of the lesser-known parts of the country. The characteristics many are drawn to in the capital are replicated – and sometimes magnified – elsewhere. And considering the country is so small – only slightly larger than Scotland – there really is no excuse not to journey further. Here are some of our favourite alternatives.
Five options in the Czech Republic
1. Český Krumlov
This South Bohemian city can get a bit crowded too, but its 800,000 visitors a year are a mere pinprick compared to Prague’s annual intake.
With its fairy-tale castle and orange rooftops, and its position on the Vltava River, Český Krumlov is essentially a mini-Prague – but without the colossal crowds. To see it at its best, stay for at least two nights. That way you can have the city to yourself after the day-trippers have gone.
Gavin Haines, writing for Telegraph Travel, further explains the city’s appeal: “It belongs to epochs long gone, awash as it is with Gothic, renaissance and baroque architecture. The castle contains what is widely touted as the world's oldest baroque theatre. Try to catch a performance in this timeworn playhouse, or else explore its medieval streets and join a river cruise.”
A hushed highlight of the Czech Republic, any visitor or resident of Olomouc will tell you that it could give Prague a run for its money – if only anybody knew about it. With some of the most beautiful squares in the country, the Unesco-listed Holy Trinity Column and six baroque fountains, this city in the eastern province of Moravia oozes just as much majesty as the capital.
The student population adds a certain liveliness to Olomouc, and amid the historic buildings you’ll find multiple pubs and microbreweries, doing their part in making this nation the biggest beer drinkers in the world per capita. It would also be blasphemous to talk about Olomouc without mentioning its cheese, where it’s a case of the smellier the better (be sure to try Olomouc tvarůžky, known for its distinct flavour and aroma).
3. Mariánské Lázně
Spa towns are plentiful in the Czech Republic due to the country’s thermal hot springs. While the most well known is Karlovy Vary in west Bohemia, it’s also the most crowded. But not too far away is Mariánské Lázně, smaller and arguably more picturesque. It attracted big names such as Thomas Edison, King Edward VII and Mark Twain and hasn’t lost its sleepy charm. If the time-capsule aspect of Prague is what attracts you, Mariánské Lázně will provide on an infinitely more peaceful scale.
Naturally there are the hot springs to visit for some pampering, but the town throws up a series of other treats, the highlight of which is the Colonnade, an architectural delight, along with pristine parks.
East Bohemia is the only region of the Czech Republic not to have increased visitor numbers in recent years, and Pardubice, known for its gingerbread and the second longest steeplechase in Europe, is the biggest city in these parts.
It is home to another of Europe’s most beautiful squares. Pernštýnské náměstí is encased by Renaissance and Baroque houses and sits in the shadow of 13th-century Pardubice Chateau. Festivals run throughout the year (Pernštýn Night in June, the Autumn Festival) showing off local handicrafts, beer and – of course – gingerbread.
Less a case for the city itself than what Děčín is a gateway to: Bohemian Switzerland. The Czech Republic is not internationally known for its national parks but this one is stunning, and only a two-hour drive from the capital. It’s home to vast gorges, rivers and impressive rock formations, including the largest sandstone arch in Europe, Pravčická brána.
Most enchanting is a ride down the Kamenice River (in a kayak or boat), where you’ll pass moss covered cliffs and waterfalls.
And two beyond its borders
6. Leipzig, Germany
The Czech Republic shares much of its border with Germany, so it’s only natural to turn here when looking for further travel inspiration. Leipzig is an up-and-coming city break option and a perfect alternative to both Prague and Berlin.
Tina Walsh explains the new found appeal of Leipzig: “Old factories and warehouses are being repurposed as art galleries and exhibition spaces and a young, dynamic workforce throngs its stylish cocktail bars at night.”
As for something to do off the tourist trail? “Spinnerei in the trendy Plagwitz west of the city is the sprawling site of what was Europe's biggest cotton mill, now remodelled as 100 or so galleries, exhibition spaces and design studios. There's also a restaurant and an art-house cinema.”
7. Košice, Slovakia
Czechoslovakia separated in 1993, and while there’s a friendly rivalry between the two countries nowadays, there’s a case to be made in visiting both places. Eastern Slovakia’s Košice goes undiscovered for most despite its European Capital of Culture accolade in 2013 and its wide appeal.
Košice will seem familiar to any Prague lover; pastel-coloured gothic facades line the streets and central square, which has Slovakia’s greatest concentration of historical monuments (don’t miss St Elisabeth Cathedral or the Plague Pillar). And, similar to the Czech capital, it has a slew of offbeat bars for those who know where to look.
What’s more, Košice works as a good base to see some of Slovakia’s more natural attractions, such as the High Tatras, Slovak Karst National Park and Tokaj wine country.