Welcome to the country of Kafka and Kundera, literary giants who, much like their birthplace, have earned themselves a place in time. It may only have existed since 1993 but if you have a passion for history, the Czech Republic is one of the best places in Europe to indulge yourself. If you prefer good times with friends, sipping on a great craft beer or partying the night away to some of the best music in the world, there's nowhere better than the buzzing streets of Czech cities. Or if you're all for a relaxing holiday, strolling through glorious castles on the quest for captivating culture, the Czech Republic is the place for you.Central European splendour
Sheltered from the sea and squeezed into the remaining space between Germany, Austria, Hungary and Poland, the Czech Republic is one of Central Europe's brightest jewels. Though Prague continues to grow in popularity with foreign visitors, the rest of the country's quiet treasures and beauty spots are overwhelmingly ignored, unspoilt by the hoards and perfect for those in search of a break from reality.Bohemia to Moravia
Step out into the Czech countryside and you'll discover an ancient land, full of grand castles and imposing tales of powerful families. The two old states which make up the present day Republic will take you on a journey through Europe's distant past, from Bohemia's Renaissance ruins atop foreboding hills to Moravia's age-old vineyards and dilapidated bars in which to sample their produce.Capital fever
Though Prague attracts far more visitors than the rest of the country, a weekend spent in the company of its ancient architecture is enough to show you why. The city is an intricate web of neighbourhoods, some with their prestigious patrons, expensive eateries and splendid museums, others a maze of cobbled streets, unexpected churches and hidden doorways to cavernous clubs. But with a shared history that goes back almost a millennium, the sum of this city's various parts knows exactly how to drag you back in again and again.Winter wonderland
It may be fabulous all year round but Prague comes into its own at Christmastime. Wander from the Old Town Square, across the Charles Bridge and around the Mala Strana neighbourhood - everywhere you turn, icicles hang from windows, trees stand laden with decoration and markets waft enticing smells into the chilly air. The Krkonos Mountains to the north of Bohemia also provide excellent skiing, especially in the area around Spindleruv mlyn, allowing you to leave behind the cramped slopes of the Alps and explore an altogether different terrain.Beer capital of the world
For those whose poison of choice is a generous pint of golden delight, the entire country is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. Though there is plenty to whet your whistle in Prague, don't miss the chance of a trip to the famous breweries at Plzen and Ceské Budejovice. Lager, dark, white... whatever your tastes run to, the Czech Republic will keep you busy with 470 different types to try.Great heights
The summit of the Snezka mountain is the highest point in the country and provides a great escape for nature lovers. You can hike up to the top for views stretching into both Poland and back into the Czech Republic or lazily enjoy a cable car ride to the top.Kutna Hora
Once home to one of Europe's leading silver mines, you can still see the wealth that the mine generated in the buildings of Kutná Hora today. Head to St. Barbara's Cathedral for a look at 'The Vision of St Ignatius' mural, one of the city's best loved spots.
Surface area : 79000.0 km2
Population : 10300000 inhabitants
Wooden toys and puppets made of all kinds of materials are the most typical souvenirs to take home, as well as Bohemian crystals, carved and engraved by hand. If you want to be sure of the quality, go to specialised shops, located on Na Prikope, Moser being the best rated engraver. Many ranges are of bad taste. Some turn out to be very classic in style, others very contemporary because Bohemian glasswork has seen a recent resurgence. It is also possible to find pretty china for a good price and a great choice of classical music CDs. Shops are open from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm Monday to Friday. Those located in the centre of Prague are generally open on Saturdays and Sundays.
Rustic and substantial, Czech cuisine is a blend of German and Austrian gastronomy. Meat and cold cuts have the place of honour, as have the invigorating soups or even the bread crumbs used in large quantities since everything is fried here: poultry, cheese, vegetables, etc. Typical dishes are 'bramboracka', a sort of hash brown, or pork stuffed with garlic and cumin, served with sauerkraut, or even beef in cream and berries. 'Knedliks', thick round pasta, are served with most dishes.
Although you won't find many starters, desserts are numerous. You will be able to savour many Viennese pastries, stuffed pancakes and doughnuts. Prague ham and Moravian white wine have a very good reputation.
On first encounter, Czechs can be rather distant. You need to know how to gain their confidence to find out how warm-hearted they can be. Great beer drinkers, they meet friends and family in bars - national institutions - for never-ending conversations and plenty of laughter. Most restaurants shut at 11pm.
Christmas is by far the Czech Republic's largest celebration, but rather than laying out a platter of turkey and stuffing for all to enjoy, you'll find carp on the menu. Usually the dish is served fried, along with salad and potatoes.
When the New Year rolls around, it is customary to wish those you are with good health, wealth and lots of luck. For money, put a scale from the Christmas carp between the pages of your diary, whilst four good nuts broken in row will bring you a year of good health.
If you're in Prague, where many tend to begin and end their trips, don't miss a tour of the city's markets. The largest of them all is the open-air market in the Old Town Square, right at the heart of Prague's historic centre. Here, you can browse beautiful painted eggs, pillow-soft brioche and a whole range of pastries, accompanied by the sounds of folk songs and dances.
Those who have come to party shouldn't miss Prague's buzzing cultural scene. Whatever the time of year, the city's programme is always jam-packed with music festivals, theatre performances and art exhibitions. In fact, come summertime the whole country comes to life with enough open-air festivals to rival the English tradition and locals and foreigners get down to the sounds of international artists from all walks of musical life.
No-one should pass up the chance to sample some Czech beer, whether in the capital itself or out in the regional breweries. One of the best candidates comes from Plze?'s Pilsner Urquell Brewery, which offers a guided tour followed by a tasting session of the brewery's unpasteurised offering. If your tastes run to wine however, the National Salon of Czech Republic Wines, to be found in the cellars of the Valtice Chateau, is one of the best place to try and buy local wines.
Good to know: you might think it cheeky but in most restaurants, a basket of bread with your meal will cost extra. However, having a beer with your food costs less in most places than a mineral water. Drink up!
This isn't the only place in the Czech Republic to have preserved the remains of the dead in bizarre and intriguing ways, but it's by far the most famous. Sedlec's 'Bone Church' houses the remains of 70,000 people who died between the 14th and 16th centuries, all displayed artistically as coats of arms and chandeliers.
Just north of Brno is the protected geological phenomenon known as Moravian Karst, comprised of intertwining gorges and caverns. Amongst them is the Macocha Abyss, which drops an astonishing 138m into the belly of the earth. A great day of adventure, there are numerous bike paths and hiking trails to explore.
With its own State Castle and Old Town Square, Ceský Krumlov is a pocket-sized Prague. As the second-busiest Czech city, however, it is still a hit with tourists hoping to experience its timeless charm, over seven centuries after its creation.
The Holy Trinity Column is the dominating feature of Olomouc, at 35m high, and houses a small chapel inside. Built in the 18th century as a show of celebration for the Catholic faith, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000 for its outstanding display of European Baroque artistic expression. To indulge in some more modern history and escape the gothic, centuries-old history of many Czech cities, try Olomouc's Civil Defense Shelter; a Cold War relic that was designed to shelter people from nuclear and chemical attacks.
The opulent spa destination of Karlovy Vary has drawn in Europe's elite since it was built in the 13th century. The hot spring town has been believed to have healing waters for hundreds of years and nowadays also makes for a great cultural destination with the annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, one of the oldest film festivals in Europe.
Rising above the city of Brno is the magnificent Cathedral of St Peter and Paul. The 18th century masterpiece contains a crypt of old tombs and remnants of original city walls. Don't be fooled by the noontime bell that rings an hour early at 11am; it is a tradition that commemorates the city successfully tricking attackers into ending their siege of the city early.
If you want castles, head to Konopiste in Benesov. This enchanting three-story chateau makes for a wonderful day trip. Visit the museum to explore the pivotal history of the chateau, which was the scene of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, whose death sparked a chain of events that ultimately led to the outbreak of WWI.
Castle Karlstejn is also a great day trip. The castle is comprised of three levels, each representing a different level of importance. The lowest level, the Imperial Palace, was inhabited by knights and emperors, the Marian Tower was home to the empress and the highest tower, the Big Tower, reserved for God. It makes for a great day trip situated an easy 30km from Prague.
The Bohemian Paradise in Kacanovy is also not to be missed. As a UNESCO Geopark, this area of natural beauty is well known for the many giant rock formations rising from the ground and defying all laws of physics. It is a perfect destination for avid hikers wanting to explore its natural bridges and towering scenery.
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