If you don’t know much about the Czech Republic before you arrive, you could easily think that its history is dominated by the 20th century – when influence from the Soviet Union made the region relatively uninteresting.
But in the centuries before that, when the lands of the Czech Republic were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the nobility of Europe saw the green fields and lush forests as a treasure, the stories were as splendid as anywhere else on the continent.
As I travelled through the country, I made sure to see each of the country’s World Heritage Sites – and it was through them that I was able to discover for myself how rich the history of the Czech Republic is.
It’s not just the amazing cities that have been left (surprisingly well-protected) but the small villages that perfectly capture the rural life from centuries ago. There are also the churches and castles that demonstrate the power and wealth that once held sway over these lands.
If you are planning a trip to the Czech Republic, I would make two suggestions. The first is to make sure to see any of these World Heritage Sites that you are travelling near. The other suggestion is to actually go out of your way to see a few of them. These may not all be the most famous sites in the country, but there are some hidden gems on the list.
You can see where they all are on this map I’ve put together.
To help you make some decisions, let me quickly run you through each of the World Heritage Sites in the Czech Republic, with my thoughts on whether they are worth visiting.
Historic Centre of Prague
Let’s start in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic and the most-visited destination in the country. The historic centre of Prague has been designated as a World Heritage Site and there are so many different buildings and streets that you can explore as you see the city.
One of the things that I think makes Prague so impressive is the scale of the old town. It leads from the top of the hill to the west, down to the Vltava River, and across to the web of boulevards and alleys that takes you to churches, squares and hidden museums.
You need at least several days to properly explore Prague but within one day you can get a great overview of the implosion of styles from the 11th century to the 18th century, from Prague Castle and St Vitus Cathedral, all the way down to the market square with the animated clock.
It’s unlikely you would go to the Czech Republic and not pass through Prague – but if you had any thought of avoiding the city, don’t! It is one of the those places that is always more wonderful than you imaged.
Historic Centre of Český Krumlov
There is something so charmingly beautiful about Český Krumlov. This small city, south of Prague, feels like a fairy tale from the Middle Ages.
When you’re walking in the streets at ground level, you find quaint houses and shops shaped around the meandering river that curves through the centre. From the top of the cliffs above the city, looking down, it’s like a perfect painting.
On these cliffs is the most important building of Český Krumlov, the castle. You can do tours through the various sections of the castle and see the opulence of the interiors. There are also gardens you can visit for free.
Your postcard moments of the Czech Republic, if they don’t happen in Prague, will happen here. It is full of tourists but it is still definitely worth the visit. On warm days in the summer, you could even consider renting a kayak or canoe and spending some time on the river here.
Historic Centre of Kutná Hora
Another World Heritage Site city close to Prague that is worth a visit is Kutná Hora, an old trading hub doused with Middle Ages glamour. It has a wonderful historic centre to explore – but there are two main highlights.
The first is the Cathedral of Our Lady at Sedlec. The church was first built in 1300 but a new one was created out of the ruins in 1708. What you end up with is an original High Gothic style transposed with Baroque ideals.
The other highlight is the Church of St Barbara. It has a more traditional dark stone style with some incredible artworks inside. The scale of the church is so impressive and I spent much longer inside than I expected to.
Kutná Hora is an easy day trip from Prague but I would recommend staying overnight because the city clears out of tourists by the afternoon. Although not part of the World Heritage Site, the church made of bones is also worth seeing in the city.
In the middle of the Czech Republic is Telč, a town with one of the most beautiful central squares in the country. The facades of all the buildings that face into this square add the the overall picture of a charming Central European community. With their arcades and gables, painted in different colours, they create a panorama of the Renaissance.
At one end of the town square is the main castle, which was reconstructed after a devastating fire in the 16th century. It is certainly worth seeing – but it’s the cohesive nature of the town and the views of it from across the river that really make Telč special.
Telč is one of the places I would suggest trying to visit if it doesn’t take you too far out of your way. It’s a beautiful spot and is particularly pleasant in the later afternoon after the tour buses have left and the al fresco dining in the square is bathed in an orange glow.
There are three parts of the small city of Třebíč that make up this World Heritage Site. Together they demonstrate an unusual religious tolerance for this part of Europe between the 15th and 19th centuries.
The first is the St Procopius Basilica, built between 1240 and 1280. The main entrance door has incredibly-detailed stone carvings all around it and there are wonderful golden artworks inside. The basilica is also one of the first examples of Western architecture in Central Europe.
The second area in the World Heritage Site is the Jewish Quarter, which started to be developed from the 14th century. The boundaries were restricted and the community couldn’t expand, so the houses were extended and built on top of each other. Interestingly, these Jews were living just a stone’s throw from the important Christian basilica.
And the third area, related to the second, is the Jewish Cemetery. It’s just over the hill from the Jewish Quarter, close enough to walk to but with a whole different atmosphere. The floor is covered with a thick growth of leaves, surrounding the tombstones that rise up from within the green carpet. Trees grow amongst the graves and their branches create a canopy of shade above.
Třebíč is not my favourite Czech World Heritage Site. I probably wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to visit it. However, it is historically important and offers enough to visitors who stop by when they’re in the area.
As far as World Heritage towns go in the Czech Republic, the smallest you’ll find is Holašovice. It has just 23 houses, set around a peaceful central square with a pond and community centre. These days, only 140 people live here.
Holašovice is on the World Heritage List because it is a perfect representation of the traditional villages that used to dot the countryside of Central Europe. The houses you see here are better be described as ‘farmyards’ because that’s effectively what they are. Most of them have an entrance gate that leads to a yard behind the front wall. If you go further back, past the main buildings, you find a small plot of land that was once used for farming.
It doesn’t take long to see this site but I think it’s an enjoyable place to visit. Holašovice is a bit different to everything else you’ll see in the Czech Republic but that’s why it’s worth the effort to see it. And it’s not far from České Budějovice, which has enough to offer itself.
Another charming town you may come across in the Czech Republic is called Litomyšl. Its main square stretches out for 500 metres and has colourful buildings with facades from a mixture of Baroque, Classical and Empire styles.
But the square is not the World Heritage. That’s just a few minutes away at the castle up the hill. And straight away you notice something special about Litomyšl Castle. The walls are covered with tiles that look the same from a distance but, close up, reveal that they each have a design of their own.
Inside, the decorations are mainly from the 18th century with Baroque design, even though the castle was built during the Renaissance period. The interior is laid out well and is very pretty, but is quite similar to many of the other castles open to the public.
I think this is another Czech destination that you won’t be disappointed with if you make the effort to visit. You could probably just visit for the day, though, as you pass through the northeast of the country.
In the southeast of the Czech Republic, not too far from the Austrian border, you’ll find this wonderful garden landscape defined by two impressive castles. The castles are in the towns of Lednice and Valtice and are joined by a seven kilometre road.
There’s an interesting history to the site. It was created by the powerful Liechtenstein family, who used it as their main residence for centuries. It was taken off them during the Second World War because they refused to support the Nazis. Ever since then, they have asked for it back but the Czech Government has kept the property itself.
The two castles are highlights but the gardens and parks around them are also a key part of a visit. You can see them for free and the one around Lednice, in particular, may take a little time to explore properly.
I would suggest giving yourself most of the day to see this site. It will take that long if you get a tour of one or two of the castles, walk around the gardens, make your way across the landscapes, and have some lunch.
In a country where almost all of the World Heritage Sites are old towns, castles and churches, this site stands out as something different. The Tugendhat Villa in Brno has been included on the list because it is an extremely important example of modern architecture.
The villa was built between 1928 and 1930. What made it so revolutionary was that it used an iron framework, meaning it didn’t need as many supporting walls as usual, so could be crafted with light and space in mind. Unfortunately the Tugendhat family abandoned it in 1938 in the lead-up to the Second World War.
The villa was restored between 2010 and 2012 and opened to tourists after that. The problem is that you can only visit it as part of a scheduled guided tour and the groups are quite small. This means they book out in advance and you normally have to make a reservation weeks, if not months, in advance.
If you know that you’re going to be in Brno on a particular date, try to make a reservation because it’s an interesting building. However, if you turn up in Brno and can’t get on a tour, you can still get into the garden and have a good look at the outside of the villa (and peek through the windows to see some of the interior).
Gardens and Castle at Kroměříž
Not too far from Brno is the wonderful Kroměříž Castle. It’s a grand building that shows you the wealth and power that existed in this part of Europe in the 1600s when this iteration of the castle was constructed. It was financed by the Liechtensteins but used by the bishops of Olomouc (who had political and religious power).
You can only see the interior of the castle by guided tour – but that’s a good thing because there’s lots inside and it’s nice to have the highlights pointed out. In fact, the castle is full of treasures and it’s worth noting the artworks and the books on display that are extremely significant.
There are also two gardens that are part of the World Heritage Site. The English Garden around the castle is quite large and free to enter – you can’t miss it and it’s easy to explore. The more significant area, though, is the Pleasure Garden. This is designed in a Baroque style and is considered one of the finest in Europe.
There are a few castles on the World Heritage Site in the Czech Republic. I think this is one of the most impressive. If you are short of time and are wondering how to plan your trip, I would suggest including Kroměříž.
Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc
It’s hard to know whether I should recommend you visit the Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc. As a World Heritage Site, it’s not worth the effort of going out of your way because it is what the name suggests – just a single column in a market square. However, the city of Olomouc is a bit of a hidden gem and so there’s a chance this could be a surprise highlight of your trip to the Czech Republic.
The column itself is significant because it is an incredible example of Baroque art. It was built between 1716 and 1754 and is made up of three levels, with 18 stone sculptures of saints. At the top is a gilded copper sculpture of the Holy Trinity accompanied by the Archangel Gabriel above and the Assumption of the Virgin beneath.
Around the column, other highlights of Olomouc include the Town Hall and its astronomical clock, the main market square, an impressive collection of fountains and gardens, and the beautiful St Wenceslas Cathedral. Why not go and see the city for yourself and get a glimpse at a delightful part of the country that doesn’t have any of the tourist crowds of Prague.
Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk
Last, but not least, I want to tell you about the Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk. This is no ordinary church. In fact, the architecture is so unusual that I think it has really earned its place on the World Heritage List.
The church is dedicated to St John of Nepomuk and it takes elements of his legend into its design. For instance, it’s said that five bright stars appeared in the sky on the night he was killed. And so the ground plan for the church looks like a five-pointed star. Around the edge of the interior of the church are five triangular chapels and five oval chapels. The building is alone at the top of the hill, which creates a dramatic approach.
The Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk is not close to anything you might be visiting otherwise and it’s not simple to get to. I do understand why most international tourists skip it. But, if you make the effort to visit, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It’s a special site.
I hope all of this helps with some of your planning for a trip to the Czech Republic. There are lots of things to see and do but some of the best options in the country happen to be World Heritage Sites, which is nice.
One of the reasons I am trying to visit every World Heritage Site is because they give you a great insight into the history and culture of a destination and the challenge takes me to places I wouldn’t go otherwise. The sites in the Czech Republic are a perfect example of why I am so glad I do what I do.