Olomouc: the Czech Republic's best kept secret?
A nice-to-have dilemma for visitors to the Czech Republic is where to go after Prague. There are loads of worthy candidates (Český Krumlov and Karlovy Vary come to mind), but the often-overlooked Moravian city, Olomouc, has quietly pushed itself into the conversation. Olomouc (pronounced olla-moats) has it all, including Unesco-protected architecture, great museums and energetic, student-oriented nightlife. The advent of new, high-speed rail service from Prague makes it easier to reach than ever.
Olomouc, a stately former Moravian capital and Habsburg stronghold, plays an outsized role in Czech history. It was here in 1306 that young King Wenceslas III was assassinated in a murder that remains unsolved to this day. Centuries later, in 1848, Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I was crowned here (at the tender age of 18) after bourgeois revolutions around Europe that year forced the royal family temporarily out of Vienna for safer digs.
Big, Beautiful, Baroque
The compact centre is dominated by one of the baroque wonders of Central Europe: an 18th-century Holy Trinity Column that rises 35m in height and punctuates the main square, Horní náměstí (Upper Square). Similar columns were built around the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the day; the differences here are size and attention to detail. The lower part houses a small chapel that's sometimes open to the public.
At the centre of the square, the Town Hall is home to the tourist information office as well as an ironic, Socialist-Realist astronomical clock dating from the 1950s and sporting various figurines of glorious workers (in keeping with the then-Communist aesthetic). The tourist office organises tours of the Town Hall's Gothic interiors, including a scramble to the top of the Town Hall Tower for dramatic views down to the Trinity Column below.
Just north of Horní náměstí, you can't miss the massive Gothic tower of St Moritz Cathedral, the town's original parish church going back to the 15th century. Pop in to admire a giant organ and then limber up for another climb up the bell tower (don't leave your camera in the hotel room).
Make your way slowly north and east from Horní náměstí to find the city's most important museum and church, at a spot where old Olomouc Castle once stood centuries ago. You can still see some of the castle's original foundations at the Archdiocesan Museum. The holdings here take you back 1,000 years. Don't miss the elaborate Troyer Coach, the 18th century carriage of one Bishop Cardinal Ferdinand Julius Troyer von Troyerstein (Liberace, eat your heart out!).
Just across the way, stands stately St Wenceslas Cathedral, an impressive oft-rebuilt Gothic church that lends solemnity to this quiet part of town. It wasn't always this peaceful: poor Wenceslas III met his untimely end in 1306 at a house just next to the church.
The gardens that surround the Old Town walls look serene and well tended but conceal a more-sinister sight sure to appeal to fans of Cold War history. The underground Civil Defence Shelter was built in the 1950s to protect the elite in the event of nuclear war. Guided tours are offered through the summer months and can be arranged through the tourist office.
Food, Drink, Fun
Olomouc is known around the country for its stinky (we're not kidding here) beer cheese, called olomoucký sýr. Find it as a side dish at pubs or packaged at food stores around town.
For something less olfactorily challenging, we recommend a couple of very good brew pubs, Moritz and Svatováclavský Pivovar. Both offer similar menus of local dishes like grilled meats, schnitzels and pork roasts, with the added enticement of homemade specialty beers that stretch the local preference for light lagers to include dark and wheat beers, and the occasional fruity offering (such as Svatováclavský's novel pineapple beer).
Vila Primavesi is an upscale dining choice with a secluded garden located behind an elegant turn-of-the-century Jugendstil villa. Prices are higher than at the pubs (but by no means exorbitant) for well-done Italian dishes like homemade ravioli, breaded veal cutlet and grilled duck breast with mushroom sauce.
Coffee and sweets are a no-brainer. Cafe 87 is one of our favourite cafes in the Czech Republic -- and not just for the scrumptious chocolate pie (in both white and dark varieties). Order your coffee and dessert downstairs and then sit on the second-floor terrace.
After hours, check the programme at Jazz Tibet Club for local and international jazz, blues and world music. They also have a pretty good restaurant. For a rougher edge, stop by Hospoda u Musea (aka Ponorka or ‘submarine’), a cramped, packed, one-of-a-kind rocker bar.
Making It Happen
At around three hours by train or car from Prague, Olomouc is best explored as an overnight destination. The city has accommodation options to suit every budget. For students and those counting their crowns, we recommend Poet's Corner, a well-run hostel just north of the historical centre. Expect a warm welcome and loads of local information at this Australian-Czech (husband-Australian, wife-Czech) joint venture, situated on the fourth floor of a big apartment building.
For something plusher, try Penzion Na Hradě. This sleek boutique, located a stone's throw from Horní náměstí, offers coolly minimalist rooms and a comfortable garden terrace for relaxing after a day of sightseeing.
Olomouc is blessed with fast and frequent train service to/from Prague (around 220Kč, three hours). In addition to Czech Rail's express Pendolino service (www.cd.cz; tel +420-840 112 113), two private rail operators, Student Agency's RegioJet (www.regiojet.cz; tel +420-841 101 101) and Leo Express (www.le.cz; tel +420-840 842 844) offer daily, borderline-luxurious rail runs. There's also frequent rail and bus service from the modern-day Moravian capital, Brno (100Kč, about 1 hour).
Mark Baker is an independent travel writer based in Prague. He's author of Lonely Planet's guide to Prague and the Czech Republic and Pocket Prague, among other Lonely Planet titles in Central and Eastern Europe.