Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), or simply 'Vary' to Czechs, has stepped up its game in recent years, thanks largely to a property boom spurred by wealthy Russian investors. Indeed, the first thing you'll notice is the high number of Russian visitors, all following in the footsteps of Tsar Peter the Great, who stayed here for treatments in the early 18th century.
České Budějovice (pronounced chesky bood-yo-vit-zah or simply 'Budweis') is the provincial capital of southern Bohemia and a natural base for exploring the region. Transport connections to nearby Český Krumlov are good, meaning you could easily take in both places on an overnight excursion from Prague.
Tábor earned its place in Czech history in the 15th century as home to the most radical wing of the Hussite movement. These days, there aren't many radicals left, but Tábor makes for a convenient lunch-and-a-stroll stopover on the trip south towards České Budějovice and Český Krumlov.
After the beauty of many Czech towns, the imposing double fortress of Terezín comes as a moving reminder of the more tragic aspects of Central Europe's past. The massive bastion of stone and earth was built in 1780 by Emperor Joseph II to keep the Prussians at bay, and could accommodate up to 11,000 soldiers.
Mělník sprawls over a rocky promontory surrounded by the flat Central Bohemian plains, with its picturesque old town appealingly sited atop a steep hill overlooking the confluence of the Vltava and Labe (Elbe) rivers. The vines in the small vineyard below the old town are supposedly descendants of the first vines introduced to Bohemia, by Charles IV in the 14th century.
Hluboká nad Vltavou
Crowned with a stunning hilltop chateau, this picturesque village draws visitors from across the country. Most tourists depart after seeing the castle, making Hluboká a pleasant overnight stop if accommodation is tight in České Budějovice. From Masarykova, the village's main street, it's a 10-minute uphill walk to the chateau, signposted opposite the tourist office.
If size matters, Loket is the exception. A cluster of houses in sweet-shop pinks, greens and blues huddled around a fairy-tale castle, this tiny village stands on a loop in the river Ohře so extreme it almost makes an island (loket means 'elbow' in Czech, a reference to the river bend).
Dating originally from 1300, Konopiště chateau earned its place in European history courtesy of its last owner, Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este, whose assassination 14 June 1914 triggered WWI. The French-style chateau now sports the neo-Gothic face-lift instigated by the Archduke in the 1890s and remains one of Bohemia’s more romantic chateaux.