Should you be wandering around Europe, in search of wild, beautiful places, with rich history and engaging activities, you will find such a captivating area in its very heart.
Ancient Celtic ruins, glorious medieval castles, unique natural landscapes, awe-inspiring stone sculptures, and intriguing cultural events are waiting for you along Czech Republic’s national river, the Vltava.
And that is not all. If you are looking for a little adventure you have come to the right place. Canoeing, rafting, windsurfing, wakeboarding (a sport that combines surfing and water skiing techniques), and fishing are just some of the sporting activities this awesome river has to offer.
If you prefer your adventure on solid ground, there are many trails along the banks, for hiking and cycling, which offer amazing sights. There is also a Rope Park in the middle of nature, waiting for explorers of all ages.
The Vltava River – stories and myths
A magnificent river, full of life, adventures, and stories, the Vltava inspired one of the most famous symphonic poems ever written: “The Moldau” – named so after the river’s German name – by ingenious Czech composer Bedřich Smetana.
Among local myths and legends, the Vltava, with its wild beauty and many thresholds, is connected with the foundation of the magnificent city of Prague.
Libuše, a beautiful and wise Slavic queen, had a vision as she was standing on a cliff above the mighty river. It is said she suddenly raised her hand, pointed to a hill across the water, and uttered: “I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars.”
Fascinated with the way Vltava’s waters were flowing gracefully over each threshold, Libuše decided to name this great city after the majestic sight – Prah (threshold in Czech).
Where to start your adventure?
Of course, Dear Traveler, you must go and discover the royal magnificence of Prague.
With its famous medieval old town and imposing castle, the wondrous Charles Bridge, world-renowned astronomical clock, and fascinating modern architecture – like Fred and Ginger dancing House -, it deserves a trip on its own.
And let’s not forget to say it is considered one of the greenest capitals in the world due to its multitude of inner parks and forests, and a haven for cultural events of all kinds, vibrant with life, energy, and open-mindedness.
But please, don’t stop there! So many wonderful places await you along the Vltava!
Read on to discover 7 of my favorite spots! 🙂
1. Houska Castle
About one hour north of Prague, among forested hills, dwells the unusual and mysterious Houska Castle. This is a place that shouldn’t be missed by any brave explorer looking for adventure, a little dark humor, and fascinating riddles.
Legends and history
Local legends say this mysterious Gothic castle was built over a “Gateway to Hell”, to prevent demons from coming out into the world. And even today it is considered one of the most hunted buildings in the world.
Raised in the first half of the 13th century by Otakar II of Bohemia, the Iron and Golden King, the castle’s original purpose remains shrouded in mystery. As during that period, it had no water source, no kitchen, and no major outward fortification it is obvious it wasn’t lived-in.
The remarkable Gothic Chapel and inward-facing defensive walls gave birth to many fantastic legends.
Though some Renaissance-style adjustments were done during the 16th century, it retained most of its original early Gothic form and is considered one of the best-preserved Gothic Castles from that period.
Building on the many stories and myths it inspired, the castle offers some engaging guided tours and, on special request, for the braver souls, a memorable night tour.
Another unique attraction in the Houska Castle is a mechanical wood carving of “Hell”, inspired by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. The huge mobile carving takes its visitors through 11 different scenes from Dante’s “Hell”.
To those more interested in history and art than fantastic legends, Houska Castles offers some brilliant 13th and 14th-century paintings in its original Gothic Chapel, the so-called Green Chamber with 16th-century Gothic paintings, and a captivating knights drawing-room.
Festivals and Events
In the lovely months of summer and early fall, the castle hosts some enchanting festivals and cultural events.
The Gothic Fair, with fencing demonstrations and medieval music, the Ancient Music Festival, the Renaissance Fair, symphonic concerts, and outdoor theater representations are just some of the charming events awaiting you at the Houska Castle during the sunny season.
How and when to get there?
Situated about one hour north of Prague, the best way to reach the Castle is by car. There is a big parking lot about 700 meters from its gate.
If you are feeling outdoorsy and adventurous, you can try the one-and-a-half-hour hike from Nosálov. Just follow the blue trail starting at the Holy Trinity Chapel. The small village can be reached by bus or car.
The castle is open to visitors from April until October, as it follows:
- April – Weekends from 10.00 to 17.00
- May and June – Tuesday to Sunday from 10.00 to 17.00
- July and August – Tuesday to Sunday from 10.00 to 18.00
- September – Weekends from 10.00 to 17.00
- October – Weekends from 10.00 to 16.00
2. The Amazing Sandstone Sculptures around Želízy
In the heart of the forest, about 10 kilometers from the joining of the Vltava with the Elbe River, lies the fascinating Želízy village. The pine forests around this captivating place will impress you with their gigantic sandstone sculptures and fantastic artificial caves, designed by the famous 19th-century sculptor Václav Levý. This charming site was once one of the favored destinations of Franz Kafka.
Václav Levý’s first important creation, the artificial cave of Klácelka, transports you to a fairy tale world of stone. The “Hall of Sleeping Heroes” is the first part of this majestic sculpted cave, with figures from Czech legends: knights, a sleeping army, or dwarfs forging weapons.
Going through a magnificently decorated stone gateway, which would easily fit in Tolkien’s stories, you enter the second part of the impressive sandstone carving. Sculptures of animals from the fables of F. M. Klácel meet the visitors here, reminding them of the importance of mastering one’s instincts and weaknesses.
The Devil’s Heads
Two other impressive carvings by Václav Levý to be found near Želízy, maybe the most popular, are the gigantic sandstone sculptures known as the “Devil’s Heads”. These nine meters high “Devils” are the second largest carved heads in the world. The brave and skilled explorer can climb to the top of these gigantic and monstrous faces, for a great view of the surrounding area.
From here, you can continue your hike through the forest to other Václav Levý creations like the “Harpist” Formation, the rock relief of the Snake and the Sphinx, and the chapel of Mary Magdalene.
Located about one hour north of Prague, Želízy village can be reached by car or bus.
It is also possible to go by train to Liběchov and then follow the blue hiking trail for about 2.5 km to Želízy.
The blue hiking trail starting from Liběchov or Želízy takes you to all of Václav Levý’s local creations.
3. Zvíkov Castle
Guarding the coming together of the Vltava and Otava rivers from its high promontory, the magnificent medieval Castle Zvíkov welcomes its visitors with awe-inspiring views and fascinating historical artifacts.
History and Legends
Built during the 13th century by Wenceslas I of Bohemia, the so-called One-Eyed King, and Otakar II of Bohemia, the Iron and Golden King, Zvíkov Castle was often favored as a dwelling place by the royals of the Přemyslid dynasty.
And they weren’t the only ones to fall in love with this majestic place. The first King of Bohemia to become Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, had it thoroughly renovated and often stayed there until Karlštejn Castle was raised. During that time the Czech Crown Jewels were also kept here.
Like any respectable medieval fortress, Zvíkov Castle has its very own ghost. Legend says Hlíza Tower, where the Crown Jewels were kept, is hunted by the Zvíkov Trickster or Imp, who likes to play all sorts of nasty pranks to night-time visitors. This ghost is so famous that it appears in several paintings and books, and it even inspired an opera: the “Zvíkovský rarášek” (The Zvíkov Imp) by Vítězslav Novák.
The beautifully preserved and reconstructed chambers offer you a chance to time-travel to the glorious past of this magnificent castle.
There is an impressive number of places accessible to the public in the Zvíkov Castle. The curious explorer can take a stroll through the royal bedrooms, servants’ room, dining hall, hall of knights, and dancing hall, all containing valuable historical artifacts and furniture.
Another must-see for history enthusiasts is the medieval-style Wenceslas Chapel, decorated with mural paintings dating back to the 15th century.
You can then visit the famous hunted Hlíza Tower, the oldest preserved part of the castle, dating back to around 1230, or walk on the castle terraces that offer astonishing views of the two rivers and the surrounding area.
During summer, should you want to make your visit unforgettable, you can also take a sightseeing river cruise around Zvíkov, all the way to Orlík or to the lovely village of St. Anna, rumored to be connected by a secret corridor to the castle.
How and when to get there?
The castle is situated approximately 20 km north of Písek and it can be reached by car, bus, or bike (bike path no. 1149).
There is a big parking lot about 400 meters from the castle, immediately after the village of Zvíkovské Podhradí.
Those looking for a little adventure can hike to the castle from Písek, following the green hiking trail, along the right bank of the Otava River.
The castle is open to visitors from April until October, as it follows:
- April – Weekends from 09.30 to 15.30
- May – Tuesday to Sunday from 09.30 to 16.00
- June – Tuesday to Sunday from 09.00 to 16.00
- July and August – Tuesday to Sunday from 09.00 to 17.00
- September – Tuesday to Sunday from 09.30 to 16.00
- October – Weekends from 09.30 to 15.30
4. Karlštejn Castle
Just 40 kilometers southwest of Prague dwells one of the most famous places in the Czech Republic. Karlštejn Castle, the fascinating imperial Gothic fortress, dazzles its guests with its many treasures and carries them straight to the Middle Ages.
The majestic castle was built in the 14th century by Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. The fortress was meant to be his private residence and to guard the Crown Jewels, the royal archives, and his collection of holy relics.
This place was so important to the Emperor, that he personally supervised the construction and decoration of its Chapels.
Unlike many other fortresses, Karlštejn Castle remained in the hands of the Kings through all its history, and it is now owned by the state.
Though it was restored a few times, first in Renaissance style and later in neo-Gothic style, the castle retained its famous stair-arrangement of inner buildings – from the lower Well Tower to the five-story Imperial Palace and Marian Tower to the impressive 60-meter-high Great Tower – and most of its original artistic treasures.
The primary tour
The noble Karlštejn Castle is amazing in itself, and just being near it, and visiting the grounds and courtyards, gives you the feeling of time-traveling to a period of kings, knights, and ladies.
Among the most famous inner treasures, its guests can admire majestic 14th-century wall decorations, an amazing gallery with portraits of Bohemian Kings, valuable artifacts and furniture from the 14th up to the 19th century, a unique 78-meter deep well with a medieval water wheel, and a copy of the medieval crown of the kings of Bohemia.
On the primary tour, the visitors are invited to take a stroll through the Knights Hall, the Emperor´s Bedchamber with the St. Wenceslas Chapel, the Audience Hall, the Royal Hall of Ancestors, the Banquet Hall, the Treasury, and even a former prison on the ground floor of the Marian Tower.
Besides the primary tour, exclusive tours of the Karlštejn Castle are available with prior booking over the telephone.
One of these exclusive tours will take the fascinated guest through the famous fortified Great Tower, including the Chapel of the Holy Cross, where behind four doors with nineteen locks, the Crown Jewels and other important treasures were kept.
The astonishing Chapel, decorated with gold and semiprecious stones, shelters a unique set of 129-panel paintings from the 14th century by Master Theodoric.
Another exclusive tour takes the visitors through the Great Tower’s armory and guards’ room, to the highest point of the castle, with an amazing view of the valley.
How and when to get there?
Located 40 kilometers from Prague, Karlštejn Castle can be reached by car, train, or bike.
The train is a great option to visit the castle as trains are traveling between Prague and Karlštejn Station every 30 minutes, and a big part of town is considered a pedestrian zone, closed for cars and bicycles.
If you opt to get there by car, there is a big parking lot in the lower part of Karlštejn city, below the fortress, at about 15 minutes walking distance from the castle.
If you choose to visit the castle by bike, you can leave it at one of the bike stands in the Main Courtyard. Just remember to lead your bike through Karlštejn town, as the entire area below the castle is considered a pedestrian zone.
The opening hours vary by season, holidays, and intended tour, so it is recommended to check the Castle’s website when planning a visit.
5. Vyšší Brod Abbey and the Abbot’s Trail
Among the fairy tale forests of South Bohemia, on the right bank of the Vltava River, stands the ancient Cistercian Abbey of Vyšší Brod. The monastery and the trail in its surrounding woods enchant you with a different kind of adventure, a deeper and more peaceful kind of exploration.
Raised during the 13th century by Vok of Rosenberg, the first member of the noble Bohemian family to use the title “von Rosenberg”, Vyšší Brod monastery has been since its foundation an important European cultural and spiritual center.
Local legends recall that as Vok von Rosenberg was drowning in the wild waters of the Vltava, he fervently prayed to the Virgin Mary and was miraculously rescued. In gratitude, he founded Vyšší Brod Abbey in Her honor.
Still inhabited today by Cistercian monks, that follow a strict routine under the Order of St. Benedict, several parts of the Abbey are open to groups of visitors upon request.
Guests are welcome all year round to discover the beautiful church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, with the Rosenberg family tomb, the Gothic art gallery with valuable 14th and 15th-century paintings and sculptures, the monk’s ancient choir, the two lovely chapels, and the renowned monastery library, with over 70.000 books and manuscripts.
Among the fascinating artifacts to be found in the monastery, the most famous by far is Záviš’s cross. Made of pure gold and decorated with gems and pearls, legends say this majestic relic shelters inside a fragment from the cross on which Jesus Christ died.
The Abbot’s Trail (or Abbey Trail I)
There is a beautiful hiking trail near Vyšší Brod Abbey that offers its travelers a chance to discover the magical woods surrounding the monastery, with their awe-inspiring nature and sacred places.
It is said that a walk on Abbot’s Trail raises the spirit and can bring peace and serenity to the most troubled of souls.
Starting at the Rosenberg Gate of the monastery, the yellow marked circular trail will take you among majestic forests, through the valley of the Menší Vltavice River, to the wondrous waterfalls of Saint Wolfgang.
On your way back to the Vyšší Brod Abbey, you will cross a picturesque wooden footbridge and you can stop by the lovely pilgrimage chapel of “Our Lady of the Snow” (or Maria Rast am Stein).
The 3.5 kilometers trail takes about an hour and it can be easily done by families with children.
Located about 30 km south of Český Krumlov, in the southernmost town of Czech Republic (about 4 km from the Austrian border), the Vyšší Brod Abbey can be reached by car, train, bus and even through a network of cycle paths.
There are two big parking lots located about 5 minutes walking distance from the monastery.
Besides the car, the best way to get to the abbey all year round is by train. The railway stop: “Vyšší Brod – monastery” (Vyšší Brod klášter) is also about 5 minutes walking distance from the Abbey.
6. Čertova stěna – The Devil’s Wall
Another fascinating natural wonder awaits the adventurous explorer only 3 kilometers away from Vyšší Brod Abbey. Extraordinary rock formations, in and near the Vltava River, and amazing views of the surrounding area are waiting for you in the National Nature Reserve Čertova stěna-Luč.
Walking the paths to the “Devil’s Wall”, you will encounter a fascinating sea of massive granite boulders, chaotically covering the valley of the Vltava River and a 30-meter high rock called “the Devil’s Pulpit”, that offers panoramic views of the enchanting Reserve.
The section of the Vltava River called “Devil’s Streams” (or Devil’s Torrents) is also visible from the massive rock. The river runs among great boulders here, shaping them into huge bowls and other fantastic shapes.
Those looking for further adventures and beautiful views of the entire region can follow the river west for about one kilometer to Luč peak.
It is said among local legends that one night the Devil wanted to destroy the newly raised Vyšší Brod Monastery. He started to form a great wall to create a dam on the Vltava River and flood the Abbey. But the powerful light of dawn stopped his evil plan and blew the boulders all over the valley.
This legend inspired the famous Czech composer Bedřich Smetana to write an opera about the Abbey and its close-by “Devil’s Wall.
The “Devil’s Wall” Reserve can be reached from the Vyšší Brod Monastery on foot, following the red marked Abbey Trail II (about 3 km long), by bike, as there is a cycling path running along the Vltava through the Reserve, or by car in the direction of Lipno nad Vltavou.
There is a marked parking lot about 300 meters from the Reserve.
7. The Lovely Forest Trails around Stožec
Amidst the majestic forests of the Šumava National Park, right by the “Cold Vltava”, one of the river’s two main sourcing streams, the lovely village of Stožec awaits its visitors.
Ready to enchant every guest, the small town offers superb trails for hiking and cycling, the longest in-line skating path in Bohemia, and a weir pool on the river for swimming and water games.
The Owl Trail
Adventurers of all ages will be fascinated with the fabulous “Owl Trail” near the village. Built to present the forest ecosystem in a fun way, emphasizing its value for humankind, the 1.6 km interactive path includes thirteen educational halts.
If they desire, the eager explorers can get worksheets from the Stožec Information Center, to fill out along the way.
The “Rock of Stožec” Trail
Another beautiful forest trail near the village takes its travelers to the lovely wooden Chapel of the Virgin Mary, and up to the top of the famous Stožecká Rock. The majestic cliff rises above the forest and offers awe-inspiring views of the surrounding woodlands.
It is said among local legends that the spring near the beautiful Stožec Chapel has healing powers, and the pilgrimage place was built by a blacksmith after its waters restored his eyesight.
The In-Line Trail from Stožec to Nová Pec
Great for families, the well-kept 16 kilometers asphalt trail follows the Vltava through the forests of the Šumava National Park. The beautiful and quiet in-line and bike trail will take you to Nová Pec, a small village near the upper end of Lipno Reservoir.
Often called the Bohemian Sea, Lipno Lake is the largest water area in the Czech Republic. The Dam on the Vltava River was built in the 1950s, giving birth to the magnificent 42 kilometers long artificial lake.
Situated about 50 kilometers west of České Budějovice, and 143 kilometers south of Prague, Stožec can be reached by car, train or bike.
There you have it, Dear Traveler! So many fascinating places, and yet they are just a fraction of the spectacular sites along the Vltava. Should you wander along this captivating river someday, I hope you will take a moment to share with us your favorite discoveries and experiences!