Swap Prague for Olomouc, the Czech Republic’s undiscovered city break

·8-min read
The spires and tiled rooftops of Olomouc in the Czech Republic (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The spires and tiled rooftops of Olomouc in the Czech Republic (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

From star-spangled spires to heavenly cathedrals to baroque monuments, there’s nothing that brings the history of the Czech Republic to life like an atmospheric market square. Olomouc (pronounced Oh-la-moats), in the eastern province of Moravia, has one such gloriously gothic centrepiece — and it’s worthy of a visit because it lets you gorge on everything you’d ever want from the Czech Republic, and all without the seething overtourism of the country’s capital.

Consider haunting palaces and castles. Cheap, foam-topped pints of pilsner. Historic bistros serving enormous pork knuckle feasts. Plenty of 11th-century Renaissance and baroque eye candy, too. Besides that, the city is compact and easily navigable, letting you dip in and out of sightseeing at a whim, and its scenic, pastel-hued core is the very antithesis of Prague’s Staromestske Namesti. All that’s missing are the other tourists.

What to do

Understand why Unesco loves it

No Olomouc attraction will wow you quite like the Holy Trinity Column. Even if you’re not of a religious bent, the rocket ship-shaped landmark anchors the magnificent Upper Square (Horni Namesti), into which all the city’s most photogenic streets filter. It’s a neck-craning 35 metres (wow), crammed with a who’s who of gilded copper saints (double wow) and is the largest free-standing baroque sculpture in central Europe (triple wow). Did we mention the square has a heliocentric Astronomical Clock on the façade of the town hall opposite? Whisper it, but it’s far more riveting than Prague’s more famous one.

Eat the world’s stinkiest cheese

The whiff of Olomoucke tvaruzky is around every corner – and we mean that as a good thing. This ripened soft cheese, first made in nearby Lostice, is a real nostril-punisher, enough to make little children cry and scare off coronavirus. OK, it’s not quite that powerful, but the cartoon-yellow, disc-shaped nose-holder — also locally known by a name that translates to “the guttery breath of the Knight of Lostice” — is an acquired taste. Depending on who you ask, it tastes of a holy trinity of flavours, including spicy butterscotch, out-of-date quark and salted, pungent butter. In summer, if you’re brave enough, there’s an Olomouc cheese ice cream to try. Among the most pungent places to pick up a souvenir wedge of it is La Formaggeria Gran Moravia, an artisan delicatessen on Upper Square.

Soak in suds at a beer spa

Precious moments can be spent, beer in hand, pondering why the Czech Republic has the world’s highest beer consumption per capita. Or why golden Czech pilsners really are better than those elsewhere (sorry, Germany). But at Svatovaclavsky Pivovar microbrewery, it’s the bonkers beer spa you’ll be thinking about when you get home. There’s wooden bathtubs full to the brim with black beer (enriched with skin-softening beer yeast, apparently), a salt sauna and lashings of beer tastings on offer (£POA).

Pay homage to Mozart

The Czech Republic has long gone gaga for classical music, so it figures that when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart came to Olomouc he was inspired to pen a symphony. Aged 11 at the time, he returned a good few years later to perform Symphony No 6 in F Major under the dazzling spires of the triple-towered Saint Wenceslas Cathedral (guided tour £3). The Deanery, where the recital took place, is now the Archdiocesan Museum (entrance £3) and it remains inviting with circular towers, civic history and plenty of ecclesiastical pomp. The adjacent Amadeus Cafe is the place to refuel with coffee, ice cream or beer.

Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc’s main square (Getty Images)
Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc’s main square (Getty Images)

Where to stay

It’s four-star quality for three-star prices at serenely located Theresian Hotel & Spa, a sleek boutique with cavernous restaurant and rooftop spa with Finnish sauna, steam room and whirlpool. Not just for hotel guests, its best-in-town buffet breakfast (£10) is worth the stay alone, while the restaurant draws local regulars for its “fresh-from-the-forest” menu. (That’s shorthand for dishes such as fallow deer and chestnuts, beef and woodland mushrooms and stuffed guinea fowl.) Doubles from £85, B&B.

Quirky furnishings, a corking courtyard garden and a sociable cafe — Miss Sophie’s is everything you want a historic boutique bolthole to be. This good-looking eight-bed hotel has a modest supply of doubles, triples and a romantic attic snug, and, as you’re right in the thick of things, you can stumble home at any hour. Doubles from £88, B&B.

On a serious budget? Long Story Short Hostel is made for cheap stays, with easy-on-the-eye doubles and dorms and a wicked choice of a bar-cafe and street-level destination restaurant to pick from. Drinks until late — including Moravian wines from the region — or coffee roasted in nearby Brno add to the charm. If you’re splashing out on one thing, consider its Big One bedroom, complete with bathtub, sound system and mini bar (£76). Dorms from £9.50, bed only.

Where to eat

The appeal of Drapal, a hop-scented pub and restaurant on the fringes of the historical centre, is in the detail, in the warp and weft of the place. Walls are piled high with barrels, the wooden counter bar dominates proceedings and the menu is printed as a turn-of-the-century newspaper. Everyone, of course, is drinking steins of white-capped Pilsner Urquell, while lunch or dinner is equally belly-tingling. You’ll want a dictionary-thick flank steak (£10), kilo of smoked pork knee (£11) or pork chop (£5). Vegans beware.

Beer cocktails (Staropramen with Pepsi? A Hoegaarden mojito?) aren’t the only eyebrow-raisers at Potrefena Husa, a smartly located Upper Square branded restaurant-pub. With a popular terrace, it’s a people-watching hotspot on sunny days and the food ain’t half bad either. For the ultimate beer snack, pair your pilsner with Olomouc cheese tartar, served with spices and onions (£5), or take a deep dive into a throat-clearing bowl of Valachian sauerkraut soup. The sweet and sour broth made with smoked pork knee (£2) is the perfect warm-up for the house special: pork knuckle, with mustard and horseradish (£15).

For something meat-free, if hardly lighter, Faency Fries is a rapidly expanding Czech street food concept that tries to outdo the Belgians at what they do best. It specialises in piled-high pokes of crisp french fries covered in all manner of takeaway toppings. Plenty of options for veggies, including chilli mango and homemade Middle Eastern dips.

The pretty old town architecture makes Olomouc a pleasure to wander (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The pretty old town architecture makes Olomouc a pleasure to wander (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Where to drink

Ask a local and they’ll send you to Masne Kramy. The former butcher’s market near Upper Square has a walk-through arcade of dimly lit cocktail bars and pop-up pubs, most of which only get going on the weekend. The scene caters to revelling students from the city’s thriving university, so follow the crowd. Two to start with are mobster-themed cocktail bar Corleone’s and shisha club Kumo.

Like most Czech cities, Olomouc is populated by branded bars from the likes of the big two breweries, Staropramen and Pilsner Urquell. That’s no bad thing, even if independent-run LocaAle Pub is still a breath of fresh air near the main rail station. What’s not to like about ever-changing beer taps, darts, table football and — wait for it — tofu snacks in every form?

Architectural highlight

You’d be hard pushed to find someone who wouldn’t point to the postcard-primed Holy Trinity Column. But our money is on Bouzov Castle, a Disney-like chateau 35km west of the city. The Moravian bastion is a humdinger of a medieval fortress, with a horseshoe-shaped grouping of witches-hat towers, turrets, armouries and guard houses.

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

Czech koruna (Kč).

What language do they speak?

Czech. Expect potted English from old-timers, but free-flowing banter with younger Czechs and students.

Should I tip?

Up to you. Typically 10 per cent in restaurants.

What’s the time difference?

One hour ahead of the UK.

What’s the average flight time?

Nearest airport Brno-Turany is 2 hours 5 minutes from the UK.

Public transport

There’s a comprehensive bus and tram network throughout the city, with tickets easy to buy in stores, at stops or directly from drivers. Find more info here: dpmo.cz.

Best view

Content with its medieval bone structure, Olomouc has no flashy rooftop cocktail bars or glassy observation decks. Instead, the most impressive view is at street level, gazing on Upper Square –preferably in summer time, around the witching hour, with a beer in hand, at one of the piazza’s many restaurant terraces.

Insider tip

The Olomouc Region Card lets you visit more than 100 places in Olomouc, Central Moravia and beyond, including castles, chateaux and museums. In Olomouc, this includes visits to the Museum of Modern Art and Archbishop’s Palace, while public transport is also free.

Trying to fly less?

You can get to Olomouc overland by train – take the Eurostar from London to Brussels (2 hours 10 minutes), then the ICE train onward to Frankfurt (2 hours 50), then another ICE to Dresden (4 and a half hours) and an EC train onward to Prague’s Hlavni Nadrazi (2 hours 25). Once in the Czech Republic it’s just over two hours onwards to Olomouc’s main station.

Fine with flying?

From the UK, the closest airport to Olomouc is Brno, with twice-weekly Ryanair flights from London Stansted taking 2 hours 5 minutes. Trains from Brno to Olomouc take around an hour.

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