For millions of tourists each year, a visit to the Czech Republic means just one thing -- a stop in Prague.
The Czech Tourism Department estimates that nearly 80 percent of visitors to the country never venture outside the capital.
Certainly, those visitors do not leave disappointed.
Attractions come larger than life in the ancient city perched on the Vltava River. With its resplendent castle, its Instagram-worthy Charles Bridge, and its countless beer gardens, Prague may be the ultimate Eastern European destination.
It’s not exactly a hidden treasure, however. On a visit to Prague, you will likely be sharing the incomparable experiences with throngs of fellow tourists.
And, as is true in most countries, the busy capital city does not sum up the country. Venture an hour or two east or southeast, and you will find yourself in fairytale villages and post-industrial centers.
Here are five amazing places to visit in the vast countryside beyond Prague.
Ostrava: Industrial Chic
While the Czech Republic’s second-largest city might lack Prague’s magnificent sights, it is unmatched in its cool authenticity.
Step onto one of Ostrava’s clacking trolleybuses, and it’ll seem like you’re the only tourist in town.
Once known mostly for its ironworks and coal mining, Ostrava has transformed into an offbeat cultural center. Festivals such as the Colours of Ostrava draw tens of thousands of multigenre music fans to the city, while conferences gravitate to the workaday atmosphere.
At the center of it all is the gritty but spectacular Dolni Vitkovice -- a city of steel in the heart of Ostrava. Walk amongst the rusty towers and twisted pipes of the former ironworks complex, and you’ll be transported to a time when workers spent their long shifts feeding the fiery blast furnaces with metallic ore.
Those days ended in the 1990s, when the plant was shut down. A decade later, the abandoned industrial complex was rejuvenated as a cultural site.
Today, visitors can take in the complex from above via the slick Bolt Tower, a 250-foot-high glass structure with an unlikely link to Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who used Ostrava as a training site. An elevator whisks visitors to the top, where the stark industrial past melds with views of the surrounding landscape.
Adding to Ostrava’s charms are the pretty city center, Masaryk Square; the medieval Silesian Ostrava Castle; the unbeatable views from the New City Hall Viewing Tower; and the never-ending party scene on Stodolni Street.
Ostrava is located about 230 miles southeast of Prague near the Polish border. The city is accessible from the capital on a comfortable 3-to-4-hour train ride.
Telc: Fairy-Tale Town
Gabled houses of soft pink and mint green stand at attention on both sides of Telc’s town plaza -- making it one of the most charming town squares in a country packed with gorgeous city centers.
If it’s a genuine Czech scene you’re after, Telc is arguably the spot. The row of 40 Renaissance- and baroque-style houses in the small Vysocina town is so well preserved that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Still, the fairy-tale houses aren’t the only things Telc has going for it. There is also the magnificent Telc Chateau, along with the sweeping views from the Gothic Tower and Church of the Holy Spirit, and the beautiful reflections of the town in the surrounding fish ponds.
In addition to all its history, Telc has a fun small-town vibe featuring frequent street fairs and numerous outdoor eateries and coffee shops. And, while you’re making your rounds, don’t forget to try the Czech Republic’s traditional liqueur, Zufanek slivovice, a plum brandy with a smooth, jammy flavor.
Telc is located about 100 miles southeast of Prague, not far from Brno.
Trebic: A Tale Of Two Cultures
Just a few miles east of Telc sits the midsize town of Trebic, the site of another UNESCO World Heritage site -- this one commemorating the juxtaposition of two distinct cultures.
The town is noted not only for its well-preserved Jewish Quarter, but also for its Saint Procopius Basilica, a magnificent Romanesque-Gothic church located just a short walk away on the original site of a wooden Benedictine monastery.
UNESCO information on Trebic emphasizes the proximity of the two cultures, which existed side by side for centuries. “The ensemble provides an exceptional testimony to the peaceful coexistence of Jewish and Christian communities and cultures from the Middle Ages up to World War II,” the organization states.
A visit to the Jewish Quarter is sure to be an emotional one. Rising on each side of the rough cobblestone walkways are the interconnected stucco buildings of the former Jewish ghetto, preserved largely as it appeared before World War II.
For a step back in time to a 1930s-era Jewish home, take a tour of the Seligmann Bauer House, complete with a table set for Shabbat, pear trees in the backyard, and the ground-level shop selling everyday items.
Tragically, nearly all of the Jews living in Trebic in the 1930s were sent to concentration camps by the Nazis during World War II, and only 10 to 15 returned after the war. Today, no Jewish families remain.
Despite its somber history, Trebic offers plenty of scenic and entertaining attractions for sightseers as well, including a lively town square and lovely views of the Jihlava River.
Jihlava: Hometown Of A Prodigy
For a change of pace from the centuries-old stories of Telc and Trebic, consider a stop in Jihlava, a medium-sized town located about 80 miles southeast of Prague.
Here, classical music lovers will be able to learn about the life work of Gustav Mahler, a prominent composer in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.
Mahler spent his youth in Jihlava, and the town claims him as a native son, using the composer’s name and image for hotels and restaurants, as well as for the House of Gustav Mahler Museum located in his childhood home.
As a former silver-mining center, Jihlava also boasts an impressive network of underground tunnels, which feature fascinating tours (some of which are conducted in English).
Perhaps Jihlava’s most charming feature is its lovely town square, which is dotted with sculptures and fountains, both classical and modern in style.
Not far from the square is the famous Gate of Holy Mother, which dates to the 1500s. A climb to the top of the gate offers splendid views of the town.
Stramberk: Town Of Towers
Home to only 3,500 people, Stramberk is small, but its most distinguishing feature packs a big punch: The town’s cylindrical tower, called Truba, is visible for miles around.
The striking Stramberk Castle Tower serves as an exclamation point in the quaint town that surrounds it. Located in the foothills of the Beskydy Mountains, the town, with its unique collection of timbered houses dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, is called the Moravian Bethlehem.
Stramberk is also known for a soft gingerbread cookie with a macabre backstory. Legend has it that “Stramberk ears” date to a 1241 invasion by the Tartars. After flooding out the Tartar camp, the victorious villagers are said to have found among the ruins bags of human ears that had been cut off by the Tartars to prove the number of slain locals.
Ever since then, the people of Stramberk have celebrated their victory with cookie “ears.” The cone-shaped sweets are available for sale all over the village -- proving, perhaps, that the Czech Republic deserves its nickname, the Land of Stories.
So, while Prague is gorgeous and not to be missed, it pays to branch out a bit in the Czech Republic. You never know where you will find your own story.