Since visiting Krakow, Poland over a decade ago, the nearby Central European city of Prague in the Czech Republic has been on my personal bucket list. Both cities have castles and fairy-tale like towers rising high above busy market squares where sweet regional treats are sold out of tented stands. However, as I planned our summer road trip through Central Europe, I read about high season crowds in Prague and decided to skip the capital city that I had always dreamed of visiting and instead explore a more natural side of the Czech Republic with my family. If you are planning a trip in Winter months, check out these tips for visiting Europe in Winter.
We visited two of the Czech Republic’s most popular national parks and spent a night in a charming ski resort town in the northern part of the country bordering Germany and Poland. Instead of fighting tour groups from around the world for a view of Prague’s top sights, we hiked, dined, and played alongside families from Central Europe in spectacular natural areas.
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Top Attractions in Northern Czech Republic
When I was researching our trip to the Czech Republic, the two areas that most interested me were Bohemian Switzerland National Park and the Adršpach-Teplice Rocks (pictured above). They are both similar being heavily forested areas in the middle of the Czech countryside that feature rock formations, streams, gorges, and even boat tour. In between these two destinations, I found an excellent mid-week deal on a stay at a hotel in a ski resort town, Harrachov, which is located in a mountainous area just a few miles south of Poland.
Bohemian Switzerland National Park (Národní park České Švýcarsko)
This popular national park region actually sits right on the border between the Czech Republic and Germany. The Czech Bohemian Switzerland National Park continues into Germany as the Saxon Switzerland National Park. There are interesting sandstone features on both sides of the border; the famous Bastei Bridge (Basteibrücke) is on the German side while the Pravčická brána arch is on the Czech side. Even Americans will find these features vaguely familiar from various movies and paintings where they are featured. (Edmund Gorge, Bohemian Swtizerland National Park pictured above.)
Pravčice Sandstone Gate – Pravčická brána
The most popular hike in the Bohemian Switzerland National Park is up to the Pravčická brána arch, which was featured in the most recent film rendition of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Pravčická brána can be reached via a strenuous 45-minute climb from Hřensko or a less strenuous 70-90 minute hike from Menzi Louka featuring some interactive displays for children towards the beginning of the trail. We hiked up the longer trail via Menzi Louka and back down the shorter, steeper trail to Hřensko where our car was parked; for those not interested in a round-trip hike, there is a bus system connecting many of the trails in the region. The walk from Menzi Louka to the arch is by far the more scenic of the two trails with sandstone features on one side and views of the valley beneath on the other. My kids enjoyed hopping along a honeycomb of sandstone rock features as we climbed our way gradually up the hillside to the top.
Upon arriving at Pravčická brána, you’ll want to pay the small fee to access the area under the arch. There you can enjoy a beer or an ice cream under the largest sandstone arch in Europe with one of the best views in the Czech Republic. This is arch is a familiar symbol to the Czech people and a source of national pride; it’s one of their treasured national landmarks — like the Yosemite Valley to Americans. Inside the fee area there are many photo ops of the valley below and a trail that leads to a stunning viewpoint of the arch.
Edmund Gorge along the Kamenice River
Like many families, we combined the half day hike to Pravčická brána with a half day hike along the Edmund Gorge, which includes a 20-minute narrated boat ride through the narrowest section of the gorge.
We began our day by parking our car in Hřensko and receiving a small postcard-sized map of the region’s hiking trails in both Czech and German languages as we paid for our parking space. The super handy map shows the location of all bathrooms and restaurants along the network of hiking trails. Then we set out on the yellow trail up through the Edmund Gorge (Edmundova soutěska.) The first twenty minute stretch of hiking from the road to the boat ride through the gorge is quite a lovely stroll — though it just gets better; the hike after the boat ride is even more scenic.
Not speaking Czech or German, we missed out on the humorous narration of the ride through the gorge. Sometimes the narrator, responsible for punting the boat up the river, rocked the boat from side to side and at one point some water shot out of a rock at the boat. Even though our language skills caused us to miss out a bit, the scenic ride is beautiful and needs no narration. During the summer there are several boats maneuvering through the gorge at the same time so was fun for the kids to watch as our boat passed other boats filled with families of all ages.
There is a snack bar with food and restrooms just a short hike beyond the boat ride. We indulged in ice cream bars – though there looked to be all sorts of local drinks and treats available as well. At the first opportunity, we crossed the Kamenice River on the green trail and hiked an exhausting 20 minutes of steep switchbacks up to Mezna where there is a restaurant and, to the delight of my children, a playground (pictured above.)
The green trail continues along a quaint country road connecting Mezna with Menzi Louka where there is parking, a bus stop, a restaurant and the trailhead to Pravčická brána.
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Saxon Switzerland National Park – Germany
As we were coming from Germany, we spent the night prior to hiking in Bohemian Switzerland National Park on the German side of the border at Albergo-Toscana, a charming Italian-themed bed and breakfast in Bad Schandau. That afternoon and evening we took the opportunity to enjoy the area around the Saxon Switzerland National Park exploring a trail system called the “Labyrinth” (Felslabyrinth Langenhennersdorf) and walking the iconic Bastei Bridge.
I admit that it took quite a bit of research and translating various tourist websites for me to discover the exact location of the Felslabyrinth Langenhennersdorf network of trails and how to drive there; but, as it turns out, it was totally worth it — my children loved the place! While the rock passages are numbered, there were several numbers that we never quite found, and my children still think it is funny that I lead them through the exit of the Labyrinth at the very beginning of our adventure by accident.
After a tasty dinner at Barthel´s Restaurant in Bad Schandau, where my children discovered wiener schnitzel for the first time, we drove up to Bastei. Unfortunately, we were running out of daylight, but I’m glad that we did not miss walking across the Basteibrücke; the view of the sandstone formations is amazing!
The Charming Czech Ski Resort Town of Harrachov
After finishing our exhausting hike to Pravčická brána, we hit the road for the town of Harrachov a couple of hours away. The original plan had been to simply stay there overnight, but due to impending stormy weather, we also spent most of the morning the following day in town – what a treat!
The highlight of our stay in Harrachov was walking around town and trying out the different restaurants. Some of our best meals of our entire month in Europe were in this charming resort town! Our first night we ate at an Italian pizzeria, Pizzeria Verde Rosa; after hiking all day we easily devoured our pizza and pasta as well as some fruity lemonade drinks. We also enjoyed our lunch at Terassa (pictured above) the next day; my kids loved that they had outdoor play area within sight of the dining tables. Later that afternoon, just as it was beginning to rain, we found a traditional wooden stall on the roadside in two selling cinnamon and sugar covered pastry treats cooked right on the spot.
Most tourists in town make a visit to the Mumlava waterfall (Mumlavský vodopád) just a short 30-45 minute stroll outside of town through the forest. The stream is beautiful and refreshing, and the pine trees above shade the trail perfectly. We walked from the waterfall to the opposite side of town to try out the summer bobsleds at Bobová dráha. This was our first experience of many on these fun little sleds during our time in Europe; at first my kids rode slowly, but after our third or fourth try, they came zooming down the hill.
Our family room at the Orea Resort Sklar **** Harrachov resort was the perfect place to get a good night’s rest; our suite had a long hallway with a bedroom on either end and two bathrooms in the middle. Both bedrooms had a balcony with a view of the mountains!
Photographs of the Gothic Gate at Adršpach Rocks (Adršpašské skály) are what first enticed me to abandon my plans of going to Prague and explore the Czech countryside instead. There’s some amazing photography out there of these rock formations! As we traveled to the area, we actually had to re-arrange our itinerary again as a rainstorm was forecast during the afternoon that I had planned to be hiking among these rocks. Fortunately, we were able to make it all work out spending a bit more time in Harrachov and a bit less time in Krakow, and as a bonus, we arrived at Adršpach first thing in the morning before the crowds descended for the day. This place is no secret among the Czech and Polish people!
At the entrance to the Adršpach Rocks there is a huge parking lot and food stalls from which we bought lunch after our hike. After paying the fee, but prior to arriving at the rock formations, there is a beautiful lake with ducks and fish; my children wanted to hike around the lake, but I was anxious to explore the rocks before the area got crowded.
Despite our early start, we shared the trail with dozens of families. My children ran through the passageways as I tried to navigate the English map that provided descriptions of the rock formations. The narrow canyons really are remarkable! Taking the green loop trail clock-wise as recommended, the first half of the trail lays flat through the rocks, as pictured above. The return portion of the loop is a much more interesting as the trail requires hikes to go up and over the rocks providing views from every possible angle.
At the far end of the loop, there is a lake that has been used for tourist cruises for over 150 years. There are statues of figures from Czech fairy tales and legends along the shore of the lake and that the guide cracks jokes about them throughout the boat ride —in Czech, of course. Unlike our boat ride on the Edmund Gorge, this experience seemed to be more about the jokes (in Czech) than the scenery. We sat awkwardly as everyone in the boat laughed around us until the woman behind us took pity on us poor monolingual Americans and translated. It was quite the cultural experience for my children, on every subsequent tour, they inquired if we would have a tour guide that spoke English.
Beyond the lake there is a trail several kilometers long leading to the Teplice Rocks; there were a surprising number of families continuing on to this other set of rocks. The trail looked interesting with stairways ascending and descending steeply though the gorge for at least a kilometer so we followed it for a bit. We climbed rocks, walked through a large meadow and hiked along a stream until we ultimately decided that for the sake of time we had to turn back around and hike back towards the green loop trail.
The green loop trail without detours to the lake is 3.5km; the brochure that we received upon entering says to allow three hours to complete just that loop. I believe that we were only hiking for four hours including our detour off the green loop trail onto the more strenuous yellow connector trail and the boat ride — so the loop can probably be completed in just a couple hours.