I must admit I have a bit of a sweet spot when it comes to castles. Maybe it is the child that still wonders within me or the fact that my husband proposed to me overlooking one of the most magical castles of all, Neuschwanstein in Germany. Whatever the reason, I adore visiting castles as they have a way of taking me back to the carefree days of reading Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia or dreaming of Sleeping Beauty’s castle in a fairytale.
It came as no surprise that during a recent trip to Prague, we decided to get out of the city for a day and see one of the Czech Republic’s most beloved castles: The Karlštejn castle (Hrad Karlštejn). Only 20 kilometers southwest of Prague, the Karlštejn castle is one of the most famous and visited castles in the country.
We arrived around 11 am by personal driver. Hiring a driver for the day was one of the best decisions that we made. For six hours, the cost was a mere $65 and we had the freedom to do and see as we pleased. Most tourists arrive via tour bus in a package deal that brings you to other sites as well. You can visit the castle either way but I am glad we did it on our own.
Once in town, there are two ways to reach the castle, both on foot. You can either walk up along the medieval village of Karlštejn bringing you past souvenir shops and restaurants (about one and half kilometers steep walk to the castle) or you can leave from the car park which takes about ten minutes walk through the forest. Once you arrive, you must purchase castle tour tickets if you haven’t already done so online (recommended) or as part of your tour package if you are coming via tour bus. The lines were quite long so I’m relieved we arrived early. One of the tours was already sold out.
Built between 1348-1355 by Emperor Charles IV, the gothic-style Karlštejn Castle was a symbol of the Golden Age and served as a safe depository of the Bohemian royal and imperial jewels, holy relics, royal treasures and an archive of state documents. The history of Karlstejn is a mix of many myths and incredible true stories that can be heard while touring the inside of the castle. Despite its ornate beauty and massive size, it is said that Charles IV visited the castle only six times.
After the short walk through the forest up to the castle, the first thing you see is a large stone gate that enters into the castle grounds. Set high up within the forest, the castle is perched perfectly atop a hill affording a magnificent and important strategic view of the valley below.
There are three main parts of the castle that can be toured: The historical interiors of the Emperor’s Palace, the Chapel of Saint Cross and the Bell Tower (which provides an amazing view). You are unable to see any of the castle without a guided tour. Each tour is separate and takes anywhere from 40 minutes to a little over an hour.
The first tour we did was of the great Bell Tower where the crown jewels used to be stored. It involves walking up a lot of stone steps but the view of the valley and village below is incredible and worth the effort. If I could only do one tour, I would pick this one.
Once on top, we could open up the windows and look out to take pictures. The 360 degree bird’s-eye view was outstanding. You could see the brilliant rapeseed fields way up in the hills surrounding the castle. You also can see how this would have been the perfect lookout place for the knights who guarded the castle years and years ago.
The next tour we did was of the knight’s and emperor’s quarters. We learned all about the bizarre lives of the knights who lived crammed within the castle walls and the bizarre myths and stories of the castle. Some true, some that we will never know for sure. There isn’t much left to see inside the castle of interest. Most of the furniture and artwork is long removed so if you are looking to see a beautifully decorated castle inside you will be quite disappointed. However, in my opinion it still is pretty fascinating to walk within the walls of a medieval castle and learn about its ghosts of history.
The neighboring Karlštejn village that surrounds the castle is also a great place to have a traditional bohemian lunch and shop for fun gifts and souvenirs to bring home. Our visit was the perfect escape from the city and a great way to also see a big of the lush countryside surrounding Prague.
Karlštejn castle (Hrad Karlštejn castle) is about 20 km outside of Prague. There are several tour companies that will take you there via bus. We hired our own driver from the hotel for $65 (4 hours). You can only see the castle via organized group tours which can be purchased at the window or online in advance (highly recommended to avoid the long lines). Visit the official website here for more details.