A fairytale land of castles, colourful architecture, hot springs, mountains, and beautiful country vistas, the Czech Republic is an amazing place to explore. The medieval capital city of Prague had a renaissance after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, when it suddenly attracted scores of young artists, writers, and musicians to its cobblestoned streets. The lively city has retained an old world charm while at the same time blossoming into a trendy, cultural mecca for visitors and Czechs alike. Although the beautiful city of Prague is understandably no longer a secret to the masses of tourists that flood the continent each summer, the rest of the Czech Republic remains virtually untouched. The country is divided between the regions of Moravia and Bohemia which both contain numerous castles, walled cities, and rolling hills and mountains. Hikers and climbers will be drawn to the Krkonese Mountains while those seeking a spa retreat can find natural springs in towns near the German border. The Czech Republic will take you back to medieval times with its labyrinthine alleyways dwarfed by hundreds of preserved churches while constantly reminding you why it is currently one of the hottest spots to visit in Central Europe.
Czech currency is the Czech crown, the Koruna (Kc).
US $1= 20 Koruna
GBP £1= 33 Koruna
EUR €1= 27 Koruna
The currency in Poland is the zloty (zl). 1 zloty = 100 groszy.
US $1= 3 zloty
GBP £1= 5 zloty
EUR €1= 4 zloty
In Slovakia, the currency is the Euro. Before the Euro was introduced the currency was the Slovak crown (Slovenska koruna; Sk) containing 100 hellers (halier).
US $1= 0.74 Euro
GBP £1= 1.20 Euro
Exchange rate at time of writing. For up to date currency information, check the xe.com.
In the Czech Republic, ATM’s are fairly plentiful and most will accept major credit cards. The major banks are the best place to change traveller’s cheques and cash. Watch out for high fees at private exchange outlets. In Poland, there are ATM’s in most small towns and in the centre of all cities. You can exchange cash at private exchange offices called Kantors which do not charge commission. Traveller’s cheques will be more difficult since kantors do not generally accept them and the banks that do will charge a 2 to 3% commission. In Slovakia, ATM’s (bankomats) are available and the best place to change money is at a bank. Major credit cards are accepted at most major hotels, upmarket restaurants and some shops.
Generally, travelling in the Czech Republic is cheap, although hotel accommodation in Prague can be expensive. You can save money by staying in hostels or pensions, eating at restaurants outside touristy areas, and using public transportation. In Poland, keep in mind that everything must be paid for in the local currency, even if the price is quoted in US dollars or Euros. Slovakia is still much cheaper to travel in than the Czech Republic, although accommodations in Bratislava may be a bit more than you would expect and foreigners often pay more than Slovak citizens for nearly everything.
Tipping in restaurants in the Czech Republic is optional although the custom is to round up the bill by about 10%. The same goes for taxi drivers. In upmarket establishments in Poland, it is also customary to tip 10% and most do not tip taxi drivers.
With a population of 10.5 million, the Czech Republic is one of the most populated countries of Eastern and Central Europe. About 70% of the people are ethnically Czech and 1.4% are Slovak. Other sizeable minorities include Germans, Poles, and Ukranians.
Poland has over 39 million people with about 97% of the population being Polish. Before WWII, the country was not as homogenous, with a Jewish population of over three million, but currently there are only 5,000 to 10,000 Jewish people left in the country. The majority of Polish people are Catholic, although there is a sizeable Protestant population and other minorities dispersed throughout the country.
Slovakia‘s population is 5.4 million with 80% Slovak, 9% Hungarians and less than 1% Czech. Catholicism is strong throughout the country.
When travelling within the Czech Republic, buses are usually faster and cheaper than trains but many do not operate on the weekends. Renting a car is also an option and will give you the flexibility to stop along the way and enjoy sights off the beaten path. Prague has a decent public transportation system and you can use the bus, metro, or tram to get to most places if you cannot get there on foot.
While travelling in Poland, trains are probably the best option. They are convenient, cheap, and fairly reliable. Fast trains are available but are 50% more expensive than regular passenger trains. Polrail passes provide unlimited travel on all domestic trains in the country which are available in durations of 8 days, 15 days, 21 days and one month. Flights are another option and although some may require connections that make it less convenient than the train, it is worth looking into special deals and promotions. There are bus routes throughout the country but trains are almost always more convenient and comfortable. Minibuses are a good option for short trips though. If you opt to cycle between villages, there are special luggage compartments on trains that you can store your bike in for longer distances. Taxis are also available but watch out for cab drivers waiting to take advantage of tourists and consider calling a reputable company in advance to avoid problems.
In Slovakia, buses are quicker than regular trains and have a more extensive network than express trains, but they are comparable in price and do not have air conditioning.
Eurail (a single rail pass that allows travel between multiple countries) trains/tickets are also available when traveling through these countries.
The most famous Czech cuisine is undeniably its beer. Bohemian beer ranks with the best in the world and is cheap and plentiful throughout the country and a great bargain outside touristy areas. When food becomes necessary, expect heavy sauces and a variety of soups to start. Dumplings and meat are both quite popular. You can find vegetarian restaurants in Prague, but expect a hearty diet. A unique favorite in pubs is the famous beer cheese (pivny syr). A smelly brie-like cheese, it is usually served with small piles of onion, butter, chopped pickle, paprika, and other spices to mix in. If you are lucky you can get a shot of beer foam from the bartender to stir in before spreading it on your bread.
In Poland, there are also generally hearty dishes and meat always features prominently in the main course. Meals usually start with soup, such as borsh (beet) or Zurek (sour rye meal mash), which are often accompanied by stuffed dumplings. Beer is eaten with meals, but a shot of vodka is preferable whether or not there is food to accompany it.
Slovakia’s traditional dish is bryndzove halusky (gnocci with a thick sheep’s cheese sauce and crumbled bacon) and the cesnakova polievka (garlic soup) is worth trying. Vegetarians are again at a disadvantage, although trout or carp is often on the menu for pescatarians. Wine in Slovakia is good and cheap.
Not surprisingly, Czech is the official language of the Czech Republic and you may want to bring along an English-Czech phrasebook if you plan on being there for a while. A number of Czechs also understand German and in Prague, English will suffice.
Polish is spoken almost exclusively in Poland, although some older Poles speak German and many young people speak English. Learning a few key words is definitely advisable although most tourist offices and upscale hotels will have at least one English speaker.
In Slovakia, you will have difficulty finding an English speaker in small towns. German is useful and those working in tourism will know English.
The Czech Republic climate is temperate with chilly winters and rain and snow possible. The best weather is in the summer but the region is also the most crowded during July and August as well as during the holiday periods of Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter. Poland is also crowded in the summer due the better weather; this is the best time for visitors to enjoy the coastal resorts and lakes because after the summer holiday season, many of the hotels, clubs and restaurants in those areas close. Early autumn or late spring also bring good weather and smaller crowds so these may be the best times for a visit. The winter is a bit dark and unless you are going skiing, probably not the best time to enjoy the rest of Poland’s outdoor attractions, although it is possible to see the city sights and cultural attractions in the cold and Christmas in Prague has a wonderful, Victorian charm. Resort areas in the mountains of Slovakia are at peak capacity in July and August, although Bratislava will be cheaper and less crowded during the hot summer months.
These countries entered the European Union in May 2004, so entry for EU citizens is now unrestricted, you will only require your passport.
Citizens of the United States, Switzerland, Japan, and New Zealand can stay up to 90 days in the Czech Republic without a visa. Those from New Zealand and Australia can stay up to 180 days. Canadians, Australians, and South Africans will need travel visas. Visas cannot be obtained at the border or the airport.
Citizens of the United States, Switzerland and Japan do need a visa, but it can be obtained at all major borders, international airports, and sea ports and lasts for 90 days. Those from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa and Israel must obtain a tourist visa before gong to Poland. It is possible to obtain a 48 hour transit visa (onward visa required) if you need to pass through Poland.
Citizens of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand do not need a visa. It is advisable to check on all visa requirements since they do change.
By Bethany Sousa
Czech Republic & Poland
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