Rich in art, architecture, history and culture, the Czech Republic in Central Europe is a fascinating if not immediately obvious destination for family holidays and breaks, studded with ancient castles, monasteries and stately mansions within a bewitching landscape of forests and mountains laced by family-friendly walking and cycling trails.
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Start in Prague – the country's highly atmospheric capital is more child-friendly that you might have thought. Prague is located in Central Bohemia, where castles and old silver mines are the big draw for kids.
Discover the rest of Bohemia (West, North Bohemia, East, South, and the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands), which accounts for much of the country. In South Bohemia, Český Krumlov is a gem of an old town with a UNESCO-listed castle. It's close to Šumava National Park, the Czech Republic's biggest, which attracts walkers, cyclists, and canoeists. Or head for north-east Bohemia and Český Ráj ('Bohemian Paradise'), a protected landscape with 'rock towns' formed by sandstone cliffs and volcanic basalt rock 'fingers', plus a couple of dramatic ruined castles. Hiking and biking trails help you to discover it. The nearby Krkonoše ('Giant') Mountains, the country's highest (shared with Poland), are home to the Czech Republic's most popular ski resorts, most notably Špindlerův Mlýn.
Explore the Moravia region, home to pretty vineyards and orchards, scenic mountains and sweet villages, and a charming regional capital, Brno, where sights include the Technical Museum with its hands-on Experimentarium. Telč has a UNESCO-listed town square bordered by well-preserved Renaissance and Baroque houses plus a 17th-century Renaissance chateau with an English-style park, all surrounded by shallow artificial lakes. In the Moravský Kras karst area between Brno and Olomouc, the Punkevní Caves offer you the chance to marvel at the Macocha Abyss and take a boat-ride along an underground river. Southern Moravia (near the border with Austria) is a particularly lovely spot for cycling, with lots of well-marked paths through a countryside chock-a-block with vineyards, wine cellars and cutesy villages.
Get hold of the Czech Tourist Club (Klub českých turistů) walking maps, covering thousands of kilometres of scenic paths around the countries. They're available in most bookshops and museums as well as online.
Traditional Czech food is hearty and rich verging on the stodgy – think pork, beef, duck, goose or game served with knedlíky (dumplings) and sauerkraut – although lighter dishes are now easier to find. Look out for soups (polévka), including bramboračka (potato soup, sometimes with wild mushrooms), hovězí vývar (clear beef soup, sometimes with liver dumplings), gulášovka (a thick goulash soup) and česnečka (garlic soup). Carp is a popular fish, while a fairly ubiquitous snack is párek v rohlíku – long, thin hot dogs in crusty rolls, with mustard or ketchup and sometimes chips (hranolky). Typical desserts include jablkový závin or štrůdl (apple strudel), perhaps served warm with whipped cream, and ovocné knedlíky (fruit-stuffed dumplings), or try one of the cream cakes usually offered in a kavárna (café) or kukrárna (shop selling sweets, ice cream and drinks).
Larger towns generally have Italian and Chinese restaurants, which can be a life-saver on family holidays with vegetarians – although many standard restaurants offer a couple of veggie options, they may well feature prawns or even bacon.
Where parents are concerned, the Czech Republic is famous for its beer (often cheaper than water in restaurants!), including major brands Pilsner Urquell, Budvar and Staropramen. The best local wines tend to be whites from Moravia. When it comes to coffee, try a Vídeňská káva (Viennese coffee), served with whipped cream.
Summer is the best time to visit the Czech Republic, when the weather is clement enough to enjoy its great outdoors as well as its fine architecture. But Prague is a great place to spend Christmas, since this is when St Mikuláš roams the country with an angel, who gives presents and sweets to kids as rewards for good behaviour, and with the devil, who gives them potatoes or coal for their misdemeanours.
Most family holidays in the Czech Republic will begin and end in Prague, which is well served from the UK by low-cost and standard carriers, but you might also fly to Brno or to Vienna in Austria, from where a shuttle bus takes you the 110km to Brno.
By train, you can hop on an afternoon Eurostar from London to Brussels then change to a high-speed train to Cologne in Germany, from where there's a 'Phoenix' City Night Line sleeper train to Prague, arriving just after breakfast. Alternatively, there's an afternoon Eurostar from London to Paris, an overnight sleeper to Berlin, then a scenic EuroCity train to Prague. Or you can travel by daytime trains and make an overnight stop. For all details, see Man in Seat 61 (seat.61.com).
Although not as superb value as it was in the past, the Czech Republic remains a great place for family holidays on a budget, not least because it remains outside the expensive Eurozone, although some big shops accept Euros, and many accommodation providers will quote the price in Euros (the currency in the Czech Republic is the koruna).
Accommodation suited to family holidays in the Czech Republic ranges from luxurious hotels to campsites – the Český Ráj area is particularly lovely for camping.
Becoming a member of the Czech Tourist Club (see Things to Do) gives you the option to 'camp' at little charge in cottages around the country, or another interesting option is apartments in chateaux.
In Brno, the Parkhotel has lots of atmosphere, plus a swimming pool and the capacity for an extra bed in most rooms.
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