From miniature Prague to £1 coffees, it is a wonder so few venture south into Bohemia

It’s the adults who are the giddiest. Perhaps because we know there’s something faintly ridiculous about standing in line to have a go on a piece of children’s play equipment.

Squeals echo down the giant, gleaming metal tube as I peer 25m down to the mossy floor. Then, more quickly than I’d bargained for, it’s our turn. I wave my kids off first, before scrambling into my own hessian sack, letting go of the rail (and my misgivings) and beginning a swooping descent down the Czech Republic’s longest slide.

This tumbling toboggan is the alternative route down from Lipno’s Treetop Walkway: a 675m, barrier-free timber boardwalk through hundred-year-old pines in South Bohemia, punctuated by a 40m observation tower

The views from the top are expansive and glue even my fidgetiest child to the spot. The wind swallows any noise. We peek over treetops to face the hushed beauty of mountainous Šumava National Park and still waters of Lake Lipno – the Czech Republic’s largest reservoir, which skirts the Austrian border.

Lipno's giant metal slide (Photo: Joe Wakeford/Getty Images)
Lipno’s giant metal slide (Photo: Joe Wakeford/Getty)

Despite having once lived in Prague, this is my first time exploring the country’s deep south. More fool me.
I’m not alone in staying captive to Prague’s charms. In 2019, accommodation figures suggest that approximately 433,000 visitors from the UK stayed in the Czech capital. In contrast, less than a fifth of that number booked a room outside Prague. This autumn, the Czech capital has seen visitor numbers recover to 97 per cent of 2019 levels.

As Katarina Hobbs, director of CzechTourism UK and Ireland, explains: “When we say the Czech Republic, it’s undoubtedly associated with Prague.” However, Hobbs points out that visitors are missing a trick. “There’s so much more to discover,” she says.

Of course, aside from its extravagant good looks, Prague’s popularity has always been partly due to its relative affordability compared to other European destinations. And although the Czech capital isn’t insulated from rising inflation, it ranks as the sixth most affordable destination in the Post Office Travel Money’s 2022 City Costs Barometer. This is perhaps reflected in the resilient summer visitor numbers, which increased 77 per cent on the previous year.

Value increases with distance

Good value becomes apparent as we begin our adventure, slipping from Central to South Bohemia, about an hour’s drive from Prague. Both these modern Czech administrative districts once formed part of a mighty medieval kingdom, once the centre of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s a landscape knitted from farmland, 15th-century castles, Baroque-domed churches and towns of colour-coded Communist-era housing blocks.

We start at Písek, a town that owes its existence to a 13th-century gold rush when the riverbank was found to be peppered with the precious metal. It was during these boom years the gothic stone bridge was built. Now the oldest in the Czech Republic (beating Prague’s landmark Charles Bridge by at least half a century), from May to late autumn, it’s flanked by large-scale sculptures crafted from the once-sought-after sand.

Sand sculptures in Pisek (Photo: Radek Mica/AFP via Getty Images)
Sand sculptures in Pisek (Photo: Radek Mica/Getty)

The handsome centre is dominated by a custard-yellow Renaissance town hall and a proliferation of cafés and bars serve decent coffee for around £1.

The 13th-century castle is now a highly rated city museum, and the converted malthouse is a magical children’s museum.

From late November, Písek’s main square hosts evening carols, steaming spiced wine and a weekend artisan market. On Christmas Eve, a horse-drawn carriage, carrying a trumpeter and owl, rattles around the town.

Further south, the medieval town of Ceský Krumlov is South Bohemia’s big hitter in terms of visitor numbers. With its romantic castle complex looking out over terracotta rooftops and Gothic spires, it’s often billed as Prague in miniature.

Cesky Krumlov is a Unesco World Heritage site (Photo: Photographer: GoodLifeStudio/Getty Images)
Cesky Krumlov is a Unesco World Heritage site (Photo: Photographer: GoodLifeStudio/Getty)

However, arriving late in the afternoon, we find the exodus of day trippers has left behind a relaxed feel. We soon discover a modern art centre, a new community hub hosting exhibitions and concerts, a children’s museum and choice of innovative cafes, restaurants and bars. At Bistro Topinka, lunch of a modern take on traditional Czech open sandwiches, costs us less than £10.

Continuing south towards the Austrian border, we arrive at the lakeside resort of Lipno nad Vltavou – site of treetop adventures – having already eaten our fair share of větrník (a Czech rift on a profiterole, filled with caramel and vanilla cream). Yet, our holiday gluttony leads us to Cukrárna Povidlon, an innovative patisserie whose sweet treats are something to behold.

Lipno is popular with summer visitors but the surrounding mountains are transformed by skiers in winter (Photo: Dan Novotny/Getty)
Lipno is popular with summer visitors but the surrounding mountains are transformed by skiers in winter (Photo: Dan Novotny/Getty)

We’re staying at Landal Marina Lipno, a holiday park popular with Czech, German and Austrian families, who come in the summer for the wealth of outdoor activities. In the winter, the area is a favourite with skiers – when the treetop walkway and bobsleigh track remain open, and the frozen lake becomes a vast ice rink.

Even during peak of summer, a lakeside, well-equipped two-bedroom apartment comes in at just over £100 a night – and the cost shrinks in the winter months. Not that some of the restaurants around the resort aren’t on the pricier side.

However, one evening, we drive 10 minutes to the pretty market town of Frymburk. The four of us feast on loaded burgers and fries on a terrace for less than £20.

On our journey back to spend the weekend in Prague (we couldn’t bypass it completely), my six-year-old is still chatting about her holiday highlight: getting the brief responsibility of steering a boat. For me, though, it is that leap of faith – taking a carefree whirl down the treetop slide.

It sums up our feelings about South Bohemia. Venturing beyond the splendour of Prague brings rich rewards for the curious traveller.


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