The town's slow pace and pedestrian promenades, lined with turn-of-the-20th-century Art Nouveau buildings, turn strolling into an art form. Nighttime walks take on an even more mystical feel as the sewers, the river, and the many major cracks in the roads emit steam from the hot springs running underneath.
Avoid Karlovy Vary's "New Town," which happens to be conveniently left off most tourist maps. Its only real attractions are a McDonald's and a couple of ATMs (which you can also find in the historic center).
If you're traveling here by train or bus, a good place to start your exploration is the Hotel Thermal, I. P. Pavlova 11 (tel. 359-001-111), at the northern end of the Old Town's center. Built in the 1970s, it exemplifies how obtrusive Communist architecture could be. Nestled between the town's eastern hills and the Ohre River, the glass, steel, and concrete Thermal sticks out like a sore thumb amid the rest of the town's 19th-century architecture. Nonetheless, you'll find three important places at the Thermal: the only centrally located outdoor public pool; an upper terrace boasting a truly spectacular view of the town; and Karlovy Vary's largest theater, which holds many of the film festival's premier events. Take it all in. But since the Hotel Thermal is not that pleasing to the eye, it's best to keep walking so you won't remember too much of it.
As you enter the heart of the town on the river's west side, you'll see the ornate white wrought-iron gazebo named Sadová Kolonáda adorning the beautifully manicured park, Dvorákovy Sady. Continue to follow the river, and about 100m (328 ft.) later you'll encounter the Mlýnská Kolonáda. This long, covered walkway houses several Karlovy Vary springs, which you can sample free 24 hours a day. Each spring has a plaque beside it describing its mineral elements and temperature. Bring your own cup or buy one just about anywhere to sip the waters, since most are too hot to drink from with your hands. When you hit the river bend, you'll see the majestic Church of St. Mary Magdalene perched atop a hill, overlooking the Vrídlo, the hottest spring. Built in 1736, the church is the work of Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer, who also created two of Prague's more notable churches -- both named St. Nicholas.
Housing Vrídlo, which blasts water some 15m (49 ft.) into the air, is the glass building where a statue of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin once stood. (Gagarin's statue has since made a safe landing at the Karlovy Vary Airport, where it greets the waves of Russian visitors who flood the town.) Now called the Vrídelní Kolonáda, the structure, built in 1974, houses several hot springs that you can sample for free daily from 6am to 7pm. There are also public restrooms, open daily 6am to 6pm and costing 10Kc.
Heading away from the Vrídelní Kolonáda are Stará and Nová Louka streets, which line either side of the river. Along Stará (Old) Louka are several fine cafes and glass and crystal shops. Nová (New) Louka is lined with many hotels and the historic town's main theater, built in 1886, which houses paintings by notable artists like Klimt and has just finished a major renovation project that has restored the theater to its original splendor.
Both streets lead eventually to the Grandhotel Pupp, Mírové nám. 2 (tel. 353-109-111). The Pupp's main entrance and building several years ago underwent extensive renovations that more or less erased the effects of 40 years of state ownership under Communism (under the former regime, the hotel's name was actually "Moskva-Pupp" just to remind everyone who was actually calling the shots). Regardless of capitalism or Communism, the Pupp remains what it always was: the grande dame of hotels in central Europe. Once catering to nobility from all over Europe, the Pupp still houses one of the town's finest restaurants, the Grand, while its grounds are a favorite with the hiking crowd.
If you still have the energy, atop the hill behind the Pupp stands the Diana Lookout Tower (tel. 353-222-872). Footpaths lead to the tower through the forests and eventually spit you out at the base of the tower, as if to say, "Ha, the trip is only half over." The five-story climb up the tower tests your stamina, but the view of the town is more than worth it. For those who aren't up to the climb up the hill, a cable car runs up the hill every 15 minutes June to September daily from 9:15am to 6:45pm; February, March, November, and December 9:15am to 4:45pm; April, May, and October 9:15am to 5:45pm; for 40Kc one-way, 70Kc round-trip.
And if you have some time left at the end of your stay, visit the Jan Becher Museum, T. G. Masaryka 57 (tel. 359-578-142; www.becherovka.cz), to find out about the history of the town's secret: the formula for Becherovka. This herbal liquor is a sought-after souvenir, and you will get to taste it here. The museum is open daily 9am to 5pm; admission is 100Kc adults, 50Kc students.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.