Last Updated on December 30, 2023
Karlštejn Castle, the largest and most visited Gothic castle in Bohemia, Czech Republic, commands a breathtaking view over the lush, wooded hills cradling the Berounka River.
Exceptional among Czech castles for its historical significance, robust structure, and strategic location, the castle is a symbol of the Czech state and a highlight of the Burgenstrasse, also known as the Castle Road, a scenic route linking over sixty castles from Prague to Mannheim, Germany.
Situated just nineteen miles southwest of Prague, the castle offers an ideal day trip into the heart of the Czech countryside. This is precisely why my friends Petra and Tomáš, who I was visiting in Prague, enthusiastically recommended we go.
From Gothic Stronghold to Neo-Gothic Masterpiece
Constructed in 1348 under the direction of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, King of Bohemia, Karlštejn Castle was intended as a secure retreat for safeguarding the emperor’s valuable collection of holy relics and the Imperial Crown Jewels.
It was also meant to serve as his private residence.
Charles IV first stayed at Karlštejn Castle in 1355, starting a significant phase of construction and decoration, especially in the chapels. The castle’s completion in 1365 was marked by the consecration of the Chapel of the Holy Cross in the Great Tower.
Over time, the castle’s architecture evolved remarkably. In the 15th century, the fortress was rebuilt as a Gothic stronghold. It underwent a Renaissance transformation in the 16th century, and later, in the 19th century, embraced the neo-Gothic style that characterizes its current appearance.
While the jewels are now housed in Prague Castle, Karlštejn Castle fulfilled its role as their safekeeper until 1619.
Discovering the Charm of Karlštejn Village
Reaching Karlštejn from Prague was a comfortable 40-minute drive, though Petra mentioned that commuter trains are a frequent and convenient option as well.
Upon arrival, we faced a choice for the last leg to the castle: a scenic uphill 25-minute walk, a quick taxi van ride, or a charming horse-drawn carriage for a touch of luxury.
Like most visitors, we opted for the walk, enticed by the meandering path that winds through the picturesque village of Karlštejn, offering an immersive journey to the castle.
Our stroll took us past a series of inviting shops, each brimming with local crafts and souvenirs reflecting the village’s cultural heritage.
Along the way, we learned about the Karlštejn Vintage Festival, an annual event at the castle for wine enthusiasts, as well as the romantic Hotel Mlýn Karlštejn, nestled nearby on the river—perfect for honeymooners.
Hikers love to stay overnight here, too, because of the area’s many leafy green trails.
Savoring Traditional Czech Pastries
Halfway up the hill to the castle, the inviting aroma from Restaurant Bohemia beckoned us. While the Beef Goulash was tempting, the variety of traditional Czech pastries on display caught our eye.
After some deliberation, we indulged in koláče and vdolky–the former, a sweet, fluffy pastry filled with plum jam, poppy seeds, or cheese, and the latter, soft donuts with lemon zest, jam, and whipped cream or crumbled tvaroh. Both were delicious!
Medieval Encounters: Falconry
As we made our way to the castle, we encountered a falconer, a vivid reminder of the region’s medieval heritage. Clad in traditional garb, he stood with a majestic bird of prey perched on his arm, symbolizing the rich hunting traditions of Bohemia.
With his encouragement, I cautiously extended my arm, and to my delight, the raptor gently hopped onto it.
Holding the bird, feeling its weight and the soft brush of its feathers, was a surreal moment, connecting me to centuries of tradition and the natural world surrounding Karlštejn.
Exploring Karlštejn Castle: Tour Options
As we approached the Castle, its towering walls and massive structures looming impressively over the forest, the majesty of this place was immediately apparent.
To see the castle, visitors must take a guided tour, and there are usually three options available. The basic 55-minute tour offers a comprehensive overview of the castle’s Gothic era.
In contrast, the 100-minute exclusive tour, which requires advance booking, delves deeper into the Middle Ages with the castle’s collection of frescoes, paintings, and statues, culminating with a visit to the Chapel of the Holy Cross.
The third option allows visitors to see the panoramic views from atop the Great Tower and to visit some parts of the tower itself.
Inside the Castle: A Journey Through Time
We chose the basic tour to see the Great Tower.
As we moved through the castle, we were impressed, especially by the rich array of furnishings in the Marian Tower spanning from the 14th to the 19th centuries.
The wood-paneled Courtiers’ Hall, once a hub of the Imperial entourage, was striking. Imagining it bustling with courtiers in their finery was easy, despite the changes since Charles IV’s era.
Our guide, Ondřej, offered fascinating insights into Charles IV’s reign, highlighting his achievements in diplomacy, education, and architecture.
The tour also included the Emperor’s Bedchamber, with its secretive staircase to the Empress’s quarters, and the St. Wenceslas Chapel, once richly adorned with wall paintings.
Throughout the Audience Hall, Knight’s Hall, and Royal Hall of Ancestors, the lavish frescoes, sculptures, and artwork spoke volumes of the opulent lives led by the castle’s former residents.
Uncovering Karlštejn’s Ghostly Tales
As we moved through the halls and chambers, Ondřej introduced a different aspect of Karlštejn Castle–its mysterious legends.
He gathered us together and spoke quietly.
“It is said the castle is haunted by twelve ladies who can only be set free if twelve young men stay in the castle for twelve months,” he said.
I smiled at the whimsy of the tale, musing that those legendary ladies faced quite the implausible quest for freedom.
Then he leaned toward us with a smile, as if about to tell a secret, “It is also said that in times of danger, flocks of ravens circle the castle, and the enemy attack will come from the direction in which they fly away.”
The Great Tower and the Chapel of the Holy Cross
After the tour, as we climbed the dark stairs of the Great Tower—once the most significant part of the castle—I couldn’t resist taking a quick glance through a window, half-expecting to spot ravens. To my relief, none were in sight.
The tower’s highlight is the Chapel of the Holy Cross which once held the crown jewels. This chapel, which you can visit on the exclusive tour, is one of the Czech Republic’s most significant Gothic sanctuaries, lavishly adorned with Royal Court Painter Master Theodoric’s 129 panels of sacred art.
When we reached the top of the tower and gazed below, the world seemed to unfold beneath us. In all directions, sweeping views of the Czech countryside were a painter’s dream–rolling hills, lush forests, and the meandering river sparkling in the afternoon sun.
A Fairy Tale Wedding at Karlštejn Castle
It was from here that I witnessed a scene straight out of a fairy tale. Below, in the castle courtyard, a bridal party had gathered.
The bride, clad in a stunning gown, stood elegantly with her entourage. The groom, looking every bit the part of a prince in this historic setting, stood protectively by her side.
In that moment, standing high above the courtyard with the verdant landscape unfurling below, the unique charm of Karlštejn Castle was unmistakably clear.
Just a short journey from Prague, the castle not only offers a glimpse into Bohemia’s regal heritage but also weaves grand architecture and art with breathtaking natural scenery–the perfect escape from the everyday.