If you hear “Brutalist” as an architectural term, you’ll probably think of a building that looks a lot like Hotel Thermal in the Czech Republic’s most famous spa town: Kalovy Vary. In a city otherwise filled with beautifully ornamented buildings from 100 or 200 years ago, the tallest hotel in the city went up during the Communist Era, a time when beauty took a back seat to projecting an aura of authority and strength.
If you’re in Hotel Thermal instead of looking at it from elsewhere, however, it’s a great vantage point. The hotel has the best views of a fairytale European city from many of its room balconies and that shot above is what you see when you are looking out from the huge and impressive outdoor spa pool complex that is open all year. I won’t hurt your eyes with the view from the other direction…
This hotel is not the most prestigious in town. That would be Grandhotel Pupp, which has a Hollywood-style plaza of stars featuring its past guests like Franz Kafka, Lou Reed, Morgan Freeman, Salma Hayek, and John Travolta. Plus it has appeared in movies where James Bond lounged and Queen Latifah joked. Hotel Thermal has likely seen more stars pass through its doors, however, because it’s the host of an annual film festival that’s one of the biggest ones in the world for attracting celebrities.
The film festival was just wrapping up when I arrived, so by then the halls were filled with technical workers breaking down the screens, stages, and lights. We were out and about most of the time anyway, checking out the local mineral waters culture, riding the funicular up to the overlook and restaurant, and strolling the gorgeous town. I also rented a bike and rode out to Loket Castle, which in the Casino Royale movie was tagged as Montenegro instead.
Restaurants and a Spa Pool Complex
Since there were so many interesting dining spots in the city, I didn’t spend much time in the hotel’s restaurants, especially since their fine dining one in the spa complex was closed both nights we were there anyway. We did order coffee and pastries in the Film Cafe though and ate them while looking at movie star and starlet photos on the walls from the film festivals over the years.
The restaurant in the spa complex building, Varyo, isn’t even listed on the official website. In the main hotel building there’s just the bar/cafe and the main buffet restaurant with an outdoor terrace in nice weather. Thankfully there are a dozen other choices within a five-minute walk, more if you walk through town. (I would highly recommend Tusculum if you want a more refined dining experience than the usual Czech menu of offerings.)
We did make time to enjoy the Hotel Thermal spa complex though, which is in a separate set of buildings across the parking lot from the high-rise hotel. We got our exercise heading up the path since the elevator was broken during our stay, but it was definitely worth the climb. There’s one clear pool like a swimming pool that’s maintained at a comfortable temperature and has lanes for laps, with hydrojets placed strategically around. Then there’s another hotter pool filled with natural mineral water that’s more likely to cure what ails you if you soak in it for enough days in a row.
There were lounge chairs scattered around the pools and on a deck area, though after we spent two hours with our towels on a day bed they wanted to kick us off because it supposedly required an extra charge. In the end they relented since it was the end of the day anyway and the crowds were thinning out.
There’s a bar serving perfectly poured Pilsner Urquell drafts and cocktails, as well as food to eat in a designated area off to the side or inside. The spa complex also has a variety of saunas, steam rooms, and other relaxation areas that are available for guests to enjoy, as well as an indoor pool. You can buy a day pass if you’re staying elsewhere and this seemed quite popular when we were there.
Rooms at Hotel Thermal, Karlovy Vary
The rooms at this hotel are more attractive than the exterior, but they can best be described as “European minimalist.” European because you get the annoying traits of two separate beds instead of a king (either pushed together or not), separate duvets but no cover sheet (even when it’s hot), and a bathroom with no washcloth and limited toiletries. Our contributor Buzzy Gordon stayed a couple of months after I did and his bathroom had zero toiletries, so I guess I should be thankful we had some shampoo and bar soap at least.
Overall, the rooms here are on par with a 3-star hotel in the USA, with those annoying no-theft hangers, pressboard furniture that gets nicked easily, and a desk that’s more like a vanity, with no outlets. Apart from a few suites, room sizes range from 185 to 203 square feet.
On the plus side, we had an amazing view from our balcony of the pretty colorful houses and hotels with a green mountain backdrop. I was also happy to see reasonable prices in the minibar: less than $3 for a beer and less than $5 for a small bottle of wine. My wife was happy to see an electric tea kettle. The air conditioning worked when it got toasty in early July.
There is a casino on site with mostly slot machines but the key reason to stay here, besides the views and the big pool complex, is that Hotel Thermal is a short stroll to the center of the historic district. While the architecture and decor may make you feel like you’re in the suburbs, you can walk to anywhere you would want to go in this World Heritage European spa city.
Review and photos by editor Tim Leffel. He was hosted by Czech Tourism while researching the above feature stories and others on his third trip to the country. As always, all opinions are his own.