When we began planning our “grand tour around the Czech Republic,” Olomouc almost didn’t make the list. Okay, its Holy Trinity Column is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but why drive into the middle of a city, see it and leave? That would be pointless. Are there any other things to do? we wondered. Otherwise, why bother?
We can thank our friends at Czech Tourism for changing our minds. “Spend two nights there and see the city,” they told us. “You’ll be really surprised.”
Then we learned something else about Olomouc (it's pronounced oh-la-MOOTZ) that confirmed it: Lonely planet gave the city top mention in their e-book, Secret Gems of Europe. “Olomouc is a sleeper,” they write. “Practically unknown outside the Czech Republic and underappreciated at home, the city is surprisingly majestic.”
Okay, why not. Two nights it is.
Olomouc – the city
According to legend, Olomouc was founded by the Roman Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar. Today, he proudly sits astride a prancing horse on the city's Upper Square. Whether true or not, it makes a good story.
As the capital and biggest town in Moravia, Olomouc flourished in the Middle Ages. It was one of the most important trade and power centers in the region. As a result, it was important to the Catholic church and earned a bishopric. Unfortunately, it was sacked during the Thirty Years War and it lost its position as capital city to Brno.
Fast-forward to today. Olomouc still retains its old and picturesque character, as well as everything from universities to sports facilities to public paths and gardens. It is now the fifth-largest in the Czech Republic, known for its quality of life. During the school year, its population increases by 25% when some 25,000 university students move into town.
True fact: Olomouc has the highest density of university students in Central Europe.
Upper Square (Horní náměstí)
Olomouc has two squares, Upper Square and Lower Square, and they are connected to each other. There is so much to see in Upper Square that a hop-on/hop-off bus (our usual way to see a new city) could never do it justice. You’d be sitting in one spot for a long time.
Olomouc City Council and Central Moravia Tourist Association arranged a private guide to show us around. We had never used a private guide before, but it was really nice to walk at our own pace and only see things we were personally interested in.
Verdict: Private guides are the best option if you would like to focus on a particular interest, such as photography, religion or art. Or if you have special needs. We're converts.
Tip: Olomouc Tourist Office offers a few inexpensive walking tours on their website (link below).
Holy Trinity Column
There's no missing Holy Trinity Column and its over-the-top ornate artwork. It was erected to thank God for ending a plague, which struck between 1713 and 1715. They must have been really grateful, because at 32 meters (105 feet) it is the largest free-standing Baroque sculpture in Central Europe. To give you an idea of its scale, the column is large enough to have a chapel in its base.
Central Europe has many plague columns, built to commemorate the end of outbreaks and thank God for stopping them. Even so, UNESCO considers Holy Trinity Column to be “one of the most exceptional examples of the apogee of central European Baroque artistic expression.”
One of the reasons Holy Trinity Column is so unique is that every stonemason, artist and master craftsman who worked on it were Olomouc citizens. Their sculptures and reliefs depict the crucifixion and other events from the Bible, as well as saints who were connected to the city in some way.
Tip: A guide is available in the chapel from 9-5 Tues. – Sat. during the summer season.
Olomouc Town Hall
Olomouc Town Hall sits in the middle of Upper Square and is one of the city's icons. Dating from the 1400s, it has been the center of life in Olomouc for centuries. Even today, you'll still find the Mayor's and city council offices here, as well as the Tourist Center, an exhibit of Olomouc’s history, and a unique astronomical clock.
Town Hall has been expanded over the centuries, which you can see in the variety of its architectural details. The white stucco building has a bay window from medieval St. Jerome’s Chapel as well as a Renaissance loggia and towering black spires. There’s also a cute dragon’s head on a corner of the roof. Wonder when that was put there, and by whom….
We joined one of the twice-daily guided tours so we could climb the 75-meter-high tower and get a bird's-eye view of the city. The tour includes three permanent exhibitions
- Astronomical Clock exhibition
- History of the Olomouc Town Hall
- Olomouc through the Ages
Once again, what I had expected to be a boring experience turned out to be quite enjoyable. It didn't hurt that we got to go inside the chapel, peek inside the Mayor's office, and walk through 600-year-old corridors.
And the view from the tower was worth the climb.
Tip: Climb to the top of the Town Hall’s tower for a panoramic vista of Olomouc. The 76-meter tower is open twice daily by guided tour, at 11pm and 3pm.
The Astronomical Clock
Astronomical clocks do more than tell the time of day. They track the seasons, the position of the sun and planets, the moon’s phase and which constellations are visible in the night sky.
Olomouc’s 600-year-old astronomical clock is one of only two in the country (the other one is in Prague). Every day at noon the quirky astronomical clock chimes, blacksmiths strike their anvils and a procession of proletarian workers parade around to the delight of onlookers.
The clock was damaged from bombing during WWII and was only rebuilt after Czechoslovakia was in communist control. Saints, bishops, angels and so forth made way for builders, mechanics, a chemist, housewife and laborers.
The 365-day list of saints (one for each day of the year) now includes Lenin’s death, Stalin’s birthday, International Labor Day and the October Revolution.
Four Baroque fountains also grace Upper Square, one honoring its legendary Roman founder and others with themes from his empire's ancient mythology. You’ll see children frolicking in them in warm weather and climbing onto the turtle sculpture near Arion Fountain year-round.
- Caesar Fountain
- Mercury Fountain
- Hercules Fountain
- Arion Fountain
The Lower Square is smaller but similar to the Upper Square. Two more Baroque fountains are here and each features a Roman god: Jupiter, head king of the gods, or Neptune, who ruled the sea.
At its other end is another plague column, crowned by a statue of Mary and surrounded by statues of eight saints. It’s pretty, but not nearly as grand as Holy Trinity Column.
Standing on a small hill and built on the foundations of old Olomouc Castle, the early-Baroque Archbishop’s Palace is city's most important museum and church. You can still see some of the castle's original foundations at the Archdiocesan Museum. The holdings here take you back 1,000 years.
Archbishops have lived here since the 1500s, and Pope John Paul II stayed here during his visit to Olomouc. Don't miss the elaborate Troyer Coach, the 18th century carriage of one Bishop Cardinal Ferdinand Julius Troyer von Troyerstein. (Liberace, eat your heart out!)
St. Wenceslas Cathedral
Stately St Wenceslas Cathedral stands just across the way. It's an impressive, oft-rebuilt Gothic church that lends solemnity to this quiet part of town.
It wasn't always this peaceful: poor Wenceslas III met his untimely end in 1306 at a house just next to the church.
The cathedral dates from the 1100s, so it originally had a romanesque design. It was expanded and renovated in the 19th century and “updated” to give it its current neo-gothic facade and steeples that stand over 100 meters tall. Now, when it comes to size, this cathedral is only outdone by the one in Prague.
This is the only archbishop's seat in central Europe accessible to the public. It has always been the seat of Olomouc bishops and archbishops. Both Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II have visited. Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I was crowned here, as were others, so it has its place in secular history as well.
Olomouc Castle has been a national cultural monument since 1962. Thanks to its many additions and renovations I doubt its original owners, the Premyslid family, would recognize it.
Stinky cheese in Olomouc
Every adventurous food lover should learn what foods are special to the region. Here, the best known is Olomoucky syr, or Olomoucké tvarůžky. This is the only original Czech cheese, made from skim cow's milk and ripened until it has a strong aroma. People have described the “stinky cheese” in a variety of terms, the kindest of which was “an acquired taste.”
Even so, it is a big part of the city's culture and history. They even have a festival dedicated to Olomoucky syr. Offensive or not, they are proud of it. And they should be, even if the cheese is best known for its aroma.
It is possible to follow a Biblical (clean eating) diet and still be an adventurous eater. Case in point: we tried Limburger cheese just because of its “mega-stinky” reputation. We rose to the challenge again at dinnertime. We ordered the Olomoucky syr appetizer.
“It's cheese. It's made from cow's milk. How bad can it be?” Dan reasoned. “Worst case would be, we don't like it.”
I took a sip of my male pivo and reminded him, “Um, if we don't like it, we don't have to finish it … right?”
Moments later, the waiter set a platter between us, full of the semi-soft, golden-yellow disks and accompanied with thinly-sliced red onions, butter and sliced bread.
Our waiter was kind enough to guide us. “Simply spread butter on the bread, add a disk of cheese, top with onion, then bite to get a little of everything at once.” Yeah, sure. But no way we would do that before taking a whiff.
Dan: “The smell is not as strong as bleu cheese or brie. I don't think it's particularly offensive.”
Linda: “I've smelled worse cheeses than this. Still, I can't see why they call it ‘semi soft.' Is it only me, or does its texture remind you of hard rubber? My jaw is getting a serious workout.”
Where to stay in Olomouc
Our hotel was beautiful, but because it was nearby the university nightlife it was too noisy for our taste. Because we wouldn't stay there again and would not recommend it, we asked for a list of quieter suggestions for our readers.