Hiding in Plain Sight
Olomouc is the Czech Republic’s sixth largest city and the seat of the county that shares the Olomouc name.
Many tourist guidebooks and websites refer to the city as a “hidden gem”.
I’ve visited the city many times. While I can agree it is a gem and not to be missed if you’re in the Moravian regions of the country, it is anything but “hidden”.
From the early Stone Age to the present, Olomouc has held importance as a crossroads for travellers. If you travel by train between the eastern and western parts of the Czech Republic, chances are very good that your train will pass through Olomouc. You may even need to use Olomouc as a transfer point.
The city’s role as a crossroads made it a very important and prosperous trade hub early in its history and very influential in the region. This gave the city a great deal of strategic importance and made it a major target for seige in both the Hussite Wars and the 30 Years War. In fact, the city was all but destroyed when the Swedish army laid seige to it during the latter conflict.
While the city’s political importance began to wane with the Communist coup of 1948, it still retains influence in areas of culture and education among others.
Let’s spend some time with Olomouc:
Start on the Squares
The most sensible place to start exploring Olomouc is on the main square, or squares.
The main square of Olomouc is divided into an Upper and a Lower section. Upper square is where you will find the town hall and the tourist information centre that’s located in the ground floor of it.
Construction of the town hall, which is primarily Gothic in style, began in 1378. After a number of interuptions, including the Hussite Wars, construction was completed in in 1443.
The town hall has seen a number of reconstructions and renovations over the years. The current face of the building is the result of a very intensive renovation and restoration carried out in 2017 and 2018.
It is sometimes possible to join a guided tour to the top of the town hall tower. The availability can often be weather dependent as the viewing area at the top of the tower is open to the elements. If you want to visit the top of the tower, ask the staff in the tourist information office about availabilities.
A very unique aspect of the town hall is the astronomical clock next to the tower. The clock has been part of the town hall since the 15th or 16th century and it has seen a few renovations and restylings through the centuries.
At the end of the Second World War, the clock was heavily damaged by artillery fire.
The present face of the clock comes from a reconstruction that was completed in 1955, in the style of Socialist Realism. It features figures and motifs of workers, scientists, athletes and other professions valued by the Socialist regime.
It also features images of local costumes and other aspects of regional ethnography.
The astronomical clock is one of the main draws in the city centre and is the only clock of its sort in the world in Socialism Realism style.
Adjacent to the town hall on the upper square is the Holy Trinity Column, a massive Baroque style column that is a key symbol of the city and was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000.
Work began on the column in 1716 and was completed in 1754. The column represents the largest grouping of Baroque style sculptures in a single structure in Central Europe. It also contains a chapel in the base that can sometimes be visited.
Aside of the Town hall and Holy Trinity Column, the Upper and Lower squares contain a number of fountains and are lined with many shops, restaurants, pubs and cafés.
If you’re the sort that likes to visit churches and other religious monuments, Olomouc has much to offer you.
Olomouc has held great religious importance in the region since the days of the Great Moravian Empire (833 – c.907).
The bishopric, and subsequent archbishopric of Olomouc held great influence in the regions they oversaw and owned a great deal of land. A number of the castles and chateaus you can visit in the country spent part of their histories in the ownership of the Olomouc bishops.
On the eastern edge of the city centre, you’ll find the Baroque style Archbishop’s Palace. It’s possible to take a guided tour, but it requires a reservation and is only available to groups. It’s a quite expansive place and serves as testament to the influence the bishops and archbishops of Olomouc had.
Within a short walk of the Archbishop’s Palace, you’ll find the Gothic style St. Wenceslas’ Cathedral. It’s the tallest church in Moravia and the second tallest in the country.
The city has many other churches of different styles to visit. There is the distinctive three domed St. Michael’s church that is an unmissable element of the city centre skyline and the Gothic style St. Maurice church with its viewing tower that will give you a great view over Upper square and the rest of the centre.
If you leave the centre, you can visit the Basilica of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary in the Svatý Kopeček district in the north-east suburbs.
The basilica is in Baroque style and dates to the late 1600s.
Nearby the basilica is the city zoo. It’s a very nice zoo with a good reputation. It has spacious enclosures for the animals and is a pleasant place to visit if you’re in the area.
Svatý Kopeček and its attractions can be accessed by bus on the city public transportation system.
Education has played as much a role in shaping the history of Olomouc as religion has.
Places of formal education have existed in Olomouc since the 1200s.
The city is home to Palacký University. Established in 1573, it’s the oldest university in Moravia and the second olded university in the country. Only Charles University, in Prague, is older.
From a tourist perspective, many of the university’s facilities are open to visits by the public. The university also operates an interactive science centre known as Fort Science.
Aside of the university, another testament to the importance of academia in the city’s history is the lavishly painted ceremonial hall of the Komenium primary school.
Work began on the richly frescoed hall in the 1890s. The work is mostly Neo-Renaissance in style, with some elements of Baroque mixed in. The work features numerous allegorical motifs that focus on academia, human virtues and professions considered to be worth aspiring to.
If there is a hidden gem to Olomouc, the ceremonial hall certainly qualifies. As the school is an active institution, it is only possible to visit the hall during July and August. Tours of the hall are organized by the city tourism office. If you are in the city at the right time of year and want to see the hall, enquire at the tourist information office in the town hall about the particulars of taking a guided tour of it.
A Feel for the City
Olomouc is one of those places that carries much of its charm in the fact that it has much to offer visitors, yet is not touristy in atmosphere.
There’s a relaxed feel to Olomouc that makes it a great place to base yourself and make smaller trips to the surrounding attractions from. If you visit a more touristy place nearby, like Kroměříž, Olomouc will give you a good place to return to and decompress.
Being a university city, Olomouc does have a youthful energy to balance all the historical monuments. The city offers a number of cultural and recreational options to suit a variety of tastes.
On the subject of taste, Olomouc also has a number of dining options from full restaurants to small bistros and everything in between. You surely will not go hungry in this city.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try a serving of the notriously pungent Tvarůžky cheese. It is a local speciality that is made in the nearby village of Loštice.
Olomouc is a pleasantly walkable place in the centre and immediate surroundings. Along the southern edge of the centre, you’ll find three parks: Bezruč, Čech and Smetana.
The three parks are connected and occupy approximately 47 hectares.
In Smetana park, you can find the city’s exhibition centre and its adjoining greenhouses.
In Bezruč park, you can enjoy the exhibition centre’s botanic garden.
The exhibition centre itself hosts a variety of local and international events through the year, so you may be able to find an exhibition to your interests if you are in the city at the right time.
To visit areas of the city further from the centre, you can use the well organized and effective public transportation system that consists of both buses and trams.
If you are travelling in the area around the Easter or Christmas periods, the city hosts special markets for both holidays.
Paying a Visit and Learning More
This article has just touched on a bit of what Olomouc has to offer. If you decide to visit the city and make it your base for trips into the area, it has a variety of accommodation options to suit most travelling styles.
Being a transportation hub and the main city in its region, Olomouc is not difficult to access by road or rail.
Several train lines go through Olomouc per day. Even if you don’t make the city your base, it’s not difficult to get to for a day or weekend visit.
Depending on which train you choose, you can get from Brno to Olomouc in as little as an hour. Travelling to the city from Ostrava similarly takes as little as an hour depending on your choice of train.
If you’re travelling to the city from points in the west of the country, it’s approximately an hour and half from Pardubice and two and half hours from Prague by train.
To see all of what Olomouc offers to visitors, have a look at the city’s official tourism website.