Hardly anyone ever thinks of Ostrava when they think of visiting the Czech Republic. Most people head to Prague, and some also make it to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cesky Krumlov, but the east side of the country holds some true gems. Central to these is the city of Ostrava, third-largest in the country after Prague and Brno. Here’s a full guide to Ostrava.
Czechoslovakia, Czech Republic, Chechnya or Czechia
While Prague is one of the most visited cities in Europe, it’s quite possibly more known than the country it’s in. The Czech Republic. In 1918, Czechoslovakia split off from the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. Then in 1993, Slovakia peacefully seceded as its own country, leaving the Czech Republic. A couple of years ago, politicians chose to rename the country Czechia, which is how it’s now called in Google Maps and Wikipedia. However, most citizens still refer to the country as the Czech Republic, and I shall do the same. Oh, and please don’t say Chechnya! That’s a region in Russia.
After watching a recent episode of Jimmy Kimmell where Americans were completely unable to name a single country in the world, I started to despair in the relevance of giving geographical information for places I visited. However, if you are relatively familiar with Europe, just think of the Czech Republic as being in the dead center of Central Europe. Germany is northwest, Poland is northeast, Slovakia is southeast and Austria is southwest.
One thing to know is that nearly the entire country is further north than any point in the Continental US. As such, it can get really cold in the winter. On the other hand, during the two times I’ve visited, temperatures were in the 90’s! While that might not be that hot for a Californian, it’s certainly unusual for central Europe. Unfortunately, most hostels and hotels aren’t prepared for that kind of weather, and fans and air conditioners are in short supply.
Getting to Ostrava
Chances are, if you make it to Ostrava, it will be after Prague. If so, there are plenty of trains and buses going across the country every few minutes. The journey takes about three hours by train and five hours by bus. Some of the main companies are Cesky Drahy and RegioJet for trains, and Flixbus and LeoExpress for buses.
I learned the hard way that after you book a train ticket with Cesky Drahy, you then have to purchase a separate ticket for your seat. Otherwise, you’ll be standing in the very narrow walkway beside the cabins for the whole journey.
My favorite by far was RegioJet. Their trains are clean and comfortable, have power outlets at all seats for your phone or laptop, and good AC during hot summer months. They also have Relax Class which have tables to work at and free hot drinks, or even a Business Class with a glass of free champagne and a private, quiet cabin of four seats to work in. All their trains also have free WiFi. There are food and drinks to purchase onboard for very reasonable prices. Tip: Go for the sushi; it’s surprisingly good!
If you want to fly in, chances are you’ll want to fly to Katowice in Poland instead. All the budget airlines go there instead of Ostrava, although the bus between the two cities takes nearly an hour and a half. Direct trains aren’t an option, as the Czech Republic and Poland have different size train tracks!
Where to Stay in Ostrava
I personally got crazy lucky staying in Ostrava. Although I was visiting during the Colours of Ostrava music festival, I started searching for hosts months in advance and secured two for the duration of my stay. I always recommend Couchsurfing as the best way to travel. It’s a great way to meet locals, you usually get a very secure place to stay and quite often you’ll be invited to special activities with the local. As it turned out, the first host I had was also attending the music festival and was able to take me along to show me around.
If you’re traveling on a budget, there are plenty of hostels and even cheap hotels to choose from for as little as $13 a night. Most hotels are around $40-50 a night. Even the fanciest hotels in town are under $100. Just beware – the prices do go up for things like music festivals and other holidays.
I did chance to stay at the Brioni Hotel on Stodolni street for a couple days, thanks to my fellow travel blogger Anneklein. I was a little worried that the rooms would be too noisy, as Stodoldi is the main walking street lined with bars and pubs, and the nightlife can get quite loud. However, the room had good soundproofing and, more importantly, air conditioning.
Where and What to Eat in Ostrava
I found some surprisingly good restaurants and cafes to try in Ostrava. Although the city is not overly touristy, they have a wide range of international cuisines, and they must have kidnapped a lot of Italians to get their coffee culture to the fantastic standard that it is.
It’s quite possibly the most popular restaurant in Ostrava as the usual two-hour wait for a table suggests. I made reservations with a large group of bloggers and, to my knowledge, no one was disappointed. The menu isn’t big and changes regularly. While other bloggers ordered tuna and tabbouleh salads, vegetarian quesadillas, aged beef steaks and chorizo ragout, I had the four cheese jalapeno beef burger with fries. The inch-thick beef patty topped with different jalapeno cheeses was yummy, and not too spicy. Unfortunately, they didn’t have real Belgian fries, but I’ve just been spoiled in my travels. I also tried the blueberry cheesecake. That was yummy too.
If you love real Mexican food as much as I do, this is the place for you. I’ve been shocked at how few restaurants in Europe even serve corn tortillas or guacamole in a traditional molcajete (volcanic basalt bowl), not to mention all those Mexican restaurants that only serve burritos. That’s Tex-Mex American food! Anyway, Comedor got it right. Corn tortillas, great guacamole, sizzling fajitas and stringy quesadillas, just like the ones I used to eat in Mexico.
Bistro Boule za Ušima
The translation for this place is “Boil on the Ear.” A rather strange name for a restaurant, but in the Czech Republic, that’s what you say when food is particularly good. It certainly was here. Yeah, I went for another hamburger, but damn they are good in the Czech Republic! Come to think of it, I actually had very little Czech food in Ostrava. I saved that for my excursions to surrounding villages where they showed me just how good small village fare could be. Anyway, not much more to say about my dripping bacon cheeseburger other than it was waaayyyyyy too big to get into my mouth and I had to resort to a fork and knife. Not Tuliyani of The Willing Road though! I have no idea how that little adventuress managed to devour her hamburger in half the time it took Andy and me.
Le Petite Conversation
I didn’t actually get a chance to try out the food here, but their coffee was an excellent testament to Ostrava’s coffee culture. Third-wave artisan roasts are really popular in a way I’ve only seen in countries like Scotland and Romania. I just had an iced latte. If you’re not familiar with single-origin roasts, then it’s not easy to say just how good their coffee is. That’s a reason to travel the world all in itself.
Ah, my home away from home. I stumbled on this place my second day in Ostrava, and ended up there nearly every day thereafter. For a digital nomad, the place was perfect. Lots of space, a quiet atmosphere, good air conditioning and excellent WiFi. The food wasn’t anything to write home about, but it was really cheap. For $5, I got a grilled ham and cheese panini, chocolate pastry and blueberry lemonade.
And then there was this place. Oh my god! First, their name was inspired by Shia LaBeouf. Don’t just do it, Just Do…Nut. Unlike the usual Czech filled donuts, they serve giant American-style donuts with simple toppings like chocolate, cookie or pistachio. They’re probably one of the best donuts I’ve ever had, and I’m not just saying that as a hyperbolical blogger. I was expecting such a giant donut to be way too sweet, but instead, it was just right. I kept going back for more, but sadly they are only open until they sell out, and every single day they sold out before I could get back. Oh well, just another reason I’ll have to return to Ostrava someday.
What to Do in Ostrava
Ostrava isn’t really a city set up for tourists. Perhaps that’s what made it so much more appealing to me. As such, there aren’t a ton of tourist activities, tours and attractions. There are, however, some really unique spots to check out.
Lower Vitkovice Mines
For years, Ostrava was one of the leading steel manufacturing cities in Europe. That has slowly changed since the fall of communism in 1989 and now the city is quickly modernizing. In the forefront, it’s hosted a range of sports activities including the Ice Hockey World Championship in 2014 and 2015, and the PGA at the nearby Celadna golf course in 2009-2011. Usain Bolt also likes to train in Ostrava, which is why they named their highest tower in town after him – the Bolt Tower in the Lower Vitkovice Mines. If you’re looking for the best viewpoint in town, the Bolt Tower is definitely your spot. Head up to the Bolt Cafe at the top for a chai latte and the panoramic view. Sunset is the best time to go. While you’re there, explore around the derelict buildings of the mines. As much as I love exploring urban ruins, the structures were unsafe and impossible to enter.
Another great vantage point is Halda Ema. This hill on the other side of the river is actually a slag heap – an artificial mountain made from the waste pulled out of mines. There are several of them in the region. A fascinating fact about them is that their interiors are slowly burning at temperatures up to 1200 °C (2200 °F)! You can feel the heat through your shoes when you hike up to the top, and many citizens go up there to sleep in the winter when it’s the warmest place in town.
The Old City Center is definitely worth visiting. Other than being the location of most of the best restaurants and cafes, you’ll also find the mosaic-patterned central square with the nearby Old City Hall, now converted into a history museum. I was shocked to hear that the city once considered tearing down the city center to get to the rich coal deposit beneath. There are already several mines within the city limits.
Cathedral of the Divine Saviour
Within the Old Town is a very unique Cathedral of the Divine Saviour (not sure why Ostrava likes British spelling so much). It’s a Roman Catholic cathedral, and really interesting in that the “stained glass windows” are actually digital screens. I’ve certainly never seen that before!
New City Hall Tower
On the edge of the old city center is the New City Hall. Built in 1930, it’s the largest city hall the Czech Republic and, if I remember my tour correctly, one of the largest in Europe. The construction was protested against heavily by the locals, as they didn’t like the idea of city funds going toward such a useless endeavor. The tower with a viewing platform 240 feet high offers a fantastic view of town, perhaps even better than that of the Bolt Tower. The fee for the tower is 60 koruna ($3).
Church of Saint Peter of Alcantara
One of the disadvantages of being in a mining region is the subsidence of the land over the mines. Entire castles have been ruined as they slowly shifted 250 feet into the Earth. Not far from Ostrava, you can visit the Church of Saint Peter of Alcantara in Karvina. Once on a hill, the church has not only sunk several feet but is also now leaning a massive 6.8 degrees. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is only leaning 4 degrees.
The one attraction I regret to have missed was Miniuni, a park near the city center with replicas of many of the world’s famous structures. The entrance fee is a mere $3.50.
If you’re more of the adventurous type and like excursions, there are plenty of day trips you can take to surrounding regions, mountain ranges, fun parks and lakes.
Tips and Tricks
The first important information to know about Ostrava is that the tram and bus systems don’t show up on Google Maps. Instead, you need to download an app called IDOS which is fairly easy to navigate as long as you can find the spots you want to travel to on Google Maps. Tickets are really cheap; a 10-minute ride is 16 koruna ($0.80), an hour is $1.40 and 24 hours is $4. If you have coins, there are ticket machines near most of the tram and bus stops. You can also purchase tickets from the tourism offices or the round structures selling magazines and cigarettes. However, all the trams and buses are set up with contactless! If you don’t have a contactless card, it’s time to set up Google Pay, Samsung Pay or Apple Pay and use your phone as a contactless card.
If you need to exchange money, know that the Czech Republic doesn’t have the best reputation for honest exchanges. To play it safe, make your exchange at the tourism bureau at the main train station, in the old town or other locations. Otherwise, just withdraw money at a bank ATM (not EuroNet or some other ATM at an exchange office).
Finally, I’d give the city a 5 on a scale of 1-10 for getting around as an English speaker. Not a lot of signs or menus are translated into English, but a good portion of the population does speak English to some degree. Of course, as you should do in any country you visit, get familiar with some of the local lingo and the locals will like you even more!
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Once you’re finished exploring the city, here are some more ideas of things to see in the surrounding parts of the Czech Republic.
- The Colours of Ostrava is So Much More than a Music Festival
- Excursions from Ostrava: Exploring the Jeseniky Mountains
- Excursions from Ostrava: Hiking in the Beskydy Mountains
- Excursions from Ostrava: Unleashing the Inner Child at Heipark
- Discovering the Wellness Side of the Czech Republic at the Svata Katerina Resort
- A Budget Adventurer’s Guide to Prague
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
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