On August 14, 1370, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Charles IV granted city privileges to Carlsbad (now known as Karlovy Vary), a site of numerous hot springs in Bohemia, which was named after him.
According to the legend, during an expedition into the forests surrounding the West Bohemian city of Loket, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Charles IV stumbled upon a hot spring by accident where he was able to heal his injured leg. He decided to found a spa there, and named it Horké Lázně u Lokte, which means “hot spas at Loket“.
Possibly already known to the Romans, the hot springs in the former volcanic region west of Prague were indeed developed by Charles IV who, in August 1370, granted the mainly German-speaking spa town city privileges and named it “Carlsbad”, literally meaning “Charles’ baths”.
The alkaline sulfur springs, valued for treating digestive disorders and liver diseases, were patronized by many medieval rulers, princes, noblemen, and ecclesiastics. Frequent guests of the spa included Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and even Tsar Peter the Great.
But the spa’s great popularity dates primarily from the 19th century, when the main baths, colonnades, hotels, and sanatoria were built. The city soon became a gathering place for Europe’s wealthy invalids.
The number of visitors rose from 134 families in the 1756 season to 26,000 guests annually at the end of the 19th century. By 1911, that figure had reached 71,000, but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 greatly disrupted the tourism on which the town depended.
At the end of World War I in 1918, the large German-speaking population of Bohemia was incorporated into the new state of Czechoslovakia. But after World War II, the vast majority of the town’s ethnic German population were forcibly expelled and the city was renamed Karlovy Vary.
Today, the city has approximately 48,500 inhabitants and is the capital of the Karlovy Vary Region, the westernmost region of Bohemia. It is the most visited spa town in the Czech Republic.
One of the oldest film festivals in the world, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival was first held in the spa town in 1948 and has become Central and Eastern Europe’s leading film event. The city has also been used as the location for a number of film-shoots, such as the box-office hit Casino Royale, which used the city’s Grandhotel Pupp.
In 2021, the city became part of the transnational UNESCO World Heritage Site under the name “Great Spa Towns of Europe“.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.