Recently Andy and I wanted to plan a trip to someplace relatively close to Berlin, someplace that didn’t involve us getting on a plane. We love Poland, and Wroclaw is a Polish city we’ve heard good things about but haven’t been to yet, so we decided to give that a try. But we were planning a 9-10 day trip, and it felt like we needed another destination. So I pulled up Google Maps and looked around at what else was near-ish to Wroclaw. I saw Ostrava across the border in Czech Republic and started searching for things to do in Ostrava to see if it was worthwhile.
Why yes, there are interesting things to do in Ostrava
I came across a couple of blog posts about how fun, interesting, and still under the radar Ostrava was. I also noticed that a big travel blogging conference is being held there in July. After reading through a bunch of info about the city, we found that there are a handful of things to do in Ostrava, even if most of it is based around the former coal mining industry. It also looked cute in the pictures, so we decided our trip would be Ostrava, Czech Republic and Wroclaw, Poland.
When we got there, we went to one of the two different mining museums and learned a little about the city’s history. The new city hall building has a tower, so we went up to get some nice views of Ostrava from above. We visited a not-so-impressive castle and a sad/hilarious little mini world with miniature landmarks from around Europe…and the ancient 7 wonders of the world, for some reason. Ostrava’s old town and main square were actually really pretty, too.
But I’m not convinced any of this is a reason to go out of your way to visit Ostrava.
Something was missing here. The sights weren’t engaging enough or unique enough to choose this city over someplace else in Europe. The city felt lifeless, empty…except at the mall. And if you want to spend your vacation in a mall, well, save the airfare and go to your hometown mall.
Here’s a little more about what we did in Ostrava.
World of Miniatures
Andy and I love cheesy attractions. When we were in Brussels a few years ago, we really enjoyed Mini Europe. So when we read that Ostrava had something similar, we went to check it out.
My expectations were low. I didn’t for one second think that this would compare to the one in Brussels. And I was right.
After purchasing our tickets, we entered a little room that was sort of like a museum of randomness. There were model castles from Czech Republic and other parts of Europe. There were model ships, including the ships of various explorers like Columbus, Cook, and Magellan, plus the Vikings, and they even threw in the Titanic for good measure. None of the ships seemed to have anything to do with Czech Republic. It is a landlocked country after all.
Once I accepted that I was never going to figure out why all of these things were in the same room together, we gave up and went outside to the miniature landmarks. Lots of Czech places, a bunch from Poland, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower, Dutch windmills, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. But then also really random places like a modern library in Helsinki and someplace in Spain I’ve never even heard of.
And then we spotted a pyramid. Once we got closer, we realized it was a 7 Wonders of the World section. Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, library and lighthouse in Alexandria…
It was strange, and just like the model ships of the Titanic, Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria didn’t belong with the model Czech castles (never mind the fact that the only things the Titanic and the Santa Maria had in common was being ships and crossing the Atlantic), I could find no real connection between a model of an ancient and presently non-existent garden and miniature version of the Prague airport and a British Airways airplane. And why not have a Czech Airlines plane? Since, you know, it was supposed to be PRAGUE, not London.
I was confused.
Oh, and did I mention the trampolines and swing sets interspersed between sections of mini European monuments? And the little building with cannons where you could shoot nerf balls at other cannons, all with castle backdrops as some sort of medieval storming the castle kids game?
I enjoyed the absurdity, and I laughed a lot while we were there. It was certainly cheesy, and possibly a little sad. This is not going to bring hoards of enthusiastic tourists.
Alcoholic slushies at the castle
Next up was the castle. It wasn’t too far across the river from the miniature place, and as we got closer, we started hearing music and seeing children with balloons and face paint next to parents with colorful drinks in plastic cups. A few minutes later, we arrived at a fair, complete with bouncy castles and rides, in front of the castle. And one of the first stalls we came to was selling slushie drinks, with or without alcohol.
Andy and I communicated through broken English and pointing with the boy guarding the cash box at the stand. We chose raspberry flavor and rum, and watched as the 11 year old expertly poured our rum from an upside down bottle with one of those pre-measured shot dispenser things and then added the slushie mix.
Clearly Czech Republic’s alcohol serving laws are a little lax.
We skipped the bouncy castle but went into the real castle and looked around for a bit. It was fine, but unremarkable, nothing to go out of your way for. It wasn’t an imposing castle, it didn’t feel like a scene out of the Holy Grail, and it didn’t look like an elegant palace. It was like they knew when the built it (and rebuilt it) that not too many people were coming for them.
After looking at a few of the stalls, Andy bought some tasty local cheese. Then we wandered too close to the band that was performing in the courtyard, almost lost our eardrums, and decided we were done with castle time.
On our way out, we stopped back at the slushie stand and got cherry rum slushies for our walk back into town. It was hot, and those cold icy drinks helped cool us down in the relenting sun. It was survival, really.
Ostrava from above
I’ve said it a thousand times, and I’ll say it a thousand times more – I love seeing places from above. The new city hall building has a somewhat tall tower you can go up for a small fee, and the views were quite nice. When we bought our tickets, they asked us if we wanted someone to go with us and tell us about the city. Sure! Sounds great, maybe we’re missing something big here.
But no, the woman basically said, “what do you want to know?” and answered a couple of our questions, but she didn’t really offer up much about the city. Other than the mining museum, she wasn’t able to tell us what else we should be doing in Ostrava. For a tourism board employee, she was surprisingly unenthusiastic about her own city.
Dolni Vitkovice mining museum and Bolt Tower
So much of what we kept reading about this city was its mining history. And you know, good for them for turning a closed coal mine into a museum, re-purposing things and trying to reinvent the city. There’s one museum that’s an underground cave situation, and we’re not big fans of caves and confined spaces, so we skipped it. But we did go to Dolni Vitkovice, a huge former mining complex that’s been transformed into a museum and more.
At the mining museum, you can take a tour of the complex with a former employee who knows all about how the place used to function. Apparently there are a few English tours, but we didn’t plan ahead and our only English-language option was with an audio guide. I personally don’t like audio guides, and Andy wasn’t too excited about it either, so we skipped it. If you end up here, try to plan better than us and get on an English tour, because I’m sure it would be interesting.
Bolt Tower is accessible for a fee without a tour so we went there. An employee led us up a couple of elevators and instructed us to put on a hard hat at one point. (I felt like the hard hat was a bit excessive, but maybe it adds to the mining vibe.) The views from up there are pretty incredible, I think better than the city hall tower. And as an added bonus, there’s a little cafe where you can hang out and enjoy a drink and some cake. The entrance fee of 200CZK (about US$9) includes a 100CZK voucher for the cafe.
Also on the premises is the Gong Hall, which is where this upcoming travel conference is being held. We didn’t get to go in, but it looked like a pretty cool venue from the outside, and definitely unique.
So I think this is a really interesting attraction. But interesting as something to do if you happen to be in Ostrava. I’m not sure it’s enough to lure tourists to the city, but if you’re going that way anyway, definitely check it out.
Where are the people?
In most of Europe, you’ll come across cities with a old town square, an area that is the center of the city where you’ll find shops, restaurants, and cafes, and maybe a pretty statue or fountain or church or something. And because it’s pretty and central, people gather there to hang out, shop, socialize, eat, drink, and be merry.
Ostrava was not like this.
The main square in the old town was really pretty. There were old pretty buildings, a statue, a fountain, trees, benches, and a handful of and cafes.
But there were almost no people. On a Saturday afternoon, when most other cities would have cafes chock full of patrons enjoying the sun along with a coffee, beer, or cocktail, we easily found a table at one that was less than half full, right next to another cafe with only a couple of occupied tables. Even the shops we saw in the old town were mostly closed, even on a Saturday when I would expect people to be shopping.
When we were at the top of the city hall tower, we asked the tourism board employee a few questions about the city, including, where are all the people? Why does the old town feel so dead?
She told us that many of the shops in the center closed up or moved when the big mall opened. And many people now hung out there, instead of in the center of town.
I’ve been to plenty of European cities of varying sizes, all of which had big malls like what you might find in the US, and they still had a thriving center where people ate at family-run restaurants, sipped coffee at locally-owned cafes, and did their shopping at boutiques and butchers that made those cities unique.
These places were not replaced by an impersonal shopping mall filled with stores you can shop at on multiple continents.
So we decided to go to the mall and see what was going on. The area surrounding the mall was very bustling, with lots of trams and cars and plenty of people walking around. Lots of people were inside the mall either shopping or eating lunch, or simply hanging out on a cushy bench enjoying the air conditioning.
But is this what you travel for? To experience a generic, sterile mall atmosphere? Do you travel to see the same chain stores you can find in any mall across Europe or even around the world? Probably not.
With most of the city spending their time at the mall and deserting the historic center, the city seems to have lost that indescribable pulse that makes one city feel different from another.
Where to eat in Ostrava
We struggled to find meals most days because there just weren’t a lot of restaurants to choose from.
There was one street, called Stodolni Street, we read about that was filled with restaurants and bars, so we tried that. It turned out to be lots of fast food type places (not chains at least) and lots of loud bars, plus a handful of strip clubs. For a quick, cheap burger, or a drunken Friday night, this street was probably great, but for me and Andy, this wasn’t really our scene.
On the square, we had lunch at the one full service restaurant. Beyond that, your choices included KFC or cake at a cafe. And your pick of seats, because no one was there.
Surprisingly we found some really wonderful, if a bit expensive, Mexican food at this place. I loved their guacamole served with warm chips, and the fajitas were good too.
We ate at this pub not far from our hotel, and it was good enough that we went there several times. They had lots of meat dishes, like the ribs pictured here that Andy and I split along with a couple of appetizers. But we managed a few lighter meals there, too. In keeping with the odd feeling of the city, they were cleaning up and closing down by about 9pm, despite the sign on the door that said they were open until 11pm or later.
Should you go to Ostrava?
I am fully aware of the fact that a place one person loves, another will hate. Many people love Paris and claim it is the best city in the world, but I don’t share these views and I’d be happy to never go there again. I’ve heard people say they don’t like Berlin, and even though it feels like a knife through my heart to hear anyone say bad things about my adopted grungy-but-beautiful home, I totally get it, it’s not for everyone.
So maybe you’ll fall in love with Ostrava.
I think the city could end up being a great spot for conferences and events. I have an acquaintance who has been there several times because of her daughter’s hockey team, and she said the city grew on here. I’ve also read about lots of art and theater type events in Ostrava, and certainly that could draw lots of visitors.
I also think it could be a good base for outdoor activities in the surrounding areas. I’ve read about lots of nature-based things to do near Ostrava, but you wouldn’t know it from walking around town. One or two travel agencies to help set up transport to hiking trails and other places that aren’t so accessible would be helpful.
I’m not going to tell you to stay away. Ostrava wasn’t a bad place. There was just…something missing. So I also can’t tell you this is the next big tourist hotspot, and you MUST visit before the crowds hit. Maybe they’ll come. But I think you have time.
Where to stay in Ostrava
I have you convinced, don’t I? You’re already booking your flight and train tickets, and now you just need a place to stay in Ostrava. Well, don’t fear, I’ve got you covered.
We stayed at the Mercure just on the edge of the old town, right across the street from a pretty park and easy walking distance to most things you’ll want to do. Our room was a little dated and the beds were a bit too firm, but overall it was a good hotel and we liked the terrace.
So is Ostrava a hidden gem?
I love encouraging people to travel, especially internationally. It opens you up to experiences you just can’t get by staying at home, and I truly believe it’s the best way to learn about history and about new ways of looking at things. I also think there are a lot of great places in Europe that don’t get the attention they deserve, places you might enjoy as much if not more than the big names you always hear about. Places like Kosovo and Bologna and Poland and Bosnia.
But Ostrava is not one of these places.
If you happen to be going through Ostrava for some reason, it’s not a bad place to stop for a night. If you’re on a mission to see as much of Czech Republic as possible, by all means come see what Ostrava has to offer and learn about its mining history. But I’m never going to convince you to take your limited time and go to Ostrava instead of Prague.
The city is really trying to reinvent itself and become a place people want to visit. But that lively vibe that makes so many cities attractive isn’t there, and there aren’t quite enough activities to make up for the lack of a lively vibe or to lure you out to the eastern edge of the country. Maybe someday I’ll be able to say, “I was there before it was big!” But I think that day is a long way off.
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