Bohemian Switzerland National Park in Czechia is not only stunningly beautiful, but it’s also easily accessible as a day trip from Germany, and one of the best off-the-beaten-path destinations in Central Europe. If you’re considering a day trip from Saxony to Bohemian Switzerland, here’s everything you need to know to plan your trip.
What is Bohemian Switzerland National Park?
I’ll forgive you if you’ve never heard of Bohemian Switzerland National Park; until my trip to Dresden and the surrounding areas, I hadn’t either.
The national park was only declared officially in 2000. It gets its name from Bohemia- which was once its own kingdom, now forming part of Czechia- and Saxon Switzerland, the national park in neighbouring Germany. For an off-the-beaten path gallivant in Central Europe, especially for those who love the great outdoors, this place is ideal.
The Elbe Sandstone Mountains run through Bohemian Switzerland- higgledy piggledy towers of rock, which rise upwards out of swathes of pine forest like stone giants. And cutting through all of this are gorges and rivers galore, which makes for a grandiose but completely ethereal vibe. Filmmakers have cottoned on to the magic of the area, and Pravčická Brána- a natural sandstone bridge high up in the mountains- was one of the filming locations for The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
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How to reach Bohemian Switzerland National Park by public transport
Public transport throughout Saxony is really, really good- and this goes for crossing over the border to Czechia as well. If you’re up for it, you could technically just hike into the wilderness until you reach Czech territory. But if you’re not a hardcore Bear Grylls-style hiker- and if you don’t have access to a car- here’s how to reach Bohemian Switzerland National Park from Germany, using public transport alone.
Coming from Dresden, the first step is to get a train (the S1 from Dresden Hauptbanhof is your best bet) to the little town of Bad Schandau- which will take around 40 minutes and costs €6.50 one way.
Once you reach Bad Schandau, cross the river using the handy river ferry right outside the train station. (There are 13 of these river-crossing ferries up and down the Elbe in Saxon Switzerland, and they’re both highly convenient and mildly frustrating. Mainly because you have to cough up a few euro each time you want to reach the other side.) The ferry runs back and forth throughout the entire day and costs €1.50 for a single trip, or €2.40 for a return. Tickets can be bought directly on the ferry.
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Safely over to the piers in Bad Schandau, it’s from here that the Wanderschiff departs. (What a brilliant name for a boat, that’s all I’m saying).
The Wanderschiff glides all the way up the River Elbe, past thick forests and sandstone mountains to the Czech village of Hrensko. There are a few stops en route, all of which are perfect hiking locations (or cycling, if it floats your boat), but for a day trip to Bohemian Switzerland National Park, Hrensko is an ideal starting point. A one way ticket from Bad Schandau to Hrensko costs €10.60, and a return is €15.00- and just like the ferries, you can obtain a ticket from the boat driver on board. The Wanderschiff ferry runs from May to November- so beware, winter wanderers.
All public transport mentioned is run by VVO, so for timetables and further information, check it out.
The town of Hrensko
I’ll be honest here pals, Hrensko is a funny little place. The tiny town sits at the meeting point of the Kamenice and Elbe rivers, and started life as a trading post back in the 15th century. There are only about 300 inhabitants of the half-timbered houses nestled into the mountains, and in addition to a collection of inns and guesthouses there are plenty of shops stalls owned by the village’s sizeable Vietnamese community.
In a big city- like Prague, for example- I wouldn’t be overly surprised to find a Little Hanoi. (In fact, Prague does indeed have a Little Hanoi, known as Sapa. Its website seems to have stayed the same since roughly 2002, but here it is if you’re curious.) However, I was amazed to be walking around a (very little) Little Hanoi in a tiny Czech border town, in the middle of a national park. Years and years ago when Vietnam and Czechoslovakia were both communist countries, Vietnamese people were invited to enter the country as guest workers. With the fall of communism, many of them decided to stay and they now make up the third largest ethic minority group in Czechia.
What a curious and intriguing world this is!
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Garden gnomes, phone cases, cheap clothing, cigarettes and spa wafers (a traditional Czech treat), are all for sale. Not only all that, but also stacks and stacks of Vietnamese conical hats. The kind that is worn in paddy fields in South Asia. As far as I can tell there are absolutely no paddy fields in the Czech Republic, but I appreciated the nod to their heritage in the form of paddy hats for the tourists.
If you’re only spending a day in Czechia and want to get a true Czech meal in Hrensko, go for anything with bread dumplings. They do love dumplings around here, and there are plenty of restaurants waiting to serve up a hearty plate of guláš accompanied by all the doughy dumplings you can find. And palačinky is a beaut pudding to tuck into- Czech pancake.
How to find the Gorges of the Kamenice River
Bohemian Switzerland National Park is obviously a sizeable location (79 square kilometres, in fact), and is therefore impossible to explore fully in a day. But after arriving in Hrensko, a trip to Edmund Gorge and Wild Gorge is the best way to experience the area. Although not particularly well signposted, it’s still fairly easy to find the beginning of the trail.
After disembarking from the Wanderschiff, follow the road alongside the Kamenice river, away from the direction of the Elbe. Eventually the road curves around to the left, but the river keeps on running straight forward. Exit that road, head on to the footpath running next to the river, and there you have it. You’re in the Edmund Gorge. Woohoo! Celebrations! You made it to Bohemian Switzerland!
What are the Gorges?
The gorges were formed when the Kamenice River first carved its pathway through the sandstone of Bohemia, creating blocky walls that rise upwards from the water. Parts of both gorges can only be travelled up by boat, with a path connecting the two of them.
It takes about 20 minutes to reach Edmund Gorge from the start of the trail in Hrensko, and eventually you reach a little hut and a wooden jetty where boats sail from. The first punt through Edmund Gorge takes about 20 minutes and costs about €5 for one ticket. Once at the other side, walk another 20 minutes to the next platform, and a second boat will punt you through the Wild Gorge. (The journey is shorter, so ticket price is around €3.50). A last 20 minute walk will get you to a road, where buses run regularly back to Hrensko. Or, if you’re fit as a fiddle you can follow the road on foot back to the village, instead.
I visited in early Autumn when mushrooms were starting to form and leaves were starting to fall. Truth be told, with the rays of sun illuminating patches of moss and twinkling off of the gently flowing river, it felt like Bohemian Switzerland was surely some kind of fairyland. And even though the gorges are only 200m above sea level, the cold air that collects inside means that flowers and plants normally found much higher in the mountains are able to thrive here.
This is one truly spellbinding place.
The history of the Kamenice River Gorges
Edmund Gorge actually began its life as a tourist attraction back in 1890- followed by the Wild Gorge a little while later- so if you think tourism is a new phenomena, think again!
Back in the late 1800s, Count Edmund Clary Aldringen was kind of a big deal in the area. The Clary Aldringens were one of the most prominent Austro-Hungarian princely families, who owned swathes of land in Bohemia and beyond. Edmund saw the value that tourism could bring to the region, and with the help of a bunch of Italian specialists and the Mountain Club of Bohemian Switzerland, he modified the gorge to make it more accessible.
Footpaths and tunnels were carved into the rock and forest, and landing piers were put in along the river. A restaurant was built, as well as a hotel up by the Pravčická Bridge, and a collection of men in sailor suits began punting passengers along the gorge for a small fee. It sounds like an industrial operation, but at the turn of the century the aesthetic was still quite in keeping with its surroundings and way less Disney-landish than you’d perhaps imagine.
The idea was a massive success and by the 1920s the gorges welcomed around 160,000 visitors each and every year. Which is pretty impressive when you think about it.
If you’re spending longer than a day in Bohemian Switzerland National Park
With more than just a day to explore, the best place to base yourself is probably the town of Dečín, which is slightly further over the border than Hrensko. The town is bigger and there are more accommodation options and things to do, and Dečín is also an easy and direct train ride from Prague.
Bohemian Switzerland is absolutely full of hiking paths, although I’d recommend either getting some solid paper maps or downloading an app like maps.me in advance of any hiking expeditions. Phone signal in the area isn’t brilliant.
Did I myself plan in advance by sorting maps etc? No, no I did not. Me and my pal Rachel spent almost five hours trudging through the wilderness of Bohemian Switzerland after we strayed from a path and got well and truly lost. It was intense, and I shall strive never to make the same mistake again.
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Aside from the possibility of getting lost, this is the perfect off-the-beaten path location for lovers of the great outdoors, and hiking, cycling and rafting are all brilliant options when it comes to exploring. Having visited plenty of beautiful but overcrowded natural wonders in Europe, (I’m looking at you, Krka), Bohemian Switzerland National Park felt like a true hidden gem.
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- Unless you’re a true hardcore hiker, I wouldn’t recommend visiting Bohemian Switzerland in winter. Much of it is inaccessible and it’s also guaranteed to be absolutely freezing cold, with few and far people between to assist if you get into a spot of bother.
- The Edmund and Wild Gorge ferries run from May to September.
- As a border town, we were unsure of whether German would be widely used here as well as Czech. Whilst German is spoken by a few, to a non native-speaker the accent is notoriously difficult to understand! (This goes for over the border in Saxony, as well).
- We found that a few people spoke some English, but it’s definitely not the language to rely upon. (As an example, the man who punted us up the Edmund Gorge gave a commentary in Czech and then German. And me and my pal were the only native English speakers we saw all day. Which I really appreciated- but let that be a warning to you if you’re expecting to get by with English alone!)
- Currency is Czech koruna, although some places in Hrensko will accept euros and almost everywhere accepts cards.