Ask anyone to name the first place that comes into their head when you mention “Czech Republic” and invariably, the answer will be “Prague”. Now, as amazing as Prague is, there is no denying it’s not short of a tourist or two. That leads to a fast, busy, crowded and probably expensive short break. In comparison the country’s second largest city, Brno, is laid back, surprisingly cosmopolitan, renowned for its cocktail bars and bistros and much quieter than the country’s capital.
The most relaxing way to travel from Prague to Brno is by the regular train service. In just over two hours, you are whisked through the Czech countryside and past some great photo opportunities, to arrive in the heart of the Moravian region.
Brno has a compact city centre which is served well by local trams. However I find that meandering around is the best way to see a new place. A great place to get your bearings is from the tower of the old Town Hall, conveniently located next to the tourist office. The views from the top are worth the climb up the 174 steps, although if you take them two at a time, its only 87 steps!
In the opposite direction, Brno has a network of historic tunnels and chambers throughout the city centre and some of these such as the “Labyrinth under the Cabbage Market” are open to the public. A guided tour lets you experience what life was once like in the city. A number of churches also have crypts and ossuarys, which are slightly creepy and contain the mummified remains of 18th century city noblemen and monks.
On this trip, my fiancée and I found the 10-z Nuclear shelter a fascinating visit. The project to restore this communist-era bunker is a labour of love for a local historian. He has created a social enterprise, employing local people with disabilities as tour guides and ensuring that young people of the city can experience the bunker the way it was in the 1960’s and 70’s. The brave-hearted can even stay there as some of the rooms have been made into hostel-type accommodation with original furnishings.
Brno is renowned for its architecture. In fact, the “Vila Tugendhat”, just a short tram-ride from the city centre, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The modernist dwelling was designed and built in the 1920’s as a family home. However, it was occupied by German Officers during the war, then used by the Communist Party and, after a time as a children’s recuperation centre, was left to ruin and neglect. After a huge renovation programme, the house was brought back to its original glory and is now one of the most sought after tours in the Czech Republic. In fact, bookings have to be made months in advance. Whilst I may be an architectural philistine, my better half is much more interested in these things. However, even I appreciated the aesthetics of the place. Both of us did look on with some amusement, though, as others in the tour group took intricate and detailed photographs of light switches and door knobs.
Obviously all the walking around would make anyone peckish. Luckily, Brno is foodie heaven. From the traditional fayre of Goulash, Pork Skewers and Apple Pie in the Lokal pub to the more sophisticated venues such as Kohout Na Vine, where the speciality is Coq au Vin or Atelier Bistro, where you can sit at the chef’s table and enjoy Egg poached in Red Wine or a young Deer ragu. The best places to eat are listed in the Gourmet Brno booklet which highlights the best the city has to offer. From a cost perspective, dining out in Brno is not an expensive affair. For the quality and quantity of the food we enjoyed, we would have fully expected to pay over twice as much at home.
The region is also renowned for its wine. In fact, 96% of all the wine produced in the Czech Republic originates from the region surrounding Brno. The sad news is that only a small fraction of the wines are exported outside the country, so to taste the best, a visit to the region is highly recommended!
The cocktail scene is on the rise in Brno. One bar is setting very high standards. In true speakeasy style, the building has no signage and as soon as you ring the doorbell, hidden behind a curtained doorway, the air of mystery begins. Upstairs, the “Super Panda Circus” is part theatre, part bar and definitely somewhere to expect the unexpected. The work of the mixologists is mesmerising, the menus found written on flower petals or on a rickety wheel and the drinks served in glass globes, wooden bowls, skull mugs and tin cans. Again, prices were remarkably good value.
There’s accommodation to suit all budgets in the city too. Our base was the Grandezza Hotel which is on one of the main squares and a very comfortable place to stay. The hotel has a wine bar and coffee shop (with amazing cakes and pastries) along with an excellent restaurant.
Brno is a truly fascinating place to visit. Whether your interest is food, wine, architecture, history or music, the city offers something for everyone. My best advice is to get there yourself before the tourists do!