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Brno, the biggest village in the Czech Republic.
Brno (Czech Republic)
Member Name: LeeRobertAdams
Brno (Czech Republic)
Date: 14/08/11, updated on 14/08/11 (211 review reads)
Advantages: Relaxed atmosphere, feels more "Czech" than Prague.
Disadvantages: Not a huge amount to see; lacks genuinely great pubs, restaurants and nightlife.
The real charms of the Czech Republic's second city reveal themselves over time. With a population of around 400,000, it often feels smaller, with many locals evacuating the city for the countryside at the weekends. The immediate center is tiny, and Brno's attractions can be easily navigated in a day by the casual sight seer.
However, for those people "doing" the Czech Republic, or Europe as a whole, it warrants a closer look, as Brno has an atmosphere and attitude all of its own. The surrounding countryside is also a bonus - to the north of the city are hills and forests, and large cave complexes; to the south, gorgeous rolling hills and vineyards. It also makes an excellent base for other city visits - here you are only 130km from Vienna; 130km from Bratislava; 80km from Olomouc.
The locals often refer to their town as a big village, and it's not hard to see that comparison; leading up from the main train station (Hlavni Nadrazi) is a distinctive "High Street" in Masarykova, leading up through the center of town to Freedom Square (Namesti Svobody). Here people relax or get ripped off in street side cafes, trams trundle through the center, kids play in the fountain, and people try to figure out how to read the time on the large black dildo-like "clock", which supposedly commemorates the city's famous defense against the Swedes in 1645.
From Namesti Svobody, the city's smattering of sights are all in easy walking distance. When it comes to eating, drinking and partying, Brno lags well behind Prague in terms of options, with a surfeit of truly decent pubs and restaurants, and night life is a bit retro to say the least.
The most striking point on Brno's skyline, and one of it's iconic symbols, are the soaring twin spires of the Cathedral of St Peter and Paul (Kostel Svateho Petra a Pavla). The cathedral has dominated the surrounding area since the 13th Century, and it's certainly worth the hike up Petrov Hill to investigate. The neo-Gothic exterior is far more impressive than the rather bland interior, but it is fun to climb the creaky wooden steps to the bell tower. For a truly nerve-shattering experience, try standing under the bell when it chimes!
A short distance away and also one of the city's reference points is the Spilberk Castle, crouched on its own hill. While not as visually impressive as the Cathedral, or indeed many castles in the UK, it is still worth a visit and offers excellent views of the town and surrounding countryside. Originally established in the 13th Century, it grew into an important stronghold during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when it was also a notorious prison.
Other sights include the Capuchin Monastery, a 17th Century site which is most noted for it's crypt, which contains the dusty, mummified remains of local nobility and several monks. Some of them are in pretty bad shape, but hey, I hope I look that good when I'm three hundred years old. The atmosphere down there is pretty eerie, so it's perhaps best avoided by those easily shat up.
For visitors who like a church or two, Brno's your place, with several excellent examples right in the very center - apart from the sinister cathedral, there's the elegant St Jacob's Church (Kostel Svateho Jakuba) with it's tall green spire, and the under-seen Kostel svatých Janu, a church heavy with oppressive Catholic decor, and a remarkable Sistine Chapel-esque painted ceiling. The perspective doesn't seem to be quite right, but it's a fascinating piece of work.
For a full run down of all Brno's sights, head to the tourist information office on Radnicka street, which runs parallel to Masarykova. Situated in the Old Town Hall (Stara Radnice) the staff are pretty unhelpful, but you can load up on maps and leaflets, and there's also free internet terminals for your research purposes. Also hanging outside is another one of Brno's most famous symbols, the "Brno Dragon", which actually turns out to be a rather heavily painted crocodile.
When in need of refreshment, there are few really quality options in the center, but you could try one of the following.
Air Cafe - Zelny Trh - situated inside the Moravské zemské muzeum on the vegetable market, Air Cafe is a chilled out cafe decorated with memorabilia and photos from World War II. They serve a huge range of coffees, as well as iced drinks, cocktails, spirits and beer, and there's courtyard seating with the spires of St Peter and Paul's towering above. No food, however.
Panoptikum on Jakubska is a cosy restaurant and pub frequented by a smarter local set, with street side seating, decent drinks, and a menu of above average interpretations of Czech classics.
Zelená Kocka (Green Cat), a street down on Solnicní, again offers Czech grub, is usually packed to the rafters, and offers big panelled mugs of excellent Dalesický beer.
Further afield, it's worth a trip to the Starobrno Brewery (Pivovarska Brno) on Mendlovo Namesti; while the main restaurant area is a bit vast and echoey, and the beerhall rather smoky, there is a big summer terrace with a relaxed atmosphere, play area for kids and Starobrno fresh from the source. Locals from all walks of life come here to sink a few, and the food is standard Czech cuisine - ribs, goulash, schnitzel.
If you fancy some food that isn't Czech, Goa Indian Restaurant is a bit of a trek, out in the Zidenice district on Geislerova street. It's worth the jaunt, though, as they serve some wonderful curries in an intimate brick cellar.
For steaks, head to Don Miguel's on Palackého trída, or out to Havana in the Lisen district, on
Masarova. Vegetarians are likely to encounter a tough time, as vegetarianism is still a relative novelty in Brno, and veggie options on the menu are likely to amount to fried cheese, fried cauliflower, fried broccoli, or simply fries. However, all is not lost - Rebio on Orli does a decent buffet-style vegetarian selection, if a little overpriced.
The absolute savior for vegetarians in Brno - or indeed anyone who's fed up with Czech food - is Kupe on Veveri; a cool little cellar bar restaurant which serves super fresh, 100% veggie middle eastern cuisine. You may have to wait a while for your food, but it's all freshly prepared and looks just like the photo in their lush hardback menu.
Nightlife in Brno tends to revolve around sitting in the pub, chatting with friends over several beers, and there's countless opportunities in town. Options for a dance are quite limited, with clubs (be aware - "Night Club" is a euphemism for brothel in the Czech Republic...) miles behind those on offer in Prague or other big cities in Europe.
By far the most popular is Fleda on Stefánikova, which despite it's rather tatty appearance, has by far the most eclectic musical offerings in town. Beyond that, the standard drops off quite drastically - in the center, you have the disco and live music venue Metro (Postovská), which is usually rammed, and dancing hindered by tables all over the dance floor.
Charlie's Hat on Koblizná, down a very easy to miss alleyway, offers a nice shady courtyard bar, before a descent into madness - hot, grubby and sweaty, the main dancefloor is situated in between two bars, so you're constantly being jostled by people going to and fro. It's never boring at Charlie's though, and is as good a place as any to lose it on the dance floor and generally get hosed down in beer and other people's fluids.
Then there's the demented Livingstone Club, in a passage off Dominikánské náměstí; going for a dark, wooden African theme, it is possibly inspired by the travel agents of the same name nearby, or maybe "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls" - either way, it's certainly Brno's heart of darkness. A good time can usually be had here, provided you can get past the villainous-looking bouncers. The music's pretty cheesy, the bar's hard to get to, and the overall atmosphere is of a boozy, fondling brawl.
Sports fans visiting Brno may be interested to know there is both a football team and a hockey team in the city. FC Zbrojovka Brno play at their 12000 capacity Mestský Fotbalový Stadion Srbská, but rarely reach capacity. Football as a spectacle in the Czech Republic is generally an excruciating experience, with even their top flight games resembling a late season, mid-table knockabout in the English Division Two. It can be fun to see a game in the warm weather, just to relax and have a beer and a sausage.
On the other hand, the city's Ice Hockey team, Kometa, is one of the few things the locals get really passionate about, and usually play to a full house. The Kometa fans really rock the Hala Rondo where they play, famous for their pogo-ing, scarf-twirling chants.
In general, Brno is a safe city, although it's always worth staying sharp - sometimes it's easy to get lulled into a false sense of security and let your guard down. The main place to worry about is the Main Station (Hlavni Nadrazi), which is seedy enough during the daytime, but gets positively David Lynch-ian at night. It's filthy, smelly, and crawling with drunks and homeless people, as well as the odd purse snatcher. You won't want to hang around there too long anyway, but keep your eyes open.
At night Brno is quiet, and may seem rather under lit compared to what you're used to. It's worth keeping your voice down when walking from A to B; it's not likely that anyone's going to accost you, but you may encounter some phenomenally drunken people stumbling around or lurking in bushes or doorways. Most of the time they'll just want a cigarette or to slur at you for a bit before bumbling onwards, but it's not always fun.
So that's my introduction to Brno - it's a decent town to spend some time in, as I've found out over the past couple of years. I'll be updating this review on a regular basis, as I'm aware there are a few gaps; however, if you need any further information or have a particular question, drop me a message and I'll do my best to answer it!
Summary: If you're spending time in the Czech Republic, Brno is a great counterpoint to Prague.