Newest Review: ... that when we visited we knew we wouldn't see a great deal of Brno: it was cold and I was recovering from surgery on my foot but we were a... more
Czeching Out Brno
Brno (Czech Republic)
Member Name: fizzywizzy
Brno (Czech Republic)
Date: 17/01/13, updated on 17/01/13 (69 review reads)
Advantages: More personal than Prague; lots to do; a handsome city; cosmopolitan
Disadvantages: Not a particularly friendly city; area round the train station not appealing
Given that Brno is just a couple of hours by train from Prague, and even less from Vienna and Bratislava it's maybe surprising that Brno has held onto its budget route to and from the UK with Wizz Air though it's possible that the flight has been maintained because it's useful for exhibition delegates. We've passed through Brno's main train station on numerous occasions over the last ten years but never stopped until recently when we broke up a train journey from Prague to Maribor (Slovenia). Depending on which train you take the journey to/from Prague takes about three hours and is, for the most part, incredibly scenic. The area immediately around the train station is shabby and you'll probably see a few drinkers hang around; we didn't feel threatened at all but it's not the best of arrivals.
The historic core of the city is compact and walkable; attractions such as Villa Tugendhat - a modernist house built in 1929-30 and the only building in the Czech Republic to have UNESCO World Heritage Site status - are just a short tram ride from the centre. The key sights can be seen in a day, even a few hours if you are inclined to jump off the train and pound the pavements. Over a long weekend you can pack in a few museums or galleries and enjoy Brno's charms at a more leisurely pace. I have to confess that when we visited we knew we wouldn't see a great deal of Brno: it was cold and I was recovering from surgery on my foot but we were able to wander around the historic heart of the city and see many of its architectural monuments.
Namesti Svobody (Freedom Square) is the symbolic centre of the historic centre; it's more triangular than square, to be pedantic, and is dotted with fountains and sculptures rather than having one grand focal point. Like the other tourists in town we made a half hearted attempt to work out the rather unusual clock (referred to somewhat indecently as the 'cock clock' by some) which symbolizes the 1645 Battle of Brno, then turned our attention instead to the building just behind which is designed so that the fašade is held up by four magnificent caryatids (a caryatid being a human figure in place of a more conventional pillar). I loved this building, but my travelling companion thought it too over the top.
In Brno you need to look up; the city is packed with wonderful buildings so that it resembles a giant open air museum of architecture. There are splendid gilded arcades with twinkling chandeliers that give a magical effect, intricately tiled facades and cute little finials that are reminiscent of Russian architecture. If you like to shop you can combine consumerism with architectural appreciation as the main shopping area is made up of streets of these fine buildings. I was surprised how many smart, upmarket stores there were, including quite a few international designers; there are also lots of little independent shops selling quality items, especially confectionery.
The old town hall- the Stara Radnice - houses the tourist information office (as well as the Brno wheel and the Brno dragon, symbols of two famous legends surrounding the city); the staff are friendly but not very helpful or proactive. We asked about visiting Villa Tugendhat but we were told that it was by advance reservation only for guided tours; tours are usually full for the forthcoming six weeks. I really wanted to visit and asked if a staff member could phone and enquire about cancellations; I was told there wouldn't be any and so nobody phoned. I mentioned that we were looking for something a bit different to do and that I was recovering from foot surgery and didn't really want to do something that involved lots of walking. One staff member suggested sky diving (I'm not joking) but added it was only possible in summer. Another suggested going to a water-park; she stared at me blankly when I pointed out I had no swimming gear and it wasn't really an activity that was special to Brno (maybe she thought it would be therapeutic). One good thing about the TIC is that there are loads and loads of leaflets and several different 'What's on' publications so if you turn up with a guidebook or you've not done any research, you can easily find out where there is to see and do. Among the ones we picked was one that described a walk around a residential area of the city in which there are a number of interesting architect designed houses, something we'd have enjoyed had I been more mobile.
Perhaps because it was approaching the end of autumn Namesti Svobody was rather quiet with people passing through rather than stopping at one of the cafes. I got the impression that this is the place to stop for a coffee or beer in summer, but in the winter only a few hardy people sit outside with a coffee and a cigarette. Zeleny Trh (the Cabbage Market) was much livelier; a fresh produce market where the stalls are clustered around a slightly grotesque baroque fountain. From here it's a short walk to the cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul; with its gothic revival twin towers it is perhaps the most recognisable visual symbol of Brno. The cathedral is a mishmash of styles with bits added here and there over the centuries according to the prevailing fashions, or practical necessity. The tower can be climbed for a small charge and no doubt a trip to the top is rewarded with fantastic views; we contented ourselves with a look around the main body of the church, discreetly tagging on to the tail end of a guided tour to learn more.
I'd have easily spent a few days in Brno given the chance but we had plans and couldn't stay. It's a lively and youthful city where there appears to be plenty going on. Ice hockey is a massive spectator sport; we stayed over on a Friday night and the bars were full of people watching a televised game. I get the impression that people in Brno like to make the most of what's available to them; through the window of a small basement bar near our hotel we could see that the place was packed with people watching a guitar duo playing. There are posters all over town for concerts, lessons and sports clubs; it seemed to me a city where people really live life.
I found Brno surprisingly cosmopolitan, but with a distinctly Czech attitude. No doubt being the seat of several important national institutions, as well as a major venue for international exhibitions and conferences, contributes to this. Restaurants cover the range of price brackets and international cuisines; there are cosy traditional pubs and sleek modern boutique bars. Hotels, too, cover a range of pricing options and there are plenty of good independent hotels that don't fall under a generic, faceless international branding. Service tends to be efficient but not very friendly; we found that the more downmarket we went, the more friendly the staff became.
Wizz Air flies to Brno from Luton Airport; flying in to Prague, Bratislava or Vienna are all viable options as Brno can be reached easily by train from those cities. People rave about Prague; it's a very beautiful city but it's too large to comfortably explore in a weekend. Try Brno, I dare you; it's visually quite stunning, it's lively and there's a heck of a lot going on.
Summary: The Czech Republic's lively second city