When you’re on holiday, you get to have the most indulgent dilemmas of all.
Like: “Should we wake up early tomorrow to catch the sunrise and take gorgeous morning pictures of the lakeside? Or sleep in and cuddle on our impossibly snug and cozy queen bed?”
If you’re in the Czech Republic or planning to visit soon, you’re probably agonizing: “Where should I go after Prague?”
While the popular answer may be the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov or the spa town of Karlovy Vary, let me invite you to a cool alternative city break: Brno, the capital of South Moravia.
Despite its central location – it’s the central transportation hub and crossroads between Prague, Bratislava, Vienna, and Budapest – not a lot of people come to stay in Brno even for a quick city break. In a way, this is great news: you get to have Brno’s beautiful architecture, obscure attractions, and the vibrant food and drink scene all to yourself!
If you’re looking for a hip Central European city with loads of culture and attitude, minus the crowds and the hefty price tag, Brno’s the perfect destination for you. While largely overshadowed by Prague, Czech Republic’s second city has a lot to offer. Its medieval streets and underground labyrinths tell stories as far back as the 13th century while the modern buildings and cafes that sprout endlessly continue to make Brno the vibrant city it is today. Here are more reasons to check it out!
Brno city break – a guide to one of Europe’s most underrated cities
- Essential sights – a walking tour of Brno
- Where to eat and drink
- Where to stay in Brno
- Planning your trip
- Beyond Brno – exploring Central Europe
Brno’s center is extremely walkable. From the main train station, you can easily walk to most of the city’s main attractions. Here’s a Google map of Brno’s interesting sights:
Visit the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul and walk around the Petrov Hill
The Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul is one of the most iconic sights in the city of Brno; it even earned a spot on the 10 korun (Czech crown) coin. Together with Spilberk castle, the cathedral’s distinctive two towers form the city’s characteristic panorama.
The current cathedral was first built in 14th century in the Gothic design. It was rebuilt many times over the centuries until it achieved its present form in 1909 when it was reconstructed by Viennese architect August Kirstein, who gave the cathedral its two towers.
Inside the church, you’ll find several artifacts from centuries past: a statue of Madonna and child which dates from around the 1300s, a late Gothic pieta, Baroque altars, and a Romanesque-Gothic crypt.
One of the most interesting stories about the cathedral, though, tells why the noon bells ring at 11 o’clock.
In 1645, the Swedes began a siege of the city of Brno, but Brno’s citizens were putting up quite a fight. The bloody battles continued for three months until the Swedish commander, Torstenson, finally put an ultimatum to the siege. “Tomorrow we shall make our last attack on the city. Before the bells on Petrov strike noon, Brno must be ours. If not, we shall retreat,” he said. A servant of Brno heard and understood them, and immediately reported this to Brno’s commander, Souches.
On the day of the battle, Brno’s citizens fought bravely and defended the city as best they could. But when the Swedes began to break the walls of the city, Souches ordered the bell ringer to strike twelve o’clock in the St. Peter’s cathedral. In reality, it was just eleven o’clock, but upon hearing the bell, the Swedes ceased fighting and were gone before nightfall. Since then, the Petrov bells have always struck noon at eleven o’clock to commemorate how it saved Brno during the Swedish siege.
See daily life at the Zelny trh, then go underground for a glimpse of medieval Brno
From the Petrov hill, make your way to the Zelny trh, or Cabbage Market Square.
You can see the daily city grind in the Cabbage Market Square, one of the oldest preserved city squares of Brno, first mentioned in the early 13th century. This is quite unlike the daily grind of other more harried cities though. In Brno, time moves at a more leisurely pace. You can sit at one of the benches around the market, watch pigeons hop around the monuments, and see people getting flowers, vegetables, and produce at leisure.
But the Cabbage Market’s life continues underground. Cellars were established under individual houses within and around the cabbage market in the middle- and modern-ages, most dating to the baroque era. In the past, these cellars were significantly used to store vegetables and other goods, brew beer, and mature wine in barrels. Some of the larger cellars even served as beer houses, inns, and pubs. During times of war, the cellars were a place of refuge.
Originally, the cellars were not interconnected and many were only discovered recently. In 2009, the city started reconstruction of the cellars for modern use and interconnected them to eventually be opened to the public.
Today, you can take a tour of the labyrinth to learn how the medieval cellars were used as well as how it evolved through the ages. You will also learn about the local wine tradition, have a glimpse of an alchemist laboratory commemorating Brno’s medieval physicians and scientists, as well as Brno’s dark and obscure history.
Tour information: Tours are offered from Tuesday to Sunday, 9 AM to 6 PM. Admission fees are CZK 160, with discounts for students, seniors, children, and families. You can get updated tour information and buy tickets here.
Eat: The Cabbage Market is also a great place to have lunch. For traditional Czech food, we loved the Restaurace Špalíček.
Relax at the Freedom Square
Also called the Náměstí Svobody, this is the biggest and probably oldest square in Brno. Its triangular shape was maintained since the 13th century, when it used to be the crossroads of three business routes.
Now, it is the busiest square where theatre and musical performances, summer festivals, shows, and seasonal markets are held. Its dominant feature is an early Baroque plague column from 1689, a memorial for all the victims of plague epidemics during the Middle Ages.
The houses surrounding the square represent the history of architecture in the area as well as its economic growth. For those keen on architecture, you can admire the House of Lords of Lipa, Klein’s Palace, the Omega Palace, and the Neo-Renaissance U Čtyř mamlasů house. Here’s a more in-depth architectural trail of the Brno city center.
Learn about Spilberk Castle’s dark past
To the west of Freedom Square, Spilberk Castle looms eerily on top of a hill. While most castles have that Disney vibe going on, there’s something about Spilberk that just looks forbidding. As it turns out, not only does it look grim, Spilberk has quite a dark past.
Spilberk Castle’s history starts off gloriously enough, fit for a royal castle. It was founded in the mid-13th century by the Czech king Přemysl Otakar II. By the mid-14th century, it became the seat of Moravian margraves. They hardly stayed there for long periods, though, and the castle gradually fell into disrepair.
In 1645, however, Spilberk Castle’s strategic significance was re-established when it was able to withstand the Swedes’ three-month siege of the city (the one that ended with an 11 o’clock noon bell), despite the odds. Because of this renewed recognition of Spilberk, it was gradually rebuilt and fortified until by the mid-18th century, it was considered the mightiest Baroque stronghold in Moravia.
It was in the 18th century when its role took a turn for the grim. While the fortress has always constituted a prison where leaders and key players of anti-Habsburg mutinies were held, Emperor Joseph II then converted the Baroque fortress into a civil prison for the most heinous criminals. It came to be known as the “Jail of Nations” for its reputation as the most feared prison in Habsburg monarchy.
In 1855, Emperor Franz Joseph I abolished the Spilberk prison and three years later, it became a military barracks for another century. However, its role as a prison and center for oppression especially to “political captives” did not end there. During the First World War, objectors to the Austro-Hungarian regime were held there, while during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, Spilberk became the prison of thousands of Czech patriots who were eventually killed there.
In 1939-1941, the German army modified it into a model barracks in the spirit of romantic historicism, which was part of the German third reich ideology. In 1959, the Czechoslovak army left the Spilberk and it has since then been the seat of the Brno Museum. In 1963, it became a national cultural monument.
Presently, you can visit the Brno museum for a glimpse of the history of the castle and the city – the different architectural designs and influences reflect its many role changes. You can find more information about opening hours and admission here.
You can also get some of the best views of the city from within the grounds of the Spilberk castle. If you need to find peace after the grimness of the castle, the surrounding park is a great place to have a break. You can also visit one of our favorite cafes just at the foothills of the hill: Café Podnebi.
Go on an architecture trail
Another aspect of Brno worth celebrating and appreciating is its modernist architecture.
In the period between the two world wars, Brno enjoyed several years of increased growth and development. It was during this time that the functionalist movement began – a preference for an architectural style defined by simplicity and functionality.
The most famous modernist building in Brno is Villa Tugendhat, designed by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Greta and Fritz Tugendhat in 1929-1930. In 2001, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list as an “outstanding example of the international style in the modern movement in architecture as it developed in Europe in the 1920s. Its particular value lies in the application of innovative spatial and aesthetic concepts that aim to satisfy new lifestyle needs by taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by modern industrial production.”
As architecture is not really my forte, I run the risk of undercutting Brno’s architectural achievements by attempting to write about them. Instead, here are good reads on Brno’s architecture – a good start to understanding more about the impact of Brno Functionalism:
Travel + Leisure writer Karrie Jacobs takes a trip to Brno to discover the city’s architecture, centering on the Functionalist movement. From the grand Villa Tugendhat, to the unassuming Nový Dům, to the reincarnated cafes, she peppers her accounts with historical and architectural commentary.
New York Times travel writer Evan Rail goes deeper and looks for Brno’s functionalism in the everyday, ordinary buildings – a synagogue, a tram stop, coffee houses, and rows of homes and offices.
Essential information: Learning about Brno’s architecture
- Tours to the Villa Tugendhat must be booked in advance – learn more here and book your tickets here. (Note: a quick check showed that the first available vacancies for English-language tours are not for another 2-3 months; booking months in advance is highly recommended!)
- Take a self-guided architectural walking tour using this guide: Brno’s architecture trails.
In the last decade, Brno has enjoyed a rapid growth in its food and drinks scene. The best thing about it: it’s absolutely affordable to eat out in Brno! You have to bring cash around though – most of the restaurants and cafes we went to didn’t accept credit cards.
Restaurants we loved include:
- Restaurace Spalicek in Zelny trh 12 (at the cabbage market square) – Great if you’re looking for traditional Czech cuisines; also check out their lunch menus.
- Soul Bistro in Jezuitska 7/10 – Great for comfort food cravings and intimate casual dinners. The interiors are really nice and go well with the hearty food.
We spent a lot more time in cafes though, as Brno has a really exciting café scene – plus I’m a coffee addict with a sweet tooth. Cafes we loved include:
- Café Podnebi in Udolni 5 – Their chocolate is absolutely heavenly! It’s tucked in a little corner near the entrance to the Spilberk park along Udolni. They have garden tables for beautiful warm days.
- Air Café in Zelny trh 8 – Great place for coffee and rum enthusiasts. You’ll love the fighter pilot-inspired design and you have the option to get rum-based drinks that have been perfected by the owners over the years. You can find this café in the Zelny trh, inside the Moravian museum.
- V Melounovém cukru in Frantiskanska 17 – A funky café in a cool spot in the city – have their cakes with your coffee and enjoy their quirky photos and art.
★Travelers’ Pick: Grandezza Hotel is still one of Brno’s top luxury and business hotels. With a convenient and central location (right at the heart of Brno at the Cabbage Market Square), great room views, beautiful interiors and amenities, it’s certainly one of the city favorites.
For a mid-range accommodation, check out Fairhotel, a new boutique hotel just a little off the city center sporting bright pastel rooms, a Finnish sauna, and a sky bar with views of Brno. It’s perfect for relaxing romantic stays.
Brno’s recent popularity as an expat hub (thanks to low prices and a great food and drinks scene) also prompted the increase in holiday rentals and apartments in the area. Some of the best-rated apartments in Brno include: Square Apartment and Haas Apartments. If you’re traveling with a group, these are the best value options you can find in Brno.
Land travel: Brno can be reached by train or bus from Prague (2 hours, 30 minutes), Vienna (1 hour, 30 minutes), and Budapest (4 hours). You can book your tickets online here.
Brno is the main gateway to the South Moravian wine region – a region worth exploring for castle towns like Mikulov, vineyards, nature and cultural trails, and historical landmarks. If you love wine, hearty food and the outdoors, spend 3-5 days in the Czech Republic’s intoxicating wine region.
While you could easily spend months in the Czech Republic, here are my top tips for visiting Prague and Cesky Krumlov in 5 days, especially for first-timers to the Czech Republic.
Brno is pretty close to Austria, and a good stopover from Prague to Vienna. If you’re planning to drive around in Austria (which I highly recommend!), here’s a scenic road trip itinerary from Vienna to Salzburg.
Austria’s capital, Vienna, is a must-visit when in Central Europe. Before you dismiss it as just another touristy capital, check out these guides covering the best places to stay and things to do in the city’s coolest districts!
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I hope this inspires you to visit the cool city of Brno! If you found this useful, please share it with your friends. That would be much appreciated! Thanks so much for reading and happy travels to the Czech Republic!
(Photo credit: Villa Tugendhat by Zia Gouel. Creative Commons.)
First published – July 6, 2017
Last updated – July 15, 2018 – fixed format and added travel-planning tips