The industrial suburbs of Brno make for a poor initial impression, but the historic center and its immediate surrounds are beautiful and unspoiled. Much of old Brno has been pedestrianized, making it a great pleasure to explore the city of 400,000 on foot. Like Prague, Brno has retained much of its prewar architecture, and sharp Gothic spires poke the sky above wedding-cake historicist confections. The city was also an important center of the functionalist movement, exemplified by Villa Tugendhat, a Mies van der Rohe masterpiece of residential design on the outskirts of the center (reserve tickets six months in advance). Nowadays, numerous university students give Brno a youthful energy, and the city has a surprising wealth of excellent restaurants, in addition to world-class cocktail bars and brewpubs. Best of all, Brno has yet to make it onto the tourism circuit, allowing one to enjoy its top attractions without fighting crowds.
Located just outside Brno’s old center, the Villa Tugendhat is a masterpiece of functionalist residential architecture by Mies van der Rohe. Tickets to tour the interior must be reserved four or five months in advance, and they often sell out shortly after they are made available. Its gardens and exterior are much easier to access, however.
Many of Brno’s most interesting (and macabre) attractions are underground. They city is home to second-largest known ossuary in Europe after that in Paris, for example. The Church of St. James Ossuary contains the remains of about 50,000 people, including victims of sieges and plagues. A short walk away, the mummy-filled Capuchin Crypt contains glass-topped coffins of various benefactors, as well as a room of monks who lie on the floor of a vaulted chapel-like space.
Overlooking the city, Brno’s castle was the site of the one of the most notorious prisons of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On two levels of cellars, brick barrel vaults of the Špilberk Castle casemates stand as an eerie, sobering counterpoint to the opulence of Vienna’s palaces. And one of the city’s most famous sights is the labyrinth under the grand Cabbage Market square. Unfortunately, because of its heavily staged chambers and guides who speak only Czech, I recommend skipping it.
The unmarked entrance to one of Europe’s most unusual cocktail bars, Super Panda Circus, is on Husova, the first door north of the Barceló Brno Palace. Its décor is trendy and the drink menu could be inscribed on anything from a flower vase to a paper lantern-style chandelier, but behind the surrealist stylings are serious craft cocktails.