Brno is the Czech Republic’s second city and has a hardworking reputation, although commerce is a just a small part of this quirky city’s story. Set where the Svitava and Svratka Rivers meet, Brno was capital of Moravia from the 1100s right up to the communist era. Naturally, a lot of heritage remains, and you can take in a great deal of Gothic and baroque sights on the cobblestone streets of the Old Town. But what really gives Brno its identity is its devotion to the weird, wonderful and downright creepy. Let us explain, in our run down of the best things to do in Brno.
1. Villa Tugendhat
Nothing scary about this one. Open daily for tours, Villa Tugendhat is up there with Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in Paris as a prototype for modern architecture. Built from 1928-30, it was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and is a UNESCO-listed masterwork of functionalism. This building changed the game thanks to its open floor plan and wall-sized rear windows. Villa Tugendhat’s history is as important as its design. The Tugendhats were a Jewish couple and were forced to flee Brno after 1938. The villa became a base for the Gestapo, and then as quarters for the Soviet army. It wasn’t until 1967 that Greta Tugendhat returned and the restoration process began.
2. The Old Town Hall
Here you get an idea of Brno’s enduring sense of fun, as well as a neat view of the city from the roost of the tower. On approach you might notice that one of the turrets on the Town Hall’s decorative facade looks a bit skewed. The story goes that Anton Pilgram, the building’s architect was screwed out of money by Brno’s City Council and his payback was to mess with the design. The other version holds that he was simply too drunk to get it right. The building goes back to the 1200s, and formed part of the city defences during the famous siege by Swedish forces in 1645. More on that later.
3. The Town Hall’s Curios
This is where it starts to get a bit wacky. Hanging from the ceiling in the passage beneath the tower is what looks like a large taxidermied crocodile. But don’t be fooled; you’re now in the domain of the legendary Brno dragon. In the city’s earliest years this beast terrorised the population and its livestock, and eventually a butcher got the creative idea of filling a fur sack with lime. After the dragon devoured the sack it needed to quench its thirst and drank so much water it died. On the wall here is the Brno wheel, a wagon wheel supposedly built and delivered from the city of Teplice 45 kilometres away in just 12 hours as part of a medieval bet. It’s a symbol for Brno’s work ethic.
4. Gregor Mendel’s Abbey and Museum
The godfather of genetics spent almost his whole life in Brno, and stands today as one of the 19th century’s most important scientists. At the Abbey of Saint Thomas you can visit the garden in which he conducted his famed experiments on pea plants that helped him discover the secrets of heredity. For a bit more insight, the Mendel Museum outside the old town has detailed exhibits that shed light on his methods, and how early experiments breeding mice attracted the disapproval of the church. You can also find out about his experiments in the field of beekeeping, but these have made a less impact on the course of history.
5. Špilberk Castle
As the seat of the rulers of Moravia, this building has been around for almost as long as Brno has existed. And as you might expect this has left the structure with a range of styles, from Romanesque to baroque. It’s a large hilltop fortress that has served all sorts of roles and seen a lot of action in its time. Like the Town Hall Špilberk Castle helped repel the Swedish Army during a siege in the Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s. At this time it also doubled as a prison to house and torture protestants, given that Brno was a catholic city. You’ll learn at the museum here why Špilberk was a no place to end up if you belonged to the wrong denomination.
6. Capuchin Monastery
And the morbid vibes keep coming, because the Capuchin Monastery on Kapucínské Square is no place for the faint of heart. The exterior and ground floor are splendid, and offer no indication of what lies beneath. The building is in the baroque style, with an ornate rococo interior, including a memorable fresco and a preserved library with shelves of ancient volumes climbing to ornate ceilings. Go downstairs though and you’ll be confronted by an 18th-century crypt where members of the Capuchin order and other important figures of the time are lying around mummified like they’ve decided to take 200-year naps.
7. Modern Architecture
Alongside Villa Tugendhat, Brno had a design boom in the early-20th century when some of the most beautiful landmarks beyond the old town were built. Brno is now peppered with some 70 functionalist buildings. Real architecture buffs can download a list and track them down on a walking tour. If you’re willing to put in the legwork you’ll be rewarded with some memorable yet unfrequented sights, nearly all of which continue to serve their intended public and residential roles. In Brno-center keep an eye out for Žáckuv rodinný dum, Basova vila, Haasova vila, state-of-the-art residences built for Brno’s elite in the 20s and 30s.
8. Cathedral of Saint Peter and Paul
The Swedish siege of Brno in 1645 left a big impression on the city, and put the clocks at this dominant cathedral in a bit of a time warp. In yet another of Brno’s quirky stories, it is said that the Swedes agreed to give up on their plans to take the city if they hadn’t managed to conquer it by mid-day on the August 15 1645. Resourceful as ever, the Brno defenders decided to improve their odds and brought the clocks at the cathedral an hour forward to chime at 11 instead of 12. To this day the noon chimes take place at 11.
9. Brno Underground
A maze of tunnels and chambers sits underneath the Cabbage Market in the old town. In 2011 these were opened to the public as part of a compelling 40-minute walking tour. The square above dates back to the 1200s and many of the passageways that weave underneath are also from this time. You’ll see how food was preserved here in the medieval era, visit an historic wine cellar, and will also be able to peruse an authentic alchemist’s laboratory. As ever in historic Brno, there’s a dark side. Looming underground is a real pillory, a public torture device for criminals in the middle ages.
10. The Cabbage Market
Above the underworld is a marketplace that has also been in use since the 1200s. You can still buy vegetables at the farmers’ market, as well as taking a look at some of the monuments around. One of these is the Parnas Fountain with its statue of Hercules. It is said that in old times fishmongers showcased their stock by letting their carp swim in the fountain waters. On the south side Reduta Theatre is a concert hall that goes back to renaissance times. In 1767 an 11-year-old Mozart performed here with his sister.
11. Brno Moto GP
Another thing about Brno that puts it on the world map is the city’s motorcycling circuit. Brno has been connected to this motorsport since 1930 and for many years the Masaryk Circuit here was a perilous street race on cobblestones. When this course was laid with asphalt in the 1960s Brno became a mainstay of the World Grand Prix, and the street circuit was eventually replaced by a purpose-built venue in 1987. Moto GP comes to town in August every year, bringing with it three days of high-octane action and the best riders in the world.
12. The Church of Saint James
A beautiful national monument, this church has survived intact for almost the last 500 years and dates originally to the 1200s. It’s a lovely Gothic building, with soaring vaulted ceilings, but recent excavations have uncovered a rather sinister feature underground. If you dare you can step down to what is the largest ossuary in Europe after the Catacombs in Paris. It opened its doors in 2012 and is crammed with the remains of some 50,000 people, their bones and skulls arranged in ornamental designs and stacks.
13. Macocha Abyss
This sinkhole, half an hour north of the city, is like something out of a fantasy movie. The Macocha Abyss is part of the Punkva cave system and draws both serious subterranean adventurers and casual tourists who want to explore the deepest sinkhole in Central Europe. The Abyss came about when the ceiling of a deep cave collapsed, and the feature is part of a vast and labyrinthine network of tunnels that you can navigate on a guided tour on foot and then by boat once you approach the cathedral-like Abyss. In the open air is a trail that snakes through the rocky scenery is favoured by walkers and cyclists.
14. Brno Dam
The best time to head down to Brno’s dam is after sunset at the end of May and start of June when teams from around the world vie for the top awards at the Ignis Brunensis firework competition. This started out as a mere exhibition, but in 2003 things started to get serious and hi-tech pyrotechnics companies started using the event as a chance to show the marketplace what they could do. This sense of competition is great news for the public, as the increasingly elaborate displays are reflected wonderfully by the waters of the reservoir. By day people flock to the wooded shores of the reservoir in summer for boating, water sports and bike rides.
15. Brno’s Parks
Lužánky Park was the first public park in what is now the Czech Republic, which has earned it national monument status. The Jesuits played a part in its foundation, using these grounds for meditation and rest, and when they were expelled in the late 1790s Lužánky was laid out in the French formal style, later becoming more of a botanic garden with an ornamental stream. Denis Gardens meanwhile connect Peter and Paul Cathedral with Špilberk Castle. For those who have the energy to tackle the slope the park is full of surprises, with 19th-century gazebos and an elegant colonnade. There are lookout platforms offering what is surely the most romantic view in Brno.