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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

My Kind of Place: Brno, Czech Republic

A small city with a big student population and plenty of attractions, Brno is cheaper and less touristy than Prague

Panoramic view over Brno, Czech Republic
Panoramic view over Brno, Czech Republic

Why Brno?

Beyond the big capitals, worthwhile destinations tend to fall into one of two categories. They either have not much to do but are great to hang out in or are surprisingly packed with attractions without providing the amiable mooch factor. Brno’s in the latter category. The second largest city in the Czech Republic, it has a good energy provided by a student population and a pleasant-enough core to wander around. But its strength lies in a remarkably interesting swathe of attractions that don’t fall back on the cathedral plus art museum stereotype.

A comfortable bed

The Hotel International is a big modern affair, with photos on the walls of celebs who’ve stayed there, a small basement pool and big breakfast spreads. Rooms feel more functional than the downstairs fanfare would suggest, but it’s the classic safe bet. Doubles cost from €137 (Dh591).

The Hotel Arte looks a little drab from the outside but the 15 rooms inside are fresh, colourful and well kitted-out. Prices start at 1,790Kc (Dh297) for a double.

The Grandezza has a huge, gorgeous lobby with a stained glass roof, while rooms don’t shy away into blandness either. Minibar drinks are free, carpets are loud and the dark woods give a sense of luxuriousness. Robes and slippers are present and correct, and the central location is plum. Expect to pay from €108 (Dh468).

Find your feet

Kick off just west of the city centre at the Mendel Museum, which is inside a former abbey and now run by the local university. The small pea garden outside is quite significant, as this was where monk Gregor Mendel did the experiments with peas that kickstarted the modern science of genetics.

From there, head to Spilberk Castle, which was once a notorious prison. There are several ticket options, but the tour of the casemates – which have been used as prison cells, air raid shelters and ammo storage bays in the past – is the most illuminating.

Church of Saint John on ulice Minoritska in Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic, Central Europe. Getty Images
Church of Saint John on ulice Minoritska in Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic, Central Europe. Getty Images

The Labyrinth under the Cabbage Market is one of several weird underground attractions. It is a network of tunnels and cellars that have been carved out over the years, and used for everything from meat storage to alchemy labs. The entertaining guided tours through the subterranean secret city tell the back story of each chamber.

Then, if that wasn’t weird enough, there’s the Ossuary at St James Church, which is simultaneously macabre and entrancing. Here, thousands of human bones and skulls lie arranged into neat formations in an underground cemetery that has accumulated new arrivals over the centuries. And just to increase the weird-out factor, specially-composed ambient music plays on a loop while you’re down there.

Meet the locals

Brno’s centre lacks warmth, but head into the university-dominated area to the north-west (just to the north of Spilberk Castle) and there’s an inviting cluster of cafes and restaurants. Cafe Podnebi is a great example – it’s always full of people chatting over a coffee, and there’s a fabulous terrace at the back for summer days.

Church of Saint John on ulice Minoritska in Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic, Central Europe. Getty Images
Church of Saint John on ulice Minoritska. Getty Images

Book a table

Koishi is in this cluster and has a smart neighbourhood vibe, which is surprisingly understated given it is one of the best restaurants in the country. Sushi is the speciality, but other Asian-influenced fish dishes such as the 690Kc (Dh114) miso bouillabaisse are mighty fine too.

Pavilion, a modernist blocky building in the middle of small park, goes for a more upscale look with gleaming glasses and white table cloths. Dishes are more traditional too, and the 175Kc (Dh29) chocolate lava cake dessert is wonderfully decadent.

Shoppers’ paradise

Brno’s shopping is distinctly underwhelming. The Galerie Vankovka just south of the railway station is the main mall and it focuses on affordable, mid-range fashion. The likes of Pandora, Desigual and O’Neill are there among several less well known local brands.

Galerie Arnie on Starobrnenska offers something more sophisticated, with vivid paintings, elegant glassware and tableside ornaments on sale among the sculptures.

Don’t miss

Villa Tugendhat justifiably has Unesco World Heritage status and is one of the most remarkable pieces of modern architecture in the world. A masterpiece of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who also designed much of the furniture inside, it was built as a home for a wealthy textile magnate’s daughter. Inside, the massive open-plan living room and windows that drop into the floor combine with more unusual touches such as doors that reach right up to the ceiling. And then you head downstairs into a remarkable network of rooms full of machines that provided early air-conditioning and heating systems. Tours book out weeks in advance – so plan well ahead.

What to avoid

Monday is often the worst day to visit European cities, but it’s especially bad in Brno as every attraction of conceivable interest is closed.

Getting there

Brno is closer to Vienna in Austria than Czech capital Prague, with direct RegioJet buses from Vienna Airport costing €16 (Dh69) for a two-and-a-half hour trip. Emirates flies direct to Vienna from Dubai, with economy return tickets from Dh2,520.