The phenomenon of “overtourism” has been in the news a lot this summer. How cities such as Prague and Vienna are swamped with visitors, restaurants booked weeks in advance, bars rammed with outsiders taking selfies. But about halfway between those two honeypots is another city also served by budget airlines from the UK that is far from swamped. In fascinating and surprising Brno, getting a table on a Saturday night is no problem, and it’s rare to hear anything but Czech in the streets.
The Czech Republic’s second city was once the capital of the province of Moravia, and despite a more recent history of dispossession and tragedy, it is a lively place of innovation and creativity. Modern Brno is booming, filled with students, young people and emigrés who have returned to the city with fresh ideas and energy, notably expressed in great restaurants and bars.
Brno has long been known for good beer but now the surrounding Moravian countryside is making some excellent wines, too. Try a tasting at Petit Cru wine bar where sommelier Janko Martinkovi? keeps an impressive cellar (and a vast hinterland of wine knowledge and jaw-dropping stories). There’s an excellent sushi place, Koishi , next door or, if you fancy some Czech dumplings to counter the autumn chill, head for U Richarda.
Drinkers will like convivial Four Rooms, which is open 22 hours a day, but the star of the bar scene is Super Panda Circus, which beat all the bars in Prague to be voted best in the country. Entry is via an unmarked mysterious doorway in Husova Street, but only when a table is free – it doesn’t take reservations. Inside, your cocktail selects you, via a baffling and highly entertaining method, and may come inside a baby’s bottle, or frozen into a lollipop. After midnight it’s pretty wild.
October is the month for music lovers. The Moravian Autumn festival is among the country’s top cultural events, with concerts by orchestras from across Europe (6-28 October). It runs alongside the New Music Exposition (11-25 October), with a more experimental take on classics.
Brno’s subterranean world is not for the faint-hearted. In the Capuchin Monastery, the mummified corpses of monks lie in rows in the cellars under a sign that reads: “We were once like you, and one day you will be like us.”
A few steps away is a labyrinth and the world’s second-largest ossuary, with 5,000 skeletons on display. These are just a tenth of the total found in 2001 under St Joseph’s Church, where most of them had lain undisturbed since the thirty years’ war.
My underground highlight, however, is the 10-Z nuclear bunker under Spillberg Castle. Local historian Pavel Pale?ek is slowly turning this structure, built by the Nazis as an air-raid shelter, into a world-class museum. Unusually, visitors can stay the night in dorms and rooms, trying out various pieces of cold war equipment, and in the morning eat an appropriately retro breakfast (doubles from £44 B&B, at Booking.com).
On Brno’s residential streets can be spotted villas built by wealthy German-Jewish families between the wars. Most famous is Villa Tugendhat, designed by Mies van der Rohe before he fled to Chicago in 1937. Another is Villa Stiassni by Ernst Wiesner, an airy masterpiece that became a Nazi officers’ club after the family escaped to the US. The house has been meticulously restored, with a garden and a fascinating photographic archive.
Brno is well-positioned for trips to world heritage sites such as Krom??íž (a pretty town with a baroque Bishop’s Palace, where some scenes from Amadeus were filmed) and the impressive castle of Lednice-Valtice.
• The trip was provided by Czech Tourism. Wizzair flies to Brno from Luton three times a week (from £35 return). The Marriott Courtyard has doubles from £90 room only; Jacob is a central hostel with dorm beds from £13, doubles from £37. For tours of the city and area see brnodaytrips.com