Czech it out – the best city breaks in Czechia apart from Prague

Anthea Gerrie looks beyond the temptations of Prague to find two more enticing city breaks in Brno and Olomouc


Brno (Photo: Unsplash)

Forget Prague. Or at least, forget the assumption that the capital of the Czech Republic is the sole reason to visit this country, and cast your eyes towards Brno and the almost equally unpronounceable Olomouc.

With perhaps the richest cultural heritage in Mitteleurope, the country (now officially Czechia) is perfect for architecture buffs, gourmands, glass and china lovers and everyone fascinated by 20th-century history — and the fate of Europe’s Jews in particular.

Prague is the gateway to not only its home province, Bohemia, but also oft-overlooked Moravia, the country’s easternmost region, which is its vineyard and the former home to many Habsburg-era oligarchs and the industrialists who followed.

These wealth-builders created a golden age in the young country, until the Nazis stole their independence after just 20 years. Here Brno, Czechia’s second city, and Olomouc (pronounce it Olomoats), its sixth largest, provide more than enough to see over a long weekend.

Brno is just a two-hour ride on one of the many trains ploughing through Prague on their way to or from Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Poland, and is a vibrant, living city with a youthful population, compared to the storybook-beautiful capital, whose medieval highlights can too often make it feel frozen in the past.

Brno has beautiful old buildings, too, but its greatest architectural jewel dates back less than 100 years; Mies van der Rohe’s futuristic Villa Tugendhat, built for Jewish industrialists, which now has a Unesco World Heritage Site designation.

This early exemplar of spare Functionalist style is unmissable, not least for its astonishing wall of onyx, which cost as much as four houses – so much for the architect’s normal insistence that “less is more” – and the huge glass living room, which floats over a garden to which it was designed to be completely open with retractable floor-to-ceiling windows.

It’s not Brno’s only historic villa open to the public either. Villa Stiassni was also built for a Jewish industrialist and his family, who, like the Tugendhats, had to flee in 1938 and never got their properties back, due to a quirk in the law.

The surviving Stiassni descendants, whose first refuge was England, have returned as honoured guests while the artwork of two family members is on display with much of the original furniture — Suzanne, the only daughter, became a painter later in life, while her mother Hermine depicted the rooms of the house in charming watercolours.

There is also a delightful garden, while architecture buffs will want to explore the surrounding Masaryk neighbourhood, with more elegant early 20th century residences. It’s well worth booking entrance to both villas in advance.

Both are easily accessed by Brno’s many trams, the best way to explore, though a cab is a better option for journeys from the station to one of the city’s better hotels. These include the International, an impressive late-20th-century pile perfectly placed to discover the city centre on foot, and next door to the superb Museum of Applied Art, with its marvellous displays of new and vintage Moravian glass, porcelain, homewares and fashion.

Other must-sees in Brno include Spilberk Castle, high on a hill where a royal castle has stood since the 13th century, as well as the lively Cabbage Market in a lovely square behind the art deco Grand Hotel.

The memorable ossuary, a display of skulls and bones reassembled in the crypt of the medieval St. James’s Church, was also unexpectedly beautiful and touching rather than spooky, with installations in illuminated subterranean display cases beneath the church.

They are part of a larger Underground Brno scene that includes labyrinths beneath the Cabbage Market, several Cold War bunkers and the vaulted monumental water tanks on Yellow Hill.

And Jews who register in advance can join Shabbat services or arrange visits to the starkly beautiful art deco synagogue where the current congregation meets for Orthodox services, just a short tram ride from the city centre.

Built without exterior signage from 1935-36, when the writing was on the wall, it was the sole survivor of a trio of shuls, its larger neighbours destroyed by the Nazis.

Virtually all the city’s 10,000 Jews were deported to Terezin and their Siddurim, names inked by the owners on the fly-leaves, make a heart-rending display at the back of the prayer hall.

Yet the Brno Jewish story is one of hope; among the few survivors was Rabbi Richard Feder, who led the congregation at Terezin and survived, rebuilding it in his seventies in Moravia, where he served as rabbi for Brno and the region until his death aged 95.

While the beautiful Byzantine-style synagogue on Olomouc’s Palachovo Square did not survive destruction by the Nazis in 1939, its community is remembered every Yom Ha’Shoah at the new Jewish cemetery and at a 1949 Holocaust memorial.

And a whole street of this exquisite Moravian city – which substituted for both pre-revolutionary Moscow and Paris in the TV adaptation of Dr Zhivago – has been named after the Jewish Wolf brothers. Otto, the youngest, wrote a memoir before his execution by the Gestapo in the final hours of the Second World War, which is considered the Czech equivalent of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Today’s tiny community welcomes visitors from all over the world for Shabbat and holiday services at its current prayer room and community centre, while both the old and new Jewish cemeteries can be visited.

A reminder that the city, which provided refuge to many fleeing pogroms, once had a community so large that Olomouc’s Jews who fell during the First World War had their own war memorial.

Plaques also commemorate the destroyed synagogue and, at the site where they were rounded up for deportation, the 2,000 residents who died in the camps.

In a town whose expansive historic centre is a feast of memorials and monuments, only the stunning 32-metre Holy Trinity Column has been accorded World Heritage Site status.

But equally marvellous sights include the 15th-century astronomical clock, whose moving stars are workers and peasants rather than the usual apostles thanks to a Communist-era makeover, as well as St Michael’s Church with its astonishingly ornate baroque interior, the cathedral whose exterior channels Notre Dame and the fabulous 1905 Villa Primavesi furnished in Secession style by Josef Hoffmann.

Banker Primavesi had to sell his world-class collection of Klimt paintings, including those of his wife and daughter, just to survive as the family’s fortunes fell into decline, but the interior – now furnished with replicas – is glorious and should not be missed.

A short walk away on Videnska Street, the synagogue was designed by Jewish architect Jakob Gartner, who, along with Mordechaj Nachmann, was also responsible for the beautiful art nouveau apartment buildings around the city.

Perhaps the most famous Jew associated with Olomouc is Gustav Mahler, director of the city theatre for several months, and a frequent dinner guest at Villa Primavesi. Mozart also lived here for at time and composed a symphony while in residence, while Sigmund Freud worked here too as a young doctor.

However, today’s Czechs come to Olomouc as much for the fine dining as for its history.

Entree, in an unlikely setting between a hotel and casino near the bus station, draws gourmets from all over the country for its exquisite cuisine and elegant modern decor.

Bistro No 66 in the old town is more rustic and less pricey but serves excellent traditional food, while the focus on fresh vegetables throughout Moravia means the observant should always find something good to eat here.

With Olomouc only an hour from Brno and two hours from Prague, this three-centre trip could hardly be easier, whether it’s the history, the food, or the allure of something new that appeals. Because while Prague is always tempting, a taste of life beyond the capital is unmissable.

​Getting There

​Flights from Prague cost from around £40 return from Luton with easyJet, with direct routes from Gatwick, Manchester, Edinburgh and Bristol as well.

For more information about train routes and to reserve tickets in advance from Czech Railways, visit

Rooms at the International Hotel cost from £104 per night.

For more information on Brno and Olomouc, go to

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