This Music-Filled City Is Stepping Out of Prague’s Shadow

Every corner of Brno, Czechia, thrums with music, art, and self-expression.

the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul towers above Brno.

Vetsiges of the old city and fresh elements of modern culture intermingle in Brno, Czechia.

Photo by Leonhard Niederwimmer/Unsplash

Pronounced Burr-NO, ideally with a luxuriously rolled “r,” Czechia’s second-largest city is roughly a quarter the size of Prague and receives almost none of its international tourists. Yet it is Brno, not the capital, that has been designated one of UNESCO’s Cities of Music, honoring its thriving network of bars, nightclubs, and concert spaces, along with its world-class festival calendar. The scene here offers everything from the banjo punk of homegrown band Poletíme to JazzFestBrno, whose 2024 performers include Grammy Award–winning singer Samara Joy. Between the golf ball–shaped and acoustically advanced Sono Centrum venue and the imposing medieval walls of Špilberk Castle (where the city’s philharmonic performs), there are few spots in Brno that aren’t pressed into musical service.

In the summer, it’s the streets themselves—lined with a quirky confusion of communist-era slab blocks, confectionery-colored art nouveau mansions, and sleek modernist villas—that reverberate. In July the Pop Messe festival, now in its fourth year, draws alternative music headliners from across Europe. In August, free outdoor gigs spill across Brno’s compact center during the annual Music Marathon. Some take place in the city’s many hidden courtyards, others in busy squares including the Vegetable Market, where artists play live alongside fruit stalls and food trucks.

Brno’s bar scene thrives at 4pokoje (left), one of Brno's many historic buildings (right)

Brno’s bar scene thrives at 4pokoje, which is situated among Brno’s many historic buildings.

Photo by Simon Bajada (left); Ezra Ulanday/Unsplash (right)

Brno’s clubs and nightlife, meanwhile, have long skewed away from the mainstream. “Here there was always a strong underground scene,” says Martin Kozumplík, who runs one of the city’s most popular venues, Kabinet Múz. “Growing up in the time of communism, it felt like everyone played in a band.”

With floor-to-ceiling windows and houseplant decor, Kabinet Múz is a vegan café by day, serving fried tofu “sushi” bowls and fragrant homemade soups while playing vinyl from its own record label. At night, a 300-strong clientele drinks pivo (beer) in the back room during indie rock or electronica shows.

The city’s history as the capital of Moravia—a winemaking region with a deep corresponding tradition of folk song and dance—has some bearing on its musical culture, as does its easy distance to the larger cities of Vienna and Prague, since performers often stop here on their tours. Honoring the bicentennial of 19th-century Bohemian composer Bedřich Smetana, renowned for his operas and symphonic poems, 2024 has been declared a national Year of Czech Music, and Brno will be a focal point of the celebrations.

Brno’s artistic streak extends beyond music. The recently reopened Museum of Applied Arts, founded in 1873 and housed in a three-story Renaissance revival palazzo with fin-de-siècle interiors, has been transformed by the Czech architect Ivan Koleček. Exhibits include Lucie Koldová’s modern, elegantly curved chairs and tables that float alongside catwalks suspended across a light-filled atrium. There’s even a café inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a robot arm delivers you a cappuccino with your own picture appearing in the foam.

Meanwhile, a new gastronomy is blossoming in Brno; try farm-to-table bistro Atelier or Italian spot Castellana Trattoria. At the creative cocktail bar Super Panda Circus, drinks are served as part of a storytelling experience in which guests play a role. Visitors should stay at the 37-room Hotel Avion, which reopened in 2022 after six years of renovation and many decades of decay. It’s a classic of the city’s 1920s love for functionalist design and an architectural oddity at only 26 feet wide—the kind of place you wouldn’t find anywhere else but Brno.

Tips for planning your trip

  • Go deeper: Tour operator Tic Brno offers English-language outings with experts on local cultural features, from art nouveau architecture to baroque monuments. One tour focuses on the city’s theaters and music venues.
  • Only in Brno: Brno houses Europe’s second-largest ossuary: 50,000 human skeletons are collected in the catacombs beneath St. Jacob’s Square. The repository of bones dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries was discovered 22 years ago, and the ossuary was opened to the public in 2012.

For the full list of our favorite destinations this year, read Where to Go in 2024.

Emma John is a journalist at the Observer newspaper in the United Kingdom, and a contributing writer to AFAR. She lives in London and regularly writes on travel for the Guardian.
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