Welcome to Czech wine country, a tapestry of green vineyards, glassy lakes and red-roofed sandstone villages. Put away that stein — South Moravia has almost as many wine cellars as residents. Following decades of Communist-wrought destruction, this once-prestigious winemaking region is bouncing back — and throwing its doors open to visitors.
Brno, the region’s capital, is the Czech Republic’s second-largest city after Prague. On the surface, it’s a kaleidoscope of UNESCO-listed functionalism and Austro-Hungarian glamour, but it’s worth going deeper — literally — into Brno’s underground, where you’ll find shadowy catacombs and colonnaded 19th-century water tanks.
Catch a train south and you’ll pass factories on the fringes: it’s not for nothing that Brno was once called the ‘Moravian Manchester’. They’re soon replaced by hills knotted with vines. In the medieval towns of Znojmo and Mikulov, people spill out of bars, clinking glasses of Riesling and Pálava. Scattered throughout the region are the chateaux of former kings, their jewellery-box interiors undimmed thanks to careful maintenance. Just over the border is Vienna; German speakers once made up a huge portion of South Moravia’s population. Expelled from Czechoslovakia following Second World War, their influence is still felt in the German place names and scent of strudel emanating from cafes.
Day one: City life & creativity
Brno’s centre is an architectural jumble of Austro-Hungarian edifices and quirky sculptures. Náměstí Svobody, the main square, is most emblematic of this: at its centre is a phallic astronomical clock, erected in 2010. Walk south to the Old Town Hall and climb the 63-metre tower for a view of Špilberk Castle and the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. Descend to Cabbage Market Square, which hosts a farmers’ market from April to October. For lunch, try the Asian dining scene. Due to a 1950s ‘friendship agreement’ between Communist Czechoslovakia and North Vietnam, Brno has a huge Vietnamese community; residents often joke that Brno’s national dish is pho. You’ll find it at Diandi, just off Náměstí Svobody.
The main hall of the Museum of Applied Arts is dominated by artist Krištof Kintera’s Demon of Growth installation, a monster of Christmas baubles that wraps tendrils around the upper balustrade. Galleries here showcase Czech creativity, and the permanent collection includes glass, ceramics, porcelain and textiles. Afterwards, tour the UNESCO-listed Villa Tugendhat, a functionalist masterpiece designed by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe in 1929 for the Jewish Tugendhat family. The budget was unlimited, and it shows: entire walls are robed in rare zebrano-wood veneer. The Tugendhats enjoyed their home for only eight years before fleeing in 1938, rightly anticipating the German invasion.
In 2012, students Jan Vlachynský and Andrej Vališ, frustrated by the lack of good bars in Brno, travelled to the US to gain inspiration. The result is Bar, který neexistuje (The Bar that Doesn’t Exist), a New York-style cocktail spot where rare spirits jostle with barrels of ageing cocktails on an illuminated feature wall. Staff make their own syrups and bitters, and the burgers aren’t half bad, either. After dinner, head to the theatre. The biggest, and arguably the most impressive, is the Janáček. Named for celebrated Czech composer Leoš Janáček, it’s a glass-fronted functionalist marvel managed by Brno’s National Theatre. Opera is a speciality; fortunately, most performances are subtitled in English.
Day two: Wines & wildlife
Take a bus to Znojmo, where, until 1945, most residents spoke German. Start at the Rathausturm (Town Hall Tower), with its nine gothic spires, then wander past Viennese-style cafes to St Catherine’s Rotunda, the only remaining part of Znojmo’s 11th-century Přemyslid Castle. From May to September, you can view frescoes depicting the life of Christ. Meander past the Dyje River and into St Nicholas’ Church. In 1335, the sister of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV was married here in a wedding so raucous it burned down the church; her brother funded its reconstruction. Further south, ascend Vlkova Věž (Wolf Tower) for views of the old city walls, then descend to cobbled streets, where you’ll likely find stalls offering VOC Znojmo wine tastings.
Drop by Slepičák to try svíčková — a classic Czech dish of braised steak with bread dumplings in a creamy sauce. Walk it off by zigzagging down Znojmo’s hillside paths to Podyjí National Park, or take the 817 bus to Mašovice to its heart. At 24sq miles, Podyjí is the Czech Republic’s smallest national park, a ribbon of meadows, pine forests and vineyards skirting the river Djye. From the Králův Stolec (King’s Chair) viewpoint, you may see buzzards performing silent acrobatics over the river. Walk on to the Hradiště Terraces, a former farming area left to grow wild, for a fabulous view of Znojmo. Don’t fancy hiking? Spend a slow afternoon wandering the Šobes vineyards within the park, tasting Pinot Gris and Riesling from the winery’s outdoor stand.
Catch the bus back to Brno for some bar-hopping. First, gird your stomach with a filling Czech meal at Lokál U Caipla. Try pečená kachna, a roast duck leg accompanied by cabbage, apples and dumplings. Next, head to 4pokoje, a café, diner or cocktail bar depending when you visit, with a different menu for each. Beer and coffee from Brno’s Rebelbean roastery feature on the cocktail menu. Finish at Super Panda Circus, a conceptual speakeasy where you’ll play out an interactive ‘story’ on a tablet. The choices you make determine which cocktail arrives; most are Asian-influenced, with wakame seaweed among the more unusual ingredients.
Go further: The Lednice-Valtice Cultural Landscape
Although it’s technically outside it, Mikulov is the usual starting point for tours of the UNESCO-listed Lednice-Valtice Cultural Landscape — a mind-bending, 55sq mile sprawl of castles, gardens and follies that was once the seat of the ruling Liechtenstein family. Mikulov is perhaps the most photogenic town in all of Moravia, topped by a chateau and gardens. Visit in September for the three-day Pálava Wine Festival.
This 13th-century, neo-gothic jewel was, along with the rest of the complex, seized from the Liechtensteins by the state after the Second World War; they’ve been trying to get it back ever since. Nearly all of the chateau’s furnishings are how they left them, including a 116-arm brass chandelier and a huge marble bathtub. Of the many themed rooms, the Chinese room, with its hand-painted wallpaper, is the most memorable. Don’t miss the tropical greenhouse.
Chateau Lednice’s 500 acres of gardens were pivotal to its UNESCO inscription. To the south are the smaller, manicured French gardens: in spring, they bloom with 30,000 tulips. To the north are the bigger, wilder English gardens, home to the 197ft-high Minaret, an ostentatious summer residence designed to resemble a mosque. On your way to Chateau Valtice, be sure to take time to see the Temple of Diana, a folly that nods to Paris’s Arc de Triomphe.
The interiors of this baroque chateau are worth a look, but if you’re short on time, head straight to the Wine Salon. Every year, almost 2,000 Czech wines are submitted to the Salon’s judges, and 100 are selected to represent the best in the country. Try as many as you like in two hours with the all-you-can-drink pass (599 CZK/£23).
Since Restaurant ESSENS opened here in 2018, it’s become a fine-dining destination. Chef Otto Vašák focuses almost exclusively on regional ingredients, some sourced from within the castle grounds. You may be served pickled pine cones and gelatinised beetroot.
Top three vineyard visits
This family-owned organic winery near Znojmo takes an experimental approach: you’ll find natural wines, a fortified wine and an ice wine, which requires the grapes to be harvested at -8C or less, as well as non-alcoholic elderflower and apricot syrups. Tours are conducted by one of the winemakers.
It’s hard to imagine a tasting room more spectacular than the one at Lahofer’s wave-shaped winery near Znojmo; the ceiling is covered with an abstract mural by Czech artist Patrik Hábl. There’s a terrace on the roof with vineyard views, plus an open-air theatre that hosts concerts and plays.
This lakeside winery near Mikulov stunned the wine world when its 2015 VOC Pálava won the Czech Republic’s first Decanter Platinum award. It’s also received accolades for its jammy straw wine, made by laying white Pálava grapes to dry on straw mats outdoors for six months.
Top five subterranean experiences
Znojmo’s tunnels, used for food storage in the 14th century, span four floors and 17 miles. Take the historical ‘classic’ tour or the claustrophobia-inducing ‘adrenaline’ tour, comprising narrow tunnels that were reinforced with concrete in the 1960s due to sinkholes appearing.
Underneath the Church of St James in Brno, this ossuary contains the bones of over 50,000 people. Around 7,500 of these are arranged into artful displays. Spooky candlelit night walks take place on selected evenings.
These disused 19th-century water tanks opened to a small number of daily visitors last autumn. Book ahead to experience their eerie, cathedral-esque majesty.
Underneath Brno’s Špilberk Castle is what remains of one of Europe’s most brutal prisons. On a tour, you’ll see cells where up to 70 prisoners were shackled together every night.
Wine cellars at Vrbice Hill
The tiny village of Vrbice sits atop a network of wine cellars. The biggest of these, U Jezírka, is seven-floors deep; the most photogenic, however, are the Stráž cellars, accessed through gothic sandstone arches. It’s a little remote, so the best way to get here is through a tour operator.
How to do it
Ryanair flies direct to Brno from Stansted. From other UK airports, fly to Vienna and take the RegioJet train to Brno.
Tours of Villa Tugendhat and the Žlutý kopec water tanks must be booked well in advance.
Be aware that drinking and cycling on main roads is illegal in the Czech Republic; for this reason, many wineries have on-site accommodation. Alternatively, book a guided tour with Wine Tours Moravia or Brno Day Trips.
Use the mapy.cz app to find your way around rural areas.
Rooms at Hotel Passage start from 2,800 CZK (£104).
This story was created with the support of Visit Czech Republic.
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