Sep072015

Impressions of Brno, Czech Republic

Unlike Prague, there seem to be very few Americans traveling to Brno, the second largest city in Czech Republic with nearly 400,000 residents. I heard one young American guy in the first hour after I arrived in the city and two days later I heard the second American voice. I have heard twice as many British accented speakers, four to be precise. That is six people speaking English in the past 48 hours after walking around the central city area for about 14 hours.

Brno square

The bullet shaped object, or whatever shape this makes you think of, is actually the Brno astronomical clock. You need an instruction manual to interpret it.

Brno is a university city. The college student population is supposedly around 85,000 students or nearly 25% of the city residents. This city is big, but after two days of walking around, I see bigger crowds in my home town of Monterey with a population of 30,000 residents. I assume colleges are not in session.

Aside from one small tour group I saw in the city center, the city seems like a normal working city with tourism being a minor industry for employment.

Fountains

Student Agency is a travel service for anyone

I arrived in the city by Student Agency bus, a pretty cool and inexpensive bus service based in Brno with routes around Europe. I will write more about their service in another post. I had not booked any transportation from Prague to Brno until the day before I arrived. Buying a train ticket online was confusing and then I saw I could travel to Brno in the same amount of time by Student Agency bus from Prague Airport for less than the price of a train ticket.

To push the English language point a little further, I stopped in the Grand Hotel Brno, across the street from where the Student Agency bus dropped off. The woman at reception spoke fairly good English and gave me a Brno map for French tourists.

The map did not extend as far as the Holiday Inn Brno, 2.5km from the train/bus station area. When I walked out of the map zone and sought directions from other people, nobody I encountered spoke English. Eventually I came across another hotel and the bartender spoke some English. He kept repeating I was not at the Holiday Inn hotel. The receptionist entered the room, took over the conversation and she put me back on the right track to the Holiday Inn. I understood that I needed to follow the river.

Svratka River Brno

Svratka River in  Brno, Czech Republic

Svratka River is quite underwhelming in Brno. I have stayed at the Westin beside the Elbe in Dresden, and the Hilton Budapest with a view of the Danube, and walked the Charles Bridge over the Vltava River in Prague. In comparison, the Svratka reminded me of the rain runoff channels in Los Angeles in winter. Turns out the Holiday Inn has no view of the river, although it has nice views of the hills surrounding Brno.

Bank ATM Extortion Rates

I had not planned to walk 2.5 km to the Holiday Inn Brno. I had written notes for how to take a tram and bus to the hotel. My problem was no Czech currency for public transportation. I tried three different bank ATM machines and they were all offering a rate around 21.xx Czech Koruna per dollar after a 10% commission when the mid-market exchange rate is about 24.20 CZK = $1.00. My unwillingness to accept bank extortion meant I walked for an hour to my hotel. I have been getting a better exchange rate at the Holiday Inn Brno reception desk by simply exchanging one $20 USD bill each day.

Mahen Theater

Mahen Theatre in Brno was the first theater in Europe to install Edison electric lights in 1882. Hundreds of people had died in theater fires in Vienna, Prague and Nice in 1881 from gas lighting. Thomas Edison had only invented the incandescent bulb three years earlier and Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York was a newly formed company. Edison planned the theater’s electric light system, however, the work was contracted out and supervised by Edison’s assistant, Francis Jehl. Edison himself visited Brno 25 years later. That kind of explains to me why I saw GE Banks around Brno. That was the first bank extortion ATM in Brno I tried for cash.

Food is Cheap by U.S. standards

I passed by an Asian restaurant within a few minutes of getting off the bus and noticed most meals were priced under 100 CZK or less than $5 USD. I did not eat at that restaurant since I had no cash. I ate Chinese food yesterday at a different restaurant with an entrée for 98 CZK, sort of like Kung Pao chicken. Just like in Asia, there were food pictures with Czech names and I pointed to the item I wanted.

My observations show that many restaurants, even in the central tourist district have menu entrees priced at 100 to 150 CZK, about $4 to $6. I bought pizza slices at two places today for 14 CZK and 15 CZK. That is 60 cents per slice of pizza.

Beer prices range from around 23 CZK to 39 CZK or $1 to $2 for 0.5 L at pubs and restaurants. Beer is very inexpensive in the country with the world’s highest per capita consumption of beer.

Czech Republic is an advanced economy

Despite the fact that food is inexpensive in the Czech Republic compared to US prices, the country is an advanced economy. The World Economic Forum released its first Inclusive Growth and Development Report today. The report examines seven areas to evaluate the socially inclusive models and policies of 112 governments worldwide. Czech Republic is among the top 30 countries categorized as advanced economies and has a higher score for employment than the US. Czech Republic ranks higher than Italy in 5 of 7 areas measured.

DSC_0051

Sleepy Brno on a Sunday afternoon in the historic city center and main tourism district.

These are only a few of my initial impressions of Brno. I’ll share more thoughts and many more photos of Brno later. Despite the city being a sleepy place with few tourists in the three days I have been here, apparently it takes at least two weeks advance reservations to buy a ticket for cave tours in the national park about an hour outside the city. I am heading out to the Moravian Karst in the morning, the cave district in a Czech national park. The Moravian Karst is considered one of the great cave districts of the world. I was told by Brno tourist information to go to the national park early and see if I can get a ticket in the morning. I have to be up in about six hours.

My impression of Brno is a place where life is happening without particular attention to tourists. I appreciate the city environment. This place is different from lively Prague, but I enjoy sleepy towns; especially when there are surprises like coming across two goats grazing freely in the park without a care in the middle of an urban city.

Goats Spilberk Park

Goats wandering around Spilberk Municpal Park, Brno.

About Ric Garrido

Ric Garrido of Monterey, California started Loyalty Traveler in 2006 for traveler education on hotel and air travel, primarily using frequent flyer and frequent guest loyalty programs for bargain travel. Loyalty Traveler joined BoardingArea.com in 2008.

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  1. We’re are going there too for 2 nights at the end of the month… driving though. We already have our hard to get tickets for the Villa Tugendhat (World Heritage site).

    Following stop Zilina. Don’t you love those Point Breaks.

  2. Next time you’re at one of those “extortion” ATMs, make sure there’s not a slightly hidden/obscure option to have it charged in the foreign currency. Normally, it’s like dynamic currency conversion at the point of sale – there’s usually a button you can press to reject them converting it for you. I’ve never been forced by an ATM into using their rate (or not using the ATM because of it), even in Prague.

  3. Per Steve’s comment, you likely had the choice to decline the conversion and accept in local currency. The extortion is called “Dynamic Currency Conversion” and is sold as a service/ benefit to foreign travelers. It is truly a scam and entirely deceptive.

    Never ever accept currency conversion. ALWAYS pay in local currency.

  4. @shay peleg – Definitely big on meats, which I do not eat very often. That is why I went for Chinese food. I have not been into a grocery store yet selling hot food. I spent the afternoon with two ex-pat Texans I met at Moravsky Kras Punkevni Jeskyne caves and they told me there are many markets with hot roasted chicken. I did not see one in the markets I entered around town.

    Kyunbit – I would visit Olomouc if I had time. Photos look charming. I am flying to Norway tomorrow.

    @JC – I stopped by Villa Tugendhat yesterday and listened to the audio tour out on the street. Word of advice to tourists – many sites are closed on Monday. Fascinating piece of history I learned is the document signing for the separation of Czechoslovakia in 1992 happened in Villa Tugendhat.

    @Steve and Eric – there was a button to reject the conversion, but it still looked like there was a 10% commission fee and I did not want to move ahead with the currency exchange since I did not know what the exchange rate was going to be, or if I could still cancel the transaction after pressing the next button.

    All in all, I think I would have withdrawn far more money from the ATM than I needed. I have spent less than 1,000 CZK (about $45 USD) for five days and if I had withdrawn money from the first ATM, I would have pulled out 3,000 CZK.

    Although, today I wanted to spend 1,000 CZK for souvenirs at Punkevni Jeskyne caves and they only accept cash.

  5. “I stopped by Villa Tugendhat yesterday and listened to the audio tour out on the street. Word of advice to tourists – many sites are closed on Monday.”

    No parking – how did you get there? … and back to town?

    Monday is a problem everywhere, but when they start to close on Monday and Tuesday (Pelisor in Romania comes to mind), Sunday and Monday (Prejmer church in Romania), it gets complicated.

    Close to you, Lednice and Valtice are pretty problematic if you are there at the end of the season.
    In Valtice we had to visit the cellar on a Thursday (the very best wine tasting value there is), buy the combo tour… and come back for the Palace tour on the following Saturday!

  6. I walked to Villa Tugendhat and then up to the castle park where I saw the goats and walked all the way around the castle and back to the hotel, then wrote this piece.

    I tend to average 10 to 20 miles walking most day when I travel. That is my lifestyle. I like to see where and how people live in places and I gravitate to parks, woods, natural environments when I tire of city streets.

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