Matched with a beauty queen like Prague – and without its own Charles Bridge to boast about – Brno is the Czech Republic’s perennial underdog. But spend just 24 hours in the country’s second-biggest city and you'll quickly discover it has a lot going for it.

Capital of the Czech Republic’s eastern province of Moravia, Brno was one of the leading centres of experimental architecture in the early 20th century. Its cultural credentials can still be admired across the city today, and perhaps nowhere more so than at the Unesco-protected triumph of Functionalist design, Vila Tugendhat. Meanwhile the city's student population, tens of thousands strong, ensures cafe and club scenes to rival the liveliest of cities. From descending into the past on a tour of the city's medieval underworld, to dining on locally sourced produce in vibrant cafes, here's how to make the most of a day in Brno.

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Morning

Start your morning at the colourfully retro Bistro Franz (bistrofranz.cz). They take their coffee seriously here, taking pride in serving only sustainably grown blends from Brazil and Ethiopia, along with organic egg dishes, locally sourced butter, and homemade bread. A great spot for breakfast, this place is equally good for lunch or dinner too.

Next, it's time to marvel at Vila Tugendhat, about 2km northeast of the centre. Arguably Brno’s most important sight, to peek inside you’ll have to book a guided tour days – even weeks – in advance. Provided you’ve arranged a tour, walk or take tram 3 or 5 to the stop Dětská nemocnice ('Children's hospital') and walk north along Černopolní ulice. At first glance, the angular Tugendhat looks like just another ordinary modern house, but many count this 1930 family villa among Bauhaus master Mies van der Rohe’s greatest works. Mies broke new ground here with, among other things, a fully open floorplan and huge wall-sized windows at the back. The villa served as the inspiration for the bestseller The Glass Room (2009), by British author Simon Mawer.

Vila Tugendhat, Brno

Make your way on foot back towards the centre, where most of the other major sights are located. If you need a coffee or light bite before carrying on, pop in at Spolek, an old-school student cafe with a great selection of coffees and teas, as well as delicious soups and salads. Alternatively, the nearby Indian restaurant Annapurna is a local institution; the eminently reasonable sum of 100Kč buys a set curry lunch of soup, main course, and rice.

Afternoon

Brno’s Gothic Town Hall is the perfect base to start an afternoon of exploration. The helpful tourist information office (ticbrno.cz) is located here, as well as a veritable curiosity unique to the city: the legendary Brno Dragon, a full-sized stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling of the Town Hall’s foyer.

Many of Brno’s attractions could be filed in the ‘ghoulish’ category, and one of the most morbidly fascinating is the crypt in the Capuchin Monastery, a 100m walk south of the Town Hall. Those of a nervous disposition may wish to exercise caution, as here the mummified remains of dozens of former monks and Austrian noblemen lie on the floor of the crypt in their final repose. The crypt’s special ventilation helps to maintain the corpses in their original state.

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The nearby Cabbage Market (Zelný trh) is a lively square which plays host to a farmers’ market most days. It’s also home to the fascinating Labyrinth Under The Cabbage Market. Guided tours of around 40 minutes take visitors through tunnels several meters below ground, where Brno’s medieval roots lie undisturbed.

Head across busy Masarykova ulice (Brno’s main artery where pedestrians share narrow real estate with passing trams) to the impressive Church of St James for another macabre sight: an ossuary displaying the bone fragments of 50,000 people who, over the centuries, died from wars, famines and plagues. Book tours of both the labyrinth and ossuary at the tourist information office at the Town Hall.

Round off a busy afternoon with a hike up to Špilberk Castle. No matter how many coats of fresh paint they put on this castle, there remains something deeply sinister – and alluring – about it.

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The castle began life innocently enough as a royal residence in the 13th century, but its impenetrable walls proved to be a menacing asset for Brno’s Hapsburg overlords who, in the 18th and 19th centuries, turned it into a kind of Moravian Alcatraz. Later it was used by the occupying Nazis to hold political prisoners during World War II. There are several sights up in the castle, including Brno City Museum and a lookout tower, though the greatest pleasure may simply be the hike up through the trees, with views out over the city as a backdrop.

Reward your climb down with a coffee, beer or glass of wine at Café Podnebi, a hidden oasis at the foot of the hill.

Evening

A tour of Vila Tugendhat may have whetted your appetite for modern architecture, and the stylish Pavillion restaurant offers high-end dining in an uncluttered, sophisticated space that draws on the best Functionalist traditions.

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Brno excels at both lively cocktail bars and live music. For the former, most of the action takes place in the centre along Dvořákova ulice. Bar, Který Neexistuje (barkteryneexistuje.cz) – literally 'the bar that doesn’t exist' – boasts a long, beautiful bar backed by every bottle of booze imaginable. For a bar that ‘doesn’t exist’, it gets quite crowded, so book ahead. The nearby Aloha Cocktail Bar & Café (alohabar.cz) is equally popular, though more down to earth.

For live music, two favourites are found north of the centre, along Štefánikova ulice. Stará Pekárna is geared towards the ethno, blues and jazz crowd, while Fléda, down the street, features DJs playing contemporary electronica, indie and occasional hip-hop sounds.

Where to sleep

Overnighting in Brno needn't cost the earth. Hostel Mitte, just a few meters from the Town Hall in the centre, is a clean, well-run hostel, occupying a historic 17th-century building, with two six-bed dorm rooms and a handful of private singles and doubles.

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Further up the food chain, Hotel Europa is a stylish mid-level option, located on a quiet residential street about 10 minutes on foot from the centre, and within easy walking distance of Vila Tugendhat. Rooms come in ‘standard’ and ‘superior’ varieties, though there’s little difference beyond size. At the luxury end of the scale, the Barcelo Brno Palace offers spacious rooms in a fully modernized 19th-century neoclassical palace.

Make it happen

Brno lies on major road and rail junctions, and there are regular coach and train services to and from Prague. Hourly Student Agency buses make the 200 km (120 mile) journey in around three hours for around 210Kč. Trains run every two hours during the day and are slightly quicker, though about 20Kč more expensive.

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