Zlín – Built by Baťa

Built between 1936 and 1938, the Baťa Skyscraper remains the main landmark of Zlín today.

Walk a Mile in Zlín’s Shoes

Most people around the world are familiar with Bata brand shoes, a global brand that has existed since 1894, Perhaps you even own a pair of Batas yourself. Did you know that Bata was originally a Czech brand?

Located in the southeast of the Czech Republic, the small city of Zlín was chosen by Tomáš, Antonín and Anna Baťa as the place to establish their fledgling shoe business. Tomáš had a vision for the business that went well beyond making shoes. Many of his business practices and philosophies, such as fixed work schedules and weekly wages were quite revolutionary for the time, made his company a popular one to seek work with.

Tomáš also had a very distinct vision for the city that was influenced by garden city movement founded by English architect, Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), that promoted an equal amount of urban parkland and greenspace to balance the construction in a city. Influence for what would become Zlín’s new face also came from the Modernist style of French architect, Le Corbusier (1887-1965).

To achieve that vision in Zlín, connections were made with Le Corbusier as well as Czech architects: František L. Gahura, Vladimír Karfík, Jan Kotéra and Miroslav Lorenc.

Baťa provided good quality living space for their employees in these distinctive housing distracts.

Through the interwar period, the face of the city was modernised with a distinctive Functionalist aesthetic where buildings with exposed red brick facades intermingled with parks and greenspace. The fortunes of the city grew with the fortunes of the Baťas. The population of the city grew as people came there to seek work with one of the best companies to work for in the country at the time.

The Baťa business model was one of self-sufficiency and employee care. Baťa employees were compensated well by the company and the city and its amenities were built with the needs and comforts of company employees in mind first and foremost.

All of this is not to say that Zlín had no history before the Baťa years. Indeed, the city can trace its history to the early 1300s. Its history up to the Baťa era is rather unremarkable and generally similar to that of many other places in the region. Overall, the city’s pre 20th century history was built on crafts, trades and commerce.

The interior of the Tomáš Baťa Memorial and the replica of the aircraft he lost his life in.

Goodbye to the Baťas

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Baťa company had diversified into many industrial fields beyond the shoes they started with and had established themselves as an international business force with many factories outside the borders of Czechoslovakia. It was a true heyday for both the company and for Zlín. Tomáš had even spent time as mayor of the city in the 1920s.

One of the business fields the Baťas had expanded into was aviation. In fact, Baťa is considered to be one of the first companies in the world to make use of aircraft in business; using them to quickly shuttle executives between their expanding number of factories around Europe. The Zlín aircraft company and the airport it calls home in the nearby town of Otrokovice, were both once holdings of the Baťa business empire.

In 1932, tragedy struck when Tomáš was killed in an aircraft accident as the company aircraft he was on crashed just after take off from the Otrokovice airport.

Tomáš left the company and its administration in the care of his half-brother, Jan Antonín Baťa (1898-1965), who stayed faithful to the family vision for the company and city.

Jan Antonín Baťa’s office on a lift in the Baťa Skyscraper.

Under Jan Antonín’s watch, the city’s landmark Baťa Skyscraper was built between 1936 and 1938. At 16 stories high, it was one of the tallest high-rise buildings in Europe when it was completed. As with the other buildings in the Baťa vision, it was a Functionalist structure with many modern features such as central heating and ventilation. It also included Jan Antonín’s unique office on a lift. He could travel to any floor in the building quickly to attend to business and always have his office nearby.

Jan Antonín was very respected for his business accumen and astuteness. He knew the threat that Hitler represented and had preparations underway to prepare for war before The German occupation of Czechoslovakia came in 1939. The company’s Jewish employees and their families were relocated to branches of the company in places around the world that Hitler couldn’t reach and Jan Antonín put the aviation arm of the company in Otrokovice on war footing by putting extra money into the flying school there so they could train more pilots quickly.

The modern face of the Otrokovice airport. the airport was founded by the Baťas in the mid 1920s.

Ultimately, it was too little too late. Jan Antonín and his family fled Czechoslovakia at the start of the German occupation and, after spending a short time in America, settled in Brazil.

Following the war, the company’s new headquarters were established in the UK in 1945 before going to Canada in 1964 and then to Switzerland in 2004.

While the company never brought its headquarters “home” after the fall of Socialism, it is still owned by members of the Bata family to this day and they do keep connection to their and the company’s Czech roots.

After the war and the dispersal of the family around the world, the apostrophe was removed from the original spelling of the family name. When said correctly, with the apostrophe in place, the family name is pronounced “BAT-yah”

The main buildings of Tomáš Baťa University seen from the viewing terrace of the skyscraper.

A Feel for the Place

It is impossible to experience Zlín without experiencing the legacy that the Baťas left to it. The history of the company and the city are inextricably linked.

In the contemporary sense, the city comes across as a distinctly non-touristy university town with a relaxed atmosphere.

If you’re interested in urban planning, Modernist architecture and the history of the Baťa family and company, you’ll likely appreciate Zlín as a place to visit. You’ll also likely appreciate a trip to the city if you’re looking for a Czech town that offers a distinctive architectural face that you won’t see anywhere else in the country.

Though not touristy, the city does offer a respectable selection of accomodations and restaurants to serve a variety of tastes and budgets.

The centre of the city is very walkable and there is a shared public transport system between Zlín and Otrokovice that can get you to points further afield.

Zlín’s zoo is one of its biggest tourist attractions

One place the aforementioned public transport system will take you to is the city’s Lešná suburb and the sizable zoo located there.

The zoo is the most visited tourist attraction in Moravia and considered one of the best zoos in the country. If you visit, expect to spend some time in a queue to buy tickets before entering.

One of the main draws in the zoo is a pool of rays which you can pet and, for a modest fee, buy a bit food to give them.

The zoo covers 74 hectares, 50 of which are given to the display areas. The facility is home to over 220 species of animals and many more species of plants in the botanic gardens on site.

Included in the ticket price to the zoo is admission to the Lešná chateau that sits on the zoo grounds. The chateau dates to the late 1800s and tours of it are available.

Monument to Tomáš and Jan Antonín Baťa near the skyscraper.

Paying a Visit and Learning More

Despite its status as a city, and a university town at that, Zlín is not a particularly straightforward place to reach if you’re going without a car.

There is coach bus service to Zlín from various places around, but one must be very careful when choosing which bus to take. While there are some bus routes that are fairly direct and time effective, there are others which make many stops along their routes and can take a very long time in relation to the geographic distance between their starting point and Zlín.

You can also get there by a combination of train to Otrokovice and public transport to Zlín from there. As with bus travel, care should be taken with which train to take there. There are some fairly direct lines, but many more indirect and time consuming ones.

This link will take you to the official website of Zlín, where you can find more information about what the city has to offer: https://www.zlin.eu/en/

This link will take you to the official page of the city’s zoo: https://www.zoozlin.eu/

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Velehrad – Saints, Slavs and Fish

The Heart of Great Moravia 

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Velehrad’s Basilica of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Czech Republic’s most important pilgrimage destination.

The first Slavs began arriving in what is now the Moravian regions of the Czech Republic in the 6th and 7th centuries AD. By the early 9th century, the first recognised Western Slavic homeland had been established there.

Known as Great Moravia, the kingdom lasted from the early 800s to the early 900s and covered present day Moravia as well as parts of what are now Bohemia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Today, the village of Velehrad sits near what was the heart of Great Moravia in the south east of the Czech Republic.

The period of Great Moravia was a time of great social and spiritual development for Slavic culture as a whole. This was particularly true during the reign of the second Moravian king, Rastislav.

Bracketed by Germanic tribes to the west and the Byzantines to the east, Rastislav sought to minimise the influence of Germanic missionaries in his kingdom and turned to the Byzantines for assistance. The Byzantines dispatched two monks, Cyril and Methodius, to the area to bring Eastern Christianity to the Slavs.

The two monks created the Galgolithic alphabet, which was developed into the Cyrilic alphabet used by Bulgaria and Russia today. Through that alphabet, they translated religious texts from Greek and Latin into Old Church Slavonic and converted the majority of Slavs in Great Moravia to Christianity. Roman Catholicism became the religion of majority after Methodius died in 885 and the Cyrilic alphabet was replaced with the Roman one in the region.

Beyond bringing Christianity to the Slavs, the monks also wrote the first Slavic Civil Code that was used in Great Moravia.

Celebrating the Saints 

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View of the basilica church.

The contributions of Cyril and Methodius to Slavic cultures survive to the present and it’s no surprize to see them memorialised and honoured in numerous ways.

In the Czech context, the biggest tribute to them exists where they did their work. The basilica at Velehrad is consecrated to them and is the most important point of pilgrimage in the Czech Republic.

The basilica’s present Baroque face dates to rebuilding that took place after a large fire in 1681. However, the land it sits on has been occupied by religious buildings since a monstery was built there in the 13th century.

July 5 is St. Cyril and Methodius Day and is a state holiday on the Czech calendar. Many devout people from within Czech borders and points further away take part in the annual pilgrimage to the basilica.

The importance of the basilica at Velehrad is underlined by the fact that it was the first place visited by Pope John Paul II after the fall of Socialism in 1990.

Living Great Moravia 

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General view of Archeoskanzen.

Less than a kilometre’s walk from the basilica, you’ll find the Archeoskanzen in the adjoining village of Modrá.

Archeoskanzen is an open-air archeological museum that was established in 2004. it represents a ninth century village of the sort that would have existed in Great Moravia.

Different buildings are dedicated to the vocations that were important to running the village, while others show places of governance and commerce. One room shows how Cyril and Methodius may have lived while they were in the area doing their work.

The museum is generally a self-guided place and it is possible to get information leaflets in English, and possibly other languages, to help you understand what you’re seeing.

Something Fishy 

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An example of local fish at Živá Voda Modrá.

In the same area as Archeoskanzen, you’ll find Živá Voda Modrá. This is a nature centre that has its focus on the flora and fauna of Moravian wetlands.

The inside part of the display goes into some detail about the biodiversity of Moravia. Upon entry, you can ask for a leaflet in English to help you through the information.

The real showpiece of the centre is a small tunnel that places you below water level of an outdoor pool that houses a selection of fish native to Moravian waterways and wetlands. Among the fish types you can view are: carp, catfish, perch, pike, sturgeon and trout.

Outdoors, you can view the fish pool from above and examine a variety of native Moravian plant varieties.

Paying a Visit and Learning More

This is not the easiest of places in the Czech Republic to visit if you don’t have a car available to you. There are buses from the nearby small city of Uherské Hradiště, but there are only a few per day so you really will need to be mindful of the schedules.

Taxis also will run from Uherské Hradiště to Velehrad, but there’s no guarantee of the driver being able to speak anything but Czech. As such, this is not an ideal option unless you speak Czech or have a Czech speaker going with you.

If you’re the more intrepid and active type and are visiting in spring or summer, you may be able to reach Velehrad via one of the many cycling trails that run through the area.

If you’re visiting Velehrad as a day trip, I’d suggest taking some snacks with you as dining options are rather limited.

It’s also a good idea to have some cash on hand if you visit the attractions in Modrá. Neither Archeoskanzen or Živá Voda Modrá accepted card payment at the time we visited in April of 2019.

The following links will give you more information about the attractions in Velehrad and Modrá

http://www.velehradinfo.cz/en/

https://www.archeoskanzen.cz/

http://www.zivavodamodra.cz/

A New Way to Explore Czech Monuments

 

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Vila Stiassni, in Brno, one of several monuments available to view and explore through a new 3D website launched recently.

Very recently the National Heritage Institute (Národní Památkový Ústav) of the Czech Republic launched a new website that allows you to explore various heritage sites around the country in 3D online.

The site works with both traditional mouse control and touch screen technology and can be used with virtual reality technology as well.

Follow this link to the site and have a bit of fun exploring. I hope it will be successful and we’ll see it grow and develop:

http://www.pamatky3d.cz/

 

 

Plasy Monastery – Worship on Water

Baroque Pearl of Bohemia 

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Looking across the convent courtyard.

Plasy is a small town in West Bohemia that sits roughly in the centre of a triangle formed by the cities of Karlovy Vary, Plzeň and Prague.

The centrepiece of the town is the expansive former Cistercian monastery that sits near the Střela river that runs through the town. This monastery is considered to be one of the best preserved Baroque style structures in the Bohemian regions.

While the current look and layout of the monastery  dates largely to the 18th century, the monastery at Plasy was originally established in 1144.  Misfortune befell the monastery and Plasy during the Hussite Wars when the monastery was burned to the ground in 1421.

The monastery and surrounding community didn’t really begin to recover until after the end of the Thirty Years’ War. A constant program of rebuilding and expansion began in 1661 and lasted until the monastery’s abolition in 1785.

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Monastery clock tower.

The former monastery was taken into private hands in 1826 when Austrian Empire Chancellor Klement Václav Lothar Metternich purchased it in order to expand his existing land holdings in the region. Under Metternich’s ownership, the monsatery’s prelature building was converted to a chateau for he and his family to live when they were there.

Several of the other former monastery buildings were also repurposed and converted during Metternich’s tenure there. This period of the monastery’s history ended in 1945, when it was seized and taken under state control.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the buildings were further altered and repurposed. Work on restoration of the monstery would not begin until the 1970s.

In 1995, the monastery was declared a National Cultural Monument.

Today, the monastery is still very much a work in progress as far as restoration is concerned. However, much has been accomplished and some buildings in the structure are open to the public for tours.

An Unconventional Convent 

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Looking down a convent corridor.

Of the eight buildings that comprise the monastery site, the convent is really the heart of the place and the subject of the main tour when you visit.

The convent was constructed between 1711 and 1740, many prominent Czech artists and craftsmen of the day were contracted to create the convent’s structure and decorations.

Notable among the people involved with bringing the convent into reality was Jan Blažej Santini Aichel (1677-1723). A Czech architect of Italian ancestry, he holds a special place in the nation’s architectural history for his flexibility and inventiveness within the Baroque Gothic style. A number of his works went against ideas of the time, yet still retained key hallmarks of the style.

The first problem Santini had to overcome when designing the convent was how to support the massive structure’s weight on the marshy soil of the Střela river’s floodplain. His solution was to give the building a deep foundation on a system of wood pilings.

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One of the water testing pools visible on the tour.

Approximately 5,100 oak pilings were driven into the soil and topped with an oak beam grate. To this day, the weight of the convent is supported on that system. While the pilings and grate are kept completely submerged and can’t be seen, there are two water testing pools in the convent that you can see on the tour. Water quality is tested a number of times per day at these pools.

Sanitin Aichel also created a series of underground canals and a water pressure system to ensure that the wood foundation would stay completely submerged to protect it from rotting. The same system also provided some protection to the monastery from flooding.

Santini Aichel also contributed a complex series of self supporting staircases and an intricate spiral staircase to the convent’s structure.

Santini Aichel died before the convent was completed and his work was seen to completion by Kilián Ignác Dientzenhoffer (1689-1751), who spent some time studying under Santini Aichel, in 1740.

Paintings and Plasy Powder 

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Fresco of Saint Bernard in the chapel that bears his name.

Beyond the architectural qualities of the convent, the more artistic and academic aspects are also well covered on the tour.

The convent contains a number of fresco paintings on the ceilings of the corridors and in two chapels. a number of notable local painters of the day were contracted to do these frescoes. Among these painters were Petr Brandl (1668-1735) and Jakub Antonín Pink (1690-1748).

Also in the convent, you’ll find the winter refectory, former monastery library and study hall as well as the large Capitular Hall. The Capitular Hall was where new monks were accepted into the monastery and where new abbots were elected.

In its day, the monastery at Plasy was well regarded for the quality of medical care it provided, the monastery pharmacy was particularly well reputed and produced a stomach medicine that became much sought after for its effectiveness. Known as “Plasy Powder”, the monastery kept its recipe a tightly guarded secret. As popular and lucrative as their invention was, it was certainly within the monks’ interest to protect it.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

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The monastery pharmacy.

As mentioned earlier, the convent is the main tour at the monastery. As with most historic sights in the country, the bulk of tours are in the Czech language though it is possible to obtain texts in other languages to help non-Czech speakers follow along. Tours in English or German can be arranged as well. The convent tour lasts around an hour.

It is also possible to tour the clock tower building though tour options for it are a bit more limited.

The monastery is not difficult to access by road or rail from Plzeň. As the Plasy townsite is also on a number of of local cycling and walking trails, it can be accessed by those means as well.

If you choose to visit the monastery during summer high season, you may want to pack snacks with you or eat before you embark on your trip. We arrived in Plasy around the noon hour and somewhat hungry to find that there are only two restaurants near the monastery and they were very popular and busy at lunch time. We had to wait a bit for seats to become available.

This link will take you to the monastery website where you can find more specific information about how to get there and tours available:
https://www.klaster-plasy.eu/en

This website about Jan Blažej Santini Aichel will tell you more about his contribution to the monastery and other buildings abound the country he was involved in the design of:
http://www.santini.cz/en/plasy

Plzeň – Western Crossroads

History Happens Here 

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The Renaissance town hall an other historic buildings on Republic Square.

Located in the western reaches of Bohemia, approximately 90 kilometres south west of Prague, lies the city of Plzeň.

This is a city that has played a significant part in not only a number of national historic events, but also several international ones. It is also the birthplace of two iconic Czech brands known worldwide: Pilsner Urquell and Škoda.

First mentioned historically in 976 and officially made a municipality in 1295, the city has served as a centre of business and trade from its earliest days and played a very important role on the trade route linking Bohemia to points in Bavaria.

Plzeň was the nerve centre of Catholic anti-Hussite activity during the Hussite Wars which lasted from 1419 to 1434. It was beseiged three times during the Thirty Years War; successfuly by German forces between 1618 and 1621 and unsuccessfully by the Swedish in 1637 and 1648.

The city saw a significant surge in industry through the latter half of the 19th century that included the establishment of the Škoda Works in 1859, a company that would grow to become the country’s largest and most powerful engineering company for a number of years.

The late 19th century also saw an influx of Jewish families to the city which created an additional cultural influence in the city alongside residents of Czech and Germanic ethnicities.

Plzeň was geographically part of the Germanically influenced Sudetenland area. After the end of the First World War and the establishment of a free Czechoslovakia, there was a strong movement within the region to be made geographically a part of Austria rather than Czechoslovakia. Despite being made part of Czechoslovakia, Germanic influences remained and are still visible today alongside Czech and Jewish influences. In fact, perhaps the most obvious sign of retained Germanic influence can be seen by the use of the old German spelling of the city’s name “Pilsen” for international purposes.

It doesn’t take long after arriving in Plzeň to realise that it’s a city that wears its history on its sleeve.

Architectural Abundance

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Saint Bartholomew’s Cathedral, the city’s Gothic centrepiece.

If you’re a fan of architecture, Plzeň has much on offer for you. It is quite possible to organise your own self guided tour of various districts of the city that have notable architecture in them.

The centre of the city has been a cultural heritage preserve since 1989 and a host of different architectural styles are readily visible both in the centre and points beyond. Baroque, Classicist, Gothic, Modernist, Moorish Revival, Renaissance and other styles intermingle with each other to give Plzeň a very unique architectural face.

A very popular attraction to visit while in Plzeň is a series of restored Modernist interiors that some of the city’s wealthy industrialists from the interwar period commissioned from famed architect, Adolf Loos (1870-1933).

The Loos interiors are notable for their spaciousness, a hallmark of modernist style, and the variety of high quality materials used in their construction. Exotic woods along with high grade stone and glass figure prominently in the interiors.

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Looking into one of the Loos interiors.

It should be mentioned that if you wish to visit the Loos interiors, it is best to book ahead as they are popular and tours fill up quickly. Additionally, tours are not an everyday occurence.

As many of the people who commissioned Loos to create these interiors were from the city’s Jewish community, they represent more than just the Modernist architectural style; they also represent the influence of the Jewish community in Plzeň from the late 1800s until the Second World War.

Beyond the Loos interiors, the Jewish influence gave the city two other Architectural gems; one you have to look for and the other you can’t avoid: the Old Synagogue and the Great Synagogue.

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The Great Synagogue.

The Old Synagogue is towards the south west corner of the centre and tucked away from view in a courtyard near Smetana Park. It is possible to view the interiors of the Old Synagogue and a unique monument to victims of the Holocaust.

On the western edge of the centre, you’ll find the monumental Great Synagogue with its eye catching Moorish Reivival facade and interiors.

This is the largest synagogue in the country, the second largest in Europe and the third largest in the world.

Besides being a stunning architectural attraction, it is without a doubt the city’s most visible testament to the wealth and influence the city’s Jewish population had prior to the Second World War.

Thank You, America 

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The monument to American military units who liberated the city in 1945.

A short walk from the Old Synagogue will lead you to the monument to the American army units who liberated the city in May of 1945.

Plzeň continues to show gratitude for its liberation in the present through its annual Liberation Festival in May.

The festival includes a convoy of historic vehicles and many people in military uniforms of the period. If military history is your thing, a visit to the city in May could be worth looking into.

The city also has a museum dedicated to General George Patton, who led the liberation. However, the museum has been closed for renovations since May of 2018.

A Pause for Thought  

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The meditation garden on the city’s southern edge.

After a day of walking around and taking in Plzeň’s attractions, you might want to take some time to relax a bit.

The city has a number of parks you could use to take a breather, but one is particularly special.

On the city’s southern edge, you’ll find the meditation garden that includes a memorial to all victims of evil.

The beautifully landscaped and tranquil garden was the life’s work of Plzeň resident Luboš Hruška (1927-2007).

Hruška was a soldier who was caught while trying to escape the newly Socialist Czechoslovakia in 1949 and was sentenced to 18 years of hard labour.

He was transfered through a number of prisons and labour camps before receiving an amnesty in 1960. As a result of the cruelty he endured and saw others endure in prison, he resolved to convert a fruit orchard he had inherited from his parents into a monument to all victims of evil regimes.

Upon his release, he set to work clearing that land and learning the fundamentals of landscaping and plant care. The garden includes a number of different plant species as well as pilgrimage path with 12 unique sandstone sculptures as well as a chapel.

The garden can be reached by public transport and some walking.

The Nation’s Beer Capital 

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The trademark main gate of the Pilsner Urquell brewery.

Even though I’ve written a dedicated blog post about the legendary Pilsner Urquell brewery, which is a major tourism draw in the city and I heartily recommend visiting it, there’s more to Plzeň and its beer culture than this most famous of beers.

Beyond the brewery, there is also a beer museum in the centre of the city in the old municipal brewery building.

Additionally, there is no shortage of pubs around town where you can try a wider variety of beers. Definitely have the Pilsner Urquell experience while you’re in Plzeň, but by no means limit yourself to that one brand.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

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Another echo of the past can be found in the Socialist Realism art prserved in the main train station.

Over all, Plzeň has a fairly relaxed atmosphere and doesn’t come across as touristy. It has a respectable range of accomodation and dining options to suit a variety of tastes and price ranges.

The main toursit information office is beside the town hall on Republic Square and is stocked with a good range of souvenir items and brochures for attractions. We found the staff friendly and helpful.

While Plzeň is well connected by both rail and bus to points of interest around it, getting to the city itself from points further away can be time consuming. Travelling by train from Brno took us roughly five and half hours each way and involved a transfer in Prague. The trip was worth it, but quite long relative to the physical distance between Brno and Plzeň. I have it on good authority that the trip takes almost as long by car.

This link will take you to the city’s official tourism information page:
http://www.pilsen.eu/tourist/visit/the-best-from-pilsen/the-best-from-pilsen.aspx

This link will take you to a travel blog with a focus on Plzeň:
https://plzenguide.com/

These links will help you see the city from an architectural focus. The first is for the city’s architectural manual, which includes maps for self guided touring and detailed information about the various buildings you can see. The second is the dedicated page for the Loos interiors where you can book a tour:
http://pam.plzne.cz/en/
http://www.adolfloosplzen.cz/en/