Situated a relatively short distance from the great European capitals of Vienna, Prague and Budapest, Bratislava has often been defined in contrast to its more famous neighbours: a quiet, unassuming alternative to their crowded grandeur.
Take a casual stroll around Bratislava’s centre, winding from its main commercial square through the pretty medieval Old Town and to the paved walkway alongside the river Danube, and this impression might seem to be confirmed. There is a satisfying hum of activity, while the streets remain quiet and stress-free. Outside the many cafes people sip coffee and talk. Well-restored squares are surrounded by tall Gothic, Italianate and Baroque buildings, with striking statues and fountains at their heart – though there is nothing to match Budapest’s spikily Gothic parliament or the view from Charles Bridge in Prague. A turn down some streets will surprise you with the sight of a dilapidated building, stone crumbling from the walls and splintered wood over the windows.
Bratislava’s centre is cosy, pretty, unspectacular, and bears scattered signs of the relative poverty of much of Slovakia. But stand by the open riverside and a different perspective unfolds, one that reveals a far more complex and distinctive city.
Perched among rocks and trees above the cityscape is the immediately recognizable Bratislava Castle, with its four terracotta-tipped corner turrets. Competing with it for attention is the futuristic Novy Most or New Bridge, a swerving streak of white carrying traffic over the Danube, bestrode by a tall ‘UFO-tower’ topped by a saucer-shaped viewing point and restaurant.
A wider view such as this shows a very uneven and chaotic city. Sleek high-rise buildings and office blocks, the products of post-EU-membership investment, tower over a crazy smattering of archaically grand, bright-coloured mansions. Muscling in between are squadrons of squat, square and uniform Soviet housing blocks; while around the city the wooded slopes of the Small Carpathians fringe the horizon with green.
And so a city that seems warm and unassuming when viewed solely from the cobbled streets of its Old Town reveals itself, at a wider view, to be a sprawling and fascinating muddle of untamed and untidied historical forces, utterly unique and with an immense amount to discover.
How you approach this complex and contradictory capital, then, is up to you. You can flash your camera at the castle and baroque Presidential Palace before settling down in one of the Old Town cafes to watch the drift of the city in its prettiest perspective. You can, if you really have to, get roaringly drunk on €1 beers and cause the municipal authorities to produce English-language signs reading, ‘Please don’t pee in the fountains’. You can explore the medieval churches and statues of the Old Town, poke around the museums and galleries, before settling down for a play, ballet, or opera in the evening. If you’re feeling brave you could explore areas such as Petrzalka, a huge Communist-era housing estate that is the biggest such block housing complex in Europe, or take one of the tours that delve into the city’s Communist past. And you can use the city as a base camp for expeditions into Slovakia’s sublime mountainous countryside, whether the wooded trails through the surrounding Small Carpathians or dramatic hikes among the High Tatras.
The Old Town: Streets, Squares, and Churches
Bratislava’s Old Town is pretty and compact, composed of a weave of cobbled streets, a number of squares, a long high street and a wide boulevard-like avenue near the Danube. Strolling through the Old Town is very enjoyable: it rarely feels stressful or crammed like parts of London or Prague; it is largely traffic-free; there are a variety of interesting buildings and statues to eyeball; and there are plenty of cafes and pubs to settle in for an hour or two.
Hlavne Namestie – The Main Square
Hlavne Namestie, the main square, is a particularly lovely place to rest on a bench and dissolve into your surroundings. Grand and multi-coloured Italianate and Baroque buildings form the sides of the square, and the Old Town Hall displays its numerous restorations through a curious melange of Gothic and Renaissance styles. At the centre of the square stands Slovakia’s most famous fountain, Roland Fountain, with a dapper knight raised on a 10m column. At the stroke of midnight every New Year’s Eve, the knight turns to bow towards the former town hall, demonstrating that he still protects the city – though only true citizens of Bratislava can see him in action. Close to Roland, leaning complacently on the back of a wooden bench, is a bronze statue of Napoleon, who strode into the city in the early 1800s. The square is also the setting for the intensely atmospheric Christmas Market, when colourful stalls crowd the square wafting the smells of hot wine, onions and red meat over the wrapped-up crowds.
The Slovak National Theatre and Hveizdoslavovo Namestie
Follow a narrow lane winding south from Hlavne Namestie and you will step out of the narrow cobbled streets of the medieval Old Town and onto a wide boulevard, Hviezdoslavovo Namestie. This avenue runs west and is flanked by some of the city’s best restaurants and bars. At one end stands the city’s second-most famous fountain, the Ganymede Fountain, with Zeus’s legendarily beautiful boy-lover astride an eagle outside the Slovak National Theatre. The theatre offers a wide selection of performances encompassing ballet, opera, classical music, and drama.
The overwhelming majority of Slovaks identify as Catholic. Bratislava’s dominant church is St Martin’s Cathedral, situated at the edge of the Old Town. Its 85m tower is capped with an eye-catching replica of the crown of St Stephen, the first King of Hungary. Beyond St Martin’s, mosey around the city and you will strike upon many interesting churches, grand and small. The Old Town has a number of less imposing places of worship that offer oases of peace and curious Catholic iconography, such as the Capuchin Church and the Poor Clares Church. But the most striking of all is the Church of St Elizabeth, which looks like it is made out of sky-blue polystyrene blocks and is incongruously located in a drab and office-heavy section of the city.
Cosy Drinking Holes
Undoubtedly one of Bratislava’s most attractive qualities is its wealth of cafes and bars, whether to snuggle in behind condensation-fogged windows during the cold winters, or to sit outside in the warm rays of the spring sun. Ambling round the compact centre and dipping into any that look enticing is the best part, but some of the most interesting include:
Next Apache, Panenska 28: Behind a wooden door down a darkened alley hides Next Apache’s wonderfully characterful interior, with arched ceilings, oddly-shaped wooden tables, assorted faded furniture, and overflowing bookcases of second-hand literary classics. It serves a selection of coffee and tea as well as great tankards of Slovak beer.
Slovak Pub, Obchodna 62: While one can never shake off the suspicion that it is something of a tourist trap, the great slabs of wood for tables, huge platters of cheap Slovak food, kitsch décor depicting golden-age Slovak life, and incongruous soundtrack of Abba and Michael Jackson make the Slovak Pub a highly entertaining place to hazily drink away several hours.
17’s Bar, Hviezdoslavovo Namestie 17: A cosy, wood-walled bar nicely situated on Hviedoslavovo Namesite, serving excellent pizza, wine, and beer. An atmospheric and welcoming place to gather round a table and talk through the evening.
Subclub, Nabrezie arm gen L Svobodu: An underground club to drink, grind, sweat and dance til morning, Subclub is situated in a former nuclear fallout bunker and plays thumping techno, house, drum n bass, jungle, and that kinda thing.
A cheap, tasty and interesting way to eat is by trying the Denne or Lunch menus, which generally offer a two course meal plus drink for between three and eight Euros. Choose the right venue and you can experience authentic Slovak cuisine in the same place as the locals, for an absurdly low price. An excellent example is U Ferdinanda, at Lazaretska 27.
From most places in Bratislava you can see a tall statue spiking the air at the city’s highest point. This is the Slavin Monument, easily found if you climb uphill through a relatively affluent neighbourhood.
The monument is a 37 metre-tall tribute to the Soviet soldiers who lost their lives taking the city from the Nazis. A stone column holds aloft a soldier and flag, and round its base are the names of Slovak towns and the dates they were liberated by the Soviets; studying the dates allows you to trace the Red Army’s progress through Slovakia as World War Two drew to a close. In front of the main column are two smaller statues, the most memorable depicting a fatally wounded fighter held up by a Red Army comrade. Together they form a powerful tribute to ordinary soldiers, regardless of the implicit Soviet propaganda, something Alexander Dubcek must have felt when he instigated the building of a peace garden at their base. This merges with a small cemetery, where some of the graves display black-and-white photographs of the soldiers who are buried there.
The position of the monument offers expansive views of the city, which rolls out beneath your eyes. As with the statue in Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias, the view demonstrates the transience of political utopias and dystopias: square and solid Soviet apartment blocks vie for space with gleaming modern offices, while castles and church towers provide a remainder of the city’s medieval past. Snaking through it all is the dark body of the Danube.
How to get there
Bratislava Airport, M R Stefanik, is located 9km from the city centre. Ryanair flies direct from London Stansted, and Czech Airlines and Lufthansa also fly from various European cities. Flights are not necessarily frequent, however, and there are no direct flights from the US to Bratislava. A more flexible option is to fly to Vienna’s vast airport, and take the regular (hourly, more frequent at peak times) bus service from Vienna airport to Bratislava city centre. The journey takes forty-five minutes and costs around 8 Euros. You can also take a taxi, of course.
Bratislava’s main railway station (hlavne stanica) is dramatically located at a height looking down on a sweep of the city. So arriving into the capital by train is easily the most romantic option. A square outside the station bustles with stalls selling fast-food and young men hawking watches. All signs are in Slovak and English, but don’t assume that all the staff will be able to move between the languages. To plan your journey within Slovakia use the Slovak State Railways (ZSR) website. To plan your journey from further afield, the best place to start is the mighty German rail network Deutsch Bahn, which is fantastically efficient for planning trips across Europe and has a flawless English language website. The Austrian rail network OBB is also good; the pricier but more extensive Rail Europe is a third option. Bikes can be taken on trains but an extra bike ticket must be bought; this is the case in nearly all European countries except Britain.
Bratislava is a capital city of only 400,000 people, and its most interesting or picturesque places are generally located within walking distance. So the best way to explore the city, especially the centre and Old Town, is probably by foot. But for travel across larger stretches of its urban environment, there are a number of public transport options. Buses, trams, and trolleybuses criss-cross the city and all are cheap and affordable. Night buses arc out from the city centre hourly until 4.30am, after which time you will have to wait a further two hours for the first bus of the next day. There are also taxis, which – broadly speaking – are fair and friendly.
Where to Stay
Accommodation is available across all levels of price and luxury. Staying in anything other than a basic hostel around the city centre raises the price significantly, so a cheaper alternative is stay somewhere a little further afield and take a negligibly-priced train or bus into the centre each day. This also allows you to see a little more of residential Bratislava, revealing the surprising extent of the poverty still widespread in this city only 60km from Vienna.
Other than places with roots deeply embedded in Bratislava’s culture – such as the Carlton Hotel – the rapid movement of capital and investment in the city means that businesses of all types can shut down suddenly.
Starting from the top end and going down in price, a few options include:
Radisson SAS Carlton Hotel: The grand hotel of Bratislava, this huge opulent complex looms magisterially over the heart of Bratislava’s Old Town. Building dates from 1912. It isn’t cheap.
Hotel Tatra: A mid-range hotel located on the edge of the Old Town. Hotel Tatra has been recently refurbished and its rooms range from comfortable to luxurious, but it is significantly cheaper than the city’s top-end offerings.
Hotely Plus: Offering bare, basic but reasonably comfortable rooms, Hotely Plus is located four miles and a 20 minute trolley bus journey from the centre in great Soviet blocks of concrete. A cheap option, especially because of its location, that will save you money and simultaneously force you to get to grips with real life in Bratislava. Access to the centre by the 205 trolleybus from Bulharska. Excellent cheap wine available 24 hours.
Downtown Hostel Backpacker’s: centrally located hostel with cheap dorms. Clean, friendly and professional, the most straight-forward choice for a backpacker visiting Bratislava.
Trips Out From Bratislava
Visiting Bratislava should definitely be combined with an attempt to get out into other parts of Slovakia, as the countryside is spectacular – particularly in its mountainous regions. There are also a number of other towns with fascinating stories to tell. These can be easily reached by train and bus. Many trips can be completed in a day; for others it is worth finding a place to stay for one or two nights. The central European rail network also slices through Bratislava and so trips to other major central European cities are easy to arrange if you have a few days to spare. Some suggestions, rippling outwards in distance, include:
Situated 12km upstream of Bratislava, Devin Castle is a well-preserved ruin raised high on a crag above the meandering Danube. It is an interesting ruin to explore, with various stairways and crumbling battlements. But it is worth visiting primarily for its spectacular location, allowing you to stand on a jagged stone outcrop with the castle at your back and look down on the glimmering Danube and the green fields and forest of the Small Carpathians rolling out to the horizon. Down below, a peaceful walkway follows the bends of the river. Devin Castle is easily reached by a short bus ride, number 29, from Novy Most.
Small Carpathian Wine Trail
Covering the Small Carpathian hills to the north of Bratislava is Slovakia’s largest wine region. A 40km trail traverses the region, from Svaty Jur near Bratislava to Trnava. It encompasses gently pretty countryside and a number of atmospheric towns: Gothic belfries rising above stone squares. A cycle path follows the trail.
A small town situated in the Mala Fatra (lesser Fatra) mountain range, Terchova is only three hours from Bratislava by car or four hours by bus (Bratislava to Zilina, then Zilina to Terchova.) It provides a starting point for sublime hikes through Slovakia’s famous mountains. It is not as well-known, remote, or spectacular as the High Tatras, but walking routes climb the side of mountains through cool forest air to emerge at awe-inspiring peaks. Accommodation can be cheap and very comfortable: find a local pension, usually run by an adjoining family household, and you can pay less than 10 Euros per person per night for a kitchen, a living room with an open fire, and two or three twin bedrooms.
A greater distance from Bratislava, Slovakia’s soul resides in the rugged wildness of these mountains. The High Tatras are frequently described as incomparably more spectacular than the staid old Alps, western Europe’s most dramatic mountain range. They are a world to themselves and so require much more than a day to experience, but it would be a shame to visit Slovakia without exploring them. The city of Poprad is the gateway to the Tatras, and trains run frequently between there and Bratislava.
Slovakia’s second city was once known as ‘the frontier of civilised Europe.’ It is located to the far east of Slovakia and so is a long, 6-hour train ride from Bratislava. But its old town has been superbly restored: a wide central boulevard formed by colourful baroque townhouses and Gothic churches gives it a space and grandeur that Bratislava’s Old Town lacks. It also allows one to experience some of eastern Slovakia, more rural and traditional than the west (far removed from the cosmopolitan influence of Vienna) but also, according to legend, far more friendly.
At its heart stands St Elizabeth’s cathedral which, when it comes into view for the first time, can take an unsuspecting visitor’s breath away: it is the largest church in Slovakia and among the most awe-inspiring Gothic creations in central Europe. Its sky-spiking bell tower crowned by a copper cupola can be climbed for panoramic views of the city and surroundings. Surreally, next to this beautiful church the city’s authorities have built a large singing fountain whose water rises and falls to the songs of Take That and Michael Jackson, among others.
From Kosice smaller towns and villages can easily be reached to grab an impression of rural life in eastern Slovakia. Slanec, with its ancient ruined castle high on a crag that can be reached through medieval beech forest, is a quick recommendation
Other Central European Cities
Brno, Prague, Budapest, Dresden and Krakow can all be reached by direct train from Bratislava station, taking varying lengths of time. Again, Deutsch Bahn’s immaculate English-language website is probably the first port of call for anyone considering such a trip.