Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, is often understated and overlooked in favor of Budapest, Vienna, Krakow or Prague. For me, the fact that there are fewer tourists only adds to its charm, authenticity and beauty.
There is no need for much planning before visiting Bratislava. Just figure out how to get there and where to stay. As for what to do and see, it will all come naturally. The city is compact, calmer than most capital cities and easily discoverable on foot, but has a lot to offer, from cobbled old romantic alleys, plenty photogenic corners and pretty old architecture, to ex-soviet and modern buildings, as well as quirky statues.
Bratislava is one of the four European capitals that lie on the Danube. The other three are Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade.
The area has been inhabited since 500 BC by the Celts, Roman settlers and the Slavs. Slovakia’s capital got its name only 90 years ago. Up to that point in time, it was known as Pressburg in Germany and Pozsony in Hungary. The country itself obtained its independence only 26 years ago, which makes Bratislava one of the newest capital cities in Europe.
As per the currency, Slovakia has adopted the euro. Because of this, the prices are higher than in other countries in the region, even if not at the level of Western Europe.
How to get to Bratislava?
We obviously got to Bratislava by car, as we were on a road trip. The city is well-connected to Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Krakow, Brno, not only by highways, but also by railroads.
One of the most popular ways to visit Bratislava is on a day-trip from Vienna. You can get to Bratislava from the Austrian capital in only one hour by train. From the main train station, you only hop on bus number 61 to get to the city center. During summer, there is also a cruise that connects the two cities and the round-trip costs 30 euro. If this is all the time you have, so be it, but I think the Bratislava deserves a little more of your time.
The city also has its own airport, Letisko. From there you also have to take the bus number 61 to get into the city center.
Getting around Bratislava
The easiest way to get around is buying a Bratislava card, which includes free unlimited travel on public transport and admissions to the main sights. You can get it from the Tourist Information Center or at the airport. It costs 18 euro for one day, 22 euro for two days and 25 euro for three days. However, the city is tiny and you can easily get around on foot.
If you don’t buy a card, but ocassionally use the public transport, keep in mind that the tickets for buses and trams are based on time validity and you have to mark it as soon as you get on.
There is no subway in Bratislava, in case you are wondering. The communists started building it, but in 1990 the idea was given up as it wasn’t worth it. The city is easily walkable and only has a little over 400.000 inhabitants. Nowadays, the unfinished stations are graffitti art galleries.
What to do in Bratislava?
The short answer would be “walk, take photos and eat good food”. For a longer answer, read below.
1. Wander the old town of Bratislava
This is the first thing that you should do as soon as you’re ready to get to know the city. The old town of Bratislava is small and easily walkable, but full of picturesque corners. Lose your map and just wander through the maze of narrow and wide pedestrian streets gazing at the beautifully preserved squares and pastel colored buildings that shelter tiny shops, stalls selling souvenirs and restaurants. By forgetting any plan you might have made, you’ll take in the atmosphere of the city and see many of its sights. Most of the sights are located around the historical city center anyway.
2. Take a guided walking tour
After wandering alone and taking in the atmosphere, you should be ready to get a little deeper and find out more about what you’ve seen, but also see the places you might have missed at first sight. Whenever you visit a new city, I’d also recommend taking a guided tour. It’s a great way to learn a little about the history and culture of the people and the place you are visiting. Besides, you might even make some new friends on the way.
For Bratislava, I suggest taking a Segway tour, as the city lends itself to learning to drive this new set of wheels while also having fun. You don’t have to worry about crowds, heavy traffic or even lack of bicycle lanes. We took one and were very happy with it. However, it does have an inconvenient, the price. A two-hour tour is 50 euro.
If you are on a low budget or simply aren’t interested in this kind of fun, a good option are the free tours led by Be Free Tours. The original tour starts daily at 11 am and 15 pm by the Statue of Hviezdoslav, outside the U.S. Embassy and Carlton Hotel, but they also have other free tours you might enjoy.
3. Visit the Old Town Hall
The old city hall is the oldest one in Slovakia and one of the oldest buildings in Bratislava. It is in fact a complex of buildings constructed at different times in history. The tower dates back to 1370 and has a Napoleonic cannon embedded in its wall ever since 1809. It’s also one of the most interesting and beautiful buildings in the old town with its painted checked windows and tiled roof.
Today it hosts Bratislava City Museum which tells the story of the Slovakian capital and its inhabitants. At the end of the tour, climb up the staircase to the top for a panoramic view of the city.
4. Climb to the top of St. Martin’s cathedral
One of the main sights of the city is a Gothic cathedral with a tower reaching 85 m. St. Martin’s cathedral has been the coronation church of the Kingdom of Hungary between 1563 and 1830. Because of this, it has a replica of the coronation crown on top. It’s the tallest building in the historical center and can be seen even from across the river.
5. Check Michael’s gate
In medieval times, Bratislava had fortification walls and 4 entrance gates. Today we can still see the only surviving gate, the north one, Michael’s, built in the 14th century. It’s far taller than the surrounding buildings and can be seen from afar, but one can also enter and visit the Museum of Arms.
The narrowest house in Europe stands just north of the passage through the Michael’s Gate. It hosts a kebab shop. On the other side of the gate, there’s also a bridge with lovers’ locks. The strange thing is that there is no water to throw the key in and lose it. That’s why it’s said that it’s the bridge of the lovers with second thoughts.
The place where Laurinc Gate stood is also pointed out by a hanging portcullis.
6. See the Primate’s Palace
This pink building is the place where the Peace of Pressburg was signed after Napoleon’s victory in the Battle of Austerlitz.
7. Gaze at the Blue Church
Its real name is the Church of St. Elizabeth and is popular because its vivid sky blue color and icing-like ornaments. The church was built at the beginning of the 20th century and is very popular for weddings and baptisms, events for which it has to be booked LONG in advance (just in case it crossed your mind). It is around 10 minutes outside the old town, but the distance is totally walkable and worth it.
8. Touch Cumil’s hat
Cumil, also known as the watcher, is the most photographed statue in the city. Cars kept hitting the poor man looking up from a manhole and there’s now a sign that says “man at work”. It’s said that you get lucky if you touch his hat and pregnant if you touch his nose.
9. Climb up to the Bratislava Castle
The massive 4-towered castle sits high above the city, on a hill overlooking the Danube. It looks as new and pretty much is. The original building dates back to the 9th century, but it has been destroyed and modified many times. During a fire in 1811, it was almost completely burnt down and left to ruins for more than a century. Major renovations took place in the 1950s and 2011. That’s why it looks so new.
Once you reach the castle, walk along the viewing platforms around it for great views over the medieval old town, soviet housing projects across the river and the natural beauty of the countryside. On a clear day you can even see the windmills in Austria and Hungary. One can also visit the Slovak National Museum and the Baroque Gardens.
10. Love or hate the UFO
It would be hard to miss this high flying saucer above the Danube, as it’s one of the most famous and prominent landmarks in Bratislava. Locals hate it as it was built in the 1960s, at the height of the communism., making it another soviet architectural monstruosity. However, from a technical point of view, it stands on the longest cable-stayed bridge with only one pillar in the world.
Tourists love to reach the viewing platform and enjoy a 360 degrees view of the city for 6.5 euro. If you also eat at the restaurant hosted by the UFO, the fee will be deducted from the bill at the end.
If you want to cross the bridge, there is a lower level for pedestrians and bicycles.
11. Take a walk in Janko Kral Park
It’s oldest municipal park in Central Europe, located in Petržalka, between the Old Bridge and the New Bridge. Currently, the park creates an oasis of peace for everybody to relax.
It features small circular spaces decorated with zodiacal elements. Even more interesting is the unique gazebo that was originally a tower on the Franciscan Church. Newlyweds love to have photographs taken in front of it. From a certain angle you can see the UFO through the hole that was once a window.
The statue of Janko Král, one of the most significant romantic poets of Slovakia, is located at the very heart of the park. It’s not known exactly what he looked like, as he burnt he is supposed to have burnt all his photos when he fall into depression.
12. Try the traditional tastes on offer
No abroad trip is complete without tasting some traditional dishes. Slovakia is no exception. The food is heavy and maybe not to everybody’s tastes, but one should still give it a chance. The main dishes usually include dumplings, sheep cheese, pork or duck and are served in the company of strong spirits.
13. Sleep on a botel
Maybe it’s not the cheapest place to stay in, but if you’ve ever been tempted to sleep on a boat and a cruise it’s not in your future plans yet, this is your chance. There are, of course, botels on the main rivers in other European cities, but I find it hard to believe that any of them has such a gorgeous view and its own beer brewery. To find out more, read my review about Dunajský Pivovar botel. I can’t think of a better place to stay in.
14. Visit Devin Castle
The ruins of this castle that sits at the confluence of Danube and Morava are 10 km out of town, but can be easily reached by bus number 29 in around 30 minutes or by a river cruise.
15. Make your way along the Carpathian wine trail
All the wine-lovers out there should not miss a day trip to one of the royal free towns in the wine-growing region close to Bratislava (Pezinok, Modra or Svaty Jur). We chose Modra for its wines, beautifully preserved historical center and majolica factory and wouldn’t mind going there again. I’ll write more about it in a future article.
Summer Bonus: Embrace the city’s summer river culture! On both shores of the Danube there are terraces and artificial sandy beaches. I personally prefer the ones opposite the castle and the old city for the views and for the cooler atmosphere.
By now you should already be convinced that Bratislava is the perfect choice for a weekend escape. Go with an open mind, don’t plan much and give it the chance to surprise you. You won’t be disappointed!
Have you ever been to Bratislava? What was it like? Would you give it a chance?
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