Slovakia’s capital city, Bratislava, borders Austria and Hungary and occupies both the banks of the River Danube and the River Morava. From Vienna, you can take the train (one hour ride) or travel by boat (75 minutes).
The Communist party seized power in 1948 and ruled Czechoslovakia until it separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in what was called the Velvet Divorce— a reference to the bloodless revolution that caused the end of Soviet rule. Upon taking control, the Communist party instigated a building boom of bland, pre-fab, high-rises (pictured below).
Thankfully, the Old Town was preserved and remains the heartbeat of the city. Several historical sights can be toured in the town centre and the core is jam-packed with quaint shops, restaurants and bars with outdoor seating.
The Primate’s Palace, built in the late 1700s, is where the fourth Peace of Pressburg was signed, ending the War of the Third Coalition. Currently, it serves as the seat of Bratislava’s Mayor.
The Capuchin Church, built by Capuchin monks, was consecrated in 1717 and is dedicated to St. Stephen of Hungary.
The Bratislava Castle stands high on a hill overlooking the city. The castle, also a museum, features various art exhibits and is worth the hike up from the Old town. Although photography is not allowed within many of the exhibit rooms, great photo opportunities are still available, but abide by the rules, Bratislavans (at least the ones we met in the castle), failed to appreciate our ‘unique’ sense of humour.
I hope your knees are in good shape; they’ll be put to the test in this city.
The view from the top of the castle is spectacular. You can see the UFO tower on the bridge that spans the River Danube. The tower, apparently, is something to take in. We tried, but after walking all the way from the castle, found that the tower was closed due to a private function.
Compared to Vienna, where we had just spent a week, Bratislava has a noticeable grittiness to it.
Word of advice: if you’re taking a taxi from the train station to the Old Town, be very careful. There are many registered taxi companies for hire, but also several drivers who are not signed up with any company. These drivers sit outside popular tourist spots, like the train station. We didn’t know this, hopped in a cab, and were charged 15 Euros to get to the town centre. It should cost five to eight Euros. Also, when we were leaving the Old Town, we almost created a riot when we chose a cab after declining to go with a driver who said it was going to cost 15 Euros to return to the train station. We got in to a second cab, were about to pull away when the first cab driver rushed up and started yelling at our driver. Our driver reached behind his seat to my door, grabbed the handle and told us “Get out. Big trouble!” After walking and searching for a cab for 15 minutes, we finally found a driver who took us to the train station and charged seven Euros. Read this page on taxi tips in Bratislava if you plan to visit.
One of the best things we did was take in a wine tasting at Presporska Viecha. Our delightful hostess (who did appreciate our sense of humour) poured several Slovakian wine for us and kept up quite well with our banter.
We hadn’t planned on a wine tasting but spotted their sign down a narrow, cobble-stone street and needed to rest after a long walkabout town. The Slovakian wines we tried, especially the black currant wine, were lovely. I’m usually not a fan of fruit wines, but we made sure to take a bottle home.
When you’re looking for food in foreign countries, always make sure to ask a local where they would eat. When we told the young lady at the tourist information centre that we were after a truly Slovakian food experience, she directed us to Bratislavsky Mestiansky Pivovar, a traditional restaurant about an eight minute walk from the information office, away from the town centre.
We knew we’d be hoofing it all around the city, so we didn’t feel so bad digging into heaping mounds of dumplings and sausage and smoked beef tongue and a spread made of pork cracklings and fat. And, beer. Mark this place down on your list of where to eat in Bratislava.
One of the most photographed statues in the Old Town is Čumil, a bronzed man climbing out of a manhole at the intersection of Laurinská and Panská. Hard to get an exact answer as to what Čumil is all about but there are two schools of thought: 1) he is resting after cleaning the sewers, and 2) he is peeping under women’s’ skirts. Regardless of the story, this is a good example of Bratislava trying to imbue some lightheartedness into this post-communist city.
If you find yourself in Bratislava for a day, you will get your fill of beautiful big buildings in the Old Town such as the Reduta building, home to the Slovak Philharmonic orchestra.
I read one blogger’s description of Bratislava as a “mousy little thing”. In comparison to other European capitals, he’s not far off the mark. This little mouse has an edge to it though; you see it in the graffiti, the communist-era buildings, and the brusque attitude of some residents— especially those who probably remember, all to well, life under Communist rule. If you go, do your homework, and if you’re seeking out the main attractions, one day is almost enough, two days would suffice.