Dubbed by some as the “mini Prague”, Bratislava is so much more than that – sure it’s small for a European capital but it’s brimming with bars, clubs, cafes, restaurants, shops and things to do.
The stunning Danube links the city to Vienna and Budapest, forming the trio of the historic Austro-Hungarian Empire, and providing the city with numerous beautiful locations and water based activities. This is a green city – there are hiking and cycling trails crisscrossing the city, as well as gorgeous parks and gardens to just lie back and chill. Oh, and it’s surrounded by vineyards, lakes, rivers and the Little Carpathian mountains too – if you feel like breaking those city limits.
And if that isn’t enough to turn your attention to Bratislava, how about the fact that this compact capital is really just a kid – for while it was first mentioned in historical sources as far back as 907, it was only 25 years ago the city rose to fame and possible fortune as the capital of the newly independent Slovakia.
The essentials – top five
Bratislava Castle – Looking more like a great white fortress with its impenetrable walls and four stocky towers, this former seat of the rulers dominates the city from its perch on a rocky hill of the Little Carpathians. Despite its history, the building you see today actually only dates back to the 1960s . In May 1811, a devastating fire left the castle in ruins , with reconstruction only finished in 1968. Some parts of the castle are open to the public, including various exhibitions of the Slovak National Museum, and of course, the views of the city and neighbouring countries from the crown tower are spectacular.
The Old Town Hall – A complex of buildings from the 14th century situated in the Old Town and overlooking Hlavne Square (also worth visiting in its own right). The architecture is a mix of Gothic, baroque and neo-renaissance styles. It houses the oldest museum in Bratislava, the Bratislava City Museum and the panoramic view from the top of the tower is worth the climb up those narrow stairs.
Devin Castle – A short trip from the city, this castle ruin towers 212 metres above the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers in a stunning (and dramatic) natural setting. The caves of the upper castle are home to a permanent exhibition showcasing the castle’s history from the 11th to 19th centuries. There are also numerous hikes and bike trails, or, if it’s sunny, just take a picnic and explore.
The UFO – A unique observation deck on the pylons of the SNP Bridge at a height of 95 metres, this unusual structure offers amazing views of the city with visibility of up to 100 km. It’s also home to a bar and a restaurant (which can be quite pricey). If your budget and courage permit, check out the Skywalk – a 360 degree walk around the circumference of the observation deck accompanied by a qualified instructor.
Escape Room – A little bit different to your usual tourist attraction, why not try the escape room experience based at the the historical centre at 36, Zámocká Street. Jánošík was a famous Slovak highwayman from the 18th century who, according to legend, stole from the rich and gave to the poor like Robin Hood. We’re telling you this because in one escape room mission, you will have 70 minutes to find Jánošík’s treasure and escape! In a different game, you’ll find yourself in the apartment of a State Service officer from the 1970s. Your task will be to accomplish a secret mission and escape! So, you know, you get the drill.
The Budget or Broke Recommendation (i.e. free)
St Martin’s Cathedral – Bratislava’s biggest, oldest, and most spectacular church, this three-nave Gothic cathedral was built on the site of a previous, Romanesque church, dedicated to the Holy Saviour. Between 1563 and 1830, St Martin’s served as the coronation church for Hungarian kings and their consorts, a fact marked by the gilded cushion bearing a copy of the Hungarian royal crown which sits atop the Minster tower. In fact, ten kings, one queen and seven royal wives from the Habsburg Dynasty were crowned here.
Dumplings with sheep cheese (Bryndzové halušky) is Slovakia’s national dish – basically a creamy, soft, locally produced sheep cheese (unique to Slovakia) served on top of halušky (potato dumplings) with pieces of smoked bacon and sausage sprinkled on top. If that doesn’t float your boat then how about Vyprážaný syr – fried cheese with French fries and tartar sauce all washed down with a Czech pivo (beer). And of course, there’s always the popular cabbage soup too.
Trams are the most popular and fastest form of public transport in the city. They are reliable and on time and generally run from 5am 11.30pm. Buses also play a substantial role in the public transport system. Limited- stop services run on the longer routes through the city. After midnight, night buses operate in Bratislava at roughly one hour intervals. Some routes in the city centre, mainly in its hilly parts, are electrified and serviced by trolley- buses.
Tickets for public transport are valid for a certain period of time and are available from ticket-machines or kiosks. They must be validated once inside the tram/bus. Tickets are valid for all means of public transport in the city and remain valid when changing from one means of transport to another. Tickets have a minimum validity of 15 minutes and the longest is 7 days.
If you plan to stay in the city for one, two or three days,the Bratislava CARD might be worth considering. It entitles you to free of charge urban transport, a guided tour in the Old Town, discounts on admission fees to museums, galleries, as well as taxi and car-hire up to 50%. The card can be purchased from any of the tourist information centres.
Photography: Panoramic view of Bratislava by Ivan Adrejic.