Where am I going with a title like that…??
I generally do a fair bit of homework (translate – a lot of reading up ? ) before visiting a new place…and not to sound immodest – but I don’t generally go wrong about a place or on the number of days to spend there… Well, this one time I did…
Don’t get me wrong, Bratislava is a really charming city…Very Hansel and Gretel like
The people are lovely… and how Slovakia has transformed its capital in less than 3 decades, after emerging from the shadows of communism; is nothing short of impressive.
But – there’s honestly only just so much to see and do!!
We have a saying in India – “Shuru hote se hi khatam ho gaya”…
It literally translates to “well, that got over pretty much just as it started”…So, just a day trip (if you’re in Vienna), or a few hours’ stop-over (enroute to Budapest); are enough to cover most of the city – in all honesty.
Bratislava is in fact one of Europe’s smallest capital cities. Its also the only capital to border 2 sovereign countries (Slovakia itself of course – and Austria). Dating back to the 9th century at least, it was once a part of the the Roman empire. Then invaded by Napoelon , subsequently reigned by the Hapsburgs until it was over-run by the Naziz; and finally ‘liberated’ by the Soviets; before finally coming into its own as an independent republic in 1993.
At just an hour’s drive (or bus ride) from Vienna; its very easily doable.
And so, most visitors are ‘day-trippers’..You might just find it ‘buzzing’ for those few hours in the day…but the rest of the time; and especially in the evenings its fairly quiet (the considerable numbers of bars and night-clubs the city has, seems odd in that context).
The city centre or the ‘Old Town’ is really very compact…
All of it is a pedestrian zone and you could cover the sights (or take a walking tour – which anyways is my No.1 suggestion for most European cities) in 2-2 ½ hours. Add another hour if you decide to go up to the castle.
Bratislava Castle dominates the city’s skyline, situated as it is on a plateau that’s 279 feet above the river, and most of the city. (It’s an uphill walk ALL the way so just bear that in mind if you’re with seniors or small children).
The castle dates back to the 9th century and both Baroque and Renaissance elements were added on, in the 15th and 17th centuries. But – you see almost none of these today, as it burned down almost entirely in 1811. Until the 1950s it lay thus in ruins; with whatever rebuilding you see today, done only then. I would hence suggest skipping the castle tour entirely.
Below the castle is St Michael’s cathedral – Bratislava’s oldest and largest church. Also one of the most important churches in the Austro – Hungarian kingdom, back in the 16th and 17th centuries.
At a 10 minute walk from the castle and at the edge of the Old Town; is the statue of Hviezdoslav ☝ …the starting point for the free walking tours . Having done the tour, I’d strongly recommend BeFree Tours.
That’s ☝ the Slovak National Theatre.
Of the city’s medieval fortifications, Michael’s Gate is one of the only important parts that remain. The statue of St Michael and the Dragon at the top, was placed much later in 1758.
That’s ☝ the Town Hall.
One of the things you’ll definitely notice whilst strolling around the Old Town, are the quirky metal sculptures.
‘Cumil’ or ‘Man at Work’ is definitely the most photographed one.
Its just there. No apparent reason. As a tribute to the communist-era working community, they say…Pat his head for good luck ?.
The ‘Disney-esque’Blue Church (or St Elizabeth’s Church) was for me the only one ‘unique’ sight, in Bratislava…and worth the 20 minute walk – from the Old Town.
All the funny local descriptions you’ll hear for it – ‘ smurf church, cupcake church, wedding cake’-they’re all apt……But its unique for sure…and that color is unlike anything I’ve seen before, on a church building.
Actually, the city seems to have a thing for pastel colors….a lot of different ones. I saw quite a few unusual coloured buildings in Bratislava.
Another thing I noticed… once you’re outside the radius of the Old Town (the post war development), all the modern, communist-era buildings look unkempt and dreary. A stark difference to the glitzy side of the city, on the other side of the river. I’m not sure if its an intentional ‘reminder’ to that time…
This ☝ is a sight you just can’t miss once you’re in the city (or even approaching the city). The SPN Bridge (monikered the UFO bridge – for obvious reasons ?), connects the Old City to downtown (the shiny glitzy newer side of the city – packed with skyscrapers and shopping malls).
The bar and restaurant atop the tower (in the UFO) supposedly give you a stunning view of the entire city.
The 2 aspects where Bratislava really scores are the eating out options and the fabulous value for money you get.
We spent approx 20-25% less than what we would in anywhere in Western or Southern Europe – or for that matter in neighbouring Vienna. Across the board…be it accommodation, eating out, or even on taxis.
In context of the size of the town and its population, there’s a massive number of really good bars, cafes and restaurants (and honestly no dearth of good vegetarian food either)…All the ones I tried were excellent, barring one (I based my selection on TA and Google reviews)…
Sky Bar…At the edge of the Old Town, just adjacent to the Carlton Hotel (where the walking tours start). Definitely go if nothing else just for the view. Asian food
Modra Hviezda…On the castle hill. Cozy, medieval and romantic setting. Slovakian food – quite good.
Worth the little uphill trek ?
Thema…Great ambience, super food (international menu), fab service.
If you’re taking the free walking tour, then this one’s across from the last stop.
Koliba Kamzin…In the old town. Great Slovakian food, cozy place; and they have a vegetarian menu too.
Chimney Cake…Worth skipping breakfast, to be able to ‘cheat’ on this ? ?.
Urban House…All day cafe. One of the prettiest and most charming ones that I have come across. Quite an extensive and interesting (international) food menu; and most of it was quite good. Definitely make a stop here.
1)Unlike a lot of other European Christmas Markets that invariably continue / get extended into, the New Year…the ones in Bratislava wind up by the 26th of December, so plan your visit accordingly.
2)The city (which is never crowded to start with) empties out over Xmas and you start seeing the crowds again around the 29th (closer to the New Year’s eve)…Apparently, most people that work in Bratislava aren’t originally from here and so they head home for Christmas.
A heads-up if like me, you like a festive vibe and some ‘buzz’ and crowds on the street…
3) Both FlyxBus and RedBus ,from Vienna Airport are super comfy and convenient for getting across (they are parked right outside the Arrivals Hall in Vienna). The buses operate every half hour and although you can buy the tickets onboard – its better to pre-book online. The pre-book prices are much lower (almost half price) and sometimes the buses are already full even if you get there 15-20 minutes before.
4) Both Uber and Bolt don’t accept cash payments. Its Credit Card only.
Both providers aren’t expensive at all (in comparison to western Europe); and in fact if you’re 3 or more people, it may actually work out cheaper to Uber it from Vienna to Bratislava, as compared to the bus.
Just a fun-fact….You can’t imagine how often Slovakia gets mistaken for Slovenia and vice versa…Well not just the names, even their flags are similar…We heard that once a month apparently, the staff of both the embassies in London, meet to exchange mail that’s been mistakenly sent to either of them ?.