This weekend I went to Bratislava. Now, some have been surprised at my choice for a city break – including Slovaks themselves. When my friend and I took a (quite considerable) wrong turn, a friendly man providing helpful directions asked why we were in Slovakia. Apparently our reply of ‘for a holiday’ was not what he expected when he exclaimed ‘but I’ve never met anyone who chose Slovakia for a holiday before!’
Well everyone, I can safely say that if Slovakia isn’t on your ‘must-visit’ list, then it should be. Small but perfectly packaged, Bratislava makes an ideal weekend break.
Sitting right on the border of the country, this small city might have less than 500,000 inhabitants, but it packs a punch as seat of the Slovak president and parliament. Many years ago it was even the capital of neighbouring Hungary, but it today has the prestige of being the only capital city in the world to border two independent countries: Hungary to the south and Austria in the west.
More than this though, the city offers a real sense of history. This isn’t surprising when you learn that it has been settled since the Neolithic era (about 500 BC), meaning it predates its more famous counterparts Prague or Budapest by hundreds of years.
The obvious starting point for any visitor is the hive of small streets that form the Old Town or Staré Mesto. While small, it offers a wealth of charm with its well preserved medieval centre which is the perfect place to simply wander and see what church, museum or interesting building you will pass next. One such building not to miss is Michael’s Gate. With a history dating back to the 13th century, as the only city gate left, it is one of the city’s oldest buildings. Tucked just around the corner is the beautiful 14th century Old Town Hall. With its distinctive green patterned roof, it is the oldest city hall in the whole of Slovakia.
Another attraction is unsurprisingly the castle, situated high on a rocky hill of the Little Carpathians above the city. Bratislava Castle is an oddity which left both my travelling companion and I scratching our heads; it is largely a 1950s construction thanks to an 1811 fire that left the castle ruined for more than a century. However, they haven’t really faithfully restored it or made it a new, ‘modern’ building. You could say it seems to be suffering a bit of an identity crisis perhaps? Yet, even with the reconstruction mystery, the views over the city are worth the visit if nothing else.
For an even newer viewpoint, then you can’t miss the Novŷ Most bridge that sits imposingly on the Danube river. More commonly known as the UFO bridge, it is easy to see why: if you have seen War of the Worlds, then it appears that one of the aliens has landed on top of the bridge. The 1970’s bridge is the shortest member of the World Federation of Great Towers, and is the only bridge to be a member, yet it offers a fantastic 360 degree view from its observation deck over the Old Town in one direction and the newer, Soviet era housing to the other. Being just a short walk on the underpass beneath the bridge to reach, it is well worth a visit.
Back over the river, while St Martin’s Cathedral dominates the central Bratislava skyline, it has a relatively modest interior that doesn’t seem to mirror its rich history as the coronation church of Hungary for many years. In fact, 11 Austro-Hungarian monarchs were crowned over the years in this 14th century cathedral. Make sure to check out the crypt as well – even if just to note the dramatic change in temperature!
For a slightly more quirky religious building, it’s worth venturing out a short way from the centre to find the Church of St Elizabeth, more commonly known as the ‘Blue Church’ for what become strikingly obvious reasons. If you have an interest in art nouveau, then this church built in the early 20th century is a lovely example of architecture done differently.
The beauty of Bratislava? All of these sites are within easy walking distance of each other, making for pleasant opportunities to discover hidden gems as you wander along, or simply stop for a drink to soak up the atmosphere. The system of trams and buses appeared to be very regular and easy to use, but on a beautiful weekend such as when I visited, nothing beat the option of using my own two feet.
To experience a European capital without the coach loads of tourists or over inflated prices seems to be, sadly, increasingly somewhat of a rarity. I am glad to say though that Bratislava really delivers. It might be time to book your flights before the secret is out!
My top tips for Bratislava:
- Accommodation in Bratislava is pleasantly affordable. We stayed at the Ibis Bratislava Centrum which is tucked away beneath the castle and conveniently located on the edge of the Old Town, yet only cost £36 per night.
- For a true sense of eating with the locals, try the Bryndzové Halušky at Prasna Basa. This delicious Slovak speciality is potato dumplings with bryndza sheep cheese and bacon – I can highly recommend it!
- If you have time to spare, then consider visiting a neighbouring European capital: Vienna. The Austrian capital is only just over an hour away by train, making it a very easy day trip.
- Your Euros will stretch a long way in the city, with beers costing just over a Euro, and most cocktails giving you change for a five Euro note.
- Wear your walking shoes! In such a compact city, the chance to explore it on foot means the optimum chance to enjoy its charming atmosphere.