As the only city in the world located on the border with three countries - Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary - Bratislava, the Slovak capital, is worth at least a weekend trip away. There are also some excellent things to see and do in ‘Little Big’ city. And, with Vienna around 40km away, it’s a perfect place for a getaway.
The city received its contemporary name in 1919. Up to that point it was mostly known in English as Pressburg, its German name, since after 1526 it was dominated mostly by the Habsburg Monarchy and the city had a relevant ethnic-German population. Historically also called Pozsony or Prešporok, it was the capital kingdom of Hungary from 1536 to 1783 and as a Coronation town it saw 11 kings and spouses of the House of Habsburg crowned here in the 15th century constructed St Martin’s Cathedral. Among them was Maria Theresa in 1741.
Today, despite the city centre being fairly lively and there always being tourists around, one never has the crowded feeling as with bigger cities like Prague in neighbouring Czech Republic (Bratislava’s population is around 430,000). For that you just have to look at the throng of tourists on the Charles Bridge on any given day or night.
Arriving this June at Bratislava airport (Bratislava-Ivanka), the main international airport located some 9 kilometres (5.6 miles) from the city centre, I headed to the Vienna House Easy hotel (www.viennahouse.com/en/) just a few minutes’ drive away on my first night in the Slovak capital. That said, it was my second visit to the country.
Back in 1993, the airport was named after a Slovak general and politician, astronomer and aviator Milan Rastislav Štefánik, whose aircraft crashed on the approach to Vajnory Airport, the predecessor to M. R. Štefánik Airport, on 4 May 1919. Serving during World War I as a general in the French Army, at the same time he was Minister of War for Czechoslovakia.
Illustrating his work as a scientist in France, he climbed Mont Blanc in 1905 and several times more in later years to observe the Moon and Mars, and received the Prix Jules Janssen, the highest award of the Société astronomique de France, the French astronomical society.
In Tahiti, Štefánik also built an observatory and a network of meteorological stations. The rumour was that much of his time in the Pacific Ocean was spent on spying on German positions. So no light weight.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this year Štefánik was to be featured on the €2 commemorative coin in Slovakia on the 100th anniversary of his passing and was elected as the ‘Greatest Slovak’ in the Slovak version of the British programme ‘100 Greatest Britons’
Owned by Austria’s largest hotel group, Vienna House, a 3-star hotel (formerly Chopin Bratislava), recently underwent a redesign that has resulted in a smart casual style. Rooms provide a modern design and combine with a new cosmopolitan style with local features, for example the tailor-made carpet with the outline of Bratislava Castle, originally a royal residence and today the symbol of the city, and surroundings. More on that later.
The hotel, which has 170 rooms (from €67) and was ranked by travel review firm Holiday Check with 4.7 out of 6, provides a good base for business and leisure travellers - and particularly if you are arriving late in the evening given its proximity to the airport.
It is also just minutes away by foot from the Avion Shopping Park, the city’s largest shopping mall and biggest in the country (see: www.avion.sk). With 174 stores, the main tenants include names like IKEA, H&M, Peek & Cloppenburg, SportsDirect and Zara.
Moving to the centre of Bratislava on the day the country’s new President was inaugurated at the National Theatre, I checked in at the 4-star Hotel Danubia Gate (www.danubiagate.sk), which is a 5-minute stroll from the historic centre, bars and restaurants. Book direct with the hotel online using Promo code: ‘TRIP’ promo code and you will receive a 7% discount and free benefits (breakfast and parking included)
Of course, if one wanted to joosh things up a bit and go lux you could always opt for the Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel on Hviezdoslav’s Square (Hviezdoslavovo Namestie) positioned between the U.S. Embassy and the Slovak National Theatre (Slovenské národné divadlo), a neo-renaissance building built in 1885–1886 and based on a design by the Viennese architects Fellner & Helmer.
The square, which carries the name of an important Slovak poet Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav, a leading personality of Slovak literature and culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is in fact more a boulevard than a square is largely pedestrianized and tree-lined. It has fountains, outdoor restaurants, bars and cafes all around.
Or, you might opt for the Skaritz Hotel & Residence (see: www.skaritz.com), which is located right on the pedestrian zone of the Old Town, on perhaps the most popular promenade in the very centre of the city. At Skaritz, the first two floors will carry you a couple centuries back with its aura of ancient walls and high ceilings. Currently when I was passing by they had a special weekend offer priced at €162, with two nights in a double room that included two tickets for a ride in a Presporacik Oldtimer along the historic street.
Museums & Galleries
Given the biggest advantage of this city being its accessibility, a self-guided walking tour over an hour or two will take in many of the key sights. On offer are over 65 specialised museums and galleries ranging from Slovak contemporary art to examples of the city rich cultural past.
The Slovak National Gallery (see: www.sng.sk), for example, contains over 60,000 works of art of national and international origin. Meanwhile, Nebalka Gallery (see: www.nedbalka.sk) has a permanent exhibition of original Slovak modern fine art. In the medieval centre of the city one can also see where musical greats like Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven held their performances.
Kamzik TV Tower
For places further a field take a bus or taxi - as with the imposing Kamzik TV tower (see: http://www.altitude.sk/), where you can see four countries from the Altitude restaurant at over 100m, or the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum (see: www.danubiana.sk) modern art gallery located on peninsula sticking out into the Danube River. The latter presents a symbiosis of fine art, modern architecture and national treasures. Check out the huge sculptures of golfer on the roof of the museum.
For another experience at altitude, walk from the old town, walk across SNP bridge (Most SNP) south to visit the UFO observation deck. From a 100 metres up it is a must-see place in the city. Afterwards take a stroll on the banks of the river toward the Dunajský Pivovar (www.dunajskypivovar.sk), a botel incorporating a restaurant, brewery and hotel. Here with my Bratislavan friend Linda, I sampled the delights of potato dumplings with sheep cheese and bacon (€8.50). Among a range of dishes they also serve beef sirloin with dumplings (€12) and Vienna schnitzel with potato salad (c.€15).
As with the Czech Republic (aka ‘The Land of Stories’), castles are a feature across Slovakia. In fact, the country is a castle superpower with more than 100 castles and at least double that figure being manor houses built in different historical eras. One not to miss in the capital is Bratislava Castle, a former royal residence and is the symbol of the city. It offers stunning views across the city. Today it is home of the Museum of History, its 47-metre high crown tower, where the royal coronation jewels were once stored. The national Parliament building is just a stone’s throw away.
Just outside the city confines by means a boat ride down the Danube from the Passenger Port located near the Natural History Museum you will find the ruins of a former castle, Devin, blown up by Napoleon’s army. Rising from a high rock above the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers, this is a major historical and archaeological site. Local traditional wine tasting completes the experience here.
Churches, Towers & Spires
You won’t fail to notice a plethora of churches, towers and spires dotted around the city. The Old Town Hall, which was originally the seat of the municipal government, has since 1868 been home to the Bratislava City Museum, Slovkia’s oldest museum. A narrow stairway leads you to it 45-metre-high tower, which offers a beautiful panorama of the Old Town. The tower at Michael’s Gate, the only remaining gate from the city’s 14th century fortifications, pips that with a view from its 51-metre high tower.
The Blue Church, the art nouveau church of St Elizabeth built in the 20th century, just outside the historic centre, features detailed façade work with frequent use of mosaics. And, the only remaining synagogue (www.synagogue.sk) in the city, constructed in 1923-1926 in the Cubist style, is well worth a visit and for its museum on the first floor. It is open to the public during the summer season (entrance €6).
As one wonders north of the city centre near the Great Lutheran church and along Stefanikova Street, formerly one of the longest streets here and closely linked to the rise of the steam railway in Bratislava, you come across Grassalkovich Palace, a rococo
summer palace from the 18th century.
This imposing building, which used to be known for its rich social life and performances by Joseph Haydn, has since 1986 served as the seat of the nation’s President. Gardens are behind it that is free to stroll around. Afterwards take a beer at Café Štefánka (www.stefankabypulitzer.sk) at the corner of Palisády and Štefánikova Street. Named after the Belgian princess Stéphanie since 1904 - she lived in a manor house in Rusovce, one of Bratislava’s municipalities. It has a unique atmosphere of the old Pressburg era. Here you can watch the world go by gazing across the road to the palace.
Food & Beer - Lunchtime or After Dark
After dark you can head to FABRIKA (www.fabrikapub.sk/en), dubbed ‘The Beer Pub’ and from the outside you can see exactly why with huge gleaming stainless steel conical vessels at the entrance. It is probably the best bar in town with professional staff and great home-brewed beer. The venue offers several of its own draft beers.
On my visit here I particularly liked their ‘FABRIKA F 12°’ (12 degrees or plateau), a Pilsner-type lager made of Moravian barley and Czech hops. But there are a range to suit all tastes - from FABRIKA F 10°, 11° - equivalent to 5 and 5.5 ABV - and “FABRIKA F 14°, an American Pale Ale with a fruity aroma, And, as the motto on the beer mat proclaims in Slovak (‘You can really put a shift in here’). Too right!
Feeling a bit peckish you take nice lunch (from 11.30am) or dinner here with the pub offering a regular menu which includes traditional meals that complement beer, such as beer cheese or other types of cheese, potato pancakes, baguettes, white pudding, fried onion rings, grilled sausages, steaks, goulash and schnitzel. Right next door is the 4-star LOFT hotel.
Alžbetka (www.pivovaralzbetka.sk), located at Mickiewiczova 2242/1, is also well worth a visit. I ventured into this large pub (Elizabeth in English) on the suggestion of another local, Tibor, and really enjoyed dinner comprising a starter of pork bits in jelly (sounds awful but was really nice) and a main dish of pork knuckle served with sauerkraut. We polished off a few beers too between courses.
Located not far from other beer venues such as Kollarko and Richtar Jakub, Alžbetka serves its own beers and the menu is extensive (helpfully in English too) with a focus on traditional Slovak foods. Traditional Hungarian soup can be sourced here too.
During the Ice Hockey World Championship that had taken place in the city a week or so before the pub restaurant had been packed to the rafters, by Swedish and Finnish hockey fans amongst others (Finland were crowned eventual champions). With multiple TV screens and a great range of beer brewed on the premises it was a perfect venue for a Friday or Saturday night out. While it was quiet when turned up, it can get booked out and so making a reservation would make sense.
Note: The Tourist Information Centre in Bratislava can be found in the Old town at Klobucnicka 2 (Tel: +421 216 186) / W: firstname.lastname@example.org). A 1-hour walking tour starts every day at the centre with guides in Slovak, English or German (T: +421 2 5443 4059 / W: email@example.com). A 2-hour tour is also available. The Bratislava City Card provides free travel on public transport and 110 discounts of up to 50%.