Although Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, the metropolis on the Danube is often overlooked as a city break destination alongside Vienna and Budapest. With just under 450,000 inhabitants, it is not only the largest city in the country, but is also located in the border triangle with Austria and Hungary. Bratislava shines with its charming old town, the floodplain landscapes along the Danube and the forests of the Little Carpathians that reach almost into the city area. Above the city centre, Bratislava Castle, visible from afar, is waiting to be conquered, and a drink in the UFO on the waterfront beckons.
Bratislava - what do you want there? That's how many friends reacted when I told them about my travel plans to the capital of Slovakia. Admittedly, Bratislava doesn't sound like a typical European destination to many at first. No wonder, because they had little idea how charming the old town, how magnificent the buildings and how picturesque the small streets of Bratislava are. Bratislava exudes eastern charm with stylish cafés, hearty Slovak food and warm people.
Many people may still know the city by the name Pressburg. It is rare for a city to have so many different names in different languages. Originally, the city was a German settlement called Pressburg. The Romans later called it Posonium, which became Poszony in Hungarian. Finally, the Slovaks named it "Bratislava" after the Moravian Duke Wratislav.
Enough history! Start your perfect day in Bratislava on Castle Hill. Even from a distance you can recognise the white castle, which towers 85 metres above the old town. For centuries, the castle was inhabited by Hungarian and Austrian rulers until it almost completely burned down in the 19th century. It was not until 1968 that the walls were rebuilt and renovated. Today the castle shines in fresh splendour and is the landmark of the Slovak capital. The castle can be visited for an entrance fee of just over 10 euros. Many different exhibitions invite you to spend a few hours in the castle. The castle grounds are also a good vantage point to get an overview of the city of 450,000 inhabitants; from the castle garden you have the perfect view of the centre of Bratislava. The pretty cityscape is dominated by red roofs, numerous small churches and the 85-metre-high St. Martin's Cathedral. The often sung about Danube is also at your feet from up here, where numerous river cruise ships also stop.
A narrow path leads down to the historic, beautifully restored old town and the city's largest church. Located on the western edge, the impressive St. Martin's Cathedral, built in the 14th and 15th centuries, cannot be missed. The Gothic cathedral with several chapels attracts tens of visitors to Bratislava every day. The highlight of the three-nave church is the 150 kg copy of the Hungarian royal crown that adorns the 85-metre-high spire. In addition, the 2.5 tonne bell, which was cast in 1675, is one of the most valuable bells in the whole of Europe.
Let yourself drift through the pretty, winding alleys, which are mostly car-free. Almost automatically, you will pass the almost square-shaped main square. Here you will find the Old Town Hall, which houses an exhibition on the history of the city, and the famous Maximilian Fountain, the oldest fountain in the Slovak capital. The Main Square used to be the central marketplace where meetings were held and famous personalities were greeted. Fun fact: There are several famous bronze figures scattered around the old town, making the stroll through the city even more entertaining. On the corner of the market square, Náci greets you in a friendly way with his hat. The most famous sculpture, however, is probably Čumil, the gaffer, who looks up women's skirts from a sewer cover. So be sure to look down at the ground when you're walking in the alleyways so you don't trip over it. There's also the paparazzo, who hunts down passers-by with his camera. Have fun with the scavenger hunt!
Close to the main square is the neoclassical Primatial Palace, now the seat of Bratislava's mayor and city council, with a striking pink façade. Inside you can see a spectacular mirror house, a fountain and a valuable collection of English tapestries from the 17th century.
In the north of the city, Michael's Gate is waiting to be put in perspective with the camera. It is the only one of the four gates of the medieval city fortifications still standing. The 51-metre-high tower above it is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Between 1753 and 1758 it was rebuilt in the Baroque style; at that time the statue of the Archangel Michael was also placed on the top of the tower. Today, the tower houses the arms exhibition of the Municipal Museum and the gate itself has a bronze ring showing the distance to important European cities.
Just behind St Michael's Gate and a stone's throw away is the residence of the President of the Slovak Republic. The Grassalkovich Palace was built in 1760 for the chairman of the Hungarian royal chamber. Behind the palace is the beautifully landscaped Grassalkovich Garden, a green park that attracts many visitors and locals alike, especially in summer.
After so many impressions, your stomach will surely start to churn. In addition to restaurants, there is also an impressive selection of cafés. In the "Cakeshop Zeppelin", the cake creations range from classic to unusual - there is something for every sweet tooth. At "Kaffee Mayer" you feel transported back to the time of Empress Elisabeth as soon as you enter. The interior resembles a classic Viennese coffee house and the selection of pastries is also large. In terms of taste, the Sacher cake is in no way inferior to the original from Vienna. No wonder: Vienna and Bratislava are only 55 km apart as the crow flies, making them the two closest capitals to each other in Europe. This was also appreciated by composers. Joseph Haydn regularly conducted here and even Mozart gave concerts here as a six-year-old boy.
After refreshments, we continue our tour of discovery: a little away from the old town, in the middle of a quiet residential area, stands the extraordinary St. Elisabeth Church, also known as the Blue Church because of its colour. Today, it shines brightly against the sky and reminds us a little of Alice in Wonderland.
For those who like to shop, in addition to the many small shops in the old town, the three shopping centres close to the centre, Eurovea, Aupark and Central, offer fashion, accessories, jewellery, electronics, home articles, books and also furniture. Eurovea, located on the banks of the Danube, is both the new commercial centre and the social hotspot of the capital. If you want to bring something back from Bratislava, you will find a wide selection of classic souvenirs such as printed coffee cups, culinary delights like delicious mince or even handmade soaps.
If you want to have a great view over the city after visiting the castle, you should definitely take a ride up the famous UFO Tower. It stands directly on the waterfront not far from the old town and can be seen from afar. A nice location to treat yourself to an aperitif. For dinner, return to the Old Town to try Slovakian cuisine. Why not order the national dish "Bryndzové halušky", a kind of gnocchi made of raw potatoes and flour, mixed with feta cheese and finally sprinkled with fried bacon and served. Also popular: traditional soups such as the sauerkraut soup Kapustnica as well as the garlic soup Cesnaková polievka, which taste particularly good at the Bratislavsky Mestiansky Pivovar inn. Enjoy your meal!
One last tip: on the official Bratislava website, travellers have the opportunity to put together a personal sightseeing plan. Once the plan is in place, the Bratislava Card is an ideal addition to a visit to the city on the Danube. Among other things, the card offers admission to 18 museums and galleries as well as free use of local transport.
How to get there:
By train via Vienna, by car or on a river cruise.
How long to plane:
1 weekend, can be combined well with Vienna and even Budapest.
Best time to travel:
All year round
How to get around:
Castle, old town, Ufo, blue church.
Apéro tip with a view: