Bratislava honestly blew all expectations out of the water! Our two-night stay was well and truly an impulsive, gun-hoe travel plan to kill time and hit another country on our road to get to Vienna. There’s not masses of information on this tiny capital but we decided it couldn’t hurt to while away some time here and we were sure we’d be able to find something to do! After being well and truly put off by a guide in Budapest whose account of the place was less than flattering, to say the least, we were incredibly sceptical about what our two-night stay may have in store for us! So here I am writing to set the record straight and encourage anyone who’s travelling around Eastern Europe to give this charming little capital a chance because…..We LOVED it!!
A Bit of Background…..
Bratislava is the capital city of Slovakia, a country which sits between Hungary, Poland, Austria, Czech Republic and the Ukraine. It is part of the Schengen agreement allowing free movement between countries of Europe, so makes it an excellent place to stop off if considering interrailing. Slovakia and the Czech Republic used to be one united country (Czechoslovakia) until their split in 1993 (which I was previously unaware was due to two men from the different sides wanting to lead the country resulting in an almost overnight split of the country so they could both lead – this was not a popular decision with many Czechs and Slovaks who wished to remain united). It is in the European Union and uses the Euro as their currency, though despite this, it’s still an incredibly cheap place to visit!
Bratislava is a place with a plethora of interesting history, it was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a time and its little cathedral has seen many coronations of Kings and Queens. It has a hefty music scene ranging from earthy jazz and blues to some of Europe’s best opera singers. It both suffered and thrived under the Communist regime and the appearance of the city itself is almost like an artist’s impression of this…..On one side of the city lies the concrete jungle; regimented, ominous concrete skyrises tower over everything almost a metaphor for the communist regime’s harsh overbearingness. On the other side a colour explosion of stark white, oranges and blues with beautiful architecture, cobbled streets and a feel that Hans Christian Anderson himself described as almost fairy-tale like. It definitely has to be seen to be appreciated!
Where to stay…
We could not recommend the Hostel Blues enough! We had a private ensuite room for the five of us which was cosy and clean. The location was ideal, just a short 15-minute walk from the train station and a 10-minute walk into the old town (where all the magic happens). The staff went out of their way to help us; they were incredibly friendly and gave us a really useful map with all the main attractions marked on, where to meet for the free walking tour and most importantly where to sample the best food and drink in Bratislava! There was free wifi, 24-hour reception and an abundance of hostel-led activities to join in with. We paid around £15 per night and booked through Hostel World.
How long to make your trip…..
We had a two-night stay but were only able to enjoy the city for one full day. This was regrettably a little too short. I think if we’d have had another 24 hours, we’d have got to see those few other things we missed out on. Learn from our mistake and give this beautiful little place the time it deserves!
I can honestly say I have rarely come across nicer, more genuinely friendly people! The Hungarians, by comparison, are much brusquer and I was expecting similar in Bratislava. However, my expectations were proven completely false and all the Slovaks we came across would jump through hoops to help you and seemed to be genuinely invested into ensuring you enjoyed your stay.
What to Do…..
First Thing is first ……Absolutely 100% go on one of the free walking tours! We used Befree tours (link at the bottom of this article) who were recommended to us by the hostel and they were fab! The tour was a great mix of culture, historical events, fun facts and what was really nice was the personal stories told by our guide about her childhood and family history. I feel I effortlessly absorbed so much information about the country just from being on this tour and in my opinion, it truly is the best way to get your bearings and appreciate a city.
A few for the budding photographer’s bucket list (all places featured in the tour):
- St Martin’s Cathedral – This beautiful old building, whose foundations are currently being threatened by the vibrations of traffic along the suspension bridge, has seen many coronations (including Queen Maria Theresa) during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Atop its spire sits a golden crown the size of a small car!
- Bratislava Castle – A beautiful building which was only completely restored after a devastating fire in 2011. You pay a fleeting visit on the walking tour but can return later and take a tour.
- Bratislava Opera House – this is a beautiful building for anyone who appreciates good architecture.
- The concrete jungle – from the hill you can see the vast expanse of the Danube and across the water, the reminder of the communist regime, the concrete high-rises, christened the concrete jungle. From here with a decent camera, you can get some spectacular shots.
- The Bronze Statues – in and around the old town are some fun statues to seek out and have selfies with. You cross paths with a few on the tour including Napoleon and Hans Christian Anderson (if you touch his hand it’s meant to bring you luck). There’s also the man at work who looks like he’s climbing out of a man-hole, SCHONE NACI (AKA the top hat guy) and many others all over the city. See How many you can find!
- The Cannonballs – the more observant of you may notice many of the buildings have painted black circles on them. These represent the cannon balls which the savvy people of Bratislava collected from the river bank during the Napoleonic wars and embedded into their homes after it was decreed by their ruler that any home touched by a cannon ball would no longer pay tax.
- The UFO – now a sky-top restaurant and viewpoint which sits crowning the suspension bridge. A controversial but interesting piece of modern architecture, definitely worth a photo!
- The memorial to the Jewish sector and synagogue which sadly survived the Nazi occupation but was levelled in the name of practicality in the Communist regime to build the controversial suspension bridge and UFO tower.
- The Slovakian Parliament – just across the way from the castle sits the hub of modern Slovakian ruling operations.
- The site of the Velvet Revolution – The passive, student-led protest which ended the communist regime in Slovakia. Now a beautiful statue marks this spot and is a great place for the history buffs.
Other things to put on your hit list….
The Blue church; a beautiful, unique little building which is definitely worth having a quick look around and makes for a fantastic photo to commemorate your trip.
If you fancy a walk, we had the Slavin memorial monument recommended to us several times. This is to commemorate the Soviet soldiers who died liberating the Slovaks in world war II. Unfortunately, timings didn’t work out for us to go and see for ourselves but it’s meant to be beautiful up there on a nice day and makes for a fantastic viewpoint.
Devin Castle is a must do in my book! A short 20-minute bus ride takes you to the base of the hill where there’s a small tourist market selling trinkets and a few little eateries. It’s quite a steady trek up the hill to the castle and when at the top you are rewarded by the spectacular views! The castle is a traditional stone fortress style build with snippets of information as you walk between the turrets which give fantastic panoramic views of the Danube, the forest and the city depending which way you look. Allow about half a day for this trip to fully soak in the fantastic scenery and buy a souvenir bottle of Slovakian currant wine at the bottom to reward yourself after the walk.
For the Foodies…..
Bratislava has AMAZING food!! They have a few signature dishes which between us all we tried every one of them and can heartily recommend! So here is you foodie check-list for Bratislava:
- Cream of garlic soup (Cesnaková Polievka) – Everyone will smell you coming from miles away but if you’re a garlic lover it is so WORTH IT! If this tasty hunk of awesomeness wasn’t enough already….it comes in a bowl made of hollowed out bread…..Absolute heaven!
- Traditional Slovakian sauerkraut soup – Maybe for a more adventurous pallet but was highly rated by Beth (one of my travelling companions) as epically tasty!
- Bryndzove halushky – a hearty dish of potato dumplings smothered in sheep cheese and lashings of bacon lardons (or not for the veggies). A traditional Slovakian dish which should not be overlooked by any food-lover.
- Bryndza Pierogi – The Pierogi itself is more of a Polish dish with the exception of these beauties – This is a beautiful dumpling filled with potato onion, sheep cheese and served with sour cream and they are delicious!
Parene buchty – A dumpling covered in cocoa with a sweet filling. We tried the blueberry ones which were fantastic but beware… After a big meal, they will well and truly finish you off! Sasha was the only one in our group who came out victorious and was up to the challenge of clearing her plate!
Unbeknown to many, Bratislava is, in fact, a wine region and their speciality is wine made with currants. They utilise blackcurrants, red currants and white currants to produce a spectrum of wines to suit everyone’s pallet. I would encourage any wine lovers to give these a try!
Another drink you may want to sample is Kofola, this was described to us as communist cola and is apparently quite a marmite style drink. I personally thought it tasted like a cross between watered down cola and dandelion and burdock. I can’t say I’ll be jumping at the chance to drink it again but I think everyone should buy a glass in memory of the communist regime, regardless of your thoughts on it and give it a try!
So where do you go to try these delectable delicacies? Well… The two tried and tested eateries we’d recommend are the Flag Ship Bratislava and the 1st Slovak Pub. Both of these places are cheap and cheerful, have a great atmosphere and you can sample all the traditional Slovakian food and drink….What more could you ask for?!
If you are feeling slightly more sophisticated, check out Bratislava’s café culture. Described by the New York Times to rival that of Paris, New York and London’s super chic Café Scene it’s definitely something to check out if you’re a lover of coffee and cake (and for a fraction of the price that you’d pay in most capitals).
Still feeling peckish? Well, one more must-eat on my list is the ice cream at Koun. It is quite possibly some of the best ice cream I have ever tasted and comes in an array of creative flavours that will leave your taste buds tantalised! A nifty tip which we five little gluttons discovered; you can pay for two scoops of ice cream but the lovely people at Koun will let you have half scoops in order to sample more flavours!!
So that’s it, folks….. I hope I’ve thoroughly convinced any sceptics out there that Bratislava is worth putting on any travellers hit-list and in the process given you a bit of a starting point for planning your European adventures! If you’ve been to Bratislava or are planning a trip I’d love to hear your thoughts so drop me a line on one of my various social media pages, I love a good chat!
A few useful links….
https://www.visitbratislava.com – A helpful starting point for some general information and to find out about some of the major tourist attractions
http://www.hostelblues.sk/index.php – Hostel Blues official website
http://www.befreetours.com/ – The Free walking tour company we used, they also do bar crawls and other special interest tours, check them out!
http://www.slovakpub.sk/en/ – Website for the first Slovak Pub
http://www.bratislavskarestauracia.sk/en/ – Website for the Flagship Restaurant
http://www.koun.sk/home/ – Website for the best ice cream in Bratislava (in my personal opinion)