Marketed by the tourist board as “Little Big City”, Slovakia’s capital has a pretty old town with just enough sights to keep you busy for 48-hours, more bars and cafés than is healthy and is dirt cheap. It seems to have been designed for weekend city-breakers – it’s time you joined the Brat Pack.
Well-served by budget airlines and a two and a half hour flight from the UK, it’s easy and cheap to get to beautiful Bratislava. And in a city where beer is cheaper than coffee, you won’t need much spending money.
So what would your ideal two-day itinerary look like?
Despite being a capital city with a population of around 425,000, central Bratislava is tiny – especially the parts tourists would be interested in. The pedestrianised Old Town consists of a handful of narrow streets with pretty pastel-coloured buildings, radiating from a cute square (Hlavné namestie), with its clocktower and a random statue of one of Napoleon’s soldiers leaning on a bench. Bratislava is up there with Dublin for its statues – another to look out for is one of a workman in a miners helmet poking out of a manhole.
This area is packed with cafés and bars, as well as the usual souvenir shops – if you stop off at a few, you can easily spend a lazy half-day here. To get another perspective of the Old Town, climb the tower of the onion domed St. Michael’s Gate, pictured above, which was once the entrance to the city.
Like many central and eastern European cities, Bratislava is dominated by a castle on a hill. This one is a huge rectangle with four towers, looking a bit like an upturned bedstead. It’s free to walk around its grounds for the best city and river view in town.
The highlight of Bratislava for me is the Soviet-era suspension bridge across the River Danube connecting the old town with Petržalka – a grim looking residential suburb of high rise tower blocks. If my hero Irvine Welsh was a Slovak, this is where he’d set his stories. Built in the early 1970s, it features a flying saucer-shaped bar, restaurant and observation deck on the bridge’s reclined single support column.
Once you’ve crossed the bridge using the pedestrian walkway below the busy road, entrance is €6.50 (waived for diners) and an elevator will whisk you 85m to the open-air observation deck. I’ve been to loads of these lookouts across Europe, and this one is definitely in my top three for views. We had a clear day, and enjoyed views of the Castle and Old Town. Signs pointed towards the Austrian border, only 3km to the west, and the Hungarian border, only 16km to the south.
We popped inside the UFO’s bar to warm-up, and took a window seat facing the castle (you just can’t get away from it). Before leaving, a visit to the gents toilets is essential for superb views from the urinals.
Slavín War Memorial
This monument and military cemetery high on a hill commemorates the 6,845 Soviet soldiers who died liberating Slovakia from the nazis in WWII. It’s a tough, uphill half-hour walk from the Old Town to get here, but is worth it for a poignant history lesson and a chance to see some communist art. The city views are pretty awesome on the way back down, too.
Bars and cafés
For such a small place, Bratislava punches way above its weight for pubs, wine-bars and cafés. I’d always thought beer was king in Slovakia, and fell in love with their Zlaty Bazant beer on a previous visit, but had more wine than beer this time. Who knew Slovakian red was so good? And at €0.80 for a 0.1l glass, it was cheaper than coffee.
Cake-lovers will not go hungry in this town. Kaffee Mayer (Hlavné námestie 4) was so good, we visited three times in one day for its amazingly thick hot chocolate and range of posh cakes. I’d read about Štúr (Štúrova 8) in a New York Times article, and knew I’d like it too with its laid-back vibe, comfy sofas, big windows and caramel cheesecakes. We even stumbled on a cat café, Mačkafé (Zámocká 24) near the castle, where my beer was cheaper than Kat’s cappuccino.
We loved the cosy La Putika (Panská 237/12) with its candles on tables, a bar specialising in bottled Belgian beers at half the prices of UK off licences – although it took us a while to get used to people legally smoking inside. And we were surprised not only to be allowed in Bratislava’s most pretentious bar, Sky Bar (Hviezdoslavovo námestie 7) but also to have it almost to ourselves. I can’t think of many other European capitals where the best seats in the most exclusive roof-top bar would be free on a Saturday afternoon.
On our last night, we took a mini crawl along Obchodná, the busy street just outside the pedestrianised centre with two big and popular pubs – Slovak Pub (Obchodná 613/62), with rooms themed on Slovakian culture, and KGB (Obchodná 52), with Lenin and Stalin memorabilia.
Some say it can get over-run with stag dos, but I’ve been there before on a stag do and didn’t think it was too rowdy. If you’re wary about things like that, go midweek or out of season.
Stay longer than two days and you might get bored, but Vienna and Brno are easy day-trips if you need them. Ljubljana, Vilnius and Tallinn may have something to say about this, but for a chilled-out break in a charming European capital without the crowds of Prague or Budapest, it’s got to be Bratislava.