“Little Big City” proclaims the sign on the side of Bratislava’s trams. It’s certainly right about the first, Slovakia’s capital is dinky compared with its neighbours on the Danube – Vienna, the grand old dame of European capitals, ninety minutes to the west by boat, and exuberant Budapest, three hours to the southeast by train.
But as one of Europe’s newer capitals, right at the heart of the continent, Bratislava has a cosmopolitan charm, albeit in a low-key way. While it’s perfectly possible to devote a weekend to people-watching from one of the pavement cafés, supping on an exotically flavoured fresh lemonade that’s all the rage here – lavender, perhaps? – or a glass of local white, there’s more to discover. Here are a couple of very gentle itineraries to inspire your wanderings.
Bounded by a few fragments of old wall, and focused on a couple of attractive squares, the pedestrianized Old Town can be covered in half a day.
Start at Hviezdoslavovo námestie, the long tree-shaded square with the magnificent silver-roofed Slovak National Theatre at one end and cooling fountains dotted along, before turning up to Panská, a fine boulevard of old palaces and new cafés. Pause at Koun at no.13, the city’s best purveyor of ice cream, who offer just a few homemade flavours which change each day – sublime fig and ricotta, addictive salted caramel – making a return visit almost obligatory.
Around the main square (Hlavné námestie) the architectural highlights are the prettily mismatched styles of the Town Hall and, just beyond, the Primate’s Palace.
From here head up to the last remaining city gate, St Michael’s, and clamber up the spiral stairs past the museum of armour for a view over the city – perhaps not the most dramatic vista but the immediacy of the Old Town, looking over the red roofs and across to the blue spire of the cathedral of St Martin, helps you get your bearings.
Cut off from the Old Town by the New Bridge’s approach road – a particularly insensitive piece of communist planning that bulldozed the old synagogue (there’s a memorial to it just south of the cathedral) – Bratislava’s castle stands majestically above the Old Town.
Walk round to the north side of the cathedral and up some steps through a small section of the old ramparts and you can cross a pedestrian bridge over to the castle side. Follow the steps and path up to reach the sturdy, four-towered white castle, largely rebuilt in the 1950s.
From here you can see three countries: over the Old Town in one direction, Slovakian power stacks looming in the distance with Hungary somewhere beyond, and to Austrian wind turbines in the other direction, the wide Danube wending its way in front of you, with swathes of green lining the riverbanks right into the city.
On your way back down, if you’re ready for a coffee break, make a left just before the bridge and, just by the trams at Skalná 1, you’ll find Kava.Bar – part-hipster hangout, part Viennese coffee house, complete with lengthy coffee menu, quirky decor and vintage cups and saucers.
One of the most intriguing buildings in the city, Bratislava’s “Blue church” was designed by the founder of the Hungarian Secession, Ödön Lechner, in 1911, whose style combined the organic forms of Art Nouveau with what he saw as Hungarian flourishes – influenced by folk art and Eastern decoration.
Dedicated to St Elizabeth of Hungary, with St Therese “Little Flower” also honoured – a double whammy of floral iconography – the result is a chocolate box of pastels and flower motifs. The flamboyant custard-coloured school next door dates from the same period.
On your way back into the centre duck down Štúrova, a street of fabulously decorative Art Nouveau façades, some pristine, like the Tulip House hotel, others whose grandeur is of the faded variety – though the street is slowly being restored.
Time for lunch? A couple of blocks east from the Blue Church on Grösslingova U Kubistu is a stylish, friendly café, serving zinging fresh lemonades, great coffees and a veggie-friendly menu, including their famous homemade chickpea bread.
The road through the Old Town might be brutal, but the communist contributions to the city are not all so crass. Not least the UFO, which rises at the southern end of Novy Most (New Bridge), a futuristic statement tower and proudly the littlest member of the World Federation of Great Towers.
For €6.50 you can speed up the juddering elevator to the open-air viewing platform perched precariously at the top, before descending into the actual “UFO” disc for an aperitif in the bar – at €3–4 for a glass of wine it’s pricy by Bratislava’s standards, but it helps sooth the nerves from the disconcerting rumbles as traffic roars beneath.
Visible from here are the housing projects from the 1970s and 80s: vast communist-style designs for living – the biggest, Petržalka, houses over 100,000 people, nearly a quarter of the city’s population.
With large parts of the neighbourhood renovated and painted in candy tones, the effect is not quite so austere as you might imagine. A guided tour by Authentic Slovakia in a clapped-out Cold War Skoda – “the crappiest vehicle in Slovakia” – is one idiosyncratic way to see some of Bratislava’s twentieth-century landmarks.
The tour includes a visit to the site of one of the chain of bunkers on the border with Austria, built to defend Czechoslovakia from the Nazis, now nestled in undergrowth along a bucolic lane mere minutes’ drive from the centre of town.
With the national dish, Bryndzové halušky, a large plate of gnocchi-like potato dumplings smothered in sheep’s cheese, the dairy richness cut through with a sprinkling of fried bacon fat, you might not be expecting a city of culinary inventiveness. But Bratislava is packed with hip cafés, good restaurants and wine bars.
Perhaps not surprisingly for a small capital of a largely rural country, local produce is much in evidence.
To sample some visit the delightful Saturday morning market in the nineteenth-century market hall Stará tržnica on Námestie SNP. It still feels like an impromptu gathering of producers, with fruit and veg stalls, local cheeses, and wines from the vineyards of the Small Carpathians, which start on the hillsides just beyond the city – not to mention bakers selling divine, pitch-black poppyseed strudel.
Slovakia is more known for wine than beer, but the city boasts a few good microbreweries, producing unpasteurized, unfiltered brews.
The relaxed beer garden of Starosloviensky Pivovar, Vysoká 15, just northeast the centre, feels like little more a friend’s backyard. Under the old German name for the city, Pressburg, they produce a fine selection of beers – around nine at any time – just the thing to wash down some Slovak sheep’s cheese.