Sitting on both sides of the Danube in the southwest corner of Slovakia, BRATISLAVA is a festive city, with meandering streets and tiny but grand buildings. With its rural atmosphere, on a hot afternoon a flock of sheep wouldn’t look out of place grazing on Františkánske Square. The Old Town showcases the skill of Slovak town planners, who crammed a city’s worth of palaces, shops, cafés, pubs, restaurants, museums and churches into a few blocks.
The area has been settled since the Neolithic era (about 500 BC), making it centuries older than Prague or Budapest. It has always been an international city – Romans, Hungarians, Germans, Austrians, Turks, Czechs, Jews and Roma have all left their mark. The locals are less weary and cynical than the natives of most capitals, characterized by a friendly reserve.
Old Town (Staré Mesto) lies on the north bank of the Danube, 1km south of the train station, east of the stout castleand southwest of the shops and housing blocks of New Town (Nové Mesto). A pedestrian zone stretches between Hodžovo námestie in the north down to the river in the south. South of the city is Hungary and west is Austria. Bratislava is the only capital city that borders two independent countries.
Top image © TTstudio/Shutterstock
You can book centrally located private rooms through the tourist office.
Cycling and rollerblading along the Danube, towards Austria (upstream) or Hungary (downstream), are popular activities. The Small Carpathian mountains surrounding Bratislava are beautiful and make for a good day’s cycling or walking; see bratislavasightseeing.com or call 09 0768 3112 for suggested routes and guided tours.
Action Park offers a number of activities including zorbing, kiting, bungee trampoline and a shooting gallery (actionpark.sk).
A short walk east from the Old Town is the Church of St Elizabeth (Kostol svätej Alžbety) or Blue Church (Modrý kostolík), which rises out of the suburbs like an Art Nouveau wedding cake. Built in the early twentieth century, the church is in the Hungarian Secessionist style, playfully combined with oriental, Romanesque and classical features. It’s consecrated to a medieval princess and saint, a native of Bratislava, who risked her rank by giving alms to the poor; she stars in some mosaics inside.
Every year hundreds of tonnes of sand are dropped on the banks of the Danube to give locals a taste of the beach. Tyršovo nábrežie, on the south bank facing the Old Town, is friendly, hot and crowded. Entry, hammocks, deckchairs, parasols and sports equipment are free, and there are cocktail bars, live music, table football, volleyball and snack bars.
Bratislava’s castle (hrad) sits on a strategic hill between the Alps and Carpathians, first fortified in 3500 BC. On a clear day you can see Slovakia, Austria and Hungary. The current building, a boxy four-towered rectangle, is a 1950s reconstruction of Emperor Sigismund’s fifteenth-century castle, which burnt down in 1811. The castle houses two museums: the Slovak Historical Museum (Historické Múzeum), which displays historical artefacts and antiques, and the Music Museum (Hudobné múzeum), with local folk instruments, scores and recordings (snm.sk). Winding down the castle hill is what’s left of the former Jewish quarter (Židovská), which contains the Museum of Clocks on Židovská 1 (muzeum.bratislava.sk).
On the edge of Old Town is the fine Gothic Cathedral of St Martin. This was the coronation church for the kings and queens of Hungary between 1563 and 1830, and houses the remains of the seventh-century saint Joan the Merciful.
From Bratislava it takes 1hr 30min to get to Vienna by hydrofoil. Add that to higher prices in Austria and there’s an argument for making Vienna a day-trip rather than an overnight affair. You can catch the hydrofoil from Rázusovo Nábriežie Embankment (twincityliner.com). For a less scenic, cheaper trip you can get a bus (slovaklines.sk).
The weekly Slovak Spectator, available from kiosks and hotels, has news and listings. There are open-air classical music concerts in summer in courtyards and squares across the city, such as outside the Jesuit church by Michalská. Ask at the tourist office for details, or check bkis.sk.
Bratislava hosts a raft of excellent festivals, especially for music-lovers. Here are a few of the best:
Cultural Summer bkis.sk. Performance festival from June to September which floods Bratislava with theatre, opera, visual arts and dance.
Coronation Celebration bratislava-info.sk. Once a year (check website for current date and king) history-lovers don their codpieces and stockings to celebrate the coronation of a certain ruler.
Jazz Days bjd.sk. Brief but exuberant jazz festival which has been held every year since 1975. Typically held in October.
Bratislava Music Festival bhsfestival.sk. Classical music heavyweight organized by the Slovak Philharmonic every September and October, holding about 25 chamber and symphonic concerts each year.
Road bridge Nový most (formerly Most SNP; New Bridge), nicknamed UFO because at one end there’s a building that looks like a flying saucer speared by a twig, represents a whimsical moment in Slovak communist functionalism. You can ascend the tower by elevator and dine at the restaurant, which looks like the Starship Enterprise, or gaze at Bratislava from the viewing deck – locals say it’s the best view of the city, because it doesn’t contain Nový most.
You can enter the Old Town via the only surviving medieval gateway, Michalská brána a veža (St Michael’s Gate and Tower), which contains a military museum and a tower with a view. Michalská and Ventúrska, two halves of one street, are lined with stately Baroque palaces, the university library and dozens of places to eat. At number 10 is Mozart House, where the six-year-old Mozart performed for the Palffy clan, and at Michalská 1 is the former Hungarian parliament.
A little northeast are the adjoining squares of the Old Town – Hlavné námestie and Františkánske námestie. Hlavné, dotted with street cafés, hosts the Christmas and Easter markets, and a few stalls most weeks. On Františkánske, you’ll find the Rococo Mirbach Palace, home of the City Gallery’s Baroque collection.
Neoclassical Primate’s Palace contains the Hall of Mirrors, where Napoleon and Austrian Emperor Franz I signed the Peace of Pressburg (as Bratislava was then called) in 1805. In 1903 city authorities restored the palace, and discovered six seventeenth-century English tapestries concealed behind the plaster, which are now the palace’s other main attraction.
Michalská and Ventúrska streets in the Old Town are good for souvenir shopping, particularly ceramics and wooden items. A little outside of town are a couple of outdoor markets selling local produce, from fruit and vegetables to cheese and pickled goods. There's one about a fifteen-minute walk north of the city centre on Žilinská and a second on Miletičova, which you can get to by tram. They're best and busiest on Saturday mornings.
There are two entrances to the Slovak National Gallery (sng.sk): the entrance on the embankment leads to the main building, a converted barracks housing the main collection, while the entrance on Štúrovo námestie leads to the Esterházy Palace wing, used for temporary exhibitions, mostly modern.