Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, is rarely on the itinerary of the visitors traveling through Europe. Comparing to its famous neighbor - Prague, Bratislava is virtually non-existent in the eyes of a typical western tourist.
But because we love to go against the grain and discover the places which are less popular, during the long weekend in Prague, we jumped on the night bus and decided to spend a day in the capital of Slovakia. What did Bratislava turn out to be like? Was it worth visiting? Is it a good alternative to overrun by tourists, often overrated and expensive famous capitals?
How to get to Bratislava
Getting to Bratislava is extremely easy. You can take a flight from many major European cities or a bus from the nearby towns, like Prague or Budapest, however, I think the easiest way to get there is to travel from Vienna. Bratislava is located only around 70 km (45 miles) from the famous Austrian capital and it takes only around 1 hour to drive between those two cities.
There are no border controls as both countries are in the Schengen zone. So, I believe, if you're in Vienna and you're bored by its "perfectness", hop on the bus to Slovakia and see Bratislava which is a gateway to a slightly different world of Eastern Europe with its all aspects.
We arrived in Bratislava by bus from Prague, the journey was a bit long but easily doable. It took around 5 hours but anyway we wanted to see the both major cities of the former Czechoslovakia.
Is Bratislava worth visiting? Is it a good alternative to Prague?
We arrived in Bratislava at night and at first, the area around the main bus station was pretty much run down and dodgy. But what I love about Eastern Europe is the fact that the seemingly rough places are way safer than similar looking spots in the west. Nevertheless, during the short walk to the hostel, there was nothing much that could enchant us or at least seem beautiful in Bratislava, especially that we'd just come from the perfectly maintained Prague. These were our first impressions of the Slovakian capital.
The next day, however, was to change our opinion about the city. It turned out to be well worth a visit - the closer you get to the Old Town area, the better it gets.The historic center is not as beautifully kept as the pristine streets of Prague but it's cozy and nice. And it does feel more authentic - while Prague reminds of a Disney fairy tale film, Bratislava comes across more as a normal, authentic city where it's actually quite easy to believe that local people (not only tourists) do live and hang out in the old town.
I think you should keep one thing in mind before visiting Bratislava - don't expect it to be a second Prague, Vienna or Paris. Bratislava is a lot smaller and if you visit it as you would visit a small town - you'll like it. Although there are no extremely spectacular things in Bratislava that you wouldn't see anywhere else in the world (but you can still spot many surprising little gems) - it does have its charm. If you've ever been to the cities such as Krakow, Ljubljana, Riga, Vilnius or Tallinn - you most likely will also enjoy Bratislava. And, if you're in Vienna, go to Bratislava just to see the difference and experience the Eastern Part of Europe, too!
What we saw in Bratislava
First impressions and modern Bratislava
Bratislava is a small city so if you don't mind walking, it's easy to visit it on foot. Two days, in my opinion is more than enough. First impressions, as I've mentioned above, were not too great. The area about the bus station, like in many cities, was a bit neglected and run down. The new part of the city consisted of a mix of modern and Communist Era buildings but there were a few interesting spots you can see before entering the gates of the old town:
St. Elizabeth Church - the Little Blue Church
The Blue Church of St. Elizabeth is located in the city center but outside the old town walls. The church has a unique shape and is beautifully decorated. It's also blue all over inside. The Little Blue Church, as it's called by the locals, is a nice sight to start your walk around the city. On the opposite side of the road, you can see the typical contrast of the former Communist countries - some destroyed, Soviet-like buildings left alone to disintegrate. Note the interesting reliefs on the walls - typical of that time.
UFO observation desk
The UFO observation desk is a peculiar attraction attached to the bridge over the river Danube connecting the old town and the residential districts filled with concrete blocks.
This weird construction has nothing to do with UFO, however, with the exception of its strange shape. From the inside, you can see quite a nice panorama of the entire old town and the castle, but I think I prefer the view from the tower of the Old Town Hall.
The entry fee, in my opinion, is way to high - 7 EUR (8 USD) for 10 minutes of taking some photos is a rip off. Nevertheless, if you wish to see Bratislava from the highest point, that's the place to go.
Slavin War Memorial
Slavin War Memorial is located in the northern part of Bratislava. To get there, you need to walk uphill quite a lot so if you don't have too much time, I would skip it as it is nothing too special unless you're deeply interested in the WW2 history.
The memorial is dedicated to the Soviet soldiers that died during the fights with the Nazis during the second world war.
On the way there, you can see another viewpoint of Bratislava - this time the modern part and some interesting houses with the architecture typical of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which I really liked.
Slovak Radio - The Inverted pyramid
Yet another crazy example of the Communist Era architecture, the inverted pyramid building which is the seat of the Slovak Radio is situated in the modern center of Bratislava, a bit to the north of the old town.
This peculiar construction was voted as one of the 30 ugliest buildings in the world but in my opinion, the typical Soviet/Communist, heavy, brutal architecture is original, different and should be treated as a legacy of the bygone times that will never return, whether they were good or bad.
In the future, it will be probably a cool and outlandish tourist destination rather than an object of mockery in the western world. At least it makes the Eastern Cities less "boringly perfect".
The Old Town
Although at first, I wasn't too convinced about whether I liked Bratislava or not, with every corner the city turned out to be more and more interesting. Especially, after entering the beautiful old town through the Michael's Gate - the city's oldest building and the only remaining medieval gate in Bratislava from the beginning of the 14th century.
It's of course not as spectacular as Prague, but what I like about it is the authenticity and the true atmosphere of an old, medieval town. Some of the buildings remind of the grand European architecture (Grassalkovich Palace, the National Theater and Primate's Palace) - others, in turn, are crumbling which actually is not a bad thing and adds more charm to the overall character of the city.
There are a few beautiful churches in the old town, and because the historical center is so small, if you just walk around, it's really difficult to miss them:
Trinity Church (18th century) - Zupne Namestie square
Clarissine Church (14th century) - Beautiful church made of stone
St. Martin's Cathedral (15th century) - largest church in Bratislava
Capuchin Church (18th century) - the most picturesque church, especially viewed with the castle in the background
Bratislava Castle dates back to as early as the 10th century, however it was rebuilt numerous times and the last time it was renovated was in the 2000s.
The castle is a huge rectangular building with four distinctive towers, but it doesn't resemble those Disney-style castles. It's nice enough, however, built on a cliff and overlooking the old town.
The castle is visible virtually from all over Bratislava and it integrates beautifully when seen from between the narrow streets of old town.
The Old Town Hall and Michael's Gate Tower - Best Viewpoints of the Old town
The Old Town Hall (14th century), located in the very heart of the city - Hlavne Namestie square. Here, Bratislava does remind of Prague of Krakow.
If you wish to see one of the best views of the city, climb up the steps of the Old Town Hall tower and the nearby Michalska (Michael's) tower.
For me, those were the best viewpoints (and cheaper than the UFO observation desk) of the old town. You can see all the little streets and red roofed houses with the castle hill in the background. A beautiful, fairy tale-like view.
Drunk Mexican and a man emerging from sewers
As in many cities, you can find something unique in Bratislava, too. There are some monuments and statues as well as ordinary, every day life things that make the city interesting.
Don't miss the statue called Cumil - "Man at work" - which is basically a man coming out of the sewer in the old town. Touching his head may bring you luck! This weird monument is quite hard to find, however, it's located in the corner of Panska street and Rybarska Brana street.
We also came across a Mexican restaurant which had a dummy of a drunk Mexican sitting on its window - quite a funny way to encourage guests to dine in there.
Author: Tom @ Adventurous Travels
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