Bratislava wasn’t a place that was originally on my Eastern Europe itinerary, but the intrigue of a city with such a stark contrast of new and old, was too much and I booked the train. It has a unique mixture of medieval, Gothic, Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings, intersected by brutal Communist architecture which makes it an interesting city to wander. The compact city of Bratislava has only been Slovakia’s capital since the country received independence in 1993.
Often the Slovakian capital is visited as a day trip from nearby Vienna, but the city has a lot to offer travellers wanting to overnight and extend their stay. Less crowded than other Eastern European destinations, Bratislava is a fantastic place to learn about a huge variety of historical periods, explore a city of great contrasts, and sample some rich Slovak fare. I ended up being grateful that I scheduled a couple of nights in Bratislava to really get to explore a place that offered something a little bit different.
So, let’s explore Bratislava!
Currency: euro (€)
Daily budget: €25 a day
Public Transport Card: Bratislava Card, €15 one day or €17 two days for all transport and entry to several museums
Airport: M.R. Stefanik Bratislava International Airport
Train Station: Bratislava hlavná stanica
GETTING TO BRATISLAVA
It’s possible to fly to Bratislava from many other destinations in Europe. The airport is called M.R. Stefanik Bratislava International Airport and is about half an hour from the centre of town. Another option is to fly to Vienna Airport and catch the shuttle buses RegioJet, Slovaklines which take around an hour to get to Bratislava and cost less than €10.00.
Arriving to Bratislava by train is the most popular option and a quick journey from most Eastern European destinations. The train station is called Bratislava hlavná stanica and is a 20-25 minute walk from the centre of the Old Town. It is possible to catch Bus 93 or Tram 1 to the centre, but I found it easier to just walk.
FROM VIENNA: Wien Hauptbahnhof to Bratislava Hlavná stanica EURegio ticket costs €14.00 return or €7.00 one way. The journey takes only 1 hour and tickets can be purchased from Slovakrail.
FROM PRAGUE: a 4.5 hour journey from Prague Main Station to Bratislava Hlavná stanica.
FROM BUDAPEST: 2 – 3 hour journey with six trains a day from Keleti and Nyugati. Tickets cost around €17.50 return and a single journey option is available.
FROM BERLIN: a 9 hour journey which usually requires a stop over or change in Prague
LONG DISTANCE BUS
Like most destinations in Eastern Europe, one of the best ways to get to Bratislava is by cheap long-distance coach. Connected to most destinations like Budapest, Ljubliana, Krakow, and even the UK, getting the coach will save you money even if it doesn’t save time. Your bus will most likely drop you at Central Coach Terminal which is a 20 minute walk to the centre of the old town.
There are a few accommodation options in Bratislava depending on your budget. The best news? Your stay here will not set you back much money! During my visit, I found accommodation in Bratislava to be reasonable in quality and incredibly affordable.
On my visit, I stayed at DREAM Hostel which was central and had a well-equipped kitchen with clean rooms. In my next visit, I would like to check out Boutique Capsule Hostel CHORS which looks stunningly decorated, well located, affordable and with great privacy.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN BRATISLAVA
TAKE A GUIDED WALKING TOUR
My top recommendation for Bratislava is to take a guided walking tour. Personally, I didn’t know much about Slovakian history and culture before visiting for the first time, and the walking tour helped me get my mind around it! There are several paid options but I personally prefer the free walking tour. The guide will take you around the major landmarks of the city, explain the historical significance of buildings, and recommend the best food for you to try. I took one of the Be Free Tours which you can check out here.
CHECK OUT SOME OF BRATISLAVA’S MUSEUMS
Bratislava has several interesting museums which you can explore including the Museum of Pharmacy and the City History Museum. The City History Museum is in the old Town Hall and covers the interesting history of Bratislava which will help you contextualise all that you see.
WANDER THROUGH THE OLD TOWN
There is no doubt that the number one thing to do in Bratislava is soak up the atmosphere in the Old Town. Structured much like other Eastern European old town squares, I loved Bratislava because it was less touristy and busy compared to places like Prague. The demarcation between the Old Town and the newer, Communist sections is stark. Once you leave the boundary of the Old Town, you will see extensive brutalist architecture and get a feel of Bratislava’s contrasts.
In the Old Town, there are a few locations that are definitely worth visiting. St Martin’s Cathedral is the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Bratislava which was built in the 1400s and has served as the location of several important coronations and historical events. See Michael’s Gate – the only remaining old gate to the city – and the remaining city walls. The Slovak National Theatre is a stunning building with incredible ballet and opera performances regularly occurring, so you should try and see a show!
VISIT BRATISLAVA CASTLE
Bratislava Castle is the most recognisable place in Bratislava. The huge rectangular hill-top castle sits in prime position overlooking the Danube river and the Old Town. On a clear day you can see Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary from the castle!
The castle’s hill has been an important site since prehistory, and there has been a basilica or castle on the hill since the 500s which is pretty impressive. The current castle is a reconstruction which started in the 1950s after the castle was bombed by Napoleon in the early 1800s and it slowly decayed. The restoration of the castle has taken many years and has been interrupted several times, with updates still ongoing, notably the courtyard restoration in 2010.
SEE THE BLUE CHURCH
This Art Nouveau blue church only a short walk from the Old Town is named because of its brightly coloured façade, mosaics, and blue-glazed roof. Officially The Church of St. Elizabeth, the Blue Church looks out-of-this-world and stands in stark contrast to the brutalist Communist surrounding buildings.
TRY SOME TRADITIONAL SLOVAKIAN FARE
I didn’t know much about Slovakian food before visiting the country, and perhaps my arteries were thankful for this fact. The rich, moreish Slovak cuisine involves copious amounts of potato, cream and meat, and I was not complaining with that combination! One recommended traditional dish I tried was Bryndzové halušky which is small potato dumplings covered in soft sheep’s cheese and roasted bacon. Not gonna lie, it was pretty good and I can see why it’s a national dish. Other tasty things to try include: Pierogis with sheep cheese, Kapustnica (cabbage soup), Gulášová polievka (Goulash soup), Vyprážaný syr (fried cheese), and Zemiakové placky (potato pancakes).
WALK ACROSS THE SPACE-AGE UFO BRIDGE
Another of the recognisable features of Bratislava is the UFO Bridge which stretches over the Danube. This Communist bridge looks completely out of sync with the Old Town and castle it leads from. The bridge, and the extensive road leading to it, was carved out from the Old Town, demolishing large segments of the historical city including almost all of the Jewish Quarter. Constructed in the 1970s, the bridge was originally called the “Most SNP” which means Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising, it was then changed in 1993 to “New Bridge”, and then in 2012 it was changed back! It is a stark symbol of Communist architecture, where the importance of construction and practicality seemingly outweighed cultural significance of parts of the Old Town.
I walked across the bridge to admire the view back over Bratislava, the walk was not too long and it was an easy, flat stroll. You can actually climb up to the UFO for a panoramic view of the city and there is a restaurant up there, too! It costs €7.40 to get up to the UFO.
HOW LONG TO SPEND IN BRATISLAVA
Bratislava is often seen as a day trip from Vienna with an easy-to-manage 1 hour journey between the two capitals. I stayed overnight in Bratislava to get more of a feel for the city and would recommend this option if you have the time! If you only have one day, it is definitely adequate to see the major highlights of the city.