Is Bratislava worth it? A visit, a stopover, and overnight, a day-trip? Some cities get little respect. They try and try to promote their old city center, their castle, their riverfront, their many others charms, but Europe has some high bars to clear before the hordes come.
Quick, what’s your impression of Bratislava? Can you name one thing there? And now that you’ve seen it and returned home, what’s your impression? Anything?
I normally eschew rhetorical questions in my prose, but Bratislava’s got me stumped. I couldn’t think of a lede for this post, nor what the theme should be for the soaring narrative arc that would captivate readers. Some cities don’t have a theme. Most old cities that happen to be the country’s capital are worth a visit, of course they are, but eh, why?
Over a million people visit every year (as of 2016), yet it’s still a second or third-tier destination, not yet on any beaten path except those who happen to be visiting the nearby heavyweights. The city reminds me of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia (don’t get the countries mixed up), that I wrote about earlier. Worth a stop for being European and pleasant and uncrowded, and hey, perhaps you should check out the rest of the country while you’re there.
Brat (people who try to sound cool call it “Brat”) has an awfully pleasant old city center for hanging but without any major sights. You don’t need an agenda to visit. The only must-do is hang out in the center and from there see what you fancy. You’ll notice the nice churches and check them out. You’ll notice the castle on the hill and wander up. It’s an old city, from about 500 BCE. It’s right on the border with both Austria and Hungary. It’s on the blue Danube, as all good Eastern Euro cities should be. It’s not as cool as Kosice, Slovakia’s other city, but neither are you.
The city is hardly unknown. It has occasionally been touted as The Next Prague, the next cool place to where backpackers will flock. On paper, it looks good. Same general location, not far from anywhere, with enough cheap beer and flophouses to hold the backpackers. I’ve written before about how I wasn’t thrilled with Prague, but I don’t think Bratislava is nearly enough to knock it off its perch.
This is what Bratislava looks like in movies [Screenshot: Eurotrip]
Bratislava is the butt of many jokes. It’s featured in the movie Eurotrip, a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s a stupid, stupid, and juvenile comedy, only watchable late at night with plenty of beer, but about 1/4 of it is brilliant. A group of student backpackers arrive in Bratislava, to discover that everything is gray and hopeless and people are walking around sobbing. A dog is eating a human hand. They’ve lost almost all their money, but find it’s so cheap there they can still eat at the finest restaurant. They tip the waiter five cents and he is overjoyed. “I quit!” he yells to the maître d’. “I will go open my own restaurant!”
Bratislava (or at least Slovakia; it’s unclear which city they’re in) is also the setting for much better-known 2005 horror movie Hostel, which depicted the country as being poor, undeveloped, and full of criminals. It was actually filmed in Czech, but who cares? The Slovaks were not happy with it.
Nota bene: in this part of the world, place names change. Bratislava is known in Hungarian as Pozsony. It’s Pressburg in German, and that was the common international name for it until about 100 years ago.
You’re not far from anywhere, only one hour from Vienna and three hours from either Prague or Budapest. Bratislava has two terminus stations, not on the same line. If you have a choice, go for arriving at Hlavna Stanica (the main station), as it has better tram connections to the center. Or you could just walk, 15 to 20 minutes. It’s small. You’ll rarely need other transportation.
The city wasn’t much until recently. Hundreds of years ago, the Hungarian royalty hung out here, but that ended. A hundred years ago, a third of the Slovak population emigrated to the USA. More recently, communism hit it hard, giving it things like a ridiculous bridge, a highway right next to its neat cathedral, and endless concrete dwelling blocks for its residents. As part of Czechoslovakia, Czech got all the attention, and after the divorce, Czech still gets all the attention. Prague became the cool place to be. Today, the city is doing well. It has a primo location, close to everyone, and it’s still on the Danube.
Bratislava joined places like Riga, Latvia and Tallinn, Estonia, and Ljubljana, Slovenia as a cheap weekend party getaways that aren’t Prague. You’ll see Brits wandering around, many on stag or hen parties. Prague became the Current Prague because of cheap beer; the Next Prague needs the same, and Slovenia’s got it. The locals, especially the university kids, come to the old city to party.
Another reason Prague shot to prominence is because it’s a decent-sized city and it’s gorgeous, not just in the central square. Bratislava doesn’t quite have that going for it. Prague’s buildings are dramatic and compelling; Bratislava’s are just nice. Both have castles on a hill over the city, but Prague’s is massive and Brat’s is just a box. Yet, Bratislava is awfully nice, and the interesting parts are mostly clustered in the old city. Bratislava gives a good feeling—you can tell it’s focused on making itself better and more interesting.
One thing missing from the city is the compelling story. To visit a site, you need to buy in to the back story, and Bratislava doesn’t give you much. I never heard about the famous battle, the infamous king, the illustrious poet or architect. There’s not even a Bratislava Spring story about rising up against the commies. The city urgently needs a back story, a hero, a front person, a theme. Even a notorious drunken mayor would do. I vote it invents a story straight away.
The city has one notoriety: its statues. Not of war heroes or puffy emperors, but of normal people in wildly non-canonical poses and places. The most famous is called Cumil, translated to “Rubberneck”, a man’s head and shoulders sticking out of a manhole. Another, called Schöne Náci, honors a famous local eccentric from the early 20th century. He is depicted doffing his top hat to passerbys. Another is a bronze Napoleonic soldier, not shown in a battle stance but instead causally leaning his elbows onto the back of a sidewalk bench, taking a break. They’re all over the place. I like art such as this.
But I need to know what to do in Bratislava!
Okay, let’s do this. Many people enter the city through Michael’s Gate, the only gate remaining from the 14th-century city fortifications. From there you have this view. Look at anyone’s photos of Bratislava and you’ll see this exact shot. You can indeed climb that towner and have a nice view, and the small Museum of Arms is there.
Through Michael’s Gate, into the old city.
The most obvious sight is that castle overhead. It’s white and square, with towers on each corner. Pleasant enough, but not the most dramatic castle to grace a town, and it’s been only recently that you can go in. People go to the castle hill for the view of the town as much as for the castle. As for the kings crowned there, they were all Hungarian, done there when the Ottomans controlled their real capital.
This ancient building dates from 1953. Yeah, sorry, the original largely burned in a fire in 1811 and sat around until reconstruction. What you see today is not entirely new though, especially the stone fortifications. It costs €7 to enter (or €2 just to use the loo), and it’s questionable whether it’s worth it. You’ll see some special exhibits, not some reconstruction of what the castle was like.
One little-known lagniappe to the castle is the brewery on the backside. Look for the red sign reading “Zámocký Pivovar” (Pivo means beer, one Slavic word you should memorize).
For churches, check out St. Martin’s, 15th century gothic-style. The most famous church is Saint Elizabeth, because it’s blue. (If you’re lost, just ask for the “blue church”.) Not many churches are blue, right? It’s Art Nouveau style, not very old, but it will stand out in your photos.
The old town hall (yes, in the old town) houses the Bratislava City Museum. Its tower gives you a nice view. Right next door is the Primate’s Palace, with its own Hall of Mirrors and rare English tapestries.
The city has an art museum, Nedbalka Gallery, with five round floors to see the latest in Slovak modern art.
The Grassalkovich (Presidential) Palace can be enjoyed for its gardens (only), and afterwards, keep heading north to the Palisády quarter, a nice section of town filled with old villas, and almost no tourists. Not many cafés or anything else, either.
A bit outside of town are the ruins of Devín Castle, neat, especially the one watchtower on a finger of stone, but it’s a bit much to see them (10k upstream, reachable by city bus #29), and they’re not huge.
Note that many museums, and even the castle, are closed Mondays.
Finally, there’s the UFO Bridge. Officially called the New Bridge (Nový most) and SNP Bridge (the official name has gone back and forth), the Soviet masterpiece over the Danube, designed to drag Bratislava into the future where it belongs, contains a UFO-shaped observation desk on the top pylons. Its construction tragically tore out a huge section of the old city, and put a highway right behind St. Marin’s church. Designed in 1972, back when the monorail at Florida’s Disney World was also considered futuristic, it’s so out of step with the rest of the city, and the rest of the world, that it’s too easy to mock. Fortunately, it has a bit of an “it’s so bad, it’s good” quality. It’s going to look wild in your photos.
Sadly, this is the symbol of the city now
The space saucer is almost 100 meters up, and yes it’s probably a great view because it couldn’t be anything less, although you’re a bit far from the old city. Just getting to the round hub costs 7,4€, or you could go there to eat at their probably futuristic restaurant but I seriously don’t recommend that.
Just over the bridge is the suburb called Petržalka, consisting of block after block of concrete apartment blocks, Soviet-designed living quarters for the huddled proletarians cum bourgeoisie. I didn’t troop through there, but I hear it’s a fascinating jaunt through all the old Soviet architecture.
Let me just stop here. So many people will report that Bratislava’s museums, the castle, and most of its sights, aren’t really worth the admission. I would advise to find one Tall Thing to Climb, such as the tower by Michael’s Gate (not the UFO), for a good view, check out the churches, climb up to the castle (not necessarily going inside), and then just puttering around the old city, and perhaps down to the river. Being between Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, Bratislava is a good place to take a break from sights.
Eat, drink, and be merry in Bratislava (or: why you should spend the night here and not just day-trip in)
If you just came from Prague, Bratislava’s beer culture will feel familiar. Two and a half euro (Slovakia’s on the euro) for a beer is the high end, and if you pay more (except for nightclubs), you’re in an overpriced place. According to Pintprice.com, Slovakia as a whole is the fourth cheapest place to drink beer in Europe (average price just under one euro). Yet Slovakia has a wine culture as well, more than Czech.
As for food, you really didn’t come here for the food. Slovak food doesn’t have the sophistication of Vienna’s nor the life-giving paprika-laced flavors of Hungary. It does have the gut-stuffing merits of Czech food. If you love junior-quality starch and protein, livened up with cabbage, you will thrive here. However, this is still Europe and things are still tasty.
The national dish (I’ve been told) is potatoes with a special type of tangy sheep cheese and topped with pork bits, called bryndzové halušky. Lots of non-Slovaks don’t care for it. Halušky in general just means dumpling, usually or perhaps always potato. You’ll see lots of them.
My light dinner
Our dinner there was quite typical. I ordered beer, a cheese plate designed to go with beer, and a potato pancake. Sound light? No, my sweet country mouse, it was not. The cheese plate had four types of cheese, plus tiny piles of salt, pepper, chopped onion, paprika, and mustard in case you want to spice up your curds. The pancake was huge, and to my surprise, stuffed with perhaps a 1/4 kilo of ham. My wife ordered goulash, because you can order goulash everywhere around these parts, and it’s always different. Hers came with lots of those halušky.
Beer usually comes in two sizes, a third-liter and a half-liter. You can just sign language this to your server by just holding your hands horizontally either close together or far apart. Remember, beer is “pivo” (plural: pivá). To say cheers is “na zdravie”. Just say “nice driveway” in a vague Dracula accent. This has worked for me all through the Slav world.
I was drinking Pilsner Urquell, a Czech beer and my first in that part of the world. It was one of those “Oh my gods” moments when the beer arrived and I took a first sip. Blimey, it was fantastic. I needed a moment. Every beer I had in those parts was brilliant.
Nota bene: You will see percentages listed on beer in Slovakia, usually between 10-12%. This is NOT the alcohol percentage–it is the percentage of fermentable materials in the ingredients. This is wildly misleading. For the alcohol percentage, check the back of a bottle of the stuff for the word “alkoholu”. Very often, it’s an “at least” amount, meaning the actual percentage could be higher.
If you’re a beer fan, consider having dinner at a microbrewery, something with “Pivovar” in the name, such as Zámocký Pivovar (the castle brewery!), Meštiansky Pivovar, or Starosloviensky Pivovar. I know little about the beer in Slovakia besides “svelte” means “light” (as in color, like a Pilsner), and “tmave” means “dark”. The lights will be somewhat hoppy and the darks more malty, but you knew that.
Some cheese with your beer?
As for nightlife, yes. Here I’m no expert. I would refer you to a few other sites, such as this one, or perhaps this one, but let me sum up: yes. It has it. Clubs, music, bars, cafés. I’ll just mention Karpatská and Nedbalova Streets as good hangout zones with plenty of choices.
One trend around the former Iron Curtain countries is ironic retro-Soviet places. Many ex-Soviet or Eastern Euro countries have a bar called KGB, and Bratislava is one of them. Another trend, at least in Brat, is the nightclubs located in former bomb shelters (or former anything different, such as the former YMCA, now home to four clubs), as they’re somewhat soundproof, and for some post-ironic reason, partying in an old bomb shelter sounds cool. SUBCLUB, by the castle, is a popular one.
If you want more traditional entertainment, check what’s playing at the old National Theatre. A good example will be a ballet with tickets starting at 4€ and no seat more than 20€. If you want more base entertainment, yeah, thanks to all the stag parties, Brat’s got that too, but you’re on your own. Just know this: you walk into a lounge and you see lots of single ladies all looking at you and few men, get the hell out.
The next morning, choose a café for a bang-up coffee or chocolate. Take a last look around, and move on.