Prague. Budapest. Vienna. Bratislava?
This pocket of Central Europe plays host to some of the continent’s most intoxicating, beloved and remarkably beautiful cities, the type that regularly top those ‘most magical places in Europe’ lists and bombard your Instagram feeds with stunning riverside views and incredible architecture. And so, with three of Europe’s most seductive capitals to contend with, it’s fair to say that Bratislava is often left off itineraries altogether or relegated to just a half-day visit. But Slovakia’s pocket-sized capital certainly has a lot to offer, with understated charms that reveal themselves in more subtle ways than the in-your-face beauty of its neighbours.
Bratislava’s centre houses an intriguing mix of classic architecture and rigid Soviet blocks that mark its transition behind the Iron Curtain. A front row seat on the Danube offers the perfect backdrop for afternoon strolls and evening drinks. The enchanting historic centre is all pastel facades and rambling cobbled streets, enlivened by fairytale castles, hipster cafes, trendy wine bars and a wonderfully laidback small town feel.
Keen for more than just a day trip? These are the best things to do in Bratislava.
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As you rumble along the highway towards Bratislava, between verdant fields and flat landscapes, there’s one feature that rises above the greenery before you even realise you’re nearly there – Bratislavský hrad, the Bratislava Castle.
After being heavily bombarded by Napoleon’s armies and badly damaged by fire in the early 1800s, the castle fell into ruin and was left to crumble until the 1950s when an extensive renovation project breathed life back into these walls. Unfortunately, this means that the castle of today has little remaining of the old-world charms it once might have held.
Still, its leafy grounds and large garden are a lovely place for an afternoon stroll before wandering across to the balconies that stand high above the banks of the Danube and provide an excellent spot to catch the sunset across the water, take in the twisting cobbled lanes of the old town and gaze across to Austria, Hungary and wider Slovakia which are all visible on a clear day.
As an Aussie, the thought of simply jumping on a bus and a short while later be strolling through the ruins of an ancient castle is a novelty I’m pretty sure I’ll never grow tired of.
Just a 30-minute bus ride away from Bratislava, Devin Castle sits perched above the confluence of the Danube and Morava Rivers amidst an ocean of lush greenery. If you’ve been travelling around Europe for a while, it’s perhaps not the most impressive castle you’ll have seen, but it’s a worthwhile half day trip if you’re in the area.
To get there, take bus 29 from the roadside underneath the bridge (Most SNP) which leaves every 10 minutes. You’ll need to buy your tickets in advance (one to go and another to come back) from one of the yellow machines scattered around the bus terminal. Select the 30-minute option which costs around €0.90 each way (prices as of October 2018) and be sure to validate it when you jump on the bus.
Admittedly, I arrived in Bratislava knowing very little about the city’s fascinating history, but a free walking tour quickly changed all that.
From the quirky attractions dotted between the old town streets, to tales from the Austro-Hungarian empire and the time spent under communism, it provides an excellent introduction to the city as well as taking in a number of Bratislava’s main tourist sights.
What better place to get a taste of traditional Slovakian fare than in two of its oldest pubs.
As one of the largest restaurants in Europe, Bratislava institution Flagship Restaurant leads you up a grand old staircase to a huge, dimly lit dining hall dressed in old wooden decor where service is efficient and food is cheap. Try bryndzove halusky, the hearty national dish of gnocchi drenched in soft sheep’s cheese and a sprinkling of crispy bacon and wash it down with a delicious glass of red wine. This is also one of the few places in town where you can sample the local specialities of honey and black currant wine.
Slovak Pub is another interesting spot with a maze of with small rooms sporting checkered table cloths and similarly characterful wooden trimmings. The menu is much the same with all the Slovak staples, though here the speciality is the garlic soup served in a bread roll. For a sweet finish, go for a plate of the dessert dumplings.
These staple Slovak dishes perhaps aren’t to everyone’s taste, but after a day of exploring in the frigid cold of early autumn, it was the perfect antidote to frozen hands and a grumbling belly.
Another winning spot to take in the sunset is on the churning waters of the Danube as the sky is painted in streaks of vibrant orange and darkness sweeps across the old town, welcoming the friendly twinkle of city lights.
Across the bridge, you’ll find a number of river barges with outdoor balconies or viewing platforms that offer beautiful views up to the castle. The perfect spot to enjoy a wine or two and cheers the end of another lovely day in Europe.
Located just an hour from Bratislava, amongst the foothills of the Little Carpathian Mountains, lies the lush vineyards of Slovakia’s largest wine growing region.
The villages of Modra and Pezinok offer opportunities to visit some of the local wine cellars and sample the region’s delicious product. It’s possible to reach both towns by public transport, though it’s a good idea to stop in at Bratislava’s Information Centre beforehand for the list of wineries that are open on any given day. Or join a tour that will allow you to enjoy a few of the wineries dotted throughout the region. See tour options here.
Unfortunately, when I visited in late October, most of the wineries had very limited opening hours or were by appointment only, but if you’re here during the warmer months, a day trip to Slovakia’s wine region is an excellent way to escape the city and experience a little more of Slovakia’s countryside.
Bratislava’s old town is a delightful labyrinth of pastel buildings, airy plazas, pretty clock towers and cobbled laneways that simply beg to be explored.
Admittedly, it can get a little crowded when the day trippers descend on the city come mid-morning, but in the soft glow of the morning light or in the late afternoon when the tour groups have drifted away and the streets return to being tranquil and empty, it’s a lovely place to wander from one street to the next, gazing in the pretty shop windows, stopping by the many beautiful dessert shops and soaking up the laidback feel of one of Europe’s smallest capitals.
For those keen to tick off a few sights, notable old town attractions include Michael’s Gate, the Men At Work statue, the palaces and the blue church of St Elizabeth.
Beyond the twisting cobbled laneways of the old town, Bratislava transforms into a familiar scene of the former Eastern Bloc where identical concrete buildings rise above the pavements. An ocean of harsh lines, neutral hues and tiny windows.
These days, however, a fresh lick of paint has brought colour and character back to these streets in the form of street art with a number of these open-air pieces scattered around the outskirts of the old town.
And then there’s Petržalka, the tight cluster of high-rise residential blocks that sprawl across the right bank of the Danube. Once a hotbed of crime and with one of the highest population densities in Europe, today it has been thoroughly brightened by wide bands of pastel paint that shine out across the neighbourhood.
On the surface, Bratislava’s historic centre may look like an impossibly pretty faded postcard of old-world Europe, but these cobbled laneways play host to a surprising number of trendy cafes where snobby brunches, mason jars and ‘grammable plates of food are in full supply.
If you’ve had your fill of the traditional Slovak fare, then an avo toast or pulled pork burger in a wonderfully cosy setting may be just what you’re after. Two of my favourites were Urban House and Urban Bistro which are a little pricier than your usual Slovak eatery but certainly quenched my cravings for chai lattes and eggs benedict.
There’s also the Street Food Park which springs to life for four days every month outside the Old Market and serves up delicious street food – think everything from Malaysian laksa and mouthwatering burgers, to locally brewed cider and artisan lemonade – and has a focus on sustainability and a ‘zero waste’ philosophy.
All stalls have veggie options available and all packaging is 100% biodegradable. In fact, when you go to the rubbish points, you’ll meet an attendant who will sort each component – be it bamboo plates or compostable plastics – into the right bin and add a layer of soil to kick start the degradation process.
Folks Hostel | Set just beyond Bratislava’s old town walls, this small, sparkling new hostel boasts spacious rooms with a personal locker, night light and storage pouch for each guest. There’s also a well-equipped kitchen and huge lounge area with plenty of comfy chairs making it a great place to curl up at the end of the day. Free all-day tea, coffee and biscuits also made this a winner in my books. Prices are also easy on the wallet and staff are friendly and full of suggestions for things to do in Bratislava.
Hostel Blues | Another top-rated option in Bratislava, this brightly coloured hostel is just a short walk from the old town and includes simple but comfortable rooms, a guest kitchen and lounge area. Beer tours, cooking classes and film nights are also organised weekly.
As a popular day trip from Vienna, transport between the two cities is frequent, cheap and convenient making this one of the best ways to reach Bratislava.
Bus | The best option is to take the bus from Vienna’s Erdberg Station to Novy Most in Bratislava, a bus terminal beneath the bridge that lies just across the road from the historic centre. If you’re staying near the old town, it’s usually easiest to walk to your accommodation, otherwise, you’ll find plenty of taxis waiting around. Confirm the price before jumping in and don’t pay more than a few Euros for a short trip. Even locals are wary of jumping into taxis as getting wildly ripped off is fairly commonplace.
Psst… travelling for a while in Europe? Flixbus also offers a 5-pass ticket for just €99 which can be used on any route around the continent. I used this during my last trip and saved a bunch of cash on long-distance buses. Check out Interflix here.
Train | Another option is the train which travels between Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof and Bratislava’s Central Station (Bratislava Hl St). Compare prices and times here.
From the station, tram #1 or bus #93 leave every 10 to 15 minutes and will take you towards the old town. Buy your ticket in advance at the little yellow machines.