Perhaps you’ve never heard of Slovakia, or perhaps you’ve been told visiting some Eastern European countries are not worth your time and energy. Quite personally, I find that many Western European cities are becoming over crowded and too expensive and heading east seems to be the theme of our 2017 travels. Not only are cities like Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, absolutely beautiful but totally refreshing and definitely one of the top destinations in Eastern Europe to visit!
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If I were to ask you to place Slovakia on a map, could you do it? Most people seem to easily overlook this small country which is wedged between Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Ukraine and yes, it is a bit further than most tourists seem to go. Perhaps your only connection with this beautiful country is actually a misconceived perception that the country is dangerous thanks in part to EuroTrip or the WORST movie ever: Hostel. If that is, you’ve seriously been mislead.
Many cruise ships stop in Bratislava, along the Danube, but if you’re considering visiting Vienna, Austria, then you should consider taking the extra hour to cross the border into Slovakia and add Bratislava to your itinerary. Two capitals for the price of one! And trust me, a day trip to Bratislava from Vienna is totally feasible! Not only is the capital nearby, but it’s also budget friendly and way less crowded than Vienna can get. Or consider adding it to your Eastern European capital itinerary from Prague to Budapest via Vienna and Bratislava.
History of Slovakia
Some of the past history of Slovakia seems a bit turbulent when you consider that after the First World War and the dissolution of the Autro-Hungarian Empire, the Czechs and the Slovaks established Czechoslovakia under which the country thrived for a bit. The Great Depression took a toll on the country and soon felt pressured by Nazi Germany to dismantle the country so that they could enter Sudetenland, a region of the country which was predominately German-speaking to which there was outcry among European Nations. By 1939, Slovakia was forced to secede from the remaining portion of Czecho-Slovakia and ally itself with Nazi Germany becoming a puppet regime.
After the end of the Second World War, Czechoslovakia was reconstituted and fell into the hands of the Soviets and behind the Iron Curtain. The country would remain a Communist country until the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and finally in 1993, the Czech and Slovak Republics declared independence from one another. Since then, Slovakia has joined NATO and adopted the Euro, slowly but surely becoming a main destination to visit in Europe.
What to do in Bratislava
A majority of the sights to see in Bratislava are easily accessible and conveniently located in the Old Town on the left bank of the Danube river. The city is best explored by starting early in the morning before the crowds and tour groups come out and before it gets too warm!
St. Martin’s Cathedral
Gothic-inspired architecture is evident throughout the city, but no more so than St. Martin’s Cathedral. Located directly at the foot of the Bratislava Castle, the cathedral dates back to the 14th century. Several Hungarian kings and queens were crowned here. The most interesting thing about the church is the gold-plated replica of St. Stephen’s crown that sits on top of the tower. Sounds rather boring until I tell you that the crown weighs in at a whopping 330 lbs of which 18 lbs of it is pure gold!
Perched on a rocky hill overlooking both the Danube River and the city, is the Bratislava Castle, a stronghold dating back to 907 which is today one of the top attractions to see in Bratislava! The castle sat at a prime location where trading routes crossed paths along the Danube. The hike to the castle is quite exhausting, so go at a slow pace so you can relax and enjoy the magnificent views over the Old Town. The castle originally held the Hungarian crown jewels, but today, the castle houses the Slovak National Museum.
The Baroque Gardens behind the castle are also quite impressive and worth a glance. Under Empress Maria Theresa, the gardens underwent several sophisticated treatments until it matched the Baroque feeling of the castle after the great fire in 1811 which completely destroyed the castle and surrounding area before being completely rebuilt in the 1950s!
**TIP: If walking up the steep hill is not an option, hop on bus number 203 or 207 (best at „Hodžovo namestie“ – in front of the Grassalkovich Palace) and get off at the „Zámocká“ stop which will drop you off directly in front of the castle.
House of “the Good Shepard”
Should you walk up the hill to the castle, starting from St. Martin’s Cathedral, you’ll likely pass a lovely pale yellow house in a Rococo style named after the statue of the Good Shepard on its corner. It is one of a few remaining houses in the Jewish Quarter below the castle dating back to the 1760-65 which managed to escape demolition in the 20th century by the communist regime to make way for the SNP Bridge. Today, it’s thought to be the narrowest building in Europe!
During the 20th century, 10% of the population of Bratislava was Jewish, of which only 1,500 people survived the deportations during the Second World War.
After coming back down from the Bratislava Castle via the gardens, head along Kapucinska street, passing the Trinitarian Church before heading north. From there, you’ll come upon the Baroque Palace built in 1760. It was originally built as the residence for the chairman of the Royal Hungarian Chamber who was one of Empress Maria Theresa’s closest advisers before becoming the seat of the president in 1939 and still is. Today, guards stand at attention on each side of the Palace and the French Gardens are open to the public.
St. Michael’s Gate
Coming back into the Old Town, head straight for the only surviving gateway into the medieval city as well as one of the oldest structures in Bratislava which was built in the 14th century. If you’re like us and love climbing towers for a fantastic view, consider climbing to the viewing terrace for more views over the city for something unique to do in Bratislava!
Considered to be the most beautiful palace in Bratislava with its pale pink and gold Neo-Classical facade. Originally used by the primate of Hungary and archbishop of Estergom, it’s now used as the seat of the city mayor. Atop are several angels holding the letters ‘I’ and ‘C’ in reference to the motto on the cardinal’s coat of arms which stands for Justice and Mercy.
Old Town Hall & Main Square
After all that walking, you’ll likely need a rest, so head deeper into the city to the Main Market where you’ll find the Old Town Hall. On the day that we visited, we were able to enjoy an International Festival of Children Folklore Ensembles with groups of children wearing traditional garments, dancing and singing in proud union of their heritage.
Opened in 1873 by Mr Julius Mayer, a famous confectioner from Vienna, Austria is a delicious cafe located in a Baroque palace right in the Main Square. Chose from a variety of cakes, especially the famous Sacher Torte and be served by a waiter in traditional uniforms. Like many cake cafes in Vienna, this too served the imperial court. Inside, the cafe has period furniture with pictures of ‘Sisi’ – the Empress of Austria.
Several whimsical statues are located throughout the city, which if you’re into kitschy things, like me, I ain’t gonna lie, are fun to go on the hunt for. Also located in the Main Square is the statue of one of Napoleon’s soldiers, a life-sized figure leaning on a bench just chillin’ like a villain. He has become one of the top things to see in Bratialava! I mean how could you resist a totally touristy photo with him!
But why a soldier from Napoleon’s army? Napoleon and his army were in Bratislava in 1805 and a soldier named Hubert fell in love with a local girl and decided to stay. He became a producer of sparking wine, which is Bratislava’s most popular, also called Hubert.
Statue Man at Work
Just a bit further down is quite possibly the most famous of all the statues in Bratislava, of Čumil, a man at work, peeking out from a manhole. Oooh how many dirty jokes I could make, but I’ll refrain myself! The question is what the heck is he doing? Such is the debate about whether he’s just resting, going down into the sewer or even possibly a bronze peeping tom peeking up women’s skirts. Easily tripped over if either someone isn’t paying attention while walking or driving, the city had to install a warning sign. These days though, it’s hard to miss with crowds of tourists lining up to take their picture with him.
As we were casually strolling around, I noticed a cute cafe with tourists sitting near the window, enjoying a tea or coffee from beautiful antique pots and I instantly knew we had to go in. Once inside, a gentleman greeted us, swinging his arms open wide welcoming us to a table while admiring the stunning artwork on the walls and ceiling, but not before drooling over the cakes. Konditorei Kormuth might look unassuming from the outside, but this patisserie is worth visiting and is like stepping back in time, especially if you’re looking for unusual things to do in Bratislava. The waiter informed us that the patisserie took over 20 years to refurbish every inch to its original exquisite state. All of the furniture, tea sets and artifacts are all historic adding to the complete and utter charm of the cafe! I honest to god, DID.NOT.WANT.TO.LEAVE. My husband literally had to pull me out.
Photos are not allowed inside, but I managed to persuade the waiter to allow me to take a few photos as I was in heaven and wanted to share this on the blog with the world. The patisserie is not for everyone, but it is for those who can appreciate artwork, history and have a little class. Especially for the gentle or at least the ladies, although my husband would like to ask, “What lady?” Struggling not to take too many pictures as I was only allowed a few, my settings weren’t right and my photos don’t do it justice, so I recommend you to check out this detailed post!
Church of St. Elizabeth – Blue Church
With a Gaudi-esque feeling to it, the “Blue Church” as it is often referred to as for its pale blue Art Nouveau design both inside and outside is definitely worth the little bit of extra effort to walk the 10-15 minutes to it. It was dedicated to St. Elizabeth of Hungary who was born in the Bratislava Castle in 2017 and her portraits hangs inside. It’s unlike any other church I’ve ever seen, although the church is very rarely open. It’s baby blue appeal and unique design makes it one of the best things to see in Bratislava!
Opening Times: Monday-Saturday 6:30am – 8:00am; 5:30pm – 17:30pm, Sundays 7:30am – 12:00pm; 5:30pm – 7:30pm
Observation Deck UFO
Having to cross the Slovak National Uprising (SNP) Bridge by car to get into town, and wondering what this UFO like tower in the middle of the bridge was, we decided to check it out towards blue hour. The Observation Deck UFO claims to be the smallest of the greatest towers in the world and in just 45 seconds, takes you up 95 m (310 ft) and offers views up to 100 km (62 miles) away! Once at the top, there is an exotic restaurant and two first-class bars which are the most popular places to hang out at night in Bratislava! We simply went up to enjoy the views of the impressive Bratislava Castle and the city and I have to say, it was one of the coolest things to do in Bratislava!
Opening Hours: Viewing platform daily 10-11pm, restaurant 12-11pm, bars 10-11pm
Price: 6,50 €, free if eating at the restaurant
Sad Janka Kráľa Park
Leaving the city center, you can drive over the SNP bridge to cross over the Danube River. To the right of the bridge is a large park and a very large parking lot. But to the left of the bridge, are a few buildings and a bar which we casually walked over towards for a better view of the Bratislava Castle, the bridge and the Danube River. If you’re looking for things to do in Bratislava at night, then I highly suggest sticking around for some blue hour photos!
Where to eat in Bratislava
Sometimes, I like to spice things up and go out for breakfast when traveling. You can only have so much continental breakfasts before you want something different. So, in the morning, we headed into town to see what we could find.
Mondieu Café • Chocolaterie • Desserts – a cute Parisian style cafe in multiple locations throughout the city which has tables and chairs outside in that typical French style. The breakfasts looked rich and we ended up ordering and trying a Broiche French Toast with bacon and eggs and a side of syrup and coffees.
Where to Stay in Bratislava
Hotel Devín ⭐⭐⭐⭐ – Located in a prime location along the banks of the Danube River in the Old Town, rooms are incredibly luxurious and spacious while the beds are comfy-cozy for affordable prices! In the evening, we enjoyed the swimming pool and a relaxing massage after a full day of sightseeing! Sorry, too tired and too sore to remember to take pictures on our last night of our honeymoon.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Bratislava, as it seemed to be a town people either loved or hated. I am partial to it as I’m not entirely a big fan of big cities, but loved the things we saw! The food was delicious and cheap, but on the downside, it felt like we saw the same restaurants over and over in the city. It was completely easy to walk around the whole city and manage to see everything in one day, but our feet were killing us by the end of it, although to be honest, it was more that we were tired of sightseeing and walking around after two weeks on our honeymoon through the Balkans!
Where would I be without my trusty Lonely Planet & DK Travel Guides? Lost probably! These are my travel Bibles & I never leave without them!
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Day Trips from Bratislava:
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