Bratislava, capitol of land-locked Slovakia, was not what I expected. It’s an old city whose history goes back to well before the time of Christ, including envelopment into the Hungarian and Hapsburg empires and more recently the Soviet empire. It was my first visit to a former eastern-block country and I thought I’d see a small struggling city still trying to shake off the burdens of Communist repression. While there is some evidence of that this city of nearly 500,000 is being reborn. There are many construction and remodeling projects and an invigorating entrepreneurial energy is in the air. The streets are filled with tourists taking in the sights of the old city and Austrians shopping for bargains (which are very scarce in their homeland but can be found here). But it’s not so crowded that you can’t relax and enjoy yourself. The city is developing a restaurant and cafe culture with hundreds of tables lining the streets. There are many whimsical statues popping up, a sign of the Slovaks’ good humor. In your explorations you’ll discover that you are not only in the historic and political capitol of Slovakia but also its cultural heart.
Our visit to Bratislava began at the port on the Donau (or Danube) River. We’d taken an express catamaran cruise to traverse the 60 km from Vienna to Bratislava — a comfortable and scenic cruise which we enjoyed. The ride to Bratislava is about an hour long — return ride about 30 minutes longer as it’s against the current. You’ll see a few small towns on the river, small fishermen homes by its bank as well as several old castle ruins during your journey.
From the port it’s just a short walk into the old town, which is being extensively restored. Construction work is everywhere and many of the buildings have been beautifully refinished. Mostly I’d just recommend wandering the old cobblestone streets of the city, enjoying the ambiance, doing some window or souvenir shopping, and stopping at a cafe when the mood hits. But there are several spots worth a visit, as well as a number of museums if you have the time and interest (having just come from Vienna we thought it would be hard for the local museums to compete with what we had witnessed in the Hapsburg’s home city).
Some places to see in your explorations of Bratislava include:
1) Bratislava Castle. You can take a tour or taxi to the top of the hill but we chose to walk up it. It’s a bit of a climb but good exercise. The views from the Castle grounds are beautiful and well worth the effort.
2) Michael’s Gate. The tower dates back to the 15th century and is one of the historic entrances to Bratislava. You can climb it for views of the city. The lower portion houses the Museum of arms.
3) Old Town Hall and New Town Hall (Primate’s Palace). Both are immediately adjoining the main square. The New Town Hall is a beautiful structure in which The Treaty of Pressburg between France and Austria was signed. It has several elegant rooms, including the Hall of Mirrors, Walk into the central courtyard to see the Fountain of St. George slaying the dragon.
4) St. Martin’s Cathedral. This old cathedral dates back to the 13th century and was the site where Hungarian monarchs were coronated (while their country was occupied by the Ottoman Turks). It was being extensively refurbished during our visit, with scaffolding everywhere, so I have not included a photo of its exterior. It is, however, one of the key historic buildings in Bratislava and is worth a visit. To spite the local Christians, the Soviets built an expressway immediately outside of the walls of the church. The Soviets are now gone and despite the nearby roadway the church moves forward into the 21st century.
5) The New Bridge. You can’t miss this bridge spanning the Danube from the old city into a rather ugly stretch of Soviet era buildings, mostly boxy prefabricated concrete apartments. The bridge is notable for its unusual aerial restaurant affectionately named “UFO restaurant” for obvious reasons.
We didn’t stay overnight in Bratislava but easily could have and think we would have greatly enjoyed it. I think you would, too.
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