Old town charm and 20th century brutalist architecture collide in the east-meets-west capital city of Slovakia. With a burgeoning creative scene and delightfully good food, my city guide shares what not to miss in a day in Bratislava.
Last month we spent a fantastic few days in Vienna (you can read all about it in Oh, Vienna! Coffee, castles and craft beers in Austria’s capital if you’re curious). Not knowing much about this part of Austria, we were excited to discover just how close the city is to the border with Slovakia – and it’s capital, Bratislava. Once I’d realised it was less than an hour away by train, I was sold. Two capitals in one short break? Irresistible.
So, one hazy October morning, we found ourselves at the main station in Vienna, with coffee and pastries in hand, hopping on the intercity train.
Bratislava Hlavna station feels worlds away from Vienna Hauptbahnhof in spite of the short journey. Bustling, lively and filled with the sweet scent of pastries, it has a slight sense of faded grandeur that’s rather charming.
The station doesn’t land you right in the midst of things, which gives you a chance to get a feel for the place. Arriving in Bratislava feels like you’ve arrived in Central Europe, the streets are lined with a mismatch of elegant Viennese-style townhouses – some more threadbare, some more opulent – alongside mid-twentieth century brutalist office buildings and hotels. But the city immediately felt like it had a warmth to it, and a pleasant fifteen minute walk took us to the edge of the old town. Seemingly out of nowhere, a towering verdigris spire appeared and a cluster of colourful buildings lured us in through the old St. Michaels city gate, and into a world of narrow cobbled streets.
Bratislava old town
The old town is undeniably pretty. We were lucky enough to visit on day when Bratislava was largely quite expect for a few tour groups and another British couple we bumped into. So, we had many of the streets to ourselves, and joyfully meandered our way toward the castle, the focal point of the city.
The castle itself is fascinating for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a good starting point for any visit to Bratislava, as it’s elevated location gives you a birds eye view of the city below. It’s got plenty to explore inside and out, with little gardens bridging the divide between the old town and castle itself.
But what intrigued me most was that its appearances are somewhat deceptive. Back in the early part of the twentieth century, the castle was essentially a ruin. Years of neglect had left it a pitiful state, and it sat next to one of the poorest communities within Bratislava – old photographs that can be seen along parts of the city wall mark it almost unrecognisable. Then, during the 1950’s inspiration struck and the city began a restoration project to bring it back to life, with a few creative flourishes of course. Today, the castle is the icing on the cake to the fairytale old town, but peer into it’s history and it’s even more interesting than you might expect.
After orientating ourselves and exploring the castle walls, we headed back into the old town. There’s plenty to keep you occupied for a few hours here. Two squares mark the epicentre of town, Hlvana namestie and Hviezdoslavovo namestie, and both are lined with colourful buildings and cafes. Wander the nearby narrow streets to find lots of tempting places to eat and drink, many with comfy chairs and cosy blankets outside calling us to make the most of the fine October weather. There are a pretty churches, fountains and old gateways to be found – and we happily followed our feet for a while.
Eating and drinking in Bratislava
Deciding that some refreshments were in order, we headed just outside the old town to the well-recommended Urban Space – a coffee shop cum bookshop cum workspace that was packed with locals rather than tourists. Aside from the supremely cool interior, they served super coffee and we enjoyed browsing their substantial English language books selection.
Fortified, we continued on towards Obchodna, one of the cities main streets leading away from the old town. Mostly pedestrianised, it’s lined with high street shops, restaurants and takeaways, and feels much more like the real Bratislava. We’d heard of a vegan canteen here, and intrigued, we thought it would make a refreshing change for lunch. We weren’t disappointed, Veggie was tucked away in a glass-roofed galeria just off the main street and offered the most delicious spread. Once we’d worked out how it worked – you grab a tray, pick and serve your main dish such as lasagna or quiche, add salad and sides and then pay for your lunch based on the weight of your plate – we tucked into heaps of delicious food for, incredibly, less than €4 each. The menu changes through the week, but if you’re there and spot the roasted pumpkin quiche – go for it!
Out and about
Before heading back toward the old town, we took a stroll through nearby Freedom Square and the Presidential Gardens. They juxtapose each other oddly perfectly. Freedom Square was created in the 1980’s and reflects the socialist era architecture of this time, whilst the formal Presidential Gardens are over a hundred years old. They frame the beautifully restored Presidential Palace – look out for the President’s Honor guard standing to attention throughout the day at the front of the building.
Of course, it’s possible to spend a whole day pottering around the pretty streets of the old town, stopping for a coffee here and there and a spot of lunch. But we wanted to get a different perspective on the city before we left. Heading out of the old town behind the castle, we followed city streets for about ten minutes before turning off into a quieter residential area. From here, an uphill walk of about fifteen minutes takes you to Slavin, a monumental memorial to soldiers of the Soviet Army who fell during the liberation of Bratislava. It’s a tranquil, if sobering, spot that overlooks the city below. Even on a hazy day, you can see for miles – the castle perched atop the old town, the snaking river Danube spanned by the anachronistic UFO bridge and a patchwork of homes, churches and woodland below. It’s well worth the walk.
So, would I recommend a visit? Absolutely. Bratislava the perfect size to explore in a day or two, with the old town as a base. And it’s location makes it so easy to incorporate into a break or travel around Vienna, Prague, Budapest or even Krakow. Hold on a moment – let me find my passport, that sounds like it could be a plan…
The practical bit
A day return from Vienna Hauptbahnhof costs €16, and the journey takes less than an hour. Trains depart hourly throughout the day. Grab yourself a pastry from the station bakery and go get yourself a seat.
You can read more about our city break in Vienna in Oh Vienna! Coffee, castle and craft beers in Austria’s capital.
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