While big brother Prague has been on the travel radar for decades, backpackers are only starting to warm up to Bratislava — the Slovak capital since Czechoslovakia broke up in 1993. That might have something to do with an unflattering portrayal in EuroTrip (“It’s good you came in summer — in winter, it can get very depressing”), which is nothing like the reality of what life is like in this charming city on the banks of the Danube River. It’s home to ancient castles, eccentric statues, delicious and dirt-cheap food and drink, and churches that won’t bore your brains out. Oh, and then there’s that legendary Bratislava nightlife. From beer and bridges to statues and Soviets, these are the top ten things to do in Bratislava.
Climb the castle
Much like how this medieval masterpiece sits on top of the Slovak capital, the city’s iconic castle deserves its place atop any list of things to do in Bratislava. Crowning a small peak above the Danube River, the fortress’ first bricks were laid way back in the 9th Century before it enjoyed a massive facelift after World War Two, meaning the castle is in immaculate condition today. You can spot the huge white structure from all over Bratislava, which makes it easy to find on foot — just keep trekking up the slope and you’ll get there eventually. A history museum inside the castle’s walls is waiting at the top, but the real attractions are the parks and gardens that surround it — they’re free to roam around, and frame an unspoiled panorama of the Bratislava Old Town with only the gilded tower of St Martin’s Cathedral getting in the way.
Wind through Bratislava Old Town
Cheap pints aren’t the only reason that Bratislava is called a mini-Prague. The Old Town is a maze of twisting alleyways and pastel-hued buildings shielded from their Communist-era surrounds by a ring of 13th Century fortifications. Start at the Old Town Hall (Stará Radnica) on the Main Square (Hlavné Námestie) and spot the Napoleonic cannonball still stuck in the bright yellow façade. Then wander down pedestrian-only laneways to the grand opera house (Slovenské Národné Divadlo) and the pretty-in-pink Primatial Palace, which you can pop inside for €3. Beyond Michael’s Gate — the Gothic tower looming 51 metres above the streets below — sits Slovakia’s White House, Grassalkovich Palace, the seat of the president with a huge garden out the back that’s open to visitors. The entire Bratislava Old Town is a tangle of museums, galleries, cafes, pubs and boutiques. The best way to see it? Get lost.
Go statue spotting
Bratislava’s most famous residents don’t move… with one exception. The Roland Fountain (A.K.A the Maximilian Fountain) in the Main Square houses a knight in armour that reportedly bows every New Year’s Eve at midnight, although only true Bratislava natives are able to see the miracle (and surely a few dozen New Year’s beers doesn’t hurt, either). Nearby, a bronze sewer worker named Cumil leers out of a manhole, a metallic Napoleonic soldier leans over a park bench, and local eccentric Schöner Náci perpetually tips his silver top hat. Then there’s the pair of skateboarders perched on a postbox on Obchodná Street, the circus-themed sculptures sprinkled around the Eurovea shopping centre, Danish author Hans Christian Andersen for some reason, and that’s only the start. Seriously, this city is obsessed with statues.
See a UFO
The SNP Bridge was officially named after the Slovenské Národné Povstanie, or the Slovak National Uprising, during WWII. But one glance and it’s obvious why everyone calls this thing the UFO Bridge. Like a flying saucer soaring across the Danube, the UFO Bridge was an architectural marvel when it was built in 1972, suspending 300 metres of road with two pillars and some steel cables. But the space-age contraption stuck on top stole the limelight (and the naming rights). These days you can zoom up to the UFO’s observation deck for €7.40, or find room in your backpacker’s budget for a pricey meal with a view in the tower-top restaurant.
Fans of Communist-era architecture can also cross the bridge to Petrzalka — a mass of brutalist blocks that admittedly does look like that scene from EuroTrip — then hop back over the Danube to see the Slovak Radio Building (Slovenský Rozhlas), an upside-down pyramid that’s got to be one of the world’s weirdest buildings. The seemingly abandoned Namestie Slobody square next door, plus the Kamzík TV Tower on the southern edge of the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathian Mountains), are other Soviet-inspired oddities in the city.
Visit a church that’s actually interesting
Every single European city carries a church on their ‘top things to do’ list. But let’s be honest: besides the Sagrada Familia, the Vatican and the Notre Dame (thanks, Disney), how many of them do you actually remember visiting?
So, when the Blue Church pops up in a discussion about what to do in Bratislava, fear not — here’s one temple you’ll actually want to visit. In fact, if there’s any church that should’ve starred in a Disney movie, it’s this one — a baby blue building that looks more like a cake or a cartoon than a cathedral. St Elizabeth’s Church (Kostol Svätej Alžbety) is the brainchild of Ödön Lechner, nicknamed the Hungarian Gaudí for his zany art nouveau creations in the early 1900s. And the gilt-edged interior glitters just as much as the puffy facade, which all makes for pure Instagram gold.
Scale Slavín Hill
The flag-waving soldier, atop the 40-metre pylon at the summit of Slavín Hill, boasts the best view of Bratislava, but the platforms below him provide some pretty good vistas too. An uphill slog through the posh part of the city leads to this Socialist centrepiece that salutes the 7,000 Soviet troops who are buried on top of Slavín Hill — soldiers who died liberating Slovakia from the Nazis in WWII. This military cemetery is a sombre memorial, an exemplar of Communist design and one of Bratislava’s most spectacular vantage points all rolled into one. The sweeping views across the Slovak capital make Slavín one of the best things to do in Bratislava.
Sip on specialty coffee
Central Europe is covered in cafes — Viennese coffee houses are legendary, while nearby cities like Brno and Budapest are awash with specialty coffee. There are more than 150 cafes in the Bratislava Old Town alone, but for a flat white that rivals what you’re used to in Brunswick, Brooklyn or Bethnal Green, venture outside the fortification walls. Good Times Coffee Roasters is a small, sunny, super-friendly space, Mad Drop Brew Bar is a hipster haven well populated by local uni students on their way to class, and Gorila.sk Urban Space is a spot where you could spend hours on the couches beneath the wall of books — the perfect place to Skype home, if you haven’t talked to your mum in two months.
Feast on beer and dumplings
Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar has been brewing beer in Bratislava since 1752, pouring pilsner just a block from Michael’s Gate. That brewery, plus a larger beer hall close to the Blue Church, provides an old-school backdrop to stuff your face full of traditional Slovak food: pierogis, schnitzel, goulash, and bryndzové halušky — potato dumplings slathered in soft sheep’s cheese and smoked bacon, kind of like gnocchi or spätzle. You’ll save some coin on food and drink by leaving the Old Town, particularly along the bustling Obchodná Street — the imaginatively named Slovak Pub is an institution, serving cut-price pints and pub grub in a traditional inn. And for a waterfront watering hole, try the Dunajsky Pivovar, a craft beer bar on a boat anchored on the Danube in the shadow of the UFO Bridge. A glass of sweet, sticky dessert wine from the Tokaj region in the south of the country will round out your taste of Slovakia.
Cheap flights and cheaper booze have made Bratislava one of Europe’s hottest party capitals, especially for backpackers sick of paying for more expensive drinks west of the Austrian border. The dozens of heaving pubs and clubs make the Slovak capital feel like a mini Prague or Budapest — there’s a reason the Viennese catch the train to Bratislava for a night out, then crawl home on the first train back when the sun rises in the morning. Head to The Club (how did they manage to come up with such an original name?) for the biggest party, Nu Spirit for underground beats, FUGA for techno and Randal for live rock. Or just follow your ear down Michalská and Ventúrska in the Old Town, the epicentre of Bratislava nightlife.
Take a day trip to Vienna
Many backpackers only get to Bratislava on a day trip from Vienna — but with so much to do here, why not save a stack of euros by sleeping in the Slovak capital and doing that journey the other way around? Vienna is only a one-hour, €10.80 train from Bratislava — or a pricier but more scenic cruise down the Danube — and you can easily race around the Austrian capital’s highlights in one day: the golden Schönbrunn Palace, the towering Rathaus and St Stephen’s Cathedral, the mouth-watering Naschmarkt and the beautiful gardens that ring the palatial museum quarter. The clifftop Devín castle, the ancient city of Nitra and the vineyards of the Small Carpathian Wine Route are other great day trips from Bratislava.
Bonus: book a great hostel!
There’s a growing crop of brilliant Bratislava hostels, including plenty of party hostels as well as boutique properties with a little more privacy (and peace and quiet). Expect to pay €10 for a dorm bed or €30-plus for a private room — a few extra euros can often score a lot of extra quality, with plenty of options with a rating above 9. There are a selection in the Old Town, but you’ll save by staying further north near the train station — Bratislava is so compact that you can stroll from your seat on the train to patting Cumil on the head in the heart of the Old Town in less than half an hour.
Hostel Folks is a hard-to-beat pick — clean, comfortable and convenient, sandwiched between Michael’s Gate and Grassalkovich Palace. The social Hostel Blues, the upscale Dream Hostel and the rowdy Wild Elephants are other top choices.
After reading our top things to do in Bratislava, we hope you won’t be overlooking the Slovakian capital any time soon! Eccentric architecture, cheap beer and an ever-expanding backpacker scene – what’s not to love? Time to add Bratislava to your travel list sharpish!
About the author:
Tom Smith is an Australian writer living in Manchester. Obsessed with sport and travel, Tom has watched cricket in Cardiff, football in Fortaleza, baseball in the Bay Area, and there’s still plenty more to tick off the bucket list yet. Read more of his work here.
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