Bratislava is the capital city of Slovakia and also the largest city in the country. It is located only a 37 miles from Vienna and 120 miles from Budapest, making it an easy day trip from either city.
Fun fact: Bratislava is the only capital city that boarders two other countries.
When we were planning our Eastern European trip (see overview here), Bratislava wasn’t even on our radar. I mean we knew it was there, but we originally thinking of going to Vienna, Austria between Budapest and Prague. When our timeline changed, we realized we would have cut Vienna from this trip because we just couldn’t do it justice in one day. When we re-evaluated the train routes, we found that out that Bratislava was perfectly on the way and that we could see the city for a few hours without getting too much off our schedule. We took the early morning train from Budapest to Bratislava and had about 5-6 hours before we had to jump back on a train to Prague.
On our train ride up, we decided that we were going to loosely follow this walking tour, making sure we didn’t miss any of the main sites while we were in Bratislava. We stored our bags in the train station (only costs a few euros) and then hit the ground running. Here is the gist of the things we saw and did in our few hours in Bratislava:
Right when you get out of the train station, it’s a quick walk down Štefánikova street to the Old Town part of Bratisalva. Right before entering the city center, we passed the Presidential Gardens and Grassalkovich Palace, which is the current residence of the Slovakian President. We walked in the gardens to see the colorful flowers and then continued on our way into Old Town.
Immediately as we passed the palace, we saw the green steeple of St. Michael’s Gate and the start of old town. St. Michael’s Gate is the last part of the city wall that still exists and just before the gate is the old moat that surrounded the city. Don’t pass too quickly through the tunnel – on the ground marks the zero kilometer plaque which all measurements in Slovakia are taken from. According to this, just 6,856 km back to the good ol’ United States.
The tunnel under the gate opens into Michalská street and eventually into the main square. This street is lined with cute little old shops and restaurants. As quaint as this street is now, this isn’t how it always was. This area of town was bombed heavily in WWII and unfortunately, due to the communist beliefs, it was not rebuilt until after the fall of communism in 1989.
We walked down the street two blocks until it opened up into the Main Square, home of the town hall. This square is full of buildings all from different architectural periods. The main building, the yellow tower, was the first part of the town hall and as the city grew, different additions were added on, creating the mish-mashed group of buildings.
From here, we continued wandering down the street walk way, soaking in the the architecture, the many statues, and the culture until we landed in Hviezdoslav Square.
Standing tall at the end of this square is the Slovak National Theater. This theater opened in the 1880s and at that time hosted shows half in German and half in Hungarian. Today, it has been come true centerpiece of Slovakia and all shows are in Slovak.
Just to the side of the Theater is another reminder of the old years of Bratislava – the remains of Fishermen’s Gate. This was once the gate that the fisherman used to enter the city from the Danube river, which would have been where this square now sits. We continued down through the square, admiring the statues and fountains, and stopping to see what was happening at some festival tents.
At the end of the square, we turned right and ended up at the holocaust memorial and St. Martin’s Cathedral. This holocaust memorial sits at the exact location where Bratislava’s original synagogue used to stand and is used to remember the thousands of Jews that were deported from Slovakia to the concentration camps. Prior to Hilter’s regime, this synagogue sat side by side with the main cathedral of Slovakia. Now it is remembered by the etching in the memorial.
St. Martin’s Cathedral, with its towering green steeple, has played a few parts in Eastern European history. During the Ottoman occupation, the capital of Hungary was moved to Bratislava. During this time, 19 Hungarian kings and queens were crowned in St. Martin’s, including the last Hungarian crowning.
That finished up our tour of the Old Town and from there we made the short hike up to the Bratislava Castle that sits on a hill to the east overlooking all of the city. As much as the walk consisted of quite a few stairs, it was hard to complain when we were walking through the old time-y, colorful streets seen below.
Once up a the top, there are several different view points to get a 180 degree view of the city below. To the right stands the SNP bridge and the more modern part of town. This is one addition to the city made by the communist during their time of rule. The SNP bridge, nicknamed the UFO, has an observation deck up at the top with amazing views back into Old Town and over the Danube river. To the left stands all of the buildings and monuments we just toured in Old Town. You can see St. Martin’s Cathedral and the Old Town Hall tower peaking out of the landscape.
The Bratislava Castle was first established in the 13th century. The watchtower, see below, is the oldest remaining part of this original 13th century landmark. In the 18th century, this area underwent a huge transformation under the reign of Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa. She loved the area and therefore, changed it from a military fortress to her new royal residence. A few years later in 1811, the castle was burned to the ground and was left abandoned for almost 150 years. During the communist reign, the castle was rebuilt, but this time in their more modern style.
We walked around the grounds for a little while, but decided against going inside to the museum. We read a few reviews that say the museum wasn’t that great, especially for the high price. We kept our money and wandered around to the other side where there is a vast garden area. We admired all the different plants and trees (all intricately trimmed might we add) and made up a game of trying to name them (with utter failure). From there, our stomachs were calling out and we headed back the same way we came up.
Food in Bratislava
We didn’t have any recommendations for food, so after walking around all of the city and the castle, we headed back to the main square by the town hall and randomly chose a place to eat lunch and people watch.
Since we only had the chance to eat one meal while we are in Bratislava, we didn’t really get the full Slovakian cuisine experience. With that said, the one must-have on our list was bryndzové halušky, the national dish of Slovakia, so in our one meal we made sure to order it. For bryndzové halušky – think mac and cheese meets gnocchi. It is a potato dumpling with sheep cheese and bits of bacon. Deliciously creamy, but definitely on the heavier side. We originally thought this portion was not going to be enough and then we got half way through, eyes started to bulged a little, and we realized that was actually a really large portion.
Other than bryndzové halušky, Slovak cuisine is mostly consists of pork, potatoes, cabbage, and dumplings. See our other plate that we had at lunch. Overall, we thought the food was yummy, but it was definitely on the heavier side for lunch.
To continue our tradition of trying beer in every country, we also had a beer with lunch. Unfortunately for us, they didn’t carry any Slovak beer at the restaurant we were at (I know! I was shocked too) so we ordered a new beer for us the Czech Budweiser.
A little story about this beer. As Americans, we immediately recognized the name Budweiser, although we are used to seeing it with the Anheuser-Busch label. After a little research, we found out that the two are not related at all and in fact there has been a legal battle about the name Budweiser since 1907. If you see a Budweiser any where in North America, it was made by Anheuser-Busch. If you see a Budweiser any where in Europe, it was made by the Czech brewery. Super interesting!
Overall, we spent a whirlwind of 6 hours walking around this historic town and taking in as much as we could. Even though 6 hours is a pretty short amount of time to see a city, we felt like we had just the right amount of time to explore Bratislava and added bonus – we got to check off another country visited. When it comes to recommendations, Bratislava would be a good stop over if you have a little time, like we did, but it doesn’t have enough to do to be a main destination of a trip.