Bratislava: cute, compact and cheap
Bratislava isn’t exactly the most talked about capital in Europe. When I said I was going, lots of my friends weren’t sure where it was or said that they’d been and it was a bit boring. Poor Bratislava. In my opinion it gets a bad wrap, because I really liked it. It’s cute, compact, cheap, far less crowded than most other European capitals, and if you know where to go you can watch the sunset over its charming little old town while drinking a cocktail that tastes like popcorn. What’s not to love about that?
One thing that's definitely true is that due to its size, you only need to spend one or two days in Bratislava. It’s location – close to Vienna, Budapest, Cesky Krumlov, Zagreb, Prague and Krakow – make it easy to drop by if you’re in the area. We flew into Bratislava from London on a Saturday morning and headed to Prague by train late afternoon the next day, and while I would've liked to have stayed slightly longer it was enough to see the main sites and get a good feel for the city.
Then again, if you don’t like holidays that revolve around food and castles: a) what kind of person are you? and b) you may as well stop reading right now.
Tops things to do in Bratislava
A visit to Bratislavsky Mestiansky pivovar for some traditional fare
I'm going to start with the important stuff first: food. After settling into our Airbnb this was our first stop and the best meal of the trip. Ever heard of beer cheese? I still don’t really know what kind of cheese it is but it’s delicious. They bring out a Brie-esque (that's a word, right?) cheese, covered in freshly poured beer, accompanied by deep friend toast, pickled onions, mustard, garlic and butter on the side. Heaven on a plate. We even went back the next day so I could have another hit of my new favourite dish.
But for non-cheese lovers (if that’s even possible?), there’s plenty of other traditional Slovak food to try here, including Bryndzové halušky (potato dumplings with sheep cheese and bacon) and pirohy (a.k.a pierogi). These were equally as tasty – and halušky in particular was like nothing I’d ever eaten before (well actually I guess it’s quite like gnocchi but different – just try it and you’ll know what I mean).
Tip: Bratislavsky Mestiansky pivovar is located in two spots – we went to both but my favourite was the smaller one located at Drevena 8, Bratislava 811 06, Slovakia. It’s slightly out of the old town but worth the walk.
See the city from the sky
Stumbling upon Sky Bar was one of my two highlights in Bratislava (the other was Devin Castle). We had a couple of hours to kill before dinner, so we headed here based on a recommendation from our Airbnb host (can you still say you stumbled upon something if it was recommended?!). Anyway, we didn’t have a reservation so they sat us at the bar (on the 7th floor) – which is next to floor to ceiling windows and a glass rooftop giving you impressive view of the old town. Who said Bratislava isn’t postcard perfect? Watching the sunset over the castle, cocktail in hand, gave me the weird little tummy flips I get when my happiness level surpasses 100%. Although not cheap by local standards, the cocktails were a delicious mix of classic to crazy (a cocktail served in a tiny bathtub anybody?), the service was warm and you can go out onto the terrace above to take photos of the stunning view. I promise you that nobody I know will go to Bratislava without a visit here or I’ll disown them.
Look across at Austria from Devin Castle
If you’ve seen photos of Bratislava you’ll know it’s got a square-shaped, extremely symmetrical white castle that sits on a hill above the old town – you can’t miss it. So when a friend mentioned that the castle was the highlight of his trip to Bratislava, I assumed he meant that one. But it turns out, there is a second castle in the city outskirts that completely trumps the city’s namesake castle (if you ask me anyway).
Devin Castle is one of the oldest in Slovakia and stands in an idyllic setting just inside Slovak territory on the border with Austria – separated only by the Danube and Morava rivers. Now mainly ruins (it was destroyed by Napoleon's troops in 1809) that blend into the rock it’s built on, it offers panoramic views of Slovakia and Austria. It was a sunny day when we went and it was glorious – I felt like I was in a medieval movie. As the castle is quite small, you don’t need to stay for long – we wandered around for about an hour taking in the views of the castle itself and the surroundings.
Getting there: You can get a local bus out to the castle but for convenience I recommend taking an Uber – which will only set you back about €8 from the city centre. Due to time constraints, we caught an Uber back into town as well, but if you go early, you’ll have more than enough time to see the castle before catching a boat back down the Danube River at 1.30pm. The boat trip back from the castle only takes 30 minutes, compared to 90 minutes on the way there due to the river’s strong currant. This sounds crazy until you watch the boats going upstream, which you can do from the castle, as the water flows so quickly they look like they’re barely moving.
Tips: Before paying the entrance fee (which is a few euro, but can only be paid in cash), walk around the path to the right of the castle to see the little watch tower (the Maiden Tower) which features in many of the photographs online but can’t actually be seen very well from inside the castle. And take cash!
See the bluest church you'll ever see
Photos of the Blue Church caught my eye when I was researching things to do in Bratislava because it looks a little bit like a cake with blue and white icing. It’s unusual art nouveau style makes it a striking building, which is well worth the 5-10 minute walk from the old town to see in person. It’s as blue as the name lets on – down to the interior walls and even pews. Just make sure you check opening hours as it’s often closed to the public.
Explore the medieval old town
Bratislava’s old town is a labyrinth of cobbled lanes and pastel coloured, baroque buildings, reminiscent of other larger European old towns, like Prague, Krakow and Vienna. But it’s a bit quirkier – get lost wandering around and you’ll bump into strange lifelike statues like Cumil, the communist worker popping out of the ground to peep up women’s skirts or a Napoleon solider leaning on a park bench in the main square. Make sure you pass by Micheal’s Gate, the city’s only remaining medieval fortification, and Hlavné Námestie – the café-lined main square. But most importantly have a coffee in one of the many Viennese-inspired hipster coffee shops like Verne, Antik or the slightly more touristy Mondieu where you can get a chocolate macchiato (or is that just a tiny mocha?!).
Get a bird’s eye view of the city from the actual castle
Okay so finally it’s time for me to properly mention the little white box up on the hill – you know, my second favourite castle in Bratislava? Up here you get sweeping views of not only the city, but also Austria and even Hungary on a clear day. There’s no other castle in the world that gives you views of three countries, so that in itself it quite a claim to fame if you ask me. Although the original castle was built between the 9th and 18th century, sadly it was gutted by fire in 1811. For a long time it was an eyesore in the city, continuing to deteriorate over the years (I found some photos it pre-restoration here) until it was finally rebuilt in 1956 and completed in 1964.
They say the best things in life are free and the same goes for this castle – don’t bother going in, just soak up the amazing views as you walk around the outside and in the gardens, but make sure you pop into the main square in the castle and go down the steps on the left hand side to see the underground well.
Bratislava is the ideal city to visit for those on a budget or anybody who wants a break from the crowds of bigger European cities. It’s never going to be on the must-see list, but if you’ve been to the likes of Prague and Budapest and want a more relaxed vibe, it’s the perfect choice, espcially if you make it out of the city to the beautiful Devin Castle.