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 one day in Bratislava.
Last month we spent a fantastic few days in Vienna. Not knowing much about this part of Europe, 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.
Want to know more about our stay in Vienna? Check out my city guide in Oh Vienna! Coffee, castle and craft beers in Austria’s capital
How to get to Bratislava by train from Vienna
Bratislava Hlavna station felt worlds away from Vienna Hauptbahnhof, in spite of the short journey. Bustling, lively and filled with the sweet scent of pastries, it had a slight sense of faded grandeur that seemed rather charming.
Note: A day return by train from Vienna Hauptbahnhof to Bratislava Hlavna costs €16 (correct as of October 2016). The journey takes less than an hour and trains depart hourly throughout the day. Grab yourself a pastry from the station bakery and go get yourself a seat.
The station doesn’t land you right in the midst of things. The short walk to the centre gave us a chance to get a feel for the place. Bratislava is distinctly different to Vienna, but undoubtedly enticing. The streets are lined with a mismatch of elegant Viennese-style townhouses – some more threadbare, some more opulent – alongside mid-twentieth century brutalist offices and hotels. It’s this contrast that intrigues you and draws you in.
A pleasant fifteen minute walk took us to the edge of the old town. Seemingly out of nowhere, a towering verdigris spire appeared, A cluster of colourful buildings below lured us in through the old St. Michael’s gate, and into a world of narrow cobbled streets.
Exploring Bratislava’s old town
Bratislava’s old town is undeniably pretty. If you’re spending one day in Bratislava it’s the best place to start, and will happily entertain you for a few hours.
The honey-coloured buildings and stone cobbles underfoot invite you in and encourage you to explore. We were lucky enough to visit on a day when Bratislava was largely empty, so we had many of the streets to ourselves. There were just a few small tour groups and another British couple we bumped into. We joyfully meandered our way around and then uphill toward the castle, the focal point of the city.
The castle itself is fascinating for a couple 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.
During the 1950’s inspiration struck, and the city began a restoration project to bring the castle back to life. A few creative flourishes were added here and there, but the focal point of the old town has largely been brought back to life as it was in the nineteenth century.
If this piques your curiosity, have a read of A beginners guide to Carcassonne: Medieval magic in the Midi. Located in south-west France, this rambling castle was completely renovated from the ruins up in the nineteenth century and contains many artistic (but not authentic!) flourishes.
After orientating ourselves and exploring the castle walls, we headed back into the old town. With pretty churches, fountains and old gateways to be found, we happily followed our feet for a while.
Two squares mark the epicentre of town, Hlvana namestie and Hviezdoslavovo namestie, and both are lined with colourful buildings and cafes. Wandering the nearby narrow streets we found lots of tempting places to eat and drink, many with comfy chairs and cosy blankets outside. They were calling us to make the most of the fine October weather.
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 it 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 city’s main streets that lead away from the old town. Mostly pedestrianised, it’s lined with high street shops, restaurants and takeaways, and feels much more like a real city than the sugar-coated old town.
We’d heard of a vegan canteen here, and intrigued, thought it would make a refreshing change for lunch. We weren’t disappointed. Veggie was tucked away in a glass-roofed galleria just off the main street. It took us a few minutes to work out exactly how it worked, but essentially 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!
Beyond Bratislava’s old town
Freedom Square and the Presidential Palace
Rather than 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. On the other hand, the formal Presidential Gardens are over a hundred years old and frame the beautifully-restored Presidential Palace. Look out for the President’s Honour guard standing to attention throughout the day at the front of the building.
You could easily spend a whole day pottering around the pretty streets of the old town. But we wanted to get a different perspective on the city before we left.
Even if you’ve only got one day in Bratislava, I’d recommend going beyond the old town and finding some of the best views that overlook it.
We followed city streets behind the castle for ten minutes before meandering into a quieter residential area. From here, a fifteen minute walk uphill took us 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. Poignant history aside, it’s worth visiting just for the view. 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. We were glad to have found it.
So, would I recommend a visit? Absolutely.
Bratislava is 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 a plan…