You may be wondering why Bratislava never seems to come up in the history books when, in fact, the city has existed since at least the 10th century. Well, as Istanbul was once Constantinople (and Byzantium before that, though the song doesn’t pay attention to that part), until 1919, there was no Bratislava. This was Pressburg, a city with a mighty history, much of which is visible to visitors to the Slovak capital today.
Any new arrival to Bratislava will first be greeted by the imposing facade of Bratislava Castle, a very square-looking, large, white castle built on a hill overlooking the city and the Danube. It has four red towers, and appears to be the very model of a castle a new artist would draw: a box with some red turrets.
There has been a castle here since the Celtic period, but the more modern history of Bratislava Castle (formerly Pressburg Castle, unsurprisingly) dates to roughly the year 805. The importance of the castle increased in 1385, when the Hungarian King Sigismund took the region and used it as the front line against the Czechs. From 1531 to 1783, this castle became the main seat of government for Hungary, as Budapest had been conquered by the Ottomans, with Hungarian kings ruling from here after being crowned in the nearby St. Martin’s Cathedral (which also still stands today, alongside one of the few remaining pieces of the original city wall).
The castle was destroyed by fire in 1811, and rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s, though restoration work is still going on today. As a result, the outside is as it would have appeared, but the inside of what was a lavish Baroque palace is pretty stark. At €12 for entry, it is not worth it, in my opinion, although rotating museum exhibits might be of particular interest. (A current one on the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution was great.) Do, however, climb the hill for the view of the castle from the outside, and the view of the city and river below from the walls.
Bratislava’s old town is adorable. It is small, easily walkable, full of cute cafes and restaurants, and home to a few cool buildings. Most notable of those is the city’s Old Town Hall, a towered structure on one side of the main square (and flanked on the other by the 18th century Primate’s Palace, which was home to the city’s bishops). As with Bratislava Castle, the town hall plays host to a museum, this one on the history of the city and the building. For €7, I consider this one to be worthwhile.
The highlight of a visit is a journey to the top of the tower. It is steep, and more flights of stairs than it would appear from the outside, but each landing holds a small exhibit. (Some are fascinating, like one telling the story of the castle and town being on opposite sides in a battle, which given the castle’s more strategic location overlooking the town can’t have been good for those down here.) The view from the balcony circling the top of the tower is a great reward for making it up the stairs, and gives the best vantage from which to see the old town itself.
The Old Town Hall dates back to the 14th century, and the tower was completed in 1370. The rest of the complex was added over the next couple centuries, as Bratislava (Pressburg) grew in size and importance. In the 18th century, Empress Maria Theresa took over Austria-Hungary, and ruled from a combination of Vienna and here, keeping a promise to split her time between the territories of Austria and Hungary. But with the reemergence of Budapest (really just Buda at that point) under the rule of her son, Bratislava became less important.
In 1919, following Austria-Hungary’s defeat in World War One, Bratislava (now officially its name) became the capital of the Slovak region of the newly formed Czechoslovakia. And in turn, when that nation broke apart in the Velvet Revolution (perhaps the most peaceful split of any country in history) in 1989 – independence came fully in 1993 – Bratislava became the capital of the independent Slovakia. Now a city of around 500,000, Bratislava is a rapidly growing European capital, with all the trappings.
The growth of the city can be seen everywhere, and I joke that the crane should be the symbol of Bratislava, since construction projects are all around. Modern shopping centers and new high-rise apartments sit just outside the old town, giving a terrific juxtaposition of new and historic. Take the Eurovea development along the Danube, for instance. A combination shopping center, luxury living complex (with what will soon be the city’s tallest skyscraper), and riverfront promenade, Eurovea is part of a plan to revolutionize the city through development along the Danube, similar to what other cities have done with their waterfronts.
A glimpse into the EU aspect of Bratislava can be found from the Presidential Palace. The gardens are free to enter, and open to the public, as are a couple bordering public squares. Make sure to look for the line of trees on the eastern side of the garden, each planted by a visiting dignitary. It is a terrific feature, and one I wish more places emulated.
Bratislava, formerly Pressburg, has a history that spans well over a millennium. From the city’s Celtic roots to its time as the Hungarian capital to its place as the modern head of the Slovak state, it is a fascinating place worth a visit!
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