I love this town, I think for about the hundredth time in the past few days. Whether I’m looking at a cool old – or brand new – building, enjoying a food I’ve never tried before, marveling at a tree lined square with a burbling fountain, or even just pleasantly surprised at a free public restroom, Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, has made that a nearly constant thought. I love this town.
By European touristic standards, Bratislava is small, about 500,000 people, sitting quietly along the Danube an hour east of Vienna and a couple hours north of Budapest. It doesn’t have the grand buildings of those – or other – cities, or the world-class museums. It doesn’t get the tourist traffic, and most visitors simply come as a day trip from Vienna thanks to short and cheap trains and buses.
But what Bratislava lacks in traditional tourist sites, it more than makes up for in charm.
Bratislava’s Old Town is small. It is easily walkable, flat except for going up to the castle atop the neighboring hill. The buildings here are lovely, though not as grand as in Prague, for instance. But little unique – and wonderful – features set it apart. Bratislava is home to more interesting sculptures of people (some actual and some just caricatures) than most cities I’ve visited. In the central square you can sit on a bench next to Napoleon, or pose next to a statue of a guard in a guard station. By the Danube in the brand-new Eurovea complex you can find a statue of a man with an inter-tube around his waist, seemingly waiting to go into the water.
Most famous of all is cumil (pronounced choo-mill), a statue of a worker coming out of a manhole. I love this town.
The Danube slices the city in two, though most things to do and see are on the north side. Bridges have sheltered pedestrian and bike lanes, or little cutout parks along the sides, with benches aimed at views of the river and the old town. Parks line both sides, and where open green space is impossible, new tree-lined pedestrian streets give a more natural feel to the urban center. South of the river, just across a bridge that is only for pedestrians and Bratislava’s tram system, sits Sad Janka Krala, a huge park with grassy meadows, shady walkways, and a gazebo made from the spire of a destroyed church. Locals are out in force, even on a weekday afternoon, enjoying the fall sunshine, loving their city.
A long-ish pedestrian walk takes one from the Slovak National Theatre to St. Martin’s Cathedral and Bratislava Castle. Lined with trees, spotted with fountains, and featuring a band stand, it is another wonderful feature of a beautiful place. I love this town.
And the food… oh the food! Have you ever eaten one of the best meals of your life in an old monastery-turned-cinema-turned-restaurant? If you ever go to Bratislava Flagship, you can cross that item off your bucket list. A truly beautiful space, it offers traditional Slovak cuisine that will knock your socks off. Bryndzove halusky is a dish of potato dumplings (think gnocchi) in a sheep’s milk cheese sauce and topped with crispy rendered bacon. Try it as part of a trio with those same dumplings mixed with bacon and cabbage, as well as sheep’s cheese pirohi (fluffy dumplings). Add a house-brewed beer, and maybe duck served with potato pancakes and red cabbage, and you have yourself a feast.
Nearby is Bratislava’s old market hall. Though only open on Saturdays, the farmers market here features local wines, produce, and treats. Try a poppyseed pastry, a traditional delicacy. Pair it with a €2 Slovak muscat (a bit tarter than many I’ve tried), and sit outside on a shaded bench next to the fountain, one of so many of these around. I love this town.
When night falls, the city lights up, with the gleaming white walls of Bratislava Castle leading the way. What better time to have a glass of Nestville whiskey, a shockingly smooth locally distilled (and cheap) offering. Or catch a concert at the theatre, less than half the price of a similar show in nearby Vienna.
Bratislava is a city on the move, with construction happening all over the city. New buildings are architecturally interesting, and accentuate the natural features of the Danube and the hills surrounding the town. Even the shopping malls are beautiful, highlighted by Eurovea and Nivy, which is now home to the new bus terminal. And unlike most cities, restrooms in Nivy, at least, are clean and free. In fact, I did not encounter a single restroom that charged during my entire stay in the city, which experienced European travelers will know to be a rarity. It may seem like a small thing, but it is just one of those features that stands out. I love this town.
For most European tourists, Bratislava barely registers. Either it is skipped altogether or barely skimmed as a day trip from Vienna. And while the touristic highlights can certainly be seen in that day (click here to read about those, most of which have to do with the city’s history), I cannot recommend enough to spend another day or three here. Enjoy the slower pace, the pleasant vibe, the amazing food. Experience an up and coming destination in a way that might not be possible a decade from now. You, too, will come to love this town.
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