During my recent trip throughout central and eastern Europe, I had a few people ask me why on earth I had selected Bratislava, Slovakia to spend a couple of my precious travel days. I had a few reasons. First, Bratislava was practically on my route anyway, as it’s only about an hour from the hub of Vienna. I was also drawn to having a break from some of the larger cities and the tour groups that come with them. Third, there’s something special to me about traveling to a place you never anticipated you might go to, and learning as much as you can about that place and its culture.
I predict that increasing numbers of travelers will make their way to Bratislava over the next 5-10 years, as we seek to find more of those off-the-beaten path destinations. Here’s your guide to the highlights:
Slovakia is on the euro and therefore isn’t quite as cheap as some of its eastern European counterparts. However, don’t be surprised to find beer for just one euro or a meal for a reasonable ten. Though I found that most people in the tourism industry spoke at least some English, a “Dobry Den” (formal “hello”) or “Dakujem” (JAH-koo-yehm; “thank you”) goes a long way. It also doesn’t hurt to have your Google Translate app ready, especially for restaurant menus.
For budget accommodations, I stayed at a hostel called Freddie Next to Mercury. I’m not too picky about where I stay, but if I were to do the trip over again I’d select a different place. Freddie Next to Mercury was a little farther walk from the city center than I’d anticipated and it wasn’t very clean (hello flies in the kitchen). Fortunately I won’t let a few flies ruin an otherwise perfectly good trip!
Statues in Old Town
If you google image Bratislava, you’re bound to find photos of several quintessential statues located throughout Old Town. I particularly recommend getting your picture taken with Cumil (the man at work popping out of a manhole) and Shone Naci (the man holding his top hat). Most of the statues are easy to spot; particularly for Cumil, just look for a small gathering of people staring downward. However, if you want to make sure to see them all, I recommend writing down these locations ahead of time:
Cumil: At the intersection of Panska & Rybarska brana
Shone Naci: At the intersection of Rybarska brana & Hlavne namestie
Napoleon’s Army Soldier: Leaning against a bench in the Main Square
Bronze Soldier: Located in the Main Square
Paparazzi: Formerly near the Main Square, currently located at the UFO restaurant
The UFO Tower, or the Slovak National Uprising (SNP), is a large, spaceship-like landmark that was originally intended to show that Slovakia is cutting edge and advanced. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to miss, and you may end of taking a few selfies with it in the background. It also features a restaurant and an observation deck with views of the city.
Church of St. Elisabeth
Known informally as The Blue Church, this place is also a baby blue piece of art, both inside and out. They hold daily Catholic mass in Slovak, or you can peek in the front door after hours and see the ornate interior through a gate. The Church of St. Elisabeth is about a 10 minute walk from the city center and is worth a brief visit.
Now I’ll admit, I didn’t actually go inside Bratislava Castle, which contains the Slovak National Museum. While I can’t speak to the museum, I highly recommend spending some time walking around the castle grounds. The castle itself is an icon of Bratislava, set above the city, and the views of the UFO tower are the best in the area. I got a bit of a workout hiking up there, but also found a great spot to enjoy a picnic lunch with a view.
This castle is actually in Devin, a short distance from Bratislava. You can either take a half day trip through a tour bus company, or take the significantly cheaper but slightly confusing city bus. If you opt to take the bus, start at the central bus station under the UFO bridge and use one of the coin-operated machines to get two 30 minute tickets (one for the way there and another for the way back). Find the stop for bus #29 and make sure it’s headed toward Devin. Note that when I went in 2018, this bus stop was around the corner from where I bought my tickets and was about 50 feet away from most of the other stops. These busses arrive approximately every 30 minutes. Once you’re on the bus, put a timestamp on your ticket right away; occasionally there are officials who check tickets and there’s a hefty fine if you don’t have a timestamp. Take the bus for about 25 minutes until you reach “Hrad Devin” (Devin Castle). Celebrate that you made it.
The castle used to be a military station but was destroyed by Napoleon in the early 1800’s. Now it’s a beautiful place to explore the ruins, look out at green pastures and vineyards, and catch some of the most stunning views of the Danube. It’s only three euros to enter and this includes access to some small exhibit areas where you can learn more of the history. If you’d like to make a full day of it, have lunch at one of the on-site restaurants and hike along some of the nearby paths.
The National Wine Salon
My absolute favorite part about Bratislava was the National Wine Salon. This gem is tucked away below the Museum of Viticulture and appeared to be unknown to many tourists. Regardless of whether or not you tour the museum for four euros, do make sure to visit the Wine Salon. Take a left after entering the museum to enter the huge cellar and taste some of the best wines Slovakia has to offer. Didn’t know Slovakia is a wine country? I didn’t either. Turns out they produce in relatively small quantities and drink it themselves rather than exporting it. I can’t blame them because their sweet white Tokaj wines are delicious.
The National Wine Salon’s most popular deal (and the one I partook in) allows you to try up to 75 Slovak wines in 100 minutes, all for 23 euros. I had about a teaspoon of each and it was an amazing experience. In fact, I was the only one in the cellar the entire time I did the tastings. I had asked whether or not they were doing the tastings that day, to which they responded, “Yes, of course! Just give us 5 minutes to set it up for you!” They literally set out 75 bottles of wine around the cellar, gave me an empty glass and a basket of bread, and let me pour my own tastings. I was really impressed with most of the wines and if I had more room in my suitcase, I would have gladly purchased a few bottles, especially because they were also very reasonably priced. Many bottles were only 8-12 euros.
Prefer to savor fewer than 75 wines? They also have less expensive tasting options that I’m sure are *almost* as much fun.
St. Martin’s Cathedral
I recommend making a quick stop inside St. Martin’s Cathedral and its catacombs, then walking along the city wall and reading about the history of Bratislava, or Pressburg as it was formerly called. Near the front entrance there are also some Instagram-worthy painted doors and windows on an adjacent building. This one featuring cats was my favorite:
St. Michael’s Gate
St. Michael’s Gate is an old city tower located in Old Town. You can climb the 7-story tower by entering through the Museum of Arms. On the sidewalk going through St. Michael’s Gate, you’ll also find a depiction of a compass embedded in the cement. This lists the distances from Bratislava to a number of capital cities around the world.
Free Walking Tour
Everyone will tell you to go on a free walking tour in Bratislava, and for good reason. You can see most of the sights within a few hours, all while learning about the history of the area, including details about the split from the Czech Republic in 1993. Even though the tours are free, it’s very important to generously tip your tour guide, as this is the only way they get paid. Do your best to have bills rather than coins, as the tour guides may or may not have a bag that they collect money in. There are multiple free tours available in Bratislava. The one I went on started with the sights in Old Town and then circled around Bratislava Castle.
Would you go to Bratislava? Tell me why in the comments below!
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