Back to Europe for this post and my most recent trip, as I just got back a few days ago. I started visiting Europe more extensively a couple of years back, when I didn’t want to travel too far and for too long with dad being so ill, and so I became interested in the central and eastern regions of Europe, with its rich interconnecting histories, fascinating cultures and breathtaking landscapes. Slovakia is known as the country at the heart of Europe due to its geographical position, it is surrounded by Austria, Hungary, Czechia, Ukraine and Poland, and as I have already visited all of Slovakia’s neighbours, it was about time I paid a visit to the country in the middle connecting them all.
History Bit – The capital of the Slovak Republic is Bratislava but due to the history of the country and the fact that Slovakia only amicably split from Czechoslovakia in 1993, makes Bratislava one of the youngest capitals in Europe, but one with a long and interesting history that goes back beyond the 2nd century BC. This is definitely reflected in the sights dotted around the old town area of the city, that has a distinctly different feel than the rest of the capital.
Arrivals. We arrived at Bratislava airport late on a midweek evening, so armed with a telephone number from the hosts of our apartment we rang The Green Taxi company, who arrived quickly and dropped us off in the old town for €10. There are public transport options too and from the airport as well and we used them on our return the following week. Bus number 61 is the airport bus and takes around 20 mins to get to its final stop of the main train station, which is about a 20-25 min walk from the old town, if you don’t fancy the walk with your suitcase from the train station, the no1 tram goes from the train station & stops just outside the periphery of the historic centre. Catching the bus or tram is easy, you purchase a ticket prior to boarding (valid on both buses and trams) from a machine by the stop, and you purchase it according to the duration of trip, ie a 15 minute (0.70€) 30 (0.90€) or maybe a 60 minute trip (1.20€) and just validate the ticket using the machine on board.
Bratislava itself is very close to the Austrian, Hungarian & Czechia borders, and so you could easily travel in by using the extensive Train network that is all around this area. From Budapest a direct train takes about 2hr 40 minutes, from Brno in Czechia it takes just over 90 minutes and from Vienna in Austria around an hour.
There is plenty to do over a long weekend here, with cathedrals, castles, churches, a clock tower, museums, the Danube river, an observation tower, & some really unique friendly coffee shops and restaurants as well as lots of pubs serving local beer and all the dumplings you can eat.
Views from top & bottom of St Michaels Gate.
Sights. We stayed in an apartment close to St Michaels Gate, the only remaining gate left of this once heavily fortified city and this made a good base in which to visit the old town, but we were a close enough walk to the sites outside the walls. As soon as you walk outside the mainly pedestrianised old town, there are lots of signposts helpfully directing you to the other sights and conveniences with lots of available tram and bus stops. Staying close to St Michaels Gate meant that it was one of the first sites we visited, you can visit the inside of the tower and climb to the top, to do so, the main entrance is to be found on the right of the gate from inside the old town. As well as the not too strenuous climb to the top, there is the Museum of Arms spread over each floor on your way up, once at the top, there is a great view of the old town and a chance to get your bearings. Also, dont miss the zero kilometre plaque underneath the gate showing how many KM it is from Bratislava to other places on the globe.
One of the oldest buildings in Bratislava is the The Old Town Hall located on the largest square in the town, Hlavné Námestie. Inside is the large, informative Bratislava History Museum, which has really unusual artefacts including the shooting targets which are basically oil paintings on wood, and the building itself in which the museum is situated is grand and beautiful, be sure to check out the thick vaulted doors and intricate ceilings as well as climbing to the top of the tower, which provides a great vantage point to look over the square and towards the castle.
Looking up at the Old Town Hall on our sunny day and looking back down from the top of the tower on our rainy day.
Visable from all over the city is the spire of St Michaels Cathedral located in the south west of the old town, next to some of the original wall and across from the castle up on the hill. Quite a simple and gothic interior, it’s nowhere near as colourful or extravagant as some of the other cathedrals I have visited recently, but it’s simplicity is part of its charm, as long as you time your visit to avoid the crowds arriving from the Danube cruise boats. As well as some impressive alters, you can also head downstairs to the crypt, and don’t forget the memorial to the now demolished synagogue outside in the square.
Opposite the front door of the cathedral was a little alleyway with a sign advertising tea, if you follow the sign up along the historic wall you will find the most delightful outdoor Tea Bar selling hot and cold drinks, including Slovak Tea made with linden flowers. We ordered hot Slovakian tea and sat and watched the world go by for a good half hour here, a definite recommendation for when you need a little pause in your sightseeing, there was even little blankets ready for if the weather turned cold.
Hot Slovakian tea with linden flowers (squint and you can see St Martins spire top right)
Another place we stumbled upon whilst just exploring the streets, squares and small alleyways, was what turned out to be the Oldest Souvenir shop in the town with a small museum in the back. Well worth a look in, located just off Františkanske Namestie on Biela, close to the Old Town Hall, keep an eye out for the small sign out front leading you down a small side alley.
About a 10 minutes walk east outside the city walls, is the uniquely decorated, bright blue church of St Elizabeth. The walls, the roof, the shiny mosaics are all blue, I’ve never seen anything like it before, and it’s curved lines and colours reminded me of Gaudi. When we arrived, we were disappointed to find it was closed and only open for services, so check online when you are there for the worship times, we returned during the Sunday morning service and was pleased to find the interior is just as beautiful and unique as the exterior.
Another place initially closed to visitors when we got there was The Palffy Palace, although advertised as open, there seemed to be a private function happening which was a shame. The palace is home to the Bratislava City Gallery, but the real reason we wanted to visit was to see the Matej Kren Passage, an art installation comprising of around 15,000 books and looks surreal, we never got chance to return during our stay, but you always have to leave a reason to return right?
Towering up on a hill, looking down upon the capital over in the west of the city is Bratislava Castle, its impossible to miss and is a short but uphill walk from the old town walls and the Danube. The interior of the castle is currently undergoing a huge renovation project, so its not open to tourists, but the Museum of Slovak History is still available to visit, and the impressive grounds of the exterior are open and free and with its elevated position, there are superb views across the whole of the capital and beyond.
There is another castle that should be on anyone’s itinerary when visiting Bratislava and that is Devin Castle, which is a short and easy 20 minute bus ride from the Novy Most bus station, which is located under the Most SNP, this is the huge cable bridge with the observation tower on. The bus you need is the 29 (28 also goes there I believe), which when we caught it, left from the main road under the bridge on the old town side and not inside the actual station. This bus takes you straight into Devin and although there is a bus stop right by the castle, when we visited on a Saturday and in October, the bus only stopped on the main road and its then a short walk to the castle, I am presuming in summer when its busier, the bus has an extra stop right by the castle carpark.
There are two main things to do when visiting this part of town, the castle and the ruins for sure, but there are some really nice and well signposted walking trails along the junction of the Morova and Danube rivers, this section of river also becomes the countries border, with the opposite shore being Austria. We made time to do both, but started with the castle and the museum that is situated inside the castle grounds, the upper part of the castle is closed for extensive renovations, but there was still a lot available to explore. The castle grounds are pretty big and encompass a field with donkeys, an excavation area with archologists hard at work & leafy footpaths taking you to various medieval ruins along the way, including an amunitions store, a chapel & a workhouse. The castle itself is built high into the surrounding rock and well worth taking time to explore, the views from the top are magnificent and keep a look out for the many caves dotted into the cliff face. There are a few stalls selling souvenirs outside the main entrance, as well as a hotel and a few restaurants should you fancy a meal before heading back to the centre of Bratislava.
Eats and Drinks. Restaurants serving local beers, wine and traditional food are plentiful in the old town. We heard about a traditional place just outside the old town walls with great reviews on TripAdvisor called Bratislava Flagship Restaurant as we fancied at least one night sampling some regional dishes. The restaurant is huge, the largest in the capital, but friendly, casual, and suitable for large groups and solo/small groups, housed in a former cinema the building has a great atmosphere and is connected to a monastic brewery, so be sure to try the beer too. The menu covers all bases when it comes to Slovakian food, I had the garlic soup served in a bread bowl and then shared a dumpling platter for two with mum. The majority of traditional Slovak dishes feature pork, it is possible to get vegetarian options but they will more than likely feature a lot of sheeps cheese, although there were some none traditional places we ate at that had great vegetarian and vegan options on the menu and the food was outstanding.
Enjoy Coffee was an absolute delight, we visited daily and sampled dishes from their breakfast, lunch and dinner menus as well as having coffee to go. The menu was fresh, healthy, with creative dishes such as buckwheat muesli, homemade bread with avocado spread, celery fries and courgette pasta, they had a great selection of coffees, teas and smoothies and served alcohol too. There was outdoor and indoor seating, with a children’s play area towards the back and friendly multilingual staff who always made us feel welcome.
We stumbled upon Fach by accident as we were wet and cold once we returned from Devin and fancied some soup. This coffee bar, cafe, bakery and restaurant was a real surprise, their menu was really interesting, unique and simple, focussing on 15 seasonal dishes at a time. I ordered carrot soup, but it was actually carrot velouté, fermented ginger and hazelnuts, it was outstanding, it came with the dried, fermented and cooked ingredients in a bowl and then the waitress poured the warm soup on top, and priced at just over £5 it was probably the best soup I have ever tasted. It was only when we investigated afterwards that we realised the main chef trained and worked in Michelin starred restaurants prior to opening Fach, and it truely shows from the decor, the presentation and of course the food, but most of all it was friendly, inviting and perfect for 2 wet sightseers to warm up.
The final eating place I will rave about is Mondieu, there are 4 in Bratislava and we visited the bistro situated on Laurinska for our final brunch before heading to the airport. They specialise in coffees and chocolate but also have an extensive breakfast and lunch menu with lots of crepes, salads and sandwiches, I had the beetroot, hummus and avocado open sandwich and mum had the avocado and poached egg open sandwich both were fresh and delicious. They have a huge selection of speciality coffees, I had an espresso with raw cacao and mum had a beautifully presented coffee with chocolate, but the star of our last meal here was the dairy free lavender and blueberry ice cream from their vegan ice cream bar, it was to die for! Our mains cost around £5 each, the ice cream and coffees around £2 each and the staff were helpful and happy to let us sit with our suitcases and not feel in the way.
Hot Tips –
- If you have an hour or so to kill with large bags and suitcases, then visit the Old Town Hall Tower and the Bratislava History Museum as there is a free bag store by the ticket desk.
- Ice cream lovers head to the Laboratorie branch of Mondieu, located on Laurinska down the road from the bistro, here they have an ice cream bar where you can design your own flavours and toppings.
- Keep a look out for the many bronze statues dotted around the old town, including the old man peaking out of the drain, the paparazzi statue has been removed though, so dont spend a good hour wandering aroundlookimg for it like we did.
- If you are into your “metal” there is a Metal Megastore close to Palffy Palace.
Other sights – UFO Observation Tower – Museum of Pharmacy – Museum of Clocks – Slavin War Memorial, a walk along the Danube or river cruise.
Always be polite 🙂 – Thank you in Slovak is pronounced something like Dakujem (Da Qui Em)