Fascinating Athens

I finally visited Greece last week, the first trip to the country known as the crossroads of Europe, a first for both me and mum. We chose Athens, not only because of the cheap flights (we were flying off-season)  but because we fancied a city break, full of none stop sights, history, legends and great food, and with us going in February, it had a better chance of reasonable wandering weather than say a city break to Paris or Porto.

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Arrivals. All the main budget airlines fly to Athens from a good portion of the UK, regular flights leave from Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol, London and although nothing from Belfast, you can fly from Dublin, all taking approximately 3 – 4 hours. Once you have arrived, its easy to jump on Line 3 of the metro to the city centre. Many people though travel into Athens via boat, with Greeks largest port Piraeus only a short 10km ride away, so it’s easily accessible via cruise ship or if you fancy, a trip from one of the Greek islands. Once you arrive at Piraeus, hop on line 1 of the metro to Athens city centre. It is also possible to head into Athens from the neighbouring countries via train, but Athens is quite far south on the mainland, so you will be looking at quite a long trip from say Sofia in Bulgaria or Skopje in Macedonia.

Once you have arrived its super easy to get around Athens, most places are easily walkable, but if you need a helping hand or are short of time, then the metro is really easy to navigate, with stops directly by some of the main sights such as the Acropolis, Kerameikos and Syntagma. Lots more Athens transport info can be found on this helpful website but to be honest, other than getting too and from the airport, my 71 year old mum and I walked everywhere quite easily.

History Bit. Wow, I mean what can you say about this country that is at the junction of Europe, Asia and Africa, and has had people living here on this part of the globe since 270,000 BC. Greece is said to be the birthplace of the first advanced civilisation of Europe, they created a new way of living, that ended up being copied and replicated all over the world. They started the first democracy, with a model that was developed in Athens, spreading out across the country, allowing citizens to vote on the laws of the land. They started the Olympic games and produced some of the worlds greatest ever thinkers, scholars and philosophers, bringing new ideas to light about science, art and philosophy.

Athens itself is said to be named after the goddess of wisdom Athena, with the site of the original centre of the city, which was founded in 3000 BC, atop the rock where the Acropolis stands. This makes it one of the oldest cities in the world and has been continuously inhabited for 5000 years, resulting in a city break brimming full of things to see, do, learn, eat and drink.

Sights¬†– I better start at the ancient fortress situated high up a rock, visible from most parts of the city, otherwise known as The Acropolis. This collection of remains atop the hill was the original centre of Athens, with the star of the show being the former temple, known as the Parthenon. We visited in February, and so had a dry, clear day with a light breeze accompanying our climb up, affording us the time to just wander, take in the views and visit the Theatre of Dionysus, but I could imagine at the height of summer full of crowds, it could be quite tiring and overwhelmingly busy. We entered via the south-east corner, close to the Acropolis Metro Station, pretty much opposite the newly built, modern looking Acropolis Museum. There is a larger entrance to the west with a car park, meaning bus loads of tourists arrive via this route and so it can be a lot busier, therefore I’d definitely recommend the smaller side entry gate. Back on lower ground, the recently constructed Acropolis Museum is well worth a visit, at ‚ā¨5 you can view many of the retrieved finds from all over the archeological site, including tools, columns and statues and jewellery.

If you are staying in Athens for a few days and plan to see as many of the historical sites as possible, then it’s well worth investing in a 5 day multi ticket pass, for ‚ā¨30 (reduced depending on the season and discounts available for children & seniors) you get entry to around 10 of the best archeological wonders dotted around the city and you can get the pass at any of the ticket offices that are part of the deal. The main museums and the Panathenaic Olympic stadium are not included, but we still felt it was worth it.

The Acropolis is situated in the Plaka area of Athens, which is the picturesque, colourful, old centre of the town, full of tiny streets, cafes, craft shops and traditional restaurants. We stayed in this area and it was perfect for being central to explore the whole of the city, as well as having a decent choice of places to eat each night. Like everywhere in this city you will stumble upon some kind of the historic ruins at every corner, so take your time, grab a seat outside a cafe, order a greek coffee and just soak up the atmosphere.

Ancient Agora was the heart of ancient Athens, with people living here as far back as 3000 BC. Its part of the multi-pass ticket and you can easily spend a couple of hours exploring. We had a long walk all over the area, constantly stopping to investigate the many many things on show. Highlights included the museum in the Stoa of Attalos, the Statue of Hadrian, the incredibly impressive Klepsydra or water clock, the remains of the ancient main road that lead to Piraeus, and make sure you walk up to the Temple of Hephaestus as the views across the city are breathtaking and perfect for a selfie with the Acropolis in the background!

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About a 15 minute walk from Ancient Agora past the Thiseio metro station is¬†Kerameikos. One of the lesser visited archeological sites I believe, but if you have time to spare, I would recommend a visit and it’s also included in the multi-ticket. Within this large and still being excavated site, is a museum, a burial ground, the ancient walls of the city and it was the area of town where the majority of the pottery was made, some of which is now displayed in the on site museum.

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As you walk back from Kerameikos towards the centre of the modern city, you will more than likely pass through the bustling neighbourhood of Monastiraki.¬†Lots of restaurants, cafes and tourist shops line the streets, and there is a famous flea market here too to peruse although we found it quite loud and hectic. You wont be able to avoid the area though, as there are far too many sites located around here, including the fascinating¬†Hadrian’s Library. Originally built in 132 AD the famous Roman Emperor¬†built a massive complex for people to read and learn, which included study rooms, reading rooms and a garden to relax in.¬†Roman Agora¬†is just a 2 minute walk from the library which you enter via an imposing gate, the whole area was financed by Julius Caesar with the highlight here being the¬†Tower of the Winds, an ancient time and weather station, so cool! Both Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library are included on the multi-ticket too, see told you it was worth it.

For a breath of fresh air and some greenery, we spent an hour away from the ruins, and climbed up Philapappos Hill to the monument on the top. You can easily find the signed entrance to the hill and the various paved trails, close to the South West entrance of the Acropolis. With water and snack bars, we slowly made our way to the top for some outstanding views, it’s a popular spot for the locals and tourists alike and a nice getaway from the hustle of the streets below.

Heading east away from the main sights in the centre and across the busy main road, you cannot fail to notice¬†Hadrians Arch.¬†This ancient marble gateway used to cross one of the main roads from the centre of Athens and although quite a lot is missing, it still makes an impressive image. Behind the arch we could see another vast area of columns and other remains, so we followed the pavement round to the left and came across the entrance to¬†Temple of Olympian Zeus. This¬†gigantic temple was erected in honour of the god of sky and thunder himself, although construction was slow and took over 600 years to build from start to finish and then fell into disrepair about a century after it was built. It’s worth a visit to appreciate the sheer scale of the place, which was the largest temple in Greece, and you can put your purse away, as its also part of the multi-ticket deal!

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Opposite the grounds where the temple is located is the National Gardens, a place we walked through a number of times on our trip. Of course there are ruins dotted around here, but there are also busts, including one of Lord Byron who visited Greece and fell in love with the country. There are beautiful palm tree-lined paths, ponds, colourful trees, cafes and if you pass the Zappeion exhibition building, climb up the steps and peek inside to the pretty atrium.

Visiting the national gardens may not be top of anyones list visiting the city for the first time, but as you exit the gardens from the south-east you are instantly greeted with a spectacular view of the¬†The Panathenaic Stadium¬†so its worth taking the scenic route to the stadium instead of the dusty pavement for sure. ¬†Originally it was built in 330 BC for the Panathenaic games which involved nude men competing in various athletic events as well as horse and music competitions, which I can’t imagine getting an afternoon slot on BBC TV nowadays. It was abandoned after the 4th Century when Christianity came into favour and naked bloody duels were no longer seen as entertainment, but it was refurbished and brought back to life as the venue of the first international Olympic games in 1896 and most recently used in the 2004 Olympic games that were held in Athens. All that alone should be enough reason to visit this magnificent piece of history, but it’s also the only stadium in the world made entirely of marble. Although it’s not included in the multi-ticket its only between ‚ā¨2.50-5 to visit and for this you get full access to the stadium, the stands, the competition floor, a museum and obligatory giftshop as well as the chance to climb upon the medals stand, so its definitely worth it!

If you fancy a quiet reflective walk whilst you are over in this part of town, then the First Cemetary of Athens is a 15 minute walk away. Many notable Greeks are buried here,  few small churches on the grounds to see aswell. Close by is Varnava Square where there are lots of nice cafes, restaurants and bars which appear to be visited more by locals than tourists, which is always a good sign and we had the most delicious falafel for lunch at the Baba Ganoush Falafel Shop.

Heading back towards the centre, and close to the Stadium and National Garden is Aristotle’s Lyceum, which was a secondary school or gymnasium and the first of its kind in the world. ¬†Although we read the opening hours as 8am-8pm, it was most definitely closed when we arrived around 4pm one day, ¬†and we weren’t the only ones who seemed to have been misinformed about the opening hours, but we were still able to glance through the surrounding gate to get a sense of the place and its history.

Pretty much round the corner from here is the Parliament building and Syntagma Square, the central square of the city, site of many protests and celebrations over the years. There is always stuff going on, including lots of cafes and restaurants, while across the street at the Parliament building is the tomb of the unknown soldier with a changing of the guard every hour (official ceremony is every Sunday at 11am). ¬†Look out for the rather unique slow walk and check the soldiers uniforms complete with pom poms on the shoes, it’s a strong but¬†culturally significant look.

Probably the most important museum in the city is the¬†National Archeological Museum of Athens¬†and its jam-packed full of historic finds from all over the country. It’s a little stuck out to the North of the capital, but a short walk from Omonia and Viktoria metro stations. Not having quite made our 10,000 steps for the day, we walked from Syntagma Square up along Omonoia to the museum, as there were some pretty impressive and historic buildings along this route. The Academy of Athens is a hard to miss neoclassical building with statues of Plato, Socrates and Apollo out front, next door is the National University of Athens another neoclassical building and one of the largest universities in Europe and next door to that, the National Library of Athens, the third neoclassical building in a row, so its makes for an interesting walk and really brings home the scale of history around every corner of this city.

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Coffee and Cake. Our first taste of thick dark Greek coffee was at Aioli Cafe Snack Bar, super friendly, with outdoor seating in the Plaka area, it was a great place to rest our weary feet. Attika Aptonoieia¬†at¬†the bottom of the busy shopping street Ermou was another great place we found for coffee with the most delicious selection of sandwiches and cakes, offering a soya milk option, with outdoor seating opposite the¬†Panagia Kapnikarea Church¬†and its well worth sticking your head inside this tiny church whilst you’re there. Round the back of the Acropolis museum is the delightful Little Tree and Books Coffee Shop, friendly service with none-dairy milk options and to die for cakes and brownies, I would have returned here had we the time. Another find was the¬†Bread Factory¬†no none dairy options, so I had an espresso, but the sticky lemon cake was so good!

Eats First off we tried to visit Ariston as any quick internet search will tag it as probably the best place to try the traditional pies, unfortunately it was closed when we eventually located this small bakery, we aimed to return but we never quite made it back. Yiasemi though, we did make it too, and had our first taste of Greece sat by the Plaka steps, devouring a crumbly, juicy spinach pie with a ¬†local beer, be warned though, this place is very popular and you may need to wait a while for service. We ate quite a few times around Kidathineon Street in Plaka on recommendation from our hotel, here there are lots of little cafes, ice cream parlours and restaurants, all offering deals ¬†for 3 courses and a glass of wine (or beer) for under ‚ā¨20. ¬†We had great local dishes and friendly service at Acropolis Taverna, Byzantino Taverna and Trattoria as well as another 3 course meal deal with great portions at Scolarchio also in Plaka, all with vegetarian options too. None dairy ice cream is no problem for the Greeks with dairy free ice cream and iced lattes on offer at Ice Queen Gelato opposite the Acropolis Metro station and one night we sampled local dishes at¬†Ydria¬†close to Hadrians Library in a lively little square and then had a glass of wine and cake sat in the window at¬†Meliartos¬†for our dessert, perfect.

 

Extras: Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, Catching a Funicular up to the top of Lycabettus Hill and the Benaki Museum of Art, Culture and History.

Always Be Polite:  Thank you : Efharisto  Good Morning: Kalimera  Hello: Yassas

 

 

 

 

Philadelphia- City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection

State No 6

I’m just back from a trip to Philadelphia, but as it was over 10 years since my last visit to this historic, vibrant East coast city, I was excited to return and explore more parts of the city I never managed too last time. I was there attending a workshop, but made sure I put aside time to visit some sights aswell.

Arrivals. You can fly direct from London, Manchester or Dublin, which takes around 8hrs. If you go via Dublin you get to experience Pre Clearance before you board the plane, which as I mentioned in my previous post is a revelation! I didn’t fly direct to Philadelphia this time, I went from Manchester (via Dublin) to Newark in New Jersey. There are lots of options to get yourself straight to downtown Philadelphia from other East Coast destinations, so don’t be put off if flights are super expensive direct to Philly as they were for me. If you fly straight into Philadelphia and are not hiring a car (if you plan to stay solely in and around the city you wont need one) then get the inexpensive, handy¬†SEPTA,¬†straight from the airport to downtown, the most central stations ¬†to get off at will be 30th, Suburban or Jefferson.

If flying in from Newark your best two options are; get the Air Train to Newark Airport Train Station, then either board the Amtrak straight to 30th Street Philadelphia which is direct but can be expensive, or get the NJ Transit train to Trenton, then change to the SEPTA straight to downtown Philadelphia. If you fly into New York, you can get the train or Bus from Penn Station, while Washington DC also has direct buses (taking around 4 hours) and trains from its gorgeous Union Station direct to downtown Philadelphia.

Getting Around. A lot of sights are easy to walk too, especially if you group a few of them in the same neighbourhood together during your visit, the SEPTA (buses, trolleys and subway) runs all over the city and is super easy to use, while taxi’s, Uber and Lyft are also available everywhere.

History Bit. The city was founded by an English entrepreneur and Quaker called William Penn in the late 1800’s after he was gifted some land from King Charles II. Prior to this, the area of land that eventually became the capital of Pennsylvania was inhabited by the indigenous people of the Lenape. There is so much history here in this city, whether you want to learn more about slavery, the declaration of independence or even its religious past, it is all richly reflected here in a lot of the popular sights visited today.

What to see.¬†Independence National Park and of course the star of the park, probably the most famous broken bell in the world, is the Liberty Bell. There is a lot to see in this area, all the sights are located close to 5th and Independence Mall which is a SEPTA stop handily enough. There is the huge Independence Visitor’s Centre which is the perfect place to start your historic day trip, open from 8.30 daily and free, there is a shop, cafe, theatre as well as exhibitions which illustrate and inform all visitors on the importance this city has had on the rest of the country. Across the street is the Liberty Bell centre, which is also free and open from 9am, its first come first served, so time your visit well to avoid the queues. If its busy and you can’t face waiting for a B’elfie (Bell Selfie?) then walk towards the Independence Hall past the Liberty Bell centre and take a look back and to your right, you can see the Bell through the glass wall. Visiting the Independence Hall is also free, but you need to book onto one of the tours in advance, there are also free gardens and outdoor exhibits all around this area making it a must do whether you have a passing or keen interest in the history of the USA.

One block north of the Independence visitor centre is the National Constitution Centre this is open daily, costing just under $15 per adult for a ticket. This includes access to the Signers Hall, lots of museum exhibits, an interactive We The People show and a theatre production which runs every 30 minutes depicting the history of the signing of the constitution, fascinating stuff!

This area is part of the oldest neighbourhood of Philadelphia, so just wander around and you will constantly find places of interest and historical significance, the oldest street is here Elfreth’s Alley in fact it is known as the oldest residential street in the US. Christ Church Burial Grounds is located close by, where you can take a fascinating leafy green walk through the churchyard where Benjamin Franklin was buried amongst other figures important to US history. This church ground is situated on Arch St and Independence Mall, and if you continue East down Arch, close by is the Betsy Ross House which is where the first US flag was made by Betsy herself, see there is history around every corner.

A short walk west along Arch St you pass the African American Museum, I couldn’t get to visit this time due to the workshop I was attending, but I definitely want to schedule in time to go next visit. Keep walking along this street and next up is the Chinatown Friendship Gate signally the start of Chinatown, like any Chinatown across the world there is a great colourful vibe, tonnes of shops, restaurants, cafes and a monthly Night Market. I headed away from Chinatown though this visit to Arch and 12th St and what may become my most favourite farmers market that I have ever visited, the loud, vibrant, assault on all the senses that is the¬†Reading Terminal Market.
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Over 100 years old and open from 8am-6pm daily, you must plan a visit to explore the 80+ stalls of food, drink and crafts. Definitely give the place a once over before deciding where you sit and eat and what to buy, there are Amish stalls serving home made cheeses, butchers and fishmongers selling their fresh produce as well as places to buy kitchen supplies and flowers as well as the many restaurants. Stay for something to eat for sure, whether its a vegan corn dog at Fox and Son, a Philly Cheesesteak at Carmens or comfort food at the Dutch Eating Place you can easily spend an hour here, I even spotted peanut butter chocolate bacon for sale, but gave that a miss!

The architecture in Philadelphia is amazing, with a range of styles both old and new, from the art deco railway stations of Suburban and 30th St to the 60 storey Comcast Tower (due for completion in 2018) and its even higher neighbour One Liberty Place, it can make for a dizzying but fascinating wander. If you head West from Reading Terminal Market towards the skyscrapers of downtown, dominating the skyline is the Masonic Temple. Taking 5 years to construct and then another 15 years to finish the interior, you cannot fail to miss this beautiful elaborate granite building, taking up a whole block of its own. Tours are available but limited and cost $15.

Right opposite the Masonic Temple is the largest municiple building in the US¬†City Hall,¬†its another huge impressive building, that proudly stands in the heart of the city and makes a good point of reference when exploring this part of town. Although it never became the tallest building in the world as it had been hoped, it did hold the record for tallest building in Philadelphia up until the 80’s. If you have a head for heights ascend up the tower for what I can imagine are insane panoramic views of the city, tower tours finish at around 4pm though, so dont leave it late, I couldnt fit it in this time with it being a work trip, so have pencilled it in for next time.

IMG_2673 The great city hall peaking out at the end of Broad Street

The next big attraction on most peoples itineraries when visiting Philadelphia will probably be the Museum of Art and even if you arent an art lover and dont want to pay the $20 entrance fee, still head over so you can run up the famous Rocky Steps and get a photo by the statue. You can get there by bus or on the metro to 30th St station and from there its a 20 min walk along the Schuylkill River, but if you fancy walking from downtown, head down the gorgeous tree and flag lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Even if you dont visit inside the art museum, head round to the back of the building and visit the sculpture and landscaped gardens with gorgeous views along the Schuylkill River, I only found them after a tip from my Lyft driver, who I gave 5 stars too of course!

There are so many more museums that are worthy of visiting, but as I was over for a work trip, I just couldnt squeeze as much in as I would have liked.  On my hit list for next time is the Franklin Institute, Rodin Museum, Please Touch Museum, The National Museum of American Jewish History and The Eastern State Penitentiary as well as the African American Museum that I mentioned earlier.

There is so much outdoor green space in Philadelphia, lots of parks, squares and river walks, which makes for a nice contrast when you have got your fill on museums and other indoor sights. Fairmont Park is the big one, with over 9,000 acres to explore, but there is also Franklin Sq, Love Park, Washington Square and the Schuylkill River Trail to name only a few.

Food and Drink РPhiladelpahia does great coffee, with some unique independent coffee shops that also side hustle as clothing shops, creative spaces and music venues. Some gems I visited during my latest stay included Rival Bros and United by Blue and next time I really want to visit Grindcore Coffee which is a vegan coffeeshop.

Speaking of vegan food, I visited¬†Hip City Veg¬†twice during my stay, its a 100% plant based diner that serves the most delicious meat-free food including chick’n fajitas and tempeh burgers that even the most hardened carnivore would love and the green drink below is the insanely amazing kale lemonade.

 

Hot Tips –

  • A single fair on the Septa costs $2.50 or a 1 day convenience pass (max 8 rides) is $9
  • On the first Friday evening of each month there is a¬†Art Walk¬†in the Old City District.
  • Known as one of the best beer cities in America, there are more than 60 brewing companies in the Philadelphia region alone with many local companies organising brew pub tours.

Other sights

  • Six Flags Theme Park is only around 90 mins away on the train (change at Trenton)
  • Jump on the Septa to Wissahicken and hike the Valley Park Trail and then eat and drink along Main Street afterwards in the Manayunk district. Manayunk is Native American for ‘Where we go to drink’ by the way!
  • Shop, eat and drink along South Street in the heart of the city.

Always be polite – If you buy a $10 cheesesteak at Reading Terminal Market then a tip would be around $1.50.

Bratislava and beyond 

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 ‚ā¨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‚ā¨) 30 (0.90‚ā¨) or maybe a 60 minute trip (1.20‚ā¨) 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, Hlavn√© N√°mestie. 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 FrantiŇ°kanske 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 velout√©, 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 ūüôā –  Thank you in Slovak is pronounced something like Dakujem (Da Qui Em)