Exploring Bratislava, Slovakia
Last month, I had the amazing opportunity to spend 10 days in Central Europe and I loved every minute. After wrapping up our four days in lovely Vienna, we hopped on a boat and coasted down the Danube river to our next stop...Bratislava!
Bratislava is the capital of the small country of Slovakia. Prior to planning this trip, I had never heard of Bratislava and I imagine that is the case for a lot of folks.
For you history buffs, Slovakia was once a part of the communist country Czechoslovakia. When all of that fell apart in the late 1980s, Slovakia and the Czech Republic emerged as two independent countries leaving communism behind. So, it is a relatively new capital city having only been in existence since 1993 (the city has been around for centuries, so I’m just referring to the designation as a capital city).
As with all of Europe, Slovakia has a rich and long history. They spent many decades during the 20th century under Soviet influence but for the past 20+ years, they have been spreading their wings and rebuilding their history now that they’re out from behind the iron curtain.
While a lot of the city bears the mark of the communist years (graffiti, gray block buildings, etc.), Old Town shows no trace of this period. Reminiscent of days gone past with cobblestone streets, beautiful churches, stone walls, narrow alleys and streets, Old Town completely charmed me and had me wanting to explore every nook and cranny!
Today, I want to share this charming town with you as a means to inspire you to add this to your 'someday' travel list since it's well worth the stop if you're in the neighborhood.
What to Do & See
Bratislava is not a large city. You don't need a ton of time here to see it and enjoy it. 24 hours is plenty of time to take in the sites and if you're staying in nearby Vienna, a day trip from there is more than sufficient.
St. Elizabeth’s Church (The Little Blue Church)
A short walk outside of Old Town, there is a beautiful church that is appropriately nicknamed "The Little Blue Church". One look at the pictures above and you can see they aren't fooling around with their love of blue! Not only is the outside sporting this lovely hue, but the inside doesn't hold back either.
While you can't tour the church and they had the main part of the church closed off, you can walk into the entry way and peer through the gate to see the inside. It's quite a striking building, but given it's a quick stop and off the beaten path, I recommend only venturing here if you have some spare time in your schedule.
Take a Tour of Old Town
A great way to see the town and to hear the history is to hand over 10 Euro and spend an hour of your time being escorted around Old Town in a mini bus that perfectly squeezes through the tight spots of the old narrow alleys.
Old Town is predominately pedestrian only, but these little buses have been designed with that in mind. They are tiny (I thought it was a prop when we first arrived to the pick up location!), but their small size allows them to squeeze through the narrowest of streets and get where no car could ever go.
In addition to discovering history that fills the side and back streets, you can listen to audio that points out historical points located around the town (like the executioner's street!). This is a great way to get the lay of the land to know where you want to return via foot when you explore more on your own.
Go up the St. Michaels Tower
Since Bratislava’s history dates back to the Middle Ages, it was once a fortified city. That means at one point in time, large stone walls encircled the city for protection. The walls no longer exist, but you can find evidence of where the gates used to be. St. Michaels tower is one of those gates that still exists and it’s beautiful example of years gone by.
I love to find towers to go up in when visiting European cities. Most towns have old churches or structures that offer these birds eye views and I highly recommend them because they allow you to see the colorful roofs spread out before you. While some aren't free, they are usually the equivalent of only a couple of dollars and in my opinion, they’re well worth the fee.
The St. Michael's Tower was no exception and an added treat was the collection of historical arms and weapons on display on each landing as you made your way to the top.
The tricky thing about this tower though is finding the entrance!! We never noticed a door or anything else, but we kept seeing people who were clearly tourists walking around up there, so we knew there must be way! While making a small purchase at a shop next door, I asked..."How do you get to the top of the tower?" and he kindly pointed out this very nondescript door across the street (if you happen to go, it's the little door to the right of the archway!).
Eat at an Outdoor Restaurant
With the majority of Old Town being pedestrian only, the fine folks of Bratislava have taken advantage of the wide cobblestone streets and turned this little town into a cafe friendly city. There is quite the lively outdoor cafe scene, so this should not be hard to check off your list.
If you plan your trip during warm months, happy diners fill the streets with lots of life and energy. Most restaurants do have light blankets available in the event it gets chilly (this was true of Vienna and Budapest as well). In fact, the blanket of choice for all of these cafes throughout our trip was a $3.99 blanket from IKEA (which means I must pick one up the next time I’m at IKEA!).
Just walk around (and shop!)
This town is best explored on foot and since it’s small, it’s an easy task to undertake. You can easily explore everything in the span of a long afternoon and by taking the time, you’ll be rewarded with tons of charm and character.
You’ll also have the opportunity to pop into the many shops that line the streets. One thing I loved about Bratislava is that a lot of their shops feature handmade items by locals. If you want to bring home unique gifts for family and friends that don’t scream ‘souvenir’, you won’t hurt for options in this town!
What & Where to Eat
Since Bratislava is overflowing with cafes and restaurants, “where to eat” isn’t a tough question!
All of the restaurants have menus posted outside and I encourage you to give local dishes a try. I loved the Slovakian Goulash I tried from Segnerova Kuria (unfortunately, their site isn’t in English). It sits in the shadow of St. Michaels tower, but honestly, most of the restaurants looked amazing!
My favorite cafe from my entire European trip was this lovely place called Enjoy Coffee. I noticed it as we walked around and knew I’d have to get coffee there before leaving. I loved everything about this place!
It was cute, it was charming, and they had amazing coffee (in the cutest little tiny take away cups!). On all of the outside tables, they had these adorable white houses that held tea lights. I was thrilled when I went inside and spotted them for sale, so one those made the journey home with me so I can relive my Enjoy Coffee experience (I just need to get one of those IKEA blankets to really complete the picture!).
Where to Stay
While Bratislava can easily be seen during a day trip from Vienna, the town is lovely at night and has lots of energy, so I recommend booking one night in a hotel to explore the night scene. A perfect itinerary from Vienna is to arrive in the morning via the catamaran that runs between the two cities.
Spend the day exploring, shopping, and dining. Once the sun sets, explore some more of Old Town taking in the lights and active dining scene. Then tuck in for the night at a nearby hotel and plan to head out first thing the next day.
My recommendation is to try to find a place in Old Town. We stayed at the Sheraton just outside of Old Town and it was about a 20 minute walk to the central square. While not too far, it wasn’t quite close enough to pop in to drop things off or for a quick rest. So, if you can find a spot right in Old Town you’ll be perfectly situated for a convenient and charming stay.
Bratislava exceeded my expectations. I didn’t really know what to expect and since it was only a short stop during our trip, I hadn’t thought much about it, but I loved it. It was my first time in a country that was previously under Communist rule, so the history lover in me loved not only the more recent history, but exploring the remnants of centuries past.
As I mentioned you can easily do Bratislava in one day. In fact, we ended up grabbing an earlier to train to Budapest than originally planned simply because we were out of things to do. But, it’s worth the time and effort to get here! From Vienna, it’s a short 75 minute boat ride and from Budapest, it’s about a 3 hour journey by train.