“Why are you going to Bratislava?” said all my students at work when I told them my plans for the weekend.
“Oh come on, it’s the capital of Slovakia – you rival them naturally, just like Australia and New Zealand - how bad can it be?”
I booked tickets and on a sunny Friday afternoon, my partner and I were off. The weather even turned out for us and for the first time in the summer season, we were sweaty.
Neither of us had ever been to Bratislava before, and to be honest I didn’t have high expectations. From all the scoffs about it in Brno I became sceptical, but, as an avid traveller I still just had to see it for myself. When I asked my students further, “what makes it so bad?", most of them admitted they didn’t really know enough and hadn’t been there for a long time. They might have passed through as a kid but never visited as a tourist. Aha.
When we walked out of the train station and down Štefánikova towards the city, I was excited. It might have been the blue sky and the light material of my summer dress flirting with my knees, combined with the prospect of staying at a 4* hotel, but still, the giddy feeling was there.
Like every good tourist, we started our city journey in the tourist information centre. Our pre-ordered Bratislava city cards were waiting for us (which made us feel like VIPs). After researching at home, we had decided these cards were the best option for seeing the city. Turned out they were the driving vehicle of our itinerary – for good reason! They gave us free entries, discounts, and public transport, which was easily the best part! I'll explain more later.
Here’s a detailed analysis (or a quick run-down – you choose!) of the highlights of our weekend and what we’d heartily recommend to other travellers.
1. Devin Castle - roam the ruins!
Every European city has some ancient, historical buildings, right? But, Bratislava has some ruins. *Boom.* Devin Castle appeared on records as early as 864, developing hugely over the centuries and standing strong until Napoleon came and blew it up for – as the museum claims – unknown reasons. Why I think it’s worth going out to see a bunch of mismatched stone walls is there are some pretty unique views and historical perspectives up there. Looking out over the Danube river from what used to be the Main Tower is probably the coolest. You’re standing in Slovakia but Austria is just arms length away, on the other side of the river which serves as the border. It’s not often that you get to see two neighbouring countries lined up side-by-side like this, with a clear division but no geographical contrasts.
It’s also good for a tourist or traveller to get out of the centre of town. Staying only in the centre gives a specific target-orientated perception of a place, whereas getting on a bus for twenty minutes takes you outside the border of tourist-town and into the hills. You can feast your eyes on the peaks around you and the Slovak hills are naked for your eye to see.
Getting to Devin Castle
Board bus 29 from Most SNP stop (underneath the UFO bridge on the city centre side), ride for 20-25 minutes, and get off at Štrbská. The bus only comes every 20 minutes so it’s a good idea to check the timetable before you go and also aim for a journey back to prevent wasted time at the stop. The ride is FREE with the Bratislava Card, otherwise buy a ticket at the yellow kiosks at the bus stop.
Budget for Castle: €5 entry or FREE with the Bratislava Card.
2. Walking Tour - Choose Independently
I love to join walking tours when I am travelling and I genuinely think it’s the best way to find your feet in new place! Regardless of whether you like to research a new city in advance or just turn up and see what happens, a walking tour hits the nail on the head every time. If you buy the Bratislava Card, you can sign up for the 2pm daily 60-minute tour for free (it otherwise costs €14).
Personally I would check out some other independent options that tell great stories about the city as these can be a bit more lively than the city-run tours with an agenda. If you do a ‘free walking tour’ you can decide what it was worth to you at the end and show your appreciation in tips. Choose whichever experience you want!
3. Eat Halušky!! (Slovakian dish)
It's difficult to describe Halušky and do it any justice.... But I'll try. Some call it the Slovakian gnocchi. But - it's also referred to as dumplings, and if you're really stretching it - 'thick noodles'. Honestly, I think it's a bit more like mac'n'cheese.
As we sat at a romantic table by a window overlooking the street, grinning goofily in anticipation, our much-awaited Halušky arrived. When I pulled the first spoonful from my mouth, the cottage cheese was thick on my tongue and I smiled in satisfaction. This genuine Slovakian halušky was so much better than the one I had been attempting to make (and absolutely butchering) at home in Brno. I think I'll just start hopping over to Slovakia now when I feel the need for a fix...!
The restaurant we went to was a little out of the centre by a couple of long streets, but hey, when you have free public transport, you can just hop on a tram to get somewhere! It was called U Sedliaka….. and while I wouldn’t especially recommend it, I absolutely recommend this dish and this is as good a place as any to try it.
4. Martinus for books and coffee – and work?
Wandering back towards the city after this halušky feed, I spotted a bookshop. (I’m a sucker for bookshops.) Unfortunately they were just closing, but it looked so promising that we went back the next day for the full experience. They have a fairly decent section of books in English, and stylish wooden tables of new releases that are just begging to be read. There’s a lively café downstairs, and if you make it upstairs to… even more books(!), there’s a quieter café with casual workspaces to sit and chill as well. Think library-come-bookshop-come your favourite cosy coffee corner... then double it. It’s definitely worth pencilling into your day.
5. UFO deck and restaurant
After walking around the city and getting a feel for the layout, I like to get up high for a view. In Bratislava there’s a pretty unique way to do this! On the bridge called Most SNP, there’s an observation deck of 95 meters which looks a bit like a cool futuristic space ship in an old grey concrete block building kind of style. It’s appropriately named UFO, and entry to the viewing deck at the top is €7.40. I would recommend going at sunset as there’s a gorgeous view out over the hills and if you’re lucky, you can see Bratislava castle turn pink in the rays. The deck is open from 10am until 11pm. For more information: click here to go to their website.
Underneath the deck itself is a restaurant. If you don’t think you can stomach eating a meal balanced high above the river, then maybe you’d like to enjoy a drink in the bar instead. There’s a special atmosphere and although it’s quite expensive for local standards, there are far more expensive places in Europe, and it's a nice treat for the end of the day. It's quite popular as the views are still stunning from inside, and depending on which way you face you can see the city start to light up at nightfall.
6. Currant wine, honey mead, and Tatra Tea
Although our walking tour guide stressed that there’s more to do in Slovakia than drink wine twice a day, she did intrigue us with the idea of some local tastes. Currant wine is typical for the region, and it’s made from – you guessed it! – currants. If you like any kind of red wine, you’d probably enjoy a glass or two of this. Honey mead or honey wine is also popular around town if that's more your cup of tea!
Talking about tea, there's also Tatra Tea. Historically, this has been used as medicine in Slovakia, and I can see why! The alcohol content is about 50-80% which can burn all the bacteria in your throat in a harsh winter. Locals would chop and crush about a kilogram of fresh ginger, stir it in with the juice from fresh lemons and knock a shot back every morning and evening. Instead of the usual connotations of alcohol, this was considered quite healthy and effective.
7. Art Gallery: Pasáž Matej Krén Passage
A little birdie told me about this one – a passage of books and mirrors in an art gallery that you can stand inside? Hold my currant wine, I’ll be right back.
The exhibition in the City Gallery of Bratislava did not disappoint. In fact, it was beyond my imagination! Whilst walking forwards on a black platform, you are perpetually surrounded by a never-ending wall, floor, and ceiling of books. If you are brave enough to peek over the edge of the platform, you'll look into an abyss of books, which reminded me of when Indiana Jones tries to cross the invisible bridge in the Temple of the Sun film. The mind games in there are real and I’d go and see it for yourself while you can.
Budget: Entrance is free with the Bratislava Card, otherwise it’s €5.
Address: Pálffy Palace, 19 Panská Street
8. Urban House
For drinks, cool food, vegan options, and working space
When you’re hungry for a spot of lunch – or dinner – or even just want to go for a causal drink, this is just the place! Urban House on Laurinská street is the coolest venue for taking a break from the busyness outside and re-energising. Their menu is vegan-friendly and the atmosphere is vibin’. Bookcases with old spines, mismatched desk lamps, and comfortable reclining chairs surround the eating tables in an effortless mix of clean-and-uncluttered, hipster-and-modernist.
Unfortunately, on the day we were there, the Vegan fish and chips had run out – but I was super keen to try these! Roasted celeriac and Nori seaweed... mmm. If you go there and get to try this, let me know.
9. View from Castle walls
This is a great little walk for shaking down the day's food and keeping in the shade in the afternoon. The higher you climb, the more you see! Bratislava castle was closed for the weekend so we didn't get to go in, but the walk down the North-eastern side takes you past some buzzing wine bars spilling onto the street for the evening.
10. Danube Wellness and Spa
If you want to see all the sights of Bratislava but not feel utterly exhausted after doing so, I highly recommend a spa morning or afternoon. Whether it’s 30 degrees outside or 5, I think everyone can agree that a jacuzzi is always a good idea…
The Danube Wellness and Spa complex at Park Inn by Radisson’s Danube hotel was more luxurious than I had dared to imagine! Not only does it have a swimming pool looking up at Bratislava castle and a jacuzzi where you can see the UFO deck from, it also has a sauna complex. You can choose between the Steam Sauna, Finnish Sauna or Infra-Red Sauna, and after all three you’ll - for sure - be feeling eternally cosy wrapped up in your fluffy white robe walking in your bouncy towel slippers! Drinking water is on hand at all times, plus a bucket of ice to cool your neck down in between sessions. If you’re really daring, you can stand underneath a bucket of cold water suspended above your head and pull on a rope, bringing down an icy shower like no other. Bbbrrrrr!! Back to the jacuzzi then relaxing in the loungers again? Okay!
We enjoyed this treat of a morning like no other. Some couples even had champagne by the pool, if you want to feel a little bit fancy…
FIND OUT MORE:
Where to stay: Park Inn Danube
You might have read my article about avoiding cheap hostels in Europe… well, this time we were in a whole different category. Park Inn Danube provided us with a whale of a time and all the bells and whistles that you enjoy on a weekend away. It was a treat to stay there! I would even argue that by skipping other (paid) attractions and using the Bratislava Card for discounts and free entries, you might be able to prioritise your accommodation more and afford the 4 stars, with the same budget. I wholeheartedly recommend this hotel, so if you’re intending to visit Bratislava in the future, consider booking Park Inn Danube direct on their website (click here).
More info about the Brat Card:
The card is available online or in the Tourist Information centres. There are three different options depending on how long you are staying for:
1 day - €18, 2 days - €22, 3 days - €25
How to get to Bratislava:
This city is so close to Brno and Vienna, and not too far from Budapest. If you're travelling a couple of hours from these places, I recommend using Regio Jet buses or trains. Founded in Brno as a Student Agency, this company entered the market with competitive prices for an above-average service. On the trains you are provided with free water, and on each bus there is a steward/ess making free coffees and hot chocolates as you wish! It's a VIP way to travel by coach, for extremely fair prices. Check them out here to see where you can go with them next!
I hope you enjoyed my Bratislava blog, and as always I'd love to hear from fellow travellers so feel free to drop me an email or leave me a comment. ☺️
Want to read the latest blogs once in a while?
Put yourself on the list for my newsletter and on the 1st of every month you'll have a wee preview of all the latest travel writing. (Because, why not?)