Many times I’ve heard people wondering why visit Bratislava when you can spend more time in Vienna, Budapest or Prague. What they don’t know is that the Slovak capital is the perfect place to see a beautifully conserved medieval city without the crowds of the Western European capitals. It also has stunning architecture –from Art Nouveau to Brutalism– and a series of endearing and quirky sculptures all over town, which give it a special personality. So, is Bratislava worth visiting? I’d say absolutely!
‘Travel is only glamorous in retrospect’ read a painted wall of the hostel I stayed during my first visit to Bratislava. I stopped for a minute to fully grasp the concept, because I’ve never thought about it like that, but, hell, how much truth it held (and what a travel lesson it taught me!). After a miserable walk from the bus station in a cold and dark evening in the middle of winter, I was trying to get some feeling back to my frozen toes. I was in fact miserable, but I knew I was going to have fond memories of the trip. Because when you think back, you idealize and completely forget about the crappy times.
Even when you’re cold, scared, sad, or feeling lonely, questioning why you’re not in the comfort of your bed, after having a hot shower and a hearty meal, it dawns on you. It’s because comfort might make your heart warm, but adventure makes it beat. Seeing the world makes you feel alive. Being too comfortable becomes uncomfortable.
Misery was quickly replaced by joy, and my warmed heart helped to warm my feet too. So I headed out to explore. Slovakia was nothing like I expected. I think it’s a completely underrated place. Probably because people visit after Vienna, Prague or Budapest, and Bratislava can’t compete with such grand cities. But what it lacks in splendor it compensates with rawness, in a good way. It’s a smaller place, with beautiful architecture too, and full of little treasures.
That first trip was back in 2015, and I just re-visited in 2020. This time the winter was mild, so no misery, only good times. Yay!
Bratislava is the capital of the Slovak Republic, better known as Slovakia. It borders Austria and Hungary, which makes it the only national capital that borders two countries. These countries have a different name for the Slovak capital: Pozsony in Hungarian and Pressburg in German.
It’s inhabited by less than half a million people. It has a rather mild climate, with an average temperature of 21 °C (70 °F) in the warmest month and −1 °C (30 °F) in the coldest month.
It’s part of Schengen area and the Eurozone, which means that if you go overland from any of it’s neighbors you won’t even need to show your passport (you actually won’t even notice when you cross the border!).
Why visit Bratislava?
Art & Architecture
Playful sculptures were what caught my attention first. The city center has several real sized statues, waiting to surprise you while passing by. I’ve read about the Man at Work (that’s how it made it to my travel experiences bucket list), so I was on a quest to find him. It wasn’t hard. After being beheaded a couple of times by reckless drivers, the city placed an original sign showing his location.
Čumil, his actual name, has many ‘explanations’. Some say it’s a satire, a way to describe the laziness of Slovaks. Others see him as an anonymous hero, like the many men that helped with the reconstruction of the city. It’s also rumored that this man is just trying to sneak a peek under the ladies’ dresses. Probably they were all present in the mind of the sculpture, Viktor Hulík. What we do know it that a little statue can say a lot about the character of a place. You can find him at the junction of Laurinská and Panská streets.
Another charming sculpture is Schöne Náci, a mid-20th century character (actually named Ignác Lamár) that was inspired by his grandfather, a famous clown, to bring happiness to people in the streets. Wearing a tailcoat and tipping his hat at the passersby, when a lady headed his way, he’d greet her with an “I kiss your hand”, which he would say in Slovak, German and Hungarian. Another legend states that he lost his mind because his love for a woman was never reciprocated. That’s why he was trying to find a new love on the streets. In any case, now the sculpture is a testament to his whimsical personality. He is immortalized on Sedlárska street.
A quirky one is The Witch (Bosorka in Slovak). The artist created her as a monument to all the women who were accused of witchcraft in medieval times. Her hair blows wild and a bunch of birds accompany her, while staring. She lives in the garden below the Bratislava Castle.
As for street art in Bratislava, the trend is just starting to develop. Still, there’s a few cool murals around the city center that are worth looking.
There are several examples of Brutalist architecture in Bratislava, as you’ll find them in every other Eastern European country. Ask the locals and they will point you to the “Kukurica” and the Istropolis in Nové Mesto (the modern part of the city). But you don’t need to go away from the Old Town to find examples.
The most visited one is the UFO bridge (I’ll come back to it and its unique features on the next section, as it’s considered a must see in the city).
My personal favorites are the Slovensky rozhlas, the Slovak Radio and TV building, a reversed pyramid made of steel; and the Druzba, the Union fountain, a concrete pool with an impressive stainless fountain shaped in a very brutal interpretation of a linden flower –which is a symbol of peace, luck and happiness in Slavic mythology.
If you want to see an entire neighborhood built with a Socialist ideology, go across the Danube river into Petržalka. It’s the biggest suburban area in Slovakia, full of paneláky apartment blocks –pre-fab and low-rise concrete apartment blocks. Notoriously, the first post-Communist President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, called them “undignified rabbit hutches, slated for demolition”.
You would expect them to be grey and dull, but during the 1990’s people started to bring color to the place. And color did they bring! Nowadays Petržalka, known as Bronx of Bratislava, is a vibrant neighborhood, a symbol of the city vivacity and artistic culture.
The most prominent example of Art Nouveau in the Slovak capital is the Blue Church (more about it on the must see section). The streets around it are also dotted with buildings in this style. Stroll around Bezručova, Gajova or Jesenského to discover special constructions, including a huge gymnasium.
What I haven’t heard of, and I stumbled upon during my last visit, is that the streets that extend from the Presidential Palace up towards Slavín are too sprinkled with stunning Art Nouveau. Walk through Kuzmányho and Tolstého streets and you’ll see beautiful grand palaces turn into Embassies, hotels and banks. If you pay attention, you’ll even run into a Buddhist temple!
What you must see in Bratislava
The castle is the symbol of the city. It sits on top of a rocky hill that’s part of the Little Carpathians, overlooking the Danube river. There’re records of the hill being inhabited from as early as the late Stone Age. From a stone fortress it was turned into a Gothic palace, later rebuilt in Renaissance style, until its last transformation, in the 17th century, when it got the baroque style we see today. It houses now the Slovak National Museum.
The Old Town is a well-preserved medieval city center, home of most of the landmarks of Bratislava:
- St. Martin’s Cathedral, a Gothic church from the 15th century.
- The Old Town Hall, the former seat of the city and nowadays the Bratislava City Museum.
- The Primartial Palace, an 18th century Classicist palace which serves as the seat of the Mayor of Bratislava.
- St. Michael’s Gate, the only surviving gate of the 14th century’s city fortification system.
- Laurinská Brána, the site where another city gate used to be, but was destroyed in the 18th century.
Even though its color defines it, this quirky Art Nouveau church is named St. Elizabeth, because its consecrated to Elisabeth of Hungary, daughter of Andrew II, who grew up in Bratislava Castle (when it was called Pressburg Castle). It was designed by the architect Ödön Lechner, and built at the beginning of the 20th century, following the Hungarian Secessionist fashion.
Beside its bright blue color, what makes this church unique are the details of its façade, such as mosaics and majolicas. The interior is also a delightful surprise, decorated with light pastel shades of blue.
Nowadays the seat and residence of the President of the Slovak Republic, this Rococo/late Baroque edifice was built as a summer palace for the Croatian-Hungarian aristocrat Antal Grassalkovich in the 18th century, from whom it got its name: Grassalkovich Palace (Grasalkovičov palác in Slovak).
On a hill overlooking Bratislava Castle you’ll find the one of the largest war memorials in Europe. The tall monument dominates the city skyline. It’s the burial ground of almost seven thousand soldiers of the Soviet army who died during the liberation of Bratislava from German occupying forces in World War II.
On top of an obelisk stands a Soviet soldier hoisting up a flag and crushing a swastika with his foot.
The views of the city from above are absolutely worth the walk uphill, so think active holidays and add it to your itinerary.
UFO bridge and Observation Deck
Most Slovenského národného povstania (Most SNP) means Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising, but due to its flying saucer shape is commonly known as the UFO Bridge (you might hear it also as Nový Most –New Bridge).
A remarkable architectural feature is that the bridge has no pillars in the river, standing in steel ropes only.
The Flying saucer itself houses an observation deck at a height of 95 meters (312 ft) and a restaurant aptly called UFO. Both are accessible using a lift located in the east pillar. The elevator costs 7.40€, and it allows you to go up twice –during day and night time. The fee is deducted from your bill if you dine at the restaurant, which serves both traditional Slovak and international cuisine.
The observation deck gives you stunning views of the Old Town and the Castle, as well as of Petržalka neighborhood, and the valley of the Danube. It even claims to have a visibility of over 100km (62mi).
On the site of the former Neolog Synagogue (demolished in 1969) there’s a Holocaust Memorial that commemorate the 105,000 victims from Slovakia.
The memorial is a black wall imprinted with the silhouette of the synagogue, and a sculpture that reads “Zachor” (remember in Hebrew] and “Pamätaj” (Remember in Slovak), topped by a Star of David.
It’s a simple but big pedestrian square, with a statue of the most important poet in the Slovak history, Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav. The most important buildings around it are the Slovak National Theater and the Slovak State Philharmonic.
How to get to Bratislava
Flying into Bratislava
Smart Wings, Wizz Air, Corendon Airlines, Tunisair, Ryanair, Pobeda, FlyDubai, Air Cairo, Cyprus Airways and Wizz Air all have direct flights to Bratislava Airport.
From the airport to the city, take bus N°61. In about 25 minutes you’ll be in the main train station, Hlavná Stanica. From there either walk to the city (15-20 minutes) or take bus N°93 or tram N°1.
If you’re flying into Vienna International Airport, you’ll be able to catch a bus to Bratislava directly, without having to go to the Austrian capital first. Several buses going from Vienna to Bratislava stop at the Austrian airport.
Search and compare flight connections here.
How to go from Vienna to Bratislava
The cities are so close by that you could actually walk, if you had a day to spare. There’s only 55km/34mi apart (about 80km/50mi on the road).
The most picturesque way to get to Bratislava is by ferry. The Twin City Liner will take you on a journey of about 1 hour 15 minutes on the Danube. This is the most expensive alternative, and it only runs from April to October.
The eco-friendliest way to go is taking a train. They depart from Wien Hauptbahnhof and arrive to Bratislava Hlavná Stanica, with a journey of a bit over an hour.
The cheapest option is by bus. There are several lines going almost all the time (at least 4-5 departures per hour). The ride will take anywhere between an hour and fifteen minutes to 2 hours, depending on the traffic.
Pro tip: I checked the prices of the tickets at the station and they were more expensive than buying them online. Check Omio to see the latest offers, but expect prices from as little as 5€
How to go from Budapest to Bratislava
There’s a train from Budapest-Nyugati, but it only goes every 4 hours and you need to change trains in Vác. The whole journey takes 2 and a half hours, and it’s a bit more expensive than the bus. It is the most environmentally friendly choice, though.
Even with that said, the easiest option is to take a bus. Several lines go through this route, like FlixBus, RegioJet, Eurolines and SlovakLines. The journey will take between 2 and a half to 3 hours. Look at Omio to get the best prices.
Pro tip: if taking the bus, mind that Budapest has 2 international bus stations. Try to go to Könyves Kálmán körút, because it’s much easier to navigate than Kelenföld. The buses stop at the latter in the streets around the train station, and there’s no one to ask for info about your departure. The former is a normal bus station, with platform numbers.
How to go from Prague to Bratislava
The train from Prague central station (Hlavni Nadrazi) takes approximately 4 hours, and there’s 8 to 16 departures daily, depending on the season.
As for buses, they’re slightly cheaper and the journey lasts for an average of 4 and a half hours. There are plenty of connections throughout the day, as many lines have Bratislava as a stop in their route from Prague to Budapest.
Check and compare fares in Omio, to get the best option for you.
Where to stay in Bratislava?
The city is affordable, so you’ll easily find accommodation for any budget you’re in. Check Booking.com latest offers for a hotel. Personally, in both my visits to the city I’ve stayed in hostels, which I booked through Hostel World.
What else to visit in Slovakia?
If you only have one extra day, I’d recommend that you take a tour to Devin Castle or to the Carpathian wine region. If you have more time to explore Slovakia, don’t miss the Tatra mountains. If you’re looking for another city break, add Košice to your itinerary!