Are you afraid to admit your only knowledge of Bratislava is that it’s where Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd smuggled an East Bloc vacuum cleaner from in an episode of Saturday Night Live‘s The Festrunk Brothers? It’s okay, you’re not to blame. Likely due to its size, Bratislava is not typically on the tourist circuit of Central European capitals. Compared to nearby cities Vienna, Prague and Budapest, Bratislava lacks the awe-provoking architecture most tourists crave and its modest size doesn’t typically attract a stopover. But there are a lot of things to love about Bratislava.
Don’t be among the fooled: size isn’t everything. Thanks to its unpretentiousness, Bratislava feels less like a tourist amusement park and more like a living and breathing city that functions for locals and visitors alike. It’s difficult to say the same for the city centers of Prague, Vienna, and even Budapest, whose restaurants, bars, theaters, and museums seem like part of a movie set fabricated solely for the enjoyment of foreigners.
As a student of Studia Academica Slovaca, I had the pleasure of living in Bratislava for three weeks, enough time to feel comfortable recommending some of my favorite sights and activities. Stay at least a day or two, and don’t miss the following:
Things to love about Bratislava #1: Staré Mesto (Old Town)
The well-preserved Staré Mesto (Old Town) of Bratislava is the perfect place to get a dose of the city’s medieval history, stroll through narrow pedestrian streets, or sip espresso at cafés. Start at St. Michael’s Gate, atop which sits the Archangel Michael slaying a dragon. Built in 1300, it’s the only gate preserved from the original medieval city wall. Stop at one of the cafés lining the Main Square, or for a more modern experience, check out GreenTree Cafe a block away for strong espresso and quiet, cool and spacious basement seating. Don’t miss Old Town’s many odd statues including Schöne Naci, Čumil, Napoleon’s Soldier, and a tiny statue peeking out from a building wall they call The Taunter. If you want to dine in Old Town, Prašná Bašta offers a varied menu in an old gunpowder bastion or their spacious garden patio.
Things to love about Bratislava #2: Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar (Bratislava Burgher Brewery)
The Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar is one of the best modern additions to the Bratislava dining scene in recent years, especially for those who enjoy a great meal without the fuss. Even better, it’s also a microbrewery. Their beer is classical Slovak light or dark lager with a homemade twist and they serve traditional Slovak and non-traditional cuisine. They have two locations, both in the city center; the larger location beckons crowds with its huge garden terrace. Snack on marinated Hermelín cheese or a grilled klobása, or for a traditional meal try the kapustnica (sauerkraut soup), bryndzové pirohy, or knedlovepřozelo, the Czech national dish.
Things to love about Bratislava #3: Slovak National Gallery’s Summer Pavilion
You have to visit Bratislava in the summer months to enjoy the Letný (Summer) Pavilion in the courtyard of the Slovak National Gallery, but you don’t have to pay an entrance fee to relax in a lounge chair, borrow a book from the lending library, play a round of ping pong, or even grab a ripe tomato from the mini vegetable garden. Bratislava has developed a knack for repurposing vacant areas into public-use spaces: another example is the more commercial Magio Pláž (beach) across the river. During the summer, these spaces often have free concerts and open-air cinemas.
Things to love about Bratislava #4: UFO Tower
Native English speakers look a little dumbfounded when locals ask, “Have you been to the Ooo-Foh?” They’re referring to the U-F-O, a tower resembling a spaceship perched atop the Nový Most (New Bridge), also known under its original name, Most SNP (Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising). On the surface it seems like a tourist trap, with its overpriced restaurant and bar, but Bratislavans seem to love their UFO. There’s much to love at the top: superb views of the towers of Old Town, the Danube, the hills and monuments surrounding the city. Don’t forget to take some photos at night from below when the UFO looks like a friendly robot watching over the city.
Things to love about Bratislava #5: Danube Promenade
The Danube River may not be blue, but begin your walk around sunset, have a drink at one of Bratislava’s many floating bars, and you won’t care. Start at the New Bridge and head right along the north side of the river. If gawking at the hip and beautiful is a favorite pastime, stop for a cocktail at Eurovea, Bratislava’s newest shopping and dining center. Cross the Starý Most (Old Bridge), currently closed to vehicles, but don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights or old, wooden plank bridges. Continue right along the southern riverside, and take a detour in Sad Janka Krala, one of Bratislava’s most beautiful parks, or if you’re in a bar-crawl mood, grab another drink at Magio Pláž.
Instead of waving to Bratislava from the train on you’re way from Prague to Vienna, stop off and let her charm you into staying for a beer or two.