We decided for our Summer Bank Holiday weekend (which coincided with Rico’s birthday) to head somewhere a bit more off the beaten path. “Bratislava” probably conjures up some dismal, communist, grayscale images in your imagination, but the city is actually a bustling capital with a colorful and well-preserved Old Town. What better place to spend a lazy weekend than the cultural heart of Slovakia?
After a short flight from London, we bought some [ridiculously inexpensive] bus tickets to the Old Town. This low-cost theme would persist throughout the three-day weekend. Though the public transit system is inexpensive to use, it’s very easy to navigate and very convenient. We walked into the Old Town through the famous Michael’s Gate and walked through some crooked, cobblestoned streets to our home for the next two nights: Hotel Arcadia. Another benefit of visiting somewhere cheap is the ability to stay in luxurious 5-star hotels at very reasonable rates! Once we got settled, we just spent some time wandering the streets, sticking primarily to the western and southern sides of the Old Town. The imposing castle seems to beckon from above, so we made our way in its direction.
St. Martin’s Cathedral, the city’s main Catholic church, is situated on the western edge of the Old Town—you can’t miss it and its 279-foot spire! We crossed the major north-south road toward the west and climbed up Zamocke schody with the castle set in our sights. We didn’t go inside, but between the view from the top of hill and the beautiful castle gardens, there’s plenty to make the visit worthwhile. The city was cast in a beautiful golden shade as we strategically planned our trek an hour before sunset. Once back down, we strolled along the thin, long square taking up the southern portion of the Old Town (Hviezdoslavovo namestie), enjoying gelato and a surprise fashion show (as far as we could tell, it was local women showing off the latest from local fashion designers). We closed the night with a concert in Hlavne namestie—the main square—which of course meant lots of dancing too. What a first day!
Our second day started with a bus ride out of the city to Devin Castle. It’s funny how quickly the build-up of the city gives way to forests and open rolling hills to the north and west. The bus took us along the winding Danube to the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers. The meeting point of the two rivers forms the border between Slovakia and Austria, noteworthy because it fell along the iron curtain during the Cold War (of course, Slovakia was then married to its neighbor, the current day Czech Republic). Many people lost their lives throughout the latter half of the 20th century attempting to cross the river to freedom, and that fact is forever memorialized in a striking monument known as the Gate of Freedom. These days, the area is a quiet a peaceful place for people to relax, ride their bicycle, or, as we were doing on this particular day, visiting the ruins of Devin Castle. The castle, built originally in the 9th century and added on to for hundreds of years, was razed to the ground by Napoleon in 1809 but is still quite a sight and offers great views of the surrounding areas (not only can you see Austria from here, but also Hungary to the south). We were probably over excited for our surprise encounter with some friendly sheep, goats and donkeys on our walk up, but they added a nice touch as well!
Back in the Old Town, we walked around the streets some more and explored more of the northern and eastern areas. We stopped briefly in the attractive Primacialne namestie on our way to buy our souvenir (a blue painted bell) in one of the booths selling knick knacks off the main square. Our souvenir was fitting as we were then off to see the Church of St. Elizabeth (commonly known as Blue Church) just outside of the Old Town. The church is painted in a shade of blue that almost exactly matches the sky. Quite a sight!
We started our last day with a half-day bike tour based on the 20th century history of the city. We rode westward along the Danube, over Most Lafranconi and through wooded paths on the south side of the river to an abandoned bunker first built during World War II but then repurposed during the Cold War. Its placement was not coincidental—we were only a few hundred feet away from the Austrian border. After walking through the bunker, we got back on our bikes, through some more paths to a painted stone in a field by the river marking the border. These days, as both Austria and Slovakia are in the Schengen Area, you can hop back and forth no problem! We then made our way back eastward, to Sad Janka Krala and then over Most SNP (commonly referred to as “UFO Bridge” for its suspiciously alien saucer-topped tower) back into the Old Town. We had never done a bike tour before in our travels, but we definitely will look for more in the future as it’s a great way to get oriented while covering lots of ground (though, for people who don’t bike often, of whom we are two, be prepared to deal with sore bums and legs for days!). With time running out, we checked out of the hotel, walked one last time through the streets of the Old Town, and then stopped by the Presidential Palace Gardens (honestly not as great as you would think considering the venue) on the way back to the airport.
Though Central and Eastern European cuisine doesn’t have the best of reputations, we fit lots of good food into our three-day visit. We grabbed lunch at Lokal u Frantiskanov on two of the days (fried chicken legs with potatoes, their local spicy chicken dish which was almost like a curry, and refreshing hand-squeezed lemonade) and quickly fell in love with the food (and the quirky outdoor courtyard in which we ate it!). Pulitzer hosted us for dinner on our first night where we got to sample the national dish (gnocchi-like potato dumplings with sheep’s cheese and bacon—simply delicious!) and indulge in some hearty BBQ chicken wings and grilled corn on the cob. We also had dinner at Urban House, where we shared a pulled pork burger (probably the best one Rico’s ever had), avocado toast and Mexican couscous. Of course, we made time for gelato at Luculus (salted caramel and coffee) and Mondieu (vegan coconut and cookies) which was a great way to cool off from the warm summer sun. After wandering around the streets of the Old Town on our last night, we poked our heads into FACH looking for something sweet. Nothing caught our immediate attention and we moved on, but one of the girls working there ran out and begged for us to come back. Impressed with her tenacity, we walked back through the door to find that they were closing for a long weekend and needed to offload some goods! The chef’s right hand man walked us through our options and gave us little bits to try while packaging up larger pieces for us to take home. Let’s just say these chocolate and lemon cakes kept us happy for a while!
Neither of us had many expectations for Bratislava, but we thoroughly enjoyed it. We find ourselves wanting to push further outside of our travel comfort zones, and as we cross off a lot of places in the more developed northern, western and southern corners of Europe, the old Eastern Bloc is a great way to expose ourselves to something different!