Bratislava is one of those places you didn’t know you should visit, until you’ve been there. It’s very easy to get to by train from Vienna (little over an hour) or like we did, from Budapest (about $20 round trip per person, 2.5 hours). It’s the only capital in the world that borders two countries, you can actually see rolling hills of Austria and open plains of Hungary from the Castle.
It remained under communist rule until 1989, and the city still seems to be recovering. It makes for some great architectural differences, with communism prefabs right next to ancient buildings. People are generally direct and not especially friendly to strangers, except in the tourist areas, which we were told was a product of not needing to provide customer service for decades. If you’re the only place in town that the government allows to bake bread, you can afford to not be friendly. It wasn’t really an issue though, just make sure your phone works for directions.
Almost all of your time will be spent in one part of one neighborhood, the pedestrian-only area of Old Town. It houses a mix of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and shops with charming Eastern European architecture. The whole area is relatively small, and can be covered by foot in less than an hour. On the north east edge of the pedestrian zone is a a road with the local trains, which provides more modern food and shopping options.
As if the wide selection of Slovakian wines weren’t enough, the host, Martin, had a heavy pour and won’t let you go until you’ve tried all of his must-haves. We ordered a cheese platter once we realized Martin’s “one more for the road!” really meant three or four more. Martin only charged us a measly $21 for an entire night of drinking, so we left him a hefty tip as a thank you. My only regret is not buying a bottle to take home with us. We met an English couple that had two nights in Bratislava and they visited Grand Cru both nights. Go early, it opens around 5pm, as their are only has a few tables that fill up quickly.
If you only have one evening in Bratislava, let Martin introduce you Slovakian wines. Just don’t make plans for after.
Area: Old Town
It seemed there was a Mondieu Cafe on every corner that it almost became comical. That is until we went there for breakfast. It was so good, we went back the next morning. I could not get enough of the millet with raspberries, figs, and coconut creme. Kyle ordered the ham and eggs the first day and avocado toast and eggs the second day. So good.
Area: Multiple Locations throughout Old Town
You’ll find little stands in Old Town selling fresh, piping hot bags of roasted chestnuts. It was the perfect treat on the cold weekend we were there.
Area: Old Town
Built forever ago, this cafe became a socialist patisserie until 1990, when it closed down for 26 years. It recently went through a meticulous ten year renovation. All of the furnishings are antique and artifacts are historical and original. The alcoholic hot chocolates are delicious. We ordered a one with Fragolino strawberry liqueur and little wild strawberries and another with home-made egg liqueur with whipped cream. The hot chocolates were worth the stop alone but the ambiance of Konditorei Kormuth makes it even more memorable.
Area: Old Town
Traditional food, big portions, and reasonable prices. We ordered the garlic soup in a homemade bread bowl, pork speciality plate (ribs, brisket), potato dumplings filled with sheep cheese, bacon, sour cream, and dill), and sulance (potato dumpling) with poppy seeds, cream cheese, and butter. They have a wide selection of local craft beer that pairs nicely with the heavy food.
For those looking for authentic and historic food, it’s a must stop. The location itself is buried down an alley and through a building that has been done up to look historic. The ambiance is dark, old, and brooding which is a perfect match for the food.
Area: Old Town
We rode two cute Presporaciks, vintage train-like motorcars, for 95 minutes around the main attractions of Bratislava Old Town. It was a nice overview of the city and it took us up to the Bratislava Castle with a fifteen minute break to explore. They are the only motorized vehicles allowed to drive through old town. Tours are available via headset in most common languages and provides interesting tidbits about the area.
Both tours ran about $11 per person total, cheaper options exist for either the Old Town or Castle tour. Info at https://www.tour4u.sk/en/services/great-city-tour-of-bratislava/.
Area: Two pickup locations in Old Town, one for each tour
We were driven around in a 1970s Czechoslovakian Skoda car by Juro, a young Slovakian native. We made several stops so he could point out communist architecture and tell us about communist history in Bratislava. It was entertaining to see locals point, smile, and laugh at our car in nostalgia. It’s a very unique and personalized tour as Juro shared personal stories about his father and grandfather during the Communism period.
Highly recommended for history buffs, or those who would like to get to know a local. One fo the stops (we won’t give the whole tour away, no need to worry Juro) was the Slavín War Memorial. It’s a cemetery and memorial, and was a great stop to outline Slovakia’s complex history.
Two hours at $43/person
Area: Set your pickup spot with Juro, travels all over town
Three of the most popular statues can be found in the heard of Old Town—Cumil, Schone Naci Statue, and Napoleon’s Army Solider Statue. These are not the boring, another famous person type statues. They’re really quirky. Fun, quick, photo opportunities.
Cumil is a fictional sewer working who many believe is also a peeping tom. Ladies, watch your skirts!
Schone Naci was a real person. An odd fellow who walked the streets of Old Town singing, often given free meals from the neighboring cafes. He would greet ladies by asking to kiss their hand.
Napoleon’s Army Statue has his cap pulled over his eyes, leaning against a park bench. We found there was almost always a line of people to get their selfies, usually with their own winter cap pulled low.
Area: Old Town
We didn’t see many kids around Bratislava during our long weekend stay. There’s not many youth oriented activities available, and the nightlife scene in Old Town may be a bit much for some families.
The Old Town area goes through a transformation on weekend nights into a pretty thick club and bar scene. Around Michael’s Gate there’s hard-to-miss adult entertainment venues and related advertisements.
The areas of Bratislava you’ll be in as a tourist allow for walking everywhere. The Old Town section is mostly cordoned off from vehicles. It’s relatively flat and mostly brick walkways. Bratislava Castle is on the top of the hill, so those with mobility issues or, like us, laziness issues may want to grab a cab or take the train tour mentioned above.
It’s worth doing a stroll through Old Town at the beginning of your trip. It won’t take more than an hour and you’ll have a good grasp on where the restaurants, shops, and sights can be found.
“Hlavná Stanica” is Bratislava’s Central Station. It’s just far enough away from old town that you’ll want to either figure out public transportation (we didn’t bother with it) or hop in a cab. Anyone with a car can be a cab, they simply register and get the light for the top of their car. The station itself needs a renovation, and is not on par with other Eastern European cities.
We got scammed bad. From the train station we hopped into the first cab we found, it was unmarked but had the taxi light. He said 20€ and we, not knowing how far it would be, agreed. It was less than five minutes to the edge of Old Town, since car’s can’t go into the neighborhood we ended up walking all the way across the area. When questioned on it, he said the 20€ price is for all day of being chauffeured, which wouldn’t have been bad if we weren’t just going to the hotel to crash out. Two lessons here. First, Bratislava is tiny and taxis should be cheap to everywhere. Second, take only marked taxis, the perminent ones with a company logo on the side. That way if there’s an issues you have someone to contact.
ATMs are abundant and dish out Euros, although some shop keepers welcomed USD at a pretty miserable exchange rate. There were no ATM fees, making it a good place to stock up.
Credit cards were taken fairly regularly within the tourist zones.