While many people I’d told about my February travels hadn’t yet heard of Bratislava, Slovakia, I’ve known about the capital for quite some time. During high school and college, I worked at a seafood restaurant for six consecutive summers. Some members of the staff visited during the summer season from Slovakia and I became close friends with a few of them. They told my other friends and me all about Europe, taught us how to say “please” (“prosím”) and “thank you” (“dakujem”) in Slovak, and, well, bought us beer before we were of age. When I saw that Bratislava was on the way to Vienna from Budapest — two cities I already had on my list — I knew I had to check it out for myself.
From just two nights in Bratislava, which is all you need as part of a larger European tour, here are my recommendations on 12 things to do and one thing to avoid:
Wander Through the Streets of Old Town
If you only do one thing in Bratislava — sometimes those river cruises drop you off for just a few hours — wander through Old Town. Bratislava’s historic area is much smaller than other European capitals that I’ve visited, but there’s a surplus of charm to be had. Since I visited in the middle of a bitter February, I had the streets almost to myself. I took advantage of this and wandered down little alleys and alcoves that maybe I wasn’t supposed to, but no one was there to tell me not to.
Old Town starts at St. Michael’s Gate — you can’t miss its green steeple. This landmark is the only surviving tower of the city wall. Right before it are some nice courtyards you can peak down into, a statue, and a bridge with love locks. The Old Town itself, starting on Michalská Street, wasn’t appreciated until the late 1990s — the city had even sold the original medieval cobblestones to cities in Germany in the 1950s. Nowadays, there are plenty of shops and cafes, and I could imagine it bustling in the spring and summer.
Indulge Your Inner Chocoholic
When walking around Old Town, make sure you stop in Cukraren na Korze chocolate shop to buy a truffle or two. This is one of my favorite travel rules – when you pass a chocolate shop in a new city, stop in for a quick treat. This rule also applies to macaron and ice cream shops.
This particular shop is historical for the cannonball lodged above the entrance from the days of Napoleon’s attacks on the city in the early 1800s – one siege lasted for a month and a half. There are other cannonballs and indents of them around the city if you look hard enough.
Visit Bratislava Castle
Originally built in the 13th century, Bratislava Castle is the city’s most iconic sight, adorning all the postcards in town. It can be seen from many places around town, towering over the city (including at Sky Bar and UFO, both described below). It was originally a military fortress and became a royal residence in the 18th century, on orders from Maria Theresa of the Habsburg Empire. A little later when Napoleon was around, the castle returned to a fortress. It was burned down accidentally in 1811, reconstructed in the 1950s, and renovated recently.
While you can go inside the Castle Museum, I can’t recommend it because I didn’t experience this myself. What I wanted from the castle was to finally make it there (see the bottom of this post for a story about that). I only had a few minutes to walk around the grounds on an unexpectedly gorgeous morning right before I left the city.
Hunt for Street Art
I love taking in street art while I’m traveling and Bratislava has some pretty sweet pieces. The city also has a lot of graffiti which I can get into if it’s well done and not just curses written out with a Sharpie marker. From a ginormous painting of a fox snuggling in a blanket to individual artists’ work covering up the windows of the medieval buildings surrounding St. Martin’s Cathedral, you won’t walk too far without bumping into something colorful.
Take a Selfie with a Statue
There are a number of quirky statues in Bratislava. In the Main Square (Hlavné Námestie), you can take your picture with a shoeless Napoleanic officer leaning forward on a bench or a standing soldier across the way. Leaving the square on Rybárska Brána, you’ll find a man tipping his top hat. He is modeled after a local gentleman named Schöner Náci, who, to me, seems a street harasser and undeserving of recognition. He used to whisper “schön” to women who walked by, which is “pretty” in German. Not far down the same street is a man holding himself up as if coming out of a manhole.
Try Traditional Slovak Dishes
The two Slovak dishes I was recommended had a similar base — potato dumplings — but one was savory and one was sweet.
The savory dish, Bryndzové halušky, I ordered at Slovak Pub, where the menu described it as “potato dumplings with bryndza (Slovak sheep cheese) and bacon Brimsennocken (Brimsen – slowakischer Schafsköse) und Speck”. While I couldn’t possibly finish the whole creamy and rich dish, I did make sure I ate every single chunk of the bacon, which I think we’d call pork belly, on top of the dumplings. Slovak Pub itself smells like sauerkraut, has a few varieties of halušky, and a comic book story in the menu of how halušky is made — the farmer plants wheat and potatoes, tends to the sheep, and plays the traditional fujara instrument until everything is ready. His wife then makes the dish in the kitchen.
I had trouble imagining the sweet dish, Malé šúl’ance s makom. I skeptically tried this one at Bratislava Flagship Restaurant (associated with Slovak Pub), where it was described as “dumplings with poppy seed and butter”. The poppy seed made sense to me because the Polish-Hungarian side of my family always had poppy-seed babka on holidays. Since the borders have changed so often around this area, it’s possible that our ancestors came from modern-day Slovakia instead of modern-day Hungary. I wasn’t quite prepared for the amount of poppy seeds — I thought I’d be pulling them out of the crevices of my teeth for days (TMI?), but it was delicious. The dish was something, yet again, that I would have been better sharing.
Cross a Communist-era Bridge
The SNP Bridge is left over from the days of communism and it looks exactly like you’d think a communist bridge would. According to Wikipedia, it is the world’s longest cable bridge with just one pylon and one cable-stayed plane, if that means anything to you. It’s a quarter of a mile long and there are pedestrian walkways on each side with nice views of the Danube and the castle. I walked across and back as it was getting dark but there were many locals around still.
See the View from a UFO
For obvious reasons after you see it, the restaurant above the SNP Bridge is called the UFO. It’s kind of silly that you have to pay money to go up to the restaurant, but it is a really spectacular view. To just ride the funicular up was around €8. I walked up to the roof before going to the restaurant to see the city during sunset, then went up again after eating my overpriced french fries (not on menu) and drinking my overpriced cocktail (on menu) to see it all at night. In addition to a beautiful view of the Danube River and Bratislava Castle, you can see Austria’s windmills in the distance.
See Another View from Sky Bar
Next to the US Embassy sits a strange spot with another great view. There are three restaurants in the same building, but I went right up to the seventh floor. I wasn’t expecting to eat Thai food when in Slovakia but when at the Sky Bar, that’s what they have. I ordered one of the only non-Thai offerings, a plate with local cheeses. I am obsessed with cheese — my body is probably a higher percentage of cheese than it is of water, but I just wasn’t into any of them. This may be because they were sheep cheeses, even though I’d liked the halušky. To make up for the disappointment, I ordered a mango-rice dessert that I thought would be like the mango sticky rice I had in Thailand. It was delicious and presented beautifully and I forgave them for the cheese.
Try the Local Beer
Beer here is called “pivo,” and you can get one easily with “pivo, prosím”. You’ve probably heard about Czech beer, and Slovak beer is similarly a big part of their culture. Slovak Pub that I mentioned above has been brewing their own beer since 2015, Monastic beer 11°, and it’s worth a try. Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar also brews its own beer but has been doing so for a lot longer – the taps say “1752” on them. A less traditional local brew can be found at Bistro St. Germain — they have both alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions of ginger, lavender, pear, blackberry, and raspberry. I was intrigued by the lavender and loved it.
Have a Pancake Breakfast (or 2)
My accommodation was just steps away from an adorable crêperie – Pan Cakes a jeho palacinky and after the first morning, I couldn’t imagine eating anywhere else for breakfast. I got a cappuccino and a caramel crepe both mornings. The first day, they were playing Christina Aguilera’s debut album from track 1 on. I forgot how powerful her ballads were back in the day — go ahead, listen to this and try to not feel something.
Rent an Apartment from Ambiente Apartments
As I wrote in my review of Ambiente Apartments here, I would highly recommend renting a serviced apartment instead of a hotel. This company is similar to Airbnb in that they have a large pool of apartments but are more convenient as they help you find the perfect one, the check-in process is easy, and staff is on hand for any questions.
What to Avoid in Bratislava
So what *shouldn’t* you do in Bratislava? Well. When trying to get to Bratislava Castle, you shouldn’t follow the dot on your Google Map on your phone in the wrong direction. You should not start walking through a pitch-black tunnel, thinking that it is the way to get to the castle. You should not continue walking for a half mile through the tunnel — yes, I’ve since checked the length and that’s a long time to be walking in darkness in a panic. I absolutely thought that either an ill-intentioned human or a troll was going to pop out of the shadows and attack, but by the time I realized this was absolutely not the right way to the castle, it would have been just as long to get out so I thought I’d see what was on the other side.
Luckily, the only thing that came through the shadows of the tram tunnel was indeed, a tram, that did beep at me as a warning. People on the tram probably thought I was an idiot and maybe they were right to think that. There was nothing on the other side of the tunnel that I wanted to see but I was able to find my way back to society without walking back through. I was hungry and too defeated to walk all the way up the hill the correct way to get to the castle that same afternoon. But getting the castle with the gorgeous blue sky in the background the next morning was a nice alternative.