When most people plan an eastern European city break, their minds go straight to Prague. Here’s the thing about Prague: It’s pretty, it’s gorgeous, and it’s fake. The center of Prague feels like a giant tourist trap, a place where nobody actually lives. It also feels like a place where the communist years never happened.
By all means, go to Prague. We did. But I have no interest in ever going back to Prague. Been there. Done that.
But if you want something a little more real and authentic, yet equally valuable: Try Bratislava.
What is Bratislava?
Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia. In the early nineties, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (now Czechia) split in what was known as the Velvet Divorce.
Bratislava was known alternately as Pressburg and Pozsony prior to 1919. The city is set on the Danube (and is a relatively short ferry ride from Vienna). At one point it was the largest city…in Hungary, when most of Slovakia belonged to them. At other points it belonged to Austria.
Bratislava never wanted to be part of Czechoslovakia; it was actually inhabited primarily by Hungarians and Germans (in fact when we were there the best restaurant in the city sold Hungarian cuisine. And it was quite, quite excellent).
There was a brief period of independence for Slovakia in 1939, and Bratislava was the capital then, but the Nazis had other ideas; then the Communists did. The city grew under the Communists, and the Hungarians and Germans became a minority as Slovaks moved in from the country.
Rather than demolish Bratislava’s beautiful Old Town, the Communists built an entire new city on the other side of the Danube, linked by a series of bridges (one of them the ugliest I have ever seen, the infamous “UFO Bridge”).
This gives Bratislava it’s split personality: On one side of the river is gorgeous, well-preserved Medieval architecture with the occasional modern building. On the other? Brutalist apartment blocks that glower out at the world.
Bratislava can’t forget Communism. It’s right there by the river. (I’m told the buildings are nice on the inside and to be honest they’re quite similar to the building I live in. But there’s a lot of them, housing about 100,000 people).
So they don’t try. They remember and they honor and they learn. And that’s one of the reasons Bratislava feels so…right.
What is there to Do there?
So, what is there to do in Bratislava? The obvious first thought is to admire the Medieval architecture, but here are some suggestions:
- Go on a street art scavenger hunt. Bratislava has amazing street art, including fake fossils in paving stones, random statues of St. George down alleyways, a Hans Christian Andersen you can sit with. Finding it all can easily eat a full day of wandering around. The most famous piece of street art is “Cumil,” a sculpture of a guy coming out of a manhole and grinning.
- Bratislava Castle. It dominates the city from its hill above the Danube. It’s a well-restored baroque building from which you can, on a clear day, see three countries (Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary). Inside the castle is the Slovak National Museum-Musem of History.
- Devin Castle. You have to take the bus or water taxi out here to see what’s left of the castle (Napoleon blew it up). It comes with beautiful views.
- Bratislava Zoo. Yes, there’s a zoo. It has a display of dinosaurs as well as a fairly typical selection of creatures, but it has some you might not see so often, including hyenas, dwarf crocodiles and Carpathian lynxes.
If you just want to see the city and are hanging out in Vienna, it’s a reasonable day trip, but go by river if you can.
There’s also a variety of tours. While you are there, consider buying a decorated egg (wrap it carefully; ours did survive) which you can use as a Christmas or Easter ornament.
How to Get There?
Airport Bratislava/Bratislava Airport (code BTS) is a twenty-minute taxi ride from the city center (there’s also a bus). There are flights from most cities in Europe.
If you are already in Eastern Europe, take the train! The train ride from Prague to Bratislava goes through gorgeous mountains, and the trains are clean, well appointed (if elderly) and generally run on time. And no, that’s not American on time. When we took the train from Bratislava to Krakow Poland, our train was ten minutes late. This elicited profound apologies at every single stop as if this was the most terrible thing ever, in five languages! (And our connecting train was, thankfully held…I wouldn’t have fancied being stranded overnight in some small industrial town that I can’t even remember which country it was in. Czechia, I think. No offense to the residents of said town).
If you are going between Bratislava and Vienna, you can also take the train, but the ferry is a great option; you can say you cruised the Danube!
(Normally I’d do a more comprehensive overview of flights but we’re still plagued, so…)
So, there’s a thought for an Eastern European city break that’s a bit off the beaten track.