Bratislava is a fascinating destination. Of all the places we visited, it felt the most radically different.
A little history
Formerly known as Pressburg, Bratislava’s history seems to be characterised by different occupations, either by the Romans, Hungarians, Austrians, Nazis, or Soviets. The history is too complex to go into here, but it is a fascinating read. Importantly though, it was a Communist country and many traces of that regime can still be seen walking throughout the city. Bratislava did become one of the foremost centres of anti-communism in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 though.
After we stepped out of the train station, which was tiny compared to the train stations of other capital cities, we followed the people who looked like they knew where they were going and ended up at the Presidential Palace. (excuse the really dark photos—it was a dismal day and it’s hard to make anything look really pretty in this weather!)
The Presidential Palace backs up onto a public park, so we walked around that purely because it felt incredibly weird to be able to get so close to the residence of a president without security. The front of the house was really pretty as well!
A little history
After some extreme confusion with the roads and where they led (literally the most confusing road/sidewalk system I have ever encountered), we finally figured out how to walk up the hill to Bratislava Castle. The castle has been inhabited for thousands of years, serving as an important centre of the Celts from 450 BC to 1 BC. It was settled by the Romans from the 1st-4th centuries AD, serving as the border of the Roman empire. Around 1000, the castle was one of the central castles in the Kingdom of Hungary, protecting the kingdom against Czech and German attacks. It was also one of the few castles to withstand the Mongol attacks in 1241 and 1242. During the reign of Sigismund of Luxembourg in the 15th century, a castle was built in Gothic style as an anti-Hussite fortress.
The castle was rebuilt again in the Renaissance style in the 16th century, and then the Baroque style in the 17th century. During the reign of Maria Theresa, the castle was arranged according to the needs of her son-in-law Albert, who, as a fervent art collector, installed his works in the castle. This collection was later moved to Vienna to become the present-day Albertina Gallery. Since independence, the castle has served as a representative venue for the Slovak Parliament and houses collections of the Slovak National Museum. Restoration began in 2008 and only finished a couple of years ago.
The castle itself was very confusing to navigate. The map wasn’t very clear and there were no signs inside as to where we were. We started at the Museum of History, which houses some of the prehistoric artefacts found at the site of the castle, as well as Roman and Greek items. It is only two floors and easy to see quickly.
The ground floor of the main Castle Gallery contains images and information about the reconstruction of the castle. Not too long ago, it was in complete disrepair (see below).
Walking up a grand staircase leads you to the other levels, which house a music hall, a painting gallery, and a slightly-hard-to-find entrance to the Crown Tower. In the Crown Tower, you’ll walk up several flights of stairs and end up with great views of the city (and nearby Austria). There are also temporary exhibitions scattered throughout the rest of the castle, and at the time of our visit, we looked at a lot of images from Slovak history, mostly from the times of the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately, they selectively translated things from Slovak into English, so it was hard to tell what we were actually looking at…
Besides the hit or miss exhibitions, it was worth a visit, if only for the views. Student tickets are 4€, basic tickets 7€. It’s open daily from 10-6 and closed on Mondays. Here is the website with the opening times and information, because it was extremely hard for me to locate.
View from the Crown Tower: the UFO Bridge (toward the left), which is the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge to have one pylon and one cable-stayed plane. It was built between 1967 and 1972 by the Communist government and was the second bridge to span the Danube in Bratislava.
The Communist government also built these prefabricated panel buildings, or panelak, to house its citizens. 1 in 3 people still live in them, and they remain a very visible reminder of Slovakia’s communist past. In the distance, you will also see a wind farm.
Dining in Bratislava
We chose to eat at Slovak Pub, which came highly recommended on Yelp for traditional Slovak food. The food was delicious and the service was good. It was also on this trip that I fell in love with goulash. It became my lunch and dinner for the next several days as we travelled around Prague and Budapest. Yum.
After lunch, we headed to Blue Church, or the Church of St. Elisabeth, built in 1907 and 1908. Unfortunately, the interior doors were locked, so I only got a grainy picture from behind the window. It was absolutely gorgeous inside and outside though!
The rest of our day was spent walking around the Old Town and visiting churches where no one was worshipping (fair warning: we visited on a weekday and many of the churches had services). The Old Town was really quaint, with lots of stone and cobblestone walkways and coloured buildings. It wasn’t crowded or touristy which was fantastic, but it seemed like the rest of the city lacked life, which was strange.
After a long day of walking, we made it back to the train station to catch a train back to Vienna, where we would spend the night before our train to Budapest.
Some travel tips:
- Bratislava was the only destination where the GPS on my phone did not work (travel tip: Google Maps can discern your location and direction while your phone is still on airplane mode as long as the wifi button is activated, most of the time that is).
- English translations in museums (Bratislava Castle) are hard to come by
- Information on websites is also hard to come by
- Wander! Try Slovak foods! And be respectful of worshippers in churches!