One of the advantages of taking a European river cruise is that you get to see places that you might ordinarily not place on your ‘Top Ten Cities to Visit List’. One of these places is Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia that sits right on the shores of the Danube, tucked between Vienna to the north and Budapest to the south. Henk and I were guests on board the Crystal Mahler, so when our ship docked here for the day, Henk and I jumped at the chance to discover some of the best things to do in Bratislava. Even with only a day to explore the city, because of its compact historic centre and relative lack of tourists, we were able to see and do a lot without feeling rushed.
From Coronations to Communism: A Bit of Bratislava’s History
With 12,000 years of history, Bratislava is no new kid on the European block and its strategic position on the Danube meant that everyone from Romans to Russians recognized the city’s importance. The Romans built military camps here as far back as the 2nd century , but it wasn’t until the 10th century that Bratislava first appeared in written records, when it was part of the Moravian Empire. The city was annexed by Hungary in the 11th century and for almost 250 years, Bratislava, not Budapest, was actually the capital of Hungary. (known as Pozsony at the time).
Bratislava really gained prominence during the time of Empress Maria Theresa in the mid 1700s when she invested heavily in the city, removing some of its medieval walls to allow for expansion and giving the city an empress’ touch. But this was short-lived, and after she and her heir died, the following centuries were not as kind to Bratislava.
First, Hungary moved its capital to Budapest, then Napoleon’s troops took over the city in 1809, and by 1919, the city was annexed to the Czechoslovak Republic. Then came the Nazis, then the Soviets and Communist rule, which didn’t end until 1989. With the split of Czechoslovakia into two nations in 1993, Bratislava finally saw true independence and a new beginning as the capital of Slovakia.
A Modern Motor City Now
Most visitors typically visit the historic old town of Bratislava, but this capital city is much more than just a medieval walled town with pretty cobblestoned streets. In the past three decades, Bratislava has become a leader in the production of automobiles; in fact, it is now the biggest in the world on a per capita basis. Two cars are produced here every minute, one-sixth of the people work in the automobile industry, and some of the more prestigious neighbourhoods boast homes worth up to 5 million euros, making this former communist city one of the wealthiest in the country. Which means there is a vibrant energy present in Bratislava, not just a storied past.
Things to do in Bratislava: Explore its Architecture
All of Bratislava’s history is evident in the architecture you’ll find here, especially in the historic centre (‘Old Town’) where you can find medieval structures, Renaissance fountains, ‘Imperial’ style palaces and important churches, starting with St. Martin’s Cathedral, which has been here for almost as long as Old Town itself.
St. Martin’s Cathedral
St. Martin’s Cathedral is the largest church in Bratislava and one of the most important religious buildings in the city. The church originally dates back to the early 13th century when it was a Romanesque structure dedicated to the Holy Saviour. After 1291, it was rebuilt in the Gothic style you see today, with its tower integrated into the city’s walled fortifications where it doubled as a defensive bastion. But St. Martin’s real significance comes from the fact that it served as the coronation church for Hungarian royalty from 1563 to 1830, a fact that is still celebrated today with a ‘Coronation Days’ celebration every September.
FUN FACT: St. Martin’s held coronations for 10 kings, 1 queen and 7 royal wives. To commemorate this, on the very top of St. Martin’s spire there is a gold-plated replica of the Hungarian crown sitting on a 3-foot wide pillow. It was placed there in 1847 (replacing the first crown installed during Maria Theresa’s reign), weighs 330 pounds and contains almost 18 pounds of gold (8kg)!
Medieval Kapitulská Street
Just behind St. Martin’s you’ll find one of the oldest medieval streets in Old Town, Kapitulská Street. This is about as far off the tourist track as you can get in Bratislava, which is why Henk and I loved exploring its winding cobbled streets.
Only a handful of residents live here, (mostly priests connected with the cathedral), and wandering its narrow winding streets feels like taking a step back in time.
Slovak National Theatre
Just outside where the original medieval walls of Old Town once stood, visitors can admire the Slovak National Theatre, a pretty Neo-Renaissance building in Hviezdoslav Square. Built by two Viennese architects in the early 20th century, the two designers loved the style of the building so much they built similar structures in other European cities.
TIP: Just in front of the theatre is a small circular structure that looks like a ‘well’ with a plexiglass cover. Looking into it you can actually see the remains of the old Medieval ruins that once stood here.
Slovak Philharmonic (the Reduta Building)
Not far from the Theatre building is the Reduta Building, home to the Slovak Philharmonic since the 1950s. This building was originally built as a Baroque-style granary during Empress Maria Theresa’s reign, but was converted with Rococo and Art Nouveau additions in the early 20th century.
The Blue Church
‘Not particularly Slovakian’ is how a local guide described the Blue Church, but Henk and I decided to set out on our own to find it, because the distinctive blue exterior of the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary (its official name) makes it one of the most unique churches in Bratislava.
Located just on the eastern edge of Old Town, the Blue Church was designed by a Hungarian architect in the early 20th century so it reflects the Art Nouveau style of that period. But its colour is what makes this church so photogenic. Inside and out, you’ll find blue tiles, blue mosaics, and even a blue roof. Definitely worth a look, plus we got to wander through ‘everyday’ residential neighbourhoods on the walk there, not just historic sites and landmarks.
Architecture Outside of ‘Old Town’: Bratislava Castle
I always like to get to a high vantage point when I visit a new place, since it gives me a bit of geographic perspective to help orient myself, plus there’s usually a good view regardless. The best place to do that in Bratislava would be to head up to Bratislava Castle.
Like the coronation cathedral, Bratislava Castle is famous more for its days as the formal seat of the kings of Hungary than for its stunning architecture. Empress Maria Theresa did make improvements during her day when she brought in the best imperial architects to spiff up the place into a residence more fitting for royalty, but after her son’s death the palace was deserted and later completely destroyed by fire. So what you see today is a pretty plain white structure with very little ‘imperial’ embellishments on the exterior. Bratislava Castle does give you a great view over the city, even if you don’t go inside to check out any of the collections from the Slovak National Museum.
The UFO Bridge
If you’d like a modern vantage point with a view of Bratislava, head to the ‘UFO Bridge” that spans the waters of the Danube. The bridge is an unmistakable landmark in Bratislava and was officially known as the ‘New Bridge’ or the ‘Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising’ when it was built in 1972 (when Slovakia was still part of Czechoslovakia and behind the Iron Curtain). But the nickname ‘UFO Bridge” is the one that has stuck, referring to the circular disk-like observatory perched on the single pylon at one end of the bridge, which resembles a flying saucer. As the world’s longest bridge with only one pylon, one of the locals joked that this unique design was proof that even gravity was no match for the Communists who built it!
TIP: The entrance fee for the observation deck at the top is about 8 Euros, but if you decide to visit the restaurant, the elevator ride up is free.
Things to See and Do in Bratislava’s Old Town
The jewel for most visitors to Bratislava is its historic centre, or Old Town, a relatively compact collection of cobbled streets and pretty squares. Your visit to Old Town should definitely begin by entering via Michael’s Gate, the only gate remaining from the 14th century fortifications that once walled the city.
Don’t make the rookie mistake of walking through Michael’s Gate via the large arched entrance: it’s considered bad luck to go under the main archway on what was originally the drawbridge. Instead, pass through one of the smaller side entrances (and when doing this, take note of the narrowest house in Bratislava, too!)
Better still, if you want to go up the 51-meter tall tower of Michael’s Gate, pay the admission fee to the Museum of Arms which is housed inside here on several floors. You not only get to admire some of the antique weapons and armour on display, but you also get access to the tower’s small wraparound balcony where you get great views out over Old Town’s red roofs and curving streets.
Fun Fact: The 4 clocks on each side of Michael’s Gate tower historically had hands on only 3 of the 4 faces. The clock facing the Jewish Quarter never had hands because Jewish residents of Bratislava historically didn’t have to pay taxes, so the city felt they didn’t deserve to know the time.
Old Town Hall
The historic centre of Bratislava is where you’ll find the charming main plaza, Hlavné nàmestie, surrounded by a number of photogenic pastel-coloured buildings. The oldest one, the medieval Old Town Hall, dates from the 13th century and houses the oldest museum in Slovakia. Its tower is open to the public, if you’d like to climb it, or you can just walk behind it into the courtyard and admire the architecture of the building itself.
Back in the main square, you’ll find shops and cafes if you want to sit and have a glass of wine while you people-watch, or you can hop on one of the cute little ‘trains’ for a more relaxed way to tour around the streets. Henk and I preferred to explore on foot, where we came across Maximillian’s Fountain, a large circular basin with a central pillar topped by a knight in armour believed by some to be either Maximillian II, or Roland, a legendary defender of the city. However, the interesting feature on this fountain isn’t the figure on top, but rather the figures on the central pillar that have been recently restored…
The restoration of this fountain in 2019 was not about removing smog or grime, but rather, returning the fountain to its original Renaissance design. This included the decorative carved central pillar which has 4 little boys urinating into an upper basin. Apparently, Empress Theresa was not a fan of this feature on the fountain, and had the peeing cherubs replaced with dolphins in 1794. Now ‘un-censored’ after 225 years, the little boys are free to pee once more!
‘Cumil’ Bronze (‘Man at Work’)
Walking the streets of Old Town, it would be easy to accidentally trip over ‘Cumil’, except for the fact that this quirky ground-level bronze statue is probably one of the most photographed/instagrammed pieces of art in the city and as such there’s usually a group of people gathered around it.
Located on the sidewalk at the corners of Panská and Rybárska brána streets, the statue represents a grinning construction worker ’emerging’ from a manhole in the street. Its name, Cumil actually means ‘Watcher’ in Slovak but it’s not clear whether he’s watching passersby, or cars on the road (he’s lost his head twice to careless drivers, so he’s doing a lousy job!) Regardless, rubbing Cumil supposedly brings good luck: visitors are advised to touch his nose if you want to have a baby, or touch his hat to get rich. (Needless to say, I touched his hat!)
Hans Christian Andersen Statue
There are many other modern statues scattered throughout Bratislava’s Old Town, including one of the Danish fairytale author Hans Christian Andersen. The statue was placed along the pretty treed boulevard leading off of Hviezdoslav Square in 2006 to mark the 200th birthday of the author who visited Bratislava in 1841 and described the city as a ‘fairy tale’ city in its own right. What’s fun is that there are characters from some of the author’s fairytales as part of the statue, including a naked king – remember The Emperor’s New Clothes?
Enjoy a Slovakian Traditional Dish
You shouldn’t visit Bratislava without stopping to enjoy some of the local food and drink. Old Town of course offers countless restaurants that will offer you a taste of Slovakian cuisine, and there is a wide variety of interesting dishes, or as our Slovakian guide put it: ‘We’ll eat anything that won’t eat you!”
Our recommendation would be Bryndzové Halusky. Similar to gnocchi, this creamy dumpling dish is made with sheep’s cheese and garnished with bacon bites (who doesn’t love bacon?).
Drink Like a Local
Whether you enjoy it with your Bryndzové Halusky or on its own, try a glass of Francova wine, a local red Limburger vintage that has been produced here for centuries, and was a particular favourite of the Empress. Her fondness for the wine might even explain those rosy cheeks on many of her older portraits!
Or if beer is what you’re looking for, head to The Beer Palace (close to the National Theatre) where you can sample a flight of craft brews before deciding on a favourite. This place was once an aristocrat’s residence and has 2 floors for guests: we loved the downstairs where there are characteristic, cozy rooms with brick archways and plenty of atmosphere. The food is good here, too.
Best Thing to Do in Bratislava? Mingle with the Locals
Bratislava isn’t just about visiting historic sites, admiring its architecture or even sampling the local fare: it’s about meeting the people who live here, too. Wandering the streets and poking into shops allows you to do this, so even though Henk and I enjoyed our organized tour for the historical information and insights it offered, we also took the opportunity to explore Bratislava on our own for a good part of the day we spent here.
On our wanderings, we popped into a local cafe far off the tourist track, strolled through residential neighbourhoods, and struck up a conversation about the weather with a young artist, Pavel Filgas (it was an unseasonably warm October day when we visited).
We chatted about Filgas’ work, admiring his unique style and materials (he uses coffee and pen and ink for his interpretive architectural landscapes). It was nice meeting someone who actually lives in Bratislava, a simple thing that sometimes gets overlooked in our desire to ‘see and do everything’ at a destination instead.
Which is why, when it comes to the best things to do in Bratislava, our number one recommendation would be to allow time for the simple pleasures, whether it is a chat with a local, or a glass of wine at a cafe. Because sometimes these are the moments that you will remember most about your time spent in any place you visit.