A Sojourn in Bratislava, Slovakia

by  Jim Sherman | Oct 3, 2009
Slovakia / QQ7/iStock

Located in the heart of Central Europe, Bratislava, Slovakia, is a charming medieval town on the Danube River that shouldn’t be missed. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993; both joined the European Union in 2004, and soon after, Slovakia’s tourism boom began. Bratislava has even been compared to Dubrovnik, Croatia’s much better-known resort town. Yet, while the cobblestone streets, narrow alleys, main square, and pedestrian-only areas of Bratislava’s Old Town echo those of seaside Dubrovnik, Bratislava has a character all its own. I suggest a two-day visit to get a taste of the city’s unique offerings. I spent time there bookended by a pair of four-day visits to Vienna and Budapest.

By train, Bratislava is only an hour from Vienna and 2.5 hours from Budapest. Alternatively, one can take a riverboat, a splendid way to experience the Danube. And with Bratislava just 1.5 hours from Vienna and 4 hours from Budapest, a boat ride is not that much more time-consuming. I recommend a walk through Old Town to see remnants of the medieval city walls, historic churches like St. Martin’s Cathedral, colorful baroque-style 19th-century buildings, and the lovely square. Arrange a guided tour of Old Town and Devín Castle for wonderful views of the Danube Valley. From the castle, one can see the line where the Communists ran barbed wire along the border with Austria. Another fascinating experience is biking along the Danube and around town. Although the paths are not well marked, it’s still worth cycling the Slovakian capital for several hours. Stop across the river at the Am Café for a break. Or, for a better workout, bike up to Bratislava Castle for a glimpse of the spot where George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin met in 2005.

Don’t expect to find a party scene here. The city is mostly quiet in the evenings. People eat in outdoor restaurants, drink beer in a smattering of small pubs, or enjoy the opera at the magnificent Slovak National Theatre, which will stage Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and Verdi’s La Traviata this fall.

The restaurant scene surprised me in two ways. First, Old Town has few traditional Slovak restaurants; most places offer international cuisine. For local dishes like Wiener schnitzel try Presburg. The second unexpected twist: Restaurants are a bit pricey. Having said that, Camouflage, in the Erdödy Palace, is on par with any luxury New York City dining spot. Splurge on a meal at Kogo, which serves excellent Italian food.

In general, Bratislava is less expensive than Prague or Vienna, and upscale hotel rooms are available at reasonable prices. A smart splurge is staying at Arcadia (from $199/night), a small boutique hotel in Old Town. If it’s booked (when I visited, Enrique Iglesias and his crew had taken it over during a concert tour) try the Skaritz Hotel & Residence (from $236/night). I found the Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel (from $168/night), a large luxury hotel, less appealing. Next spring, the much-anticipated Kempinski Hotel River Park will open and overlook the Danube.

All in all, Bratislava is a great spot for a two-night stay, ideally combined with Vienna, Budapest, or Prague. And don’t leave town without trying slivovica, the local plum brandy. But watch out—it is quite potent.

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