It is said that Johann Strauss wrote “The Blue Danube” waltz after visiting Bratislava, Slovakia. The Viennese may disagree with this assertion—the city has a statue dedicated to the composer after all—but Bratislavans hold it as gospel. Whether it’s true or not, one can’t help but be as inspired as Strauss when visiting Bratislava and gazing upon the Baroque structures sitting on the banks of the Danube. It’s easy to get swept away by the views of Central Europe’s most important river.
Situated on the border of Slovakia, Hungary and Austria, Bratislava is strategically positioned to be the perfect base to explore the Austro-Hungarian imperial cities. Vienna is only 50 miles away, Budapest, 125. Yet to give short shrift to the Slovakian capital would be a pity. Bratislava is steeped in old world charm and feels as Prague or Budapest must have 30 years ago, before the tourists hoards discovered their appeal. The city has seen a construction boom in recent years, thanks to foreign investment and a developing economy. Cold War edifices have given way to capitalism excess, with high-rise apartment blocks popping up in every neighborhood.
Unlike Prague and Budapest, Bratislava offers all the rich Baroque history without the crowds. Want to know what things to do in Bratislava? Read on.
Like its sister cities on the Danube, Bratislava is known for its hearty cuisine, much of which is centered around three ingredients: potatoes, cabbage and sheep’s cheese. These dishes exemplify Pressburg cuisine, which encapsulates the rich strews, goulashes and the like the city is known for. You’ll never go home hungry after trying some roasted wild boar goulash with root vegetables.
Bratislava has a few signature items: Roast goose with a side of potato pancakes and stewed red cabbage is a staple of the local diet. Bryndzové halušky are potato dumplings smothered in sheep’s milk cheese and bacon.
While many restaurants steadfastly hold on to tradition, several new restaurants are turning traditional Slovakian cuisine on its head. Start your day at Fach, a trendy juice bar-cum-bistro near the waterfront that bakes its own chewy sourdough bread and flaky pastries and cold presses a variety of veggie and fruit drinks. The cavernous bar/cafe Pod Kamenným Stromom is packed on most weeknights thanks to it ruin pub–aesthetic, craft cocktails and innovative meat and fish dishes that hark back to Bratislava’s Ottoman past.
Soup aficionados head to Soupa for bowls of hot and steamy veggie and meat delights. The shabby chic environs are inviting enough to make it easy to grab a swivel seat near the window to watch the locals saunter by. Bibliophiles will delight in the books on display at Bistro St. Germain, a Parisian-style boite that boasts a menu of light and fresh dishes such as sandwiches, soups, salads and pastries.
With a mix of cultural and modern sites, Bratislava is a mecca of interesting marvels just waiting to be explored. Start at the opulent Bratislava Castle, originally constructed in the 10th century but reconfigured in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Renaissance and Baroque styles, respectively. The garden, made famous during Queen Marie Theresa’s reign (she was the last of the Hapsburg queens), retains its Baroque feel thanks to its gilded interiors and standing cherubs overlooking the fountains.
Michael’s Gate and Tower is one of the most iconic sites in the city. Head up the seven stories of the Gothic structure, which was built in the 14th century, for an IG-worthy view of the city and surrounding countryside.
Bratislava is not all Baroque masterpieces, however. Remnants of its Communist-era past remain. Hop into a souped-up 1970s Skoda car and traverse Cold War stomping grounds such as abandoned factories and concrete apartments blocks in the Petržalka district. It’s a welcome alternative to the run-of-the-mill castle/church/garden tour the city is known for.
If you have time for a quick day trip, Devin Castle can’t be beat. The culturally important site—Napoleon’s army decimated the structure during the Peninsular Wars—is the ideal spot to learn about the history of Bratislava while enjoying postcard-worthy views of hills and forests. Some ramparts remain so it’s worth the simple climb to the top. During the summer, the castle hosts colorful jousting tournaments and fairs, a pleasure for kids of all ages (I rooted for the green knight but he could never seem to catch as many rings as his opponents).
Just 30 miles from the city sits the Danubiana, a modern art gallery situated right on the mighty river. Explore the works of Jim Dine and Jozef Jankovič in the expansive sculpture garden.
Combining the rustic with the modern, the 60-room Penzion Berg in the Petržalka district affords guests single and double rooms with chocolate-colored furniture, plush bedding, Nespresso coffee machines and Botanica toiletries. Upgrade to the apartment for a taste of exclusive luxury—think exposed brick archways, unfinished wooden bed frames, shabby chic furnishings and a bookshelf with tomes aplenty to keep you occupied. Meet fellow hotel guests and trendy locals at the adjoining restaurant over Mediterranean and Slovak standards.
Loft Hotel Bratislava
Chic and modern describe the 111-room Loft Hotel Bratislava to a tee. Tufted chocolate leather chairs dot the lobby where guests can relax with a good book and a cup of coffee while they wait to check in. Rooms run from standard to premium and feature hardwood floors, dark wood walls, soaring ceilings and flatscreen TVs. Premium-level rooms get fake fur throws, leather seating and large spa showers big enough for two.
Head to the inviting Wine & Coffee lounge after a long day of sightseeing to unwind with a glass of vino or an espresso. The terrace beckons in the summer and affords views of the Presidential Palace, which is a mere 300 yards away.