Less than an hour east of Vienna, a city renowned for its rich musical heritage and even richer Sachertorte, yet more historically and aesthetically similar to distant Prague, Bratislava isn’t usually the first European capital that comes to the mind of would-be visitors. That being said, it’s the perfect little city to spend an afternoon and escape from the bustling Austrian capital. Due to its small, compact layout, you can easily visit the main sights in an afternoon and still have time for a local beer in a cozy pub.
11 a.m.: Arrive from Vienna
After enjoying breakfast in one of Vienna’s famous cafes, start your trip east. There are many different ways to get to Bratislava from Vienna: by train, bus, car, or even by boat! Use a travel planning site like GoEuro or Rome2Rio to compare transport options. I found a round-trip ticket with Student Agency bus lines for less than 10€. Plan to arrive in Bratislava by mid-late morning.
One of my cardinal rules of travel is to never judge a city by what you see after getting off the bus or train (the stations aren’t usually in the prettiest part of town), and the same applies to Bratislava. I stepped out of the bus station into what appeared to be 1980s Czechoslovakia. Cold War-era apartment blocks constructed in the style favored by the Soviets were all I could see as I started to walk, following the offline map on my phone. The closer you get to the city center, however, the more charming architecture you’ll see. It only took a few city blocks before I started to fall in love with this adorable city.
12 p.m.: Lunch at Slovak Pub
Every single person I asked who had traveled to Bratislava, including a friend who had lived there, recommended this traditional Slovak restaurant as the best place in town to grab a bite. After getting your bearings and wandering around the charming pastel streets of the city center, head to Slovak Pub on Obchodná, one of the main streets that runs through town.
I had a beer brewed in-house, pierogi, and halusky (a traditional Slovak dish made with dumplings, sheep’s milk cheese, and bacon) but honestly it was hard to pick because everything on the menu sounded so good. The entire delicious, hearty meal cost less than €10!
1 p.m.: Visit the Presidential Palace
You won’t be able to go inside, but the exterior architecture is worth the short walk from Slovak Pub to burn off that awesome lunch you just ate.
Start making your way to the old town through Michael’s Gate. Named after St. Michael the Archangel and dating from the year 1300, it’s the only gate that has been preserved from the city’s medieval fortifications.
2 p.m.: St. Martin’s Cathedral
As you continue walking through the old town towards Bratislava Castle, you’ll come across this pretty cathedral which dates back to the mid-15th century. I was in town on a public holiday and wasn’t able to go inside, but the exterior architecture is incredible.
Cross Starometská and keep heading uphill. Enjoy the pretty pastel architecture to take your mind off the fact that your calves will be killing you.
2:45 p.m.: Bratislava Castle
Towering over the city from its perch on the hill, this gorgeous white castle is well worth the trek from the city center. The interior is currently closed due to renovations, but the exterior area – and the views of the city from up above – won’t disappoint.
3:30 p.m.: Ice cream at Koun (or not…)
I was so excited to try Koun, a supposedly amazing local ice cream parlor, hidden down a tiny side street and recommended to me by my friend who had lived in Bratislava. Fellow ice cream lovers can imagine my sadness as I spotted the sign from down the street and eagerly ran up to it, only for my face to fall at the disappointing paper sign in the window written in both Slovak and English: CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS.
When it opens again, it seems like it would definitely be worth a visit due to the awesome recommendation my friend gave me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t try it for myself and opted for some homemade chocolate from a local shop instead (which wasn’t a bad second choice). Either way, treat yourself after walking around town all afternoon.
3:45 p.m.: Old Town Hall and Primate’s Palace
Make your way to the main square (Hlavne namestie), where you’ll find the oldest city hall in Slovakia. The Old Town Hall is part of a 14th-century cluster of buildings and picturesquely European with its charming red roof and beautiful tower offering stunning views of the city.
The Primate’s Palace (the name of which still makes me think of monkeys) is close by. This beautiful pale pink building was one of my favorite sights in the city.
4:30 p.m.: Wander the Old Town, visit Blue Church
Perhaps one of the most famous sights in Bratislava, the Church of St. Elizabeth is known for its distinctive blue color. On your way there, you’ll run into some of Bratislava’s most well-known “residents” – the famous human-sized statues that populate the Old Town.
If you have time:
Head up to the top of the towering UFO building straddling the Danube River. I wasn’t able to make it that far, but supposedly the view is pretty cool and only costs about $4.
Finish off your day in Slovakia’s capital with dinner and a beer at another local pub before heading back to Vienna.
Have you been to Bratislava or another underrated city? Tell me about it!
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