What to Expect When Visiting
Bratislava is one of the lesser-known destinations in Europe. It rarely makes the itinerary of jaded travelers who have recently visited its popular neighbors Prague, Budapest, and Vienna. Having also just visited those destinations, we didn’t expect much but were so pleasantly surprised. Bratislava is so beautiful! And because it is not a major tourist destination yet, you can intimately experience places like the historic Old Town and its cats-cradle of cobbled streets, which are usually packed with crowds in cities like Prague.
Bratislava is usually visited on just a day trip over from Vienna since the cities are only an hour apart. Bratislava is so close to its neighbors that one could easily have breakfast in the Czech Republic, lunch in Bratislava, dinner in Vienna, and relax in Hungary. That’s a bit extreme, but possible! We strongly recommend slowing down and spending a few days in Bratislava and even going on a road trip to other parts of Slovakia, and here is why.
Amazing Things to Do in Bratislava
Bratislava Castle and Baroque Gardens
The Bratislava Castle dominates the city skyline, no matter where you stand. So naturally, as you enter the Old Town through the medieval Michael’s Gate Tower, which you can climb for magical 360-degree views, the crowning castle captures the eye. From the Old Town, you can make it to Bratislava Castle in just 15 minutes, located on a hill above the city. Built in the 16th century, it was the former seat of the rulers and place of coronations. Now the castle houses the Slovak National Museum. Wander behind the castle to find the stunning Baroque Gardens, the entrances of which are adorned with dreamy gates.
We had the honor of having John’s sister, Bev, and our brother-in-law, Bill join us for two weeks of travel. Bill, who is known for being fun and full of great ideas, suggested we lay our phone down and snap a picture of the ceiling. Of course, his fun ideas only work if he has some willing participants, so we obliged. Isn’t that ceiling magnificent?
During the summer, Bratislava’s best daytime activity is taking a boat cruise along the majestic Danube to Devin Castle. The castle sits high upon a cliff, mostly in ruins but purposely hasn’t been rebuilt so visitors can appreciate the skilled craftsmanship dating back to the 9th century. The deteriorating Devin castle offers unparalleled sweeping views over the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers.
Danubiana Art Museum
Contemporary Art Museum takes over the Danube Peninsula with modern grandeur. The museum houses unique exhibitions of fascinating sculptures and artwork, including a large collection by Andy Warhol because he is originally from Slovakia. Not only do you get to spend the afternoon in a breathtaking location, surrounded by art but getting to the museum is also an epic journey. If you are visiting in the summer, you can reach the museum by boat along the Danube, otherwise, you can get to it in 20 minutes by car.
Slovak Radio Building
The upside-down pyramid, built in the socialist realism style, is considered one of the top ugliest buildings in the world, alongside the National Library of Kosovo in Pristina (link). You be the judge. But the outlandish exterior hides the best concert and recording studios in Slovakia. It is also home to one of the largest organs in Central Europe, consisting of 6,300 pipes.
Day Trip and Road Trip Worthy Destinations in Slovakia
Located 2 hours away from Bratislava, Bojnice castle is an architectural masterpiece. The Romanesque castle features some Gothic and Renaissance elements and looks like something straight out of fairytale books. It is considered one of the most beautiful castles in Europe, and we can’t argue with that. The castle is surrounded by extensive park grounds; the tall walls are covered with webs of vines, and the underground caves have spooky decorations and real live bats. It’s a spectacle and a must-see when in Slovakia!
The Sulov Rocks is a national nature reserve located 2 hours from Bratislava, nicknamed the Slovak Dolomites. The stunning rock formations come in bizarre shapes like towers, cones, needles, and gates and attract many hikers and rock climbers. Slovakia has over 100 castles, so of course, there is a ruined castle at the base of the ridge called the Sulovsky Hrad.
Slovakia is gifted with excellent hiking trails of various difficulties and unbelievable views. Home to nine stunning national parks, some of the best are located in the High Tatras, the most scenic section of the Carpathian mountain range. The mountains are located three and a half hours away from Bratislava, on the border with Poland. If you are an avid hiker, a day on its own won’t suffice. If the Sulov Rocks are compared to the Italian Dolomites, the High Tatras are likened to the Swiss Alps, only less crowded. Imagine the serenity.
The Best Food in Bratislava and Where to Eat It
Slovakia’s cuisine has been influenced by all of its surrounding countries. So, it’s not surprising to draw similarities with the neighbors, especially Austria and Hungary. The dishes are simple but always hearty and comforting. Here are some must-tries we loved:
- Traditional dumplings – they come with various fillings and toppings, such as sour cream and fried bacon
- Gulasova polievka – goulash soup
- Masove gulky – meatballs with potatoes
- Plnena paprika – peppers stuffed with rice, ground beef, and drenched in tomato sauce
- Zemiakove placky – potato pancakes
- Slovenske palacinky – thin pancakes
As for drinks, Slovakia is famed for its own brews, vino, and fruit brandy. And coffee culture in Bratislava is fierce. This is because Bratislava was considered Vienna’s suburb, where coffee houses are king. Unfortunately, during the communist regime, Bratislava’s cafe scene suffered a setback, but today, it is on the rise stronger than ever and can be best explored in the Old Town.
And here are our top recommendations for where to eat in Bratislava.
Koliba Kamzik, popular among locals, is a quaint traditional restaurant. Dining here is like getting a warm lingering hug – you are surrounded by a cozy rural interior, hearty dishes, and hospitable people.
Bratislava Flagship restaurant is the most iconic restaurant in the city, serving traditional dishes in a historical interior. The restaurant doesn’t just offer local food, but a complete experience and a peek into what Bratislava looked like around 100 years ago with its Golden Lane exhibit. They claim that you have not been to Bratislava until you’ve eaten at Flagship, and they just might be right. It’s a must-do.
The trendy UFO restaurant sits atop the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising 85 meters above the Danube. The bridge is alternatively known as the UFO bridge for the shape and the name of the restaurant on top. The shape allows for stunning views of the city and the river, stretching all the way to Austria! While the setting is thrillingly unusual, the restaurant serves familiar Mediterranean and Asian dishes to accommodate every taste. If you want to only enjoy the view, take the elevator up to the observation deck.
While Bratislava and Slovakia as a whole have stunning architecture and breathtaking nature to boast about, what struck us the most was how happy the people are. Perhaps that’s due to the high focus on the public’s mental health or the attitude people have toward leading an active lifestyle and prioritizing personal time. There are many reasons why we love Bratislava, but the people are the reason we’ll be coming back.