Join Modern Traveller for a 24-hour stop in the Slovak capital.
Rolling towards our AirBnb, it’s clear that we’ve arrived in Bratislava: bumping beneath a giant disc that seems to levitate high above us, we cross the Slovak capital’s (in)famous ‘UFO’ bridge.
Home to an observation deck and a rather pricey restaurant, this symbol of Communist architecture – the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising – has the destruction of much of the city’s historic Jewish quarter on its conscience.
Divisive it might be, but this towering construction is an apt emblem for Bratislava: a city of rich cultural heritage, astounding architecture and a truly tumultuous past.
Climbing along the road to our pad for the night, an apartment situated in a slightly run-down tenement block, our first impressions begin to crystallise.
Roads bump between grand buildings and beneath wires belonging to powered buses, as residents go about their business in the presence of a far smaller crowd of tourists than many a European city enjoys.
Bratislava already feels different to many of the conurbations in which we’ve paused on our grand tour of the Continental Tarmac. Less polished, with fewer famous sites and sights – yet still striking, welcoming and thriving.
Strolling downhill towards the centre of the city, a convoy of police vehicles – many unmarked – wails past us, swerving through the gate into the Presidential Palace. The playing out of politics, as any visitor will learn, is rarely far away here.
Crossing tram lines and winding through narrow alleyways, we stop by the tourist information office to collect our Bratislava City Cards – kindly provided by Bratislava Tourist Board – before using them to grab a 10% discount on cake and coffee at Le Papillon.
Our afternoon treats are still a little pricey, but the café offers us a prime people-watching spot in the the city’s compact old town, with a view onto the picturesque – and, at this time of year, relatively quiet – Hlavné námestie.
Buildings of many a pastel shade sit beside the old town hall, which possesses a cream-painted tower topped by a now-green roof – as well as a cannonball, rumoured to have been fired by Napoleon’s forces, that nestles in its wall.
Not far from this frontage sits an old guard’s box, sharing the square with Maximiliánova fontána – Maximillian’s fountain, built in the 16th century to supply water to the public and, nowadays, a regular meeting spot for visitors and locals alike.
Having soaked in our surroundings over warm drinks and nibbles, we decide to swing by the City History Museum to make use of the City Card’s half-price entry offer – but, finding time has slipped by rather more rapidly than expected, we have to give it a miss.
Instead, we move with haste to the statue of Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav, outside the American embassy, to meet our guide for a free walking tour.
Exploring on foot with a knowledgeable guide is one of our favourite ways of getting to grips with a new city – and, whilst our Slovak leader’s material is rather rehearsed, over the course of two hours we learn a good deal about this city, and the country to which it belongs.
A highlight is the ‘blue church’ – the Church of St. Elizabeth. Hidden away amongst dilapidated, semi-demolished remnants of Socialist building efforts, this striking structure might be made from marshmallows, were their structural integrity a little greater.
Marzipan shades of blue adorn its rounded, art-nouveau walls, contrasting delightfully with the rugged edges of its surroundings. It’s incongruous, and all the better for it.
Back beside the Danube river, having heard from our local font of rote-learned knowledge about everything from Presidential faux pas (Bush once embarrassingly confused Slovakia for Slovenia) to Czech-Slovak rivalry, to the rural Easter tradition of whipping and drenching unsuspecting girls, we bid farewell to our group and head up the hill for a sunset view.
Entry into Bratislava Castle isn’t free – but the vista offered from just outside its walls is. Perched on a bench, with the grassy slope falling away before us, we’re treated to a captivating scene.
Cutting between us and the old town, the Tarmac of the arterial main road runs through the remnants of the Jewish quarter – where a mural hints at how things once appeared – before leading up to new developments and industrial structures, signs of city still growing. Across the river, archetypal communist apartment blocks dominate the skyline.
After pausing for a little while to read and reflect, we cross back into the old centre, in search of a perfect spot to sit and sip.
After wandering a while, we opt for Urban Bistro, a stylish joint in close proximity to the imposing Michael’s Gate – the last of the city’s medieval fortifications. Pulled pork burgers go down a treat with an easy bottle of local wine.
Content after a final coffee, we totter back through the up-lit streets. A brilliantly bright green laser blazes twenty feet above the cobbles, shooting down the street before reflecting off a mirror and continuing on its path, giving a dazzling, neon edge to a city now alive with night life.
After a happy stroll through bustling passageways, we opt to take the bus home. Here, the City Card is a truly useful piece of plastic to have: unlimited use of public transport sees us both saving cents and happy to take longer, prettier routes back.
A good night’s sleep later and we’ve time for just one more meal in intriguing Bratislava. By chance, we duck into Urban House for some dangerously delicious Eggs Benedict – only later realising that this chic eatery is, in fact, of the same clan as our previous night’s dinner destination.
Brunch hunger sated, we take a final, slow amble in the general direction of the bus stop, ogling the sun-soaked facades, informative plaques and sprinkling of statues that make this Central European city such a fascinating one in which to wander.
Bratislava, it seems, is not your standard capital – nor, indeed, your average tourist town. It might lack the ‘must-sees’ and untainted beauty of certain spots elsewhere in Europe; but there’s character here in spades, which more than justifies a visit – flying or otherwise.
WORDS & IMAGES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS
Information correct at time of publication; a changing world is one of the joys of travelling!