Following the 2005 release of the horror film Hostel, we were told by our walking tour guide that Bratislava had lost 75% of its tourism over the course of ten years. The plot of the fictional film sees a group of travelers enticed into a hostel in the city where they are tortured and killed. The film portrays Slovakia as underdeveloped with high crime rates and rife prostitution.
Officials from Slovakia and neighbors, the Czech Republic, were outraged at the film director in fear of travelers being too scared to visit their countries. The film certainly was a turning point in the tourism industry for Slovakia and Bratislava was portrayed very wrongfully, in our opinion. We experienced the city over the course of five days and it was one of the most picturesque and welcoming places we have ever been to, a true hidden gem with the bonus of minimal tourists.
Situated on the Danube River within close proximity to two neighboring capitals, Vienna and Budapest. Both cities can be reached by boat in under two hours. Bratislava and Vienna are the two closest capital cities in the world being only 66km apart.
Austria and Hungary can both be seen from the Crown Tower of the Bratislava Castle. The Tower is the oldest part of the castle offering a 360-degree view of Hungary and Austria, as well as the city itself and the Czech Republic.
Between 1867 and 1918 Slovakia, Austria and Hungary were all part of the same country. Two world wars and 40 years of communism helped shape the culture of Bratislava. The city still speaks three different languages and the name of the Slovak capital is just under 100 years old.
Prior to being named Bratislava, the city was known as Pressburg(Germany), Pozsony(Hungary) and Prešporok(Slovak).
A significant part of recent history was the building of the Communist-era highway that slices right through the Old Town severing off St Martin’s Cathedral in the process. Our tour guide told us that Bratislava’s Jewish Quarter was demolished for the building of the highway, destroying a significant part of the city’s history in the process. She also told us the city was chosen over Prague to construct the major road and that wasn’t necessarily a good decision for the city.
For many years, the King Of Hungary’s coronation was held in the city of Esztergom in Hungary. In 1563 when Maximilian would be crowned as the new Hungarian king, the Ottoman Turks took control of Etzergom so it was no longer an option to hold the coronation there. The most obvious solution would be to move the event to Bratislava, which in 1563 was ‘Pozsony‘. They chose the city because of its double fortification city wall that partially stands today.
King Maximilian was so happy at the new hosting city for the coronation, he built the beautiful fountain in Hlavné námestie (The Main Square) for the people of Bratislava. The fountain still stands today.
Ten Hungarian kings and eight royal consorts were all crowned on the ground of Bratislava following Maximilian proving the move from Esztergom was a successful decision. The coronation ceremony involved a public parade around the city starting at St. Martin’s Cathedral.The coronation route is now marked with small gold crowns on the floor of the street.
The castle stands on an isolated rocky hill on the Little Carpathians which is part of the Carpathian Mountain range. The grounds can be entered for free allowing visitors to experience the best views of the city via the Castle Tower.
Bratislava Castle was first referenced in literature dating back to the year 907 and it has been through extensive redesign and restoration as a result of being occupied by different empires over centuries.
Like most castles, the highest point offers 360 degree views of the city and because of Bratislava’s perfect location, three different countries can be seen on a clear day.
The castle building is made up of four towers (one on each corner) and a courtyard with a 260 ft deep water well. The statues and monuments around the grounds are truly magnificent, we really took our time here to appreciate them.
The courtyard offers entrance to the Knight’s Hall where the new constitution of independent Slovakia was signed back in 1992.
The courtyard was reconstructed back in 2010 and visitors can now see the newly erected statue of King Svätopluk I by Slovak sculptor Ján Kulich. The statue was unveiled during a nationally televised ceremony.
For some of the best views of the area, enter the grounds for free but be prepared for hills and steps.
At the very top of the green copper tower visitors can enjoy the Museum of Weapons, as well as experiencing a great outlook onto the streets of Bratislava.
At 51 meters high, the tower above Michael’s Gate is one of Bratislava’s most noticeable landmarks. It is also one of the city’s oldest standing buildings after being built as one of four city gates into the city back in the 14th century.
The Golden Circle can be found directly under the gate, also know as Zero Kilometer, this is the point in which distance is measured to and from the city.
A small pedestrian bridge over the summer reading garden leads to the tower, the garden is a great place to relax in the city.
This is one of the most unusual and beautiful churches we have ever seen purely because of its pastel façade decorated in Hungarian Art Nouveau style.
Also known as ‘The Blue Church’, the Church of St. Elisabeth is located in the eastern part of the Old Town and was built to commemorate Elisabeth of Hungary.
The interior is just as easy on the eye with rich decoration consisting of illustrations and pillars decorated in gold and pastel shades. We were told by our tour guide that many weddings are held at the church and it represents Bratislava as a landmark across the world. It was fascinating to see a contrast of surrounding buildings that differ in age, style and colour like the Franciscan Church, built in 1207.
A stunning Secondary School, Gamča, sits beside the church. The building was designed by famous European architect, Ödön Lechner who decorated his buildings with Zsolnay tile patterns replicating the old Magyar and Turkic folk art. The Blue Church was initially built as the school’s chapel but now stands as an independent landmark.
An old worn down hospital stands directly opposite the church that has been standing abandoned since the Communist era.
Lots of colourful street art lines the streets of Bratislava giving it a quirky and cultural feel.
Quirky commemorative statues are spotted around the square and it is said that the Napoleon solider statue was built after a soldier, named Hubert, fell in love with a local girl during the era of Napoleon’s invasion on the city back in 1805. Legend has it that he stayed in the city to be with his love and he started to make sparkling wine. Hubert is now used as the name of Slovakia’s most popular sparking wine brand.
The Hlavné Námestie is often considered the center point of Bratislava. The square is made up of beautiful historical buildings such as the Old Town Hall, Slovak eateries, foreign embassies and souvenir shops.
One of our favourite statues sits on the edge of the Main Square. Čumil (the Watcher) is a statue portraying a resting worker as people pass on by. He draws attention to himself with an accompanying sign saying ‘Man at Work’. Be careful not to trip!
The Old Town Hall has been standing in the square since the 14th century. After being used for many operations throughout the passing centuries, such as a Mint and a prison, it now houses the Bratislava City Museum, consisting of exhibitions of Pressburg’s history. One of the most noticeable features is the cannonball lodged into the face of the tower.
The cannonball was allegedly shot into the wall by Napoleon’s forces back in 1809.
Souvenir shops and stalls also line the square selling items typical of Slovakia such as Corn Husk Dolls and honey based Mead Wine.
Once the ground for coronation ceremonies, the Gothic style St Martin’s Cathedral was built on the place of the former Romanesque temple in 1452. The Cathedral is free to enter at certain times of the day offering visitors a chance to see a Hungarian crown from the 19th century, a wonderful sacral Baroque and many Gothic artworks.
The streets surrounding the cathedral offer a pedestrian only route in and out of cobbled alleyways lined with beautiful historical buildings.
The incredibly picturesque route eventually leads back into the centre of town, passing by hidden bars and restaurants along the way.
One of our favourite sights that makes Bratislava unique to us are the colours of the buildings and the characteristic street art. It reflects its Central European influence and blends nicely with quirky rebellion and Gothic styles.
Everything in this article is within walking distance but if you are short on time or want to save your legs you can always opt for a guided Stadtrundfahrt tour!
It is good to get lost in a great place such as Bratislava, take advantage of the minimal tourists and capture moments in this incredibly underrated city which is a true reflection of cultural central Europe.
If you’re a sucker for stats and random facts, you can enjoy Europe’s narrowest kebab shop in the heart of Bratislava, Zwinger Kebab, also happens to be the 2nd narrowest building in Europe!
If a kebab from the narrowest shop on the continent doesn’t take your fancy, Bratislava has a lot more culinary delights to offer. The best way to experience the food of Slovakia is to find a restaurant selling traditional cuisine and order a Slovak platter. Slovak food is notoriously rich and filling and uses hunger banishing staples such as milk, cream, cheese, potatoes, dumplings and red meats. The cuisine stems from a history of rotating leaders and the heavy winters and cold summers of the nation. Bryndzové halušky is a popular dish in the capital that consists of potato dumplings with sheep’s milk cheese. We ordered this along with Bryndzové pirohy (cheese filled dumplings) – before we were vegan.
Sauerkraut is also popular in a lot of dishes as is meaty sausage. Kapustnica is a popular soup made from sauerkraut and sausage and there are all kinds of concoctions on offer combining the staple foods of Slovakia.
A delicious offering we took advantage of was the Garlic bread bowl. Filed with creamy garlic soup, you can eat the bowl afterwards which has formed into a deliciously soaked garlic bread.
One thing we did notice during our stay in this beautiful city, Slovaks love their alcohol! Beer is so cheap here, take this green pint for example, yours for €1.90! It is 13% ABV too!
Bars can be found scattered all over the city, most often host live bands and can be found in the hidden alleyways close to the city’s landmark attractions.
Delicious beer is everywhere and Slovakia is famous for unique types of wine too. We managed to find amazing beer while dining, and even found decent beverages in the famous ice skating arena.
The most popular sport in Slovakia is ľadový hokej” (Ice Hockey). The Slovakia national team have taken part in every World Championship since 1996 and have quite a collection of trophies and medals. These achievements have attracted a growing crowd of patriots who attend sell out games and follow the sport religiously. We were lucky that a match was happening while we were in town, against Sweden at the famous Ondreja Nepelu Arena.
There are many top quality players from Slovakia, a lot of which play in North America’s National Hockey League (NHL). The quality of the game we saw was incredible and the atmosphere in the crowd was like something we had only seen as a spectator of an Olympic sports game.
Often overlooked as a place to visit while travelling through Europe, Bratislava is a beautifully unique city showcasing its rich history and culture. The city can easily be accessed by bus from its surrounding countries and the likes of Budapest and Vienna offer day trips via bus or boat. We urge you not to miss this underrated part of the world, get there before the tourists do!