People go to Prague. People go to Budapest. They even go to Warsaw - but who goes to Bratislava?
For that matter, many Americans have never even heard of this city and are more likely to respond with "Where?" than anything else. A search for Bratislava guide books will give you...well. Nobody's actually written one, although it will at least tell you it's in Slovakia. (There's only one guide book to Slovakia - the others also include the Czech Republic, pretending the Velvet Divorce never happened).
Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia and is on the Danube. It's a very interesting city - with a split personality - and well worth devoting a few days to on a tour of Eastern Europe. (It's also day trip distance from Vienna, if you take the river bus).
Bratislava's Split Personality
The first thing any visitor will notice is that this city really does, as I said above, have a split personality - with the split being the Danube River.
Communist-era development is to blame. Rather than (fortunately) raze the Medieval town of Bratislava, the Communists simply built an entire new city on the other side of the river. So, north of the river is the old town of Bratislava - a labyrinth of beautiful Medieval buildings with occasional dots of very modern development. South of the river is a large park and...apartment blocks.
An entire city of apartment blocks.
100,000 people worth of apartment blocks.
I'm told they're actually very nice inside, but from the outside they are forbidding Soviet concrete. This contrast is part of what makes Bratislava different. In Prague, everything has been done to remove all traces of the Communist era whilst still trying to profit from it - fake Communist memorabilia on sale in a town that destroyed the Soviet war memorial.
In Bratislava, it's right there, in your face, separate and accepted. (Note that if you do go south of the river you'll get some looks - they don't expect tourists to be there - but the park really is worth checking out). Oh yes, and the war memorial is still there too.
Man At Work and Other Quirks
You could run a very interesting photographic scavenger hunt in Bratislava. Just try to find a comprehensive list of all the street art.
Such a list may or may not exist. You can walk down the main shopping street and there's Hans Christian Andersen sitting on a bench surrounded by birds. Or turn down an alleyway and suddenly come across George slaying a dragon. Careful...that paving stone you're about to step on is a fake fossil.
Bratislava has street art. It's a thing. It's a fun, quirky thing that will keep your eyes open. Just don't trip over Man At Work (they had to put a sign over it because more than one person drove into it).
What Is That Ugly Thing Above The City?
There's one unfortunate thing about Bratislava. The "Novy Most" - the new bridge. Sorry, good Bratislavans, that thing is hideous. The only safe place is standing on it, that being the only place from which you can't see it.
It's a suspension bridge from a single tower, on the top of which is perched what appears to be a docked UFO. Or maybe some kind of weird blimp. That thing? It's a rotating restaurant - and a counterweight to support the bridge. And it's even called the UFO.
It is the world's first asymmetrical suspension bridge and is also called the Slovak National Uprising Bridge. There's nothing like it in Europe. Fortunately. Okay, you might disagree and think it's architecturally fascinating and utterly awesome.
I think it's awesome in its ugliness.
Devin Castle towers above Bratislava on its rock - it's ruined, but under continuing restoration and preservation work. It dates back to the 8th century, but most of the remnants are of the 15th century palace and fortifications.
This includes the Maiden Tower - which, of course, has plenty of legends of imprisoned maidens and death. Because you can't have an Eastern European castle without a woman leaping to her death because her family won't let her marry the man she loves.
The castle's poor state of repair is mostly because it was blown up during the Napoleonic Wars.
Be warned that there's a maze of streets around the castle - it's easy to get lost, especially if some prankster turns a sign around (sigh). Still, you can't really go to Bratislava and not check out the castle...it's not as spectacular as Prague's, but it has a definite ruined beauty.
Bratislava is easy to get to. It has a fairly major airport with flights from all over Europe, for those heading there directly.
If touring eastern Europe I recommend making use of the rail system. Eastern European trains are clean, well kept, and run on time. The rolling stock tends to be elderly - it's the only place I've seen a corridor train since about 1990 - but that only adds to the charm.
A river bus makes the two hour run along the Danube between Bratislava and Vienna - well worth it if going that way, or even if not.
Renting a car is possible, although the train tends to be more relaxing, and you may need an IDP. Don't bother renting a car if you only plan on spending time in the city - like most eastern European cities Bratislava is walkable, has great public transit - and nowhere to park.
Bratislava has the usual selection of hotels with varying star levels for all budgets. TripAdvisor lists 85 hotels in the city, ranging in price from $23 (no kidding) to over $200. You can stay in Communist era hostels or even a botel - a uniquely eastern European solution to limited room inventory - a giant houseboat moored in the Danube.
If wary of strange hotels, there are a number of US chains represented, although I honestly recommend one of the local places - why go all that way to stay at a Crowne Plaza?
The majority of hotels are reasonably priced - Bratislava is off the tourist route and Slovakia is a lower income country with less "capital effect" than most places, at least from our point of view.
Food is typical Eastern European fare. It is cheap, and beer is cheap, but any other potable beverage is expensive. Soda and potable water are particularly pricy - when in eastern Europe, drink the beer.
There are some very good restaurants in Bratislava - we stumbled across a Hungarian restaurant in a hotel that was four stars for what we considered about two star prices. Order game if you can find it. Wild boar is surprisingly readily available, with a stronger flavor and less fat than domestic pork. Anywhere you go in eastern Europe try the local variation on ghoulash/gulash - usually made with whatever looked good that day. Oh, and potatoes. Potatoes grow very well in Slovakia and are definitely the go-to starch.
Eastern Europe is a hard place to be a vegetarian. Meatless entrees are harder to find and tend to be lacking in variety, unfortunately. (And a hard place to be a teetotaller, as already mentioned).
Eastern Europe did one thing right - they never got rid of their streetcars. Bratislava has a great streetcar network and its supplemented by buses and by trolley buses (something very few modern cities have).
Don't bother renting a car. It's hard to drive, hard to park, and you won't need one unless you're leaving the city or staying way out in the suburbs (don't - there are plenty of affordable options in the city).
Wear your walking shoes - Bratislava is a very walkable city and you'll really miss out if you don't explore the Old Town on foot.
Warm, dry summers. Cold winters. Eastern Europe is great for winter city breaks - but take your winter gear and your snow boots.
Average temperatures in July and August hover around 80, so if going at that time of year be ready, although the humidity is fairly low. Occasional extreme temperatures do occur - 100 in the shade has been recorded, as has -4 Fahrenheit in the winter.
Spring and fall tend to be short, but pretty. Rain is possible at any time, but tends not to be heavy - a light rain coat or an umbrella should be sufficient. In general, summers here are very pleasant.
Culture and Etiquette
Slovakians are a little old-fashioned. A man who does not open the door for his wife is still considered to be "rude" and "un-gallant." Pubs, especially those that don't cater to tourists, are a very male domain - an unescorted woman might find herself fighting off bad pickup lines and other such uncouth behavior and is likely to be uncomfortable.
The country is fairly conservative - both same sex PDAs and breast feeding in public will get stern looks and women may be asked to remove themselves to a bathroom. Children are, however, welcome just about anywhere except pubs. Drinking age, as in much of Europe, is 18.
Incidentally, ice hockey is almost as important here as football (soccer). Although it's more important in the Czech Republic, Slovakians do like their hockey.