It’s kind of obligatory to start a write-up about Bratislava with a cliché about how overlooked it is; a convenient and cheap one-nighter on your way to somewhere else. In-so-far as it is recognised as a place in it’s own right, that is often only because of the film ‘Hostel’ – a terrifying and brutally stereotypical portrayal of Slovakia as a generic ‘Eastern’ European country full of deprivation, depravity and seriously-hot-but-distinctly-murdery prostitutes (Slovaks weren’t all that happy with the film, and it’s not hard to see why).
But there’s nothing like setting your expectations low to have them overwhelmingly exceeded, and Bratislava really has the ability to do that – containing many of the charms of its more famous brother Prague, but feeling eminently more cosy and discoverable due to its somewhat – er, dinky size.
In the summer, the banks of the Dunaj (Danube) river are transformed into a free-to-visit beach, complete with deck chairs, bars, beach sports, evening film screenings and live music (kudos to Slovak Telecom for their genius marketing initiative on this beach-building idea). The beach overlooks one of Bratislava’s slightly odder offerings; the Kamzik ‘UFO’ television tower – a weird, counter-balanced disk that juts above one of the main city bridges. If you mosey on over there, you’ll find a panoramic observation deck and restaurant.
In the winter, Bratislava offers up its own Christmas market, and regardless of what city you’re in, there are few more enjoyable things than making a shopping list for relatives, and then junking it for a different list that consists only of food stalls you intend to visit; slowly ticking off the list of sausages and mustard, hot wine and doughnuts, before progressing onto the questionable local offerings. You cannot - and I use the word cannot not as a recommendation but as a command - leave Bratislava without trying Slivovica (a 70% plum brandy that’ll put hairs on your chest. And your teeth. And your eyeballs). You can then progress through the other ‘icas’ (pronounced itza). There’s ceresnovica (cherry flavoured), hrusovica (pear), marhuľovica (apricot) and borovicka (like gin with the gin taste turned up to a hundred). Then, once you’re in the full swing of things, there’s the Tatra tea range to try (ranging from 17% to 72% -I used to honestly live on this stuff), and Demonovka. Making up types of strong alcohol is like a Slovak national sport or something.
If I’m painting Bratislava only as a place to get trashed quickly and on the cheap, I’m doing it a significant disservice, though the drinking culture and the role of alcohol in hospitality for Slovaks shouldn’t be underestimated – there’s not much keeping up with a Slovak, but they’ll be more than happy to help you try. Beer is also a big part of Slovak heritage – and they know how to do it well and cheaply (you can still find a pint for a euro). Beware that Slovaks believe shots should be taken in pairs to even up your balance – one for the right leg and one for the left (with some of the slightly more hubristic also claiming there needs to be one for the ‘third leg’…)
Despite a reputation to the contrary, there are also some wonderful things to eat – try the inventively named ‘Slovak Pub’ to tick off some of the classics. You can start with Kapustnica (cabbage, plum and pork soup/stew – way better than it sounds) or garlic soup served in a hollowed-out bread bowl (great for you, less great for your companions or hostel roommates). Then there’s brynzdova halusky (think a tangy and delicious macaroni cheese with lashings of bacon), langos (pillows of fried dough topped with cheese and things), or klobasa (a chorizo-like sausage), amongst a hole host of other delicious dishes.
Bratislava also offers up your typical round of churches, parliaments, theatres, museums and two castles (the large one that looms ominously above the town, and the out-of-town ‘Devin’ castle). All are as appealing and interesting as any of their counterparts in neighbouring cities, but what is perhaps most interesting is the sheer mix of styles that are jumbled together; whilst other European cities have maintained a strong ‘old town’ and clearly defined districts, Bratislava wears its history on its sleeve and maintains an architectural tradition that is not always beautiful, but never fails to be interesting.
Old town hall
With Bratislava being a hub that makes Prague, Budapest, Krakow and Vienna easily reachable, then a lot of visitors arrive and depart by train. Only slightly on the subject of which - did you know Vienna and Bratislava are the places most frequently cited as the two closest capital cities in the world, with just 34km between them, but are actually beaten by Vatican City and Rome – which I think is cheating a bit, and Kinshasa and Brazzaville.
Trams and buses run from the train station – and buses from the airport – and it’s the so-common-I’m-a-little-tired-of-repeating-it system of buying tickets from newsstands and ticket machines for various ride durations (60 mins, 90 mins, a day, etc), and then validating them on the vehicle. Do make sure to validate them, but also make sure any ticket inspector who inspects you is carrying ID – it’s not unheard of for unscrupulous locals to trick tourists into paying fines.
At the time of writing (June, 2018), Uber has just been suspended in Bratislava, but taxis exist and are cheap enough – make sure to find an official one regulated by the city (obviously you already knew that, since that goes for anywhere, not just Bratislava).
For travel further afield within Slovakia, www.cp.sk is an invaluable resource.
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