Slovakia is a country that is not nearly as famous or as popular as a tourist destination as it should be. A stones throw from Prague, Vienna and Budapest, in neighbouring Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary respectively, this bitesize capital city is full of remarkable landmarks, people and experiences.
In February 2020, the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, would be our home for a few days. Slovakia is a small country in terms of population, and the majority live and work in this vibrant city, and surprisingly feels even smaller in exploring its old streets. But, it is not short on things to see, do or experience. Historically playing second-fiddle to Prague and the Czech Republic, post-Czechoslovakian Bratislava has grown in charm in the eyes of Europe’s travellers. There are some remnants of the old times, including communist tower blocks, and some eye-openingly strong attitudes to things like gun ownership (Slovakia is one of only two countries in the European Union where carrying a gun is legal), but the number of McDonald’s, Starbucks, IKEA and, perhaps most strangely of all, Tesco’s, would suggest that capitalism is very much there to stay.
On our first night in the city we went on a Beer Tour, organised through Urban Adventures (highly recommended!) and led by a Hungarian man named Zsolt. A great way to spend an evening and sample some of the best beer (and strongest brandy) than Europe has to offer (alongside their on-and-off friends and neighbours in the Czech Republic, but don’t say that too loud!). The tour gave us a great chance to combine our post-travel need for food and drink, with a guided tour to find our feet around the city. Bratislava, in fairness, isn’t a large city, and the majority of its attractions and places of interest are within walking distance of each other. For those that aren’t, such as the revolving restaurant and zoo, there’s an incredibly efficient, affordable and well-used public transport system. For those not that confident, there’s always Uber. Of the beer itself, Slovakia is extremely proud of its alcohol, and a number of the restaurants and bars around the city include their own microbreweries and craft their own beers.
Bratislava Castle is probably the most recognisable landmark of this often overlooked country. The partially original but partially reconstructed white exteriored fortress sits on a hill overlooking the old town. The grounds host a nice restaurant, and whilst the forecourt is free to enter, there is a museum which requires tickets. Affordable and well worth a few hours of your time to see a mixture of Bratislava’s history, from ancient findings to its almost accidental progression to an independent nation following the fall of communism in former Czechoslovakia. This isn’t an exaggeration, whilst the uprisings against communism in former Czechoslovakia gripped the streets of Bratislava, the separation from the Czech Republic appeared to be an unforeseen consequence. Accessing the museum also enables you to climb one of the towers and enjoy a view over each angle of the city. However, the view of Bratislava is not quite as impressive when the castle, an incredible piece of architecture, isn’t in it!
Old Town –
The ‘Old Town’ of Bratislava is not so much a landmark in itself, though there are still remnants of the old defensive walls. Instead it is a selection of cobbled, narrow streets with tall buildings lining either side. Along with the restaurants and bars, the town plays home to St. Martin’s Cathedral, Napoleon Statue and Fountain and Primate Square. All well worth a visit. Oddly there is the ‘Man at Work’ statue, a bronze figure emerging from a manhole – either a representation of communist era productivity, or looking up ladies’ skirts, depending on who you ask!
There is a Holocaust / Jewish memorial near the town’s western overpass that is well worth a visit, particularly as the Jewish community was so heavily impacted in the country during the second World War.
The Old Town Hall has what we felt was the best museum in town, and also encompasses the unsurprisingly grim and graphic Museum of Torture. Full of items and trinkets from Slovakia’s past, from day 1 to present day, the City Hall museum is well worth the modest ticket price and a few hours of any visitor’s time.
UFO tower –
On the western side, across the river, is the appropriately named ‘UFO Tower‘. A bizarre feat of architecture, towering above the cars below, is a circular restaurant with an open top viewing platform allowing for a 360-degree view of the city and surrounding countryside. Whilst it looks like it should rotate, it doesn’t. Inside is a restaurant which always seemed to be busy, and the prices are significantly higher than those on the edges of the old town. Nonetheless, this is well worth a trip to the top and a stop off for a coffee.
Blue Church –
The Blue Church is exactly that. On the eastern side of the city, a 5-minute walk from the edge of the Old Town, is a large, blue church. Fully in use and as such this is not a tourist attraction in itself, or it wouldn’t be except for its extraordinary exterior. Just like in the photographs, it really does look like it’s caked in icing, and it really is that blue! Unusual and beautiful.
Rotating Restaurant (TV Kamzik Tower) –
Other than Bratislava Zoo, which we were unable to visit due to poor weather, the rotating restaurant is the one landmark in Bratislava that does require some form of transport. Almost accessible by the impressive and reliable public transport network that the capital has to offer, but far easier and less complications to simply use an Uber for a modest price. The tower is surreal, a TV tower with a restaurant and viewing deck at the top. Unlike the UFO Tower, this one does rotate… unless you’re stood in the middle, or sat in the corners. It’s a strange sensation to be sat eating or drinking as other patrons are going past you whilst seated. Still, this tower gives a unique and incredible view of Bratislava, as well as the Slovakian, Czech and Austrian countryside.
On one of our days we ventured out from the city to the nearby town of Devin. Famous for two things. Firstly, the climate’s ability to seemingly deluge a month’s rain in about 15 seconds on any unsuspecting and ill-prepared tourists. Fortunately, this was after we had seen what we wanted to see. Secondly, the incredible Devin Castle.
Devin Castle –
Devin Castle is an impressive ruin which sits atop a hill on the edge of the town. A beautiful historical monument with enough space and paths to wander around, as well as views out across the Slovakian countryside. To enter the castle grounds itself requires purchase of a ticket, though prices are reasonable, this allows for access to the monument itself. Whilst we were there, there was a memorial to victims of communism during Czechoslovakian rule, but there appears to be no permanent museum at this stage. However, some areas were still undergoing work to excavate.
Slovakia is a truly beautiful place. Not as cheap as eastern Europe, but affordable and western enough to feel familiar. Food is wonderful and the people are accommodating. Clearly the country still struggles with elements of the transitions to being an independent country, even over 25 years later. One alarming example is the handnling and fallout from the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak, who was investigating corruption, and his partner which continues to this day. But as a destination for foreigners, it felt safe, welcoming and fascinating.
by Tom McBeth