Around June 1st, we took advantage of the free holiday days for a new mini-vacation. This time we opted for a central European destination: the capital of Slovakia, a city on the Danube which was mandatory to explore!
How to get to Bratislava?
We left Cluj by boarding one of the first Wizzair flights to this destination. Meanwhile, flights on this route have been cancelled, unfortunately! It was a good option for Vienna, which is very close to Bratislava, there are buses that take you from the airport and make an hour-long trip to the capital of Austria.
Bratislava can also be reached on ground, via Hungary, by car or by bus. From Timișoara there is a direct highway, but from Cluj, we would have had to go on a national road to Debrecen, which is kind of bumpy.
From the airport, the center of Bratislava is easily reachable by bus, it is not too far away, nor is it very much traffic in the area. There is no subway, but instead there are trams, that also circulate through the pedestrian areas of the center, which is very convenient for those who want to explore the city by foot.
How is Bratislava?
The city is relatively small, it doesn’t compare to other European capitals, not even the ones in the East. But that does not make it less interesting. A decade ago, Bratislava seemed like a pretty shabby little town. Meanwhile, it has been massively renovated, especially with the help of EU funds. Now it’s comparable to Budapest, even though it has fewer inhabitants.
Bratislava is not a destination where you can spend a whole holiday, but it is perfect for a city break of 2-3 days. The city has been for centuries one of the “Mitteleuropa” burgs, the German cultural and architectural legacy is present everywhere, it is a town that truly belongs to Western European civilization, even after half a century of Communism, brought upon it by the force of Soviet tanks. And the prices are much lower than in Vienna, which is right “across the street” (the capital of Slovakia is placed on the border).
When is it best to visit Bratislava?
Being a European city, it can be visited at any time. The weather was great when we visited it in early summer. But even if we came two months later, it would not have been so hot that we could not explore it by foot. We heard good things about the Christmas fair here too, maybe we will come back to complete our list of cities visited during this holiday.
Tourist attractions in Bratislava
The airport bus left us next to the train station, which is surprisingly small for a capital city. The first place to visit was the Transport Museum, which we entered just a few minutes after opening in the morning. Here are some very cool exhibits, especially for those passionate about technology and history, from motorcycles and vintage cars to old locomotives and even a railway control center kept intact.
After that, we went to the Slavin War Memorial, a monument dedicated to the soldiers who liberated the country from Nazis. Romanian soldiers fought here too, in 1944-1945 in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia. The symbolism, however, is mixed: the Red Army expelled the Germans, but brought the Bolshevik terror. It is, however, worthwhile marking this location, which is very beautifully placed in the middle of nature, up on a hill with a splendid panorama.
We have also visited the Bratislava Zoo, which is immense, much larger than everything you can find in Romania, with well-maintained spaces and many interesting and cute animals. The area is actually a forest park, where you can walk for hours, being especially appreciated by families with children. There is also a neighborhood of villas nearby, where it is a real pleasure to walk around.
Our accommodation in Bratislava was a small studio, relatively close to the central area (3 tram stops or 20 minutes walk) booked through Airbnb, which we recommend, the conditions were very good!
12 km away from the city (20-25 minutes by bus) is Devin Castle, a partially reconstructed medieval fortification that we couldn’t miss. It is situated at the confluence of the Danube and Morava, on the Austrian border, being in the past an important strategic point of control on the river.
The top view is exceptional, you can see many kilometers around in every direction, and the view of the Danube winding through the green plains of central Europe is invaluable! We stayed here to follow with our eyes a Romanian pusher that led a barge to Austria and we imagined how the life of the Habsburg Empire castellans was, in this outpost, guarding the most accessible way of communication between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.
We warmly advise you not to miss this point of interest, it is worth taking a tour through this castle! It is easy to get there, everything is well maintained, and there are also places where you can eat. There is not much to do around, just some villages on the outskirts of the capital.
The pedestrian area in Bratislava is very large, traversed only by trams and bicycles through some places. There are dozens of streets with old buildings, renovated and valued, with welcoming cafes, restaurants of all kinds, souvenir shops, churches and museums, statues and benches for tired travelers. This part of Bratislava is very touristy and it is really nice to get lost in the old town.
We saw St. Michael’s Gate, the Museum of Pharmacy (quite modest), the Museum of Weapons (it has an interesting collection of armours, pistols and old swords), the Blue Church (with a novel design), the Primatial Palace and the old town hall (both buildings with superb architecture). We liked the two “living” statues, set in the middle of the road: the Napoleon army soldier standing on a bench and the “Man at Work” peaking at the passers-by’s from the canal.
We also liked St. Martin’s dome (an impressive cathedral built in the Gothic style), visited the Clocks Museum to admire the craftsmanship of ancient Swiss craftsmen and we rested on the edge of Maximilian’s fountain.
The blue Danube
Following the experience in Budapest, we expected the Danube side to look modest here. We were wrong! Recently renovated, the area next to the river is wonderful for pedestrian walkers like us, with many trees, flowers, grass, benches, beautiful bridges and kiosks with food and drinks. The best promenade area is from the Eurovea mall to Most SNP Bridge.
On the other side of the promenade is the UFO building (with an UFO-shaped dome), one of the few tourist attractions of the city dating back to the communist era. Beside this, there is also a nice park here. On the other bank there is a bus station and the tourist harbour, from where you can go by boat to other capitals on the Danube.
On a hill on the western side of the city center, we reached the stairs that go up to the old castle. Here you can find small, medieval little houses, narrow streets paved with cubic stone, small bars and shops… and many tourists from all over the world. And this place is, of course, renovated and well-maintained too.
The Castle has impressive gates and statues, centuries-old buildings that show the grandeur of modern European architecture, and from the top, you are urged by the view to take pictures or to admire the beautiful panorama. The restaurants here are more expensive, obviously. Our advice: do not come here on heels, we saw some people struggling because of inappropriate footwear.
Our last day in Bratislava was chilly and rainy, so we gave up the idea to go to Vienna and searched for some thermal baths. We found them 50 km away from Bratislava, in the southern part of the country, an area where the Hungarians are the majority (the town is also called Dunaszerdahely). Following some drilling in the communist period, thermal waters were found here and a small aqua park was built. This place was also recently renovated.
The water park has several indoor and outdoor pools, all heated, a small hotel, a pension and little cottages for accommodation, a restaurant and several kiosks with food. All are in very good condition and prices are below those in Romania. Besides, there is also an offer of transport + entrance at a railway company, which we also took advantage of.
The town has a Hungarian specific, with chic and clean houses with lots of flowers everywhere. The thermal complex is open all year round, being visited mainly by elderly Slovaks and visitors from the bordering Hungary. It’s not necessarily a place for entertainment, but it’s nice and relaxing to be in hot water when it’s cold outside.
Bratislava surprised us positively. We did not know much about it, and we were expecting it to be more boring. We recommend it to anyone who is looking for a cheap city break destination, both by plane or by car or train. It is a really great idea to spend a whole weekend here, not just a short stop on the way to other more famous cities in the West.