When you think of European capital city destinations, you’re probably thinking London, Paris, and Rome – maybe Bonn, Stockholm, Prague and Vienna.
They’re all great cities and all stand on their own merits as places to visit and absorb.
But there are numerous smaller capitals, too, that have their own attractions. Bratislava, bisected by the great Danube River, is one of those places.
Bratislava, on the very western edge of Slovakia, is an hour from Vienna by train,. They’re the two closest capitals in the world, less than 50 miles apart.
Blava, as locals sometimes call it, is 2 ½ hours from Budapest or a relaxing four from Prague, so it may very well be on your way from somewhere to somewhere else if you’re on a European holiday.
Bratislava is worth a stop, whether for a day or three.
Public transportation is cheap and fairly easy. If you arrive by train, it’s much better to take a tram or bus to your hotel or just to see the sights, because taxi drivers at the train station are notorious for inflating prices for tourists.
Think 70 cents vs. 15-20 euros, and you’ll have the idea. You need a ticket before you board, and you need to validate your ticket in one of the automated machines on board. Buy your tickets at tobacco stores and remember to validate them.
Transit inspectors often ride near transportation hubs, and fines run about 50 euros. Hlavna stanica, the main train station, has lockers for your luggage in case you won’t be staying overnight.
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Best Things to do in Bratislava
Once you have left the train station, here are some of the local attractions you probably won’t want to miss.
Bratislava castle (Hrad)
The castle is probably the most visible symbol of the city of approximately 500,000. You can walk up, or take either the 203 or 207 trolley buses.
The castle is located on a high bluff above the Danube River and offers nice views of the river and parts of the city.
The castle is a huge rectangle, built from the 9th through 18th centuries, then rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s. It has been part of the Moravian, Czech-Slovak, and Austro-Hungarian empires.
Today, you might catch one of several food festivals or classical music concerts, depending upon when you visit.
The castle grounds host a baroque garden, a history museum, and an upscale restaurant. The history museum has several fascinating exhibits, including one featuring rare historic coins.
As nice as Bratislava Castle is, I like Devin Castle better. Built on a promontory above the Danube River has a medieval look and fantastic views of the confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers.
Devin is across the water from Austria, a testament to how close the capitals of Austria and Slovakia really are. TOURS are an excellent way to see the castle grounds, which are a great place for a not-so-strenuous walk.
Or it is possible to take a city bus to the grounds, which features the castle ruins, a nice museum, and restaurants.
The castle dates to the 9th Century A.D, and has hosted Roman soldiers, Moravian princes, and even Napoleon.
Climbing and hiking opportunities about here but it’s also a good place just to have a picnic.
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Bratislava is a working city, for sure, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a pretty, pedestrian-only Old Town.
Several of the attractions noted later in this article are located within or extremely near the Old Town, but the overall area is a great place for a walking tour, for fine dining, or to grab a drink and sit at an outdoor table and chat.
In autumn and winter, kiosks selling roasted chestnuts perfume the air.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Bratislava any time between late November and Christmas, be sure to visit the Christmas Market.
There, you can find handmade Christmas gifts, specialty bakery items and alcohol, and food stalls featuring traditional Slovak food and hot mulled wine. The market can be crowded on weekend nights; you may want to visit during the week.
Museum of City History
Bratislava has weathered foreign empires, world wars, Soviet occupation, and the tribulations that go with all of those social forces.
This museum, housed in the old town hall, focuses on Bratislava’s history from the Neolithic Age through the 20th Touch screens enhance the presentations, and a movie at the conclusion of the exhibits offers a visual reinforcement of your tour.
The museum covers a wide range of human activities – archaeology, culture, history, the arts, pharmacy, and coins, so you’re certain to find something of interest here, all just a short walk from the heart of the city’s Old Town.
Slovak National Gallery
Near the Danube River in the Old Town, the gallery houses three floors of paintings and other art, and is particularly strong for its collections of religious paintings.
The museum typically hosts a temporary exhibit as well, usually one with a more contemporary topic.
The staff mostly speaks good English and the docents are mostly older women who look mean but are actually pretty nice.
The gallery building also hosts a decent restaurant and a shop with some intriguing art-related gifts.
Just down the street from the National Gallery is the Slovak Philharmonic, where you can attend classical concerts and operas that are the rival of those in Vienna at a fraction of the price.
Even if you’re not into classical music, the home of the Slovak Symphony Orchestra is a beautiful building. Unless you know everything there is to know about classical music, you won’t suffer the comparison.
If you attend a performance, dress up a little, because most Slovaks do. Suits for men and nice dresses for women aren’t mandatory, but they might make you feel more comfortable.