City Guide to Bratislava: Exploring and Must See Attractions
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Bratislava, Slovakia and our travel plans met, totally by accident (a welcome accident we might add!). Let us tell you the story of how we, Screw The Average, ended up in Bratislava. We'll try to make it quick!
We were happily minding our business in Bucharest, Romania, where we were ‘living’ for a month in a studio rented off Airbnb (use our link and get up to $40 off your first stay!). Our time in Bucharest was intentional and multi-purpose, as we were able to get some much needed time to work, spent time outside of Schengen, and we got to experience and explore a new country and city. During our regular activities, we’re always on the lookout for house sits that look interesting, and one day we found one that looked perfect! It was in Vienna, Austria and we’d have the privilege of looking after a home in the center of Josefstadt (basically Old Vienna, city center), and caring for two cats and a small dog. We talked with the homeowners, got all of the details squared away, and were thrilled to be able to put the house sit on our calendar.
The best part about our traveling style is that it’s flexible. We keep our time available so that we can jump on opportunities that appeal to us. Vienna was certainly a place we wanted to visit, and the animals looked adorable, so we of course had to take advantage of the house sit. The next step was figuring out how we'd get from Bucharest to Vienna. We thought, the easy way to get to Vienna was to fly, right? Unfortunately, no. It was on the pricey side to fly directly to Vienna on the date we needed (over $240 per person). So, long story short (read the longer story here), we found that a 90 minute bus ride from Bratislava to Vienna was only €1 per person (yes, you read that right, only €1!).
So then, you might be asking, how did we get from Bucharest to Bratislava? Simple, we flew from Cluj-Napoca, Romania to Bratislava, Slovakia for only $20 US dollars for both us. Yes, you read that right, it was 80 RON or $20.01 (the conversion during our visit) including fees and taxes to fly from Cluj-Napoca to Bratislava! And, if you’re up on your Romanian geography, the next logical question is, how did we get from Bucharest to Cluj-Napoca? Well of course, we took a train ride from Sighisoara, where since we were there we had to spend a couple of days sightseeing and enjoying the UNESCO World Heritage Site of one of the best-preserved citadels in Romania. So then, how did we end up in Sighisoara? Naturally, a fantastic Transylvanian train ride from Sibiu, Romania!
Now, if you’re still following along, you may be wondering how in the world we ended up in Sibiu, over 170 miles north of Bucharest. Well, here’s a question for you. If you had the opportunity to take a road trip of a lifetime, a road trip that was named by the BBC’s Top Gear as the, ‘World’s best road trip’, would you?! We certainly would, and did! So, from Bucharest Airport we rented a car (by the way, it was our first time driving in nearly eight months!) and drove the amazing Transfagarasan Highway, of which we must admit we were both so excited to do that we took turns driving so that we could both have bragging rights. Finally, at the end of the drive we spent a night at an Airbnb in Sibiu, and then caught our Transylvanian train to Sighisoara.
And Now, Let’s Recap
The dominoes fell in place when we were offered a house sit in Vienna, Austria and the plane tickets were more than we wanted to spend to fly direct into Vienna, of course if time was of the essence we would have simply paid the airfare. But instead, we left Bucharest on a once in a lifetime road trip on the Transfagarasan Highway, spent the night in Sibiu, took a train the next morning to Sighisoara (where we lived it up like tourists for a couple of days), and finally we took a train to Cluj-Napoca (where we spent the night), before waking up before dawn to catch a plane to Bratislava. From there, we’d be taking a €1 (about $2.40 US dollars for both of us) bus ride to our house sit in Vienna. It made sense to us, and besides, it was an ‘excuse’ to visit another country…
What To Do Now That We’re in Bratislava?
Well, it seemed only logical, that rather than arrive and immediately leave a cool new city in a country we’d never been in before, we should stay a couple of days! So, we booked a hotel night and an Airbnb night in town and started exploring!
If you know us at all though, you’re well aware that we don’t just show up in a new city without a game plan. As we usually do, we did plenty of research ahead of time, exploring maps and recommendations all over the internet to come up with the best ever, must see list of things to do in Bratislava. It’s our goal to see everything, from the most visited tourist places to the hidden gems even locals don’t always know about. So, to possibly make your research on sightseeing in Bratislava (and other destinations) easier, we’ve kept our maps with all of the information we gathered (accurate at the time of our sightseeing). Finding hours, prices, and general information can sometimes be challenging, so we’ve tried to include these details on our maps and provide appropriate links below. And finally, not every attraction is suitable for every visitor, but the copywriters and marketing departments for the destinations sure make it sound like it. How many times have you read “Great for kids and adults alike” and shown up at the venue to wonder why anyone over 20 years-old without kids would go out of their way to be there? Below we’ve included our itinerary with tips, impressions, and our takeaways on each place that, when combined with the official attraction information and website, may help you decide if it’s a destination for your travel adventure or not.
NOTE: We used this sightseeing map for our personal sightseeing adventures, because of that, some notes may not make perfect sense, and some information could be outdated. Information on this map was valid at the time of creation. All prices are shown in US dollars but are actually Euros (local currency). That being said, feel free to save it to your Google account and use it as a starting point (or modify it accordingly) for planning out your personalized itinerary in Bratislava.
The map above is inclusive of everything we saw and did in Bratislava. However, we want to highlight some of our favorite attractions. Naturally, we’ve included the most famous attractions, the ones that you’ll find in every ‘must see’ list, but we’ve also included the hidden gems, the off the beaten path places, and the destinations that you don’t come across in every blog and article about Bratislava. Hopefully, you’ll love them as much as we did!
Must See Attractions in Bratislava
Like many cities across Europe that date back centuries, Bratislava was once fortressed with city walls and ancient gates. Only the North gate, of the four original gates, remains standing, and today it isn’t just a gate to photograph and walk through, it also houses the Museum of Arms. The church that this gate was named after, which stood outside the town walls and in front of the gate, no longer stands, however it lives on in its name, St. Michael. The gate was built at the beginning of the 14th century, but looks the way it does today because of a Baroque style reconstruction in 1758 that changed the overall shape of the building and added the statue of St. Michael slaying the Dragon to the top. It’s hard to imagine it in the present day, but at its glory, Michael’s Gate, was part of a large, two wall fortification plan that was closed off by a moat and a drawbridge. The tower stands 51 meters (167 feet) tall, has seven floors, and can be climbed by visitors to the sixth floor viewing deck for a fantastic view of the city. To go to the top, you’ll need to enter through the arms museum, which can be found by looking for the replica cannon on the street. When you pass through the bottom of the gate, be sure to look down where you’ll see a large brass ring laid into the cobblestone. It’s called Kilometer Zero, because if you look closely, you’ll see the markings where it shows the distance to 29 other capitals around the world.
Church of St. Elizabeth (The Blue Church)
This church has become such a symbol of Bratislava, that a mini version of it is used as a representation of Slovakia at Brussels’ Mini-Europe park. While a mini version must be pretty cool, we’d recommend, if you have the chance, visiting the authentic Church of St. Elizabeth. It was built in the early 20th century and was consecrated in 1911. With its sky blue exterior, glazed ceramic blue roof, and blue mosaics both inside and out, it’s not a huge mystery as to why this Art Nouveau church has been adorned with the nick name, the Blue Church. Built in the Hungarian Secession style, it was originally part of a school, which when visiting also deserves a few minutes of attention, as the bright colors and similar style to the church standout among the much less colorful buildings in the area. The Blue Church is a short walk out of city center, as it sits on the eastern side of Old Town, but don’t fret, it’s a pleasant walk down small winding streets.
St. Martin's Cathedral, Bratislava
St. Martin’s Cathedral, consecrated in 1452, is a centerpiece of the city and considered a National Cultural Monument since 2002. It was originally built into the fortification walls and became the coronation church of the Kingdom of Hungary between 1563 and 1830, hosting 19 coronations, the first being that of Maximillian II, as well as Maria Theresa in 1741. It’s one of the most popular tourist destinations and has also been visited by the Pope.
As you explore Bratislava, you won’t be able to miss the 85 meter (278 feet) tall tower of this church, as it dominates the skyline. The tower you see today was built after the destruction of the original Baroque style tower by a fire in 1833. Commemorating the cathedrals importance as a coronation church, it’s present Neo Gothic form is topped with a gilded cushion bearing a copy of the Hungarian Crown, the Crown of St. Stephen, which weighs over 330 pounds, and between the pillow and the crown contains 18 pounds of gold. It's easy to see why the cathedral is such an integral part of the city, because as we visited other sites within Old Town, the tower of the church always appeared to be ‘just around the corner’. So, when it was finally time to go see it, and we rounded the corner and had this beautiful Gothic cathedral in front of us, it was a satisfying walk to the entrance, as our curiosity had been building all morning. Inside we found a beautiful church, designed in the traditional crucifix shape with high, arched ceilings. As the cathedral is dedicated to St. Martin, when visiting, be sure to take a look at the statue of the saint on the altar. Before completing your visit, be sure to find the small entrance and stairs down to the crypt, entrance is €2. It’s most interesting, since the church was originally built over a cemetery and several other churches. Today it’s an archaeological area, as the total number of crypts and size of the catacombs isn’t known. As a visitor, two of the crypts are open to visit.
Slavin War Memorial
In 1960, on the 15th anniversary of the liberation of the Slovakian capital from German occupation during World War II, the Slavin War Memorial was inaugurated and is now a National Cultural Monument. It’s built on the burial ground of 6,845 Soviet Soldiers, in six mass graves and 278 individual graves, all who died during World War II.
It’s a solemn visit and requires a climb up a series of stairs and strong inclines to get to the top of the hill, but standing at the base of the stairs to the memorial, looking over the gravestones and grass squares towards the monument that stands 50 meters (164 feet) high, is worth it. When we visited, we came first thing in the morning and had the grounds to ourselves. As we walked the pathways and could see out over the awakening city, we couldn’t help but reflect on the lives that were lost in the liberation of Bratislava and the surrounding cities. As we approached the monument, we looked up to see the sculpture of a soldier carrying a flag atop the tall pylon that towered over the massive stone memorial. At the center, a wreath sat in front of a large bronze door, and on the walls were the names of the cities and the dates they were liberated.
As visitors, the memorial also offers fantastic panoramic views of the city. When visiting, we’d recommend the outlook here over the other paid outlook towers. Plus, after just a short walk beyond the memorial you’ll find yourself in a very wealthy part of town, dotted with several embassies and very close to the beautiful forested park, Horsky park. This is a common park used by locals for walking, jogging, and bicycling.
The Bratislava Castle is in the center of the city, atop a hill and on the banks of the Danube River. It can be seen from all parts of the city and the grounds themselves offer views of the entire city, and on a good, clear day, views of neighboring Austria and Hungary. It’s the number one tourist attraction in the city and for good reason.
The site where the castle sits is quite a strategic one, being at a passage between the Carpathians and the Alps, as well as at a ford to cross the Danube River. While the castle itself dates back to the 9th century, the land has been inhabited since prehistoric times, followed by the Celts and Romans between 450 BCE and 4000 CE. The castle is closely connected with the nearby St. Martins Cathedral, as it was the place for Hungarian Coronations. The castle, through different reigns, has undergone many reconstructions and style changes. In recent times, the castle has become a National Cultural Monument and was rebuilt in 1960, after it was left in ruins for over a century after a fire destroyed it in 1811.
When visiting, there are three entrance gates:
- Sigmund Gate was built in the 15th century and is on the southeast side of the castle. Access this gate by following Mikuláška Street and turning onto Beblavého Street. As you walk, you’ll come to the stairs on Zámocké Schody Street that’ll lead to the gate.
- Vienna Gate was built in 1712 and is the main entrance to the castle and is on the southwest side. If you’re taking public transportation or coming by car, this is likely where you’ll enter (parking is located in a parking garage before the entrance on Palisády Street). To use this entrance, walk up Palisády Street or Mudroňova Street, from there, you won’t be able to miss the gate.
- Nicholas Gate was built in the 16th century and is on the northwest side of the castle. Find this entrance by turning onto Mikuláška Street from Židovská Street and following the stairs up.
When we visited, we entered through the Vienna Gate, walked up the hill, and found the two guardhouses and two gates that flanked the entrance to the ‘Yard of Honor’. This is where the tourists gather and stand along the wall to take photos of the expansive views of the city and the Danube River. Once we’d visited the castle, we left through the impressive Sigmund gate and made our way down narrow cobble stone streets to the ‘UFO’ Bridge. When you visit, you can also go inside the castle, and visit the Museum of History for a small fee and see the beautiful gardens.
Walk around Old Town for a while and those with a keen eye will probably start to notice some quirky but lively sculptures. The city, in an effort to enliven the town after the end of the communist era installed a few statues throughout Old Town. The city quickly realized that they not only became popular among locals, but were loved by tourists and since, more have been installed throughout the city. Here are just a few of the statues you may find, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for others.
- Man at Work Sculpture (Čumil) – It’s probably the most photographed statue in Bratislava and, personally, we didn’t want to have a Bratislava trip without taking a photograph of this working man rising from a sewer grate. The sculpture was installed in 1997 and has since created a mystery among admirers. The question stands, what’s the story and meaning behind it? Well, the literal translation of Čumil is ‘watcher’, so while some say the man depicted is a working man during the communist era who isn’t paying much mind to work, others believe that the working man is looking up the skirts of passing women. When you visit, you’ll notice a “Man at Work” construction sign next to the statue. This wasn’t originally part of the piece of art work, it was added later to make the statue more visible to drivers, since there were a few vehicles that crashed into it. Find the statue at the corner of Laurinská and Panská Street.
- Schone Naci – It’s the only silver statue and the only one that’s made of a historic person, Ignac Lamar. Like any good attraction, there’s a bit of a legend behind Schone Naci. Ignac Lamar is said to have been a quirky man with few economic means, but one who brought happiness to the streets by walking Old Town in an elegant top hat and tails attire. Throughout his life, he went out of his way greeting people passing by, particularly women. Find Schone Naci, tipping his hat to you on Rybárska Brána street, on the southeast corner of the main square, Hlavné námestie.
- Napoleon's Army Soldier – It may remind you of Napoleon himself because of the hat, but it’s a soldier of Napoleon's Army who is said to have fallen in love with a local woman when Napoleon’s Army entered the city in 1805. The statue of the soldier, leaning over the bench, depicts and commemorates his love and that he stayed in Bratislava for the girl.
Presidential Palace (Grassalkovich Palace)
Being a tourist in Bratislava and visiting the Grassalkovich Palace is like a tourist in the United States visiting the White House. It’s currently the seat of the President of Slovakia, but it originally was built in 1760 as a Rococo style summer palace for the chairman of the Hungarian Royal Chamber and adviser to Empress Maria Theresa. It’s elegance and grace quickly made it a sought-after venue for elite social events. It wasn’t until 1996 that the palace was transformed into the seat of Slovakia’s president. However, when visiting it’s unlikely you’ll get a chance to see the president, as he doesn’t actually live here.
The palace is located on the north edge of Old Town and is in the busy public square, Hodžovo Námestie. When you arrive at the square and walk through the courtyard, you’ll probably first notice the fountain with the large sphere, representing Earth and symbolizing freedom. The palace is guarded by the Palace Guards, and while we weren’t there at the right time, we’ve heard that visitors can watch the ceremonial changing of the guards at 12 noon or 1 pm (we’ve heard both times, so we’re not entirely sure, but figured we’d include both possibilities). Unfortunately, the palace isn’t open to visitors and you’ll be stuck peering through the ornate black and gold wrought iron fence.
It may seem like that’s all there is to see, but be sure to go around the side of the building and down the street (either side will work, on Štefánikova Street or Banskobystrická Street). After you pass the walls of the palace you’ll come upon an entrance to the Presidential Gardens, which were originally the gardens of the palace and designed as a French formal garden. Be sure not to miss the statue of Empress Maria Theresa on horseback and the Fountain of Youth in the center of the park. Also, throughout the park are modern art pieces that are changed out every so often. One of the things we found most interesting in the garden was the Presidential Alley. In 1999, a former Slovakian President, Rudolf Schuster, started the tradition of planting an oak tree on the east side of the garden. Since then, each foreign president who visits the country plants one as well.
Bratislava’s Old City Walls
We stumbled upon the old city walls of Bratislava as we were walking to a sight and crossing a pedestrian bridge over Staromestská Street, one of the main arteries in the city. Along the wall are detailed signs about the history of the fortification that can be read by visitors. The stone walls were built at the end of the 14th century and strengthened in the beginning of the 16th century to 130-160 cm (4.25-5.25 feet) thick, for fear of a Turkish invasion. This stretch of wall, measuring 200 meters (656 feet) in length, is one of only two left in the entire city, as Empress Maria Theresa ordered the medieval fortification walls to be demolished and the moats to be filled in 1775. Along with the last remaining medieval gate, these walls are a must see if you enjoy learning about and seeing the history of a town.
House of the Good Shepherd (Dom U dobrého pastiera)
This house could easily be passed up by most tourists, but in our opinion, they’d be missing out. It’s a four-story, golden yellow building that’s unique in that it’s maintained its original state, since most homes and buildings in this area were demolished during the 20th century. Not only is it a glimpse into the past, but this building is a beautiful example of Rococo style architecture. It’s striking to see, with how tall and narrow it is, only being wide enough for one room and a narrow staircase. The building was originally built between 1760 and 1765 for a merchant, the upper floors for residential living, and the lower floors for commercial purposes. Today it houses a popular Museum of Clocks.
More to Explore in Bratislava
These are only a few of the highlights of our sightseeing adventures in Bratislava. We encourage you to look over the map above and plan an amazing, personalized tour of the historical capital city of Slovakia!