Rickety trams squeeze past flashy high-rise apartment blocks; elegant statues overlook dilapidated Soviet-era estates; a brash motorway surges below the ancient city walls. Bratislava is the capital of the Slovak Republic (Slovakia) with a population of barely 500,000 people and a place where old meets new, where elegance and grit go hand in hand, and where the night life is as varied as the architecture.
Bratislava is an international European city, straddling not one, but two borders, the only national capital in the world to do so. Just a mile to the west of the centre is German-speaking Austria (and Vienna an hour away by train), while 6 miles south-east is Hungary with the historical riches of Budapest to the south. Right in the heart of Europe, its location is phenomenal. Awash with an eclectic mix of quirky, grungy and classy bars, pubs and restaurants, Bratislava does have a rather cosmopolitan feel to it, and you’ll find plenty of familiar high street shops. However, it is also a deeply local, Slovak city, with a low-key charisma emanating not only from the cute little Old Town (or Staré mesto) but from the bolder, grittier New Town (Nové mesto) and beyond. Indeed, one of Bratislava’s nicknames is ‘Little Big City’.
Bratislava is one of the youngest capitals in Europe, though a Celtic settlement existed here around 2000 years ago, before the first Slavs arrived in the 6th century. Bratislava was absorbed into the Great Moravian Empire under Mojmir I around 800AD, and later emerged as an important market town under Hungarian, and then wider Habsburg, rule. Known as Pressburg at this time, it was the site of the coronation for Hungarian kings from 1563-1830, and even served as Hungarian capital for 250 years due to Ottoman advances in Eastern Europe. After the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) Empire following World War One, the city was given the name Bratislava and was a key city in Czechoslovakia before becoming capital city in its own right when the Velvet Divorce saw Slovakia form an independent nation in 1993.
Tours of the city usually begin in the Old Town, where wandering the narrow streets enables visitors to soak up the atmosphere of the history and architecture. Michael’s Gate (Michalská brána) is a striking 51m tower with a green copper roof and the only city gate preserved from the original medieval walls constructed in the early 14th century, though its appearance was modified in the 18th century to give its current baroque style. South through Michael’s Gate and along Michalská street are the focal squares of Františánské námestie and Hlavné námestie (literally ‘Main Square’), containing the Roland Fountain and Old Town Hall, a pretty 14th century complex of buildings which houses Bratislava’s oldest museum, the Bratislava City Museum. Just off the double-square is Bratislava’s most beautiful palace, the Primate’s Palace with its impressive façade and historic Hall of Mirrors.
On the western edge of Old Town is the imposing St. Martin’s Cathedral dating back to 1221 and built in a Romansque style: its 279ft spire dominates the skyline of Old Town Bratislava. On the far side of the city walls here, the communist government built a brash and controversial bridge motorway, Most SNP (or Nový most), which is feared undermines the foundations of the cathedral: the giant bridge connects the populous concrete neighbourhood of Petržalka on the south bank of the River Danube to the rest of the city, with an odd, UFO-shaped restaurant high on the southern bridge pylon (Most SNP is often nicknamed the ‘UFO Bridge’). Other communist ‘redevelopments’ saw the entire Jewish Quarter (formerly beside the cathedral) bulldozed, with just a solitary museum to commemorate Jewish heritage here. On a hill overlooking all of this is the Castle, perched on a small outcrop of the Little Carpathian Mountains directly above the Danube. In 1811, a fire destroyed parts of the building, and major renovations took place in the 1950s and 60s so its current appearance is fairly bland and whitewashed, though it still provides great views over the city and is a striking sight when illuminated at night.
On the outskirts of the Old Town are the some other attractions worth checking out: the grand National Theatre near the river, and the fairly modest Presidential (Grassalkovich) Palace, where ill-fated lovers Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sofia Chotek reportedly first met (their assassination sparked World War One). Slavín is a towering Soviet monument on a hill above New Town dedicated to the fallen soldiers of World War Two, surrounded by nearly 7000 war graves. The 196m Kamsík TV tower and Devín Castle are two other interesting sites further outside the city centre for those with more time here.
Seen from afar, the urban landscape of Bratislava is breathtaking, with a motley crew of awe-inspiring and architecturally diverse monuments (described above) spread across the horizon. It is a city of surprising culture and history, with the aura of an indelibly communist past permeating the current new-look mini tourist scene, creating a unique atmosphere of Eastern bloc meets Western Europe in this Little Big City.