Gem of the Danube
A visit to Bratislava

Though it has always lived under Prague's shadow, Bratislava is a surprisingly pleasant escape from the Czech city. The Slovakian capital is quieter and more easygoing than Prague, with less traffic and crowds. Still, it's lively on weekends; locals and foreigners drink pivo at outdoor cafés and stroll the lamplit streets of the Old Town late into the night. The pedestrian center is compact and easily walkable and has its fair share of stunning buildings and interesting museums. By day you can climb towers for views of the old city, and by night conduct your own movable feast of restaurants, bars, and clubs.

Being in Bratislava is like being in a dream version of Prague, with everything a little bit off. Dobrýy den (good day) has a lilt at the end, dekujiu (thank you) is dakujem , and your na shledanou (goodbye) will get you a do videnia. Service people here are shockingly friendly and even the train ticket agent will flash you a winning smile. There's a Staré Mesto, a Nové Mesto, a Vinohrady, and restaurants called Radost and Medusa. The currency is the (Slovakian) crown; you'll get more of them for your dollar or pound, but in the end, prices are comparable to those in Prague.

The former Poson Posonium

Slovakia is an Elizabeth Taylor of countries, having survived two divorces from the Czech Republic and another from the Hungarian empire. During its 1,100-year history Bratislava has had 14 names, including such notables as Wratislaburgum, Poson Posonium, and Istropolis. The site of Bratislava was first occupied by the Celts, then the Romans; under Moravian rule it became a busy commercial center. The Turks besieged the city but failed to conquer it. From 1536 to 1683 it served as the thriving capital of Habsburg Hungary.

After World War I, Slovakia united with the Czechs to become Czechoslovakia. The two states were split during World War II, then reunited in 1945, only to split again in 1993. Many Slovakians were tired of living under the Czech shadow, and supported the authoritarian - then Prime Minister - Vladimír Meciar, who instigated the "Velvet Divorce." American audiences will recognize Bratislava as the hometown of Steve Martin's wild and crazy "Czechoslovakian Swingers" from the old Saturday Night Live skit.

Doing the Tourist Thing

After Prague Castle, the Bratislava Castle (Bratislavský hrad) seems a bit boxy and Lego-like, but it's still a grand, impressive structure that dominates the skyline, and an easy walk from the center. Built in the 15th century when Bratislava was the capital of Hungary, it was remodeled by Habsburg queen Maria Theresa, only to be gutted by fire and bombed in World War II, and then rebuilt during the Communist era. The castle is now home to a branch of the Slovak National Museum (Slovenské národné múzeum) with a respectable collection of Slovak paintings through the ages and a staggering array of arms and armory; entry is 60 Sk. From the castle walls you can look over the city and see a fascinating contrast of Gothic Old Town and Communist paneláks across the river. A pleasant green park on the castle's east side is a good place to relax.

Between the castle and Old Town you'll find what's left of the former Jewish quarter, which was largely bulldozed to make room for the highway leading to the 70's sci-fi style New Bridge (Nový most). The Museum of Jewish Culture (múzeum židovskej kultúry) resides at 17 Židovská, with displays in English showing the everyday life and the religious rituals of the Slovakian Jewish community through the ages.

St. Martin´s Cathedral (dóm sv Martina) was the coronation site of nine Hungarian Habsburg kings and eight queens, as symbolized by the 300-kg copy of the Hungarian royal crown on a gilded pillow atop its steeple, dating from 1765. Inside the church's relatively modest interior, the most interesting features are a monumental statue of St. Martin and a late Renaissance ornamental sculpture of the Pieta. Bratislava's largest Gothic structure, St. Martin´s Cathedral is perhaps most captivating when illuminated at night.

A short walk away is the center's main drag, Michalská, a pleasant street to troll for restaurants, outdoor cafés, and upscale shops. At the top of Michalská is the Michal Tower (Michalská veža), an old watchtower with elements dating from the 14th, 16th, and 18th centuries, the onion steeple recalling the region's Byzantine influence. Its base forms an archway that is a gateway to the center, part of the old city wall. For 40 Sk you can climb it to see closer views over Old Town and an antique weapons display.

A few hundred meters southeast is the town's Main Square (Hlavné namestie), encircled by beautifully restored Burger's houses around a central fountain. On one side is the Old Town Hall, a 14th-century Gothic building and tower with a charming courtyard where concerts are played during the summer. Built at different stages over the centuries, the town hall's two dozen rooms comprise the Municipal Museum (metské múzeum), displaying extensive collections of art, furniture, and objects from different eras. Most fascinating is the cellar's exposition on Medieval Justice, with torture pits and exotic bone-breaking instruments. Admission is 40 Sk.

On the southern edge of the center is the narrow, oval-shaped Hviezdoslavovo Namesti, a tree-lined park reminiscent of the French city, Aix-en-Provence. Locals relax on park benches or nurse "pivos" at bordering pubs. Facing the square are the neo-baroque Slovak National Theater (Slovenské národné divadlo) and Reduta Palace, the country's premier venues for opera/ballet and music, respectively. Between the square and the Danube is the Slovak National Gallery (Slovenská národná galéria), which houses rotating exhibitions of modern art. You can enjoy views of the Danube River from the sidewalk above, though here the river is not fit for swimming or lounging along.

Happenin' Nightlife

There's plenty happening in the center to keep you busy at night. If you wander the side streets you'll find scores of charming little cafés and bars, like the Jazz Café on Ventúrska 5, replete with photos of Jazz greats and featuring live jazz Thurs-Sat. The Café Študio Club on Laurinská is a friendly 1930's style cafe/bar/club that hosts a different live music act every night. Old records line the walls and hide inside the wooden tables. At Hviezdoslavovo Namesti 17 is 17s, a lively bar in a vaulted-ceilinged building, also with frequent live jazz.
The Dubliner at Selalárska 6 is, predictably, packed with Guinness-quaffing tourists, some gathered around an open fire, others watching football on a mega-screen, and the rest singing karaoke in a corner. Next door, El Diablo serves mediocre Mexican food rather slowly in its upstairs restaurant, but hosts a happening scene in its downstairs bar. Laverna is a lively dance club at Námestie Stefaniková 14 with a good-looking crowd from late teens to early thirties. A stairway leads up from the dance floor to the bar level and a plastic slide takes you back down. Cocoloco, a modern bar popular with young locals, lies just outside the center next to Námestie SNP.

And Beyond

If you're traveling on the cheap, you'll want to leave the womb of the posh and touristy center and explore the outskirts, where graffiti-covered trams break down outside Communist housing blocks and drunk men loll on park benches. In some ways these parts of town are more interesting than the more affluent sections.

Some Czechs will imply that Bratislava is an inferior capital of an inferior country. After hearing such reviews, I was pleasantly surprised to find Bratislava to be a charming, friendly, and interesting place. Each year it's coming more into its own as a European capital. Many tourists spend only a few hours here on the way to Budapest or Vienna, but this is absurd; plan if you can for one or two full days in Bratislava.

Getting There:

From Prague by train: 4.5 hours, 823 CZK round-trip
From Prague by bus: 4.75 hours, 640 CZK round-trip


Budget - Just a couple of blocks from the castle and the Old Town, on Panenska, is Hostel Bratislava, one of the very few hostels in town, with a bar, kitchen, laundry facilities, Internet, and a summer garden. At 500-1,000 Sk/bed it's not dirt cheap, but probably the best deal you'll find close to the center. www.backpackers.sk.

Mid-range - The Hotel Kyjev on Špitálska is a Communist era tower-block hotel with outrageously retro furniture, good views of Old Town and Tesco, and a somewhat sedate disco. It provides decent value at 40-50 euros/night. The vintage-style Hotel Bratislava boasts a nightclub and economy rooms for US $21-46. Take tram 8, 9, or 14; the address is Seberíniho 9.

Upscale - Bordering the Danube, a few hundred meters from St. Martin´s Cathedral and the castle, and with views of all of these, the four-star Hotel Danube is an excellent choice if you've got the cash. With its fitness center, sauna, and extensive breakfast buffet, you'll have to force yourself to leave its inner sanctum. 115-163 euros/night.

Cafés and Restaurants:

Founded in 1878, Kaffee Mayer (Hlavné nám. 4) is Bratislava's most famous café, an upscale Viennese coffee shop with gorgeous cappuccinos and "apfelstrudel mit schlag". These delights may be pricey for Slovakia but are much cheaper than you'll find at Mayer's Vienna branch. Located next to the baroque Michael's Gate (Michalská Brána) on ulica Laurinska, Café Regina can't be beat for people-watching.
For a taste of the local fare, the popular Slovenski Restauracia at Hviezdoslavovo nam. 20 has a good selection of tasty entrees and desserts. Nearby, Pizza House serves delicious wood-fired pizzas and average pasta dishes. Crown-hoarding backpackers will appreciate Bagetka's good, cheap deli sandwiches, in the passage next to the Internet café on Michalská.

Vegetarians will be excited about two weekday lunch buffets: Divesta at Laurinská 8 and Vegtariánská jedálen on Obchodná 68. At Obchodná 52, KGB stands for Krccma Gurmánov Bratislavy (the Gourmet Pub of Bratislava). It boasts a Stalin bust over the bar and other communist paraphernalia, but it's even more famous for its excellent food. Just next to the Michal Tower, Medusa is a modern, tastefully designed restaurant with an affordable pasta bar.

Tempus Fugit, at Sedlársaka 5, is an international gourmet restaurant in a 15th-century building with vaulted ceilings, a balcony, and 5-star bathrooms. It offers a wide selection of elegant, artfully presented dishes emphasizing seafood; their salmon/avocado salad, a surprising mix of julienned vegetables topped with raw salmon and fish roe, is to die for. On Hlavné namestie, Roland Café is a good choice for a classy international dining experience under gorgeous chandeliers, or even better, a candlelight meal or cappuccino on the square.