Bratislava Castle

The ‘upside-down bedstead’ is the iconic image of the city and the grounds are a great place for a picnic with a view.

In A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote that ‘the symmetry of the huge gaunt castle and the height of its corner towers gave it the look of an upside-down table’ (although he saw it before it was restored and painted white as today). Also described somewhat cruelly as an ‘upsidedown bedstead’, the present Bratislava Castle was constructed in 1430 by King Sigismund of Luxembourg.

There had been previous fortifications on the hill, rising 85m above the Danube, built first by Celts then Romans then in the 9th century by the Slavs. The conquering Magyars also built fortifications on the hill and there was extensive construction work in the 13th century. King Sigismund reconstructed the castle and added outer defence walls, some 11m thick, and the Habsburgs used the castle as protection against the Turks, the Hungarian Crown Jewels being kept there from 1552. Its trademark four corner towers were added between 1635 and 1649 when the Hungarian Viceroy Pál Pálffy called in Giovanni Battista Carlone to help with a redesign. 

Bratislava Castle Bratislava Slovakia by TTstudio Shutterstock
Bratislava Castle – known as the ‘upside-down bedstead’ – is the iconic image of the city © TTstudio, Shutterstock

Maria Theresa called it ‘her castle’ and converted it into a grand palace in 1761, when the interior was redesigned in a lavish Rococo style and a number of annexes were added to the north and west. It became the residence of her favourite daughter Maria Cristina and her husband, Archduke Albert of Saxony-Teschen, who was Governor of Hungary from 1765 to 1781 (the story goes that she was the only one of Maria Theresa’s daughters allowed to marry for love, the others being married off for diplomatic purposes). He was a great art collector but unfortunately his paintings didn’t remain here but instead became the basis of the fabulous Albertina Museum in Vienna. 

In any case, Maria Theresa’s successors did not share her love for Bratislava and the castle, and it fell into disrepair: it was used for a while as a seminary and a barracks, and in 1811 it burnt down in a devastating fire and remained in ruin for 140 years until restoration work began in 1953. Today it houses exhibitions for the Slovak National Museum as well as state rooms of the Slovak National Council. Most recently, the Winter Riding Hall and the Baroque gardens on the castle’s north side have been restored to their 1780 condition (though with a new underground car park beneath).

The castle, with its huge courtyard, is an imposing and atmospheric building and the tree-studded grounds perched on the hill offer a lovely place for a stroll or a picnic with a view over the Old Town and Petržalka. There are a couple of restaurants within the castle area too; the upmarket Hradná Hviezda and the Reštaurácia Hrad with a great terrace overlooking the city and the Danube.