Slovakia (Bratislava)

Small, but perfectly formed and easily negotiated, Bratislava is the ideal weekend-break destination. The ‘Little Big City’ constantly regenerates and improves on its already spectacular setting and world-class facilities.

Lucy Mallows, author of Bratislava: the Bradt Guide

The legendary Casanova knew Bratislava and declared it ‘the most beautiful city in Europe’, and he knew a thing or two about beauty. Situated by the mighty Danube River and nestling in the Small Carpathian Mountains, Bratislava has a changing skyline: towering five-star hotels, shopping malls and apartment complexes now jostle for space in the suburbs surrounding the – thankfully – still historic Old Town buildings, churches and palaces. It is a good-looking capital filled with good-looking people who look like they’re enjoying life. 

However, Bratislava never feels crowded despite the hordes of visitors who pack out the café terraces of the Mediterranean-style Old Town centre. There are many green regions to escape to: tree-lined squares, elegant parks and gardens and the verdant hills above the city.

Bratislava effortlessly blends history with hedonism. The world-class restaurants offer dishes prepared by talented local chefs, and they have been joined by a clutch of quality coffee houses, literary tea and bookshops, and many bistro-come-café venues where you can watch locals enjoying themselves over a home-made lemonade, hot chocolate, or quality Slovak wine or beer.

Bratislava’s small size is satisfying: it’s compact and visitor-friendly. You have the sense that you can discover everything in a few days, see all the important sights and get a real feel for the place. The many superbly-curated museums offer a glimpse into the turbulent history of Central Europe, and don’t forget the Opera House – Bratislava has two! Bratislava’s opera rivals those in Budapest and Vienna and the prices are astounding – €4 for a last-minute ticket is mind-blowing.

In short, Bratislava is the perfect destination for a weekend break, a romantic city break, a family holiday or as a base from where to discover the underrated attractions in the rest of Slovakia. 

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The author’s take

I first visited Bratislava in spring 1982, while studying at Brno University nearby. In the pre-Velvet Revolution, pre-Velvet Divorce days, Bratislava was a charming, if sleepy, provincial town in Czechoslovakia and I stayed with a hospitable Slovak family in what I now realise was a very swanky apartment on a street leading up to the castle.

Ironically, given all my Slavic studies, my fate became intertwined with Hungary from 1986 onwards and I lived in Budapest for 12 years; however, I frequently visited Bratislava to practise my Slovak verbs (over several litres of Slovak beer) and observe its evolution from sleepy and quiet to cosmopolitan and go-getting.

Bratislava’s small size is satisfying. You have the sense that you can discover everything in a few days, see all the important sights and get a real feel for the place without the nagging, lingering doubt that you might have missed something secret or spectacular. In spring, the Old Town turns into one giant outdoor café; it has a very Mediterranean feel with endless eating and drinking possibilities and superb quality at extremely reasonable prices.

In the last couple of years, Bratislava has transformed itself into a foodie heaven and is getting more so by the hour. The Old Town has many worldclass restaurants offering a wide variety of international cuisine. Slovak people are not grim Eastern Bloc types, but instead are unusually relaxed for a country that has seen so much tragedy and trauma.

Historic Centre View Bratislava Slovankia by TTstudio Shutterstock
Bratislava Castle dominates the city skyline © TTstudio, Shutterstock

I mustn’t forget the Opera House. Bratislava’s opera rivals those in Budapest and Vienna and the ticket prices are astounding – €4 for a last-minute ticket is mind-blowing.

Bratislava is also very green. There are many places to sit back and relax in the sunshine, or for the more energetic, endless opportunities for sports such as hiking, canoeing and cycling. Why not combine exercise with another of Slovakia’s natural attributes and sample the excellent wines along the Small Carpathian Wine Route? And have I mentioned the world-beating beer at jaw-dropping prices yet?

So, congratulations for stepping off the beaten track and trying out Bratislava. Your pioneering spirit will pay dividends; think of all the money you’ll save on the beer and be sure to tell all your friends about your discovery. Or maybe not; let’s keep this our special, Slovak secret.

Bratislava, the ‘little big city’ is modest, charming and pocket-sized, like its cathedral. It doesn’t bellow its beauty like Prague but states its case quietly and insistently, until suddenly you wake up one gorgeous Slovak spring morning and realise you’re in love. 

Na zdravie! (Cheers!)