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Bratislava - Eating and sleeping
Slovak cuisine is a mélange of central European influences, taking a bit of everything from its neighbours: goulash from the Magyars, strudels from the Austrians, and home-kneaded dumplings from the Germans – not to mention beer from the Czechs.
Slovak chefs grew up in the meat, potato and cabbage school of cooking; however, it’s easy to find something lighter in the many restaurants with international menus, offering cuisine from Italy to India, France to Vietnam. Many traditional Slovak restaurants also offer lighter versions of the sturdy, traditional dishes, and veganism is now widespread. Slovak cuisine is not as stodgy and bland as that in the Czech Republic and due to the culinary influence of southern neighbours, it has a perkier, spicier tang. A hundred years ago, most Slovaks lived on and from the land and robust peasant cooking still dominates the national psyche. This is the land of cabbage, caraway seeds, cheese, wheat flour, potatoes and endless variations on the theme of pork. However, after a day cycling along the Small Carpathian Wine Route or visiting castle ruins, such hearty fare can be just the thing.
In December, the two main squares in the Old Town are packed with wooden booths offering a wide variety of festive food and drink © Alena Veasey, Shutterstock
After 1,000 years under Hungarian domination and 40 years of communism, Slovakia’s restaurant culture remains in its infancy, although in Bratislava they have caught on quickly with new, exciting restaurants opening every month. Many restaurants place copies of the menu by the front door on the outside wall, so you can get an idea of the food and the prices before you venture in. This is not compulsory, but because of a ‘good local habit’ to be helpful. It also gives restaurants the chance of showing their wares in the hope of tempting visitors to enter.
All restaurants in Bratislava are required by law to issue a printed receipt from the electronic cash register, so if you have any concerns over the bill, make sure you get one. Major credit cards are usually accepted, but check first, before launching into the chateaubriand steak for two and champagne supper.
Bratislava Old Town is a wall-to-wall eat-out city with cafés, bars, cocktail venues, restaurants, self-service canteens, stand-up buffet stalls – you’re totally spoilt. Slovak, international, Mediterranean, Mexican, Japanese – there’s a great choice and it’s doubtful that you’ll need to book (apart from at the ‘flavour of the month’), as if your intended eaterie is full, just totter two yards along the pavement and you’ll find another option.
Slovak mineral water (minerálna voda) is delicious and contains many lifeenhancing properties. Also popular are soft drinks like Kofola (Czech cola) that’s mixed with soda water and often available on draught in half-litre mugs. Vinea is a refreshing red or white grape juice drink sold in tall glass bottles and local fruit juices are excellent, with unusual choices like peach, pear or lip-puckering quince.
These days, the most popular drink served in Bratislava is homemade lemonade. It often arrives in a jam jar, half-litre jug or some other funky glass and will have added orange zest, ginger, nettles, cucumber, watermelon, lavender, cardamom, elderflower, rose petals, mint and stevia, or something else that the bartender has dreamed up that week. This is a delicious alternative to beer, especially in the often-overpowering heat of a summer’s day.
Cafés, bars and bistros line every pavement in the Old Town © joyfull, Shutterstock
For centuries under Hungarian rule, the peasant population had little access to wine (vino), which went to nobles throughout the kingdom, although the lower-quality stuff did serve as an everyday drink in wineproducing areas. Beer (pivo), the beverage of the rising burgher class, cost too much for most peasants and it was illegal to make it without a royal licence. Burčiak is a young wine, cloudy and still fermenting, which is produced in September, doesn’t last long and can explode in the bottle. Try it at the Pezinok and Modra wine festivals.
Slovaks used to distil at home the produce from their orchards, creating the famous, fiery plum brandy (slivovica), and similar paint-stripping brews from pears (hruškovica), cherries (čerešňovica), apricots (marhuľovica) and even beetroot (repovica). Devín specialises in a less fiery currant wine (ríbezlák). Borovička is made from juniper berries and tastes a bit like gin. It’s said to be the best cure for a cold. Demänovka is another bittersweet herbal liqueur while the cinnamony Becherovka is Czech but also worth a try.
Honey wine (medovina) used to be made in nearly every village home. This custom has dwindled nowadays, but most villages still have at least one beekeeper. This mead-like drink is still served hot at Bratislava Christmas market and there is another bizarre festive drink which the brave can try there. Hriatõ is an alcoholic ‘speciality’ made from heated honey and bacon or goose fat, giving off a powerful aroma. It makes a good cough mixture, if you can get it down.
For a relatively small city, Bratislava has more than its fair share of hotels competing for tourists, business visitors and local travellers. This makes for a healthy atmosphere with each hotel, pension and hostel trying to outdo the others in terms of facilities, prices and bathroom freebies. There is still a wide variety of accommodation, however, giving the visitor a good choice when considering location, amenities, even theme, as with the gimmickyyet-fun Film Hotel. Virtually all hotel and restaurant staff now speak good English.
Like many in the region, the Slovak hoteliers are fixated about the star system of grading hotels, a hangover from the communist-era mania for points-scoring, be it ice skating or extra marks for those creepy welcome messages that spring into life on the TV screen when you enter your new bedroom. The starring system is a pretty complicated business, depending on whether the hotel in question has a swimming pool or separate bathroom and loo. Apparently, it gives an indication as to services, amenities and standard of interior, but it can at times appear quite arbitrary.
There are some excellent four-star hotels in Bratislava and the city now has several five-star hotels: the Arcadia in the Old Town; the Grand Hotel River Park, part of a luxury retail, apartment and entertainment complex hanging right over the Danube west of town and the Sheraton adorning the Eurovea luxury complex by the Apollo Bridge. Hotel Albrecht is a five-star boutique hotel in an elegant manor house located in the hills above the castle.
As far as four-star hotels are concerned, there is something to suit all tastes, with a range of facilities, styles and locations. Some of the established, more traditional top-class hotels are situated on the banks of the Danube, with a view of the river. Some smaller, yet no less chi-chi, guesthouses are found in the hilly residential area north of the city’s Old Town heart.
At the other end of the price spectrum, Bratislava has a relatively good choice of budget pensions and hostels, as well as Airbnb private apartments, which are really taking off. You may also come across the garni hotel, meaning a hotel with no restaurant, but which offers breakfast. Hotels in the largely residential districts towards the airport tend to cater for business travellers, and have a good range of services such as highspeed internet connections and fitness centres; they offer bargain rates at weekends for the leisure traveller and are popular with young families on a tighter budget.
The problem with accommodation in Bratislava is that there is little on offer in the reasonably priced range. The city is well served for luxury and budget options, but there is a lack of mid-range hotels – although we have tried to find and list them all in this chapter. Those within this category usually lurk around the three-star level and are found outside the Old Town in less attractive parts of the city. They can be fun if you don’t mind negotiating a tram ride each morning and evening and also give a glimpse of Slovak life beyond the tourist belt.