“Bratislava? That’s the city they had those unbelievably cheap drinks in the movie EuroTrip, right?” a friend asked before I left. Having spent 2 days in the Slovak capital, I can safely say that while cheap drinks are abound in the city, it’s a far cry from what the slightly dubious teen comedy portrayed it to be.
I finished reading one article and moved to the next with a big smile on my face. It was time to fasten my seatbelt and raise the window blind. I loved learning information that broke stereotypes, or nuggets that might prove little use to anyone who isn’t participating in a pub quiz. Here are my top 3 for Slovakia:
- Slovakia is ranked within the Top 40 richest countries by the IMF (based on GDP purchasing power parity per capita)
- It’s the world’s largest car producer per capita
- It has some of the longest parental leave policies in the world
I heard the familiar screech as rubber touched tarmac. I was officially on Slovak soil on September 1st – Constitution Day (commemorating the day Czechoslovakia became the Czech & Slovak Republics). The land of the beautiful blue Danube, of old thermal spa towns, ice caves, and halušky (boiled potato eaten with sheep cheese).
The Old Slovak National Theatre or Bratislava’s Opera House, with Ganymede atop a fountain outside – the Greek boy who served Zeus as cup-bearer on Mount Olympus and was rewarded with eternal youth
Grassalkovich Palace – the President’s residence
A fascination with bronze street statues
I don’t think I fully understood Bratislava’s love for the numerous bronze statues that seemed to dot various corners of Old Town. Whatever said, it’s definitely been successful at getting people (mainly tourists) to stop, stare and interact with these quirky, everyday characters that represent real people from the past. As part of an effort to change the look and feel of the capital historically dominated by grey communist-era architecture, the bronze statue of Cumil, the Sewer Worker has rocketed to being one of the most photographed attractions in the city. Whether or not this cheeky chap is looking up women’s skirts, one thing’s for sure – he’s become an institution in Bratislava. In the half hour I spent around Cumil’s vicinity, I saw people sit on the road and look him in the eyes, sit on him, or rub his head with religious fervour.
Solitude on Slavin Hill
Walking 30 minutes from the city centre through what appeared to be a more affluent precinct of Bratislava, I reached the Slavin Military Cemetery. Built in 1960, the cemetery and monument were to honour Soviet soldiers who died while liberating Bratislava in World War II. Apart from being a quiet place to walk and reflect (being around the graves of almost 7000 soldiers in the shadow of an enormous obelisk is most humbling), its position on a hill lends an incredible panorama of the city.
Most SNP (otherwise known as the UFO Bridge)
Bratislava is definitely not the first city that I would have guessed to have a flying saucer suspended atop a bridge. But crossing the Danube, stands the majestic sci-fi inspired Most SNP (Most Slovenského národného povstania – Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising). Honouring a resistance movement against Nazi forces, its original name has undergone numerous (formal and informal) changes over the last 4 decades. The bridge with its scenic UFO restaurant and observation deck is bittersweet for some people though – it’s come at a cost of sacrificing period buildings and a synagogue.
Not quite Gaudi’s Barcelona. Neither is it Smurf land. Tucked away in a quiet neighbourhood, the art nouveau Blue Church (formally Church of St Elizabeth) is quite possibly unlike any of the other buildings in Bratislava. Built in honour of the city’s well-known saint, its blue facade, blue mosaics, blue majolica tiles and blue-glazed roof make it seem like you’ve entered a Disney universe, if only for a minute. St Elizabeth (daughter of the King of Hungary) famously devoted much of her life to helping the poor – there’s an interesting story about her featured inside the church. Known as ‘Miracle of the Roses’, Elizabeth was supposedly on her way to give food to the poor when she encountered her husband (then ruler) who was in a hunting party. To avoid the gentry suspecting his wife of stealing from the castle, he asked Elizabeth what she had in her cloak. When her cloak fell open, in a miracle, it showed a bouquet of roses instead of bread.
Reminiscent of Vienna
Bratislava and Vienna are among the closest capital city pairs in the world, at less than 60km apart. Going back to the early 20th century, Bratislava was apparently considered more or less a suburb of neighbouring Vienna, and followed in its footsteps in a number of respects – cafes being one of them. Following a small setback under the communist regime, quality cafes with great coffee are back in style in Bratislava, particularly in the Old Town. Despite its proximity to Vienna, Bratislava now has very much its own individual personality.
Step back 700 years in time
Damaged over the centuries by earthquakes and fires, the Franciscan Church is the oldest surviving religious building in the city. Consecrated in 1297, it’s older than Pisa’s Leaning Tower. While it went through several transformations through the ages, it originally began as a Gothic church – which was what drew me to it. The emphasis on height, vaulted ceilings and large windows with stained glass, somehow does wonders at creating an atmosphere you can lose yourself in.
Two things help me orient myself in a new city – roaming through different neighbourhoods on foot and finding different aerial views of the city. So it was no surprise that I walked 15 minutes uphill from the Old Town to Bratislava Castle. With inhabitants since the Stone Age, Castle Hill has undergone numerous transformations over the centuries with several fires forcing reconstructions.
It was there I found that Bratislava was more royal than I initially expected. It was the official coronation town for Hungarian monarchs in the 16th century when the previous coronation site was under threat from Ottoman Turks. Chosen for its safety, geographical location on the Danube, and its cosmopolitan status (the city had communities of Germans, Austrians, Slovaks and Hungarians), eleven Hungarian kings were crowned here – giving the city a regal status. Restorations have been done to try and re-establish the former splendour of the castle. A walk through the Baroque Gardens with its terraced landscaping gives you a peak into its former magnificence.
A sandy beach by the River Danube’s banks in the city centre?
Welcome to Magio Beach – and yes, it’s artificial. Operating during the summer months for over a decade now, the beach by the Danube’s banks brings a different micro-world to the city: relaxation, cultural events, food pop-ups, beach sports and outdoor film screenings. Also, the Danube flowing through Bratislava certainly isn’t blue, and calling it beautiful would be a stretch. Johann Strauss and whoever wrote the lyrics to the Beautiful Blue Danube clearly were meandering down a different part of this great river.
As soon as I left the airport, I ventured into Bratislava and got off at a random tram stop and entered this baroque garden. Little did I know this was originally the haunt of many an aristocrat in the 18th century, and where several pompous garden parties took place. I later learned that centuries ago, an orchestra performed here at one of these parties under leadership of THE Joseph Haydn. Today the garden (a fraction of its original size) is a city park with magnolia trees and home to people lying in the sun, reading, playing frisbee or jogging. The famed tea room (together with its warm spicy ginger concoction) will have to wait for my next visit since it was sadly closed.
Food & Drink in Bratislava
Halušky, Halušky, Halušky
Sheep cheese lovers will be in for a treat when they arrive. It won’t be long before your first encounter with Bryndza cheese – a strong-smelling, sharp, sheep cheese that forms the backbone of the famed national dish: bryndzové halušky. Bound to evoke sentimental memories in any Slovak even by just being mentioned, bryndzové halušky is a dish of boiled potato with sheep cheese and bacon, somewhat reminiscent of gnocchi. I found a generous portion for €6 at a street food vendor in the Old Town – Majstri Haluskari.
Eleven Books & Coffee
I think I inherited my love for old books from my novel-loving mother who revelled in exploring second-hand bookstores. As kids, I remember how my mum would tell us what an incredible adventure we were going to have, before taking us to various second-hand bookshops, with my siblings or cousins in tow. Whether that was while visiting family in India, or walking down McCallum Road on a quiet Saturday in Colombo, she introduced me to the joy of breathing new life into tattered, dog-eared books. Of course each visit was accompanied by a story from her childhood in India growing up with her siblings and cousins whom she adored – from jumping into wells, reading books in forts or hosting secret midnight feasts.
Given second-hand bookstores are somewhat of an endangered species now, I was lucky to find this gem – Eleven Books & Coffee – in Bratislava’s Old Town. Best of all, you can get your (well-brewed) caffeine fix while thumbing through different novels. And in my case, remember and smile at memories of my mum.
A tiny, hipster, hole-in-the wall caffeine haunt frequented by locals. I accidentally discovered it while seeking refuge from a downpour.
Continuing the theme of feeling a bit of Vienna along Bratislava’s streets, I wasn’t surprised to find a crêperie as part of Bratislava’s street food scene. Started by a Slovak student who studied in Paris, the menu includes both Parisian crêpes together with the local palatschinken (rolled pancakes with a filling, dusted with icing sugar).
Street Food and Café Possonium
I was looking for somewhere close to Bratislava train station to refuel and charge my phone, and what should pop up on my radar but the Street Food & Cafe Possonium: a permanent mix of street food carts conjuring up food from around the world, in a garden. Open for all three meals on most days (except Sunday), it caters to a surprising range of dietary requirements and is a cozy spot to read in (they have indoor seating as well). Naturally, desserts feature too.
Ice Cream Galore
- Koun – the 25 person-long queue was worth the wait. These guys have a new original flavour each day: where else would you try Poppyseed and Burnt Sugar gelato? (1 scoop = €1.5)
- Arthur Ice Cream – a creamy delight right in the centre of town
- Luculus Ice Saloon – bang in the middle of Hviezdoslav Square, Luculus has a range of surprisingly mouth-watering vegan flavours
#Admin: Bratislava Airport to the City Centre
Bratislava’s Ivanka airport is fairly close to the city – less than 30 minutes by bus. Bus 61 goes to and from the central train station. To buy tickets, you’ll find a ticket machine in the airport on either side of the exit door.
While cheap drinks are definitely abound in the city, Bratislava is definitely a far cry from what the movie EuroTrip portrays it to be.