If all you know of Bratislava are the snippets you saw in the James Bond film The Living Daylights, then you’re missing most of the Slovak city’s charms. Overshadowed by Prague when Czechoslovakia still existed, Bratislava has emerged in the wake of Slovakia’s independence as one of Europe’s loveliest “new” capitals, a must-see for tourists in Central Europe. Bratislava remains remarkably well-preserved, gaily combining the Soviet-style slab buildings with more refined, celebratory architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries (and even earlier). Historically significant for its location on the Danube, Bratislava’s winding streets, red rooftops, and hospitable residents welcome tourists while the city tells its story through castles, churches, and other centers of culture. Slovakia should not be overlooked by visitors to Central Europe, and Bratislava in particular deserves at least a week of tourists’ time.
Here are just ten of the most significant tourist attractions in Bratislava:
Offering views of both Austria and Hungary from a bluff along the Danube, Bratislava Castle is a point of pride for Slovakians. The site has been one of military fortification since ancient times, and the castle (though rebuilt several times) has been present since the 10th century. Used by royalty during Bratislava’s tenure as a Hungarian stronghold, it now serves as a museum and tourist attraction. If you’re coming from the old town city centre, be sure to climb the steep stairs for a workout.
Michalska brana (St. Michael’s Gate)
This is the last standing gate and tower from Bratislava’s medieval days. Though initially constructed in Gothic style during the 14th century, it was readorned to look Baroque in the 17th century. Tourists can ascend the tower for a view of the Old Town and a look at a small museum collection of military artifacts. There exists an academic superstition that students will fail their exams if they speak while walking underneath the tower, so the young people are strangely quiet as they pass below. Michaelska Street itself is a tourist-friendly strip full of shops, restaurants, and Slovakian bars.
Novy most (New Bridge)
Connecting the old town to a suburb-like mass of apartment blocks, this strange-looking “new bridge” is reminiscent of the alien machines that rise from the ground in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. When viewed from the quaint downtown, the tower seems both architecturally out of place yet curiously appropriate as a reminder of the country’s communist era. It dates from 1972 and looks the part: so ugly that it’s lovely.
A combination Baroque and Rococo dot on Bratislava’s streetscape, this 1760 dwelling was originally built outside the city’s wall, a common choice for nobility of the day. Grassalkovich is Slovakia’s answer to the White House. Just off the Old Town, “outside” St. Michael’s Gate, tourists can tell whether the president (currently Ivan Gašparovic) is in Bratislava by seeing whether the flag at this attraction is hoisted.
House of the Good Sheperd
This narrow yellow-and-white Rococo building on Zidovska St. is home to one of Bratislava’s many unusual tourist attractions: the watch museum. With centuries-old timepieces on display, the tiny museum is usually packed but worth a visit.
Slovenské národné divadlo (Slovak National Theatre)
If you’re spending several days in Slovakia, you may have the opportunity to see the national ballet or opera at the Slovak National Theatre. Built in one style and then reoutfitted in a Neoclassical style, the building is a symbol for the arts in Bratislava, a city with cultural charges disproportionate to its smaller size. Tickets are remarkably inexpensive: about $20 will get you a decent seat for a spectacular performance. The Ganymede Fountain outside the Theatre, recalling the nectar cupbearer to the Greek gods, adds splendor to this lovely tourist attraction, situated along a grand avenue of embassies and ritzy hotels.
Primaciálny palác (Primatial Palace)
Originally constructed as a bishop’s residence when Slovakia was still part of the very Catholic Hungarian Empire, this grandiose neo-classical building saw Napoleon and Francis II sign the Treaty of Pressburg, which effectively ended the Holy Roman Empire.
Stará radnica (Old Town Hall)
A conglomeration of buildings in the main square of Bratislava with a rich and complicated history, this Old Town Hall with its accompanying tower now features a city museum that traces the past of Pressburg (what Bratislava was actually called until the early 20th century). A popular tourist attraction in the complex is the torture display, an eerie collection of medieval devices. The square also features a prominent fountain which is said to rotate in part on midnight of New Year’s Eve, with this folkloric rotation only visible to Bratislava residents with superhuman qualities.
Dóm sv. Martina (St. Martin’s Cathedral)
Used from the 16th through 19th centuries as a church for coronation of kings and consort queens, this gothic-style cathedral has three naves and plenty of nooks and art for the curious devout to explore: side chapels, stained glass, carvings, and other Catholic artifiacts. Like many other Bratislava buildings, this cathedral replaced something before it. In the case of St. Michael’s, it supplanted a Romanesque-style Church of Saviour.
Everyone loves Cumil, a sculpture of a hardhat sewer worker emerging from a manhole cover. Though very new, he is a novel part of Bratislava’s public “low art,” pieces designed to depict average citizens in a city with such an otherwise overwhelming historical presence. Taking advantage of Cumil’s lowly position on the ground, some impudent young ladies lift their skirts and pose for pictures, making it look like the poor Slovak man is sneaking a peek.
These are just ten of the many superb tourist attractions in Bratislava. There are additional churches, museums, castles, and other cultural institutions waiting to be explored. Though quite popular, Bratislava has not been exploited as extensively as Prague, Budapest, or Vienna, rendering it more intimately authentic and more openly accessible. Each building and street has a human story, and the Slovak people are celebrating those legacies, especially since independence. Bratislava is my choice for Europe’s most underrated capital city.