A Vienna-like city without the crowds
The city of Bratislava, Slovakia's capital, is like an easy and intimate version of Vienna — with rich architecture and vibrant nightlife.
The New York Times
Direct trains for Hlavna Stanica, Bratislava's main station, leave Simmering station in Vienna every hour. Other hourly connections leave Vienna from Sudbahnhof Ostbahn for Petrzalka train station in Bratislava. The journey takes about an hour. From Keleti station in Budapest, direct trains leave for Hlavna Stanica every two hours.
The Sheraton Bratislava (Pribinova 12; www.sheratonbratislava.com) is close to the Danube, at the Eurovea development project, which is also the home of a new shopping mall and the Slovak National Theater. The hotel opened its 209 guest rooms and suites in early 2010. Double rooms in the high season usually cost from 120 to 130 euros a night (about $160 to $173, at $1.32 to the euro).
Far more intimate, the Marrol's Boutique Hotel (Tobrucka 4; www.hotelmarrols.sk) gracefully blends Vienna Secession architecture with luxurious modern amenities. A Web search found double rooms in high season to be about 110 euros, including breakfast, less than what you would expect to pay for service and atmosphere of this caliber in more popular destinations.
Atmospheric churches, romantic cobblestone lanes, cool new cafes or quirky museums: What do locals in the Slovak capital of Bratislava recommend visitors see first?
"Vienna," joked Peter, a Slovak friend of mine who had recently moved back to his homeland after several years abroad.
That may not be the most useful of tips, but it does highlight the easy accessibility of Bratislava, which lies just an hour outside Vienna, about two hours and 40 minutes from Budapest, Hungary, and about four hours from Prague, with direct train and bus connections from all three. An intimate, easy-to-navigate city of around half a million inhabitants, Bratislava makes an excellent getaway from the more popular destinations in the region, especially once you get fed up with the big-city crowds.
The Slovak capital also offers similar, Central European charm (rich history, unusual local flavors, stunning architecture and vibrant restaurants and night life) as I discovered over the course of a weekend there this winter.
A beer lover, Peter had suggested we catch up at Richtar Jakub (Moskovska 16; richtarjakub.sk), the city's first brewpub, which opened in a residential neighborhood northeast of Stare Mesto, the Old Town, in2008. By the time I arrived, I had already seen enough to laugh off his Vienna recommendation with several Bratislava tips of my own.
I had gotten a feel for the place by strolling through the labyrinthine pedestrian streets of Stare Mesto, which includes several old city gates and the remnants of the city's ancient fortification walls. After checking out the strange collections of apothecary bottles and ornate, antique medicine cabinets at the Museum of Pharmacy (Michalska 26), I climbed and counted the 110 stone and wooden steps leading up to the top of St. Michael's Tower, just next door, part of the original city fortifications guarding Old Town.
At the top, I opened a small door and stepped outside onto the tower's narrow observation platform, taking in the sunset over the rooftops of Stare Mesto. Broad-shouldered Bratislava Castle stood high on its hilltop before me, while the sound of church bells echoed up through the medieval-era streets. The panorama took my breath away, and it felt equally surprising to find no other tourists there to block my view.
I had a similar private showing at the quirky Museum of Clocks (Zidovska 1), which filled a narrow, flatiron-style building with unusual watches, wall and table chronographs. Why were there no other visitors gawking at the immense, desk-size timepieces, covered with gilt figurines, dating from the Baroque era? Jealous, I imagined they were all enjoying the open-air Museum of Beekeeping in the nearby village of Kralova pri Senci (vcelarskapaseka.sk), which I had regrettably put off for another trip.
To finish my first day, I stopped at the chic, rooftop Sky Bar (Hviezdoslavovo namestie 7; skybar.sk), where I was made to feel welcome, despite not being as beautiful, skinny or blond as the rest of the clientele. The bar, on Bratislava's most photogenic square, overlooks much of the city and the vast Danube flowing through its heart.
While I took in the view (which for some reason suddenly included fireworks), a bartender patiently walked me through the big names on his list of 80 vodkas, which topped out with a Russian brand, Kauffman Private Collection, listed at 40 euros a shot. Slowly sipping an extremely smooth and charismatic Slovak vodka, Double Cross (7.90 euros a shot), while watching the beau monde in the club and the pyrotechnics outside, I was almost certain I wouldn't have found quite as much unexpected charm anywhere in Vienna.
The city's history, however, quickly connected me to the glory days of Austria and Hungary. In the gracefully refurbished Bratislava City Museum (Primacialne namestie 3; muzeum.bratislava.sk), I walked past a chapel dedicated to a Hungarian king, St. Ladislaus, where frescoes from the 15th century brightened the walls under sculptured, Renaissance-era arches. In the next room, a map of Vienna from 1430 showed Bratislava (then known as Pressburg in German, Presporok in Slovak and Pozsony in Hungarian) as little more than a suburb of the Austrian capital. With the Turkish occupation of much of Hungary after the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, Bratislava then served as the Hungarian capital for some three centuries. During that time, 11 rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire, including the great Maria Theresa, were crowned in St. Martin's Cathedral in Bratislava.
Walking by the church in the afternoon, I felt as if nothing had changed since the days of the last woman among the Hapsburg rulers. From a distance, the building had the familiar, spiky outline of many village churches, and thus seemed as though it might be a much smaller building. But as I wandered toward it through the winding streets of Old Town, the form became ever larger. Unlike the far more ornate Stephansdom in Vienna or St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, there were no photographers snapping away inside, giving me plenty of time to soak up the darkly romantic, Gothic-era vastness in solitude.
As I related these discoveries the next night when I caught up with Peter, he acquiesced, and pointed out that our meeting place constituted another new attraction for visitors. While Slovakia is usually known for its viticulture, a growing interest in good beer has brought four new brewpubs to the capital, all within the last four years.
The first, Richtar Jakub, offered 10 solid microbrews on draft, including its own excellent dark lager, as well as obscure, smaller Czech and Slovak brands like Chotebor and Urpiner.
In beer terms, the most recent development was last year's arrival of Zamocky Pivovar (Zamocka 13; zamockypivovar.sk), a clean, cocktail-style lounge not far from the Clock Museum. I stopped there for an amber lager after exploring the day before.
At least in terms of airy atmosphere and cosmopolitan clientele, the city's brewpub scene probably hits its apex at the Bratislavsky Mestiansky Pivovar (Drevena 8; mestianskypivovar.sk), or Bratislava City Brewery, a beautifully renovated, multilevel pub just off the main shopping street of Obchodna.
Finishing our pints, we took a cab to the last of the city's four breweries, Patronsky Pivovar (Brnianska 57; patronskypivovar.sk). The house pale lager supported one of the best dinners of pork schnitzel and potato salad I had ever tasted: the cutlet was audibly crisp on the outside, but steamy and juicy inside, striking a rich counterbalance to the sweet-and-sour, oniony vinaigrette of the potatoes. After saying "dovidenia" to Peter, I headed back to my hotel and quickly collapsed into a deep sleep.
The next morning, fueled by the high-calorie evening, I climbed up the castle hill for a final view of Bratislava before my early train back to Prague. Nearing the top, I came upon a teenage boy and girl practicing parkour on the walls and steps, running straight down the middle of a sidewalk. In bigger capitals nearby, I thought, this would have been impossible because of the crowds, but here there was no one to get in the way. They continued their attempts at running, leaping and spinning as I walked past. Just like me, they seemed to love having the place more or less to themselves.