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There has been a settlement on the site of present day Bratislava since before the Romans came this way. The city's current position at the junction of three countries (Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria) reflects its somewhat muddled history. Prior to 1918 the city was part of Austria-Hungary and was known as Pressburg (to German speakers) or Pozsony (to Hungarians). From 1536 (after the Turkish invasion of Hungary) to 1783 Bratislava was actually the capital of Hungary.
Modern Bratislava is a city of contrasts. The city expanded rapidly throughout the 20th century, and most of the post-War development of Bratislava is as hideous as anything that communism managed to foist upon Eastern Europe. In addition the Communists had no qualms about tearing up historic sections of the old city to make way for their show-piece projects. However, the city's historic core has survived more or less intact, and is undergoing a thorough, painstaking, and bloody expensive restoration. The results are stunning.
Although Bratislava can't compare with the visual delights of, say, Prague or Vienna, it's charming in its own way, and there's plenty to keep you occupied for at least a long-weekend. And in terms of value for money, and a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere Bratislava more than holds its own with any other city in central Europe.
And although it's terribly politically incorrect, I'll say it anyway. Gentlemen, the ladies of Bratislava are just about the most beautiful in the world. Honestly.
It is now possible, for the first time, to fly direct between the UK and Slovakia. SkyEurope fly 6 or 7 times a week from London Stansted to Bratislava (and back again, obviously). They also have 4 services a week between Bratislava and Manchester. They are all, of all things, a Slovakian low-cost airline. Now, I know what you're thinking and you can get those images of death-trap Soviet jets out of your mind, they fly nice new Boeings. And although they've only been flying to the UK since July 2003 they'd been flying to Germany, Switzerland and Croatia among others for a while before that. And although they're a low cost carrier (returns start from only £55, including taxes), they're not a no frills one; you get a seat allocation on check-in so there's no need for an unseemly scrum when it comes to boarding. You even get a free sandwich and soft drinks during the flight. In short, I was very impressed with SkyEurope, would have no hesitation in flying with them again, and will wax lyrical further on the subject in the Getting There section of the Slovakia page.
Also from Bratislava airport there are regular direct flights to, among others, Berlin, Milan, Moscow, Paris, Prague, Warsaw and Zurich, with less frequent flights to Leipzig, Sofia, and Tel Aviv.
If for whatever reason you don't want to take advantage of SkyEurope you'll be pleased to hear that Bratislava is reasonably accessible from the UK and the rest of Europe, and so you've got plenty of other options.
Possibly the easiest is to fly to Vienna and transfer from there. Vienna's Schwechat airport is only 30 miles or so away from Bratislava and there are direct buses running from there to Bratislava. You can direct flights to Vienna from just about every major city in Europe. From the UK there are regular direct flights to and from London Heathrow, Manchester and Birmingham.
The other option is to fly to Prague (which you can now do from Heathrow, Stansted, Manchester, Birmingham, and Edinburgh) and connect from there to Bratislava with Czech airlines.
If you dont want to fly you can take the coach from London to Bratislava. Eurolines do the journey (via Brussels and Vienna) in more or less 24 hours, a return will set you back over £100. Eurolines also have direct coach services from Bratislava to Prague, Venice, Stuttgart (via Munich), Dortmund (via Cologne), Paris, Zurich, Hamburg, and several daily services to Vienna.
If you want to travel with a bit more comfort you could go by train; Bratislava is on the main Prague to Budapest line, and again there are good and frequent rail links to Vienna.
If youre feeling nautical, or just want to travel in style you can cruise up the Danube from Budapest, or down it from Vienna.
The Danube (Dunaj, in Slovak) runs from west to east through the city centre. Unless you've got an interest in communist housing estates there's no real reason for you to go south of the river. The historic and geographical heart of Bratislava is its Old Town (Stare Mesto) just north of the Danube and surrounded by Namestie SNP to the north, Staromestska ulica to the west, and Hviezdoslavovo namestie to the south. This is where you'll probably spend most of your time, unless you really do have a thing for communist housing estates (hello, Dave!).
The Old Town used to extend all the way to the castle (hrad) to the west until the communists decided to drive a bloody great big motorway through it, as a result the castle is now separated from the rest of the Old Town by Staromestska ulica. Bratislava's Old Town is your standard central European combination of squares, alleyways, lots of churches, and a few larger streets. More or less in the middle of it is the imaginatively named Main Square (Hlavne nimestie), while the main road is probably the north-south running Michalska (which changes it's name half way down to Venturska), which is basically full of restaurants, cafes, embassies, and shops. The main east-west route is probably Panska (which also changes its name, to Laurinska), also the main commercial street.
The Old Town is almost entirely pedestrianised (we saw a few cars driving through but they nearly all had diplomatic plates) and public transport doesn't run through it so the only way to see this part of the city is on foot. Luckily that shouldn't present too many problems; it's only about half a mile square and if that's enough to tire you out (it was for us...) there are dozens of bars where you can recuperate.
To the north of the Old Town lies Bratislava's main commercial area; Namestie SNP (which refers to the Slovak National Uprising, not the Scottish Nationalist Party), Obchodna ulica, which runs north east from the west end of Namestie SNP, and Kamenne Namestie (complete with the huge Tesco department store) at its east end. From Kamenne Namestie Sturova Ulica is another busy road that runs south east to the University area and the river.
Bratislava's railway station, hlava stanica ("main station"; they don't seem to be particularly imaginative when it comes to naming things) is a bit of a hike from the city centre, almost a mile to the north up Stefanikova ulica. The Scotsman and I managed to walk it, but then we were weren't carrying any luggage, but it's easy enough to get to or from the station on public transport; tram number 1 or bus numbers 81 or 93 both run between the station and the city centre.
You'll be glad to hear that on those few occasions when you need to use it Bratislava's public transport system is cheap, widespread and fairly efficient. You've got a choice of trams, buses, and trolley buses. The usual eastern European rules apply; buy your ticket before you get on, and make sure you validate it after you get on. Tickets can be bought from kiosks, or from the ticket machines that are on most platforms. We didn't check all the ticket machines but many of them (especially those around the railway station and tourist areas) had instructions in English. You can buy a variety of tickets, for either a single journey, a day or two days, up to a monthly season ticket. Prices are very cheap; a 1 day ticket (valid on the entire the public transport system) will set you back marginally over £1. Why the hell is it impossible for us to have something like this in the UK?
If you're arriving or leaving by bus or coach you'll find that the main bus station (autobusova stanca) is also a bit of a way from the city centre (it's to the east on ul Mlynske nivy, which runs off Dostojevskeho, part of the main inner ring road). To make things easier take the trolley bus; there's plenty of choice as the 208, 216, 217, 218 and 220 all head that way from the city centre.
Bratislava's airport, M.R. Stefanik, is around 10 miles to the north east of the city centre. It's pretty small but seemed really well organised when we were there, but if it starts to handle more traffic (there's talk of a partial buy-out by Austrian Airlines, who want to use it as a low-cost gateway to Vienna) it'll have to be extended pretty quickly or things will start to get chaotic. To get into the city centre from the airport the 61 bus runs from just outside the main terminal building to the main railway station, where you'll probably have to change buses (or onto a tram) to get towards the old town. There's a shop in the terminal building where you can buy a ticket, or there's a machine at the bus stop if you've got the right change.
If you're feeling lazy you can do what we did and get a taxi into town. We didn't see any of the unlicensed taxi touts who you can find at most European airports at Bratislava and so we had to wait around 20 minutes for a licensed taxi to turn up (there were quite a lot of taxis, but there were also quite a lot of people before us waiting for them). A taxi ride into town cost us 500 crowns (about £8.50), the taxi that took us from our hotel back to the airport (which the hotel reception had called for us) cost 440 crowns (about £7.30). Like just about every other place in Europe I imagine that Bratislava's taxi drivers rip tourists off, but I don't think that they did it to us to quite the same extent as some other places we've been (such as Prague) and they seem a friendly enough bunch too.
We stayed in the Hotel Kyjev. The main entrance is on Rajska but the hotel is a part of the big complex on Spitalska that includes the Tesco department store. It's basically a fairly hideous 70's high-rise, although that gives the advantage of making reasonably easy to find, even when you've had a few, and especially when they light up the "Hotel Kyjev" sign on the roof. Anyway, they say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so here you go:
The Kyjev has seen better days, and the 70s decor is certainly in need of modernising. Among its facilities are a cocktail bar on the ground floor (which seemed to close fairly early and only had bottled beer), another bar (Luna Bar) in the basement (which never seemed to be open when we were there), a restaurant on the first floor (which we didn't try) and a nightclub also on the first floor (which was also closed). Worthy of note were the lifts, possibly the slowest I've ever been in (although most lifts tend to be slow when I'm in them), and which had the interesting trick of the doors opening just before the lift came to a halt, leaving a nice little step for blind people to trip over. Our room was small and a bit run-down, but comfortable and clean. The brown 70's-themed furniture and decoration added character, and the room also had a satellite TV (BBC World and Eurosport included). The bathroom lacked a dedicated shower but the bath taps had a shower attachment (no shower curtain either, but the floor seemed to drain pretty quickly).
So those are all the negatives, but the Kyjev does have a few things in its favour too. For a start we found the staff (most of whom spoke at least some English) to be friendly and helpful. When the Scotsman managed to break our toilet within 10 minutes of checking in (don't ask...) the hotel receptionist was on the phone to the plumber even as we were telling him about it, and the toilet was back in full working order after we'd returned from our afternoon's drinking (a good job too as all that boozing takes it's toll on a man's system). Although we only made it down in time once, the breakfast was pretty good spread, the usual continental selection of cheese, cold meat, eggs, bacon, sausages, cereal, yoghurt, and cakes. Probably its major selling point though is its location, right in the city centre and less than a 5 minute walk to the Old Town. The views from the upper floors (the Kyjev has 14 of them) are pretty damned impressive (even though they've put a fine mesh over the parts of the window you can open, to stop guests or, more likely, beer bottles from being thrown out).
The Kyjev's price is right too. We paid a total of £140 for 4 nights in a double room, which I thought represented good value for money. In spite of all its problems, it's somewhere I'd definitely stay again, if only for the location.
We booked the Kyjev through HotelsSlovakia, part of HotelsCentral.com. They have a decent range of hotels, with good prices and offer an excellent service. If you are going to stay in a hotel in Bratislava, I'd say that it's probably worth paying that little bit extra to stay somewhere within easy walking distance of the city centre.
Unfortunately you can no longer book the Kyjev through HotelsSlovakia, although instead you can book it through BratislavaHotels, a rather excellent site that as well as offering a large selection of hotels also has a lot of general tourist information (including a rather complimentary link to my site!). Or you can try booking with the hotel direct, on this site.
You can eat like a king, and a fat one at that, for very little in Bratislava. We never paid more than £10 each for a meal, and that included a couple of courses, a couple of bottles of wine, and a few beers each, and for the most part we ate in slightly more "touristy" restaurants in the Old Town.
It would be hard to find a more touristy location than Black Rose, on Michalska, about 100 metres from Michaels Gate. They seem to push themselves as a pizzeria, although they have a long non-pizza/pasta menu too. We went for the pizzas (although the main menu has an English translation, we couldn't find a translated pizza menu and so had to guess based on our pretty limited knowledge of German. I suppose we could have just asked for an English menu...) and they were fine, a bit too much garlic for some perhaps, but nice thin, crispy bases. Pizzas came in at around 110 crowns (less than £2) and the beers at 36 crowns. If you're sitting in their outside tables (highly recommended in the summer) keep an eye out for the family of friendly cats that seem to live in a hole in the wall and pop out from time to time to beg for food (they seem to like salami).
Next to Black Rose is Altstadt Cafe Restaurant. The main reason we ate in here was that it had just gone 10pm, we were starving, and this was about the only place we could see that was still serving food (we found out later that there are plenty of other restaurants that serve food this late, but in our defence we were drunk and didn't look very hard). Having said all that the food was perfectly decent, I went for the pork with mushroom sauce, the Scotsman had a big trout, and all that and a couple of beers, a bottle of Czech wine (Svatovavrinecke, very decent stuff) and a Diet Coke came to less than 800 crowns (around £13).
Just a little bit further down Michalska you'll find Minerva, a really excellent place. We'd enjoyed a beer or three at their outside tables during the afternoon (they serve Slovakian Kelt Beer, a good brew) and went back in the evening for something more substantial. The restaurant itself is underground in an attractive, minimally decorated vaulted cellar. Some of the things on the menu were a bit ambiguous (what on earth is "Virgin of the Danube"?) so I went for the "Farmers Trio" which turned out to be three different types of pork (roast, smoked, and sausage) complete with a plate of cabbage and dumplings. The cabbage I could take or leave but the dumplings were excellent, really light and fluffy. They don't stint on the portions either, I had a huge plate and it was full. The Scotsman went for another trout here, and we had several beers and a couple of bottles of wine (Slovak Frankovka, very drinkable) between us. They were obviously impressed with our drinking ability as they threw in a couple of shots of some unknown local spirit (possibly Demanovka) free of charge too. Great cheap food, good beer, free spirits, friendly, excellent service, all for less than £10 a head, what more could you possibly want?
Possibly the finest food we had in Bratislava was from U Filipa at Biela ulica 6, where it joins Frantiskanske namesti. This is a classy place, and during summer you can eat outdoors in a little courtyard outside the main restaurant. The Scotsman went for the zander fillets (some kind of fish apparently) which he scoffed and recommended, I had chicken breasts with herbs and bacon which was superb as were the roast potatoes (more like really thick cut potato wedges) we both had. Add to this a cheese salad (done with a really fresh, crumbly, local cheese) a couple of soft drinks, and another bottle of excellent Slovak Frankovka wine, and the total bill still came to less than £20, remarkable value for such quality food. I recommend this place very highly.
Heading a little bit further into the Old Town we tried the Dubliner Irish Pub at Sedlarska 6. I hope this isn't the beginning of a trend for trying out Irish pubs, but in my defence it was the Scotsman's idea. He'd been lured in by the promise of Traditional Battered Cod and Chips which turned out to be the only disappointing meal either of us had in Bratislava; the fish turned out to be one of those frozen fillets and the chips were stringy french fries rather than proper thick-cut traditional chips. Still, I enjoyed my "Traditional" Irish fish pie. The decoration inside is worthy of note too, a collection of over-the-top kitsch Irishness, with the back part of the pub being done up like a "traditional" Irish cobbled street (complete with false windows and doorways, which must be really confusing when you've had a few). In its favour service was quick and very friendly (like just about everywhere we tried in Bratislava), although for some reason we had to order food from one waitress and beer from another, and they serve lovely Slovak Zlaty Bazant beer, which made this a good place to wait out a rain storm for an hour or so.
Just about on the edge of the Old Town we tried the imaginatively named Pizza House on Hviezdoslavovo namesti (number 15). Well, Pizza Hut is already taken, and Pizza Shed sounds stupid so what else were they going to call it? Anyway, forget about the name, they served what was quite possibly the finest pizza I've ever had, anywhere. They had thin, crispy bases but were piled high with toppings (I recommend the Roma, with salami, ham, peppers and mushrooms) and were so big that even I had to leave a wedge untouched (although they'll wrap any left-overs in foil for you to take away, if you ask). For 190 crowns (just over £3) this was magnificent value for money. Zlaty Bazant beer and pleasant tables outside on the square were the icing on the cake, do not miss this place!
Also on Hviezdoslavovo namesti (at number 11) is Korzo. We almost walked straight out of this place, a combination of us being the only two people there and the ugly eclectic decoration (ruining a perfectly attractive brick cellar) and uncomfortable looking benches was rather off-putting. Still, having stuck around and tried the food I'm glad we didn't. The Scotsman started off with a cheese salad which he said was excellent. I'm not really a salad man but I tried a bit of the cheese, which I suspect was either goat's or sheep's cheese, which was really sharp and fresh. After that he went for the trout which was served as two huge fillets and which also polished off quickly. My eye was drawn to the bull's bollocks on the menu, but as I couldn't decide whether to have them roast or fried (decisions, decisions! Actually, I suppose I could have had one of each) so I played it safe and went for the rump steak instead, which was very good. Our bill was rounded off with pancakes and ice cream (I told you I'm not a salad man) some beer, a coffee, a bottle of Frankovka wine, and a carafe of Burciak (which is basically freshly-pressed, semi-fermented grape juice; it looks like pureed snot, smells slightly dubious, but has a clean, crisp taste). All this came to less than 1200 crowns (£20). When you throw in excellent, friendly service, this is another place I highly recommend.
We ended up in U Dezmara (on Klarinska, right next to Klara's Church) in search of something to mop up a hangover. The omelette (with ham, mushrooms and grated cheese) did the job admirably. Other attractions of this place included cheap beer (25 crowns a half litre) and a frisky parrot in a cage.
Right then, enough of food, lets move on to more important matters, namely booze. The thing to remember is that there isn't the distinction between bars, pubs and restaurants that you get in the UK. In other words, all the places I've mentioned above would be quite happy to just keep serving you beer all afternoon even if you don't order any food. We had at least a couple of beers in all these places, and they all served good, cheap, draft beer, and most had more than one choice of draft beer (check on the menu), as well as a decent range of spirits and wine. So don't waste your time hunting for pubs that serve nothing but booze, as there aren't that many of them.
During summer most of the cafes and bars in the Old Town have tables outside in the streets, probably the most pleasant way to take in a beer or four and watch life go by. Opening hours vary, but you won't have any problems if you want to start drinking at 10am. Most places stay open until midnight, many more are still going strong at 2am, if you're prepared to hunt around a bit you can drink on into the wee small hours, and some nightclubs will take you right through to breakfast.
Anyway, in no particular order, here are a few of the places that I can vaguely remember having a few drinks in.
U Certa is a pleasant little place at the junction of Beblaveho and Mikulasska, between the castle and the cathedral. The decoration is eccentric, to put it mildly, with a sort of Hell theme (I think the name means Little Devil, or something similar), bats and devils everywhere including one (or at least his arse and tail) hanging out through the ceiling. They had lots of coffee on the menu and most people seemed to be drinking that but we stuck to the beer which was good and cheap (less than 50p pint). I just popped into this place for a swift one but stumbled out into the twilight four pints later. Why do things like that keep happening to me?!?
K Bar is Cocktail and Karaoke bar on Zelena, in the Old Town. Not the kind of place I'd normally frequent but it was late, we were passing by, and they were open. They didn't serve draft beer, only bottled, and for some reason the price kept going up every time I drank another. Either they have some kind of sliding scale based on how late they stay open, or the waitress was taking advantage of my tired and emotional condition. The selling point here is of course the karaoke, and I have to stay that the standard was bloody awful. Mind you, that wasn't helped by the Scotsman and I; we didn't just murder "New York, New York" we tortured it first, desecrated the corpse and buried it in an unmarked grave. Frank, if you're up there, we're sorry. We were still better than the girl who was on before us though. And what's the point of a karaoke place with no Elvis songs?
We decided to act sophisticated in Cafe Verne (at Hviezdoslavova namesti 18) and went for a bottle of wine instead of swilling beer. Very nice it was too, at around £4 a bottle. A nice, friendly, brightly decorated place, somewhere to chill out for an hour or so.
I've got a receipt from Slang Pub (also on Hviezdoslavova namesti) so I know I was in there, but for some reason I can't remember very much about it. I think it was fairly big, and looked like it had been opened or renovated fairly recently, and I seem to recall it being fairly quiet, but that's about it I'm afraid. If it helps the receipt says beer was 35 crowns and a glass of wine 20.
Unfortunately I can remember the Cocoloco Bar (on Namestie SNP) only too well. This was another of those "it's late and they're open" spur-of-the-moment type of places. I think it's mainly a cocktail bar but we wanted beer, which came in at £1 a pint. Horrible, tastless decoration and uncomfortable chairs (at least to those of a wider girth) didn't help improve our opinion of this place, neither did the fact that we were the only people in it.
A much better place is the Alligator Rock Club (on Laurinska) which offers both late opening and regular live music. Quality, reasonably priced beer is a bonus. The rock band (playing covers) they had on when were in were pretty good (and very loud), and the Scotsman went back on his own a couple of days later when they had a blues group on which he enjoyed so much he stayed until chucking-out time, the dirty stop-out. A raucous atmosphere and a convenient central location make this place well worth a visit.
KGB is at Obchodna 52. Although the name originally had nothing to do with that KGB (it stands for something else in Slovak) they've now given in to temptation, and there's a big bust of Lenin sitting on the bar. This is an interesting place, housed in a big, brick-vaulted cellar. They have excellent beer (Smadny Mnich) and a dartboard (not the safest of combinations). Other attractions include fairly enlightened opening hours, friendly staff, and a lively atmosphere.
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