Slovakia’s capital is love at first sight and oozes style, culture and history. Until 1919 Bratislava was known as Pressburg and up to that point it had been part of Hungary in some form for more than 1000 years. From the 16th century the Hungarian crown jewels were kept at the castle, and eleven kings and queens of Hungary were crowned in the city’s cathedral.
The city’s position on the Danube and at the nexus point of trade routes helped it grow into a centre of commerce and power in that time. The city’s deep layers of history are all exposed, so be prepared for palaces, castles, churches and outlandish Soviet megastructures.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bratislava:
1. Slavín War Memorial
At the summit of the highest hill there’s a cemetery and war memorial to the Soviet troops killed while liberating Bratislavain 1945. The monument is in an upmarket quarter of the city above mansions and embassies, and was unveiled in 1960. There’s a memorial auditorium at its base capped with a statue of a Soviet soldier atop a 39.1-metre pylon, all clad with marble panels.
In front are six mass graves, holding the remains of 6,845 Soviet soldiers.
At all times of day residents and tourists make their way up to the terrace below for the ultimate view of the Bratislava skyline.
2. St Elizabeth’s Church (Blue Church)
This whimsical Art Nouveau church is just east of the old town on Bezručova Street.
It was raised in the 1910s as the chapel for the Gamča gymnasium (grammar school) but has gone on to become a symbol for Slovakia.
The architect in charge was Ödön Lechner, a pioneer of Hungarian Secessionism and often referred to as the Hungarian Gaudí.
Outside, the church has a Disney-esque blend of Romanesque, Baroque and Oriental design in its rich stucco mouldings, painted white and pale blue and roofed with glazed blue tiles.
Inside, the pews are especially pretty, painted blue with gold patterns, and there’s an oil painting of St Elizabeth handing out alms above the altar.
3. Bratislava Castle
Watching over the city from its craggy roost, Bratislava Castle is on a site that has been fortified for thousands of years.
As a defendable stronghold and lookout, the castle was unmatched as it rested between the Alps and Carpathians and defended an ancient fords on the Danube.
The castle’s apogee came in the 16th century when it was the seat of the Kings of Royal Hungary, housing the Hungarian crown jewels for the next 200 years.
After war damage and reconstruction it’s a landmark to see because of what it represents more than its architecture.
From the terrace you can see over the Danube and across the borders into Austria and Hungary, while the interior has exhibitions for the National Museum, covering Slovakian history from the middle ages to the present day.
4. Historic Centre of Bratislava
Bratislava has the kind of historic core where you can let idle curiosity take over and guide you down bright, airy alleys and onto palatial squares.
The Old Town is also compact enough that if you get lost you won’t have any trouble finding your way again.
There’s a multitude of things to fawn over, like dainty fountains, Baroque places, idiosyncratic little monuments and plaques indicating the historical figures that passed by.
Many places have real historic import, like the University Library Building, a former government building from the Hungarian Reform Era, where serfdom in the kingdom was abolished in the 19th century.
There’s also an abundance of outdoor cafe, artisan stores and gelato shops to tempt you on your tour.
5. Devin Castle
Do not pass up the chance to see this awesome castle, around 10 kilometres west of the city centre.
Devin Castle is a ruin perched on a 212-metre cliff at the confluence of the Danube and Morava Rivers.
In its heyday this mighty stronghold controlled the trade route on the Danube, as well as an arm of the ancient Amber Road.
With traces going back to the 5th century BC, it’s one of Slovakia’s three oldest castles, and its story is told by information boards and an exhibition inside the caves in the upper enclosure.
The castle’s death blow came with an assault by Napoleon’s troops in 1809, and it has been a scenic ruin ever since.
6. St Martin’s Cathedral
On the west side of the Old Town, Bratislava’s 15th century Gothic cathedral was against the city walls and even had a secondary role as a bastion.
It lies in the shadow of Bratislava Castle and from 1563 became the coronation church for the Kingdom of Hungary, so it makes for a handy one-two on a sightseeing trip.
Eleven kings and queens, and eight of their consorts were crowned in this building up to 1830. The cathedral’s role as a coronation church is honoured by a gold-plated reproduction of the Crown of St. Stephen at the top of the tower.
Inside, the nave is in three aisles, divided by bulky Gothic columns and leading to an ensemble of statues portraying St Michael as a Hungarian hussar.
7. Old Town Hall
On Hlavné Námestie the Old Town Hall Bratislava most venerable landmarks.
It came together in the 1200s when the Romanesque house belonging to the Mayor was acquired by the city.
Slowly the neighbouring buildings were also bought off and annexed.
So now it’s an interesting muddle of four different houses and palaces full of little surprises.
The most beautiful portion is the Renaissance courtyard, dating to 1581 and with an arcade and gallery.
The main tower is older, designed in the Tuscan Gothic style in the 1200s, and housing a branch of the City Museum that deals with feudal justice in medieval Pressburg.
8. Slovak National Gallery
At the time of writing in 2017 the Slovak National Gallery is undergoing refurbishment, with exhibitions restricted to small corners of this 18th-century palace and its striking Soviet-era annexe from the 1970s.
A small permanent exhibition has been set up on the first floor to present the most cherished Gothic and Baroque art and artefacts from the 1300s to the 1700s.
This exhibition is arranged in six parts, beginning with the incomparable 18th-century busts by the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, which pull bizarre facial expressions.
Temporary exhibitions are still scheduled, dedicated to anything from Slovak fashion in the 60s to contemporary graphic art and medieval Gothic painting.
9. Michael’s Gate
Another early structure in the Old Town is the last vestige of Bratislava’s original four medieval gates, protecting the east entrance to the city.
Michael’s Gate climbs to 51 metres, over an elegant tangle of streets and dates to the very start of the 14th century.
It took on its current Baroque appearance after a remodel in 1759. This was when the dome was installed, as well as the finial of St Michael fighting the dragon at the tip of the spire.
In the tower there’s another branch of the Bratislava City Museum, with an exhibition about the old fortifications and medieval weaponry.
Get up to the tower’s sixth floor, as this is a handy vantage point over the Old Town.
10. Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum
Also some way out of city, this contemporary art museum has a fabulous location at the tip of a long peninsula in the middle of the Danube.
Starting in the early 2000s, the museum opened in several stages before it was fully complete in 2014. The Great Hall on the first floor holds the permanent exhibition, where there’s an international assortment of painting and installations by Sam Francis, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Jill Moser, CoBrA artists like Karel Appel, Austrian artists such as Hermann Nitsch and Hungarians like Ilona Keserü Ilona.
The space outside the museum has been landscaped as a sculpture park, covered with greenery and hosting works by the likes of Hans de Bovenkamp and Roland Goeschl, all with the river in the background.
11. Grassalkovich Palace
The official residence of the Slovak President is in a sublime Rococo palace from 1760, on Hodžovo Square just north of the Old Town.
It was commissioned by Count Anton Grassalkovich, who was the chairman of Hungary’s Royal Chamber and had the ear of Empress Maria Theresa.
As the permanent home of the president the palace isn’t open to the public, but you can stop for a photo in front of the modern fountain.
Then go round to the rear as the palace’s formal gardens are now a beautiful public park.
There’s a horseback statue of the empress, tree-lined paths and lawns.
One row of trees here was planted by statesmen visiting the palace like the former King of Spain Juan Carlos I.
12. Primate’s Palace
Unlike Grassalkovich, the Primate’s Palace welcomes visitors.
It was constructed in the 1770s in an imperious Neoclassical style for the Archbishop of Esztergom, and up to 1996 was also the president’s residence.
The high point of any tour is the Hall of Mirrors, a sequence of five salons, each named after the colour of its decor.
A momentous event occurred in the Hall of Mirrors in December 1805 when the Treaty of Pressburg was signed, sealing Napoleon’s victory over the Third Coalition.
There’s a set of 17th-century Mortlake tapestries on display, and in the inner courtyard is a magnificent fountain with a statue of St George slaying the dragon.
13. Most SNP
Traversing the Danube is a spectacular relic from the Soviet period.
The Most SNP (Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising) opened in 1972, and holds the record as the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge to have only one pylon and a single set of cables.
At the top of that pylon is a structure known as the “UFO”. At 80 metres above the river this disc-like building houses a restaurant reached via an elevator up the pylon’s east pillar.
Book a table for a meal with a memorable view, or just come to the observation deck to see the Danube, castle and old Bratislava in all their glory.
14. Hviezdoslavov Square
A broad pedestrian boulevard in the Old Town, Hviezdoslav Square starts near the Most SNP and extends to the Slovak National Theatre.
The walkway has rows of trees and fountains, and is traced by exuberant mansions and townhouses.
On the north side of the square are bars, restaurants and ice cream shops, while the south has a ceremonious line of embassies.
There’s a podium for public events, and the square also hosts Bratislava’s Christmas Market in December.
The square is named after Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav, a turn-of-the-century Slovak poet and dramatist who also who made a lasting contribution to Slovak culture by translating works by Schiller, Shakespeare and Goethe.
You can find his outsized statue half-way along the boulevard.
15. Maximilian’s Fountain
Back in the Main Square is another of Bratislava’s most prized monuments and meeting places.
Opposite the Old Town Hall is a fountain commissioned by the King of Hungary, Maximilian II in 1572 as a water supply for Pressburg’s citizens.
The column in the middle is crested by a statue of the knight in battle armour.
Some people believe this an image of Roland, the mythical defender of Pressburg’s rights, and others are certain it’s Maximilian himself.
According to legend, every New Year at the stroke of midnight the statue turns to face the Old Town Hall and bows to honour 12 councillors who died defending the city.
16. Heydukova Street Synagogue
Bratislava’s only synagogue dates to 1926 and is an extraordinary cubist building designed by the avant-garde interwar architect Artúr Szalatnai-Slatinský.
Its steel and concrete construction was cutting-edge for the time and allowed for a large open hall unobstructed by pillars.
The synagogue is still an Orthodox place of worship and is preserved as a Slovakian National Monument.
Upstairs in the women’s gallery there’s a small museum about Bratislava’s Jewish community before, during and after the Second World War.
There are also artefacts recovered from the city’s Neolog synagogue, which was pulled down in the 1960s.
17. Galéria Nedbalka
From the outside you’d never guess what lies within this art gallery that opened in 2012. The Baroque exterior gives way to a Guggenheim-esque atrium.
In this stylish space are four floors dedicated to Slovakian art sculpture and painting from the 19th century to the present.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Slovak art scene here’s an opportunity to get to know the likes of the Barbizon landscape painter Ladislav Medňanský, the early Modernist Ľudovít Fulla and the Expressionist Vincent Hložník.
You’ll also be introduced to the Galana Group, a prodigious circle of nine modern Slovak artists that lasted from 1957-1969.
18. Kamzík TV Tower
This peculiar television tower is visible from almost any angle in Bratislava, and if you’re ready to go in for a closer look you’ll have to catch the 201 bus from the centre.
Travelling northwest you’ll go past Slavín, ending up at the base of a wooden park on the Kamzík hill.
After a short walk you’ll be confronted by this 196-metre High-Tech behemoth, erected in 1975. At 70 metres, the observation deck has two eateries, one a casual bistro and the other an upmarket restaurant.
Both afford spellbinding panoramas of the city, and you can see Austria, Hungary and even as far as the Czech Republic from this height.
19. Sad Janka Kráľa
In the Petržalka borough right across the Danube on the Most SNP is the oldest public park in Europe, plotted in 1774-1776. Thanks to its age the park abounds with mature trees, and the willows, poplars, maples and ash trees planted in groups along specific paths in the 18th century.
These are joined by ginkgo bilobas, dawn redwoods and a gigantic 200-year-old plane tree.
But the park’s unforgettable feature is the Gothic gazebo.
This is the upper section of Bratislava’s 15th-century Franciscan church tower, brought here after the church was rebuilt at the turn of the century.
20. Statues in the Old Town
Bringing some whimsy to the centre of Bratislava is a series of creative statues in unexpected places.
The most photographed of these is Cumil, at the junction of Laurinská and Panská Streets.
He’s a cheeky-looking sewer worker poking out of a manhole with his chin resting on his arms.
What he’s doing here isn’t explained; Cumil could either be an unmotivated communist-era worker taking a break, or might even be trying to look up women’s skirts…
In the main square beneath the Old Town Hall there’s a friendly Napoleonic soldier leaning over a bench, while on Sedlárska Street is Schone Naci.
He represents Ignac Lamar, a Pressburg citizen in the 19th century who is said to have lost his mind because of an unrequited love.
21. Bratislava Transport Museum
This attraction is on Šancová Street, inside the hall of Bratislava’s first railway station and next to the city’s main transport hub.
The first steam locomotive pulled into this station in 1848, and the rails and platforms have been kept as they were, along with a small set of steam engines.
As for cars, there’s an exciting relic from the Soviet era in the form of a ZIL-115 limousine, the preferred mode of transport for the communist elite in the 70s and 80s.
Most of the car collection is Czech-made and boasts vintage Pragas, Tatras and of course Škodas going back to the beginning of the 20th century.
The core of the motorbike exhibition dates to the 1920s and 30s, and includes Indians , BMWs, Ogars and a Harley Davidson.
22. Slovak National Theatre
The title, Slovak National Theatre refers to both the Neo-Renaissance opera house on Hviezdoslav Square, and a modern hall beside the Danube that was inaugurated in 2007. The two venues are managed by the same body, and both stage opera, ballet and theatre performances.
At the newer building you have the benefits of superlative acoustics, extra leg-room and a higher capacity.
The old hall has resplendent architecture from the Imperial days in the 1890s, and was designed by the Austrians Fellner & Helmer, responsible for hundreds of new buildings across Europe in this period.
The muse, Thalia who crowns the facade was sculpted by the acclaimed Theodor Friedl, and there’s an elegant fountain with a statue of Ganymede in front.
23. Botanical Garden of the Comenius University
Open only from April 1 to October 31, the botanical garden is some way west of the centre of Bratislava on the left bank of the Danube.
Even though the garden is off the tourist trail, many visitors come to revel in the colours and fragrances in summer, when 120 rose species growing in the rosarium are in bloom.
There are also large greenhouses containing a cactus garden, orchids, an Australian garden and other varieties of tropical and subtropical plants like ferns and palms.
Outside, the garden has azaleas, rhododendrons and itemised collections of deciduous and coniferous trees.
24. Chatam Sofer Memorial
A site of real meaning to people of the Jewish faith is at the western foot of Bratislava Castle.
It is the burial place of Moses Sofer, one of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis in Europe in the 19th century and a noted anti-reform voice.
He established a yeshiva (religious school) in Pressburg, which became the most influential in Europe and educated dozens of Jewish spiritual leaders.
The cemetery he was buried in was damaged in the 1940s, but the site was restored in the 1990s and a modern memorial was erected around Chatam Sofer’s grave.
Visits have to be arranged in advance via the Bratislava Jewish community.
On the left bank of the Danube in the southeast of the city, Bratislava’s former industrial district has been totally revitalised.
The symbol of this shiny new quarter is Eurovea, a large mixed-use development combining homes, shopping and entertainment.
The first phase was completed in 2010, when the Eurovea Galleria Mall opened its doors, together with a casino, cinema, pool and gym.
Anyone hankering for some big brand shopping will be pleased with the choice of mid-market and luxury names like H&M, Lacoste, Guess, Armani, Marks & Spencer, Adidas and Mango.
In front of the development are lawns and a new promenade on the Danube.