So you’re in Central Europe for a limited time only and you want to hit the hottest of the Austro-Hungarian hot spots. These are, inarguably, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. (If you want to be really cool, you’ll throw Český Krumlov into the mix, too.) Guess which capital city hasn’t reached the top of the tourist charts? I’ll tell you, since you’ve probably never heard of it: Bratislava, the forlorn little Slovak town that – at just 35 miles away – is the schlumpy suburb to big, beautiful Vienna.
But wait! People DO visit Bratislava! Most of them are just taking an involuntary pit stop on the Danube river cruise between Vienna and Budapest, but still – I’ve occasionally even caught them enjoying themselves!
Ok, I’m a (semi-) local, so like any good Slav, I can get a little cynical. In all seriousness, though, there are so many Bratislava spots I love that I had a hard time deciding what to put on this list. Here are the ones that made the cut*:
Korzo: You won’t find “korzo” on a map, but ask any Bratislavan and they’ll tell you – it’s the stretch of pedestrian-only cobblestone streets leading from Michalská Brána (Michael’s Gate), past the main square, and over to Hviezdoslavovo Square, the long plaza at the foot of the National Theatre. On summer nights, the korzo heaves with outdoor restaurants and bars, live music, and swarms of ice-cream-carrying promenaders. Follow the masses – and the green laser pointers.
Kontakt: A non-tourist-trap island in an ocean of korzo tourist traps. No-frills seasonal local and international food, plus craft beer on tap and outdoor seating for people-watching purposes. Try the chicken paprikáš with (their words, not mine) “the best dumplings ever.” Cheap and chill.
Koun: The name of this super-cute artisanal gelateria is the phonetic Slovak spelling of the English word “cone” – so pronounce it that way! Rotating flavors include marzipan, raspberry-mint, and “Sexy Chocolate” (they had me at “sexy”). Take your koun to a bench under the trees on Hviezdoslavovo Square.
The Blue Church: Of all the supposed must-see Bratislava sights (the bridge, the castle, etc.), the Church of St. Elizabeth – known to everybody as just “the Blue Church” – is the only one that you actually must see, even if it’s slightly outside the old town center. Built during the Secessionist era by Hungarian architect Edmund Lechner, the Blue Church is totally unique, and totally blue.
U Kubistu: Housed in a building designed in the rare Cubist style, this Cubism-themed café is a local favorite and a great place to stop for a meal, coffee, or cocktail after checking out the Blue Church. Creative, healthy-ish food made with local ingredients.
Kompot / Slávica: If you’re looking for souvenirs to bring home, avoid the hideous keychains and folk dolls in the tourist shops along the korzo – most of them were probably made in China, anyway – and support young local designers instead. Kompot sells tasteful souvenir t-shirts bundled into jam jars (kompot means compote, get it?) and Slovak-themed socks, which are clearly super cool because I bought three pairs just for myself. Next door, Slávica showcases Slovak and Czech design items, including jewelry, home decor, and traditional linen blueprint.
Urban House: With its couches, cold brew, and avocado toast, this sprawling coffee shop is more Brooklyn than Bratislava. But it’s the perfect place to go if you need to get work done while you travel – the coffee is bangin’ and they’ll let you hang out and use the wi-fi for as long as you want. (Two sister branches, Urban Space and Urban Bistro, are nearby.)
Buchtáreň: Originally a food stand, this little shop serves a Slovak specialty that you’d normally be hard-pressed to find outside your grandma’s house: hand-made buchty. Imagine a fluffier version of a steamed bao bun, filled with jam or Nutella and decorated with as many toppings as you want – poppy seeds, powdered sugar, cocoa, hot melted butter… YUM. MY.
Stará Tržnica (Old Market): The area in and around the vaulted Old Market Hall has become something of a scene, with a small cluster of food trucks outside the main doors and a colorful new minibrewery pub (Výčap u Ernöho) attracting customers both day and night. On Saturdays, the hall has a farmer’s market, where you can eat a hot lokša (potato crêpe) slathered in duck fat. You didn’t come here to diet, did you?
KC Dunaj: Drink with the cool kids at this multi-level “cultural center,” accessed through the back-alley service entrance of a Communist relic department store. There’s a beer bar on the ground floor and a greasy club in the basement, but don’t get stuck downstairs: take the freight elevator up to the roof bar and have a borovička (juniper brandy) with a spectacular view of the city. The top floor doubles as a gallery and event space, so you might find anything from a board game night to a live Balkan band. Just go with it.
City Walls: Take an evening to explore the other side of Old Town. Turn off busy Venturská Street and follow Prepoštská westwards through the iron gate and up the shallow stone steps. At the top is Úzka (Narrow) Street, which runs alongside the last remaining section of Bratislava’s medieval city fortification walls. You might stop for an evening tea or a glass of wine at the tiny outdoor Tea Bar before wandering the wall’s pathway and crossing the pedestrian bridge over the highway to Židovská Street. The steep paths on the hill leading up to the castle are dotted with bars and pubs, and once you stumble your way to the top, you’ll be rewarded with an epic view over the Danube, and Austria beyond.
Alas, that view will necessarily include the Nový Most, also known as the UFO Bridge and perhaps Bratislava’s most recognizable landmark. Ugly-architecture fetishists may find the gargantuan 1960s-style flying saucer and mass of steel cables enthralling, but I prefer to keep the spaceship at a distance: without it, Bratislava would be much less the red-headed stepchild to Vienna and Prague that it is today. In order to build the bridge and its adjoining highway, the Communist government razed a huge section of the city center, permanently erasing the centuries-old Jewish Quarter and its famous synagogue and slicing a deep, deadening gash between Bratislava’s castle and the Old Town. Looking at that self-righteous monstrosity just makes me sad, you know?
Anyway. Has the cranky Slav convinced you to visit Bratislava yet? Trust me, it might not be such a bad idea to check it out sometime. Even of your own free will.
*I did my research during the summer, so some of these are season-specific.
Laura Baranik is a writer, editor, and actor based in New York City. For two years, she was the head restaurant critic for the Czech daily newspaper Lidové Noviny, in collaboration with her own (now-defunct) food blog, The Prague Spoon. She also wrote monthly lifestyle and humor columns in the Czech-language edition of InStyle magazine and the Prague street mag Think Again, as well as occasional op-eds and features for Lidové Noviny and its supplemental magazine, Pátek. In 2017, two of Laura’s poems were included in the book New York City Haiku, published by The New York Times and Universe/Rizzoli. She is currently planning the launch of a new, NYC-oriented writing project. http://www.laurabaranik.com