Where To Go If For Some Reason You Happen To Find Yourself In Bratislava: Guest Post by Laura Baranik

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!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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

Siem Reap Siem Reap Siem Reap

When we booked our Thailand trip, we added a few days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, because I figured as long as we were so close I couldn’t not see Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. I imagined that the temples would be the main draw of Siem Reap, and I’d mostly vibe with Thailand. TURNS OUT Siem Reap was my favorite part of the trip after Phang Nga Elephant Park.

First of all, Cambodia uses the American dollar as currency (along with their native riel) so the exchange rate was so obviously nuts. The amount of things that cost “one dollar one dollar one dollar” was surreal. An entire fresh pineapple or coconut, for example.

In Thailand and Cambodia we stuck to hotels rather than Air BnBs because hotels were SO cheap and felt easier to navigate with any sort of language barrier. Our little villa was part of the Angkor Spirit Palace – just close enough to the city and the temples to make tuk tuk rides unbelievably cheap, but not one of the giant resorts (which are a thing. I was not expecting giant resorts, and their proximity to the literal huts that locals lived in was especially wild). It came with hotel cats which is always a plus for me.

Angkor Spirit Palace set us up with a tuk tuk driver, Mao, for our stay. He picked us up from the super clean and lovely Siem Reap airport to begin, and from then on out we told him where we wanted to be and when and he arranged all of our rides. It was SILLY how easy this was, and getting to the city was only $2 from the hotel. Our temple DAY cost only $18.

Which brings me to the beginning of the temples! Our first night we climbed Phnom Bakheng (getting to the base via Mao, of course) to see the sunset. It was cloudy so our view was sadly obscured, but the temple itself was still an amazing introduction to the city’s insane history.

Before visiting the temples, you have to purchase a day pass. The sweet thing was that our pass for the next day included the evening before’s sunset visit since that’s such a popular trajectory. KEEP YOUR PASS ON YOU. If you lose this piece of paper you can’t get anywhere close to the main attractions. A lot of tourists had laminated lanyard pouches for them, which honestly was smart.

It’s also good to note that ladies, you must have your knees and shoulders covered. A long skirt or capris will do the trick. I opted for a skirt because of the heat, and carried around a “temple shawl” sheer scarf just in cast my shirts were ever suspect. See above coconut photo.

After the sunset viewing – as much as possible, at least – we hopped into the city for dinner. We told Mao to pick us up at 9pm since we had a 4:30am departure time the next day. More on that in a sec.

We found this totally beautiful French-Cambodian restaurant, Le Malraux, for dinner. I had forgotten that Cambodia was colonized by the French for a while. We vowed to try some traditional purely Cambodian food which we did all over the next day.

This was the first time we ate bread in two weeks. I loved the Thai rice and noodle-based meals, but MAN some fresh bread tastes amazing when you haven’t had it in fourteen days.

The next morning, Mao picked us up at 4:30am, bright eyed and bushy tailed for our sunrise Angkor Wat visit. Okay, so every tourist who ever goes to Siem Reap does a sunrise Angkor Wat visit, and you will feel like you are competing with all of them for a spot on the lake. But this phenomenon was 1000% worth the early hours and swarms of people. Once you get a good spot – I recommend the left bank of the lake, less populated with just as clear a view as the center – watching the sun rise is totally transfixing.

After sunrise, we explored Angkor Wat in the daylight like normal humans. Our day’s temple tour afterwords included Bayon, Phimeanakas, Thommanon, Baphuon, Ta Keo, and Ta Prohm. Angkor Spirit Palace recommends this route as their sunrise day tour, and we were thrilled with it. Chances are, your hotel in Siem Reap has a tour and driver available to recommend when you book your reservation, and Angkor Spirit Palace’s was significantly cheaper than any tour site packages. Plus, Mao packed us breakfast and a case of water (almost all of which we drank. It’s HOT in Cambodia in January).

I matched this local horse and thus bonded with it. Doug, wearing purple, did not match and the horse bit his foot.

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My favorite temple was Ta Prohm, which a big tourist grab since Tomb Raider was filmed there. Another perk of our sunrise tour was that we still arrived early to the temples, beating the midday rush. The colors of Ta Prohm were so gorgeous, and the entire temple has been taken over by massive tree roots. It’s also huge, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get lost exploring which is exactly what I love to do.

It was about 2:00pm when we got back to the hotel, and we were exhausted. Lots of stairs on those temples! We napped HARD before going out to properly explore Siem Reap’s nightlife.

We opted for a traditional dinner of Lamok and Lap Khmer and went for a pub crawl on Pub Street (literally called “Pub Street,” lest we become confused as to where to find the pubs). Drinks, especially beer, were so cheap so we sampled quite a few places. W also indulged in rolled ice cream and taking in the night market sites. Siem Reap felt alive at night in a different way than Phuket. Yes, Siem Reap still housed many tourists, but it felt like the whole city was in on the fun and it wasn’t just a show for the tourists.

During our three days in Siem Reap I certainly felt like we accomplished our list of things to see, but I’d love to go back for another week to visit the outer temples and really become immersed in the city. Maybe I’ll have the guts to try fried cricket next time.

Lisbon Day 5 & Madrid Day 1 ☀️

Free Tapas and Rooftop Terraces

Our last day in Lisbon and first evening in Madrid was mostly a travel day, though the flight between the cities is only a quick hour hop. Shoutout to TAP Portugal airlines for having wildly affordable fares and flights every hour! We grabbed ourselves a 5pm flight, giving us time for a leisurely lunch and walk along the waterfront (with a final nata pit stop on the way back). A 10 Euro taxi took us and our carryons to the airport, and we were off. By magical perfect city, bye Vicente and the slightly-too-hot Air BnB room. Hola Madrid! 💃🏻🕺🏻

Our Madrid pad was a DREAM. It was beautifully centrally located and came with a lovely outdoor terrace for Spanish evening musings. Our hosts, Michael and Miguel (I’m not kidding) gave us more recommendations than we knew what to do with. With those and our Google Maps starred up, we were READY. Our first stop was a favorite tapas place of M & M’s a block away from the apartment called El Mollete. It was tiny, authentic, and tested my Spanish vocab just enough. I’m almost disappointed when too many people in foreign countries speak English and I can’t work on the language. Anyone else feel this way? Just me?

 


Regardless, we learned that food in Madrid was a bit pricier than Lisbon, but wine and beer were still cheeeeeaaapppp. So that was A+++. M & M’s place was in the heart of Chueca, neighboring Malasaña. These were for sure the two most fun neighborhoods to go out in at night (we later learned that Chueca is the gay neighborhood – at first we just thought Madrid was even more accepting than NYC! Which it still might be, reagardless, fun on fun on fun around here).

After tapas that first night, we wandered Malasaña (a soon-to-become nightly ritual) and ended up at a gin & tonic bar – the national drink of Spain, it turns out! They offered a gin of the week special, and since we were slightly travel tired we just stayed for one before calling it. Next stop, sleeeeeeep.

We began our first full day in Madrid by checking out the Royal Palace and Temple of Debod which were both SO close to the apartment. The Temple was a gift from the Egyptian government, and definitely didn’t look like anything else we’d seen in the area. I also just love the idea of one country giving a whole other country a gift. Like France, for example, I see you with Lady Liberty. Solid move, guys.

For lunch part 1, we hit up the Mercado San Miguel, which is a open-stall market in a big warehouse a la Time Out Lisbon. We found some little empanadas, and left pretty promptly because it was swamped. Here’s a photo from Spain Attractions since I was too overwhelmed to remember to photograph.1838E4A2-B969-481C-8982-F1886050A17F-4235-000006B8A7F1E6B3.jpeg

Picture this, but with 1000x the amount of people.

Next, we wandered to Chocolateria San Gines for some churros con chocolate. These churros are actually savory compared to the Mexican churros we’re used to in the States, hence the rich DIPPING CHOCOLATE that you can then DRINK afterwords. HI HEAVEN, FANCY MEETING YOU HERE.

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My Double9 Duck is seeing Madrid’s finest.

We continued towards a *legit* tapas bar off of one of Madrid’s many pequeño side streets. What makes it so legit, you ask? Well traditionally, tapas are served for ~free~ with the purchase of a vino or cerveza. Apparently the more you drink, the bigger the plates get, which is all kinds of exciting. At El Tigre we each opted for one pint of beer and were given a LARGE plate of bread, Spanish ham, and cheese. If you’re lunching on a budged, these tapas bars are the way to go! Here’s a list of some of the best bars with said deals:

  • El Tigre (our fav and a local hangout)
  • Taberna La Tia Cebolla
  • La Paloma Blanca (beer isn’t cheap, but portions are massive)
  • Petisqueria
  • Indalo Tapas
  • El Rincon Abulense
  • El Respiro (very close to El Tigre, if El Tigre is full pop on here, or make it stop one and two of your afternoon tapas crawl!)
  • La Pequeña Grana – we didn’t actually make it here, but it’s in Granada so if you’re jonsing for some tapas in the area, check it out!

After our Tapas we strolled to the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum to sample some art from the 13th-late 20th centuries. We spent a solid two hours touring the floors, so make sure you give yourself some buffer room if you visit (which I recommend you do!) We saved the big museums, the Prado and the Reina Sofia, for the next day, and were very glad we didn’t try to cram three giant halls’ worth of art into one day. The brain can only take in so much culture no matter how Spanish and impressive it is, ja feel?

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Just look at those peachy majestic walls and tell me you don’t want to spend multiple hours here.
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And here we are INSIDE one of the Thyssen’s masterpieces, because why not?

Finally, we took a siesta because, duh, and afterwords began our evening at the Dear Hotel’s gorgeous rooftop terrace bar. (Funny story, when we were waiting to be able to go up to the roof a server asked if we were being helped, and instead of saying we were waiting for the terraza, I said “terreza” which is not a thing but he took it as we were waiting for our amiga Tereza and I was embarrased trying to explain that.)

When we were finally let onto the terraza, we each had orangey-wheaty crisp, delicious beers and watched the sun set over the many old and cobblestoned (again with the cobblestones!) streets. If you’re in Madrid during nice weather, definitely hit up the Dear Hotel for at least one sunset. Plus, you’ll be excellently positioned to explore the Chueca and Malasaña nightlife once you’re done.

We did just that, popping into one of the only restaurants that could take us sans-reservation on a Saturday night. The more you know: if you’re planning on eating in one of the more popular Madridian neighborhoods on the weekend, make a rez! Restraurants in Chueca were booked for the whole night, but we took note of places we walked past for our later meals.

Finally, we had a nightcap at 1862 Drybar, a Malasaña haunt we’d seen wandering the previous night. I ordered a dragon-themed cocktail to stay on brand that came with a heat warning, and though it sadly didn’t make me breathe fire, it was a taste bud wake up call for SURE. A short jaunt back to casa M&M ended our first full day.

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