Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, lies astride the mighty River Danube. Perhaps one of Europe’s more relaxed cities, it offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy a short break in charming and interesting surroundings without feeling the need to race around ticking off all of the famous sights, as in some cities.
Bratislava was known as Pressburg to German-speakers and got its present name only 90 years ago but the city has a history that dates back to pre-Roman times. The hillsides on the edge of the city have been home to vineyards for centuries, and in the city itself the city’s fascinating history is reflected in an impressive range of architecture, languages and cuisine.
One of the main tourist sights is Bratislava Castle. Situated on a hill above the old town, the castle dominates the city of Bratislava. The castle hill was populated as early as the late Stone Age; its first known inhabitants were the Celts, who founded a fortified settlement here called ‘Oppidum’. Visitors can walk or take a short bus ride up to the castle, which currently hosts temporary historical exhibitions and from whose ramparts you can see nearby Hungary, Austria and the Danube valley.
Another attraction for visitors is the Grassalkovich Palace, built in 1760 for the chairman of the Hungarian Royal Chamber and advisor to Empress Maria Theresa, Count Anton Grassalkovich. The palace is now the official residence of the President of the SlovakRepublic. Behind the palace is a handsome park which offers a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city. It contains a statue of the Empress Maria Theresa on horseback, the Fountain of Youth by prominent Slovak sculptor Tibor Bártfay, and avant-garde statues by contemporary artists.
The River Danube is, of course, one of the city’s main assets. There are several cafés along its banks, within walking distance of the centre. The pedestrian decks of the New and Old Bridges are good places to watch the river traffic, including huge Danube barges, glide past. The New Bridge – also known as the SNPBridge, after the Slovak National Uprising – is perhaps the city’s most distinctive structure. The restaurant on top of the bridge offers superb views of the river and the city and a very unusual dining experience.
In the 1960s some of the old town, including almost all of the ancient Jewish quarter was bulldozed to allow construction of the new bridge. The remaining old town is full of charming buildings, in a range of styles, most of which have been diligently restored since 1989. They are perhaps best appreciated simply by wandering through its pedestrianised streets and courtyards and pausing to enjoy a coffee and to watch the world go by from a street café.
Lesser known than most European capital cities, Bratislava is nevertheless well worth considering as a great value short break destination.