Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia and, with a population of about 427,000, also the country’s largest city. Bratislava is in southwestern Slovakia on both banks of the Danube River. Bordering Austria and Hungary, it is the only national capital that borders two countries. It and Vienna are also two of Europe’s closest national capitals, at less than 60 kilometres (37 mi) apart.
Bratislava is the political, cultural and economic centre of Slovakia. It is the seat of the Slovak president, the parliament, and the executive branch of the government. It is home to several universities, museums, theatres, galleries and other important economic, cultural, and educational institutions. The headquarters of many of Slovakia’s large businesses and financial institutions are in Bratislava as well.
The city was the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary under the Habsburg Monarchy from 1536 to 1783. Bratislava (then Pressburg) was home to many Slovak, including the Slovak National Movement, Hungarian and German historical figures.
Bratislava has a very pleasant medieval inner city with tiny, narrow winding streets, surrounded by the biggest concrete block house complex (called “panelak”, with blocks of flats; see Prague chapter for information about panelaks) in Central Europe called Petržalka that stretches on endlessly. So far, this looks no different from Prague.
But Bratislava is an exception. It’s so close to Vienna, it could practically be a suburb. Move further east and there are plenty of rural places. Farms, vineyards, agricultural land and tiny villages are situated just about 50 kilometers to the east of Bratislava, just like in the case of Vienna or Prague. Today, Bratislava and its surroundings form the second most prosperous region in Central and Eastern Europe, with a per capita GDP of around 129.3% of the EU-25 average (after Prague).
Bratislava is situated in southwest Slovakia, within the Bratislava Region. Its location on the borders with Austria and Hungary makes it the only national capital that borders two countries. It is only 62 kilometres (38.5 mi) from the border with the Czech Republic and only 60 kilometres (37 mi) from the Austrian capital Vienna.
The city has a total area of 367.58 square kilometres (141.9 sq mi), making it the second-largest city in Slovakia by area (after the township of Vysoké Tatry). Bratislava straddles the Danube River, which crosses the city from the west to the south-east. The Middle Danube basin begins at Devín Gate in western Bratislava.
Other rivers are the Morava River, which forms the north-western border of the city and enters the Danube at Devín, the Little Danube, and the Vydrica, which enters the Danube in the borough of Karlova Ves. The Carpathian mountain range begins in city territory with the Little Carpathians (Malé Karpaty). The Záhorie and Danubian lowlands stretch into Bratislava.
Bratislava lies in the north temperate zone and has a continental climate with four distinct seasons. It is often windy with a marked variation between hot summers and cold, humid winters. The city is in one of the warmest and driest parts of Slovakia. Recently, the transitions from winter to summer and summer to winter have been rapid, with short autumn and spring periods. Snow occurs less frequently than previously. Some parts of Bratislava, particularly Devín and Devínska Nová Ves, are vulnerable to floods from the Danube and Morava rivers. New flood protection is being built on both banks.
Bratislava’s M. R. Stefanik International Airport (IATA: BTS) (ICAO: LZIB), has focused on attracting low-cost airlines recently and there are direct flight connections to Bratislava from many major cities around western Europe including London, Manchester, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam and Prague (which is now considered by many a major European city). Check out Sky Europe Airlines for the greatest variety of flights from/to Bratislava. Ryanair also has regular flights. Take bus No 61 (or N61 at night) for a direct connection to the Main Train Station (Hlavná stanica) or change at the Trnavské mýto to get to the city center (in order to get to the tram stop, use the underpass and the exit marked “Centrum”; take any tram that does not have the railway station as destination).
You can purchase bus tickets in the tourist office in the arrivals terminal but they have only limited working hours. If the tourist office is closed, note that you will need Slovak coins in order to purchase a ticket in the vending machine. Be aware that the airport shops and kiosks are not very helpful when it comes to changing bills into coins.
The easiest way to get to Bratislava by train is from central Vienna (the Südbahnhof station or less frequently the Westbahnhof station). Trains leave Vienna almost every 30 minutes. It takes 50 minutes to get from the Südbahnhof to Bratislava – Petržalka railway station situated in the southern residential area of the city, and some 70 minutes to get to the Bratislava – Hlavná stanica (main railway station) situated at the northern border of the city center. A return ticket purchased in Vienna costs 14 Euro for an adult or 7 Euro for a child, and also allows you use of all public transportation in Bratislava (as of April 2008). There is no customs since Slovakia is a member of the EU and Schengen.
There are also many train lines from the Czech Republic (e.g. Prague) and some train lines from Poland, Hungary as well as the Ukraine and Russia that mostly end at the Hlavná stanica. Many bus and tram lines start here. To get to the Old Town, you can either take a bus or tram (No 13 is currently the best connection), or simply walk – which takes about 10 minutes.
Petržalka station is not a particularly good position for getting around, but generally it is better and quicker to get off at the Petržalka station and use the public transportation system to get to the city center. Take bus No 80 towards Kollárovo námestie from outside the station building. You can also use the underground passageway in the station hall and take any of the numbered buses that leave from the opposite side of the road when you exit. Get off the bus at the first stop after crossing the river for best access to the historic part of town or at the second stop to start you tour at the Presidential Palace. Buses No 91 and No 191 end right below the Nový most bridge and directly in the city center, below Bratislava Castle and St. Martin’s Cathedral. There are several other train stations in Bratislava but international travelers rarely have to get off the train at any of them.
The Central Coach Terminal is at Mlynské nivy, at the eastern border of the city center. Coach lines connect Bratislava with all of Slovakia, a high number of Czech cities and a number of EU destinations, including Vienna, London and Paris. Daily buses also depart to Budapest. Take bus No 210 to get to the main railway station (Hlavná stanica). If you need to get to city center, take bus No 205 or 220 to Rajská (the terminus is behind the Tesco at Kamenné námestie) or No 50 towards Aupark and get off at Šafárikovo námestie (close to the banks of the river Danube).
Regular tourist boat lines operate on the Danube from spring through fall on routes from Vienna and Budapest. You can find routes and schedules here. Since June 2006 you can get to Vienna using a high speed ferry boat as well, yet the rates are rather high compared to other means of transport. A good travel option is to continue down the Danube to Budapest by hydrofoil, a trip only moderately more expensive than the train.
Bratislava lies on the border of two other countries and has a rather good road system. The town can be accessed by motorways (i.e. limited access highway) from northern Slovakia and Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary as well as Austria. As a result, you can pass the town without having to leave a motorway.
If you do want to stay, a parking information system is in place to lead you to the next free parking spot in the city. In the center of town you either can use one of the paid underground garages or buy a parking card from vendors in yellow vests and try to find a free spot in the streets. A parking card costs 10 SKK and is valid in the center of the city for 60 minutes on weekdays from 7AM to 5PM only. Parking on the streets is free otherwise.
Nonetheless it may be a good idea to leave the car at the Aupark parking lot which also serves as a “Park and Walk” facility for tourists (note that the indoor parking facilities are closed from 11pm to 6am, the outdoor parking space is free to use 24/7). You can leave your car here and walk through the park and across the Danube to the city center, which is a 10 minute stroll, or just use public transportation. It is not recommended to leave the car in residential areas outside of the city center to avoid paid parking, as foreign cars may attract car thieves.
The cityscape of Bratislava is characterized by medieval towers and grandiose 20th century buildings, but has undergone profound changes in a construction boom at the start of the 21st century.
Most historical buildings are concentrated in the Old Town. Bratislava’s Town Hall is a complex of three buildings erected in the 14th–15th centuries and now hosts the Bratislava City Museum. Michael’s Gate is the only gate that has been preserved from the medieval fortifications, and it ranks among the oldest of the town’s buildings; the narrowest house in Europe is nearby. The University Library building, erected in 1756, was used by the Diet (parliament) of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1802 to 1848. Much of the significant legislation of the Hungarian Reform Era (such as the abolition of serfdom and the foundation of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) was enacted there.
The historic centre is characterised by many baroque palaces. The Grassalkovich Palace, built around 1760, is now the residence of the Slovak president, and the Slovak government now has its seat in the former Archiepiscopal Palace. In 1805, diplomats of emperors Napoleon and Francis II signed the fourth Peace of Pressburg in the Primate’s Palace, after Napoleon’s victory in the Battle of Austerlitz. Some smaller houses are historically significant; composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born in an 18th century house in the Old Town.
Notable cathedrals and churches include the Gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral built in the 13th–16th centuries, which served as the coronation church of the Kingdom of Hungary between 1563 and 1830. The Franciscan Church, dating to the 13th century, has been a place of knighting ceremonies and is the oldest preserved sacral building in the city. The Church of St. Elisabeth, better known as the Blue Church due to its colour, is built entirely in the Art Nouveau style.
A curiosity is the underground (formerly ground-level) restored portion of the Jewish cemetery where 19th century Rabbi Moses Sofer is buried, located at the base of the castle hill near the entrance to a tram tunnel. The only military cemetery in Bratislava is Slavín, unveiled in 1960 in honour of Soviet Army soldiers who fell when liberating Bratislava from German troops. It offers an excellent view of the city and the Little Carpathians.
Other prominent 20th century structures include the Nový Most (New Bridge) across the Danube featuring a UFO-like tower restaurant, Slovak Radio’s inverted pyramid-shaped headquarters, and the uniquely designed Kamzík TV Tower with an observation deck and rotating restaurant. In the early 21st century, new edifices have transformed the traditional cityscape. The construction boom has spawned new public buildings, such as the Most Apollo and a new building of the Slovak National Theatre, as well as private real-estate development.
One of the most prominent structures in the city is Bratislava Castle, on a plateau 85 metres (279 ft) above the Danube. The castle hill site has been inhabited since the transition period between the Stone and Bronze ages and has been the acropolis of a Celtic town, part of the Roman Limes Romanus, a huge Slavic fortified settlement, and a political, military and religious centre for Great Moravia.
A stone castle was not constructed until the 10th century, when the area was part of the Kingdom of Hungary. The castle was converted into a Gothic anti-Hussite fortress under Sigismund of Luxemburg in 1430, became a Renaissance castle in 1562, and was rebuilt in 1649 in the baroque style. Under Queen Maria Theresa, the castle became a prestigious royal seat. In 1811, the castle was inadvertently destroyed and lay in ruins until the 1950s, when it was rebuilt mostly in its former Theresan style.
The ruined and recently renovated Devín Castle is in Devín, on top of a rock where the Morava River, which forms the border between Austria and Slovakia, enters the Danube. It is one of the most important Slovak archaeological sites, and contains a museum dedicated to its history. Due to its strategic location, Devín Castle was a very important frontier castle of Great Moravia and the early Hungarian state. It was destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in 1809. It is an important symbol of Slovak and Slavic history.
Rusovce mansion, with its English park, is in the Rusovce borough. The house was originally built in the 17th century and was turned into an English neo-Gothic-style mansion in 1841–1844. The borough is also known for the ruins of the Roman military camp Gerulata, part of Limes Romanus, a border defence system. Gerulata was built and used between the 1st and 4th centuries AD.
Due to its location at the foothills of the Little Carpathians and its riparian vegetation on the Danubian floodplains, Bratislava has forests close to the city centre. The total amount of public green space is 46.8 square kilometres (18.1 sq mi), or 110 square metres (1,200 sq ft) per inhabitant. The largest city park is Horský park (literally, Mountainous Park), in the Old Town. Bratislavský lesný park (Bratislava Forest Park) is located in the Little Carpathians and includes many locales popular among visitors, such as Železná studienka and Koliba.
The Forest Park covers an area of 27.3 square kilometres (10.5 sq mi), of which 96% is forested, and contains original flora and fauna such as European badgers, red foxes and mouflons. On the right bank of the Danube, in the borough of Petržalka, is Janko Krá? Park founded in 1774–76. A new city park is planned for Petržalka between the Malý Draždiak and Ve?ký Draždiak lakes.
Bratislava’s zoological park is located in Mlynská dolina, near the headquarters of Slovak Television. The zoo, founded in 1960, currently houses 152 species of animals, including the rare white lion and white tiger. The Botanical Gardens, which belong to Comenius University, can be found on the Danube riverfront, and house more than 120 species of domestic, foreign, and exotic origin.
The city has a number of natural and man-made lakes, most of which are used for recreation. Examples include Štrkovec lake in Ružinov, Kuchajda in Nové Mesto, Zlaté Piesky and the Vajnory lakes in the north-east, and Rusovce lake in the south, which is popular with nudists.
Generally, Bratislava is a walking city. The center is very small and cozy and you can easily walk from one side to another in several minutes. The city center is a pedestrian area but be aware of cyclists and occasional cars that use to drive rather quickly in between the walking people and outdoor cafes.
Major Tourist Attractions:
- St. Martin’s cathedral (Dóm sv. Martina)
- St Clare’s Church (Kostol sv. Kláry) On Klariská Str.
- Church of the Annunciation (Kostol Zvestovania / Františkáni / Františkánsky kostol).
- Church of the Holy Savior (Kostol Najsvätejšieho Spasitel’a)
- Bratislava Castle (Bratislavský hrad)
- Slavín On the top of the hill behind the castle, overlooking the entire city, this is a monument in memory of Soviet casualties in the liberation battle of Bratislava in WW2. It is actually a cemetery and thus rather quiet with good outlook at the city. On warm nights it’s a very romantic place, allowing you to sit in the shadows of the monument and looking at the traffic below.
- Roland Fountain (Rolandova fontána) Built by stonecutter Andreas Luttringer and commissioned by Hungarian king Maximilian in 1527, this was the first fountain in Bratislava.
- Primate’s Palace (Primaciálny palác)
- Grassalkovich Palace (Grassalkovi?ov palác)
- Mirbach Palace (Mirbachov palác)
- Palffy Palace (Pálffyho palác)
- Academia Istropolitana
- Slovak National Theatre (Slovenské národné divadlo)
- Michael’s Gate with Tower (Michalská brána)
- Farmaceutické Múzeum (Pharmacological Museum)
- Slovak National Gallery (SNG)
- Bratislava City Gallery (GMB)
- Milan Dobes Museum This small museum features modernist Op-art. It lies in the city center and is recommended to all of you interested in the development of modern art.
- Main Indoor Market (Trznica at Trnavske Myto)
- Obchodná Street
- Slovak National Museum (SNM)
- Bratislava City Museum
- Chatam Sofer Mausoleum and the Jewish Cemetery If you are interested in Jewish life in Bratislava.
- Slovak Radio Building Its main building is a peculiar 60 meter high reversed pyramid from the communist era and a landmark in sharp contrast with the building of the Slovak National Bank just across the sreet.
- The Presidential Palace In proximity to the old town, a nice palace surrounded by a park. In front of it you will see the Slovak National Guard.
- The Blue Church A must-see. A beautiful Jugenstil church.
In 2006, Bratislava had 77 commercial accommodation facilities (of which 45 were hotels) with a total capacity of 9,940 beds. A total of 686,201 visitors, 454,870 of whom were foreigners, stayed overnight. Altogether, visitors made 1,338,497 overnight stays. However, a considerable share of visits is made by those who visit Bratislava for a single day, and their exact number is not known. Largest numbers of foreign visitors come from the Czech Republic, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and Austria.
Among other factors, the growth of low-cost airline flights to Bratislava, led by SkyEurope, has led to conspicuous stag parties, primarily from the UK. While these are a boon to the city’s tourist industry, cultural differences and vandalism have led to concern by local officials.
Bratislava is the cultural heart of Slovakia. Owing to its historical multi-cultural character, local culture is influenced by various ethnic groups, including Germans, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Jews. Bratislava enjoys numerous theatres, museums, galleries, concert halls, cinemas, film clubs, and foreign cultural institutions.
Bratislava is the seat of the Slovak National Theatre, housed in two buildings. The first is a Neo-Renaissance theatre building situated in the Old Town at the end of Hviezdoslav Square. The new building, opened to the public in 2007, is on the riverfront. The theatre has three ensembles: opera, ballet and drama. Smaller theatres include the Bratislava Puppet Theatre, the Astorka Korzo ’90 theatre, the Arena Theatre, L+S Studio, and the Naive Theatre of Radošina.
Music in Bratislava flourished in the 18th century and was closely linked to Viennese musical life. Mozart visited the town at the age of six. Among other notable composers who visited the town were Haydn, Liszt, Bartók and Beethoven, who played his Missa Solemnis for the first time in Bratislava. It is also the birthplace of the composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel.
Bratislava is home to the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. The city hosts several annual festivals, such as the Bratislava Music Festival and Bratislava Jazz Days. The Wilsonic Festival, held annually since 2000, brings dozens of international musical acts to the city each year. During the summer, various musical events take place as part of the Bratislava Cultural Summer. Apart from musical festivals, it is possible to hear music ranging from underground to well known pop stars.
The Slovak National Museum (Slovenské národné múzeum), founded in 1961, has its headquarters in Bratislava on the riverfront in the Old Town, along with the Natural History Museum, which is one of its subdivisions. It is the largest museum and cultural institution in Slovakia. The museum manages 16 specialised museums in Bratislava and beyond.
The Bratislava City Museum (Múzeum mesta Bratislavy), established in 1868, is the oldest museum in continuous operation in Slovakia. Its primary goal is to chronicle Bratislava’s history in various forms from the earliest periods using historical and archaeological collections. It offers permanent displays in eight specialised museums.
The Slovak National Gallery, founded in 1948, offers the most extensive network of galleries in Slovakia. Two displays in Bratislava are next to one another at Esterházy Palace (Esterházyho palác) and the Water Barracks (Vodné kasárne) on the Danube riverfront in the Old Town.
The Bratislava City Gallery, founded in 1961, is the second-largest Slovak gallery of its kind. The gallery offers permanent displays at Pálffy Palace (Pálffyho palác) and Mirbach Palace (Mirbachov palác), in the Old Town. Danubiana Art Museum, one of the youngest art museums in Europe, is near ?unovo waterworks.
The first university in Bratislava and also in the territory of present-day Slovakia was Universitas Istropolitana, founded in 1465 by King Matthias Corvinus. It was closed in 1490 after his death.
Bratislava is the seat of the largest university (Comenius University, 27,771 students), the largest technical university (Slovak University of Technology, 18,473 students), and the oldest art schools (the Academy of Performing Arts and the Academy of Fine Arts and Design) in Slovakia. Other institutions of tertiary education are the public University of Economics and the first private college in Slovakia, City University of Seattle. In total, about 56,000 students attend university in Bratislava.
There are 65 public primary schools, nine private primary schools and ten religious primary schools. Overall, they enroll 25,821 pupils. The city’s system of secondary education (some middle schools and all high schools) consists of 39 gymnasia with 16,048 students, 37 specialized high schools with 10,373 students, and 27 vocational schools with 8,863 students (data as of 2007).
The Slovak Academy of Sciences is also based in Bratislava. However, the city is one of the few European capitals to have neither an observatory nor a planetarium. The nearest observatory is in Modra, 30 kilometres (19 mi) away, and the nearest planetarium is in Hlohovec, 70 kilometres (43 mi) away. CEPIT, the Central European Park For Innovative Technologies, is slated for development in Vajnory. This science and technology park will combine public and private research and educational institutions. Construction is expected to begin in 2008.
Take a stroll through the center of the town. Bratislava has one of the smallest historical centers around but the charm is more concentrated. The streets have been renovated in late 1990′s, bringing life back here. Since then a multitude of cafes, bars and restaurants of all kinds have opened here, accompanied by a few souvenir shops and fashion stores. In warm days almost every cafe has an outdoor section in the street, boasting with life and giving the city a unique feeling of cozyness.
When it comes to sightseeing, Bratislava castle may be a must but try visiting the Slavin memorial for some really nice views of the city. Beware, it can get really windy up there. If you want to feel safe, try climbing up the steep stairwells of the clock tower and see the town’s historical dungeons at the City Museum located in the Old Town Hall.
In December, be sure to indulge in the scents and flavors of the traditional Christmas Market in front of the Old Town Hall. The market compared to the ones in Prague and Vienna is smaller but has a friendlier, almost family-like atmosphere and people of Bratislava love to meet here for a drink and a bite.
In summer, you can also vist the Bratislava ZOO, providing a nice walk between the paddocks, the latest addition being some rare white tigers. The facilities of the zoo are being slowly renovated to attract a bigger crowd and the zoo is a favorite for families on sunny days. You can also go to the Botanical Gardens of Comenius University (Botanická 3, take trams No 1, 4, 5, 9 or 12 to stop Botanicka zahrada) for quiet and peacful strolls in the greens.
For a relaxed afternoon in the park, head either to the Sad Janka Krá?a park (on the right hand side bank of the Danube and next to Aupark shopping centre}, one of the oldest parks in central Europe, relax at the embankments on both sides of the river or head to the Horský park (Forest Park) north off Slavin memorial for a civilized stroll through the forest. There’s a small café here as well as a pub, the latter mostly populated by students from the nearby campus. For a more outdoorsy experience, hop on bus No 203/213 to Koliba and walk up to Kamzík (takes about 30 minutes uphill) or try the newly renovated facilities of Partizánska lúka and Snežienka, all with extensive picknicking areas and loads of fireplaces for grilling.
The area is several kilometers long and you can either walk here from the terminal station of bus No 212 (Vojenska nemocnica) or take a bus to Patronka and use bus No 43 driving up the area and back every 15-30 minutes (depending of time of day, year as well as weather).
Only cars with a permit can enter the area but there is a parking lot at the entrance, close to a bus stop. Snezienka’s grass fields and the top of Kamzik hill are connected with a chairlift, operating Thursdays through Sundays and on holidays.
Czech and Slovak are the de-facto official languages of Bratislava. Both languages are very similar and mutually intelligible to a wide extent, leading foreigners to assume incorrectly that they are dialects of each other. Both are universally understood, as Czech and Slovaks have historically understood each other without the need of a translator. Russian is also widely understood, and, overall, more people speak Russian as a foreign language than English. However, learning either Czech or Slovak (even if it’s just a few phrases) will surely endear the locals.
Bratislava is generally very safe by European and American standards, safer than most Western European cities, because it is quite small and criminality is low. There is a significant police presence in the city, especially the historical parts, and it is generally not a problem to walk through the city at night. However, walking alone in the suburbs after dark is not recommended.