How to visit Bratislava, the fascinating, forgotten crossroads of Europe

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is located in the extreme south-west of the country – AMKOPhotography

Sitting in the Mirror Bar at the Carlton Hotel, knocking back a shot of Borovicka, the strong local liqueur, I am struck by a sudden surge of déjà vu – which is strange, because this is my first time in Bratislava.

Then I down another shot, and I understand why this strange location feels so familiar. This old fashioned cocktail bar, with its polite, eccentric bartenders, is like a scene from one of my favorite movies, Wes Anderson’s homage to Mitteleuropa, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Carlton Hotel's Mirror Bar specializes in creative cocktailsThe Carlton Hotel's Mirror Bar specializes in creative cocktails

The Carlton Hotel’s Mirror Bar specializes in creative cocktails – Mirror Bar

A film like Anderson’s dream was not set in Bratislava, but nowhere else is its surreal environment better than this drinking den, cocooned within this grand hotel. Like Bratislava itself, the Carlton Hotel has seen its ups and downs, from the 19th century to the 21st century, from capitalism to communism and back again.

Situated mainly on the Danube, Bratislava has always been at the mercy of the rival empires of Central Europe. Before railways and motorways, the Danube was the continent’s main thoroughfare, and traffic between Vienna and Budapest was controlled by the ruler of Bratislava.

As a result, every European depot occupied by the Hungarians, Austrians, Germans and Russians was awarded a prize. Until the end of the First World War, it was part of the Habsburg Empire. Between the wars it was part of independent Czechoslovakia.

During the Second World War it was the capital of Slovakia under the control of the Nazis. After the Second World War it was part of Czechoslovakia under Soviet control. When Czechoslovakia threw off the Soviet yoke in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, it once again became part of independent Czechoslovakia. And then in 1993’s Velvet Divorce, it finally became the capital of independent Slovakia.

Living here through all these changes must be no fun at all – but if you’re a visitor, Bratislava’s turbulent history is fascinating. From baroque palaces to bourgeoise villas, from communist apartment blocks to shiny new skyscrapers, every era has left its mark on the city.

There are many beautiful sights in BratislavaThere are many beautiful sights in Bratislava

There are many beautiful viewpoints in Bratislava – Crot production

The best place to start a tour of Bratislava is its mighty hilltop castle. The main building is a medieval building, but the foundations date back to Roman times. There is an excellent museum inside, covering the castle’s long and complicated history, but the best view is under this rugged fortress. From these breezy ramparts you look down on the beautiful Old Town below, the Belle Époque suburbs, the rugged outskirts and the wooded hills beyond. Swimming through it all is the magnificent Danube, which stretches all the way from the Black Forest to the Black Sea.

A more modern vantage point is the UFO Tower, which looms over the busy road bridge on the other side of the river. Built in 1972, its futuristic design now seems absurdly dated. It wasn’t supposed to be like a flying saucer, but somehow the irreverent nickname stuck.

Today it is a tourist attraction, a nostalgic relic of antiquity. The indoor restaurant is quite formal, but if you don’t want a sit-down meal you can buy a ticket for the outdoor observation deck above.

Bratislava is a sprawling city of half a million inhabitants, but the pedestrian center is compact and easy to explore on foot. It is pleasant rather than spectacular, an attractive mishmash of architectural styles, from Rococo to Art Nouveau.

There are some drab remnants of the communist era, but most of the Old Town has been beautifully restored. There are plenty of tourists, but none of the big tour groups you find in Prague.

Take a city tour with PrešporáčikTake a city tour with Prešporáčik

Take a city tour with Prešporáčik – Prešporáčik

Bratislava City Museum gives you a good overview of the city’s medieval heritage, but if you’re more interested in modern history you don’t need to visit a museum. Anyone over the age of 40 has their own story to tell. My guide, Eva, lived through two revolutions here.

As a child, she witnessed the failed uprising of 1968, when Russian troops suppressed attempts to liberalize the Soviet system. As a young mother, in 1989, she joined a new generation of brave protesters. Incredibly, this time they succeeded.

The Soviet Union collapsed, and Bratislava regained its freedom after half a century of foreign domination. Eva is far too moderate to say that, but it was people like her who changed the course of history without accepting it.

But there is more to Bratislava than history lessons. A vibrant modern city with a lively nightlife, and a wide range of stylish cocktail bars, at night it is seductive and a little spooky, a perfect setting for a film noir.

Stanislav and Peter from the Mirror Bar took me on a night trip, to the rooftop Sky Bar to drink in the amazing views across the city, then on to the Antique American Bar, a debonair hideaway straight out of a Graham Greene short story or Ernest Hemingway.

We ended up at Michalska, a cozy misery behind an unmarked door, a Narnia for boozy insomniacs. I sank to Bloody Mary and went to bed, to dream of sultry waiters and suave bartenders in white dinner jackets and bow ties.

On my last evening in the city we went out to Eck, a chic modern restaurant with its own winery, surrounded by vineyards, on a hill above the Danube. On the other side is Austria.

The Eck restaurant is located on a hill above the trendy Devín district in BratislavaThe Eck restaurant is located on a hill above the trendy Devín district in Bratislava

The Eck restaurant is located on a hill above the trendy Devín district in Bratislava

You feel that you are in the heart of Europe here, on the border between Slavic and Teutonic life. There are only six tables, and only one setting for dinner. Servers move between the open kitchen and the tables, carrying exquisite small dishes. The tasting menu is not cheap, but I can’t remember the last time I ate such food.

The next morning I walked out to Sky Park, a collection of slender tower blocks designed by the late Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. A new center has sprung up around these iconic buildings. The Old Town is where visitors go to party, but this is where the locals come to work.

I bumped into Tomáš Šajgal, a Slovakian sommelier with his own wine shop and bistro, Mad Wines. Eating brunch together in his smart little shop, it was hard to believe that this entrepreneurial capital was ever communist.

I spent my last few hours in Bratislava wandering around the art galleries. I started at Nedbalka, a private gallery on a quiet side street on the edge of the Old Town. Its impressive collection of Slovak art stretches from the late 1800s to the late 1900s, reflecting the great horror that emerged in that turbulent century, and the heroic artists who fought against the status quo.

I ended up at the Slovak National Gallery, a large modern building on the sea. There was more Slovak art inside, but what caught my attention were the visiting school children. They looked so happy and excited, and their happiness and excitement was contagious.

I thought Bratislava would be a nice place to grow up in today – so different from when my guide Eva was at school here, behind the Iron Curtain, and you had to be careful with what you said if you didn’t get into trouble.

Bratislava married several architectural styles including Rococo and Art NouveauBratislava married several architectural styles including Rococo and Art Nouveau

Bratislava married several architectural styles including Rococo and Art Nouveau – Crot production

Today, the Cold War seems to be no more than a bad dream in Bratislava. Slovakia is in the EU, the eurozone and NATO. Slovakia’s quirky capital has had more than its fair share of bad luck.

It deserves its current good times, a destination for foreign tourists rather than foreign troops. But as all Slovaks know best, here at the crossroads of Central Europe, peace and prosperity are never guaranteed.

How to do it

Fly to Bratislava with Ryanair ( from Edinburgh, Leeds-Bradford, Manchester or Stansted, or with Wizz Air ( from Luton. You can also fly to Vienna, only 30 miles from Bratislava, from London Heathrow with British Airways ( or Austrian Airlines (, from London Gatwick with Wizz Air, or from Manchester or Stansted with Ryanair.

Many coach companies run services between Vienna Airport and Bratislava. Book with FlixBus ( from £5.99 each. The trip takes about an hour. A taxi costs around €50 (£43) and takes around 40 minutes.

The author traveled to Bratislava as a guest at the Mirror Bar at the Carlton Hotel ( Doubles at the Carlton Hotel cost from £100, excluding breakfast (

The Bratislava Card buys you unlimited public transport, free entry to local museums and galleries, discounts to other tourist attractions, and a guided tour of the city centre: 48 hours for €24 or 72 hours for €26. For more information go to

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *