Why go now?
Slovakia currently holds the rotating Presidency of the EU, pushing its capital, the “little big city” of Bratislava, into the spotlight this month as host of the Special EU Summit. But there’s far more to explore here than politics. For one night on 8 October, the White Night Festival (bielanoc.sk) shows contemporary art in unusual settings, from banks to palace gardens, all over town. Visitors get a special map guiding them around installations, concerts, films, dance and live performances.
The grape harvest also gets going in September and cellars along the 40km Small Carpathian Wine Route open their doors for free tastings, singing and dancing until mid-October. Start in the village of Raca (1), in Bratislava’s outskirts and meander by bus, train or bicycle to Pezinok (2) (pezinok.sk) and Modra (3) (modra.sk), where you can also pick up folk ceramics and fine chinaware, made here since the 16th century.
Get your bearings
Bratislava lies astride the Danube, bordering the Austrian and Hungarian frontiers. The main draw is the Old Town, a largely pedestrianised area. The tourist office (31) is at Klobucnicka 2 (00 421 2 16 186; visitbratislava.com). Opening hours vary depending on whether it is on-season or off-season and on the day of the week, but arrive any time between 10am and 3pm and you should catch them.
The airport is approximately 9km north-east of the city centre. From the airport, bus number 61 goes to the train station every 20 minutes (a one-way ticket costs €0.90). From here, tram 1 or bus 93 take you to the Old Town within 10 minutes. Taxis cost €25-30 one-way, and the journey should take around 15 minutes.
Take a view
Get an overview of the city by whizzing up in the lift to the open-air observation deck at UFO (4), entry €6.50, the flying saucer-shaped cupola sticking up 87 metres above Most SNP bridge. The UFO offers spectacular views along the Danube and across the Old Town rooftops to the surrounding hills. From here you can also admire Petržalka’s crowded Seventies housing estate, which stretches almost to Austria. To check out the ‘loo with a view’, treat yourself to a coffee or a cocktail in the bar of the stratospherically-priced UFO restaurant (00 421 2 6252 0300; u-f-o.sk).
Take a hike
Start in the Old Town’s main square, Hlavné námestie (5), where in December you’ll find traditional Christmas markets. Admire Napoleon’s cannonball, still embedded in the wall of the Old Town Hall’s tower, then walk through the Old Town Hall’s elegant courtyard to emerge into another historic square, this time adorned by the pink, 18th-century Primate’s Palace (6). Turn right and walk along Laurinská street (7), where you can admire the humorous statues of Schöne Náci (tipping his top hat) and Čumil (peering out from his manhole cover). This leads to St Martin’s Cathedral (8), a dinky three-nave Gothic church and the site of the coronation of 19 Hungarian kings and queens. Daily services and concerts are held 9am-11.30am and 1pm-4pm every Monday to Saturday, and at 1.30pm-4.30pm on Sunday (00 421 2/3054 4334; dom.fara.sk; free entry).
Lunch on the run
A short walk over Most SNP bridge, in Sad Janka Král’a park (9) (one of the oldest municipal parks in Europe), Leberfinger (10) (00 421 917 115 116; leberfinger.sk) is a lovely lunch spot in a historic 18th-century building overlooking the Danube – go for the classic autumnal dish of goose leg with red cabbage, €17.90. Back in the Old Town, the popular Orbis (11), at Laurinská 7 (facebook.com/orbisfood), is open from 11am and offers street food from around the world; Moroccan wraps, masala omelettes and twice-cooked Belgian frites.
Bratislava’s Old Town is filled with indie fashion boutiques and folk craft emporia. Kompot (12) at Laurinská 19 (00 421 948 630 852; kompot.sk) offers hip T-shirts, totes and homeware. Open 10.30am-7pm Monday to Friday, 2pm-7pm Saturday, closed Sundays.
slavica (13) is a local favourite at Laurinska 19 (14) (00 421 917 968 736; slavicadesign.sk), selling clothes, jewellery and ceramics by young local designers. Open 11am-8pm Monday to Friday, and 11am-5pm Saturday and Sunday.
The seventh floor Sky Bar (15) (00 421 948 109 400; skybar.sk) offers a dramatic view across the red rooftops to Bratislava Castle, St Martin’s Cathedral and the hills beyond. Sip a crisp local white wine or try a cocktail made with typically Slovak Borovička juniper brandy.
Dine with the locals
Up in Bratislava Castle’s grounds, at Námestie A. Dubčeka 1, Restauracia Hrad (16) (00 421 2 5972 4256; facebook.com/restauraciahrad) offers a lighter take on classic Middle Europe dishes (such as local catch zander with potato soufflé, €15.90), quality local wines and a spectacular view from the terrace. Or roll further down the cobbled hill to atmospheric, low-lit Modrá Hviezda (17) (00 421 2 5443 2747; modrahviezda.sk), in an 18th-century, late-Baroque building, for traditional specialities such as roast Mangalica pig with chestnuts and pumpkin purée, €18.90.
Sunday morning: out to brunch
In the early 1900s, the Habsburg-style Kaffe Mayer (18) (00 421 2 5441 1741; kaffeemayer.sk), at Hlavné námestie 4, tempted Viennese ladies to travel 60km by tram for top-notch kaffee und kuchen – the latter here meaning a choice of 37 different cakes. Or for a contemporary brunch, chill out in a hammock and order the halloumi and portobello mushroom burger (€6.90) at the self-consciously oh-so-cool Urban House (19) (00 421 904 001021; urbanhouse.sk) at Laurinská 14.
A walk in the park
Bratislava is incredibly green. For a truly local view of its prettiest parts – along with a bit of brutal history – forget walking and join brothers Branislav and Peter Chrenka of Authentic Slovakia (00 421 908 308 234; authenticslovakia.com), who take visitors on fascinating bike rides along the Danube to see the Iron Curtain border bunkers and explore hidden gems in verdant Sad Janka Král’a (9). A two-and-a-half-hour tour costs from €22 per person.
Take a ride
Bratislava has excellent linked-up public transport operating 5am-11pm daily, with nine tram routes, 14 trolleybus lines, 66 bus routes and many night buses.
Buy tickets from machines at bus/tram stops and stamp as soon as you board. A 24-hour ticket offering unlimited travel via tram, bus and trolleybus in all zones of Bratislava costs €6.90 or €3.45 for concessions.
The Slovak capital is also criss-crossed with cycle paths. Two companies (bikebratislava.sk and bratislavabikepoint.com) rent out bikes; two hours starts from €8. Both banks of the Danube offer lovely, leafy cycle routes.
For more fresh air, take a 15-minute ride on trolleybus 203 from Hodžovo námestie (20) up to Koliba-Kamzik (21) and explore the cool, well signposted walking trails of the Bratislava Mountain Park (22). A favourite local route is to walk down via a flower-filled meadow to the Železná Studnička (23) (Iron Well), where people like to have picnics and little stalls offer beer and sausages.
The Rococo-style Mirbach Palace (24) (00 421 2 5443 1556; gmb.sk; entry €4) at Františkanske námestie 11 offers two beautifully wood-panelled rooms displaying prints created between 1704-80 that recall scenes of aristocratic life. The Pálffy Palace (25) (00 421 2 5443 3627; gmb.sk; entry €4), also in the Old Town at Panská 19, has a permanent exhibition by Bratislava-born artist Matej Krén, where his captivating “Pasáž” (Passage) installation sees the visitor walk between vertiginous walls of books. Both galleries open 11am-6pm, Tuesday to Sunday.
Bratislava boasts two opera houses under the name of the Slovak National Theatre: the Historic SND (26) (00 421 2 2047 2111; snd.sk) on Hviezdoslavovo námestie, and the New SND (27) (00 421 2 2047 2299; snd.sk) at Pribinova 17, opposite the Eurovea mall. Both have Sunday performances at 5pm of operas such as Cosi fan Tutte, Fidelio and Simon Boccanegra, with tickets costing from €6 in the cheap seats, up to €65 for a prime perch.
The icing on the cake
The outrageously charming Blue Church of St Elizabeth (28) at Bezručová 2, with its Art Nouveau flourishes and light blue icing sugar details, is like something from a fairytale. Opening hours are awkward (6.30am-8am or 5.30pm-7.30pm Monday to Saturday, 7.30am-noon or 5.30pm-7.30pm Sunday, or during a regular mass; free entry) but it’s worth a walk if only just to see the exterior.
Afterwards, stick with the arty vibe and enjoy imaginative, seasonal dishes in Cubist-themed U Kubistu (29) around the corner at Grösslingová 26 (00 421 948 077 845; ukubistu.sk).
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies to M R Stefanik Airport (30), 9km north-east of the centre, from Luton, Stansted, Edinburgh and Birmingham.
With 21 rooms and nine comfortable split-level maisonettes, the supremely stylish Arcadia (31), at Františkánska 3 (00 421 2 5949 0500; arcadia-hotel.sk) in a listed 13th-century building, offers romantic weekend packages from €209 per night.
Renovated in 2012, yet retaining a traditional ambience, Hotel Devin (32), Riečna 4 (00 421 2 5998 5111; hoteldevin.sk), has a great breakfast buffet and a spa with doubles for €69.
Downtown Backpackers (33), Panenská 31 (00 421 2 2075 6777; backpackers.sk), offers dorms and rooms named after artists. Klimt & Mucha doubles cost €18 a night. Breakfast isn’t included, but there’s a great pub providing bistro lunches.