48 hours in Bratislava

The capital of Slovakia is set to open up to tourism this weekend with the advent of direct flights from the UK. Cathy Packe explores this historic city which lies astride the river Danube


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Until yesterday, the Slovak capital was off the air map - Bratislava had never had direct flights from the UK. But now, with one airline offering services and the promise of more to come, the city is an attractive short-break alternative to its more glamorous neighbours, Vienna, Budapest and Prague. With thinner crowds and lower prices, Bratislava has plenty to offer, including its Cultural Summer festival, which continues until 22 September. Musical, theatrical and dance events are taking place, many of them free.

BEAM DOWN

Yesterday, Sky Europe (020-7365 0365; www.skyeurope.com), which specialises in low-cost flights to central Europe, began operating three flights a week (Mon, Wed, Fri) to Bratislava from Stansted; return tickets start at £55. Later this month, Air Slovakia hopes to take to the air from both Heathrow and Birmingham. Tickets are on sale through Bluewings Aviation (020-7436 5319), and fares should be around £215. A taxi from the airport to the city centre costs around 400SK (£6.50),alternatively take bus number 61 to the main train station , for 16SK (25p); buy a ticket from the machine near the bus stop or, for the return journey, from a newsagent. Buses depart every 20 minutes.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Bratislava lies astride the Danube, bordering the Austrian and Hungarian frontiers. There is no incentive for visitors to cross the water to the sprawl of post-war apartments on the south bank of the river, nor to wander far from the old town, a largely pedestrianised area. It is enclosed to the west by Staromestska, whose concrete carriageways slice through the heart of the former Jewish quarter, and on the other sides by SNP Square and Sturova Street. The tourist office is at Klobucnicka 2 (00 421 2 5443 3715; www.bratislava.sk/bis); it opens 8.30am-7pm from Monday to Friday and 10am-6pm at weekends. The currency is the Slovakian Crown (SK), but euros are widely accepted.

CHECK IN

One of the finest hotels in the city is the Carlton , a 19th-century building that takes up much of one side of Hviezdoslavovo Square (00 421 2 5939 0000; www.radissonsas.com). The current weekend rate is €135 (£93) per night, with breakfast an extra €13 (£9) per person; rates on other nights start at €200 (£138). Another good option in the old town is the four-star Hotel Perugia in the quiet Zelena Street (00 421 2 5443 1818; www.perugia.sk), where doubles start at 5080SK (£84) and singles at 4280SK (£71), including breakfast. Anyone attracted by the idea of being near the river Danube might think of booking into the Botel Gracia (00 421 2 5443 2132; www.botel-gracia.sk), a floating hotel that is moored opposite the National Gallery close to SNP bridge. Doubles cost 2,760SK (£46) and singles 2,030SK (£34) including breakfast, and there is a pleasant outdoor restaurant on the top deck. A reliable choice of accommodation that is close to the old town is the Hotel Tatra at 5 Namestie 1 Maja (00 421 2 5927 2111; www.hoteltatra.sk). Doubles from 3,980SK (£66), and singles from 2,920SK (£48), including breakfast.

TAKE A VIEW

St Michael's Tower , Michalska 24 (00 4217 5443 4742) has guarded the northern entrance to the city since the 14th century, and is the best preserved section of the old fortifications. The view over the rooftops of the old town, towards the castle and across the Danube is worth the climb, which will take you through several rooms of increasingly sophisticated weaponry; Bratislava was once an important gun-making centre. The tower opens 10am-5pm from Tuesday to Friday and 11am-6pm at weekends; between October and April it opens 9.30am-4.30pm daily except Mondays. Admission is 30SK (50p).

TAKE A HIKE

From the tower, meander down Michalska and Venturska, the main arteries of the old town, turning left into Panska and continuing until it becomes Laurinska. Go under the arch at number 5, and through a couple of courtyards: the fountain in the second contains a statue of St George slaying the dragon. The cream and pink building in this courtyard is the Primate's Palace, built for the head of the Hungarian church; go inside to see the Mirror Hall, where Napoleon signed the Treaty of Pressburg with the Hapsburg emperor in 1805. Now the room is used for concerts, weddings and to receive important visitors. The main entrance of the palace is on an attractive square, Primacialne Namestie; from here walk through the City Museum next door and come out on the interconnecting Hlavne and Frantiskanske Squares, which comprise the heart of the old town.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

These two squares and the surrounding streets provide plenty of choice for a light meal. At this time of year all the restaurants set their tables outside under the trees. For standard meat and fish fare try Café Roland at 5 Hlavne Namestie (00 421 2 5443 1372; www.rolandcaffe.sk), which opens from 8.30am to midnight. Woch at 7 Frantiskanske Namestie (00 421 2 5443 2927) has hunky grilled meat; open 11am-11.30pm. U Filipa at 6 Biela (00 421 2 5443 1311; www.ufilipa.sk) specialises in pasta and salads; open 11am-midnight.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Bratislava castle (00 421 2 5441 1444), which dominates the city from the west, was built under the Hapsburgs, burned down by its own soldiers, and rebuilt under the Communists. Entrance to the grounds, which are open daily from 9am-8pm (winter until 6pm), is free. Inside the castle wall is a restaurant and bar, worth a visit for the wonderful view across the city. The castle's main building now houses the Slovak National History Museum, whose exhibits cover the history of the Slovak people during the 20th century. Admission is 60SK (£1), and the museum opens 9am-5pm daily except Mondays. A separate museum just inside the castle's main door is a fascinating archaeology collection, which has an impressive array of coins, jewellery and other artefacts, including a crumpled, 2nd-century helmet, and the figure of a headless woman carved from a mammoth's tusk in 22,800BC. It opens 10am-noon and 3-6pm daily except Mondays, admission 10SK (17p).

TAKE A RIDE

For a trip on the not-so-blue Danube take an hour-long boat ride from the landing stage at Fajnorovo nabrezie (00 421 2 5296 3518; www.ddsgt-blue-danube.at). Trips depart from Wednesday to Friday at 2.30pm, weekends at 3.30pm and 5.30pm, and cost 80SK (£1.30) per person.

WINDOW SHOPPING

You wouldn't fly to central Europe just to go to Tesco, would you? Well, possibly: the city's main department store is more than a pile-it-high food emporium, and stocks almost everything. Check out Tesco at 1 Kamenne Namestie (00 421 2 5921 8111). Most shops close on Saturday afternoons and Sunday, but not Tesco; it opens 8am-9pm from Monday to Friday, 8am-7pm on Saturdays and 9am-7pm on Sundays. For a more Slovak flavour, seek out the Folk Art store on Hlavne Namestie for wooden souvenirs.

AN APERITIF

Glug a glass of Zlaty Bazant, or some other local beer, or sip a glass of Slovakian wine at one of the bars along the boulevard that constitutes Hviezdoslavovo Square . There may be a band playing in the bandstand to provide cabaret while you drink; if not, watch the locals playing chess on the giant pavement board, where the pieces are 2ft high.

DINNER WITH THE LOCALS

The smartest place in Bratislava is Le Monde at 1 Venturska Ulica (00 421 2 5922 7518; www.lemonde.sk), where the rich and famous eat when they are in town. It has a good quality modern European menu; 10am-2am daily. A cheaper, but equally good, alternative at number 9 is Zichy (00 421 2 5441 8557), which has a tasty range of Slovak dishes, such as venison or perch; daily 10am-11pm.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

St Martin's , the main church in Bratislava, was used to crown generations of Hungarian kings; but it is closed until at least October for restoration. Don't fret: aristocrats loyal to each new monarch were rewarded with the title Knight of the Golden Spur, bestowed upon them at the Franciscan church on Frantiskanske Namestie , one of the oldest in the city. Not usually open to visitors, the church can be viewed in the half-hour before each Mass; on Sundays they are held at 10.30am, 12pm, 4.30pm and 6.30pm.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Sample the home-made croissants and cappuccino at Bratislava's oldest café, Mayer at 7 Hlavne Namestie (00 421 2 5441 1741), which opens 9am-midnight daily. You may be tempted to stay on for the tradition of coffee and cakes; Mayer is celebrated for its baking.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Bratislava is short on parks, but the area around the Slavin monument is both interesting and greener than the rest of the city. If you can manage the uphill climb you will be rewarded with wonderful city views from the dramatic obelisk, topped by a Russian soldier holding a victory banner, that commemorates the 6,850 Russian soldiers who died liberating the city from the Nazis in 1945. Around the memorial is a garden containing the gravesof those who died.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

The remains of the castle at Devin, five miles along the Danube, on the border between Slovakia and Austria, make up one of the most important archaeological sites in the country: a pleasant afternoon destination in an impressive location. The castle is easy to reach from the city. Take bus 29 from the stop under the SNP bridge: several other buses stop there so it is hard to miss; buy a 16SK (25p) ticket from the newsagent before you get on. The castle opens 10am-5pm from Tuesday to Friday, and 10am-6pm at weekends from April until October. There are also boats (00 421 2 5296 3518; www.ddsg-blue-danube.at) to Devin from Bratislava, daily except Monday, which cost 120SK (£2) return.

WRITE A POSTCARD

... from the largest post office in Slovakia - or, as some would claim, the largest in the world. In this five-storey, 19th-century building , which occupies a whole block in the city centre, it might be difficult to know where to buy something as mundane as a stamp. So go in through the main entrance on Namestie SNP, and straight in front of you is the Listova Hala, where you will find what you need.

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