I have to admit that the number of things I knew about Bratislava or Slovakia when I visited here were zero. I had never heard of Bratislava Castle or its old town or any other attractions. I only decided to spend 24 hours in Bratislava because I was traveling around Eastern Europe for the summer, and I wanted to hit every country.
But I urge you to not bypass Bratislava in between Prague and Budapest. Unlike the cities in Czech Republic and Hungary, Bratislava is not overrun with tourists. You can spend as much time as you like wandering around the city and you’ll never get fed up with the crowds. Bratislava is also much cheaper than more famous cities in Eastern Europe, so you can do more shopping and eating. Spend 24 hours in Bratislava with me, and I promise you’ll come to love the city’s charm as much as I do.
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Bratislava.
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24 Hours in Bratislava
Where to Stay?
Bratislava isn’t a huge city, but you’re still going to want to stay near the Old Town and Bratislava Castle. You don’t want to waste any of your precious travel time commuting! I recommend the Art Hostel Taurus for your trip to Bratislava. It’s incredibly convenient and affordable. (I seriously thought the price for a private room with a private bath was a joke, but it wasn’t.)
The rooms are clean and comfortable, and a light breakfast is included. It’s got everything a solo traveler could want, but I also met families who were staying at the hotel and they were having a great time as well. But Art Hostel Taurus is very popular with budget travelers, so the rooms tend to book up fast. Don’t miss out!
24 Hours in Bratislava
Morning: Bratislava Castle
Bratislava isn’t a city that’s full of must-see attractions. It’s more of a city you want to explore and get to know in a casual way. But Bratislava Castle is certainly one of the few MUST SEE attractions in Bratislava. Bratislava Castle is a recreation of a historic castle, but it’s a beautifully done recreation. The grounds are free to wander, and the inside is an in-depth museum of Slovak history.
Bratislava Castle sort of has a website, but it is confusing and bad. You’ll get better information from the Lonely Planet website or something. Unless you are Slovak, it’s likely you aren’t terribly familiar with this history. I wasn’t either, until I visited Bratislava Castle. So allow me to shed some light on the Slovak situation with…
three fun facts: Bratislava castle
1) why was bratislava castle rebuilt?
Bratislava Castle has an extremely long history, even for Europe. It has an excellent location on a hill. The views from the castle hill are fabulous, and you can even see the famous UFO Bridge. But of course in Olde Tymes people were always wanting to build castles on hills because they gave you advantage in a battle. The first stone castle on the hill was built by the Slavs in the 9th century. Apparently Slovaks are historically really into redecorating because the castle has changed form about a billion times.
Eventually Bratislava burned down entirely in 1811, probably because of Napoleon. I just assume he was responsible for everything happened in Europe around that time. But fortunately it was entirely restored and rebuilt in the 1960s. It remains important to Slovak, in part because the first independent Slovakian Constitution was signed here in the early 1990s.
Before you even enter Bratislava Castle, take your time to admire the restoration of the harmonious Baroque gardens. I know those hedges look like a maze, but don’t worry! You can’t get lost in them. And once you’ve had your fill of the beauty and the sunshine, head inside Bratislava Castle to examine the collections of the Slovak National Museum.
2) um, what is czechoslovakia?
Glad you asked! Czechoslovakia doesn’t exist anymore, but Slovakia used to be united with its neighbor, the Czech Republic in one country called Czechoslovakia. Bratislava Castle has many artifacts from the Czechoslovakian period.
Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, in the aftermath of World War I. Before that it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Austria-Hungary lost WWI, and you know what they say. “Lose World War I, lose Czechoslovakia!” You can see that some Slovaks were really excited about being a part of an independent country because of how they slashed the face of this portrait of a Hapsburg Emperor. (The Hapsburgs used to run Austria-Hungary.)
After World War II, Czechoslovakia became a Communist country. But the Czechoslovakians didn’t necessarily want to live under a communism that was as strict as the system in the USSR. One of the most famous Slovak politicians was Alexander Dubcek. He was leader of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia from 1968 to 1969, and he tried to institute reforms to liberalize the government in Czechoslovakia. His slogan was “Socialism with a human face”.
Apparently some of the other communist countries preferred “Socialism with an inhuman face” because in 1969, many of the other communist countries like the USSR and invaded Czechoslovakia and forced Dubcek to step down. I gather there is still some negative feelings between Czechoslovakia and Russia about this incident to this day.
3) how is slovakia different from the czech republic?
An excellent and complicated question! A lot of Slovak artifacts in Bratislava Castle could just as easily be in the Czech National Museum. For example, take a look at these vintage goodies from CSA, aka the Czech national airline. Back when these bags and things were produced, Slovakia was still united with Czech Republic.
However, Slovakia peacefully obtained its independence from Czech Republic in 1992. The separation was quite peaceful. Sometimes people call it the Velvet Divorce because there was no violence. (Also the ending of communism in Czechoslovakia is often called the Velvet Revolution for the same reason.)
However, the museum in Bratislava Castle does have some Slovakia Only artifacts. This medal, won by ski jumper Martina Svagerka, is the first medal won by a Slovak athlete after Slovakian independence.
There’s also an exhibit dedicated to Slovak manufacturing. So as far as I could gather, Slovakia is famous for making terrifying rubber dolls? It’s possible I did not read the signs carefully enough.
24 Hours in Bratislava
Afternoon: Communist Tour of Bratislava
After spending all morning in Bratislava Castle, you’re probably going to want to get out and explore the city. We’ll be seeing Bratislava’s lovely Old Town in our next 24 hours in Bratislava. But for today, we’re going to see the grittier, more modern side of the city with the Free Communist Tour of Bratislava.
I’m not always a fan of free tours because some of them engage in exploitative labor practices. But there wasn’t an affordable tour of communist Bratislava that I could find elsewhere. Only private tours were available, and that’s out of most people’s price range. Just remember that even if the tour is marketed as a free tour, your guide is a professional who is working hard to give you an excellent experience. Please pay them fairly!
And with that disclaimer out of the way…let’s get to the good stuff!
approximately top 5: communist bratislava
1) lunch at drak and finch
OK, this sandwich isn’t really communist. But we’re going to need to get something to eat before our tour starts. I recommend stopping at Drak and Finch. This is an adorable cafe hidden behind a bend in the Old Town, not far from Bratislava Castle. Kick back and relax with one of their freshly prepared sandwiches and refreshing iced coffee. (Yes, I was incredibly excited to find ice in Europe.) And don’t let the name bother you. There’s no dragon meat in the sandwiches.
For dessert, we’ll head to Luculus, which some say is the best ice cream in Bratislava. I always recommend getting half sorbet and half ice cream because I think the sorbet makes the ice cream magically healthy.
My sorbet was blueberry and the terrifying black ice cream was called Diesel. I had no idea what the flavor was, but I can’t resist weird ice creams, so I was hoping it was made with motorcycle grease. It tasted more like cherry and coconut to me. Definitely give the Diesel a try.
2) snp square
OK, it’s time for the Communist tour to start! Slovakia was communist for about four decades, which isn’t long in the grand scheme of things. But there are still many monuments from the Soviet period around Bratislava. One of the most prominent monuments close to the Old Town is this one dedicated to the Slovak National Uprising in 1944. It’s known as SNP Square.
Many Slovak political protests have taken place in SNP Square, including the protests that led to the Velvet Revolution and the end of communism in Czechoslovakia. More recently, there were massive protests here when a journalist named Ján Kuciak was murdered and people believed the government was involved. (The Prime Minister of Slovakia ended up resigning because of the protests.)
But these statues honor the Slovaks who unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the Nazi occupation. Our guide, whom I shall call Ivan, said that you can tell the monument was built by the Soviets because of the idealized and muscular figure of the “working Slovak” man in the front of the monument. There’s a couple of ladies lurking behind our hero and crying. I guess the message of the statue is that a woman’s place is wearing geometric hats and not holding weapons.
3) assorted ugly communist oddments
Bratislava is almost as famous for its fountains as it is for Bratislava Castle. It has over 140 fountains. But maybe the most famous is this fountain that looks kind of like a giant metal lotus flower. (It’s actually a linden flower because that’s the official flower of Slavs.)
This is Druzba, and it’s the largest of all the fountains in Bratislava. It was built in 1980, so it’s also a Communist Fountain. I imagine the linden flower was chosen to emphasize the connection with the other Slavic countries, which were also communist.
The only problem is that when I visited Bratislava, Druzba wasn’t running. Ivan said that the government was trying to repair the fountain before the next election. That’s so brazenly cynical, I almost have to admire it.
Ready for more ugly Communist architecture? Well, this building is sometimes called the ugliest building in Bratislava. It looks like a top ready to spin into the city. This is also a later socialist construction. It wasn’t finished until 1983.
The locals have lots of nicknames for this creature, like “the Pyramid” or “the iron fist”. But it was designed to be the Building of Slovak Broadcasting. But you can still attend concerts here. I wonder if the oddball design makes the acoustics better or worse.
4) slavin memorial
OK, finally we arrive at the biggest monument of Communist Bratislava. Ivan took us via public transportation over here. One reason I like taking tours with locals is that they can show you how to use the public transpo. It can be a little intimidating figuring out how to use buses, subways, and trams in a foreign city, especially if you don’t speak the language.
The Slavin Memorial is dedicated to the thousands of Soviet soldiers who liberated Slovakia from Nazi occupation in 1945. Many of those soldiers are still buried here, so you can have the opportunity to show respect to their graves. Slovaks still celebrate the day of their liberation, April 4, and when Russian officials visit Bratislava, they stop here to pay tribute.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear this because in other Eastern European countries I visited, they sometimes downplay Nazi atrocities because they think the Soviets were worse. I understand why they feel that way, but as a Jewish-American, it was comforting to see that the Nazis still seem unpopular in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic, even if they also have their problems with the Russians.
Ivan gave us time to wander around and explore. There are amazing views of Bratislava from here. You can even see Bratislava Castle from the distance.
Also there are more statues of girls standing by their brave Slavic men, if you are into that sort of thing.
5) ufo bridge
In this 24 hours in Bratislava, all roads lead back to Bratislava Castle. And Ivan brought us back by public transportation to the Bratislava Castle so we could see the coolest Communist monument in the city, the UFO Bridge. We got a glimpse of this landmark this morning, but we didn’t know what it meant. Its official name is the SNP Bridge or the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising. But everyone just calls it the UFO Bridge for obvious reasons.
Ivan said that the alien spacecraft on top of the bridge is actually a restaurant with an observation deck. Perhaps we would dine there if we had an extra 24 hours in Bratislava. I’m sure the views of the Danube River are amazing! But Ivan said that the project was controversial because the old Jewish quarter was demolished in the 60s and 70s to make room for the road to the bridge. So basically this bridge is the Robert Moses of Bratislava.
24 Hours in Bratislava
Evening: Dinner at Hradna Hviezda
I told you that all roads would lead to Bratislava Castle today! Tonight we dine at Hradna Hviezda, a restaurant in Bratislava Castle. Ordinarily restaurants with this kind of location are tourist traps. But Hradna Hviezda serves satisfying Slovak cuisine, even if I will never, never be able to pronounce or spell their name correctly.
The menu at Hradna Hviezda changes seasonally, so I recommend starting with a vegetable soup. Mine was a lovely silky asparagus with a spider web on top.
24 Hour treat: venison goulash
The Must Get dish here is the venison goulash. Goulash became popular in both Czech Republic and Slovakia when both countries were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Slovaks eat goulash the same way the Czechs do, with big ole carby dumplings to soak up the rich sauce.
Eating this goulash made me feel like a Hapsburg at my country house in a powdered wig, eating goulash made from a deer that I shot after my servants tied it up for me. Then I wave my hand around and say, “Too many notes” to Mozart.
The dessert looks like an accident, but it was delicious lemon dumplings called lokse topped with lots of poppy seeds. Poppy seeds are apparently very popular in Slovak desserts. Don’t let the word dumpling freak you out because these babies were as light as the UFO floating over the Danube River.
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours with Bratislava Castle!
What would you do at Bratislava Castle? Will the UFO Bridge ever attack the city of Bratislava and force Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum to team up to save the world? And would you eat a sandwich made from dragon meat? Please leave your thoughts below!