Bratislava

 
   - darkometer rating:  3 -
 
The capital and largest city in Slovakia. It has a few offbeat darkish sites to offer itself, and is also a good base for excursions to other dark attractions a bit further away. Moreover it is a pleasant, not yet over-touristified and fairly affordable place. It isn't as immediately spectacular as e.g. Prague or Budapest, but I like it. 
   
What there is to see: For a European capital city, Bratislava isn't very big, and the mainstream touristic centre is in fact tiny. From a dark-tourism point of view, on the other hand, many of the most noteworthy sights lie well outside the centre and are best explored on specialist guided tours:
 
    - Slavin monument
 
    - Devin
 
    - Devinska Kobyla
 
    - Ondrejsky cemetery
 
  
With the exception of the cemetery, all the items in this list (and many more) are covered by the alternative tour operator “Authentic Slovakia” who I'd recommend as a first port of call when planning a dark-tourism trip to Bratislava – see their sponsored page here!
 
Apart from the very atmospheric Ondrejsky cemetery there are also further cemeteries in Bratislava that may be worth a look, including the curiously named Goat's Gate cemetery (Cintorín pri kozej brane in Slovak) north of the castle as well as the city's largest still active one: Cintorín Slávičie údolie.
 
Amongst the prominent characters buried in the latter is Alexander Dubček – the leader of the Prague Spring attempt at reforming communism “with a human face”. After decades of house arrest following the crushing of Prague Spring by the USSR, Dubček still lived to see the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and was able to return to politics, but then he passed away following a car crash in late 1992, shortly before the split of the CSSR (“velvet divorce”). 
 
One of Bratislava's prime architectural attractions, the spectacular Most SNP bridge with its iconic UFO-shaped observation deck on top, also has a dark side to it: To make space for the construction of the approach road to the new bridge in the late 1960s, the old Jewish quarter was razed to the ground almost in its entirety, including an old Jewish cemetery and a large synagogue.
 
Today a marble panel with an image of that synagogue etched onto it serves as a memorial to this. It's located on the eastern side of the bridge's approach road on Rybne namestie. There's also a separate Jewish memorial in the middle of the square, made of metal and with a structure at the top that when seen from the correct angle forms the shape of a Star of David.
 
The much celebrated Most SNP (or “Novy Most” – ' New Bridge' – as it has also been known) is definitely worth a visit too. You can cross it on a pedestrian level below the road level and at the other end on the Petržalka side of the Danube you can ascend to the top by means of an elevator that runs up the crazily angled single pylon to the observation deck and restaurant.
 
Inside the flying-saucer shaped structure at the top, which has also been likened to Starship Enterprise from Star Trek, is a posh restaurant now actually officially called “UFO”. But you don't have to dine there (and pay the hugely inflated prices for that privilege) but you can either sit in the bar area to the side of the main restaurant and just have a drink, or take the few extra steps up the staircase leading to the open-air observation deck atop the UFO.
 
From up there, almost 100 feet (90m) above the Danube you get one of the best views over Bratislava. And that means all round! So don't just marvel at the castle and the red roofs and church steeples of the Old Town to the north but also admire the vast expanse of the prefab district of Petržalka on the other side. To the south-east you can also get a good glimpse of the huge oil refinery of Bratislava. And beyond the Old Town to the north you can make out the Slavin monument and in the distance Bratislava's uniquely shaped TV tower.
 
The lift to the top of the bridge is a bit of a tourist-milking machine, though: the fee is quite steep itself at 6.50 EUR (at the time of writing in late 2015), but at least on a clear day it is probably worth the investment. If you invest even more and dine at the restaurant, you get free entrance to the observation desk (it is open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.).
 
Another star attraction in terms of spectacular socialist-era architecture is the upside-down pyramid that houses the home of Slovak Radio. Just like the angled pylon of the Most SNP the pyramid beggars belief. How can both of these structures remain standing, seemingly defying the laws of gravity? The Slovak Radio building is located a bit outside the Old Town to the north, right next to Freedom Square.
 
The latter, namestie slobody in Slovak, is the largest square from the socialist era and in its centre stands an silver structure that was once the city's largest fountain, called Družba ('friendship') … but it is no longer functioning, i.e. it is dry. 
 
Yet more remarkable socialist architecture is located further north-east still, namely the central market hall and right opposite it the former Trade Union House, built with white marble on its facade that allegedly was a gift from Cuba's Fidel Castro to his Slovak communist brethren.
 
The market hall is still in use but has a hard time competing with all the new modern shopping malls that have sprung up all around Bratislava. Yet, it's a good spot to find some authentic Slovakness reminiscent of the bygone socialist age – both in the wares offered and in the (mostly older) people frequenting the stalls. The wine bars and simple restaurants within the market hall are astoundingly cheap too!
   
The market hall, incidentally, is also part of the “post-socialist tour” by Authentic Slovakia (see their sponsored page here), and this is definitely the best way of experiencing the market's atmosphere if you don't speak any Slovak (English won't get you very far here!).
 
Yet more little relics from the olden days can be found dotted about the city, keep your eyes open – or be guided to them by the people in the know (see previous paragraph).
 
One monument of a dark nature pertaining to much more recent times is the “Broken Wing” memorial that commemorates the murder of a student (Daniel Tupy) by a group of neo-Nazis in 2005. It's to be found on the southern side of the Danube near the waterfront in the park between Most SNP and the new Stary Most.
 
The Old Town, though the prime focus for mainstream tourism, is not all shiny refurbished classical architecture and souvenir shops. It too has its less polished sides, namely along the western edge behind the stretch of old (partly reconstructed) city walls. Here several houses are in dire disrepair and basically ruins. Those attracted to the aesthetics of dereliction should check these parts out too.
 
 
Location: on the banks of the Danube River at the south-westernmost edge of Slovakia, right on the border with Austria, merely 30 miles (50km) east of Vienna, but almost 200 miles (over 300 km) west of Slovakia's second city Košice.    
 
Google Maps locators:
 
City centre, Danube: [48.14, 17.11]
 
Goat's Gate cemetery: [48.1476, 17.0988]
 
Cintorín Slávičie údolie: [48.156, 17.068]
 
Most SNP: [48.1368, 17.1048]
 
Former Jewish quarter: [48.1405, 17.1049]
 
Friendship Fountain: [48.15213, 17.11176]
 
Slovak Radio upside-down pyramid: [48.1541, 17.1144]
 
Trade Union House: [48.1591, 17.1272]
 
“Broken Wings” memorial: [48.1366, 17.1145]
 
Hrad (castle): [48.1421, 17.1002]
 
 
Access and costs: easy to get to; not quite so cheap any more, but still comparatively affordable for a capital city.
 
Details: The city is easily reached by road, railway, plane and even boat.
 
There are high-speed hydrofoil shuttle boats from Vienna, and Bratislava is also a regular stop for Danube river cruises. While the river journey between these twin capitals has its merits in terms of scenery, the more convenient, much cheaper and slightly faster mode of travel is by train:
 
There are roughly hourly train connections between Vienna's new central station (Hauptbahnhof) and either Bratislava hlavna stanica or Petržalka (the latter is less convenient for the Old Town, but it's the slightly faster route). Fares for open return tickets between the two cities are low, currently (as of late 2015) 16 EUR from Vienna, slightly less from Bratislava. In Austria the tickets are marketed as “Bratislover” (a rather cringeworthy PR attempt, but never mind).
  
Further international train connections go on to the other neighbouring countries such as to Prague in the Czech Republic or to Budapest in Hungary and beyond.
 
Naturally, there are also trains to the rest of Slovakia going all the way east to Košice. The route east along the foothills of the High Tatras north-west of Prešov is in fact one of the most scenic routes in eastern Europe.
 
From some places further away, flying in may be the more convenient option than trains or boats. Bratislava's international airport is well connected. In fact, a certain budget airline has been using it as a cheaper alternative to flying to Vienna (but still cheekily dubbing the destination “Vienna-Bratislava”, as if the latter was a mere suburb of the former). There are direct bus connections between the airport, Bratislava, Vienna airport and Vienna itself, so flying into Vienna and getting to Bratislava by bus from there may also be an option, depending on where you're coming from (Vienna has a wider reaching network of destinations, including transcontinental ones).
  
Given all these connections, going by car is really not a sensible option, unless you'll need it to travel beyond Bratislava or want easy independent access to the more difficult to reach spots (such as  Devinska Kobyla Hill).
  
For getting around within Bratislava there are trams, trolleybuses and regular buses, which are cheap and fairly efficient, but for the inner city you can basically walk everywhere. Within the Old Town proper, walking is in fact the only sensible option.
 
Going beyond the inner city, bicycles are a popular and useful alternative to widen your scope.
  
Some of the guided tours into the edges of Bratislava that the operator “Authentic Slovakia” offers actually are by bike. Others are by veteran Skoda car and some also involve a fair amount of hiking. Going on guided tours like these really make sense if you want  to get off the beaten track and explore beyond the standard sites, including many of the more hidden dark sides of the city. Check out the sponsored page for Authentic Slovakia here!
 
For accommodation there is a wide range of options. Prices have generally crept up over the years and more high-end and boutique hotels have appeared. But if you shop around a bit, and especially if you are prepared to stay outside the inner city, real bargains can still be found.
 
For eating and drinking it pays to do a bit of homework in advance to avoid falling for the various tourist-trap overpriced places that have taken over some of the inner city. More original wine bars and beer halls are not difficult to find, though. And at such places prices also tend to be noticeably lower than the rip-off tourist ones.
  
The range of cuisines has become much more internationalized over the past decade or so. Last time I was here I noticed that sushi appeared to be a current craze – strange; I've seen this in other landlocked countries in the east (e.g. Kazakhstan) and wonder what the reason for this may be. Mediterranean, Indian and other international cuisines can be found as well. But if you're after traditional Slovak fare there is absolutely no shortage of choices. It is still the dominating cuisine here. See under Slovakia in general.
  
 
Time required: Bratislava is often regarded as a typical single-day city break destination. And indeed exploring the Old Town core of the city exhaustively does not take long. However, if you want to go beyond and do all the things described above and possibly also use the city as a base for short excursions, you'll need at least two or three days. 
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Bratislava also makes a good base for some longer day-return trips further into the country, such as central Slovakia (see e.g. Banska Bystrica with its Muzeum SNP or Nemecka) or the north (e.g. Dubnica or Korytnica).
 
The alternative operator "Authentic Slovakia" does include some of these places in their tours or can tailor tours to specifically include them, like they did for me – see their sponsored page here!
 
See also under Slovakia in general. 
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The mainstream tourism zone of Bratislava is firmly its Old Town core plus the Hrad (castle) towering over the Old Town to the west.
 
Few casual tourists ever go beyond this relatively small area. It is hence also the one most adapted to ordinary tourism, including the usual tacky souvenirs, overpriced restaurants and bars, hop-on-hop-off minibuses in fake old design as well as those idiotic-looking Segway group tours.
 
The only mainstream-y tourist activities that go beyond the Old Town are hiking or biking in the adjacent hills or along the banks of the River Danube or going on tours into the wine country that begins within the territory of Bratislava itself and extends beyond mostly to the north.
 
The most major tourist destination within easy reach from Bratislava actually lies outside Slovakia, namely Vienna in neighbouring Austria (see under access above).
 
 
 
  • Bratislava 01 - coat of armsBratislava 01 - coat of arms
  • Bratislava 02 - iconic Most SNPBratislava 02 - iconic Most SNP
  • Bratislava 03 - the synagogue that was demolished to make space for the bridge approach roadBratislava 03 - the synagogue that was demolished to make space for the bridge approach road
  • Bratislava 04 - monument to the demolished Jewish quarterBratislava 04 - monument to the demolished Jewish quarter
  • Bratislava 05 - Star of David at the topBratislava 05 - Star of David at the top
  • Bratislava 06 - the UFO bridge with observation deck on topBratislava 06 - the UFO bridge with observation deck on top
  • Bratislava 07 - view from the inside of the UFOBratislava 07 - view from the inside of the UFO
  • Bratislava 08 - view from the open-air observation deck at the topBratislava 08 - view from the open-air observation deck at the top
  • Bratislava 09 - view upriver towards AustriaBratislava 09 - view upriver towards Austria
  • Bratislava 10 - view over PetrzalkaBratislava 10 - view over Petrzalka
  • Bratislava 11 - view towards the big refineryBratislava 11 - view towards the big refinery
  • Bratislava 12 - view towards Slavin and the TV towerBratislava 12 - view towards Slavin and the TV tower
  • Bratislava 13 - the HradBratislava 13 - the Hrad
  • Bratislava 14 - the two icons of the city in one designBratislava 14 - the two icons of the city in one design
  • Bratislava 15 - brutalist National Library extentionBratislava 15 - brutalist National Library extention
  • Bratislava 16 - upside-down pyramidBratislava 16 - upside-down pyramid
  • Bratislava 17 - Trade Union HouseBratislava 17 - Trade Union House
  • Bratislava 18 - market hallBratislava 18 - market hall
  • Bratislava 19 - dried-up Friendship FountainBratislava 19 - dried-up Friendship Fountain
  • Bratislava 20 - timeless socialist architectureBratislava 20 - timeless socialist architecture
  • Bratislava 21 - contemporary architectureBratislava 21 - contemporary architecture
  • Bratislava 22 - Broken Wings monumentBratislava 22 - Broken Wings monument
  • Bratislava 23 - one of the city centre bronze sculpturesBratislava 23 - one of the city centre bronze sculptures
  • Bratislava 24 - Old TownBratislava 24 - Old Town
  • Bratislava 25 - old and newBratislava 25 - old and new
  • Bratislava 26 - city wallsBratislava 26 - city walls
  • Bratislava 27 - narrow passageway in the Old TownBratislava 27 - narrow passageway in the Old Town
  • Bratislava 28 - neglected old quarterBratislava 28 - neglected old quarter
  • Bratislava 29 - abandoned and derelictBratislava 29 - abandoned and derelict
  • Bratislava 30 - St Michael GateBratislava 30 - St Michael Gate
  • Bratislava 31 - pharmaceutical museumBratislava 31 - pharmaceutical museum
  • Bratislava 32 - gothic church of the ClarissinesBratislava 32 - gothic church of the Clarissines
  • Bratislava 33 - Old Town roof and windowsBratislava 33 - Old Town roof and windows
  • Bratislava 34 - Primacialny squareBratislava 34 - Primacialny square
  • Bratislava 35 - dragon-slayingBratislava 35 - dragon-slaying
  • Bratislava 36 - classic Old Town sightsBratislava 36 - classic Old Town sights
  • Bratislava 37 - lamp post and St Martin CathedralBratislava 37 - lamp post and St Martin Cathedral
  • Bratislava 38 - old building at the foot of castle hillBratislava 38 - old building at the foot of castle hill
  • Bratislava 39 - Holy Trinity churchBratislava 39 - Holy Trinity church
  • Bratislava 40 - old tramBratislava 40 - old tram
  • Bratislava 41 - presidential palaceBratislava 41 - presidential palace
  • Bratislava 42 - leafy and quiet side street outside the centreBratislava 42 - leafy and quiet side street outside the centre
  • Bratislava 43 - Danube cruiseshipBratislava 43 - Danube cruiseship
  • Bratislava 44 - speedboat from Vienna arrivingBratislava 44 - speedboat from Vienna arriving
  • Bratislava 45 - Old Town by nightBratislava 45 - Old Town by night
  • Bratislava 46 - quiet for a Friday nightBratislava 46 - quiet for a Friday night
 
 
 
 
 

 

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